Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Cause a Tornado in Texas?

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading up on “chaos theory.” It drives my obsessive-compulsive nature crazy! The theory was articulated by MIT professor, Edward Lorenz. In 1961, Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127. The result was a completely different weather scenario. When delivering his findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his talk was titled, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

Thus the phrase, “Butterfly Effect” describes the notion of sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Small variations of the initial condition of a nonlinear system may produce large variations in the long-term outcome of the system. For example, a ball placed at the top of a hill might roll anywhere depending on slight differences in initial position. This is why forecasting the weather beyond about a week is impossible.

This idea has been explored in a lot of movies, most notably, “The Butterfly Effect” starring Ashton Kutcher. This is a VERY dark movie. Remember “Back to the Future 2?” Just because Biff won a bet in 1955, an alternate 1985 was projected as a hellish world. One tiny event dramatically changed the future. Actually, the very act of being present in the past must change the future, resulting in an alternate future in which you never went back to the past to begin with. This is explored in the remake of “The Time Machine.” Remember how he kept going back in time to save his fiancé and had to watch her die several times because the very existence of the time machine as a mechanism to save her life depended on her dying to begin with! The British movie “Sliding Doors” runs two parallel stories of the same woman, Helen. In one world, she manages to catch a London Underground train home on time, and in the other she just misses it. This small event influenced her life dramatically.

This is the ultimate “what if?” mind game. I was sitting in traffic on LBJ freeway a few weeks ago, and I got thinking, “How many lives are dramatically altered because one person wasn’t paying attention and braked too late?” How different would the world look in 10 years if that wreck never happened? What about all the “little” events in your life from day to day? What if you left the house 5 minutes later? What if you went to McDonalds rather than Wendy’s? On and on you could go until you drive yourself crazy! What if? What if?? What if??? Can the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas – and in your life?


jenn said...

Charles, you know my answer to that question...YES! How many times have I asked "what if?" And when we ask "what if" then sometimes the question of "why" comes up. You know what I am talking about (Sept. 24, 2006). There are a lot of things I have done and never thought about the impact it may have on someone else.
Also, I believe that prayer is just as powerful (and more so) as a tornado though it does the opposite of the tornado. When a tornado comes and hits someone's life, the power of prayer (the butterfly wings) can bring peace to one's life. We can pray here in little Abilene and it can have an effect all over the world.

Anonymous said...


All you have to do is view history to see that "butterfly effect" at work. Would there have been a Bloody Sunday in Russia if there was not a French Revolution? Would there have been a French Revolution without the American Revolution? On it goes... to the Magna Carter and beyond. One event has a ripple effect through time.

The same seems to be true for the physical world.

I guess this kind of goes against Newton's third law of motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite re-action). It would seem that some actions reverberate or gain momementum through time...

Hmm... deep thoughts today... thanks Charles!

Charles North said...

Yep - think of how WW1 started - the Archduke of Austria's driver took a wrong turn in Sarajevo, and ran into a young man who pulled a gun and shot him. That resulted in WW1, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, WW2, the Holocaust, the invention of the atomic bomb, the rise of the U.S. as a superpower, and the Cold War!! What would the 20th century have looked like if that driver didn't take a simple wrong turn in 1914???

David said...

Well Charles, I am about to do what I always do when I haven't posted in a long time and respond to numerous posts in order to play catch up.

First, the butterfly effect concept is very interesting and challenging to our Christian faith. For example, the Pentecostal movement got going because a black man who was not even allowed to sit in a white man's class because of Jim Crow laws listened to some lectures here in Texas and when he moved to California he started a rally that became the Azuza street revival, which was the beginning of Pentecostalism. Thus one person and one choice can make a huge difference. As a side note through I've always wonder if Back to the Future is really plausible because wouldn't Marty's changing the past amount to there being two past that coexists at the same time. A past before the change now only known to Marty and Doc Brown and a past after the change.

Second, about your moral vs. situational relativism post. My biggest problem is not the conflict between two seemingly right choices. I have no problem with situations where one value trumps another. Even Kant who was adamant about actions being inherently right or wrong, when pushed, agreed to this. My problem is the question does universal morality even exist. If murder is inherently wrong what about situations where God commands us to murder (Gen 22; Joshua). The response of Divine Command theorists is that things are not right because they are right but are right because God says they are right. Thus God is not bound to a code of ethics. I am very uncomfortable with this even thought it is a very popular position. What do you think? My tendency is to try and find a middle ground and say that God is bound by a system of ethics but its a system of ethics He established.

Third, I liked your post about suffering a lot and think that you are right about not making a deal with God. This is the point of the book of Job and Satan's challenge in Job 1:9 when he asks if Job fears God for nothing. I understand the logical argument for problem of evil assuming that free will is so good that it negates the evils of suffering. My problem with the problem of evil is what some call the deer suffering out in the bushes problem, which I think turns is what generally turns people into atheists. The question is if God is all powerful, good, and loving why doesn't he intervene and save the deer burning to death in the bushes because of a forest fire caused by a lightning bolt. Harold Kushner, whom you quoted, answer to this is that God is not all-powerful, which I think is untenable. I as yet do not have a solution to this but thought I would throw it out there.

Finally, I think you are right about you Luther, MLK post to a certain degree, especially in regard to the COC. It is true that changes in a church, country, etc. generally do not occur by working in the system (though William Wilberforce may be an exception) but still people like Erasmus, or a better example for Luther's time period Philip Melanchthon are necessary to sustain the course of the change after it has been made. Even Luther in his own lifetime mellowed out in his latter years because you cannot keep that level of intensity and polemics forever. Eventually cooler heads must prevail who help develop a system, structure, etc. That's why the core statement of faith is the Augsburg Confession tied to Melanchton, not Martin Luther. All I am saying is that both have their place in God's kingdom. Change agents need stabilizers.

And just for the record, Martin Luther may be more well known but any textbook will tell you that the most brilliant person in that time period and the person we owe even being able to read the Bible to today is Erasmus not Martin Luther.

Anonymous said...

I am very impressed with the history that you guys are able to recall! However I wanted to come at this from a different perspective.

I go to Wal-Mart and choose a register that has a check out lady that looks tired and has no telling what kind of problems to face when she gets home. She doesn't speak and in fact is a little rude. I can make a choice to A. Be rude back and glare at her. or B. look past her pain and make a difference. If I make a point to smile, look her in the eyes, ask about her day and wish her well, it could mean the difference in the rest of her life. Yes, she may ignore my kindness but it might make a difference. One person cared enough that day to speak to her. Many times just the smile and concern from one person has a dramatic ripple effect on me how I treat my children, their attitude throughout the day, and they way they may treat 10 other people they come in contact with on through the week. My choices are then multiplied infinitely in others lives.

Choices that concerned people made towards me 15 years ago sometimes were the single threads that kept me from going over the edge. The results of those acts in my life (through God’s power) have then spread out from me to more people than I can even begin to count. I’ve then seen many of those people reach out and do the same to so many others. There is no way to ever track the influence but I believe it to be unending! So it is interesting to think about the “What if” in regards to Christianity/evangelism and how we choose to act even towards a check out lady at the store. Our choices and attitudes might be the tiny ripple in her day that directs the rest of her life and all those she comes in contact with for years to come.

David said...

That was very insightful kerrie. You too Mark by the way hows the wife, the kids, and your dog we watched for you? Back to Kerrie. You are right that we might not be able to pinpoint what action/actions have made us who we are but it may have been one kind thing here, one Christ-like thing there, that has kept us all in the Christian faith, and broadly speaking made us who we are, as well as of course are genetic make-up, choices, parenthood, etc. Of course, in all of live some of those events and actions that have shaped us are bigger than others so we remember them better, and some of them are so big we are able to look back at call it a momentous or life-changing experience.

I wouldn't be too impressed with the history writing. Charles after all has an MA in Church History and had to learn far more history than we learned in public school to get citizenship and I'm taking church history right now so its fresh. As for Mark, well he's just a nerd :)

Anonymous said...


As always, you cut to the chase with the matter...

I love how when you use a debit card or credit card at Walmart, the little machine has a prompt that asks if the cashier greeted to you or if the store was clean. I like to look at the cashier and ask them if the store is clean...

I remember being a cashier at Service Merchandise. The attitude of those checking out can make a big difference. A smile, a hello, or a harmless joke can go a long way to make someones day.


Wow, you rolled a great deal into one post! I'm tired just reading it...

By the way, all is well with the family. Our TWO dogs are doing good.

Our life..... said...

You know we could all sit here and wonder "what if" but your right we would go crazy. So I just think that is was God's will, and I leave it at that. Everything happens for a reason. Just more question to ask the Lord when the time comes.

David said...

I understand the walk by faith not by sight way of living. To a certain degree we all must do that, but there are many places in Scripture that wrestle with these various scenarios and even with God and God welcomes it to a certain extent because it deepens our faith. Also, we need people in the church who wrestle with this because there are many non-believers who do so and they need someone who can they can talk with. Having said all that, I do not think everyone can or should.

I like what Thomas Aquinas has to say about all this. He says there are preambles of faith (God's existence and attributes) and articles of faith (Trinity, the Fall, etc.). The former can be gotten to by pure, philisophical reason alone and the latter by revelation. Although the articles of faith are also reasonable and there are people who can and need to demonstrate this for their walk with God. Most just take revealed truths by faith and trust in the rationality of God.