Post No.: 0789
The so-called ‘butterfly effect’, which stems from ‘chaos theory’, means that small things can lead to big consequences down the line. An imperceptible difference at one point in time can potentially generate a vastly alternative outcome later.
We’re still talking about a deterministic, cause-and-effect, system, yet the results of one initial difference can be unpredictable. Outcomes can have a highly sensitive dependence upon initial or prior conditions.
This means it’s hard to definitively know for sure how one’s life would’ve turned out today if even just one formative detail in one’s life were different (whether regarding one’s genes or environment, which includes one’s development or upbringing) – especially the younger something happened. Successful people therefore mustn’t be arrogant to think that they’d have been successful no matter what would’ve happened to them when younger.
There’s a reason for everything – as in a cause(s) for every effect – even though it can be difficult to identify these causes due to the chaos or complexity. And we cannot really escape external sources of causes shaping our life either because we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the system (as in a system where the law of conservation of energy rules) – thus everything is essentially interconnected and is affecting everything else somewhere down the line, directly or indirectly, in a big or small way, sooner or later (up to the limit of the speed of light). In your own life, you’re hardly the sole author of your own path because it took others to raise you, and they were influenced by the wider culture of their time for a start. Major natural events will affect the weather on the other side of the world. The pandemic highlighted how we affect others by just breathing in their vicinity!
And smoke cannot completely go back into the cigarette it came from as if it hadn’t just been smoked, as it were – well the probabilities will be infinitesimally small for it to happen. Thus many decisions and actions cannot easily or even feasibly be reversed, like the trajectory of a person’s life path. It’s not always impossible, but prevention is definitely a far better approach than attempting to undo a bad upbringing. The early years are thus critical for setting a person up for a high or low probability of positive or negative outcomes down the line.
It could’ve been the case that, if missing school and social distancing rules were prolonged, even out of necessity – those who developed as young children during the COVID-19 pandemic could’ve found the caution of sharing pencils or other personal effects, the paranoia of invisible things, and possibly even the fear of standing close to strangers, as ingrained instincts? It has therefore been vital, come the right times, to actively overcome these fears rather than assume they just automatically will – these children would otherwise likely continue with the same habits that were adaptive for one time but maladaptive for another.
Life in this universe is path dependent – yesterday influenced today, which will influence tomorrow, and so on. How a child is treated when 2 years old matters and will contribute greatly to make how they’ll likely be at 3 years old, and so on when they’re 15, and so forth. People can indeed change, but bad habits are hard to break compared to just getting something right in the first place. As a parent, you’ll have to triple your efforts and time if you want to change your child later (and hope something sufficiently motivates you to want to in the first place?) It’s indeed hard to predict the far future though – you can do absolutely everything right as a parent and still be unfortunate. But there are nevertheless probabilities, and you surely want the best chance of producing a happy and content future for your child.
Potentially one seemingly simple difference in moment can make a huge difference in one’s life – never mind trillions of ‘sliding doors moments’ throughout one’s life from long before one’s conception and birth until one’s death, in hugely chaotic and unpredictable ways. For instance, in a stroke of a pen you chose to go to one university over another, and those who decided upon the halls of residence allocations chose to place you in one room over another, and therefore you met different people to those you could’ve done, and all that followed after that. It could be a person you meet at the right time, the words you hear at the wrong time, the right crowd, the wrong government in power, etc.. Identical twins, whom share identical genes, can have vastly diverging life trajectories.
There are sliding doors moments every single day in our lives but because we only see one trajectory (the one we get), we assume things couldn’t have been much different. There were sliding doors moments as to whether you’d even be born and what sex you’d be. There were sliding doors moments related to whether the human species would’ve even existed, whether Earth would’ve been habitable, and possibly even whether this universe would’ve existed for this long (according to the value of its apparent cosmological constant). In other words – luck is fundamental to literally everything to do with anything and everything!
We don’t tend to consider the quadrillions of potential counterfactuals because all we see is what’s in front of us, and what we see is all we think there is and could’ve been.
Who knows? If Adolf Hitler got accepted into art academy in Vienna, or perhaps if his family wasn’t poor and his childhood was better, or his supportive mother didn’t die when she did, or there weren’t such social tumult in Europe at the time, then his life trajectory, and thus the world’s trajectory, may have been markedly different? Imagine if Sir Alex Ferguson was fired from Manchester United after failing to win the top division football league in his first 5 years in charge, just like his predecessor?
At every fork in the road or sliding doors moment, we’ve got to wonder what if our life went down a different path? What if some drunk driver hit us as we crossed the road? What if we didn’t meet the particular people we met? What if that soup at that restaurant made us ill? What if we were born with a learning disability? What if our school was boosted by a charitable donation? What if we suddenly suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy without warning? What if we received a life-changing call right now?.. The countless permutations our life could’ve went down instead – most of which we had or have no reasonable control over.
We really kind of intuitively know this when we hypothesise about travelling back in time and wonder how altering just one crucial detail in the past might’ve changed our present state of life dramatically? And we intuitively know that the effects are likely to be more unpredictable and significant if we alter something from long ago compared to just recently. It’s called the butterfly effect but a few flaps of a wing probably won’t literally lead to a tornado on the other side of the globe – but it’s the principle of chaos theory that matters here.
It’s not straightforward to predict outcomes in this chaos. What you might think is a terrible event might actually create an opportunity, like your disability will open doors that wouldn’t have opened for you. Or vice-versa, like winning a jackpot will get you hooked on gambling and you’ll end up losing it all and then some.
Yet if we personally make millions despite coming from a poor background, then the neat narrative we’ll probably tell ourselves is that we totally earned it purely from our own talents and hard work, and that luck had nothing to do with it. We’ll be thinking ‘if I can do it then no one has any excuse, and if someone is poor then they’ve only got themselves to blame’. We’ll also probably believe we’re inherently superior to every person or group that’s poorer than us. Our political stance will consequently more likely become rightwing.
Even if we weren’t self-made but inherited our wealth, we’d likely vote for policies that protected our wealth, and attempt to morally justify tax evasion, so that the ‘undeserved’ don’t share in some of it. If we were raised in wealth then we’d potentially have these kinds of narratives instilled into us from young. And we’ll likely continue to believe in them if we continue to fail to consider some counterfactual thinking and account for luck.
Life outcomes are down to an incredibly complex interaction and balance between risk versus protective factors and when they precisely happen in one’s life. Sometimes some things are highly predictive of an outcome, like malnutrition when young; and sometimes some things depend on the tiniest and finest sliding doors moment, like hearing the right comment at the right time.
It’s easier to believe that this or that didn’t matter when young if one’s own life turned out okay. It’s easier to believe that nothing is down to luck if one has been lucky. But don’t judge other people’s lives and outcomes because you won’t know their complete story. And don’t assume that your own intricate life path was the exact same as someone else’s and that the only difference was your attitude.
People even fundamentally fail to understand luck when they blame people for rolling the wrong number when they roll dice, or for picking the wrong card when obliged to pick one from a deck of cards that are facing down(!) In team games, some players go, “I don’t want to spin the wheel – you spin it” as if it’d make a difference to culpability, if the wheel is spun fairly. People can be totally irrational and superstitious for believing that they can control more things than they can. Humans are often biased to believe in a human exceptionalism that luck doesn’t apply to them.
Even though this is a deterministic world (at least above the atomic level), which implies that fate rules – due to chaos theory, it doesn’t make things easily predictable; hence predicting the future is spoken in the language of probabilities. This is down to the limits of our knowledge as opposed to the workings of the world. (Like the physics of a coin toss is deterministic based on factors like its geometry, mass, angular momentum, air friction, etc., which can all be entered into a calculation – but we, for practical reasons, simply always give heads or tails a 50:50 chance.)
But we mustn’t conflate unpredictability (nor pure randomness) with free will. And we mustn’t confuse not wanting something to be true (because it’d mean it’d be impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral furry beings thus we’d bear no ultimate responsibility for our actions) with it therefore being not true. This is a philosophy post however, hence I’m aware of those who reject these conclusions. And maybe they can be rejected, but not satisfactorily on the above logical grounds. Post No.: 0590 examined hard determinism and incompatibilism.
Yet I suppose there are valid reasons – for the purpose of maintaining civil society and for the sense of our own autonomy and well-being – to emphasise that everybody does have some control over their own actions and in turn lives. Instead of a dispassionate ‘particles and energy’ level of analysis of this universe – the sense of having control is perhaps enough at our ‘human/dog/sentient organism’ level of analysis of life, as lived, to take responsibility for whatever we do?
Concurrently though, we must acknowledge the role of luck in our and everybody else’s lives, and how scores of sliding doors moments have shaped and are shaping our lives as we speak.
Woof! And one could argue that chaotic unpredictability makes life exciting and the future worth hanging around for to check out…