I’d say ‘Think about it,’ but you can’t. Not this. The mathematical permutations are so complex, that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. The ‘it’ is this: The human acts on Earth that have conspired, and were required, to make everything — everything — exactly the way it is, involved every act by every single being on the planet.
That’s because when we say we are all connected, it is, or should be, less a statement about cosmic unity or vibrational synergy (both of which I believe to exist, on the level of physics) than it is, or should be, about cause and effect.
I say this because when it comes to understanding these things, we cannot, but to know that every single act by every single person was fundamentally contributory to the world in which we live today.
Edward Lorenz, the MIT math professor and meteorologist, and the man we can blame for how we predict the weather, proposed a concept in 1972 that has to be among the most anarchic and heretical concepts since Copernicus proposed his heliocentric model of the universe, relegating humans to the back seat of the cosmos, and in the process, bitch-slapping God. Anyway, Lorenz introduced the concept of the Butterfly Effect, saying, essentially, that some systems — like weather — were inherently unpredictable, and therefore “small variances in the initial conditions could have profound and widely divergent effects on the system’s outcomes,” as it was put in a 2017 American Scientist article by Jamie Vernon. In the process of combining math and meteorology into the theory of the Butterfly Effect, Lorenz was repudiating the world that the Father of Science himself — Isaac Newton — had set in place nearly three hundred years earlier: that nature is deterministic, and runs like a clock, predictably.
Lorenz’s ideas founded a new branch of mathematics called Chaos Theory. Equally unorthodox, Lorenz suggested that if he were wrong, and the rest of the world were right about nature’s predictability, then “Nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to our eyes.” He observed, as American Scientist wrote, “that nature’s interdependent cause-and-effect relationships are too complex to resolve.” He used this theory to conduct ‘parallel simulations’ for things like the weather. We’re all familiar with his work when we see scientists attempting to predict a range of outcomes for hurricane landfall, strength and damage.
Lorenz’s theories have application far beyond math and weather. They apply to humans and human behavior, equally. My wife Deb and I were discussing this just yesterday. Out of the blue, without ever having heard of Edward Lorenz, until I researched the Butterfly Effect for this morning’s writing, I told her, “You know, for every famous person, there are millions whose acts, however modest, needed to occur in order for that person to do what they did.” I added, “I’m convinced that every single act by every single person on Earth matters, because we cannot appreciate the complexity of relationships between what the world looks like today and the things it took to make it that way.” To make my point in a decidedly un-rigorous way, I cited everyone’s favorite genius, Steve Jobs. I said that every part of Syria’s history had to play out exactly as it did, or we never would’ve had iPhones. (Jobs’ father was Syrian.) If we scratch even the surface of this man, we see cause and effect, and still can’t understand the complexity, by looking at just a few of his decisions. What inputs did it take to make Jobs’ biological father Syrian, rather than something else, and grow up within that context? What did it take for the same man to decide to become an activist? Or to leave Syria to pursue a PhD in the US? Or for him to meet and fall for a Swiss-German woman there? Or for her father to become anti-Muslim, pressuring her to leave him? Or, as a result, for her to decide to decamp to San Francisco without telling her boyfriend, when she was pregnant with the future Steve Jobs? Or for her to decide to give him up for adoption, once she realized she couldn’t ‘go it alone’? Or for the first couple she offered him to, to change their minds and decline? Or for the second one to choose the agency where they met Joanne — Jobs’ biological mother — after Clara Jobs had suffered from a failed ectopic pregnancy, leading them to pursue adoption? Or for Joanne to rescind her offer, only to have the eager Jobses file suit, and win custody of the future inventor?
Forget what happened in Jobs’ own life — the millions (billions?) of choices that had to be made exactly the way they were, based on his experiences; or everything in history that had to happen in order for Jobs’ father to exist, let alone make the choices he did. It’s mathematically and deterministically impossible. But I will tell you one thing: if every Syrian didn’t do exactly what they did, or every Swiss-German, or every American, and likely every other person on Earth, not to mention myriad other acts that influenced all of it, then there’d be no iPhone.
Simply put, we are the product of everyone and everything that ever existed, down to the most modest act.
Lorenz called it Chaos Theory. We could just as easily call it humanity. Chaos theory stipulates that “within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals and self-organization,” as Wikipedia puts it. To me, that sounds a lot like human life. In fact, Wiki continues, saying Chaos Theory applies — and has been applied — to the stock market, road traffic, computer science, anthropology, sociology, meteorology, physics, environmental science, engineering, economics, biology, ecology, philosophy, and even pandemic crisis management. Right now, scientists and researchers are applying it to cryptography, robotics, celestial mechanics, quantum physics, team-building and group development.
I am not a mathematician, but it sounds as though it applies to pretty much everything.
In 1994, a work colleague, Neil Katz, introduced me to Stephen Wolfram’s book Cellular Automata and Complexity. Neil was a computer scientist. He showed me that on an empty grid that started with just one black (filled) cell, and depending on the rules that were set up related to those squares, which determined, simply, whether the adjacent cell would fill or remain empty, complexity built quickly and furiously into an ever-changing set of patterns, with no single pattern being able to be replicated. Wolfram, Neil told me, was able to run simulations from this seemingly simple cell logic, to recreate (randomly, not with intent) every single pattern found in nature.
Neil and I used it to compose building façades; that was the point for us; but Wolfram’s studies stuck, because it helped me to understand cause and effect, and randomness, even if that randomness were based on a set of deterministic rules. If you want to see Wolfram’s automata play out on a screen, click here. And while I’m at it, the Wikipedia page on Chaos Theory, here, has a mesmerizing graphic on the right-hand side, with a hinged pair of red lines, acting as a pendulum, that ‘draws’ random patterns reflecting the non-repeatable rules.
Lorenz’s theory was mischaracterized by Hollywood by people who insisted “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil [could] set off a tornado in Texas,” citing Lorenz’s own words. But that was never his point. He was saying only that one could not predict what would happen, but rather that every act mattered in determining the outcome.
So why the science, math and geometry lesson? It seems obvious to me.
We are all connected, more deeply and more fully than we can ever understand. For a psychologically deranged man in Pakistan to put a bullet through the skull of a headstrong girl, who then goes on not just to survive, but to tirelessly champion women’s rights everywhere, inspiring tens of thousands of other girls to self-advocate in every corner of the Earth, we cannot undervalue what made this girl who she is, for which we need to understand how everyone who came before her in even just her own lineage became who they were, and made the decisions that they did. The fact is, she exists, she inspires, and many girls will do things they may not have dreamed of if they hadn’t read Malala’s book. Her influences include the quiet people who helped her, about whom we will never, ever hear a peep, but who she assuredly remembers, values, and were a big part of her life.
Again, this is just a tiny example.
Every single moment of every day we are met with choice. In a book called Bad Moves, authors Sahakian and LaBuzetta posit that the average adult makes about 35,000 choices a day. Separately, Cornell researchers Wansink and Sobal say we make 227 of them about food alone. Let’s give them all the benefit of our doubt. That’s 273 trillion individual decisions made every day by people on Earth. Does any of my decisions affect those of anybody around me? Of course they do. Moreover, they don’t affect just those I come into contact with, or those directly affected by my decisions (like employees, store clerks, or anyone whose services I use) but they also affect every other decision that any of them makes…
Pretty soon, we end up with a number approaching infinity.
So what can we take away from all this, apart from a headache? We can be more humble than we are. We can realize that everyone we come across is a person, with needs, wishes and a personality. We can realize that no matter what we do, the way in which we act toward any one of them will impact them, as well as decisions they will make afterwards. We can realize that if we put good in the world, the world will become better. We can realize that the most modest act can have a major impact on all of humanity. So while a butterfly could ultimately, mathematically, precipitate a tornado in Texas, a human smile, or a donation, or kind words, or support, or any act of kindness that comes from a place of caring, humility, shared humanity, empathy, understanding, acceptance, or love… can move mountains. It not only can change the world, it does.
And conversely, every act that serves to weaken human beings cheats us of our potential to move mountains together. So the next time you look at someone famous, or rich, or who seems to be ‘winning’ in one way or another, and the next time you look at someone homeless, or ill, who seems to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, just know that you had something to do with their successes or failures, and that your very next act can equally have an impact on them, both directly and indirectly.
With every one of our 35,000 daily choices, we are omnipotent.
Understand this, and take responsibility for your power. And understand that for all the inequality in the world, others’ power is no more than the result of past acts; and that acts in the present and the future will change things drastically, in ways we cannot imagine.
Just go with it, act with courage and infinite values, and let the rest play out.