We’re raised to believe chaos is a bad thing, a state of disorder. “Your room is a mess, it’s in chaos, clothes everywhere, everything filthy!” But recent scientific discoveries shed new light on chaos. We now know how deterministic systems like the weather can produce unpredictable behavior, a situation we think of as chaotic.
This discovery re-frames causality, the old debate about free will or determinism. A deterministic system is one where the result of every cause is inevitable. That seems to imply the system can only develop in one way so we could forecast its state perfectly at any future time. Why, then, can we not predict the weather two weeks, two months or two years out? Because very small changes can have very big results.
Chaos theory is known as the butterfly effect after a 1972 paper by Edward Lorenz: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?” What Lorenz showed is that a flapping wing, a tiny change in a big system, can trigger a chain of events that lead to large-scale phenomena. If the butterfly had not flapped its wings in Brazil, the system could have developed in a vastly different way.
Chaos theory does not say if we can or can not choose what we do, it does show that a tiny good act could nudge the system of behaviors and results in which we live toward an immensely happier state. Or the reverse. Our tiniest actions, a little bit bad, uncaring, or a little bit good could lead to results of unimaginable scope and power. We don’t have to know whether humankind has free will, we do now know it matters very much what we do.
What should we do then? I’m beginning to realize I completely misunderstood Eastern thinking about what to do. They teach acceptance. What do they mean by that? Raised in the West, I understood acceptance to imply an uncaring, uninvolved, inactive stance. After quite a bit of study and reflection I realize Buddhists understand acceptance very differently; seeing things as they really are and taking action that really is helpful.
What does it mean to “see things as they really are”? What we “see” is our interpretation of phenomena via concepts we trust. That’s essential in many situations. When we’re driving and we see a red traffic light, that small red signal triggers the appropriate response. The triggered response can also be useful even when a signal is falsely interpreted. If the tree stump that quick-matched my concept really had been a robber, my response would have been appropriate.
But there can be great harm when we “see” people behave in ways that we interpret via concepts. Nothing like the tree stump will appear to reveal our mistake. The wealthy-looking man will continue to look industrious and trustworthy, the raggedy one unambitious and maybe a free-loader or dangerous. We will act toward them based on our concept and the harm will increase because we will keep “seeing” what we expect to see and reinforcing it by acting as we always do when that’s what we “see”.
I’m also realizing the definition I grew up with is fundamentally different from the Buddhist understanding of “perfect” and how Buddhist “perfect” relates to “acceptance”. To a Buddhist, “perfect” is not a value judgment just acknowledgment that the situation at any instant is complete. “Acceptance” means we don’t waste time and energy wishing it was some other way. It can at this instant be no other way, it has been “perfected”.
“Seeing” is also related to “Acceptance”. It requires training (or sudden insight) so, with undistorted awareness and acceptance of the situation, we know what really is most beneficial to do. As chaos theory explains, we might at any moment take some small action that would nudge our fellow beings toward enormously greater happiness.
“Identity” is also related to “chaos”, “causality” and “seeing”. What we “see” as a tornado is phenomena solidified into a concept. It has no fixed identity. It’s more a force than what we see and hear of dust, broken fragments of houses, and maybe Dorothy and her dog. They’re just bits and pieces, not the essence of a thing. What we seem to hear and feel are not an object but the manifestation of a collection of forces. The collection would be better named by a verb, not a noun. It’s an ever-changing aggregate of forces picking up an ever-changing collection of objects composed, if we look closely, of tinier and tinier particles.
A tornado is a different thing in the next moment, and a tiny change in what led it to appear here and now could have led to something utterly different. It’s the same with beings. If any one of so many small things had gone a different way, I would not exist, and any tiny change later could have led me to do entirely things with very different effects.
It is more accurate to consider tornadoes and people as processes than things, ever-changing aggregates that manifest in ways only chaos theory illuminates.