The Butterfly Effect

“The Butterfly Effect” is a fascinating theory. Even if you’re not very familiar with it, you likely believe one of its variations to be true at some level. You’ve likely seen two of my favorite movies with interpretations of this idea, “Back to the Future” and “The Butterfly Effect.” The version of the theory that interests me holds that changing small, seemingly inconsequential variations on the state of things has profound effects on the future.

This version is difficult to grasp for most of us, since our assumptions about the nature of the universe are often fatalistic. For example, say that your home football team lost by a touchdown, and you were not at the game. Would your presence have made any difference in the game at all? People generally think it would not have, unless you directly interacted with the team during the game.

But, consider: you’re interacting with the fans next to you, which sets off a small divergence in the way they act, which in turn affects others next to them. Effects compound over time; they are changes that continue to multiply with each other in increasing magnitude, similar to how a seemingly inconsequential change in a shot in the game of pool would have large effects if the table were sufficiently frictionless, giving the balls a chance to move around enough.

Our intuitions will normally disagree with this. They are fatalistic in that we tend to believe on some level that there’s an inherent dampening effect in the universe, where our small actions that effect small changes will be mitigated over time, such that any long-term future state of the world will be indistinguishable whether we do one action or another (so long as that action is sufficiently small). In other words, the confusion seems to come from an unrecognized assumption that the effects of our actions are buffered, leading to some tendency for small actions to lose consequence over time as the state of things settles toward some “normal” state, which supposes a universe with laws akin to fate or predestination.

It seems The Butterfly Effect will always stay an unprovable “theory” since we cannot test it. However, computers will be able to model the world with increasing accuracy, giving us a much more clear understanding of the butterfly effect through simulation.

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