It is all too easy to fall into the cynic’s trap of overt negativity when writing a prescription for making the world a better place. It will, of course, be necessary to point out certain shortcomings of human civilization, but my intention is to be constructive and offer a positive outlook. Unlike so many contemporary critics, comedians, or counsellors, I will not be serving up an all-out, no-holds-barred rant in The Attlas Project. Not only is it commonplace in our culture simply to point out what’s wrong, it is functionally useless, in my opinion. Pick up a newspaper, a remote control, or a mouse and you can see for yourself what’s “wrong” with the world. But consider this: when you go to the doctor is it enough for him or her to give you a diagnosis? Don’t you want to know what’s behind your symptoms? Do you not also expect some medication or treatment program to cure what ails you, if at all possible? So, in writing The Attlas Project, my challenge is to stay positive, proactive, and constructive. To aid in this effort, I will be presenting a series of diagrams (think blueprints) that should cut down on the rhetoric and make this more of a show and tell, which I hope you will find both entertaining and enlightening. I begin by making a case for hope and optimism.
The Butterfly Effect, the Causal Nature of the Universe, and the Interconnectivity of All Things
“I refuse to believe that God plays dice with the world.”
– Albert Einstein.
The scientific theory that micro disturbances can result in macro consequences via a chain of interconnected interactions on an escalating scale is commonly referred to as the butterfly effect. This is the layman’s term for chaos theory—the idea that a Monarch butterfly flapping its wings in a Brazilian rainforest can determine whether Florida is hit with a major hurricane. The word “chaos” as it is used here is a bit of a mismatch, since most people associate chaos with randomness, while chaos theory is the study of predictability in apparently random systems. It is an acceptance by science—in theory at least—of a phenomenon described by an ancient Buddhist tenet as the interconnectivity of all things; that is, that even observably random events are, in fact, intrinsically connected (as is the fate of all things) through a never-ending string of cause and effect relationships. The interconnectivity of all things also reflects the implications of yin and yang, Newton’s theorem that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that an infinite number of causes and effects have led to the present state of the observable universe, including the state of our planet.
Linguistics too, has accepted the interconnectivity of all things and the causal, dependent nature of the world. For example, how meaning is derived through language, how language changes over time, and how language and knowledge are indivisible are all factors of interconnectivity. Consider how commonly used expressions change over time, affect culture, and are affected by culture. The science of discourse itself reveals that all human knowledge is dependent on language—even mathematics, physics, and economics. Language and culture constitute and bind human understanding of all things—like atoms and cells bind and constitute the things themselves. Language and culture also mobilize or constrain us, depending on the circumstances. To see this phenomenon at work, you need only look to the cultures around the world that place a unique set of rules, regulations, and restrictions on women. It may seem unfathomable to some points of view, but when interviewed, many of the women who live under such “repressive” cultures will often highlight a feeling of freedom and happiness that they attribute to the strict codes of conduct by which they must live. They are at once constrained and mobilized by their culture, as we are all constrained and mobilized to one degree or another by the language and culture in which we find ourselves immersed. When it comes to chaos theory and language, we know it takes only a very small shift in human thinking—expressed through language and culture—to result in major constraints and/or mobilizations on a societal, even global scale.
Chaos theory, Buddhism, and linguistics aside, I do not believe there is any reasonable way to deny the fact that the smallest, most insignificant of shifts can lead directly to change on a global if not cosmic scale. Observe a pebble thrown into a pond. Kinetic energy is transferred between molecules (and collections of molecules, i.e., “pebble” and “pond water”) via an infinite number of interactions producing an observable pattern of growing scale. For sceptics who might argue that ripples on a pond is an oversimplification of matters, and such childish explanations have no relevance in the complex world of human beings, I simply direct them to human history. A single mutation in a single bacterium followed by a single insect bite probably led to the Black Death and the decimation of the world’s population. A single idea, E=mc2, led to the atomic age, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, decades of Cold War life, and has yet to play out its final chapter. Will Einstein’s legacy end in disastrous consequences; or, finding itself in the hands of enlightened scientists living in a united world of peace and stability, will it end in our unravelling the mysteries of fusion energy, gravity, time, and space? The actions and interactions of individuals acting on perceived crises and opportunities have over the years resulted in everything from the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza and the rise of the Roman Empire, to the end of British rule in India and the two Gulf Wars. The butterfly effect and the interconnectivity of all things are undeniable, observable processes at work in the world.
Can one person or group change the world? The sceptics and pessimists will want to argue that this is impossible a thousand times before admitting the truth: it has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen until the end of the time. The question is not whether there are micro causes that have macro effects. It is, rather, what micro opportunities do we seize today that will lead to positive macro effects in the future?
Intention and the Process of Change
That is all well and good. Scientists, historians, and meta-physicists alike can agree on the causal nature of the universe. So the universe undergoes change, and, taking evolution as an example, it occurs gradually from moment to moment, generation to generation, involving an infinite number of interactions. So what? What’s the significance? All we’ve accomplished so far is to describe our observations of the process. There must be something more to it, mustn’t there? Sure, Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” suggesting the proof is not so much in the pudding, as it is the pudding itself. Does that mean the process has no meaning other than itself? What about intention? Generally speaking, you don’t just open your mouth and activate your vocal cords only to let chaos theory run amuck. You intend to say something: express an idea, ask a question, make a command, or any other number of vocalizations by which you intend to express something. The process by which your intention is sent out into the world and received by others is governed by cause and effect—meaning is created through an infinite number of interactions leading up to that moment, including everything from the cultural heritage of the people listening to the nature of speech (the medium) itself. In the world of thought, however, an idea can pretty much just pop into your head without any cause (or apparent relevance)—a non sequitur. In fact, when you observe the constant chatter taking place in your mind, you’ll notice that most thought falls into this category. Regardless of how a thought happens to come to you (randomly, a careful thought-process, etc.), or by what method you choose to share it (words, images, music, etc.) the point is that there is an intention to share what’s on your mind, or not. This is not the same as claiming you define or control a thought’s meaning, it is simply acknowledging some purpose behind the process of thought itself that both supersedes it and is dependent on it.
The debate over intelligent design and evolution is a curious one. This is not the time or place to open the debate—look to Part Two of The Attlas Project for that proverbial can of worms. For the sake of argument, let’s assume for now that natural processes of change—including evolution—are completely random and totally free of intention; i.e. there is no “intelligence” or “higher consciousness” at work. If we make such a claim (provisionally or not) for the process of change in nature, where do we stand on change processes in human phenomenon? For instance, what do we mean by “change management” in business?
Perhaps the best way to approach this question is to examine how humans meddle with natural processes in distinctly intentional (if not entirely “intelligent”) ways. For centuries human beings have been actively breeding plants and animals. While our understanding of the process was pretty rudimentary at first, it nonetheless proved effective enough to allow us to breed for certain desirable traits. Later, the detailed study of genetics allowed us to wield even greater power and control over the otherwise “random” natural evolutionary process. We intend to improve our lives with “more perfect” dogs, for instance, or greater crop yields, and fewer genetic diseases and we express that intention through direct intervention in (and even outright manipulation of) the mechanisms of evolution. We cannot, as of yet, simply snap our fingers and manifest “the ideal” animal, crop, etc. We can, however, have the intention to produce one; and, by understanding the relevant causes and effects, we can make minor genetic adjustments from one generation to the next producing an organism that resembles what we intended, more or less. This kind of genetic manipulation raises serious ethical questions, not least because its application to humanity led to the horrors of eugenics. Nevertheless, the fact remains that human beings possess not only the capability but also the compunction to meddle with nature at its most fundamental levels.
Of course, nature has another way of effecting change on a massive scale which is much more immediate; you could even say violent. Earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes…all smack of mass destruction in a matter of moments, with a force of energy well beyond that of any human capacity—not for lack of trying, mind you. Witness clear-cut logging or open-pit mining operations in action with heavy machinery and explosives. It becomes vividly clear that we humans have violent change processes of our own, albeit even our most powerful technologies of destruction—nuclear weapons—pale in comparison with the sheer magnitude of violent forces found in nature. Still, the phenomenon of rapid change on a massive scale is no less a product of cause and effect than the slow methodical pace we observe in evolution. Remember, change is simply a matter of generations of interactions over some time scale; the number, frequency and kinds of interactions determine the end result. Watch storms on Jupiter through a telescope or compare the surface of the sun to a pot of bubbling fondue: there are shapes and patterns that repeat throughout the universe, all take form and undergo change by virtue of the same process of cause and effect. Any changes we intend to make to natural systems require us to understand, predict, and then act on this fundamental principle.
Change and Humankind
Clearly, human beings participate in natural processes of change. We can be the cause of change in the natural world just as we can see and feel the effects of change come about by so-called random and natural causes. The apparent difference between the two is the fact that we humans can have an intention to create change, defined by some image or definition of what we intend to produce. We cause things to happen that have effects which we hope will produce the intended results. Of course, there are countless examples of unintentional change caused by short-sightedness and unenlightened actions—everything from the decimation of domestic species by the introduction of foreign competitors, to global warming. Either way, people actively participate in the evolutionary process. How, exactly?
Tune in next week.