Butterfly Effects

“It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order - and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.” 

Douglas R. Hofstadter
Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern


The Butterfly Effect is one signature of a system in chaos. 

This chaos isn’t your garden variety chaos, and you won’t find this butterfly in your garden, either. I feel some urgency to clarify these distinctions when I watch the chaos that lies behind the façade of order, and the order in the chaos, of this election season in the US. I think it might help us to see the patterns of our “civil” society, to understand those patterns for what they are, and to take action to create the ones we want to create and to leave to our children.   

Garden variety random chaos is totally unpredictable. Anything can happen; history gives no insight; one event has no relation to what went before; and the only option is to respond in the moment to whatever happens in that moment. Rational approaches, traditional expectations, insightful dialogue—nothing helps prepare you for action. Nothing distinguishes wise action from mindless reaction. You can calculate probabilities, based on what you know of the past, but you are essentially rolling the dice. Examples might include behavior of a deranged person, extreme weather events, teenage tears, movement of an individual in a crowd, or winning numbers in the lottery. No way to predict. No way to control, unless . . .

Over time and with expertise, you can observe patterns. A psychologist can anticipate how a person with bipolar disorder might respond. Parents know their children. Meteorologists and bouncers know what to look for in their systems. They can see, understand, and sometimes influence patterns because they are hypersensitive. Besides that, the phenomenon, which is totally random to others, holds subtle, deeply embedded patterns. These experts are able to see underlying patterns before they become obvious to others. They cannot predict exactly what will happen, but they have some intelligence about what might, and what surely will not, happen. This is the point at which random chaos tips into deterministic chaos.    

Deterministic chaos is the “eerier type of order” that lurks on the other side of random chaos. Over time, deterministic beginnings generate patterns of behavior that are unpredictable. The system might settle into some constant state, fall into a repetitive rhythm, or spin off into infinity. Consider the behavior of a crowd. While it might look random to me, police officers or journalists can see potential for the group to wander away, begin a dance party, or break into violent rage. All of these outcomes are possible in deterministic chaos, but you usually can’t predict ahead of time which one will win out in the end. While the detailed, moment-to-moment results are unpredictable, over time and across a system, patterns are discernable. You may be able to see the patterns in the rear-view mirror, but sometimes even that isn’t possible.

So, nature gives us two kinds of unpredictable, chaotic behavior. One is truly random and unknowable. The other emerges from conditions that are well known; patterns that are recognizable; and moment-to-moment events that are surprising.

Why does this difference make a difference today, in light of the current campaign season? If the political chaos is random chaos, then we can expect it to blow over. We can respond to every shock in whatever way we choose. No matter what we do, the disruption will settle down over time, and nothing that happened during the chaos will matter. The disruption will come and go like a bad dream. 

If the political chaos is the other kind, if it is deterministic chaos, then we have a different situation. If these current shocks emerge from underlying patterns that play themselves out in unpredictable ways, then those patterns and our reactions to them are very, very important. Here are some of the things we know about deterministic chaos. Consider what these will mean if the chaos of current politics is driven by the eerie kind of order that emerges from deterministic chaos. 

  • Small changes can have enormous and unpredictable results. This is known in popular culture as the Butterfly Effect, and scientists know it as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. It means that, in a deterministic chaotic system, any disruption can be disastrous. For example, a joke about assassination can trigger real violence for individuals and groups who hold resonant patterns of hate and access to guns.

  • Patterns are scaled across levels. Deterministic chaos is fractal. That means that patterns that appear in one level of system structure are reflected in other levels. A simple example is that a stalk of broccoli looks like a stem, and that stem looks like its offshoot. In orderly chaos, system-wide patterns influence and are influenced by patterns in the parts. For example, bullying on a national scale is likely to be repeated in classrooms, homes, and street corners across the nation.

  • Repetition is reinforcement. Deterministic chaos is path dependent. That means that the future depends on the past, but in unpredictable ways. The system has a memory. Each moment’s event sets the foundation for the next moment. Every current state emerges from the past and determines the future. No single action stands alone. For example, each statement of violence, ignorance, or fiction prepares us to accept even worse ones in the future.

  • System behavior is unpredictable, but coherent over time. If you look at a chaotic system in one moment, you cannot tell whether it is random or deterministic. The only way to know is to watch the system over time. Are you able, like the parent of the two-year-old, to recognize patterns over time? If so, then the chaos is deterministic, and the underlying pattern can be known, named, and influenced. It isn’t enough to notice and name symptoms of the pattern. Naming symptoms may, in fact, feed and reinforce them. For example, pointing out reckless behavior may invite even more reckless counter claims On the other hand, naming the underlying pattern provides options for action that can interrupt or redirect destructive behavior.

So, as a culture, we need to consider whether or not the current campaign culture is merely random chaos or whether it is deterministic chaos. If it is random, we can be sure it will vanish over time. All we have to do is wait. If, on the other hand, we are experiencing deterministic chaos, then we have other options, and other obligations, for action. What can we do?

  • Name the underlying pattern for what it is. Don’t get distracted with one symptom or another, because the individual ones do not matter.  Instead, look within and across the disruptions to find what tensions inform and motivate patterns across time and space.

  • Stop feeding the frenzy. Every event-attention cycle adds strength to the emerging chaos. The deterministic chaos draws in energy and information from the system that surrounds it. More, and more frequent, attention exaggerates and accelerates the pattern-forming processes.  Instead, look away, and deny the attention on which the pattern feeds.

  • Reinforce alternative patterns. In any complex human system, multiple patterns are playing out simultaneously. When we are conscious, we can choose which patterns to feed and which ones to starve. We should, as a nation, decide what patterns we want to create and take action to find and reinforce them.

  • Address the offending pattern in ourselves. Yes, even the most abhorrent patterns “out there” are reflected “in here.” Ask yourself and others, “How do we unintentionally or unconsciously manifest the patterns that we observe? What are our options for action to erase those behaviors in ourselves and our communities?”

What kind of chaos do you see in the current political climate and culture? 

So what does that mean for the future of your community?

Now what is your next wise action to co-create the future you hope for?

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