Your phone and chaos

Chaos Theory is often misunderstood, misrepresented, and spoken of by lots of folks who toss around a term to convey the idea of complete randomness of this or that. The study of chaos is branch of mathematics that looks at apparently random states of disorder and irregularities that are actually governed by underlying patterns and deterministic laws. Those patterns and law might not be readily apparent, they are just highly sensitive to initial conditions.

But chaos as always been confusing and had many different meanings. The Greeks understood chaos as the primordial void. For the Roman poet Ovid, chaos was an unformed mass, where all the elements were jumbled up together in a shapeless heap. “Chaos” is held as a synonym of anarchy. Chaos (“19521 Chaos” to be precise) is also the name of trans-Neptunian planet out there in the Kuiper-belt. Just thought you would want to know.

n Mathematics, Chaos theory is the field of study that examines the behavior of dynamic systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions—a response popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in China and on most days, nothing much happens beyond the butterfly fluttering by. But, on one day, the flapping wings lead to tornados in Kansas. Small differences in initial conditions yield widely diverging outcomes for such systems. This is the challenge of prediction and forecasting. Such systems are known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos. The theory was summarized by Edward Lorenz as, “Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.” That is, a butterfly flaps and we mostly know what will happen, but…then we find our office or child’s bedroom is in a condition that seems as though the tornado came right through it.

Traveling by foot on the sidewalks of major cities such as NYC or Tokyo are a study in chaos theory. A birds-eye view of the sidewalk might seem random even when everyone is following the “rule” of which side to walk on. From a more panoramic view, patterns emerge that are quite deterministic. Deterministic, partly because everyone “follows the rules” but also because we use a variety of clues to anticipate where others in the flowing crowd will go next. It all works rather well as long as the initial conditions are within a range of expected values. And then comes the person with the cell phone, head down, texting or in any case inattentive.

The journal Science Advances published a study on this phenomenon. The normal pattern is that we tend to form “traffic lanes” in which the person at the head of the informally shaped lane finds a way through the oncoming foot traffic. Others fall in behind creating several undeleting ribbons of walkers going past one another. As long as our inattentive cell phone user is at the back of the line it all works well. Things move smoothly. Butterfly wings flapping have the inconsequential effects of the everyday.

But if the initial conditions change and the inattentive cell phone user is at the head of the line, tornadoes break out in Kansas. Not really, but the smooth flowing lanes become slower, movement become choppy and irregular, and the effect ripples down the “ribbon.”

Why do things like this interest me? Because they do… and I find there is generally a connection to our spiritual life. We might think our life is random, but we are all on the sidewalk, moving ahead. In part following the flowing ribbon all the while taking visual clues to our surroundings and those around us. We are navigating towards a future with many attributes, but for a Christian, the one attribute that counts is to love God and neighbor in this life, to be with them in the next. And then we take our eyes off the future to the “cell phone” that occupies our attention. Maybe it has no effect today, but the butterfly’s wings keep flapping.  “When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.” Meaning, maybe you are fortunate, and the “cell phone” is a transitory thing. Maybe not so lucky and “tornadoes” sweep through your life. That’s the thing about Chaos.

Maybe the spiritual advice is to hold a consistent set of “initial conditions.” That is the value of the pattern and habit of consistent prayer, a daily examine of conscience, a regular pattern of celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation, of being attentive “to the rules” and keeping “heads up” to the flow of life around you and future you are seeking. Maybe the most important is to know who is at the head of the line – who are you following?

Yes, life can be “chaotic” but there are deeper patterns that form and shape the life worth living – especially the One you follow.

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