Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Alt-history, whether personal or global, has always been both attractive and repellent to me.  Those of us with memory or historical knowledge always have a host of just-barely or just-missed-it stories that lend themselves to fantasies of going back and changing one little thing.  Sports fans, of course have dozens of such thoughts they can pop out on demand.

Yet I have always known it was a lie at deepest levels, not simply because to the inability to reverse time's direction, but because the very playing with the fantasy of One Little Change highlights how thoroughly the world could change with the merest tipping.  The Arthur C. Clarke story of the man traveling back in time, killing a butterfly, and instantly vanishing I recognised as true immediately.  If fact, I thought the death of the butterfly an excessive amount of interference for his illustration.  Breathing on the butterfly or not would have been equally effective at changing the world.  The story of Schrodinger's cat looks impossible, but there are truths about particles in it.  And once particles have broken the seal, are any events exempt?

Reading Taleb, and a little cosmology, and reviewing Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia"* this week I will take that instability one step further.  If we were to return to some early period and have time replay, the world would change dramatically even if we did not interfere in the slightest.  The odds of some events are so close and the slippage so easy that a second iteration would turn out differently. 

We don't imagine the world this way.  We look at past events as having a certain inevitability, a narrative we can discern which explains things to us.  Christians look to the first chapter of Jeremiah and cling pretty tightly to the hope that this knowing us from before the womb means what it looks like it does, but I am not sure it does.  I think God is giving an "I know what I'm doing" message, not a "Let me give you a philosophy/science/cosmology lesson" one. (Not mutually exclusive, but it is good to keep the main point main.) 

We swung pretty close to never existing, and still do to non-existence, held in suspension by a Logos that we understand in only the slightest way.

*Did I review that?  Reminder to math/science geeks who have interest in theater.  Stoppard is your go-to guy, right from the coin-flipping bit in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" right up to, and especially including "Arcadia." None of this Obama-Tribe "Curvature of Constitutional Space" nonsense, misusing science concepts for social ends.  Stoppard gets it.  Thomasina in "Arcadia" is likely modeled on first-programmer Ada Lovelace.


Dubbahdee said...

I don't know Stoppard.

I have moved from being a fixed predestinarian calvinist to being...well, something else entirely. I have found a way to hold to the absolute sovereignty of God and yet accede that God has built holy chance into his universe. Rather than reducing my sense of his divine power and authority, I found that my sense of his glory is greater because in spite of all these random events he is still able to accomplish his ends and do it without strongarm interference.

I don't have a good name for this approach but I do file it under "mystery."

I find that this requires the least effort to square with both scripture and the empirical evidence -- and only requires the simplest theodicy.

God not only plays with dice, he invented them and the rules they work under.

james said...

A couple of images; one of which I gather Polkinghorne also came up with:

Play an exhibition match with a chess grand master to show the crowd some clever moves. Play along, and all's well. Don't play by the book, and the grandmaster will figure out a way to make it come out his way anyway.

Remember Flatland? Think of little chips on the table, interacting with each other. One surrounds himself with a barrier and pronounces himself protected from all threats; but he can't see the fingers above him.

BTW, I'm not so sure about tiny things changing everything. Surely sometimes they can, certainly, but there can be some "momentum" to events, and possible changes just get lost in the noise. For example, think about the political furies of some distant era; say 800 years ago. The winners created some institutions, most of which "wore out" long ago when younger ambitions tried to remake the world in their way.

If you go out in the woods alone and yell "Ahh" instead of "Ugg" the trees won't care, and the squirrel, though he may go "What's that?" instead of "What's up?", will soon go "Female in the other tree" and drown out the tiny difference you made in his little brain. The sound becomes heat, and is indistinguishable from other heat.

BDJ said...

Loved Rosencrantz and Guildenstern! It's forever changed my perspective on Hamlet.

On the main topic of the post, however, I've always wondered whether the "butterfly change" theory was really true. Sometimes systems have ways of dampening out change and returning to stability. It may be that at some level, we operate in such a system, and therefore the death of a butterfly tends to be fade to nothingness, rather than setting off some sort of cascading series of events.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I agree entirely with these, and should have stated that. Slight changes are not guaranteed to change the world, they may only potentially do so. It may well be that even huge interventions by a time traveler result in nothing much changing, because of the dampening effect BDJ mentions. I see those as companion pieces in the free-will determinism debate. The small things may be a pivot point; huge changes may be yawners in the final analysis. We do not know, and can only guess.

I had also thought of the chess analogy, James, and did not know that Polkinghorne used it. I keep meaning to read him. It is called Open Theology, and I am much attracted to it - the idea that God could peek behind the veil and know our next move, but finds it more entertaining and interactive to hide that knowledge from Himself and play us into the right position anyway. In that way, we are not simply forced and defeated, but entertained and instructed.

I should mention that not a lot of Christians seem to be excited by that theory.

james said...

I don't believe that the interaction between human and Divine will is something that can be reliably modeled. If you try to model how God's will works you get predestination, which leaves out man's will. If you try to model man's will you wind up disparaging God's power. If you try "Open Theology" you wind up with a different kind of limited God. (I've heard that proponents have some way of trying to wiggle out of that, but I haven't tried to keep abreast of it.)

A view I think is useful is that of models. Every description of how the world/heaven/God works is a model, and it has some domain of validity--or may not be valid at all. For example the interaction of a handful of gas molecules demands a hairy multi-particle set of equations. The interaction of quadrillions of them is more handily dealt with using a model like PV=nRT. Each model has its use. Or better, consider a river. From the point of view of a slow boat it is a simple fluid, but from the point of view of a meteorite it is more rock-like.

Anonymous said...

The butterfly story is Raymond Bradbury's "Sound of Thunder."

Texan99 said...

The author of the lectures I'm listening to in my car keeps getting tangled up in the deism-vs.-atheism controversy. He's supposed to be summarizing the history of science from 1700 to 1900. Every time some scientist identifies a natural law, he describes how some people take it in stride as a beautiful example of God's creation of orderly natural laws, while others leap to the conclusion that now we can see how nature "operates itself," so who needs God any more. I never understood that dichotomy. I guess I have the same problem with why free will creates a dilemma. I assume that things look very different to me, a time-bound creature, from the way they look to the Eternal.