James Leroy Wilson's blog

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Butterfly Effect

I saw portions of a PBS special featuring a motivational speaker named Andy Andrews. If he helps some people, good for him and good for them. But I wasn't impressed, particularly in contrast with Wayne Dyer, whose Power of Intention show I saw portions of the day before.

Alarm bells went off when Andrews read something from Abraham Lincoln's journal. Lincoln, who waged an unnecessary war against people he claimed were his own, is not someone I'd choose to emulate. And near the end of the show, when Andrews spoke of "persistence without exception" and "be a person of action," his example was of Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain. Which isn't so bad, except for the conclusions Andrews reached.

Ordered to defend the far left flank at Gettysburg, Chamberlain's regiment was undermanned after resisting three attacks, and his ammunition ran out. Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge, and his opponent, misjudging the size of the force, surrendered. Andrews also recounts how Chamberlain's life was spared three times in that battle. If the South had broken through at that point, the Confederates would have won the battle of Gettysburg and probably the war.

I have no problem with using Chamberlain as an example for action, courage, leadership, or whatever virtue you want to preach. What he did was admirable on its own terms, and one could name similar instances of valor on either side of countless battles in history. But Andrews draws the wrong conclusions here. Yes, Chamberlain may have single-handedly saved the Union. And yes, had the South won, there would probably have been not two, but perhaps several independent countries in what is now the USA. But Andrews went on to say that, with no USA, Hitler would not have been stopped in Europe and Hirohito would not have been stopped in the Pacific. So, obviously, it's a good thing that the Union won.

At this point, we must go "whoa!" Andrews then talks about the "butterfly effect" of how even a butterfly in China fluttering its wings can instigate a series of events that can effect us on the other side of the globe. But if this is true - and I believe it is - then wouldn't a fractured Union have effected events in other parts of the world?

Andrews missed the glaringly obvious: if Chamberlain died, maybe the South would have won. But also and more likely, a Great War in Europe - if one were to happen at all - would have started differently and would have more likely ended in stalemate. It is most likely that Hitler would never have risen to power.

Lincoln's War wasn't just a big deal because of the role the American Empire would later play in world affairs - it impacted the world in infinite ways at the very time it was fought. As William Graham Sumner wrote in the 1870's, Lincoln's War "entered the homes of European operatives, it diverted the course of some of the most important branches of international traffic, it altered the industries of India and South America, it affected the movements of population during a whole series of years, and it has permanently influenced the distribution of capital."

In other words, the war changed conditions in such a way that it helped make future events unfold as they did. All the world changed because of the war, which means that history could not have unfolded the same way. The American "butterfly" fluttered its wings and moved one direction instead of another. It is crazy to suggest that anything that transpired since would have been the same, in large part because zillions of zillions butterfly effects large and small transpired since. It could be that young men wiser than Edison and Einstein died while still teenagers in the numerous battles after Gettysburg. We don't know. We don't know if a Southern victory would have led to a better world; we just know it would have led to a different world.

Everything we do impacts everything else in our environment, just as everything in the environment today is the result of everything that has ever happened before. A couple of years ago I wrote an essay for the Partial Observer on Sumner's concept of "solidarity" and what it means for choosing "the lesser of two evils. I wrote:

The consequences of an individual's action are not contained by time or by national borders. A person's novel, or invention, or crime, or unkind remark, are going to have consequences far into the future for other people. You could say that the condition of the human race as it is now, is the result of all of the actions of every human being who ever lived. Any different action taken by anyone, would have changed the outcome today, because it would have changed the actions of others.

Sumner writes:

"Good never produces evil nor evil good. A falsehood spoken now becomes a contribution to human sin and human woe. It comes back to you again and again in strange echoes, in distorted proportions, in ghastly colors, with a whole train of weird offspring, bad passions, bitter memories, and endless strife and confusion."

To sum up: We can't control the future, but we can control our own actions. And it is best for us, and for those who follow us, if we do no harm.


  1. I get frustrated by baseball announcers who assume that a game would have gone the same if an error or other event had not occurred, as if each at bat is utterly independent of all the others.

  2. difficult to define that term harm - perhaps coerce no soul might be better, but then, who is to determine a soul. good post - but is the civil war story true? how can we know? old science texts are highly descriptive of properties of materials, today's science texts contain theories of matter and energy, but very little description. Observation first hand often does not correspond to what is written in the book. But - nothing written is an obvious falsehood - or even a deliberate falsehood. we just need to go back and check premises.

    Vache - I gave up watching games about 10 years ago - i do not miss announcers at all.

  3. To put the "butterfly effect" a different way: Providence is the greatest miracle of all.

    VF: me, too. Two runs down, a double play is followed by a solo home run. "Duh, if it weren't for the double play, the game would be tied now!" even though they would have changed pitchers if the double play didn't occur.

  4. j. south4:52 AM PST

    I was searching Google for something and stumbled across this post. I ended up reading the entire thing. It was thought provoking and well written. I've always been fascinated by how even the smallest decisions of daily life can have a huge impact on ourselves, our families, our friends, our jobs, our lives, and ultimately the world. It is not that every decision is life or death. It's just that every decision has the potential to have far reaching effects. As it has been written many times before, our lives are the sum product of our thoughts and decisions to this point. People cannot control the situations to which they are born, however (unless mentally handicapped in some way) they are equipped with the tools and the capabilities to become whatever they can envision. Thanks again for the article.