An appreciation of the highly unpredictable

I have thought much about the influence of contingent events on our lives and am of the opinion that although the broad outline of our years may be bounded by the social, religious, and cultural circumstances into which we are born, the specific details of how we live out our days are dependent upon highly contingent events. In other words, and for most of us, some part of what it is we are destined to become is determined, limited, bounded, and channeled by defined circumstances such as who our parents are, where they lived, what they did, and who their parents were. The specific details of our lives-played-out, however, must be due to an inestimable number of highly unpredictable events. Outcomes are rendered chaotic if they are dependent upon the highly unpredictable. This is not a new idea and has been called The Butterfly Effect.

It occurred to me that ice formations, such as those shown in the photos I’ve been posting lately, although bounded by a number of physical and chemical factors are, in many ways, highly contingent. Proof of this could be provided by running the following impossible experiment. Imagine you were to photograph an icicle. Then, and here’s the impossible part, roll back time and allow the icicle to form again. Take a photo at the precise time the first was taken. Replicate the experiment and compare the photos. Although each will record a fully-formed icicle, and although any number of physical and chemical parameters would have remained the same between and among the trials, it is unlikely, no, it is impossible, that the very same icicle would form more than once. Why? Because the minute details of how time unfolds will differ among the trials. You must agree that it is impossible, for example, to imagine that any particular water molecule will cascade its watercourse in exactly the same way more than once. Imagine just how improbable it would be for the trillions upon trillions of molecules that come together to form the icicle to do so in precisely the same way more than once. Because of this degree of uncertainty, this chaos, the specific form of the icicle will differ each and every time you complete the experiment. Formation of a snowflake may be taken as observational proof of the same effect.

So, what am I getting at? I suppose this is my way of telling you that you should enjoy each and every one of nature’s highly contingent outcomes. For each and every thing is just so. Every tree, every bird, and every flower. Each is, at the same time, a tightly bounded and highly contingent outcome of an innumerable number of events. Keep this in mind the next time you enjoy a walk in the woods. Appreciate nature.


22 thoughts on “An appreciation of the highly unpredictable

  1. I’ve seen evidence of what you propose in my own life. Twists and turns which seemed inexplicable to others show, in retrospect, both an internal logic and the importance of contingency. For example, though it’s too complicated to fully explain here, the very fact that I’m writing a comment on your blog is related to a 1987 birthday party on a boat in Galveston Bay.

    It’s hard to see these thing as they develop, but, looking back, it’s easier to trace the patterns. And of course, freedom plays as much a role as necessity. Once a certain complex of events develops and presents a clear-cut choice, we can’t just drip, like an icicle. There’s a need for a “yea” or a “nay.”

    1. Absolutely on all counts. I like the literary construct. Perhaps it’s something one or the other of us should expand upon. I wonder, if you were to ask, what folks would identify as their in-hindsight-it-changed-my-life event? Yours was the 1987 birthday party … another long story, but mine was a course in Marine Biology that I took in high school. Thanks for understanding what it was I was wanting to say here. Thanks indeed. D

  2. Spending so much time in the yard over the years has made me a fan of nature. The birds have returned and are already chirping in the early morning. Just bought a small bouquet of daffodils to remind me that spring is on the way. The world would be so dull and boring without variety. I am definitely a fan.

  3. An interesting combinations of ideas, and I agree – it is just so. I like to think about this in statistical terms: One ice structure or a single event might be an outlier, but evaluating a large number of ice structures or a large number of different human beings bounded by the same conditions, the fraction of which will develop into what is predictable. It is humbling. Malcolm Gladwell has written an interesting book called Outliers, connecting anecdotes and research that shows how predictable the statistical success or failure of a certain ‘cohort’ is. He uses examples like the month of birth determining if a child becomes a successful professional athlete (depending on deadlines of admissions and academic year) – above all other factors like talent or hard work. Specific groups of people with specific skills had been overly successful in one place at one time in history, while the generation after or before them was not no matter what the personal pre-requisites might have been.

    1. One does wonder about higher-order principles at work. Isn’t it strange that we think we’re so limitless and yet are, at the same time, bounded by factors we know little about?

  4. Well said and somewhat related to what I was getting at in my post today. While nature can seem orderly, it is really quite chaotic and, although things do happen in a generally predictable manner, the details are where anything can develop and shall be different every time as you say. Similar is not identical.

  5. Aye, and layered in on that is the concept of free will. Given that it is possible to form an almost complete functionalist model of the brain, what then is it that allows us free will; to be powerful agents in this unpredictable world? In short, the world may be rudderless but we are not. A thing I will never fully understand.

    1. That’s what both social and cultural evolution have done for us. I do believe that, as a species, we have undergone group selection for character traits which, through time, have lent themselves to living in social groups. As such, perhaps those cognitive/social-psychological traits which moved us away from your rudderless world, and toward one in which individuals are able, and expected to, and rewarded for (reproductively) the exercise of free will, were selected for in competition with other groups. Groups that were able to cooperate and get along (because it was made of of folks with this trait) did well, while groups which didn’t manage to get along (because they were populated with fewer copies of the free-will-gene) didn’t do so well. Perhaps, and counter-intuitively so, the trait which allowed early humans to exercise free will lead to their ultimate success. Just a thought!

  6. Another beauty! I would love to see this collection of icicles and frost on the walls of a New England gallery. Just saying 🙂

  7. When I was studying in the humanities, I sometimes encountered from faculty (but more often from students) a sort of underlying assumption that there is a fundamental failure in science to see reality as it is, leading science to over-generalize and flatten out the complex singularities of individuality with classification systems. It was often presumed in these conversations that only in the arts was uniqueness championed. This was an assertion that, of course, can be made only from within a rather isolated point of view. I really enjoy how your blog so often takes the art of narrative and photography and blends it with science and observation to remind us to look beyond simplicity. I find now, in my physics and math classes, that I really am spending all my time studying sequences of singular events (as a function of time), and learning how to decode and encode that information in very similar process to how I’d write poetry about it. The results are quite different, but there remains a lot of delight in the quirky weirdness of our world, and how much variation we can find.

    1. Wow. I get it. Indeed. There are some phenomena which are, undeniably, regular. For, if not, things like DNA translation and protein folding wouldn’t ‘work.’ On the other hand, I think you are right in that irregularity rules in nature. And we should be thankful. For without genetic variation, as just one example, Darwin’s formula lacks the raw material for change. Without variation nature would be far less interesting, and flexible, than it is. Without variation nature would be far more exposed to the threat of extinction. Thanks for your appreciation and for the insight. Both made me smile. Finally, I’m very glad to learn that you are enjoying your work. Thanks for checking in.

  8. I think this may be one of my favorite images you’ve captured this winter. So much color! The longer I look, the more I see. Just stunning.

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