The weather is an incredibly complex system; it fluctuates, it moves, it reacts, and it behaves in certain ways. The weather can also be modeled by certain equations that predict its behaviour; when specific conditions are put in place, the weather will behave accordingly. Similarly, when different numbers are put into the equation you’ll end up with different outputs. The weather forecast is fundamentally uncertain because the weather is so complex it seems impossible to predict its behaviour with certain accuracy. However, imagine if one had all of the information relating to the set of starting conditions the weather behaved on. They would know the starting position of every molecule, the starting position of every atom, and every force acting upon such subatomic particles. Equations that perfectly model the weather could be put together if one had all of this information.
Meteorologists have been trying to construct better and better equations modeling the weather for decades, among them the famous mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz. Edward was trying to construct equations modeling the weather when he came to the realization that the weather’s behavior relies heavily on its initial conditions, thus making long term predictions for the weather’s behavior is foolish. Even the slightest variation in the starting position of each molecule in the atmosphere could make the weather behave in a different way, the error would magnify over time as the particles continued to move and collide. It was this incredible unpredictability that gave the weather its properties, and Edward Lorenz would call this the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is the event in which a small change in a complex system can have much larger implications further down the road.
This specifically refers to complex systems because there are many entangled factors in such a system that determine its behavior. Therefore, a change in one factor in a complex system will lead to change in other variables, ultimately resulting in a series of chain reactions that alter the behavior of the system as a whole. The butterfly effect is actually part of a larger concept known as chaos theory, which is a separate branch of mathematics designed to deal with such complex systems. Chaos theory explains why these systems are so dynamic, and why they appear so unbound. Chaos theory predicts that these systems still obey the law of causality, yet they’re composed of so many parts, and they rely so heavily on initial conditions, that we get the illusion they’re governed by something other than scientific principles. These systems not only include the weather, but also the economy, society, and engineered systems. However, the system I want to focus on is the human brain. By applying this kind of thinking to one of the most complex systems on the planet, I believe that we may gain deeper insight into our reality.
What are humans? They are breathing, consuming, reproducing, observing, biological machines, physically speaking. A lump of tissue in the upper extremity of the human acts as a control center, and it regulates basically all of the behaviors we see a human display. It tells the body whether to go left or right, whether to eat this or that, etc. This lump of tissue can be broken down into nerve cells, and the interactions between the nerve cells are the nuts and bolts of this biological computer. Nerve cells interact by sending electrical and chemical impulses to one another, and the nerve impulses travel through synapses, namely the gaps between each nerve cell. The complexity of this system is mind boggling, but by looking at it like a meteorologist new insights can be gained. Studies have shown that the discharging of energy from synapse to synapse is ultimately dictated by the laws of quantum mechanics and probability. This fact offers the profound idea that at the heart of our reality is probability; yet nerve cell interaction is not the whole explanation, because our brains are the sum of all of these nerve cells.
In other words, our behavior is not just a product of what happens on the microscopic level. We see patterns and connections in our behavior. Our behavior is also a product of evolution, the theory that explains where we come from and why we act the way we do. The idea that our behavior reflects evolutionary adaptations is not apparent to most people because most people never stop to think why they behaved in such a way during a certain situation. Evolution is really at the center of many questions, such as: “Why do we feel emotions, why do people display violence, why do people want to find friendship, and why do people crave fatty foods?” We can answer these questions by tracing our evolutionary history and studying our primitive ancestors. By examining our primitive ancestors we can identify connections between our behavior and theirs, we can also see that our behavior has evolved over time.
For example, the reason for why we crave fatty foods is primitive homo sapiens needed foods rich in fat to provide them with most of their energy. After thousands of years our brains were programmed to desire the foods rich in fat. The nerve cells controlling our dietary behavior honed in on these foods because of their importance and established a behavior that is now somewhat intrinsic to our dietary behavior today. This is just one of many examples of how our behavior was shaped by evolution, our brains were groomed over a long period of time to act in a certain way.
Instead, what we find is that the actions of human beings are simply attributed to their “free will.” Let’s acknowledge the deterministic quality of the world and ourselves, and view the human mind as another system. Similar to weather fluctuations the human brain is unpredictable, and thus making long term predictions is not recommended. But, by taking a step back and viewing the human mind and its various parts, we can see that it is a system that fluctuates and behaves in compliance with scientific principles, at least in terms of the mind’s physical qualities. A system’s complexity gives it an unbound quality, similar to what the weather has, yet that doesn’t make it completely unpredictable.
As human beings we formulate ideas based on what we know, but we must understand that there is such a large difference between what we know and what there is to know. Imagine if we didn’t know anything about the weather, such as how it behaves in certain ways based on scientific principles. We might come to the conclusion that the weather has free will. In fact, an ancient homo sapien tribe came to the very same conclusion about what caused the weather’s behavior. They decided the gods controlled the weather, and this was rationalized in their minds similar to how we rationalize free will today. However, we now know, thanks to people like Edward Lorenz, that the weather doesn’t have free will. Our knowledge will continue to expand, but until we come to the understanding that we behave in compliance with science, we’ll continue thinking that we have free will.