Tubes, Butterfly Wings, and Free Will

Segueing from my last post, a what now recently came into my mail box.

The assistant to the city manager e-mailed me about another opportunity to get involved: the Montpelier Conservation Commission has a vacancy. So I’ve applied for that, like I did with the Development Review Board. It will be a few weeks — sometime in October — before the council votes on appointments to it, but I’ve put my application in, and that’s as good of a first what now as any.

But there are lots of nows until then. So learning from my past and hoping to give a better impression this second time out come October, I’m going to do some research on what the commission has done, plans to do, and hopefully talk to some relevant people live about the role.

I might still not get it. And if I don’t, I’ll try to learn from it and see what other, perhaps better kinds of actions I might take towards achieving my civic goals.

Nothing unusual about that: taking action, seeing effects, and taking more actions based on the effects you’ve seen. Comes with being human and having faith that are actions do generate effects.

And they do. But they also kind of don’t.

The don’t is what I’m thinking about right now, which escorts me towards free will territory. But I won’t cross over too far into that borderland for this particular post, as the ground there quickly becomes treacherous and tricky to navigate, starting with even getting at a satisfactory definition.

But here on the edge of it, I’ll cash it out simply and oversimplified as what kind of power you have to take action in the world, which further cashes out, it seems to me, as what kind of effect you can have in the world.

Now I used to be a big butterfly believer: the idea that a small action — like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings — can have large effects. And I still am to some degree and still think a small action can. But lately I’ve started thinking about scope and how difficult it is for any action to have true consequence.

All actions have effects, but effects can get cancelled out. And if they do, from the point of view that encompasses all the relevant actions, there is no real effect.

Imagine a tube. You throw a ball down it and it ricochets every which way, but it still comes out the end. You can throw it down the tube again and it will likely go a different every which way, but it still spits out the same place at the end.

It’s not necessary to know each and every point of ricochet to predict — to determine — the outcome. You just have to be able to see the tube that holds the events not the events themselves.

And of course the tube doesn’t have to be an actual tube nor look anything like a tube. It can be a life or lives, a war or wars, a society or civilization itself.

Nothing revelatory about this. Myths mine it heavily and we have words ingrained in us like fate, destiny and the ubiquitous phrasing full of implicit deterministic belief “meant to be”.

And of course the tube doesn’t have to be confined to the plight of humankind. It can be one large enough to funnel the world, the solar system, the universe. When all is said and done, the sum of it all — our all — will likely be just a single ricochet off the side of a much larger tube.

A tube that I would think is God if I were religious-minded. But I’m not, so I’ll stick with envisioning it as a tube; yet, nevertheless I can’t help but think how bizarre it is for the ostensibly religious-minded to harm others in the name of that tube, whether in Kenya or Andromeda.

Maybe their answer to what now is driven by an unconscious realization that they are going down the tube, as is everyone, whether they want to or not. They think that if they can claw their way over others, they might stop their dropping, or maybe somehow arrive at a more prime spot at the end; win favor with a tube that is not so much indifferent as unaffected.

Being neither a god nor a tube, I can’t help but be affected by the goings-on halfway around the world. I can’t help but think that each and every person is in this tube together and that should be a common thread that binds us; one that should encourage us to help make the mutual descent as pleasant as possible.

Being just a mortal, I do not have the power to stop, or really even slow, the absurd amount of bloodshed caused by others.

But, as just a mortal, I can sew my what nows with that aforementioned common thread and do things like try and join a conservation committee where I might help preserve natural beauty for everyone to see. I can pick up an author from the airport for a book festival, try to be nicer to my husband, and take time out from whatever I’m doing to pet my cat.

Small acts for sure. But then again, in the blind eyes of the tube, all acts are small.

But they don’t all have to be, and shouldn’t be, so damn shallow.