I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned of the butterfly effect, but I remember it totally blowing my mind. Ray Bradbury, in his 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder”, demonstrates the butterfly effect when a time traveler hunting dinosaurs inadvertently steps on a butterfly in the past and causes profound and unsettling changes in history upon his return. The term butterfly effect was coined by Edward Lorenz, mathematician and chaos theorist, as a way to demonstrate how something small and seemingly insignificant could have far-reaching effects. I’m not sure if he got the butterfly from Bradbury’s story, but the description stuck. Lorenz stumbled upon the phenomenon by a happy accident when, due to an unintentional rounding error in his weather prediction data, initial conditions were altered resulting in radically different weather pattern predictions. The idea that tiny, seemingly insignificant causes could have huge effects was a very profound idea for my young mind that stuck with me. (Insert Inception reference here.)
In my high school physics class, I learned about the concepts of open and closed systems while watching a demonstration of dyed water of different colors and temperatures began to mix after a partition separating them was removed. As expected, the water in the tank swirled together in a dynamic symphony of hot red water and cold blue water until it had all become lukewarm purple water. The systems of hot and cold were closed to one another, and only after removing the partitioning and opening the systems could the process of entropy begin. Of course, the reality is that there are no truly closed systems. No matter how sealed off a system might seem, it will always be affected by things outside of it. In the case of the tank full of hot and cold water, entropy is already at work even before the partition splitting the tank is removed. Heat is transferred through the partition from hot water to cold, and through the glass of the tank from the air outside. Air in the classroom is affected by the air conditioning system as well as the body heat of the 30 students and one teacher. Breathing patterns of the people in the room alter convection currents, and to get to the point, everything is interconnected.
One more brief science anecdote and I will get to my point. Another concept that moved me which I learned in my high school physics class were the four fundamental forces of nature: gravitation, electromagnetism, the large nuclear force, and the small nuclear force. I learned that gravitation, seemingly so powerful that it could bend time and space itself, was actually the weakest of the four forces, but that it had the widest reach. No matter how far apart in space two objects may be, they will always exert a gravitational attraction to one another. And the nuclear forces: When I learned that at an atomic level there are no edges to objects, only a dance of atoms self-contained and separated by the nuclear forces holding them together, the idea that everything is interconnected really hit home.
Physically we are all made from the same stuff. I want to quote Lawrence Krauss here because he sums it up far more eloquently than I’m able:
Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.
Everything that we see around us on our Earth, from the leaves on the trees (and the trees), to the dogs taking shits on Paris sidewalks (and Paris), to the fumes emitted by combustion engines (and the engines), all of it came from the atoms of dead stars. For lack of a better expression, I think that’s pretty fucking metal. We’re all on this ride together and if we’re to have any hope of surviving and thriving, we have to recognize that we’re all interconnected and that we must depend on one another for our continued survival.
That’s what humanism is about: ensuring that all of humanity not only survives, but thrives. But we cannot thrive as a whole when parts of us are enslaved by religion, war, corruption, greed, or any of the social ills that come from the illusion that we are separate from our world. But is humanism enough? Humans aren’t the only living critters on this spaceship Earth, and knowing that everything is interconnected, not just humanity but every living thing, it cannot be enough to focus only on the well-being of a single species.
Martin Pribble has been writing about the idea of methodological humanism, a next step up from secular humanism. My understanding of the idea is essentially that which I sussed out through my physics class about the interconnectedness of everything. Because humanity is interdependent not only with ourselves, but with our Earth as well, it is not enough to merely look after us. We are the caretakers of this planet, and driven by our unsustainable social desire for more stuff we’re destroying our world. Part of that is due to our society teaching us to “keep up with the Joneses”, part of it is due to our religions teaching us to “subdue the Earth”, and part of it is due to our innate fascination with shiny things.
A house turned into a meth lab is a hollowed out shell of its former self, and we’re doing the same thing to our one and only world. What happens to Earth, happens to us all. Secular humanism promotes the philosophy, “Save the Humans, Save the Earth”. If we can take care of ourselves, then we’ll be able to take care of the Earth. Methodological humanism reverses this, taking a more holistic approach of “Save the Earth, Save the Humans (and the Animals, and the Plants, and the Butterflies, and so forth). But didn’t George Carlin once say, “The Earth is fine, it’s the people who are fucked.”? He did say that, yes. But that was comedy. As long as humanity is not fine, then the Earth is not fine because we are a part of the Earth. Yes, if that part is excised, if humanity is removed from the equation, the Earth will eventually be fine again, but extinction is not surviving. Extinction is not thriving. Extinction is death, and it’s not something we as a species get to come back from.
Everything is interconnected. Small things add up. There are no edges but the ones we impose from outside. These are concepts I derived from studying physics: not religion, not philosophy, but science. A promising future for humanity cannot be derived from the superstitions of the ancients. It can only happen when the illusion of Us versus Them dissolves. Maybe that’s too optimistic and too lofty a goal for a bunch of savage beasts, many of whom believe we are made in the image of God™. I like to believe that curiosity and optimism are the tools which will bring us all the promise of tomorrow. But perhaps more important is that we realize just how interdependent we all are for one another’s continued survival. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Do something small today to make a big difference tomorrow. Listen. Learn.