beauty Chaos Theory

Peking, Pulchritude, and Perceiving: What Chaos Theory Tells Us About Value Blindness

6:00:00 AMJosh Merlo

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Chaos theory, nonlinear equations, strange attractors: beside providing us with an immortal pick-up line if we ever happen upon a woman named “Dr. Sattler”, these terms also introduce us to a strange world: the world of complex equations. This world is a convoluted one, full of fractals and infinite regressions, data noise and static, order in randomness, and mathematics totally unlike what every child is taught in school.  In layman’s terms, chaos theory looks at everyday problems and searches for patterns that can show some underlying reason beneath the weirdness of the world.


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Image II — Mandelbrot set

Perhaps the most recognizable feature of chaos theory is one of its fundamental principles. While the technical term for this rule is “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, it’s known in common parlance as the “butterfly effect”. Pretty much everyone can give a version of the commonplace explanation of this phenomenon: “A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking, and weather in New York is different”. In other words, changing one teeny little variable in an equation gives you a completely different output. As James Gleick describes it in Chaos: “In science as in life, it is well known that a chain of events can have a point of crisis that could magnify small changes. But chaos meant that such points are everywhere. They were pervasive” (23). Moving from abstraction to example: let’s say you have to go to the airport to catch a flight. You leave your house a couple of minutes later than you wanted to; because of this, you get caught in rush-hour traffic in the city the airport borders. Because of this, you reach the airport late, missing your flight. You wait for the next available flight. Only later do you find out that the plane you were supposed to be on crashed because of mechanical failure. Two-ish minutes were all that stood between you living and dying. That’s the butterfly effect. To quote, “Th-th-that’s chaos theory”.


Having invoked Ian Malcolm enough, we now can turn to Hildebrand. How is he related to the delightful world of Mandelbrot curves and Lorenz attractors? Quite simply, Hildebrand’s entire explanation for why people can’t recognize values depends on the above-explained butterfly effect. First, what is Hildebrand’s explanation for why people can’t see values? What is the normal cause for not seeing something? Blindness. Not seeing values, then, is due to value blindness. For those interested in an experiential primer on the subject, Benj’s post deserves a read. As Hildebrand defines it conceptually, value blindness is the failure to see value’s intrinsic importance (remembering that importance is that which motivates us to act), and, because of this, the failure to respond properly to value.
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Image III — Lorenz attractor


Hildebrand describes the man blind to values in his The Art of Living. Such a man “suspects nothing of the breadth and depth of the world, of the mysterious depths and the immeasurable fullness of values which are bespoken by every ray of the sun and every plant, and which are revealed in the innocent laughter of a child, as well as the repentant tears of a sinner” (5). He is also “shortsighted, and comes too close to all things, so that he does not give the a chance to reveal their true essence” (6).  


Our project, however, is not to note such a man’s blindness, but to question how he ended up blind. While Hildebrand himself suggests that pride and concupiscence are to blame, there seems to be a more benign explanation for value blindness. In effect, value blindness is subject to the butterfly effect. The man blind to values is so because some initial variable was off ever so slightly.


Take beauty, for instance. Hildebrand claims, ad nauseam, that there is beauty in the world, beauty in art and opera and vistas and the stars. Why might someone not see this beauty? For Hildebrand, the explanation is that the person is blind to the beauty found in whatever object is being perceived. Now, why is the person blind to beauty? Even if one grants to Hildebrand that the blindness is a character flaw (like pride), this character flaw has a reason for existing. And more likely than not, this reason can be traced back to some critical moment or period in a person’s life. During this “point of crisis”, the person could very likely have had his eyes opened to the world of beauty if some variable had been altered. Perhaps if the boy’s school had take a field trip to an art museum, perhaps if the boy’s family had traveled across the country, perhaps if an uncle had pointed out to the boy the constellations. This, of course, is speculation, but it is not idle. It is hard to believe that anyone is born jaded, hardened to any possible sources of beauty in the world. Rather, some people simply never have their latent appreciation for beauty awakened.

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This is what chaos theory can add to Hildebrand. Rather than casting out the value blind as stiff-necked and desirous brigands, the butterfly effect reinforces the idea that men aren’t born blind. Rather, there are certain critical points in people’s lives where either a respect for value or a disavowal of value is fostered. If these points can be located — if the sleeping sense innate to all of us that recognizes values can be stung into alertness — values themselves might have a shot. Pride, after all, is quite difficult to counter. Before the pride man sets his mind, though, he still might listen, might still be open to a paradigm shift. As Ian Malcolm himself might say (this is from the book Jurassic Park, not the movie): “We are in jeopardy. We haven’t got the power to destroy the planet — or to save it. But we might have the power to save ourselves” (369).

Beauty is seen by many as a lost cause. And beauty is a microcosm for values in general. But value isn’t something man can destroy or save. We can, however, save ourselves from a valueless life. It’s as simple a matter as a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking.

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