In modeling atmospheric convection in the 1960s, a meteorologist and mathematician at MIT, Edward Lorenz, came up with a mathematical model showing that small perturbations in input parameters result in huge deviations in output, the “butterfly effect.” In other words, in theory, a butterfly flapping its wings in China could bring about a storm in New York City. This is another way to express sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Getting up two minutes late, one may end up missing the bus, which in turn costs one the job interview. As a result of pushing the brake pedal one second earlier a person’s life can be saved. Such slight changes in daily actions are actually signs of how tiny changes are relevant with our lives and how sensitive the future is to the present. Such dependence is called nonlinearity and many scientific problems, such as the well-known Navier-Stokes equations, have been awaiting a solution because of this complexity. In contrast to a deterministic approach, which is based on the idea that the knowledge of the past enables one to make future prediction, a nonlinear (or chaotic) approach claims that the future is not that straightforward.
In contrast to what we used to believe, chaos does not mean complete disorder. Some complicated long-term events may have a hidden order. Being bound by time prevents us from knowing the future. It is in this sense, that time can be said to be another dimension, so that together with the other three, our living environment is formed. To be able to control or observe time-dependent events, the individual of this four-dimensional space may need to move outside of time. To understand this idea better we may analyze the well-known butterfly example. In Figure 1, the behaviors of three different variables are shown on the horizontal time axis, where they are very irregular, complicated and chaotic. However, when the same motions are transformed into another space where time is hidden, what we see is an interesting order between these three variables.
Chaos and spiritual life
The human being’s spiritual life is also sensitive to small changes. We are continuously exposed to our personal desires and Satan’s whispers. One small sin is an invitation to worse ones which eventually accumulate and trouble the soul. Similarly, every good deed, no matter how small, has the potential to become a ticket to paradise. It just depends upon the situation in which it was performed and the level of sincerity in our heart. Giving water to a thirsty dog is not an extraordinary act, but in the particular case mentioned in a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, this sincere act was significant enough to purify a very sinful person, while another went to hell because of letting a cat starve. In another tradition, the Prophet says, “When a person first commits a sin, it falls as a black dot in (the clean slate of) his heart; if he refrains, repents, and seeks forgiveness, it is however erased; if, on the other hand, he were to persist in sin, the dot will gradually expand until it covers the entire heart.” The Prophet then explained, “This is the state of sealing the hearts that God warned (us) of in the Qur’an: Nay the sins they have accumulated have covered their hearts like a seal” (Mutaffifin 83:14). Likewise, in his Risale-i Nur collection Nursi says, “Sin, penetrating the heart, will blacken and darken it until it extinguishes the light of belief. Within each sin is a path leading to unbelief. Unless that sin is swiftly obliterated by seeking God’s pardon, it will grow from a worm into a snake that bites the heart.”1 Likewise, initial tiny scruples can grow exponentially and destroy hope in the heart in an unexpected way. Nursi explains this in the following way:
O you afflicted with involuntary evil thoughts and fancies, such things resemble a misfortune. The more you dwell on them, the more they grow. If you ignore them, they dwindle away; if you exaggerate them, they swell; if you belittle them, they die down. If you fear them, they become grave and make you ill; if you do not fear them, they become slight and remain hidden. If you do not know their real nature, they persist and become established; if you recognize their nature, they disappear.
. . .
Satan first casts a doubt into the heart. If the heart does not admit it, he offers a blasphemy and causes the mind to recall some unclean memories and pictures, some ugly scenes that resemble blasphemy. This causes the heart to despair. People experiencing such thoughts think that they are acting wrongfully toward their Lord and so feel great agitation and anxiety. To free themselves, they flee from the Divine Presence and want to plunge into heedlessness and forgetfulness.2
From the human being’s perspective, each time-dependent event can have very complicated consequences but it always bears God’s signature and His divine order. He is the only One Who knows the future, as stated in the verse: “They said, 'Why hasn't a miracle come down to him from his Lord?’ Say, ‘Only God knows the future.’ Therefore, wait, and I will wait along with you” (Yunus 10:20). It may not be possible to see tomorrow, but we should be aware that each small change we make affects our future. Many scholars lived in such a way that they were always carefully watching their hearts to take immediate action on small deeds or scruples. For every event or option we face, the decision is up to us to, like whether we smoke or not, whether we lie or not, whether we get up early or not and so on. These sets of small decisions play a role in terms of the future we do not know. Although they are small, they have such a big impact and should not be underestimated. Even reading this article was one of these small things you had the choice to do or not to do!
1. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, The Flashes, The Second Flash, SÃ¶zler Publications, Istanbul:2000, p. 22.
2. Nursi, The Words, Twenty-first Word – Second Station, The Light, Inc., NJ: 2005, p. 288.
Gleick, J., Chaos: Making a New Science, New York: Penguin.
Lorenz, E. N. “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow.” J. Atmos. Sci. 20, 130-141, 1963.
Strogatz, S., Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos. Perseus Publishing.