Chaos Theory as it Relates to Rick and Morty

Fractal - Chaos TheoryIt’s weird, but the television show Rick and Morty has given me many ideas for articles. There’s just so much to it. A show like Bob’s Burgers is really all about the characters. But Rick and Morty brings up so many bizarre ideas that I have a hard time not getting lost in them. Most recently, I was thinking of the infinite timelines. This is what explains the Council of Ricks and Jerryboree — the daycare center for Jerrys. Of course, it’s all absurd.

To begin with, if there are infinite timelines, why are there only three thousand Ricks on the Council of Ricks? Well, I do have what might sound like a reasonable explanation: out of the infinite timelines, there are only so many that just happened to have Ricks. This doesn’t work, of course. If there are an infinite number of timelines, there would be an infinite number of timelines with Rick. Infinity is that way. But that doesn’t bother me all that much. What does bother me is this: Rick, Morty, Summer, Beth, Jerry.

Chaos Theory

The issue is this: chaos theory. When I was in my 20s, chaos theory was the thing — even non-nerds were into it. I wasn’t, of course. And that’s because it’s actually a really simple thing. (Research on it, is another matter; but that’s beyond pretty much all but specialists.) It’s just about non-linear systems. Let me explain.

Imagine you are pushing a cart down the road at a fairly constant rate and I’m making measurements of it to figure out how far you’ve gone. That’s a linear system. If I make a small mistake in the measurement of your speed, it will cause me to be wrong in calculating the distance you’ve traveled. But the error will be proportional to the error I made in your speed.

Non-Linear Systems

Rick and MortyNow imagine that you are tripling your speed every ten seconds. Then a small error in my speed measurements will lead to a huge error in the distance traveled. In this case, the error will be squared for reasons that I’d love to explain to you, but don’t have the time (nor, admit it, do you the the interest — a fact I know from experience).

Non-linear systems can be highly non-linear, however. To (inappropriately) use the cart example, you could have a situation where a single small error would cause your final answer to be off by a factor of millions. And that’s what chaos theory is all about. And we have an example of that: the weather, which is where this all started. If you want to know more, learn about Edward Lorenz.

Chaos Theory and Time

Think about time. But first, let’s quote Robert Marley from John Dies at the End, “Time is an ocean, not a garden hose.” We have to forget that, even though I think it’s more or less correct. Imagine time as a garden hose — a line. How chaotic is it? Well, we certainly know it is nothing close to linear. Consider the following example:

A woman is going to buy a ticket for the state lottery. She uses the random system. On her way to the store to get it, a squirrel darts in front of her causing her to slow down and get to the store a couple of seconds later. That is the difference between her life going on as usual and her life completely changing because she won a half billion dollars.

That’s one example. So my belief is that time is the most chaotic system imaginable — indeed, infinitely chaotic — the ultimate example of chaos theory. And that brings us back to Rick and Morty. The best estimates are that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. Given that all of the universes in the show are roughly the same, they too must be that old. Time is just stuff happening: it’s a concept to explain why things change; this is why time doesn’t exist without matter. And 13.8 billion years is a lot of time.

A Long Time Coming: 13.8 Billion Years

Even if time were non-chaotic and changes had linear effects — if small changes would have small effects — that’s enough time that there just wouldn’t be multiple Ricks. But even if there were, how is it that they all marry the same woman who has a daughter named Beth, who goes on to marry a man named Jerry with whom she has two children named Morty and Summer.

Okay: infinity. If there are an infinite number of timelines, then literally every possible universe would exist. (It’s still odd that all of those universes start at the same time.) But if that’s the case, where are all the timelines that are exactly like the 3,000 that we know about except that Morty’s sister is named Winter?

I understand: Rick and Morty is just a television show — one I find quite entertaining. But I actually think that it is dangerous to think that time is not chaotic. Politically, it’s the same as believing in an activist God. It justifies kings because they are the result of fate rather than blind chance.

Who You Are Is the Result of Dumb Luck

The more we know about the world, the more we know that luck is everything. Were you born with a good body? Were you born to parents who raised you in a loving and intellectually stimulating environment? Did you inherit billions of dollars? Were you born in the San Francisco rather than Monrovia? Did a squirrel run in front of your car when you went to buy your lottery ticket?

I think that if people can see that their entire success in life is due to nothing but luck (and I cannot escape this conclusion myself), then we will build a more equitable society. Feudalism existed because people believed that God chose how people’s lives should be. Capitalism exists because people believe that the rich have earned what they have — at least to some extent.

Thomas Paine: Computer Program

Thomas PaineThomas Paine was a great rhetorician who was far ahead of his time in terms of social thinking. But that’s just because he was born with the perfect body and environment to make him Thomas Paine. He didn’t choose to be Thomas Paine. Now that’s not to say that we shouldn’t look up to him. The society should pay tribute to people who made the world better, because we want to create an environment that causes people to be better. Thomas Paine’s body born into 1950 Soviet Union would not be the Thomas Paine we all know and love.

But recognizing that Thomas Paine could no more be anything other than what he was than that a computer program can do anything other than what it was programmed to do allows us to see that having great material differences between people is immoral. Thomas Paine should not have had any more comfortable a life than the millions of African slaves that supported the southern colonies’ economies. We are nothing more (or less) than exactly what we have to be.

Immoral Society Based on False Premises

And these are the kinds of things that you can think about if you watch Rick and Morty. Time is the ultimate example of chaos theory. Luck is the only thing that determines who we are. There is no free will. Our unwillingness to see this provides intellectual cover for an immoral system — one that (if we are very lucky) future generations will look back on in horror, just as we look back at the burning of witches and the enslavement of humans.

6 thoughts on “Chaos Theory as it Relates to Rick and Morty

  1. This is why time-travel stories which include the warning “don’t kill your grandmother” are so silly. Simply spending one millisecond in the past would change the behavior of microscopic organisms, which would change the behavior of insects, which would change the behavior of that squirrel, which would change the behavior of that lady buying a lottery ticket. How long would it take for one millisecond spent altering the past to alter the behavior of every human on Earth? A few days? A week? Then your grandparents have sex at a different time, and a different sperm cell fertilizes the egg, and presto, no you.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t like time-travel stories! They’re great. They can serve triple duty; they can be social commentary on changing mores, they can be fish-out-of-water plots to broaden the characters, they can express the regrets we all have of roads not traveled. (Nicolas Meyer did the latter in “Star Trek II,” the former two in “Star Trek IV,” and a rehearsal version of all three in the slight “Time After Time.” “Doctor Who” regularly toys with all three as well.)

    No, I love those stories. But they make absolutely no logical sense.

    • >Then your grandparents have sex at a different time, and a different sperm cell fertilizes the egg, and presto, no you.

      If I may toot my own horn here, that’s the plot of my short story, Time’s Up (, except it’s the parents, not the grandparents.

      Aside from my story, I don’t recall this matter explored in fiction, though I may have missed it.

      • If we don’t toot our own horns, who will?

        Thanks for the link. I’ll read it sometime at work. I always like having stuff to read at work.

        • I read it today and liked it. It would make a terrific “Twilight Zone” episode. It’s neat how you suggest a lot of backstory in the characters without having to detail what those backstories are … although I imagine you could expand on those and make them worth reading, too.

  2. One thing that confuses me is how an absolute determinist can have strong political opinions. I know, I know, that’s the result of environmental forces as well. But specifically, how can something or someone be immoral if free will doesn’t exist? How can someone’s actions be “morally wrong” if they’re simply doing what they’re programmed to do? They’re simply following a predetermined script and have no choice. How can someone be making immoral choices if they have no choices in the first place? If I program a Twitter bot to send misogynistic, racist, homophobic tweets to people, is the bot immoral for following its program? Or is “society” somehow immoral despite the people who make it up having no moral choices? The whole thing seems like a fundamental contradiction to me.

    • The societal morality question is interesting to me. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve known who went from being relatively liberal open-minded sorts to relatively conservative snobs, just because of socialization pressures. And it pretty much always goes down the same way.

      In America, if you’re poor, you’re likely to have a poor social circle and vice versa. Poor people are struggling to keep afloat, so that’s what they mostly talk about.

      When people who used to be poor get well-paying jobs, they’re exposed to a different social circle. People who talk about ski vacations and wine tastings and the latest podcast “everyone in the office” is into. The person who’s new to this world will generally not only accept that kind of social interaction, they’ll begin shunning contact with poor people as though it were contagious.

      Which in a sense it is! People with professional careers get each other jobs all the time, based less on qualifications (there’s little to most office jobs a bright person couldn’t learn in two weeks) than on whether or not someone’s the “right sort.” AKA, someone who has internalized the values of corporate culture, and would rather do something immoral at work than be cast out into the darkness of losing all their sophisticated friends.

      More than once, when I was younger and had successful friends, I’d go to a party and be getting along fine with other guests, only to have the dreaded question “what do you do?” come up. When I said “work in a group home,” it was like spraying shit mist in the room. Clearly there was something broken — if not dangerous — about me.

      Now I wouldn’t call this “immoral” (although it’s utterly rude). Humans are social animals, and the career world is a competitive one. If you’re going to talk at the office about attending a classic car rally, you better be the boss. Nobody wants to be excluded from their peer group or miss out on a job opportunity because they didn’t “fit in.”

      Currently, the Democratic Party leadership is made up of people from this social class. Whether they grew up rich or poor, they identify now with white-collar workers, and tailor social/economic policy to benefit that class. Which leads to an even bigger economic/cultural divide between the professional class and the hourly wage class.

      That’s just doing what people everywhere have always done. I don’t know if you can even call it an immoral social structure; I think you can call it a deeply foolish and short-sighted one. It’s like genetically engineering tomatos to stay ripe longer and have deeper color while eliminating flavor. Making upward mobility increasingly dependent on class and culture rather than diversity and creativity eliminates the possibility of leaders who might see what isn’t working, in the company or the country.

      But I swear to God, every time I see some Internet comment thread with people bragging about how little they’re doing in the office right now, I want to strangle them.

      Not really on point to your comment, just a bug which flies up my butt every so often!

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