Entropy and Life

Ever since I was old enough to understand much of anything, I avoided the ultimate questions about the nature of self and the meaning of life. I limited my theorizing about purpose to essentially tactical issues, and put the issue of ultimate purpose off with the glib answer I once heard from my son William: “The meaning of life, Dad, is to relieve God’s boredom”.

Everybody’s life is a jungle of sorts. Many of us spend a lot of our time discovering paths that lead through thickets of apparent chaos. The better paths can lead you towards answers to the basic questions that pop up during the course of any active life. The more curious you are, and the more diverse your experiences, the more you find this kind of pathfinder role fascinating and satisfying. But it isn’t easy to find a path that gives you a clear sense of getting beyond the jungle itself. I suppose finding enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, or discovering God for the monotheists, qualifies as this sort of epiphany, but I have never regarded such an outcome as one I could accept. It is too simple, too much in conflict with much of what I have learned about the world I inhabit and how it functions. It’s like finding a clearing in your jungle and deciding to settle in it. I want to punch all the way through.

I am now well into my ninth decade and perhaps I’m ready to discover a path through my jungle that satisfies my intellect. It is based on a simple proposition: life is the reverse of entropy, and vice versa.

When you hear the word “life” you are likely to think of it as describing a category of things, that is, things alive versus things that are inanimate. (“Is there life on other planets?”… “What do we know about life in the deepest parts of the sea?” and so forth.) But it is useful to think of the word as describing a process. When we turn the word around to this use, we think not of things but of replication (meiosis), change through selection, and evolution.

Entropy reduces complexity while life, in this sense, produces it. The two are twinned in that they are the basic agents of change in the universe we inhabit and are trying to understand. They can be simple forces or extremely complex ones, but in their essences they operate in opposite directions. Push and pull, up and down, between them they are responsible for all the changes that happen in the world we know.

There are, of course, ways of reversing entropy that do not involve life as we know it. Tectonic shifts in the continents, for example, are agents of change that produce new complexities. But scale matters. Seen as a part of the entire life cycle of the planet, they are part of a long process of winding down toward ultimate disintegration. Likewise, there are advances in the complexity of life that lead to entropy. Our national legislature is a good example, at least judging from the headlines. But this too is part of a larger picture. In this case, the attempt to merge a variety of distinctive communities into a larger entity has thrown up problems which are taking time to resolve. Here again look at the time frame. If you take a long enough view, there may even be some hope for our Congress, or at least for the hope of replacing it with something that more effectively meets its purposes, if you wait long enough.

Of course it is possible that all life will end when the universe collapses. I am not a cosmologist and will never become one, so I take the fifth on that question. Within any reasonable time frame, however, the principle of life provides living things with a capacity to cope with the challenges that entropy visits upon them. It may take weeks, or generations, or even a couple of geological eras, but unless life is snuffed out completely it will find a way to overcome. The key concept here, of course, is evolution.

I believe that an ethical system based on advocacy of life as opposed to entropy can provide a rational foundation for the individual who wants to construct an ethical basis for his life. There’s a lot more to be done to build a useful structure on that basis. But certainly such a structure is more likely to survive the march of technology in our modern world than one based on surrender to the advice of Allah or Jehovah or some other imaginary authority.

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Addendum (3/23/11):  Human cultural evolution is a fascinating subset of the larger panorama of life. Art and intuition discover the existence of complexities that have previously existed over the horizon, beyond human ken. Science defines them and parses them out, and then the rest of us apply what we have learned in ways that help us better adapt to our environment. It’s a much more efficient process than earlier forms of evolution, and produces results an order of magnitude or two faster. It’s the core of what we call progress. That in turn helps define why I put the “progress” in Progressive Humanism.







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4 Responses to Entropy and Life

  1. Tauth Coon says:

    It looks like you’re making a crucial breakthrough in this essay that could really open up that path through the jungle you spoke of to reach a major clearing (i.e. clarification) about the meaning of life that could really equate to and even illuminate theistically grounded ethical systems.

    From the monotheistic’s perspective, the meaning of life if about finding the Creator God who was responsible for the generation of life to justify ethical behavior toward life. First, this leads to mandates demanding that humans be ethical/(nurturing of life) toward other humans as commanded in the Gold Rule (Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you), but then it even extends to animals and the whole ecosystem. For example, we see theistic ethical systems limiting animal cruelty in human omnivorousness through laws of Kosher and Halal to bring about a speedy death and ceremonially respect the life of the animal, and even at the extreme aspiring to vegetarianism in prophetic visions of paradise (Isaiah 66:3, he who kills an ox is like one who slays a man) or in the Indian faith of Jainism. Then also, there are edicts in the Torah about not overusing the land (letting the soil rest every 7 years for example), and in general, there’s the paradise driven vision that God’s plan for humanity was that we would cultivate the garden of earth’s life so that all life here would flourish more, not less. As Jesus reiterated that vision, he is quoted as having said, “I came to give you life and life more abundantly.”

    Now it seems, at the edge of environmental and evolutionary science, you are pushing through to the ultimate clearing which might be helpful to think of as your 6th and ultimate level of altruism referencing your early work on this classification system (http://www.progressivehumanism.com/progressive-humanism/altruism-revisited/). Previously you defined pan-human altruism as the 5th and highest level, but now you might expand that to the level of pan-vital altruism, bringing the system full circle showing that the ultimate evolution involves the individual waking up to realize that as a part of the whole ecosystem s/he must defend and nurture the whole system if his/her progeny are to live, because if we burn through the whole jungle in rapacious near-sighted selfishness, we ultimately die along with that ecosystem in the desert we create for ourselves and everything else.

    From that Mt. Everest of ethical viewpoints at the 6th level of altruistic awareness–one might say, our edict and the meaning of our lives is to do what Jesus did: find our purpose in the world as being in it to “give life and life more abundantly.” From there we would have our first principals of an ethical system defined as “that which nurtures the cause of life is good, whereas that which diminishes it is evil.” The theist could justify this as an offense against God who created life and expects us to respect and care for his creation. However, the humanist can simply say with great urgency, our lives depend on our universal support of the project of life and it’s abundance and on curbing all that with undermines that project.

    Final note: Physics is not the realm were we can really fight for life or justify ourselves. That seems to be the realm where either the Messiah (Gravity) saves us or where the Devil (Entropy) will ultimately cast us into hell. For now it seems like the devil is winning–Even the project of life actually excellerates the project of Entropy (creating chaos and disorder in the universe http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_and_life). In the physical sense, every breath we take metabolizes more energetic disorder in the universe than the amount of order we create in ourselves. There’s no way out of this problem. It’s an immutable law of thermodynamics–so we really don’t want an ethical system built primarily on the idea of resisting and immutable physical law. Life only seems to exist as a servant of this devil that may ultimately destroy us–if we think of Entropy that way. However, we ought not to go down that road–because we do not yet know where Gravity–the ultimate source of energy–comes from in the universe. Maybe Gravity is God. We just don’t know where it comes from or why it’s there. And while Entropy is ripping everything apart, Gravity is pulling everything together. Will Gravity trump Entropy to grant us eternal life? We don’t know yet. For now we are going to have to let our ultimate fate in eternity remain hidden away in the mysteries of Physics if we prefer science, or hidden away in the mysteries of God, if we prefer theism. But either way it doesn’t matter much in regards to our ethical task at had.

    As Ben Franklin I think said, “God helps those who help themselves.” Or perhaps the humanist might state as an undated progressivist’s article of faith, “Understanding the ultimate laws of physics will some day save us if we first do what we can now to save ourselves.”

    Entropy and eternity are really not that relevant to us now, given that fact that we have a planet potentially headed for inhabitability in the short term if we don’t save it, and in the medium term, we have a star (the Sun) that is due to go Nova on us and destroy our planet in just 5 billion years. That doesn’t give earth much time to evolve a new species to preserve the project of life born here to create a galactic Noah’s ark if we screw up and annihilate ourselves.

    Evolving our universal secular ethical mandate might just be the key to saving us from the Venus-like greenhouse we could roast ourselves in (and even melt all surface lead on the planet with) long before the Devil Entropy ever catches us in his own time if we don’t get our global act together soon.

    But what could we use as our scientific analogy as a continuum between good and evil in our own ethical behavior. I like thinking of the difference between the Virus and the Complex Organism with many interdependent organ systems. The Virus hasn’t always been all bad in it’s simplistic selfishness–but that simplistic sub-lifelike singular kind of selfishness becomes more and more dangerous as the complexity of life grows. We need humans acting like organs in the larger ecosystem sustaining the whole body project of life on earth rather than as viruses ripping through the system self-aggrandizing where ever they can. The greatest achievement in and of life is in becoming part of the larger team, not in becoming the largest most powerful player. In fact, concentrated viral like mega-individual power seems to make the worst demons out of people as you’ve noted before in your axiom that states: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


  2. SDM says:

    Have you considered that 5 billion years may be enough time to evolve a new species if you assume our current technology is advancing at an exponential rate? The new species will likely be more machine than biological system — which, of course, will result in an ever accelerating rate of evolutionary change.

  3. Carl Coon says:

    Interesting. Will your machine component of the evolved species incorporate the human capacity for imagining things that don’t exist and them making them so, or will it stick to identifying and solving problems that already exist? If the latter, will your prediction of accelerating change hold?

  4. josh says:

    I don’t think the ability to imagine things that don’t exist and make them so are strictly human capacities. I believe they are features of highly ordered and complex consciounsness. What if consciousness and morality are governed by laws that existed before the systems that can take advantage of them – brains and socoieties – evolved, in the same way the rules that govern chemistry existed before the systems that use them – elements and biology – came along? What if imagining things isn’t making them up, but is really our brains with their hundred trillion connections perceiving a possibility for which the potential already exists? This reminds me of what not a few fiction writers have observed: that they don’t make up stories, they are found things, as if their minds stumble across them.

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