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.
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.