Entropy isn’t what it used to be

Pillars of Creation, Eagle nebula

In high school physics class we became acquainted with the idea of entropy. This is the idea that energy tends to spread out until it is evenly distributed. For example, ice in a glass will melt, all becoming the same temperature, and the heat from the air will heat up the water until it is room temperature, any cooled air will be heated by neighboring warm air and so on. At a cosmological scale, our destiny appears be that of uniform mediocrity throughout the universe- where energy everywhere becomes uniformly cool.

The principle of entropy can be applied to matter as well as energy. For example if you put two kinds of dye in water, eventually the colors will become evenly mixed.

A person can get sad thinking the destiny of the universe is to become more and more nondescript. Any inspection of the observations or theory of the science of entropy reveals the opposite picture: the more uniform the distribution of energy in the universe becomes, the greater the diversity at the local scales that we perceive.

The entropy theory used by physicists differs from the common concept when examined at the microscopic level. In 1870, Boltzmann defined entropy statistically as the number of microscopic configurations of atoms and molecules that could produce the observed macroscopic state. The greater the randomness in the distribution of atoms and molecules, the greater number of configurations that could give rise to the observed macroscopic state. For this reason, greater diversity of microstates, also known pejoratively as disorderliness or “chaos” is correlated with entropy.

Similarly, high information “entropy” exists for sequences of symbols with lower predictability. The higher the information content of a message, the greater the uniqueness of the sequences, and the more difficult to efficiently compress the message.

Due to natural selection’s mechanism of error and trial, magnifying the number of possible microstates offers greater opportunities for life to generate uniqueness and do so in survivable patterns. A massive supernova early in the life of the universe generated the greater variation of elements that composed our planet, and the rapid variation in climate changes in Africa gave survival advantage to hominids with the intelligence needed to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. There may not be any Platonic Form for an eyeball, but due to the universe’s proclivity for random variation, geneticists are concluding that the same solutions will recur as if they were immortal.

Vertebrate and Invertebrate eyes evolved independently demonstrating remarkably similar solutions. Invertebrates have the nerve fibers (1) behind the retina (2), avoiding the problem of the blind spot (4) in vertebrates.

Customary understanding of natural science suggests that because nature follows a set of laws then existence is merely a causal chain of falling dominoes that has been cascading mechanically since the big bang. For example, in the philosophy of mind, the “materialist” school attempts to define consciousness exclusively in terms of deterministic physical processes. Those with the zeal for reduction to mechanism deride closely held humanistic “myths” such as that of free will. It is seen as continuance of the struggle against the myth of animism- regardless whether it occurs behind nature’s phenomena, or behind the eyes.

This common approach to natural science is incomplete because it does not account for uniqueness and indeterminism found in nature. For example, consider a gram of U-238 that was formed roughly 5 billion years ago. By any measure known to science, every atom in that gram of uranium are identical and yet 12 thousand times per second an unpredictable one of those atoms will decay giving off an alpha particle. Some U-238 atoms did not persist beyond the first microsecond after the supernova. Others have remained for 5 billion years.

Certainly, it may later turn out that the explanation for U-238’s apparent indeterminism is that there are some hidden principles at work- that for example the atoms are not identical and that the composition of subatomic components does in fact determine the timing of the decay event. Regardless, this would not negate the class of indeterministic phenomena that this example was chosen to illustrate.

As the universe expands, its entropy grows and so to does the higher probabilities of indeterministic variations. A less mechanistic way of stating this is that there is greater opportunities if not the inevitability of remarkable individuation. This generative relationship between the poles of deterministic laws and indeterministic variation applies as much to inanimate matter like the Eagle Nebula as it does to nature animated by genetic variability.

This calls into question more common definitions of life. When JPL was asked by NASA to construct a theoretical life detection system, one of the experts named James Lovelock was asked what such a mechanism would measure. He responded, “I’d look for an entropy reduction, since this must be a general characteristic of life.” Does this mean that the Eagle Nebula is living? When an inanimate process generates intense individuation, is that a kind of life?

Lovelock promoted the organicism of a global Gaia theory. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and earlier thinkers were less restrictive, thinking of it as a universal force existing throughout the universe, elaborating on Spinoza’s notion of natura naturans or “nature naturing”. Central to understanding this way of thinking about becoming is Coleridge’s use of “polar logic” for thinking about the interpenetrating generative nature of polar opposites. The similarity of polar logic to probablistic propositions suggest it may be well tailored for comprehending probablisitic variations associated with nature’s capacity for emergence of novelty.

Polar logic is easily confused with dialectical interactions of opposing propositions. Polar logic, like modern day probabilistic software, depends on consideration of the continuum of middle values between one proposition and another. Traditional propositional logic excludes the middle between opposing propositions, and so Polar logic ought not be confused with dialectical schemes popularized in notions of Yin and Yang or Jungian union of opposites.

To rediscover a style of thinking used prior to Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded middle is to enter the world of Heraclitus, whose doctrines of flux and the unity of opposites lie in a world of pre Platonic-form lessness. Socrates warned that one must be a strong swimmer to read Heraclitus. The adventurous entering the waters of the obscure risk drowning in thinking that appears at first undisciplined due to its lack of crisp edges between one thought and another.

It is not a daunting or antiquarian task: if evaluating interrelated probabilities can be programmed into Bayesian software, then it is a discipline that human minds can be taught to grasp and manipulate. Such a thinking style provides fertile soil for the imagination, from which emergence of novel ideas spontaneously explode into consciousness. It is not a path for escapists from science or the rigors of methodical thought, but is instead a path away from the collective representations and styles of perceiving the world that enjoy general acceptance in this century. It is not woo-woo for scientist Sundays when brains must be checked at the door. Nor does it offer refuge for the religious who wish to cling to the idolatry that has dominated world religions for the last ten thousand years.

In this inquiry, pursuit of the source of individuation in cosmology, genetics and consciousness leads to a notion of a universe that lives. Process theology as well as the views of Coleridge or Owen Barfield regarding Christianity vs. pantheism are further steps beyond the religious naturalism of Spinoza’s God.


About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-11-06, in Being, collective consciousness, evolution of consciousness, Samuel Coleridge, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Bede Achinike

    Entropy & thermostatistics are the mechanisms of interaction of energy & diversity at the microscopic & macroscopic states.
    This vividly relates boltzmans, information & jaynes’ entropy laws.

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