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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Gathering Storms/Macro Trends 7: Entropicalization

I call the tendency of social systems to dissolve unless new energy is continually interjected "entropicalization."  It is applying the second law of thermodynamics to biology and sociology.

Entropy has often been called the law of disorder.  While the first law dictates that there is never a loss of energy in our universe, the second indicates that the propensity is towards dissipation and uniformity even towards equivalence (0th law) or absolute zero (3rd law).  Entropy is a potential maker since potential is the dfferential between hot and cold; for example the sun distributing its heat to the colder surroundings including our earth.  Some speculate that entropy may explain gravity the main driver of the form of our universe.

And entropy explains time and its arrow.  We know that a whole egg can become scrambled, but a scrambled egg cannot become whole.  The whole comes before its dissolution. 

So how explain self-organizing systems, i.e. life?  Life seems to go against the second law.  We sometimes call it "syntropy."

The biologist Ludvig von Bertallanfy though showed that living systems pay their "entropy debt." That is, they use up (and dissipate) more energy than is used in organism ordering.  So syntropy becomes a more efficient means of entropy.  Rod Swenson calls this the "law" of the maximum entropy production.  Nature, when conditions are correct, goes the way of self-organization (life) because of the potential created for more entropy production.  So entropy becomes the driver for both disorganization and organization.

I get lots of reflections out of this which I will state without elaboration:

1.  Seems gloomy, but the end of our universe (whether big chill or big crunch) is maximum energy dissolution.  Of course that's probably 15 billion years or so from now.  And we don't know if ours is the only universe out there our even if ours is contained in another which just may work differently.

2.  Seems obvious, but we self-organizing systems contribute to greater entropy production.  Just ask Mother Earth and notice our propensity to foul our own habitats leading to our own extinction.

3.  Speaking of propensity, we also note evolution's drive to not only form self-organizing systems, but also to maintain and grow them.  This Swenson calls this "the principle of fecundity": life's desire to take up all available space, e.g. bacteria, weeds, cockroaches, humans.  "Be fruitful and multiply!!"

4.  This propensity has become conscious in human evolution, genetically selected as a higher level survival and thrival tool (though, we have discovered, at a very high risk).  We have achieved the ability to imagine, to use images to deal with each other and our environment.  With this ability comes the capacity for self and other knowledge, for remembering the lessons of the past and anticipating the future, and for transcendence and transformation.  Bergon's elan vital, Lonergan's "unlimited desire to know," Meister Eckhart's universal love.

5.  With consciousness, i.e. the center of narrative gravity (Dennett), comes choice in how we use images to deal with each other and our world.  We project our images and can manipulate them.  We can reify them (eg idols) so they actually hold us back or even destroy us.  The elan vital can also be an elan mortal.  Freud's death instinct, Heideggar's "being towards death." 

6.  We therefore are a dangerous species, on the one hand limiting and even countevalling the amount of entropy in the bio-physical and social world, and on the other hand hastening it.  Both inaction and wrong-headed action will hasten the destruction of our habitat and species.  Harden and close the cell wall and it dies; open too much or remove the cell wall and it dies. 

7.  Crisis (fundamental choice) is our destiny.  We live in tension.  We are tension between past and future, self and others, interior and exterior.  We are a tension between the potential and actual--the reduction and growth of entropy in our bio-physical and social universe.  Take that tension away and you exist no more.

So are our lives, our existence, our social order, our world, our future, our morality all derived from the second law?  We definitely need to expend energy to keep ourselves going, but just the right kind and right amount.  Neither laissez faire, nor total control will lead to happy results.  Tell that to the teetotallers and the teapartyists!

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