The Second Law of Thermodynamics has always seemed depressing to me. It states that anything left to itself, without new energy to sustain its structure, will become continually more disordered. Molecules of different gasses in a container will move around until they become thoroughly intermixed. Ice cubes in a glass of water will melt. And as the sayings go, “You can’t unscramble an egg” and “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.”
This tendency towards disorder, this inability of things to remain what they are unless energy sustains them, is entropy. The Second Law asserts that entropy in the universe always increases. Sustainability is always in doubt. In human affairs, entropy implies that nothing worthwhile—relationships, art, satisfying work, better communities—can remain finished and stable on its own. Ugh.
But Steven Pinker takes a more generous view in a short piece written for Edge and reprinted in the Wall Street Journal in 2016.
The Second Law also implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The human mind naturally thinks that when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone must have wanted them to happen….[But] not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.
And without a flow of economic energy, people go hungry. “Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food. What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth.”
I thought about conspiracy theories and entropy. For some, it may feel satisfying to account fully for a disaster by believing in the plots and actions of secret human enemies. But entropy and its agents— coincidence, irrational human impulse, materials and systems gone awry, among others—are all on stage as well, more difficult to identify, and less satisfying to blame.
Pinker’s perspective also cast a new light for me on the familiar serenity prayer: that we should try to accept what we cannot change, find the courage to change what we can, and hope that we can tell the difference between the two. The Second Law puts a kind of foundation under that first step, the acceptance. It’s easier to accept what we cannot change when we understand that things don’t easily stay as they are in the first place and often no one is at fault. We may do the best we can to stay healthy, so we may be understandably reluctant to accept that our body fails eventually for reasons beyond our diet or exercise. Committees and governments can bring the benefits of social order, but we can recognize without blame how easily such social efforts, despite good intentions, fall into stagnation or conflict.
Aside from Pinker’s article, entropy is sometimes described as a re-organizing and re-forming force rather than as dis-ordering per se. An organized thing will if left to itself take on other forms, occupy more or less space, detach and reattach. If it’s the original thing that you are focused on, then indeed that thing will have “broken down.” The ice cube is gone because the molecules rearrange throughout the water. A friendship may rearrange itself into a marriage, then into a divorce, then into a business partnership. Stars explode and their atoms of metals form Earth and us. Entropy, transformation, Buddhist impermanence.
But for Pinker, so powerful is the Second Law that it defines life’s purpose. The Second Law “defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind and striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” Appreciating the Second Law means pursuing such purposes more consciously while understanding that, without blame, the tide always comes back in.