Forgiveness and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

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 all 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. And 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.

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And, Pinker adds, 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 found myself thinking about entropy in connection with conspiracy theories. For some, it may feel satisfying to account fully for a disaster by tracing the stealthy plots and actions of 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 much 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 foundation under that difficult first step, the acceptance of things that we cannot change. It’s easier to do that when we understand that conditions don’t easily stay as they are in the first place–and often no one is at fault. We do out best to stay healthy, for example, so we’re reluctant to accept that our body will fail eventually for reasons beyond our control. Committees and governments may bring the benefits of social order for a period of time, but we can recognize how such social efforts will fall into stagnation or conflict eventually without anyone being a villain.

Entropy is sometimes described as a re-organizing and re-forming force, rather than as a dis-ordering one. An organized thing will if left to itself take on new 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.” Ice cubes melt and disappear. But a friendship may rearrange itself into a marriage, then into a divorce, then into a business partnership. Stars explode, their atoms of metals fly out into the cosmos and come together again in the Earth and in us. Entropy, transformation, Buddhist impermanence.

Still, for Pinker, it’s the disruptive aspect of the Second Law that we underestimate. In fact it “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.

“The Mind Is Mainly Drawn to the Future”

“The mind is mainly drawn to the future.” So write Martin Seligman and John Tierney in “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment” in the New York Times on May 21, 2017. The article is based on the book Homo Prospectus of which Seligman is an author.

Well, is this a new idea about the mind? We know that when we are feeling anxious or overloaded, our mind is scrambling to avoid a danger or find a way out. I know that even in calm hours, my head streams possible conversations in which I come out ahead, drafts blog posts, and edits memories so they’ll look a little better the next time I replay them.

In the Buddhist tradition, in contrast, such future-fussing is mainly about cultivating the illusion of the self. We tangle ourselves up in the false realities of ego, time, words. Better to explore the moment, leave the worries aside. Meditation cultivates a sharper awareness of the present and of our shining mind. The future may seem to be out there, but it is the mindful moment that is real.

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Seligman and Tierney don’t criticize such Buddhist values directly, though the focus on the future-oriented brain contrasts sharply with them. Instead, they take exception to the emphasis in psychology on studying the brain in terms mostly of the past (memory, repetitive learning) and the present (perception). They assert that “Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain….” We plan for tomorrow, we rehearse conversations, “We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities.” “Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.” And “Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected,” because what is unexpected might be a clue to what happens next.

This idea that we often understate the brain’s complex preparations for our future makes sense to me. No matter what other qualities of our mind we cherish, the brain’s critical function of scanning for danger and for biological necessities proceeds 24/7. As Darwin spelled it out,  we, like all organisms, are first about reproducing and surviving, and those are certainly future-oriented activities.

Thinking about the perpetually restless brain reminds me of taking our family’s young retriever Ginger for walks, years ago. My wife and I envisioned strolling around the neighborhood with Ginger calmly strolling with us. But what we got instead for the first year or three was a beast straining nonstop to charge ahead and away and pulling our arms practically out of the sockets. Eventually training and maturity sunk in a little and she walked more or less at our pace. But walking itself is a going into the future and Ginger was, like our ancient mind, never far from leaping into it.


The Voice In Our Head: Periscope Or Smoke-and-Mirrors?

Stream of consciousness is a common term for it. Mind wandering and daydreaming are others. These days, more narrowly, “self-talk” refers to our constructive or negative mental judgments of ourselves. “Default mode network,” from neurology, labels the closely interacting regions of the brain that kick in when it is not focused elsewhere.

There is a tension that runs through discussions about stream of consciousness. In science, the reality of any aspect of nature that is under study is acknowledged and respected. Psychologist and neurologists, despite controversies about it, extend such respect to stream of consciousness. On the other hand, the Buddhist or Eastern view of the mind is that the stream of consciousness, while real, is a detrimental spinoff of our psyche. It reinforces the entanglements of our ego with worldly concerns. The wise person will seek to quiet it or ignore it or seek complete release from it.

The tension here is not a disagreement or a debate exactly. It is more a dissonance that stems from the different aims of science and religion. Scientists, committed to objectivity, make judgments cautiously and narrowly. Religious teachings, on the other hand, offer a path towards peace of spirit, a path that invariably calls for the submission of the ego.

It’s no wonder that we read about the marvels of the human brain one day and the unhappiness of the wandering mind the next.

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I’m in the middle here. Our biological past is a foundational belief for me and I think that our stream of consciousness serves adaptive functions that can be understood largely in terms of evolution. But I also want to reduce my stress level and strengthen my sense of focus through meditation. The views of science and religion about stream of consciousness are not incompatible, but you don’t hear much about their common ground or a unified approach.

How could we find such a common ground? Probably in looking tolerantly at the ways in which stream of consciousness both serves us and hinders us. Probably by recognizing that it is difficult for most people to enjoy its advantages without also putting up with at least some of its disadvantages.

We can roughly gauge the advantages of stream of consciousness from noting the kinds of items in our own stream. Mine buzzes with flashbacks, flash-forwards, bits of script for conversations and letters to editors, and a mix of sunny and cloudy moods about myself—all of which I can see as beneficial much of the time in one way or another. But like most people’s, my stream sometimes fails badly to tell me what others are really thinking, worries needlessly about what probably won’t go wrong, and obsesses about what is unimportant. Stream of consciousness might be compared to a periscope through which we can fortunately see above the surface and around corners to what lies ahead, but which also captures fragmented and misleading pictures.

Sam Harris in Waking Up puts the spiritual case against stream of consciousness. We are “continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.” As both the speaker and listener in our heads, we create the illusion of the individual self. Harris adds, “We brood about the past and worry about the future. We continually seek to prop up and defend an egoic self that doesn’t exist.” Viewed this way, stream of consciousness is the voice of illusions, of smoke-and-mirrors. Still, no matter how we define self, humans like all other organisms need a steady flow of information, no matter how imperfect, to monitor the environment and process our complex social life. Harris, awake as he is, still writes, lectures, and engages with many people.

So I think a common ground between the spiritual and scientific approaches to stream of consciousness might essentially be the recognition that we live in three time frames, not one, and in many locations. These are of two different kinds, the sensory perceptions of the here and now, and the remembered and imagined past and future in other places. We need to process all of these not only unconsciously but through our stream of consciousness. As in so much else, balance between the here and now and other times and places seems a good goal.

I recall a simile—from the popular gestalt therapist, Fritz Perls?—that living solely in the moment can be like listening only to the note in the music that is sounding at the present instant.  Unless we’ve also heard the notes that lead up to that moment, there is no music. And, I would add, if we can hear only the past notes but cannot hear the note of the moment itself, the music can never be new.