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 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.

entropy (keelynet.wordpress.com)

keelynet.wordpress.com

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 foundation under that difficult first step, the acceptance of what we can’t change. It’s easier to do that 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’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 while, but we can recognize how such social efforts will fall into stagnation or conflict eventually without anyone being at fault.

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 and their atoms of metals form Earth and us. Entropy, transformation, Buddhist impermanence.

But for Pinker, so disruptive 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.

The Democracy of Living Things

Our view of all the living things on the planet tends to be hierarchical. It’s difficult for us not to feel that we are privileged among species. We have  accomplished brains, we believe we understand other living things better than they understand us, and we like to highlight the ways that we are unique and other beings are simpler or lower. But—in part I’m sure because it’s an election season—I’ve been mulling over a political metaphor that offers a flatter vision of life. It even comes with a bill of rights.

With a slight tilt of our imaginations we can look at the biological world as a Democracy of Living Things. You and I are citizens, and so are every crow, dandelion, rat, spider, and mushroom. What we all share are the challenges of birth, survival, and procreation in some form. These universal experiences put us on a common ground that may be narrow but is also profound and, I think, noble.

living things (weed-science-classes.wikispaces.com)

(weed-science-classes.wikispaces.com)

The population of this Democracy is beyond counting. There is no formal government. But it is reasonably democratic in that everyone participates in the organization of life around them and in the local struggle for power. Everyone competes and/or cooperates in his or her or its own way. And while only a very few members of our nation possess actual legal rights, we humans in our generous moments like to think that all living things enjoy an entitlement to the necessities of Life (survival), Liberty (the absence of threatening constraints) and the Pursuit of Happiness (thriving and reproducing).

The notion of a democracy of living things is a corrective lens. It offsets our human habit of viewing organisms as “higher” and “lower.” And it encourages us to see all living things as individuals no matter how small they are or how densely packed together they are in clumps, hives and herds. Imagine it: the Democracy of Life.

 

Walking Up the Ramp

Life is a ramp. We—all things alive—are walking along ramps that slope upwards at various angles, angles that change during our lifetimes. The climb may be easy or arduous. The ramp begins at birth and ends at death.

delange.org

delange.org

The angle of the ramp depends on the difficulties we are faced with, both from our circumstances in life and our inner struggles. For humans, it is not an index of how unhappy we feel. Instead it represents the total of the obstacles, limitations, frustrations, stresses, discomforts, opposition, tedium, and loneliness that a person faces. It is a snapshot of the “uphill” nature of a person’s daily living.

My own ramp has sloped up only slightly most of my life. As a white, upper-middle class, male, educated American, I have not struggled very much, except at those times when, as for all of us, personal problems raise the ramp, often drastically, for a while. Otherwise, the long-term angle of the ramp rises progressively if one is female, poor, a persecuted minority, uneducated, chronically ill, imprisoned, a refugee, or a victim of violence. It generally rises less for those with resilient personalities and more for those with depression.

Animals and plants too are on ramps. Lack of food or water, disease, injury, tilt their ramps upward.

Can the ramp ever slope downward? Not in this metaphor. The ramp is always sloped up at least slightly because living is never completely free of limitations and difficulties of some kind. Darwin and the Buddha were right: life is struggle.

When our ramps tilt upward and the walk is tiring, we think about how to make our lives easier or better, and we may or may not actually take the steps to do so. If we do take them, we sometimes find that the steps were mistakes—bad decisions about jobs or relationships, for example—although they were the best we could do at the time, and that our ramp has not changed much or that we have inadvertently raised it. We may or may not try again.

We can easily, through meanness or indifference, raise the ramps of others, making their lives harder.

But we can lower the ramps of others too, always slightly, sometimes a great deal. And by some strange mechanism, lowering other ramps always lowers our own as well.