Of the many things I don’t understand about physics, the biggest is why entropy appears at odds with biological and technological evolution. This conflict is simple: Entropy is a measure of disorder in a system, and physics dictates that disorder should increase over time in the universe, as anyone who has put sorted clean clothes in a teenage boy’s room can attest. Your teenager’s room will never get more orderly unless a parent (the outside system force) makes that happen. Pour milk into coffee, and it all blends together (increasing disorder). Pop a helium balloon, and the helium molecules will spread into the air around you (increasing disorder). You never come home to find the universe has magically done the dishes or paid the bills without applying pure force to make that new order happen.
Play the law of entropy out, and eventually our expanding universe should fall to smithereens, like marbles scattered across pavement, until burned out planets and stars of disorder wobble alone in the vast darkness.
But here’s the conflict: Despite what entropy should do, order keeps increasing in many systems, especially in life on planet Earth. Plants and animals has grown more complex over time. Within our living ecosystem, fish and animals have developed another layer beyond life called technium by the brilliant Kevin Kelly, the vast system of technology around us that includes tools and gadgets such as shells used by octopuses as homes, sticks used by apes to dig for insects, and computers used by homo sapiens to send email. Like living beings, our technology system has expanded until it itself has begun to act like an evolving organism, an unstoppable evolutionary force. And embedded in this technium is a third layer of information, a Matrix-type multiverse of history and knowledge and culture and spirituality and money and love and other artificial constructs that humans deeply believe in and have learned to keep in their heads, write down in language code, and store within hard drives. Biology, technology and knowledge ecosystems are reaching for the stars. Soon, some suggest, we’ll progress even further by inadvertently creating an artificial intelligence, a singularity in which our info-tech-bio systems move past us and our history of worshipping Light. In our rush to link everything to Google, we may soon give birth to Gods.
These two vectors are at odds. How can — or must — systems become more disorderly (with increasing entropy) while at the same time they evolve into more complex order (with decreasing entropy)? How can the universe spin to burn itself out while it evolves more brightly over time?
A spiritual person might suggest that, to stay in line with the second law of thermodynamics, order can only increase if outside forces continue to act on us — so some Godlike Force must be guiding this activity. A scientist might ponder that, if our local world is somehow in a state of continual creation while the gravity of entropy pulls things apart, perhaps the energy of the sun is feeding our evolution while it spends its nuclear fuel down, keeping all of this in balance.
Or perhaps the universe itself is a growing, living, evolving thing, and caught deep inside it we can’t understand, so we make up second laws of thermodynamics with conceits of an entropy that doesn’t really exist.
Posted by Ben Kunz