A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. ~ Saul Bellow
I’ve been thinking of late about the pits we dig for ourselves due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the first two laws of thermodynamics. Or if not so much a misunderstanding, at least botched application. Both in the physical as well as a psychological sense. And, as we know all too well, even if one does posses a correct understanding of of something, it does not necessarily follow that there will be correct application where the rubber meets the road. Some doctors smoke; some plumbers pour grease down the drain. Such are the ironies of life.
A quick refresher on the three laws of thermodynamics is in order. Let’s start with the second law, as that’s what’s currently running laps in my mind.
- The second law of thermodynamics states that within an isolated system (one that is not receiving or delivering energy), the entropy therein never decreases; that is to say, the disorder within an isolated system only increases without outside intervention. Easy enough.
- The first law states that within that same closed system, energy is conserved, and
- the third law states that an absolute zero temperature is unattainable
Closed systems, it seems, become inexorably less structured, less organized, less able to achieve interesting and useful results. Isolated systems then, left to their own devices, ebb into a dull, gray stasis of homogeneous monotony. And there, free of outside intervention, they remain. One might think of this situation as hard science’s version of sullen, Sartre-like existentialism. Or teen angst on steroids.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll skip any discussion of the third law. Though anyone who’s been in a bad relationship might question the third law’s premise. Another discussion for another time.
As for the first law, well, this is where we go off the rails vis-a-vis diet. Especially the eat less, move more fundamentalists. If you were on the interwebs during the late 90s / early 2Ks you remember the messageboards being ablaze with the “science” of weight loss. It’s a first law problem! Except it’s not. We are not bomb calorimeters, but rather more like macro-nutrient partitioning, chemistry sets. A simple calories in / calories out model is broken then, from the onset. At the scientific, empirical, anecdotal (and, I’d argue, common sense) level. Yes, gross calorie intake matters, but much less so than does the make-up of those calories, and the hormonal environment in which they swim. To fully understand this means to break free from binary, black-and-white thinking and become comfortable in nuance. For an extensive look at this, see the fine work done by Gary Taubes (Good Calories, Bad Calories and, Why We Get Fat).
Moving on to the second law, we encounter the process by which usable energy, expressed as the temperature difference between two bodies, dissipates as the heat flows from the hotter body to that of the colder. Once it was discovered that heat was not some “invisible fluid”, but rather corresponded to the vibrational quality of molecules, a more refined version of the second law took shape. Order, then, could now be defined in terms of the set of all possible states of a system. And of all of the possible states, those that are useful to us constitute only an infinitesimally tiny portion of the whole. How small? A single grain of sand on the beach small.
Conversely, the disordered or useless states make up the vast majority. The whole of the beach, from the analogy above. Carried forward then we see that any disturbance of an established (i.e., “useful” system) — a random shake of its constituent parts, or a nudge from the outside — will, by the law of probability, lead the system as a whole on a path toward disorder or uselessness. The same law that describes why tornados do not randomly assemble finely tuned tubas from scattered trash, describes why footprints on the beach are quickly erased by wind and waves. Empires crumble. “Swole” only comes to those who grind. Shiva destroys, “Shit happens” and, in the words of Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn, “any asshole can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
Beyond being an explanation for everyday annoyances (spilt milk!), the second law provides a foundation of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. But it does present an interesting dilemma for those who are not — hall shall we say — spiritually inclined. For what forces do we attribute the spontaneous eruption and propagation of life? The flower, having against the odds, found the crack in the sidewalk? Can this be attributed to anything remotely akin to gravity? Nuclear forces? Electro-magnetic effect? Why is it that living things exhibit a miraculously high level of initial impulse and and sustained order not found among the inert? Where does this impulse and order come from? Why something rather than nothing? And how is it that that something can be in complete odds with the second law?
Toward that end, evolutionary psychologists John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and Clark Barrett thus entitled a recent paper on the foundations of the science of mind: “The second law of thermodynamics is the first law of psychology.”
Note: Sci-hub will score you the full paper. It’s well worth the read. And quickly, while we’re on the subject: I fucking love Sci-hub. Why institutional science attempts to “own” knowledge is beyond me. In time, this moral shortcoming will be seen as on par with Catholicism’s pre-reformation practice of “bribing” the church’s (and by extension, God’s) favor. Think Sci-hub then as science’s Martin Luther.
Onward and upward.
The second law is then, in effect, the commonality between science and spirituality. Shiva being spirituality’s representative bridge to science via the second law. They (Shiva and the second law) aptly define our purpose in this realm: to willfully deploy energy and leverage information in an ongoing effort to combat the relentless tide of entropy. Creating, as it were, thriving pockets of beneficial order within the prevailing chaos. An ignorance of the overwhelming odds in favor of disorder, destruction and chaos, and a failure to appreciate those precious niches of order we (and nature) do create, is a recipe for the vast spectrum of human hurt and psychosis. I would add, too, that importance of the hero’s journey cannot be overstated. For it is in this right-of-passage phenomena — a phenomena ubiquitous among all cultures — that is the crash-course in the second law / Shiva appreciation. For what is a hero’s journey if not the triumph of will and order over the natural tide of chaos and destruction? And the scrubbing, dumbing-down and outright expulsion of the hero’s journey right-of-passage in modern society can be seen reflected in the prevalence of depression and listlessness completely unknown in “primitive” societies. In fact, these societies don’t even have a word for “depression”; this, like diabetes, is a entirely a construct of modern lifestyle.
The evolutionary lens
Darwin provided an elegant solution to the entropy problem in that near exact copies of genes could be set loose in an epigenetic milieu that was relatively unchanged generation to generation, thereby propagating whatever species in question. The interplay between subtle variance in both environmental milieu and genetic transcript accounting for the ongoing dance of “evolution” in a particular species. That’s fine for a system that’s up and motoring along, but does little to satisfy the ages old chicken / egg dilemma. Or (and in spite of the second law), why there should be an ongoing manic drive toward order (i.e., survival instinct) in the first place. And why, if “survival instinct” is some as of yet undiscovered universal force akin to gravity, then why death and destruction? Why, then, the universal law of entropy? This seems to be some great cosmic joke, the punchline of which we’re too dim-witted to get.
In an ironic twist, science has handed the science-minded-but-still-spiritual among us a great lifeline, if we decide to grab hold of it. For the second law implies that misfortunes are no one’s “fault”, no one’s doing, per se. The greatest advance of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that prime impetus of the Universe (or God, if we so choose), is saturated with purpose, that everything happens for a reason. A more primitive understanding and conclusion being that when bad things happen (accidents, illnesses, famines, etc.), that someone or something must have willed them into being. The obvious outcropping of this is to find a guilty party to punish. The witches of Salem, for example. The Mayan penchant for human sacrifice. The impetus behind the Crusades. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmology with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not by will of an entity. The second law takes this a step further in that not only does the Universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events would seem to, of their own accord, act to frustrate them. The second law stipulates that there is a greater possibility (magnitudes greater, in fact) that things will go wrong than that they will work out well. Those footprints on the beach are in fact erased, not created, by wind and surf. And yes: shit, in fact, does happen. Many would attest to their coming in threes.
So the extreme struggle of life is woven into the very fabric of the Universe itself. Thus it’s imperative that we invest energy in expanding beneficial order rather than waiting idly for things to change for the better. Survival demands it. Science points to triumph over the second law; spirituality to dodging Shiva. Two fingers pointing to the same moon. And we’ll see this analogy again in a bit.
From this perspective then, it’s miraculous that life — life in any form, much less life conscious of it’s own condition — manifests at all. And it begs the question: what is the force behind this? Is life itself not a contradiction to the second law? A thumb-in-the-eye to Shiva?
An interesting conundrum
And so now the spiritual, agnostic and atheist are all equally flummoxed. Triumph over the second law implies either a “higher power” or “higher force” at work. And yet, for science, this force seems the most nebulous of all. And for the spiritual person, that “higher power” is apparently as callous and uncaring as fuck.
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita… ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’” – Robert Oppenheimer, upon witnessing the first atomic detonation.
Indeed, reconciling this conundrum in my own mind has been a source of ongoing contemplation. A kind of dark koan, as it were. And with a little more existential umph than the old Zen favorite, the sound of one hand clapping.
This is, of course, the ultimate question of all spirituality, and any attempt to encapsulate that thought in a couple of paragraphs amounts to a fool’s errand at best. But I think it’s at least directionally accurate to say that the seeming dualities of good and evil, joy and sorrow, life and death, are meant neither to hurt or please any soul, but to afford infinite opportunities to each soul to experience in full the complexity of the cosmic drama, and by right participation therein to evolve into ever higher states of wisdom, consciousness, and freedom.
In this way, the great dance of Shiva and the second Law with the creative impulse establishes the weather and terrain that must be continually navigated. With ever more skillful navigation thereof being the point of it all. Boatwright, deckhand and captain; all important, and all playing their parts in the grand saga to the best of their ability.
The more sublime flavors of spirituality ask of their adherents not to believe in the unseen, but to experience it for themselves. Or, as it is said in the Zen tradition, “don’t mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.” And I would ask the same here. Simply contemplate the (seeming) duality of the second Law and its opposing and, as of yet undefined (by scientific standards, at least), “creative force”. Keep and open (beginner’s) mind, and see where this leads you. You may never find an “answer” per se, but you’ll very likely ebb closer and closer to peace and understanding. Though don’t be surprised if you’re not able to verbalize your findings. This inner knowing does have a way of avoiding even the best attempts at explanation. But when you know, well… you know.
And finally, whether your natural inclination is to side with science and the second Law, or with spirituality and the destructive Shiva mythology, you need to be willing to question everything you think you know as those two narratives relate to the creative impulse. In true epistemocratic spirit, ask yourself, “Do I really know what I think I know, or have I just taken on the beliefs and opinions of my culture? What do I actually know? What do I choose to hold on to, believe or imagine, because not doing so would turn my world completely upside down?
This single question — “What do I know for certain?”— is tremendously powerful. When you look deeply into this question, it actually destroys (Shiva, the second Law) your world. In its lighter incarnation, this will have you question ideas of the material realm. Political and socio-economic ideas and structure. Habits, customs and such. With whom we should associate, love and marry.
Taken to a further degree, this questioning destroys your whole egoic sense of self, and it’s meant to. You come to see that everything you think you know about yourself, everything you think you know about the world, is based on assumptions, beliefs, and opinions. Things you believe because you were either taught or told that they were true. Cultural conditioning in its truest sense. And until we begin to see these false perceptions for what they really are, consciousness will be imprisoned within the dream state. Yes, it’s safer and more comfortable not to question, not to engage in that mental hero’s journey. To remain, in the words of Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb”. But that only leads to an individual’s — and by extension, a society’s — being, like a mule, physically and psychologically barren.
Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world —