I keep coming back to this feature I read last year on the scientific term or concept that scholars think ought to be more widely known. Here’s the scientist Steven Pinker’s response explaining why more people should understand entropy as described by the second law of thermodynamics:
Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.
To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: 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.
Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.
More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.
(Pinker’s massive new book, Enlightenment Now, is about this very topic and explores in detail how much progress we have made in imposing order on a disorderly world.)
My layman’s mind doesn’t quite get the scientific nuances at play here. But I get that things in the universe fall apart (the stars are literally falling away from each other right now) and will continue to do so with only minuscule bits of resistance.
Those seemingly insignificant and likely futile efforts to “fight back the tide of entropy”, though, are our keys for living a meaningful life.
Steven Pressfield in his excellent book The War of Art calls that apparently malevolent force that pushes back against our efforts to grow and improve and create “the resistance”. But, maybe that force is just entropy, the natural inclination of the universe toward disorder. It’s our effort to overcome entropy and make progress against this relentless current pushing us toward chaos and decay that could instead be called “the resistance”. We are freedom fighters battling against an overwhelming tyranny.
It’s been too easy to believe that progress is inevitable, that humanity will just naturally grow smarter and gentler, because that’s what we’ve seemed to witness in general over the last couple of centuries.
But, progress is not the default. The default is disorder, not order, not improvement. Left on their own, things fall apart.
Organize your sock drawer on Sunday, and, without at least a little attention and effort, it’s likely to be a mess again by Friday. The lawn won’t stay mowed. Stop exercising and you’ll get weaker almost immediately.
The tide of entropy is relentless. Our very existence—all of biology, for that matter—is owed to fighting against that tide, to digging in and making something that will stand and endure long enough for the next wave of resistance to relieve us.
Progress, for individuals and for our species as a whole, depends on diligent, unrelenting striving, pushing against the natural default of disorder.
It’s all ultimately futile, I suppose, in the really big scheme of things. The sun will die its natural death eons from now. Our species will likely be long gone well before then. Even a mere two centuries into the future, who will remember your name or care that you lived?
But instead of sinking into despair about our fate, choose to rise with courage each day to go into battle and fight for meaning and truth and beauty while you can.
Individually, this should remind us to embrace discontent, to keep searching and stretching, and to be vigilant in our efforts to move our lives forward. Get stronger physically. Eat real food. Expose yourself more often to discomfort. Get off the well worn path regularly and venture into surprise and serendipity and uncharted territory.
Be intentional about building and strengthening the relationships in your life. Life is all about relationships. Especially don’t let what seem like good relationships that you value coast along untended. Everything falls apart without some tending.
And get busy making something with your life that will add value to others. Focus less on what you can get and more on what you can give. What can you contribute? Where can you give back? What unique contribution, no matter how small, can you offer in this noble effort to move humanity forward?
Build systems, habits, and routines into your life to stay ahead of the pull of entropy. Come up with a battle plan, of sorts, for taking on this challenge week by week and day by day.
The writer, Annie Dillard, was getting at just this:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”
Of course, don’t resist what already is. Accept reality as it is right now. But do resist the pull toward chaos that would otherwise define our existence.
“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”
Putting up a fight is victory, no matter that we’re all going down eventually.
Engage with life. Be excellent. Shine while you can.