The Second Law of Thermodynamics has seemed depressing to me. It states that anything left to itself, without new energy to sustain its structure, will become increasingly 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.
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 it to the stealthy plots 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 those 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. For example, we try very hard to stay healthy, so it’s not surprising that we’re reluctant to accept the idea that bodies will fail eventually for reasons that are beyond our control. Similarly, 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.
On the sunnier side, 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 and hoping to preserve, 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.