Entropy and Order
April 03, 2019
The guy Professor Brian Cox whom I have, somewhat chagrined, criticised previous to this essay now, I want to bring up his name and words again, and I hope this time more charitably and more soberly take some of his thoughts, as retailed on his TV show, and work through them and suggesting what I tend to think their conclusions imply or necessitate.
Brian Cox was talking about entropy, and explaining the concept by way of an example of a sand-pile. A sand-pile he said can have untold billions of variant ways of being arranged or of arranging itself with the aid of wind, gravity, weather etc etc. Thus it has inherent a high degree of entropy, or as he used the word: potential for disorder. As a corollary, I believe, he said that the sand-pile and other objects of high entropy have this quality for lack of order inherent in their states?
I want to look into the ideas of ‘entropy’ and ‘order’ and see what they might be and mean, as they are used in this kind of scientific investigation.
Now to my mind for a person to say that any item displays ‘order’, this is that person making a value judgement; likewise also when s/he uses the word ‘disorder’. And if my thinking is good then the concept of ‘entropy’ it being dependent on the concepts of ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ for its use and meaning; must also be or entail a value-judgement.
The question we can ask to verify this claim of ‘order’ being a value-judgement is: Is ‘order’ (and ‘disorder’ and ‘entropy’) a thing which actually exists in nature outside our thoughts; or is it existent only in our thoughts and for use and convenience we apply it and its meanings and distinctions upon objects outside our thoughts so as to help us make sense of the world? Another alternative is that ‘order’ is both subjective (in our minds) and objective (outside our minds) also.
The answering of this question brings us up face to face with how we see the nature of human thought and reason; whether we see it as having arisen, evolved, as it were as a reflective image imprinted on consciousness by the workings of nature in the world over millennia of human development; or whether we see thought and reason as having risen in us independently of, or other than through, these workings of the world imprinting themselves on our minds.
If the former is your belief, you have a case, not a rock-solid case though, for claiming ‘order’ etc is truly ‘out there’ and that we humans have ‘imbibed’ its presence as a concept we obey in order to manage our lives better. If the later is your belief then you have a case, again not rock solid, for claiming that ‘order’ etc is not truly present ‘out there’ and that we humans impose such order on the world to help up get by in it.
I think the argument gets more subtle hereabouts. I think that, say, because nature may have imprinted us, which I tend to think is the most simple and obvious fact of all the options, that what nature has imprinted on us is not commensurate with nor directly to be identified with our generalised concept of ‘order’ being ‘out there’.
Take the concept of ‘time’ as being a parallel example concept to ‘order’. Time may well not exists other than that we perceive it – it very likely is a concept invented by humans to help organise and manage ourselves. The mere fact of changes being constantly observed by us happening all around us I think is sufficient to account for what we name to be time.
I think something similar applies to our concept of ‘order’ and its relations to the actual physical states of things in the physical world we perceive. In that physical world the concept of order might be ‘superfluous’ or else ‘a handy convenience term’ like time that we impose upon it and we use to help us get by.
But maybe I’m wrong and order really is present objectively in the physical world, that is, it is true that were there nothing or no-one to perceive it, the human understanding of order would be inherent and present in nature still. This of course is an impossible call. Not verifiable; not even examinable.
(I have to say here before we go on that I’d say God’s ordering of the world would be of a radically alien ordering to the ordering we as humans do in our minds; that we are novices and children in the sight of God and when set against the height of his knowledge and ability, including that abyss between his and our abilities to understand things. “The wisdom of God is foolishness in the eyes of men”)
Just as change on its own is able to account for our concept of time, so change alone can also likewise account for our concepts of order and entropy. There’s no solid evidence that our science has a proper handhold on what is going on, on what has gone on, in the physical world in the longest of terms – i.e. when science delves into cosmology and also gives forecasts for cosmology. Just as we, our scientists, made educated guesses on what we might expect to find from the outer solar system space probes of recent times on outer planets and their satellite moons etc, and we have been shown to have been enormously widely far of the mark in those educated guesses, it is in the same way our projections on how things began and might end in the Cosmos are similarly remote and almost certainly far from best guesses in fact.
So, back to entropy and order and disorder
These terms become what I shall call ‘ideologically’ dependent terms. When a person believes in eventual winding down to a wholly ‘dead’ universe, I mean a state of absolute entropy after every last proton has decayed and become inert, then of a course it follows that entropy exists and works out its fate in the world inexorably. It has to be a large piece in the picture so as to make that picture recognisable and cogent. In another picture, perhaps one yet to be formed in human thought, the same piece ‘entropy’ might not fit or be appropriate at all.
But there’s a question arising here. It might be put as: The advent and progress of The Industrial Revolution and its successive Post-Industrialisation and Technological Revolutions; have these things in fact allowed science to play in an entirely new ballgame than that game it was in before these events arose? It is true that never before has – to our knowledge – our species so abruptly and so colossally changed courses over a space of two or three centuries. My own mother was born before WW1 when horses and cabs still drove the streets of London, and Radio and TV were wonders to come of the future. I was born in an age of gas home lighting and outside toilets; of long playing records and tape recorders being the cutting edge technology; and Personal Computers being the stuff of ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, and ‘Things to Come’.
Regarding what we determine by the words in their usage; ‘reason’ and ‘ideology’, I would venture that in Newton we saw reason and ideology make a step change and again in Einstein and Quantum Physics/Mechanics/Mathematics another huge step change was made. On both occasions of step-change the fields of ‘reason’ and of ‘ideology’ grew larger and more inclusive, whilst at the same time, almost by way of Newton’s 2nd Law, their arrival consequently came-in shaking the very foundations of the older orders they supplanted. In some respects we are presently at an impasse in physics, and maybe we too are in the throes of the birth of a next step-change to our reasons and ideologies in the field of Natural Philosophy?
Is all this “progress” then a new paradigm for men and women and for our science? - A paradigm in which science indeed really has ‘broken through’, and into the world of knowledge substantial and enduring in value? Or does it remain true as ever beforehand that there are more, perhaps infinitely more wonders to behold for us as a species and a race of sentient beings? My own sense of prudence and conservatism says to me strongly that we should not beguile ourselves and claim for ourselves to be ‘know-it-alls’; that, yes, there almost certainly remain myriad “things in earth and heaven more than in your philosophy, Horatio”.
There has been progress which would be unbelievable by my own mother, even since she died in 1991; but we shall all follow her, and likewise much maybe most of our present ‘knowledge’ shall also die given time? So let’s assume no new ballgame.
Ideologically dependent concepts, like sand-piles, are fragile items which when kicked the whole edifice shatters and collapses. Were for instance entropy to be disproved, or rather modified as a theoretical concept, and in a radical way, then in the future, the edifice of proton death and of complete inertia at the end of the universe would have to be revised radically also.
Suddenly ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ might come to be being looked upon entirely differently to how our scientists see them now. Just as the water as ice cap on the surface of the satellite of Jupiter was a shock which reverberated throughout astrophysics when the probe took photographic proof of its presence there.
In human life things have a habit periodically of turning upside down and we people have a habit of thinking things will stay as they are forever – which perhaps accounts for our love of ideologies?
Ideas are sort of handy sachets, pocket sized delights which we not only love to bandy about handle and consider and maybe buy-into; they are by their nature, I strongly suspect, at best approximates to what they signify.
As one compounds ideas, builds up sets of them and bases knowledge on such sets, such things are ideologies and theories, hypotheses, visions, etc, then the more complex they become the more prone to rough approximations they become; and some can in this way arrive at a point at which they have more or less altogether departed the realm of possibility. Conspiracy theories many of them can be exampled to be such – although this does not mean that all sets of ideas on all conspiracies are closer to fiction than to fact.
Let’s assume there is a loosely synthetic connection between the concept of entropy as we use it in science and the state of affairs ‘out there’ in physical things. This has to mean, under my earlier adoption, a closely similar connection between physical reality and what we call ‘order’, from which ‘reason’ is able to be established as a psychological tool of ours and without which it cannot be established.
Now as regarding time, entropy is joined at the hip to time in our current thinking because time is said to have a destination direction and this is called The Arrow of Time, and the direction of this destination is observable, in so far as time can be said to exist, by the actions of entropy upon physical things. Human ageing is seen to occur and erosions of mountains and drying up of oceans have been inferred and postulated, and all this change ‘for the worse?’ is entropy showing to us the direction in which time travels. The only direction it travels in then is into the future, and into a future which is postulated presently as becoming on aggregate less and less orderly and having more and more entropy.
I just want a little diversion here a moment. Mahler’s music is renownedly music for ‘downers’. In the movie “Educating Rita” a young girl student has a friend who is an aficionado of Mahler’s music and this friend she dies by her own hand, and we are led to believe she OD-ed on Mahler. Mahler himself feared his finale Abschiede from his The Song of the Earth would induce his listeners to kill themselves. A lecturer at the college I attended let slip that he ‘wondered whether Mahler’s music would be lastingly popular or was it just in vogue briefly and in an age when people were haunted by tremendous feelings of guilt?’
I want to apply these concerns and hypotheses about Mahler’s music to the age we live in right now and specifically to the very downbeat prognoses our leading minds in science give almost unanimously for the future of the cosmos. I ask: is this downbeat outlook in any way connected with that sense of lostness in regard to metaphysical and divine things and which so many of us bear as our daily burdens?
Dramas such as “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame”, “Blasted” and “Comedians” are litanies on our listless state in this area of our psyches. The listlessness, as old as Job, has arrived in the lives of everyday folk – even in “The Archers” it can be sensed – the malaise has percolated down the social classes to the people en masse since in the 1950s it first really grabbed (once more) an intelligentsia. Our postmodern art in its unholy alliance with capital and big business, its triviality and hyped bizarreness, and how in so many myriad twisted distorted and anguished ways it tries each item each artist to be radically different – take a look at the dogs-dinner called The London Skyline – postmodern art is a radical sickness in which individual vainglorious aspiration has trumped hope and peace and sobriety of mind, and rebelled against hopelessness in a candid but desperately futile anti-philosophy – nihilism.
Has any of this had an effect on how our scientists see the cosmos – or would you claim scientists have taken the lead and the arts have fallen in behind them? After elation comes depression. We have had communism, and colonialism and eugenics, and futurist progressive movements like The Fabians; all of whom are gone and very old hat nowadays, but in their times each was a secular theology. We went through the gamut of such theologies after we thought we had exhausted the Divine Revelation of The Bible, and all have proven vain and empty, and now this is where we are.
We threw out Baby Jesus and washed a while in the bathwater until it got so mucky we threw it too and are left, we believe and feel so anguishedly, with nothing – nihilism – as a sort of default and necessary position – the logical outcome of our social history and our joint choices.
Words have their effects; and downbeat words in the mouths of those who have position and influence, have great and general effect. They cannot but help influence the outlooks and therefore the thinking even of those whose aim is objectively to follow religiously The Scientific Method. How far facts are facts has always been difficult; now even more so than for ages. Scientific fact included.
If time is non-existent The Arrow of Time must also be non-existent. Should entropy be called into question? I don’t know its background or how much, how well, evidence backs it up? I do know, and because I have constant direct experience of the social pressures of the day upon ordinary individuals, that what people in general think, is conditioned heavily by these pressures and by their consequent lifestyles and choices. This said, people are not automata, and feel in their hearts the joys and pains of their lifestyles and their choices; and like Socrates I believe that had people the information to hand and took pains to digest what they are capable of that their choices would alter and perhaps I hope and belive for the better?
A person incarcerated is generally and especially in the first weeks and when not accustomed to imprisonment, found to lose colour and muscle tone, life zest and joie de vivre. One can look upon postmodernism and our age as a sudden metaphysical imprisonment of the mind – Sartre’s most famous play was titled Hui Clos (No Exit).
Postmodernism is a jail sentence come suddenly upon us and we feel we are innocent but cannot convince the judge because we can find no judge who might hear our case; nor even an attorney to defend us. We have lost all faith in all such people existing; not just ‘up there’ in the heavens but now also ‘down here’ in the present Purgatory of equal rights and automatic challenges to every status and to every integrity and to every open statement of loyalty, truth, honesty, caring, compassion, etc etc. Given a jar of perfumed ointment first thing we sniff it and then scowl before claiming it a counterfeit.
Let us consider the depleted protons argument a little in this regard to the zeitgeist of our troubled times.
Let’s say the boffins are correct; that this universe will die slowly and totally like a whale on a beach when the last proton exhausts itself and all is nothing again but inert matter. This hypothesis gives a finite lifetime to the universe. After proton death the universe stays the same forever after – no more Arrows of Time no more entropy – if there is any?
The upshot of “such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands” I do believe presupposes a deterministic cosmos. I believe this because items which have an ending, even an ending in absolute inertia, seem to me to have to be governed by a gradual exhaustion of a long string of connected pre-programmed eventualities. Just one iota of free action is able to spoil the pot and turn the milk into a different animal altogether – just as if Truman had demonstrated to the Japanese the power of his new weapon, and allowed them a chance to surrender before the atrocities occurred.
But proton death utterly presupposes no ‘loopholes’ no ‘get out of jail free’ no ‘turn again Whittington” – it presupposes an inexorable slow marche funebre to oblivion.
It’s odd to me how this coincides precisely in all its parts with the common understanding in our postmodern age of the outcomes of our own deaths? Not a simple serendipitous coincidence I think.
Determinism is espoused gloomily-happily by the nihilist postmodernists; because, they believe, pace Calvin, that determinism is able to lock out of meddling in things any God or deity. By loving determinism they think to do away with God in their universes. Yet one will also hear weird surmises surmised by some of them which claim that ‘the works of Shakespeare theoretically can be produced by a tribe of monkeys given word processors and left long enough to do random typing.”
How many mind-boggling contradictions this scenario gives rise to is hard to grasp.
I think the scenario is said as a put down to the glory of Shakespeare, and maybe not as a serious proposition? Yet if there was a cat’s chance of it being anywhere close to truth one would need literally an eternity, an infinite time scale in the first place as a prerequisite. Definitely proton death terminates this runner.
And an infinite universe, I mean one infinitely active and alive, has to be a runner, since, as we say, when the centre forward breaks his leg, or better, when our when Lord Christ asks us whether we are staying with him: “To whom are we to go? (We know that you only have the words of eternal life.”) Just as there is and can be no-one for us to put in place of the Lord Jesus anywhere near adequately to his Person, so there is no other thing we can conceive but that since things are here and in action how can they at any time cease to be here and in action in some shape or form? How does one imagine nothing or non-existence? And this fact helps add my vote to the everlasting Yea.
Were there an infinite live cosmos then there could be no end to changes and no end to what we call time. But is not time a concept we have due to and arisen out of the structure of the language we use? Our grammatical tenses depend on before after during, now, and erstwhile - it’s how we handle our recording, ordering, of things and our enquiries into things. We are able to imagine such a thing as is no continuum of time and that, as it were, everything in the present is all there is ever, and ever was – no chronological movement only alterations of situations sizes heights intensities and so on. Such a meditation helps enormously a person who worries overmuch about the future. It also helps explain our strange and wilfully blind expectation to be always here and now, and never in a hearse. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” said the poet.
Whatever way we look at things in ourselves and in the physical world outside us, there appear to be no graspable answers available. I think God made it this way, just to keep us from getting too big for our boots. I think we could take a lesson or two out of God’s book