Monday, March 22, 2010


What a magnificent weekend. Beautiful warm days, lots of visits with friends, delicious food and good beer. In the midst of these pleasantries, I was catching up on my latest RSS posts, and saw a lecture on time by Sean Carroll. It seemed rather synchronous, since I’d just blogged about time and its peculiarities a couple of days earlier. It’s a fascinating talk, and I recommend you watch it. You can view it here.

Sean talks a lot about entropy, which is often defined as disorder or chaos in a system. Time moves in the direction of higher entropy; it becomes curiously difficult to define the direction of time when entropy is low. He gave the example of a rack of billiard balls. When you disperse the billiard balls with your cue at the beginning of the game, you can easily see how you move from order to disorder. If you filmed it and ran it backwards, it would look like a film running backwards—you don’t see the scattered balls moving back to their original configuration by themselves. On the other hand—if you only have 2 billiard balls, and you hit those with the cue, it wouldn’t be as easy to tell past from future if you similarly filmed that event and ran it backwards. Boltzmann explained this by defining entropy as a greater number of configuration possibilities (referring to atoms). The more possibilities you have, the more disorderly the system becomes—and thus, the higher the entropy.

A couple of things occurred to me in this discussion. First, the human tendency towards order. Psychologists suggest that we are hard-wired to try to make sense out of the insensible—to make order out of chaos, to find a cause for all effects. The more complex the conditions, the more complicated the rationalization for their configuration. The religious idea of “God” is the ultimate “ordering” of a life and universe that is mysterious. Yet, amazingly, everything we are able to experience is the result of disorder. Is organized religion as we know it in the West an attempt to “manage” entropy? After all, if there is a being called God watching over things, it’s pretty clear that the “orderliness” of things is illusory. We perceive what we perceive with regard to space and time because of this high entropy state.

Which leads me to the second thing, namely, that the inevitable movement from low entropy to high entropy mimics human psychological behavior. Think of any organization or group that you’ve joined. Typically, when there are only a couple of people, or a very small group, things run smoothly. While it’s possible to have one member of the group who is problematic, successful groups are generally small and have a great teamwork ethic. Things are very organized and orderly because there are so few people involved.

However, as organizations grow, disorder also grows. Large groups have to break down into smaller groups. There are more personalities involved that can present problems. If the group has trouble dealing with the disorder, someone will step forward to try to order things, with either good or ill results. There are more people who need to be in agreement on things, and the basic ideals of the group has to grow into a Charge, a set of by-laws, a list of rules. The more complex the group, the more complex the rules. It is almost inevitable that politics take over, and that corruption appears somewhere in the system. One example that jumps to mind are Catholic religious orders that start out with a few people living simply as poor folk and serving the poor, but later are taken over by the ruling bureaucracy, and may become bloated bureaucracies themselves. As the disorder and uncertainty increases—scenarios will undoubtedly arise that challenge the rules—the number of rules and enforcements needed to maintain the same order will increase. In other words—we keep trying to increase order to manage disorder.

You could probably conclude (or question) a number of things from this. To me, it seems like we are trying to collectively fight a perceptual hallucination. Why do we believe that things have to have order? If you listen to Eastern Vedantics, the whole point is to embrace the disorder and go with it, not fight against it. Even notions of “surrender” in Islam and in Via Negativa theology really come down to this, as far as I’m concerned. Happiness comes from not trying to weigh the world down with too many expectations, too many “ought-to’s”. We need a certain amount of structure to function consciously without killing each other or going mad, but there is a tendency in our culture to overdo it. Rigid constructs and rules applied too broadly and without equanimity are going to hurt someone in the long run.

For my purposes, this is just an analogy. It would be interesting if it turned out to be more than an analogy.

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