# Tonight's topic: Thermodynamics and the meaning of life

 From: David V. Sent on: Thursday, March 20, 2008 4:47 PM
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The DFW Examined Life Philosophy Gr?

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I was reading today about a newly discovered super-massive black hole, which weights over 18 billion Suns, which means that it consumed the mass of more than one Sun per year over the 13.73 years the universe has existed. Some people tend to think of black holes as destructive entities, but in fact they are responsible for both galaxy and star formation, and new research indicates that the more the eat, the more stars are created in their galaxies.

I see this phenomenon as one manifestation of the entropic-creative property of the universe: although the laws of thermodynamics require the universe to move towards a state of greater entropy, the process generates local complexity at the cost of wider entropy.

Like entropy, "complexity" or "interestingness" is a challenging concept. Consider a string of 100 numbers. A string of 1111... is relatively low in complexity. However, a string of 100 random numbers is also low in complexity, since any 100 numbers can be substituted for it. A string counting up 12345... is slightly higher in complexity, and a string expressing some mathematical relationship is higher still. You will find that there is no mathematical way to measure complexity. In computer science, it is recognized that the perfect compression engine will be sentient, there is no universal algorithm for organizing complex data.

According to Stephen Wolfram, very complex systems can be described by simple algorithms, found all levels of nature. For example, a nautilus resembles the shape of a hurricane, which resembles the shape of a galaxy. Chaos theory tells us that minor variations in initial states (like the big bang, or the mind of an infant) have major impacts on the future states of a system (aka the "butterfly effect"). The entropic-creative process generates complexity and chaos in iterative loops, leading to increasing entropy, but also increasing complexity. For example, quantum interactions allows elements to form, which form molecules, which form planets, which support life, which evolves in ever more complex varieties.

The entropic-creative process is not teleological - there is no purpose or consciousness behind it. It is the ?how? of why the universe is so darn interesting, not a ?why.? In the hierarchy of complexity, sentient life is the highest known creation. In a way, the sole function of our solar system (and if we are alone, the universe) is to create us. Humans are the only known entities who can consciously direct the creative process to achieve their values.

Of course, people differ greatly in their creative capacity. A motivated and intelligent person can be characterized as "low entropy relative to creativity" whereas someone who wastes his time on trivial pursuits is "low creativity and high entropy." Entropy in this context, concerns the consumption of material (consumption and energy goods), external social (other people's time and effort) and internal (entropic decay through metabolic processes and informational decay through inefficient mental processes). On a slightly wider scale, industrial civilization is an evolutionary entropic-creative process, creating innovation at the cost of increasing entropy in the biosphere.

Discussion questions:

• Is maximal creative-entropic efficiency a goal in itself? Is there such a thing as purpose to human existence?
• In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne presents the theme of the movie: "get busy living, or get busy dying." What does this mean in entropic-creative terms?
• We know that matter as such is mortal ? all atoms will eventually decay. (Everything is radioactive, given sufficient time.) How can we reconcile the duality of increasing entropy and complexity?
• Discuss the implications of entropy for the fragility/resilience of the earth's biosphere.

See you soon!

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