I’m not normally a coffee kind of person, but this morning it feels just right. I watch as the cream loops and swirls into beautiful patterns, slowly dissipating until the light and dark meld to form the characteristic brown latte color we’ve all grown accustomed to. This process is, of course, perfectly natural and expected: whether you stir it or not, if you put cream in a warm cup of coffee, eventually it settles into a state of equilibrium, and a particularly stable one at that. What would be more surprising is if you took a well-stirred cup of coffee and successfully unstirred it. Try as you might, you can’t unstir a cup of coffee. This is the principle of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and it is where good and evil begin.
Of course, I’m exaggerating. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, roughly speaking, states that closed systems tend towards equilibria of maximum entropy. The big idea here is that if you’re in a system where no energy is being put in or let out, disorder will increase inevitably, like cream in a coffee mug. It’s easy to stir, but very hard to do the reverse. To unstir requires energy (and patience), both of which are often in limited supply. Our universe, it turns out, is one such closed system, and this fact has tremendous implications for how we got here, where we are, and where we’re going.
I’ve been wondering for a long time why we view certain things as “good”. As an amateur artist and fellow universe explorer-observer, I wonder why we value things that are orderly, shapely, sensible. The universe is full of unthinkable combinations of sensory inputs and stimuli, and yet humans are somehow compelled to appreciate only a small subset of the possibilities. Why is a clean room better than a messy one? Why is Mozart better than white noise? Why is diplomacy good and war bad? In short, why is it that we choose, perplexingly, order over chaos, when the universe appears to prefer otherwise?
Of course, just because the universe is headed in a particular direction doesn’t mean it’s already there. Within different (open) subsystems, energy is being redistributed all the time. The energy that you gain from consuming a cup of coffee will be distributed within your cells to help maintain the order (or disorder) that is your living, breathing self. The energy that you consume for lunch may be used later to help your spouse carry a laundry basket or to craft a nice powerpoint deck for your manager. Order exists, and it can be created, but only through redistribution of energy, and typically with a lot of wasted byproduct. You can imagine it kind of like this: the universe is a river headed towards a final destination, the ocean, an equilibrium of maximum entropy. But along the way, there are eddies and swirls, not unlike those you find in your coffee on its merry way to equilibrium. Just because the eddies push back against the current doesn’t mean that the river doesn’t have a final destination in mind. And here’s the real kicker: we are the eddies.
You (Yeah, you! Reading this! Now!) are an example of order amidst chaos. Our bodies are highly ordered systems that require constant maintenance and attention, to keep our organs, muscles, and brain functional. In the grand scheme of things, we’re incredibly organized systems in a universe tending towards chaos. We are prime examples of subsystems that locally diminish entropy. As such, it should come as no surprise that we prefer things that are orderly, neat, and non-entropic. To embrace order is to embrace the process that we rely on to exist; to embrace chaos is to embrace the inevitable process of decay.
So much of what we see around us as good and evil, so much of the basis of our morality, is limited to our scope as living, breathing organisms. We want to live life, to love, to find meaningful connections. We want to experience the natural world and feel alive, present, existent. To go against that is to go against the fundamental principle that to exist is all we really have going for us right now — the rest is entropy. The things that decrease entropy: predictability, honesty, reliability, are seen as morally upstanding, whereas the things that increase it: deceit, anger, hate, are seen as morally reprehensible. The orderly patterns in the music we love, the feeling of sleeping in a bed that’s been made beforehand, the feeling of coming back from work to a nice, clean home, these are all things we love because we ourselves are the product of processes that push back against the forces of entropy. This is the basis of beauty; eons ago, before we even had a cohesive thought in our minds, we built beauty in our self-image, and it was good. If we fight against entropy, we fight for our right to be here, no matter how futile it is to be an eddy in a vast river. To shake your fist against the Second Law of Thermodynamics is to make a statement that “I’m here. Not forever, but for a while. So hear me out.” and there’s something beautiful about that sentiment. F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he wrote that we were “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.
This framework only gets us so far. I’m not claiming that our dislike for entropy encompasses all of morality, or even what we think is beautiful. But by and large, we consider entropic states to be bad and non-entropic states to be good because we have a self-bias towards the things that keep us from falling apart. There’s beauty to be found in many things. There’s a certain satisfaction in watching a sand castle crumble. But then again, someone had to build it first. I’m hoping that with this framework we can take the time to appreciate all of the non-entropic states that exist in our world and think about how hard-fought their existence truly is; after all, it’s terribly difficult to unstir the universe.
Yet, there’s something a bit unsettling about feeling like you’re pushing back against the inevitable flow of things. As one friend remarked to me, “I don’t want to be fighting against the universe.” But I think herein lies the misconception — the universe, of course, doesn’t care. On the whole, the universe is a vastly unemotional thing. It has no preference for coffee or tea, sugar or no sugar, entropy or no entropy. It just is, and its form of is is to tend towards entropy. Make no mistake, it’s headed there at this very moment. Someday, our coffee-cup universe will reach its equilibrium and grow cold, dark, and empty. The energy of the universe will be unable to support complex matter, let alone lifeforms that can live, breathe, and love. This is a bleak destination — one that is shudder-inducing to the human mind, which struggles to comprehend its own death let alone the death of existence. While the destination is bleak, we can count ourselves among the lucky ones, because it seems that our universe is in no hurry to get there. Our river is a slow one, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t assign deadlines. And we should be very thankful for that, because it has given us the opportunity to pass by and interact with so many wonderful eddies in our lives.
There’s no reason the universe has to be slow about tending towards entropy, it just happens to be. And in the meantime, while we’re headed to a final destination from where we will not likely return, we can look out our geometric windows and see the brilliant sunshine on a warm spring day. We can breathe in the crisp morning air from our orderly houses and call our loved ones to tell them how much we care about them. We can play our music and lie in our newly made beds with a book that has ordered pages that make crackling noises as we flip through them. And all the while, we can marvel at how lucky we are to be on this side of oblivion.