we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

‘Heat Death’ Through the Eyes of Darwin, Dogen and Maxwell’s Demon


Now let us suppose that … a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes the hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics      —Maxwell [1]

At the risk of belabouring an already difficult point, I’ll give some further qualifications to convince or confound my fellow sceptics. The mathematician Ian Stewart writes that Leo Szilard “saved the second law for all practical purposes” by showing that the information collected by Maxwell’s Demon carries entropy. But he also cautions, “The vital concept here is not information as such, but meaning.” [2] Isn’t it wonderful how the broad daylight of discrimination tiptoes in and out of our calculations, like a well-trained servant in the night, as we darkly circle in on our terms? While the immediate purpose of a sense experience might be to whet our appetites, or to keep our fingers out of the fire, its “practical purpose” is to inform our need to explain, and to foretell, as narrative. Thus the story goes that “complex life evolved in our far from equilibrium Earth system so the overall energy and order in the larger system centered on our sun can dissipate even faster”. Well, here’s another interesting cosmic story: If the ultimate effect of Life and Mind is to increase the number of ‘wanted things’ at the expense of ‘unwanted things’, then our calculations alone, where the entropic rate is just the inverse of the proportion of ‘favoured’ macrostates found among ‘interchangeable’ microstates [See Essay four in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice], might not reflect the fate of the universe. It all comes down to whether or not agency finds a place within “all practical purposes” we might aspire to.

For the purpose of manipulating an agent-free universe (i.e. science and technology) the Second Law Story works splendidly! In fact any narrative works if you follow the rules. Rule one: action is ‘really’ the re-action of an outcome determined by a past. Rule two: each character is fully defined in terms of the others. But all of us sooner or later notice that we can at any time end the narrative, and then we remember: when we saw “time” as real, this was just us pretending that past and future are not illusions in the very important sense that we don’t live there. And when the story ends—let’s say it’s the “Universal Heat Death” story—we notice something else: when we foresee the vagueness of dissipating stardust, but not the details of any evolving organism, this is just us choosing to forget what we are missing when our characters are co-defined. When we look at our oranges in terms of apples.

Information is orthogonal to what I am pointing out here.

As angles are to orioles.

The “time” whose symmetry is broken by entropy’s statistical arrow [3] (causes precede effects, but never the other way around) is an incomplete character in an incomplete story. “Time”, “cause”, and “effect” are the provisional choices of an ‘ontogenic’ intelligence that is always at risk of forgetting to step beyond its terms in order to accommodate a ‘phylogenic’ whole-some-ness. They are conveniences that help us define technological ‘things’ for a pre-existing purpose. But when we look at any creative experience of generating conceptual order (music, art, literature) in purely phenomenological terms, disorder feels like an absence of interest, and order feels like increasing interest. Perhaps then it is only a flickering discontinuity in our mental constructing, allowing room for an immeasurably continuous Mind to oversee (in its inconceivably personal Way) but not enter into the models themselves, which makes ‘phylogenic’ intelligence possible in the first place? Perhaps the “Demon” is our living, evolving Reality!

But in a changing technological world, the thinking mind is never at a loss for its practical purposes, and as the horizons of this world expand, our provisional intelligence can always set up alternative stories, even alternative symmetry narratives. How about one that reflects itself: the shallow passivity of “mirror-ism”, against an “increasing depth of engagement”, or the top-down statistics of “prediction” against the bottom-up details of “history”? These symmetries are also plausible. What happens if we tell our “overall dissipation from life” story, knowing a hound can smell a single molecule? Or the “outcome is determined by the past” story, realizing that a hominin’s un-Natural interest in sticks and stones that fit comfortably in its hand has arrived here in the twenty-first century flirting with nanotechnology? (And by the way, what moralist, what prophet of inevitable doom, what top-down authority ignoring the magic of individuals, ever predicted the future we presently live in?) Can we Really be sure our universe—that vast uber-system passively feeding on all others—is “only following entropy’s widest road to heat death”? Or are we in the hands of an ever-connecting, definitively unpredictable, “presence of Mind”? The complete mirror image—everything backwards—of “inevitable disorder” cannot be an order that is in the same way statistically given: this gift must be wholly un-looked-for. Admittedly, life’s Darwinian choices, those unforeseen (but perhaps karmic) reversals that “don’t seem to care” about the discontinuities they create in our lives, will feel inconvenient if you’re one of the unprepared. But how can we fully prepare for a vital, and therefore indefinite, future? Surely, if present and timeless awareness—The Way of intimate connection—creates the future, it cannot be Any Thing Like those conceptual highways we engineer for the convenience of our pre-existing practical purposes. But ultimately this is the only safe way to live.


1. Clerk Maxwell, James. 1990 [1871] in Harvey S Leff and Andrew F Rex, ed., Maxwell’s Demon: Entropy, Information, Computing. Bristol: Adam-Hilger. p. 4. Also see Mahon, 2003, pp. 138-139

2. Stewart, 2013, p. 281-282

3. Ibid, p. 213

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