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

Two Buddhas, Part-4: “The Big Picture”

A short selection from Essay Five in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice. (The sequel to the “prequel” in Part Four.) [YOU MIGHT WANT TO SKIP THIS ON A FIRST READING OF THE TWO BUDDHAS SEQUENCE]

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 — James Clerk 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’ (see Part-3), then our calculations alone, where the entropic rate depends on the ratio of interchangeable microstates to favoured macrostates, might not reflect the fate of the universe. It all comes down to whether or not agency keeps discerning its 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!


1. Gould, Stephen Jay. 1991. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 476 from “The Median Isn’t the Message”

2. Kierkegaard, Søren. 1958 in Paul L. Holmer, ed., David F. and Lillian Marvin Swenson, trans., Edifying Discourses: a Selection. New York: Harper & Brothers. Discourse IX. ‘The Joy in the Thought that it is Not the Way which is Narrow, but the Narrowness is the Way’. p. 219. “…and far be it for us to help to circulate the lying reports, that little by little it becomes easier on the narrow way, that it is only the beginning that is narrow. The relationship is precisely reversed, it becomes harder and harder.”

3. Stewart, Ian. 2013. In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World. New York: Basic Books. pp. 197-215. “The traditional thermodynamic quantities, such as temperature, pressure, heat, and entropy, all refer to large-scale average properties of the gas. However, the fine structure consists of lots of molecules whizzing around and bumping into each other. The same large-scale state can arise from innumerable different small-scale states, because minor differences on the small-scale average out. Boltzmann therefore distinguished macrostates and microstates of the system: large-scale averages and the actual states of the molecules. Using this, he showed that entropy, a macrostate, can be interpreted as a statistical feature of microstates. He expressed this in the equation S=k log W. Here S is the entropy of the system, W is number of distinct microstates that can give rise to the overall macrostate, and k is a constant. It is now called Boltzmann’s constant, and its value is 1.38 x 10-23 joules per degree kelvin.”

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