What is humanity’s role in the universe? I don’t ask this question as though there is some sort of definite answer sought after for ages only needing decoded from some ancient religious scripture handed down from an omnipotent grand creator. Xenu perhaps? Haha. Don’t sue me you silly Scientologists. What I mean is a story of ourselves. An image, philosophy or set of ideals for which all humankind that uses science and reason to postulate a story of our past present and how that shapes the future. After all, the ability to tell a story seems to one of our most defining features.
I see that story in terms of entropy. That is, after all, the overriding subject of this blog and even though up until now the bulk of witing has been on the subject of vapor compression systems, it is an appreciation of the history of the universe, the Earth, geology, the development of biologic life and most recently, memes and memetic proliferation of information that leads to so many questions as to how entropy played a role in all of these processes. The truth is, in discussions of these subjects, I see the greatest insight by defining them in terms of entropy.
Biologic life, far from being easy to discuss, is often a starting point in thinking about the world in terms of entropy. Life has certainly shaped what was a barren, hostile rock floating about an average star into a warm, moist home for itself and shown to be incredibly resilient to cataclysmic events by being diverse in form and interrelationship. As I understand it, locally here on Earth, life in all it’s stupefying complexity and beauty would appear to be in outright violation of the second law of thermodynamics, but viewed on a solar system scale is quite effective at converting high entropy light rays from the sun into lower entropy infrared heat emitted into the blackness of space. In the process, work can be done such as creating a beautiful butterfly (billions of them) along with the numerous species sharing complex relationships, weathering down a mountain, managing the climate by storing excess chemical energy in carbon deposits in the Earth’s crust, or when homosapiens exert large amounts of energy to construct a pyramid or to re-divert a river for agriculture.
I often wonder if biologic life here on Earth (our only example unfortunately), is little more than a continuation of geologic processes that themselves create complexity where there was uniformity. I’m reading a geology book from the 1940’s and the chapter on chemical and mechanical weathering of rock truly struck me. Briefly, 4.5 billion years ago the Earth was a molten mass of material that very early on was quite uniform. So uniform in fact, that it is nearly spherical. Of course, denser materials sunk towards the center and lighter towards what is now the crust. If that were the end of the story we wouldn’t be here because there would be no iron for hemoglobin, sodium or calcium for neural function and so on. The surface cooled to form a crust and the interior is still molten today. The molten interior is under incredible pressure and sometimes rises near or to the surface carrying with it heavier elements. This material cools to form hard rocks like basalt. Basalt is very tough and long lasting deep underground, but near the surface, rainwater that has picked up atmospheric gases, other substances in the ground including sulpher, can becoming somewhat reactive and will dissolve some of the constituents from the minerals comprising the hard ancient rocks. This can leave high concentrations of metals that don’t normally exist near the surface of the Earth. Further weatherization creates silts and clays of these materials, the foundations of soil. Wind and water erosion leave a rocky landscape similar to what is found from over grazing farmland. It seems as though biologic life stabilizes this process through soil building, solar energy management, pH control of the oceans, maintaining a protective ozone layer and on and on. You can’t talk about the geologic history of the Earth without the biologic history and vice versa.
It appears that over the vast story of the Earth, life tends to gain complexity before being struck down by an asteroid, comet, volcano or solar event and over millions of years may redevelop, but in a different direction, adapting to the environment and adapting the environment to itself.
It has been suggested more than once that not only are we conscious, but the web of life is conscious and perhaps even the universe itself. Another idea I favor is that human beings role in the grand scheme of things, before we gained the social knowledge to discuss our purpose, is to “garden” the planet the way we garden our personal food. Conscious biotic management perhaps. That life is complex for the sake of complexity and it’s that complexity that ensures it’s very survival. Consciousness and self awareness are relative to the time period with which information and complexity can be transmitted or reproduced. Nebalae, star system, planetary, geologic, chemical, single celled biotic, multicellular, complex webs of interrelating organisms transmitting information through millions of years of genetic trial and error; and most recently the accumulated knowledge of several billion creatures able to transmit information without solely relying on reproduction. We have the opportunity, nay, the responsibility to exploit the laws of nature so as to increase entropy creating a more complex universe that is resilient to disaster; one universe (or infinite universes) that are beautiful and productive. I don’t know.
When will we, as a species, grow up and stop separating ourselves from nature, looking to religion for a god, and realize that we really are god and our stream of consciousness is the universe thinking about itself?
Great post. Here’s my not so scientific take on entropy in the universe.
I like to view the universe as an interplay of two opposite forces. On one hand is entropy that tries to take the universe towards a heat death. On the other hand is what I like to call the force of evolution. Evolution makes the universe more and more complex and it tries to take the universe towards a spiritual awakening of sorts. This awakening will be when the whole universe becomes conscious of itself the way we are conscious of our bodies. I feel that it is the interplay of these two forces that keep the universe going.
When the universe began, gravity caused evolution by bringing together matter to form stars and higher elements were formed. I feel that life is itself nothing but a higher evolved form of matter. Humans are a peak in biological evolution but we are not the end of the story.
We will slowly evolve into spiritual beings who are not just aware of themselves but also aware of the unity of the whole universe. It’s just a matter of time, which the universe has a lot of, when a singular universal consciousness evolves.
This is my take on the story of the universe. It’s rather more intuitive than scientific. I liked how your idea that evolution on biological scale on earth might just be entropy on a larger scale. I would love to hear what you think about my thoughts.
Sorry it took me so long to respond. I was on a blog hiatus for some time.
On the whole, I agree with you Eddy. I can appreciate your view about the force of evolution, not just biological, but a universal force. I see evolution as more of a phenomena, not in the sense of it being rare or unusual, but that it is an occurrence resulting from a series of of events due to underlying forces in the universe. One of those forces being gravity as you said. The entropy I spoke of being a statistical likelihood of all that matter pulled together by gravity, and the associated energy therein, would be concentrated or spread throughout the universe evenly. As I see it, evolution is a phenomenon that naturally occurs to effectively eliminate these gravitational anomalies.
Although, we might not agree completely on terminology, it sounds like we are on the same page here. Unusual, since this isn’t something I get to talk about with, let me think…..anybody.
I tend to think that human beings aren’t anything too special in terms of biological evolution, other than perhaps being the first species on Earth (that we know of) to effectively link our consciousness and share our experience through generations. Some other species have language and culture, don’t seem to alter the world around them the way we do. Humans are not special, but we appear to be different.
I wonder if a singular universal consciousness already exists and our perception of time and space clouds our understanding of it. We are a part of it. We are it, but fail to perceive what is right in front of us.
That’s enough for now. You got my wheels turning and for that I thank you. It is comforting to know there are other people out there thinking about the bigger picture.
I felt the same feeling of connection when I first read your blog. Since I wrote this comment my views have changed a bit. I saw Wonders of Life series by Brian Cox and in that series he explained how evolution is not opposite of entropy but rather a tool used by entropy. I’ll try to explain what I understood but you should really see all three “wonders” series if you haven’t already.
Since energy can neither be created or destroyed and since all matter is basically a form of energy, the purpose of entropy is to bring all this energy to the lowest form of order. This form is the radiation left after the heat death. The universe will still have the same amount of energy but it will not be able to do anything because there will be no more thermal or gravitational or any other gradients. Everywhere and everytime will be exactly same. So in a way time and space will stop existing.
So in all the forms of energy that we know of heat is the lowest form that entropy tries to get at. Stars are basically machines that turn nuclear energy into other energies including heat. So their evolution actually increased the process led by entropy. So is the evolution of life. All life forms are also machines that turn different forms of energies into heat. We generate heat to stay alive and we lose this heat constantly to our surroundings.
This is a great way to look at things. That order would emerge out of a law that favors disorder is something very spiritual and as close to “God” as I’ve ever felt through a statement. Needless to say that when I saw this episode I was shaken for a while. The new found belief system I had acquired was being torn apart.
But when I thought about it a little more it started making sense to me. It doesn’t matter that evolution and entropy are not equal and opposite forces but rather one and the same thing. In fact it makes more sense that they are the same thing seen from different perspectives.
As far as humans go I do think we are special. Instead of thinking that we are just a random evolutionary step I like to think that evolution was always headed towards us. If not humans specifically then at least intelligent beings that can be conscious of a larger universe. I believe that the evolution was not just of life but of consciousness. We are the universal conscious evolving. A better way would be to say that we are the universal conscious awakening and becoming aware of itself.
It’s great to find kindred souls through the internet which itself is an evolution of our consciousness.
I’ve never r eally enjoyed watching his shows for some reason. Something about him is distracting. But, since you recommended that show, I’m going to download them. I’ve never seen any media, other than a book or two, that discuss evolution and entropy in this way. I first became fascinated by it from studying vapor compression systems. I found them easiest to study in terms of entropy which is the least understood by HVAC techs and seems to be an important disconnect between theory and application of energy management technology.
I started to wonder if life was just an entropy machine and then I discovered “From Eternity to Here” by Nick Carrol. I highly recommend this book. It’s about entropy and the arrow of time. There is a TED talk by Sean that summarizes his theories about the universe and entropy.
On a nature hike one day along a glacier shaped landscape, I became enthralled with this idea of entropy being the underpinning of evolution, not just biological, but geological, stellar, and everything in the universe.
I agree with your statement about about god. There is something in this view that creates a macroscopic understanding of the universe and our possible role in it. I find myself reducing much of my daily activities to a “mantra” of entropy, and feel more connected to the universe than I ever did before. Beautiful.
I am always cautious to stay humble about my species and it’s superiority.
I’ve got to get to work. I’ll continue this later.