“Entropy rules, OK”, read the crumbling brick wall in Glebe, the message reinforced by a small ‘y’ on a new line, and the rest of the words in scrambled letters I had to decipher. A kind of anagram art I suppose.
But the message was a true one. Entropy, if you don’t know, is disorder, matter whose behaviour is unpredictable, and whose energy is not available for conversion, which doesn’t agree with Einstein’s neat little equation. Another word for entropy is death. In any random selection of any matter disorder will be norm, organisation rare and exceptional. Yet we live in cosmos, order.
From our perspective as human beings (not the only one, but the only perspective we know about), there seem to be four orders of existence.
1. Stellar. The organisation of matter into stars and planets, stars into galaxies, and galaxies into the universe we are a part of. This organisation began with what is referred to as the Big Bang, though there was then no atmosphere to enable sound and no ear to hear it. But all existence was contained in an infinitely small point of matter which exploded and is continuing to expand to this day. It could be presumed that there will be a limit to this expansion, and then the universe will contract to an infinitely small point again, and another Big Bang take place. Like breathing. We have no idea of course how often this process might have been taking place. Perhaps forever. It’s as progenitor of many universes, perhaps an infinite number of them, that we might look for god.
2. Earthly. We live on a planet which has evolved over four billion years from stellar matter, nuclear fusion, formation of a star and a solar system, and which has trapped an atmosphere containing oxygen, creating an environment for part of its matter to continue its evolution as lifeforms. Processes integral to life include plate tectonics and the formation of mountains, retention of fluids, water, in ocean surface depressions, and chemical elements essential to animal and plant existence. These life forms continue to evolve and change with changing conditions on the planet, and will continue to cease to exist when their environment becomes untenable, as it already has for vast numbers of species. Eventually the atmosphere will be dispersed and the sun will cool and life vanish.
3. Human. We tend to see life, especially human life, as something special, but it is part of the same processes which created stars, and the earth. It’s all special. Human beings evolved on earth from simpler lifeforms of which we know little, until we became an upright standing, hand grasping and tool using species able to moderate our own environment for increased safety. Our numbers increased, our physiology changed to adapt to changing climates, and we finally created something called culture which enormously enhanced our knowledge base and ability to survive. In the process we have overpopulated and begun to modify our environment until it has become dangerous again. We may continue to evolve, or suddenly vanish like the dinosaurs.
4. Molecular. Our human senses are limited, and control what we see and how we see it, but with the aid of tools we have seen that matter is made up of highly organised, infinitely small structures which operate according to precise rules, some of which we can comprehend, some of which remain mysterious. All matter, including human, earthly and stellar matter, is formed the same way and operates the same way too, all made of electron and proton matter whose actions eerily echo that of solar systems and galaxies. Perhaps our brains organise data in this way, and it may not be the way matter exists at all. As far as we can tell, atomic matter organised into molecular structures is enduringly stable. We cannot detect natural changes in their structure except at extremes of temperature, even though we know, for instance, that the cells that make up our bodies deteriorate and die.
All these four processes, and others yet unknown, are shuttling in a continuing movement between organised structures and disorganisation, from life as we know it to death, or entropy. Optimists believe it is a two way process, the disorganised, inert matter of existence being reformed in a more organised way, into a cosmos, an ordered whole. For pessimists it’s a one way trip to entropy. Both cosmos and entropy convey the idea that matter is changing. Cosmos into ordered forms where life is possible, entropy into forms where it is not. What we cannot grasp at all is non matter, nothingness. It is of the same order as infinity or eternity. Too absolute an abstraction for our brains to grasp.
The clockmaker winds up the clock, and lets in run down. The analogy is apposite as the processes of cosmos and entropy occur in the dimension of time. Unlike the spacial dimensions we experience through our senses when encountering existence, which are formed by the nature of our senses, time is a dimension which extends to all the universe. Everything living is so because it exists in time. Eternity, on the other hand, must be static, or there would be no need for time.
That protons and electrons can form an ordered relationship, that life can evolve on our planet of which we are a part, that the earth itself is part of the same evolution, and that earth part of the ordering of the universe, all changing slowly and majestically from disordered unstructured components into the order we can comprehend around us, is about as awe inspiring a concept as I can have. Almost as awe inspiring as the realisation that the end of all this change is a gradual return to primal entropy. It is alive, the universe. One breath, in, an ordered cosmos. One breath, out, disintegration, entropy. Who is it that breathes?
In the Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells a story from one of the Upanishads. Krishna is speaking to Indra, king of the gods, whose empire is over the present world: “I have been told that you are building such a palace as no Indra before you ever built.”
And Indra says, “Indras before me, young man — what are you talking about?”
The boy says, “Indras before you. I have seen them come and go, come and go. Just think, Vishnu sleeps in the cosmic ocean, and the lotus of the universe grows from his navel. On the lotus sits Brahma, the creator. Brahma opens his eyes, and a world comes into being, governed by an Indra. Brahma closes his eyes, and a world goes out of being. The life of a Brahma is four hundred and thirty-two thousand years. When he dies, the lotus goes back, and another lotus is formed, and another Brahma. Then think of the galaxies beyond galaxies in infinite space, each a lotus, with a Brahma sitting on it, opening his eyes, closing his eyes. And Indras? There may be wise men in your court who would volunteer to count the drops of water in the oceans of the world or the grains of sand on the beaches, but no one would count those Brahmas, let alone those Indras.”
Now for grand and majestic metaphysical concepts, for the wisest enquiries into meaning and existence, go to the Upanishads. The creators of these profound works were also advanced mathematicians, and great story tellers. Don’t get lost in calculating the age of the universe if you read one of the Upanishads though, the numbers are there to inspire veneration, not calculation. There are over 200 Upanishads. The earliest ones were written very early, between 2000 and 1000 BC, and were perhaps the result of a culture clash between the invading Indo European tribes who created the Vedic culture of ancient India and the remnants of the Harappan culture already in Northern India. The Upanishads are central to the creation of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, and so by far the most influential religious texts in the world. Here is a translation: http://www.celextel.org/upanishads/.
What could anyone do against entropy when they themselves are part of the entropic process? The traditional answer has been found in religions, though not exclusively a religious action: moral behaviour. Older faiths see existence as a battle between good and evil. Some create a state where one ceases to be part of the battle, and in that way influence the outcome positively. There are secular actions to consider as well.
One of the most influential of religions was that of Zarathustra, which dates to the period of the Upanishads, and is associated with another group of the Indo European tribes, who entered and settled in Persia. Zarathustra saw existence as a battle between Ahura Mazda, creation or truth, and the lie, or disorder, entropy. Each human being had free will to support one side or the other, every human action changed the outcome one way or the other. Zarathustra influenced the formation of Judaism, ethical ideas in Greek philosophy, and he is present in Jesus’ saying, “He who is not for me is against me”.
Ways to maintain cosmos might include: self knowledge and its cultivation; faith tolerant of others’ faiths; planned and considered strategies for existence; environmental and conservationist activities.
Ways to allow entropy might include: passivity; self indulgence; intolerance of others; ill considered actions; negativity; disbelief, self absorption.
Perhaps we should be looking at ways of combining what we now know of cosmogony with what we have inherited of spiritual wisdom: after all, modern astronomy echoes much of what the Upanishads say on that topic. And nuclear astronomy, anthropology and history, geology and quantum physics surely could illuminate each other.
I’m left with the idea though that if there is a meaning to all these processes it is more likely to be that of entropy than cosmos, order. Cosmos is a little blip in the vast stream of entropic existence. It’s meaning could be as futile as Diogenes’ searching with his lantern in the agora for an honest man.
The writing may be on the wall, entropy may await us, but there are actions we can take each day to affect these mighty cosmic processes we imagine moving all around us. These actions may be an illusion. It is probably Pascal’s Wager all over again. Pascal thought god may or may not exist. If he existed it was better to believe he did and enter heaven. If god didn’t exist, if you believed in god at least you lived your life in a virtuous manner.
It seems a long way from the wall in Sydney’s suburb of Glebe which first attracted my attention. Perhaps it shows that if we look around us as we go through life we will find all kinds of messages, and some will make us think, and draw some kind of conclusions. I’m too old for certainty, but I do like to feel I’m headed in the right direction.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.