Nathanael Garrett Novosel, August 16 2023

Entropy and Life

There is a long list of questions that people ask that show a genuine misunderstanding of how life exists in the universe—or, if they do understand it, an unwillingness to accept this law of physics. Questions include:

The most common manifestation of this in modern times is when people look around, see someone better off than them, and then assume that the person who is better off must have cheated in some way because everyone works hard and yet some are more successful than others. This logic leads a person down a dark hole of "eat the rich" and other sentiments weaving a story about how certain people in society are rigging it so that they can be successful and others are doomed to a life of oppression under their rule.

Now, I have to say that most myths have a kernel of truth to them or few would believe them. In this case, throughout most of history, humans have had rigid hierarchical structures where some people have power to govern society and, as part of that power, have better lifestyles than the people they govern. After all, even in the most modern, egalitarian societies, we see that governors justify their additional security, their flouting of rules or laws that apply to everyone else such as traffic laws and ticket lines, and their immunity to law enforcement when they are caught committing crimes that others would go to jail for. It is true that power corrupts and so the powerful will inevitably get away with things that the average person would not.

However, this one truth leads people down the rabbit hole of conspiracies that people with a lot of money completely avoid taxes (the IRS data shows that this is not true), control everything (they do lobby for policies that benefit their businesses and donate to political campaigns, but direct bribery is illegal; they are only wealthy in a free market because people willingly buy their products), and hoard their wealth (most of their assets are illiquid in the form of stock or other asset ownership, so they can't just take that money and give it to the government without losing ownership over their property). So much of this is not true, as Bill Gates and Elon Musk want world peace and an end to poverty as much as every other person in the world. There is no hidden wealth class that wishes to oppress everyone else forever, as even during the "robber baron" era it is famously cited that Henry Ford wanted to be able to pay his employees enough to afford his product(note: this was not a universal truism; the reality is that salary increases are necessary when turnover is high due to competition and that plane manufacturers can't ensure that their employees can afford a plane, but it's a noble aspiration for a business magnate that his company's success will increase the quality of life of his workers)

I use this rabbit hole specifically because everyone looks for someone to blame when life is difficult, bad, or unfortunate for people, and of course the only people you can go to are the people whose lives do not appear to be difficult—aka the people with money. But the truth of the matter is that this is at best a misunderstanding and at worst a popular ruse used by people who want to shape the world in their image. Going back to our questions above and why the rabbit hole described is not the reason, there is one simple explanation for all of this: entropy.

First, I should probably explain what entropy is since the technical definition is different from the common one. The technical definition according to the Oxford dictionary is, "A thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system's thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system." That last part is the part that forms the more common definition, which I'm using for this post: "Lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder." In short, entropy is the tendency of order to descend into chaos.

Entropy—in addition to the basic fact that 99.99999%+ of the universe is inhospitable to organic life forms—is the reason why life isn't easy. It's not because some people oppressed others thousands of years ago. Starting at the beginning (before life existed), the universe was full of giant balls of gas and giant chunks of rock floating around in space due to some combination of "The Big Bang" and the gravitational forces of said balls and chunks in relation to each other. The universe was, for all intents and purposes, random. When life emerged, it was the first instance of a biochemical reaction that led to the self-replication of molecules, which we now know as living organisms. In essence, it was the first instance of order in a universe of chaos.

Ever since that moment, life has evolved to get the energy it needs and reproduce as efficiently and effectively as possible. Plants get energy from the sun, herbivores get energy from plants, and carnivores get energy from other animals. The effort required to acquire the resources necessary for growth and reproduction and to prevent harm from the environmental factors is what we now know commonly as "work". Before the advanced brains and social orders of humans, no living organism could make survival as easy and assured as we do now in modern society—to the point that the biggest risk to others is a person committing atrocities out of revenge, hate, amusement, fear, or power instead of survival and all of those being second to the biggest risk of people killing themselves from too much food, too many drugs, or too much unnecessary risk.

So the two main takeaways here in relation to this post are:

Society, therefore, would deteriorate quickly if everyone stopped working tomorrow. (think I Am Legend or The Walking Dead for examples of the world descending into chaos without mass societal cooperation and maintenance) Similarly, your life can get very bad very quickly if you just stop doing anything for yourself for a few months: you would run out of money; your muscles would atrophy; your body would deteriorate; your house would become dirty and disorganized; you may contract a disease from the lack of hygiene and health maintenance; you will likely lose friends and family members from your lack of social engagement. Everything: relationships, homes, bodies, money, etc. deteriorate over time due to entropy. Your life can easily get much worse very quickly if you let it.

Ultimately, the goal in life is to grow. It's to get better. It's to improve your circumstances. It's to fight the universe's tendency for everything to turn into disorder. No one said it was fair or easy; the environment has been difficult and unforgiving for billions of years, only becoming habitable once it had a crust and water that could sustain life. That requires work, though, to improve. You have to get out of bed, clean yourself, eat and drink, acquire resources, and maintain your shelter and assets. Yes, there may be a time where the world looks very much like Wall-E where everyone is sitting in a chair with a screen right in their face being stuffed with food and liquid until they die like the lifespan of a modern chicken raised for human consumption, but most people don't think that this scenario is much of a life. Most people would prefer to exert effort in some way, shape, or form.

Yes, the world is unfair and, unfortunately, the hierarchical structures that humans are biologically driven to organize in lead to potential corruption by the powerful. However, that aside, the world would be difficult, there would be inequity, and you would have to work hard no matter what. Entropy is the long-term trend of all inorganic matter in the universe. But we're not inorganic and have the capacity to direct our lives. So instead of complaining about your life situation and hoping that someone else will solve your problems, you can always take the initiative to bring more order into your life. You can provide goods and services to others in exchange for money. You can exercise and strengthen your body. You can learn new skills so that you can provide more value and, therefore, earn more money—or you can simply learn how to make your life easier and better on your own as a do-it-yourself jack-of-all-trades.

There's a famous saying, "If you are five minutes early, you are already ten minutes late." The point is about punctuality and respect, but the bigger insight behind the saying is discipline. Discipline is all about doing the work that you need to do consistently to see the results that you want. And discipline is the number one quality that you can have to combat entropy. The reason is that it's what you can control; you cannot control the whole world, no matter how much you advocate, petition, and vote to do so. All you can do is take the actions you need to take to make your life and others' lives better. That will require work, but that work will matter. It will be rewarding. It will be meaningful. And meaning is the metaphysical cure to entropy, whereas effort is the physical cure. Give yourself a meaning and purpose, and you will willingly put in the work necessary to realize that meaning. While the natural state of life is disorder, there are billions of examples on this Earth of people who put in the work to make their lives successful and win the battle against entropy.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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