“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” quoth Hamlet. The word “philosophy” in the sense employed by Shakespeare and others from his time persisted until the early XIX century, when the word “science” replaced it, in describing experimental work of investigation into natural phenomena. This led to an effective understanding of those now familiar forces like gravity and electromagnetism, permitting construction of the laws of motion governing observed movements of celestial bodies, and later the wave/particle representation of light.
Thermodynamics addresses the issue of energy associated with heat, leading to the concept of entropy to describe the flow of time in only one direction, from organized to disorganized matter, the increasing dispersion of thermal energy, and predicting an end state of equilibrium in which all energy has become inaccessible, the so-called “heat death” of the universe according to the second law of thermodynamics.
Cosmologist Julian Barbour reminds us in the first chapter of his recent book The Janus Point: A New Theory of Time, that the laws of thermodynamics as formulated in the XIX century refer to closed systems, molecules boxed in a sealed and impermeable container to do work, as in the cylinders of an engine. But the universe is not a rigid box. Over time, it is an expanding, unfolding three dimensional space containing matter, and not constrained by rigid boundaries.
As a consequence, we observe in this expanding universe not an increase in disorganization but the opposite: an increase in complexity, characteristic of the process of evolution, not only of living matter as seen in the progression of species (unicellular —>multicellular—>asexual—>sexual reproduction), but also in stellar evolution, the formation of spiral galaxies condensing from an initial soup of quarks — even intellectual curiosity itself, progressing in our culture from pre-Socratics to quantum mechanics, and now with the unsettling prospect of constructing artificial, non-human intelligent machines. What we behold is not entropy, but entaxy or negative entropy, and the remainder of the book develops this idea in detail, an alternative cosmology that doesn’t predict a heat death, but instead a continual growth in complexity, what cosmologist Barbour calls “the single most important concept in the book.”
We recognize ourselves as participants in this apparently universal process of increasing complexity in an expanding universe of matter, and it is humbling to contemplate the grandeur of the cosmos, reflecting on the utter insignificance of our being puny, sentient flawed human organisms, yet endowed with this astonishing and mysterious attribute of consciousness, the ability to “think outside the box”, realizing that perhaps universal heat death is not inevitable after all, whatever may be the fate of unstable homo sapiens.
June 18, 2021