All conditioned things are unsatisfactory.
All conditioned things are impermanent.
All things are empty, devoid of intrinsic, independent nature
-The three marks of existence,
from the Pali Canon
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: neither all thy Piety or Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
-Omar Khayyám, the Rubaiyat
The hardest questions in life are asked in innocence:
Why did my dog pass away?
Why do we have to die?
If one thing defines an absolute truth about life, it’s that things change, and quite often for the individual, they change for the worse. It’s can be a somewhat depressing fact of the universe that life is hard. It’s full of full of dangerous things that seemingly are dead set on making our lives risky: disease, radiation, war, volcanoes, old age, fast moving objects, predators; the list goes on endlessly. It’s an experience so universal that one could conclude that it is time itself that is set against us. The passage of time eventually destroys anything and everything that is conditioned, buildings, empires, our loved ones, us.
If time is our enemy then, it makes it important to know its nature. But time is a tricky thing to define. Many definitions end up in circles, and trying to nail it down beyond the somewhat unsatisfying statement that “time is what clocks measure” is the topic of many arguments among both scientists and philosophers.
But one aspect of time that’s beyond reproach is the Moving Finger that Omar Khayyám addresses in his verse above: the truth that time moves inexorably from the past and into the future, and while redemption, forgiveness and reparation may be found, there is no undoing of past mistakes. This is the Arrow of Time. Life has no save points. There is no [CTRL] + [Z] in physical reality.
But why exactly is this? Both classical and quantum mechanics fall short here. In mechanics, there is no particular reason why time has a direction. Consider a movie where two billiard balls collide perfectly, each going off in their own direction. Play this movie backwards, and there is no apparent problem: the motion of the balls backwards to collision and outwards to their initial positions seems to the human eye a perfectly reasonable proposition. This process is what’s known as reversible.
However, when we just have two billiard balls on our table, things are simple. But if we have a whole game of pool things become trickier. A cue ball smashing into the triangle of balls is a process that’s not completely impossible to reverse, but would take very careful measurement and setup of initial conditions to make all the balls move back together in a triangle and then spit out the cue ball with all their combined energy. You can be absolutely sure that this will not happen randomly. And as the game gets bigger, the complications to reversing processes become all but impossible.
Let’s now say we do something horrible: we light a tree on fire, make a movie of it, and play it in reverse. Now something in this picture strikes our intuitions (and hopefully also our conscience) as clearly wrong. Thermal fluctuations and atmospheric ashes do not direct themselves inwards, their turbulent flows becoming smooth, concentrating until the carbon glows red hot, and all this energy being used to split and then fuse oxidized carbon atoms together into an intricate matrix of carbohydrates and metals that is capable of sustaining itself by energy from the sun. This simply does not happen by itself. The process of burning a living thing is utterly irreversible, so take care if you are ever contemplating doing so.
To get a grasp of the extent of the physical reality that underlies this irreversibility, look around you. If you are reading this in the comfort of your home, your first impression may be that not much is happening. This is an illusion. Our perception is attuned to the narrow band of phenomena where saber-toothed tigers pounce and beautiful people dance, because these are the things we need to be able to react to in order to survive and reproduce. Nevertheless, the physical reality is that all things are constantly in a state of relative motion. Clouds look initially static as you gaze on them, but as you keep staring, it becomes apparent that they are in flux, shape shifting as they pass overhead. So it goes with windows, tables, computers, mountains, planets.
If all things then are in motion as time passes by, what in this is the cause of our loss and grief?
The examples of reversibility and irreversibility above show us something about nature: as soon as things get complicated, they also become irreversible. But why exactly is that?
The answer to both of these questions is one that’s purely probabilistic in nature. There are many ways that a game of pool can go after we hit the cue ball, but very, very few that land us back in the situation we started in. There are many ways that the particles of the tree can fly once it’s lit on fire, but incredibly few ways that they can fall back together to be a tree.
The Law of Hard Knocks then, to which Murphy’s Law is but a lemma, is that there are many, many more ways that things can go wrong than ways that they can go right. Leave things up to random chance, and the dice is overwhelmingly loaded against you. That’s life.
This law is mathematically codified in physics as The Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that as time passes, entropy in a closed system increases. Entropy is the property associated with the number of ways a given system can arrange itself. The Second Law is widely celebrated as the surest thing in science. Because it is an intrinsic property of systems of any real complexity, it’s not just that we can’t imagine how the universe would look without the Second Law, it’s that we can’t imagine any universe without it. The great physicist Arthur Eddington, who is credited for coining the concept of the Arrow of Time, once stated:
“The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation”
He also made it clear that the Arrow of Time, the property of time moving in one direction only, is solely a property of entropy. However, he also stated that even though it doesn’t have any other physical properties, it is immediately recognizable by consciousness. Any observable process that doesn’t make sense when run in reverse is subject to the Second Law. And the Second Law deems that as time passes by, all things must return to dust. Does it absolutely have to be this way? No, because the Second Law isn’t absolute. There’s a chance that things can randomly run in the opposite direction, but this chance is so vanishing small that it’s easier to regard it as impossible.
Entropy has some properties related to the human condition that are worth noting:
It is the mechanism that causes bad things to happen.
It is the mechanism of impermanence.
It does not map to any physical property except the configuration of matter and energy as it relates to something else. In other words, it has no essential nature, only relational nature.
These three properties map disturbingly well to the three marks of existence as witnessed by Buddha several thousand years ago, once again lending credence to the argument that the Second Law is all-pervading not just scientifically, but also on the scale of humanity.
So if all things are at the mercy of the Second Law, why is it then that we’re surrounded by order? Truly if we look around us there are a great many things that are set in order, much higher than it was when say, the Earth first cooled billions of years ago?
There is an aspect of entropy that seems to clash with itself: chaos can lead to order. Death can lead to life. All it takes is a mechanism that constrains entropy to rise in a certain way. Because the Second Law states that entropy is always on the rise in a closed system, and systems aren’t generally closed. Think of a windmill: it’s an arrangement of matter that causes something very chaotic, the weather, to be turned into something very ordered, electricity. Though it causes turbulence and therefore increases entropy in its environment, internally in the mechanism, entropy is reduced.
Let’s go back and have another look at the burning tree example. As it turns out, there is a process that comes very close to describing our impossible reversed burn scenario of gas, ashes and energy turning back into a tree: the growing of the tree itself. Through photosynthesis and other self-organized metabolic pathways, the tree grows, taking in energy from the sun, carbon from the atmosphere, and minerals from the ground. How then is this not in conflict with the Second Law? Because the tree is not a closed system. The sun’s rays come from the nuclear processes taking place in its core, which are very high entropy, but the rays themselves transmit lower entropy to the tree which utilizes them to create itself. In other words, the seed of the tree creates constraints that limit the number of possible ways the future might look for the tree, until the seemingly impossible happens with a high probability: the miracle of life.
Likewise, if you eat an apple from the tree, you increase the entropy in the apple by digesting it, which then leads to a lowering of entropy locally in your organism and thereby staving off your own demise. It takes the death of the apple to support your life. All this happens because you and the tree and all life is carefully yet robustly arranged in a configuration that allows for entropy to flow out of one subsystem and into another, and as long as the total entropy for the system is on the rise, the Second Law is appeased. Internally in the sun, entropy is always rising and eventually it will die. But here on Earth, that process of dying is the root cause of weather, photosynthesis, brains, trees, apples, puppy dogs, space probes, ancient sages and great Arab poets. It is a misunderstanding that entropy must necessarily end in total death and decay. It can just as well turn to life.
These constraints on the flow of entropy are so carefully arranged that they can perpetuate themselves, flexibly and with small variations so that they can always respond to the changes in their environments, just like the windmill turns into the wind, propagating endlessly and diversifying into endless forms most beautiful and wonderful. We call this mechanism of constraint propagation Evolution, which is arguably the most elegant explanatory tool we’ve ever encountered. Evolution is the mechanism that has life locked in a dance with the Second Law, ever postponing the inevitable and doing so with unfathomable beauty and efficiency for the last 4 billion years, exactly because the universe is such a dangerous place. The very thing that is trying so hard to kill you is the source of all the complex forms you hold dear.
Life is hard. As soon as we’re old enough to perceive the world, this becomes apparent. But if life wasn’t hard, we’d have no reason to exist the way we do.
What remains is the question: what do we call this this eternal double-sided law of entropy and evolution, yin and yang, death and life, creation and destruction?
The Chinese named it the Dao. I choose to call it Entheos, the Divinity of Change, the dynamic of cause and effect.
It is the core conveyor of creativity in the universe, a law that transcends the material, independent on everything but the interconnectedness of all things.
The worship of Entheos is nothing other than effecting change, by creating the constraints and frames into which your life flows by itself.