Against chaos: The world is a hard place, but maybe humans aren't to blame
When we see problems in the world, we're quick to blame someone—anyone—who should be providing peace, love, and harmony. But the universe actually bends toward chaos and decay.
As Bertolt Brecht said, “Grub first, then ethics.”
A lot of people have an expectation that society ought to work in uniform harmony and affluence, and any deviation from that is an outrage that requires identifying which bad people made it possible.
And when I began Enlightenment Now I wanted to really orient the reader in a very different mindset about the human condition. As we find ourselves in the universe nothing is expected to work in our favor, beginning with what many scientists consider one of the most fundamental of scientific discoveries, namely the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the law of entropy.
Namely, that in a closed system—one that isn’t receiving inputs of energy or information—disorder naturally increases.
The ability to do useful work/life-enabling structure. Just because there are astronomically so many more ways for things to go wrong than things to go right by any definition of things going right. So right from the start we don’t have any right to expect that the universe is going to be particularly kind to us.
Indeed, the universe is not out to get us, but it just doesn’t care about us, and there’s a lot of ways for things to go wrong unless we deploy energy and information to carve out local zones of beneficial order that keep us alive and healthy and happy.
That’s a different way of just thinking about the human predicament, namely we constantly have to expend effort, intelligence, knowledge in order to make things work, and our background expectation should be that things fall apart.
It’s advances in energy capture that lead to the beneficial complexity of life.
Perhaps back to the axial age, the period of about 800 years in the first millennium B.C. which saw the emergence of a number of moralistic philosophies arising in different parts of the world around the same time.
The age of classical Greek philosophy, the age of the Hebrew prophets, of Confucius, of Buddha, a kind of uncanny coincidence seemingly of movements that went from merely propitiating gods and making sacrifices and begging him for victory and better weather and relief from misfortunes to a more universal system of human betterment, human flourishing.
So what led to this development seemingly in different parts of the world at the same time?
According to one hypothesis by a team of scholars including Ian Morris and Pascal Boyer and Nicolette Molnar, there were gains in energy capture in the ability to use the products of agriculture – oil and fiber and calories from food to allow for a priestly cast separate from the people who actually have to scratch out a living from the ground.
And also, once people’s minds are elevated from just putting a roof over their head—or to keeping the wolf at the door, where their next meal is coming from—they have the cognitive luxury to think about, “What’s it all about? Why are we here? What do we strive for?”
And according to this theory it was something as mundane—but really not mundane—as energy capture: Not mundane given that the second law of thermodynamics governs our fate unless we can push it back.
And so perhaps it’s not such a homely pedestrian explanation for how so many civilizations made this leap to further moral horizons.
When we see problems in the world, we're quick to blame someone—anyone—who should be providing peace, love, and harmony: politicians, celebrities, parents, etc. But the universe actually bends toward chaos and decay. That's the second law of thermal dynamics. And the most we humans can do is stave off the inevitability of decline through the organization of resources and information. So next time you're feeling particularly outraged, just remember that it's an uphill battle that civilization is fighting. And the more plentiful resources and information become, the more secure we are from a nature that's red in tooth and claw.
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Vanchurin interview:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="539759cbfd8fcd5b6ebf14a3b597b3f9"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bmyRy2-UhEE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Vanchurin on “Hidden Phenomena”:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="18886ffd5e5840bb19d4494212f88d82"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/2NDVdNwsHCo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>Vitaly Vanchurin speaking at the 6th International FQXi Conference, "Mind Matters: Intelligence and Agency in the Physical World." The Foundational Questions...
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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