A brief digression into life, entropy and cosmic teleology

I suppose I should publish something every once in a while to show that I’m still alive. So …

Why life? Why is our little speck of the universe teeming with complex things that move, reproduce and evolve, all in apparent opposition to the entropic laws that push the rest of the universe closer and closer to a dull, cold uniformity? The secular, scientifically minded among us deny that there is any cosmic teleology which places life on a pedestal, but there’s no denying that living things are quite different from everything else. Life is dynamic and proactive, in stark contrast to the passive and reactive clumps of matter which characterize everything else. Having rejected the élan vital, what is left to explain this dichotomy?

In his 2012 book “What is life?”, Addy Pross offers us ‘dynamic kinetic stability‘ to answer the titular question. Upon reading that compact and clearly articulated text, I was smitten with the idea. But I was also left wanting more. If there is an alternate form of stability that stands in opposition to the stability realized in thermodynamic decay, does it exist on its own as some sort of new law, or is there another explanation for it?

In 2016, Nick Lane published “The Vital Question” to explain the energetic underpinnings of life and it’s advance into greater complexity. I came away with the image of life as an engine for the burning of fuel, and it occurred to me that perhaps Pross’ dynamic kinetic stability is not in competition with thermodynamic decay, but is rather a duplicitous aid to the cause.

Life perpetuates states of low entropy with seemingly reckless disregard for the second law. Or so it wants you to think. Yes, the astounding ordered complexity of living things is, by definition, a low entropy state. But look at what that living thing is doing. It is consuming, transforming and destructing the world around it. Energy is being burned at a rate far beyond that which occurs in its lifeless surroundings. At the micro level, entropy has been lowered by the presence of life, but at the macro level, life is an insatiable engine for the increase in entropy as it proliferates throughout the world it inhabits – even as selection favors the growth of populations and optimizes that which, in isolation, increases entropy at the highest rates.

So is that it? Did life arise, and persist against the pull of entropy at the micro scale, because it wielded a remarkable power to accelerate thermodynamic decay at the macro scale? Could it be that entropy, the universal law of death and decay, is in fact also the cosmic teleology which has brought us life? It seems plausible to me. Of course, I could be wrong – and none of this explains how we got into that low entropy state in the first place.

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10 thoughts on “A brief digression into life, entropy and cosmic teleology

  1. “I suppose I should publish something every once in a while to show that I’m still alive.”

    You could always post a short video of you jumping in puddles! (Or would it be snowdrifts?)

    This inane comment just to show that (1) I’m still alive also, and (2) I’m still reading your posts. Happy holidays/Christmas/New Year/Mithramas/Normal life! (Choose as many as you like!) 🙂

  2. “Did life arise, and persist against the pull of entropy at the micro scale, because it wielded a remarkable power to accelerate thermodynamic decay at the macro scale? Could it be that entropy, the universal law of death and decay, is in fact also the cosmic teleology which has brought us life?”

    I am not that fluent on the topic but I am sure how any sort of teleology would work without something that has purposes.

    • As previously noted, there’s certainly poetic license at play here, but if we allow that teleology is in some sense analogous to the relation between means and ends, then it could be said under this observation that life is a means toward achieving the cosmic end of higher entropy.

      • I’m not sure I understand here: I was taught that cause and effect is a product of entropy, that it is entropy that grants us direction to the arrow of time, that entropy is in practical terms the quantity of energy in a thermodynamic system that is unavailable to do work.

      • That is all consistent with my understanding as well. If we step into the arrow of time (the perspective from which this is offered) then we see that the universe as a whole (the macro scale) is statistically inclined toward increased entropy and that life accelerates this, even though entropy is low in the things which are themselves alive, by rapidly increasing the amount of energy which is unavailable to do work when it “consumes” free energy.

      • It’s this assumption that the universe should be considered “as a whole” – as a closed system – that is the root problem here because it doesn’t fit what we do know, what reality demonstrates is the case. This is the problem assuming ‘classical’ physics is the right model, the model that explains entropy! The problem is, it doesn’t. And that’s why quantum physics and field theory overturns classical physics. Classical physics works just fine most of the time but is not explanatory – and simply does not fit – at the very small and very large ends of the data sets we do have. Because life is such an infinitesimal small segment of the universe’s energy use we have access to study, I think it is pure hubris to then assume this is somehow intended to accelerate entropy, that this is somehow the butterfly wing that is assumed to be intended to create a hurricane half a world away.

      • tildeb,
        I’m sorry. I don’t quite follow what it is that you’re objecting to. I never said anything about the universe as a closed system, or classical physics, or an explanation of entropy. I’m taking the second law as a general principle and proposing that perhaps it explains rather than opposes life. In fact, when I started searching around to see if there was something I’m missing that might help me understand your concerns, I discovered the ideas of Jeremy England and at first blush, that looks to be pretty similar to the (much simpler and unqualified) notion that I’m offering.

What do you think?

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