ENTROPY AND THE NECESSITY OF EVIL
Ordinary English reserves the term 'evil' for what is morally sinister, but philosophers and theologians have for centuries lumped all of life's 'minuses' together under that rubric, giving 'evil' a very wide signification. They have distinguished 'moral evils', such as wars and crimes and self-destructive vices and the damage they cause in human life, from 'natural evils', such as diseases and the destructive effects of earthquakes and tornadoes. The inevitability of death itself is regarded by many as one of the greatest of natural evils...
Clearly, the entrenchment of evils in our world poses a practical problem for living things generally: how to survive in such a seemingly hostile environment. Human beings, moreover, all face the existential problem of whether and how a life laced with suffering and punctuated by death can have any positive meaning.
Evil might be considered that suffering and apparent wrongness which springs from the indifference or malevolence of one part of Nature, human or otherwise, towards another.
The so called "problem of evil" has historically been to justify this suffering and wrongness with the proposition that the world, the cosmos, the Divine, is in some overall sense, good.
We see tragedies everywhere. Is evil really the explanation for this? Why does a college student find himself paralysed when another car slides into his? Why does a young mother in her prime learn that she has an incurable disease and is certain to die within a year? What purpose can be served by this? Why do all die, whatever good or evil they have done counting as naught when it comes to extending life? Why should a good life, or any life, be rounded with a certain death?
These questions are hardly new. Job in the Old Testament is visited by a sequence of awful afflictions which descend on him. Job is a good and just man we read, with a great household of seven sons and three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred oxen and five hundred she-asses, along with a large complement of servants, which together, we are told, render him the greatest man of the East. In short order Job sees his oxen stolen, his servants slain, his sheep consumed by a fire from heaven, his camels taken by brigands, and his sons crushed in their house by a great wind. Then he is afflicted with boils from head to foot. He is a good man and blameless, yet he suffers as an arch-criminal might. Why?
The Bible tells us that it was because of a power struggle between God and Satan over Job's loyalty to God. The gist of the story of Job is that Job's faith in God and God's goodness is justified, and in the end Job is amply rewarded. Job recovers all his animals in double, and his sons and three beautiful daughters. He lives to the grand age of 140, again the greatest man of the East and richer in every way. Job never lost his faith in the Divine wisdom and in the overall rightness of things, although he could not understand how this could be squared with the undeserved cataclysms which rained down on him.
I wish to suggest that Job's belief may be truer to the way Nature is constituted than is our modern disbelief in a divine rightness to things. All of the undeserved suffering and cataclysms can, I think, be shown to be necessary for the emergence of a condition of perfection, a divine state of being. Mankind, I would submit, and all life, every individual, will find his/her suffering redeemed as Job did. The suffering that exists will be seen as a necessary part of the route leading to this great condition, and plays an essential role without which the divine condition could never be attained.
Such is the Problem of Evil viewed from a classical or religious standpoint. Now let us look at it from a more scientific approach.
The Role of Entropy
Most of the world's evils, as well as its blessings, can be traced back to two abstract concepts: entropy and its opposite, order.
How, one may ask, can sickness, poverty, famine, disease, pain, wars and misery be traced back to entropy? What is this entropy that it can intrude on an examination of evil? How can health, wealth, plenty, good fortune and happiness be connected with order?
The reason for these questions is not just idle speculation -- it is because much of what we consider evil in the world appears on closer examination to be there because of entropy, and what is good from order, seen from a distance. So let us take a long look at entropy and its opposite, order.
"Entropy": a strange Greek word with a meaning which is hard to pin down. In the original Greek it meant "transformation". When it was taken over by scientists it acquired a different sense. It is a concept swirling in mystery to the average layman. Yet to physicists entropy is capable of a precise mathematical meaning, just as "force", "mass" or "velocity" are. Unlike these quantities, entropy cannot be felt or seen directly. It does not deal with single objects but with assemblies of things. Entropy, like air, is real but invisible. It is interesting because it is global in scope, covering every physical system in the universe, yet equally applicable to small events. Perhaps most important of all, entropy is a physical concept that has the deepest implications for the long term development of the cosmos: what is and what isn't possible in it.
In 1824, Sadi Carnot, a young French army engineer (and son of Napolean's Minister of War) published a book about the operation of the steam engine, with a view towards increasing the efficiency of French steam engines. At the time the steam engine was still a relatively new device and its theoretical principles were not fully understood. Carnot discovered that the amount of work which a steam engine could do was dependent on the drop in the steam's temperature as it pushed the piston in its cylinder. The higher the original temperature of the steam and the lower its final temperature, the greater the engine's efficiency. If there were no difference in temperature, the engine could do no work and would be useless.
In the early 1850s, these findings were expanded by William Thompson of Britain and Rudolph Clausius of Germany. They found that in any conversion of one form of energy to another (e.g. in the steam engine, from its heat energy to the mechanical energy of its pistons) there is a decline in energy available to do future work. This decrease in working energy received the name "entropy". Entropy, then, is simply a quantitative measure of the drop in some packet of energy's capacity to do useful work. Energy itself, of course, can neither be created nor destroyed; that is the gist of the famous First Law of Thermodynamics. The equally famous Second Law states that in any actual conversion process, energy is rendered slightly less useful. Cool steam in the condenser can do less work than hot steam in the boiler.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics as formulated by Thompson and Clausius had a greater message. It implied that in a world where everything was at the same temperature (physicists call this "equilibrium"), no useful work of any sort could be done. It is not heat that allows work to be done, but differences in temperature or energy levels. To get work done, energy must flow from one part of a system to another. It is this energy flow that does the work.
Entropy is also intimately connected with the degree of disorder or randomness of a system - and its opposite, order. To see why, consider a jar filled with red and white marbles. If the marbles are separated with the red marbles all on top and the white marbles underneath, we would call this more orderly than if they were all mixed up together. If the separated red marbles all represented a hot part of the system and the white marbles a cool part, we could get useful work out of the system, for there would be a flow of energy from the hot to the cool part. But if the marbles were all jumbled up together, i.e. randomly distributed, there would be no hot or cool part of the jar; it would all be the same lukewarm temperature. We could get little work out of the mixture.
A new word is needed to describe order; two terms have come into common usage: "negentropy" (for the negative or opposite of entropy) and "information" (which implies order).
Let's take some concrete examples to show the relation of orderliness to the generation of useful energy. A log is a highly ordered collection of molecules, a remnant of an even more highly ordered living tree. When you set fire to a log it becomes increasingly disordered, until at the end of an evening only ashes remain. Along the way you were able to get useful energy, heat, from the log. At the end it is entirely disorderly, "run down", and you will not be able to get a new fire from the cold remaining ashes.
Entropy applies to the sun and stars. Each star considered as a system undergoes increasing entropy as it emits heat and light. Over great eons of time, each star will eventually exhaust its nuclear fuels and never shine again. It will then be thoroughly run down, be "stellar ashes" unable to heat a planet or sustain life in its vicinity. Its entropy will have increased to a maximum.
Entropy applies, of course, to living creatures as well. A horse, or indeed anything else alive, is a highly ordered collection of organic molecules. As long as it stays alive it can do useful work, such as pulling a plow. But when a creature dies, it loses its ordered structure and its capacity to do any work.
We also know that there are many physical processes in which order is in fact built up. The growth of an oak tree from an acorn is just one example. How can such typically life-like types of behavior be explained? And how can the existence of living growing organisms be reconciled with the concept of entropy?
The answer is that the entropy process can be put into reverse, so to speak. When the ordered material of a log fire (logs) is turned into disorder (ashes), energy (the fire) is generated. But where energy is injected into a system and absorbed rather than generated, it is possible to create order. That is, a flow of free energy (such as sunlight) across a physical system can reverse the tendency towards disorder and produce a higher degree of structure. This can be shown to be true even with such simple devices as steam engines; but it has much broader implications with reference to life.
Life, from a physical standpoint, is a process a little like fire. Every living organism generates heat which it radiates away. Like the log, this is associated with increasing entropy. Left alone every organism will move towards a state of maximum entropy. This is a state of ashes for the log, and disintegration (death) for the organism. Like the fire in the hearth, the fire of life can only maintain itself if fuel is added to it. For living creatures this fuel is quite simply - food.
As the physicist Erwin Schroedinger succinctly put it "...the device by which an organism maintains itself stationary at a fairly high level of orderliness (= fairly low level of entropy) really consists in continually sucking orderliness from its environment" via the act of eating. " '[It] feeds upon negative entropy' [ordered foodstuffs], attracting, as it were, a stream of negative entropy upon itself, to compensate the entropy increase it produces by living and thus to maintain itself on a stationary and fairly low [entropy] level."
An organism can resist the trend towards disorder as long as it continually incorporates new ordered material into itself. This is the importance, the vital importance, of food.
Where does the food itself get its original living order? Ultimately it is by absorbing energy from an outside source. At the bottom of the long food chain lies the sun; all green plants absorb the sun's energy, via photosynthesis and use it to build up order and structure in their own systems. This order can then be passed on to animals which eat plants for food. It can be further transmitted to carnivorous animals which feed on the flesh (and order) of those animals which eat plants. Living creatures can thus not only resist the universal tend towards increasing entropy (disorder) but, on a small scale, counteract it, up to the limit of the entropy generated.
But by far the most important aspect of negative entropy and the universal requirement for food is that the evolution of all life hangs on this struggle for existence, caused by a geometric growth in creatures and an arithmatic increase in food supplies. Under such conditions the stronger, the faster, the more intelligent, the more efficient in what they do, i.e. the fittest, survive and reproduce their kind. Any advantage multiplies a creature's capacity to survive. Over time this battle for negentropy gives rise to new species, new families, new orders, and an almost unrecognizable increase in the forms of life. Without such a struggle for existence there is no reason to believe that life would have undergone such an explosion of forms and increase in complexity. We, the human species, are here because of the battles for negentropy of our earliest animal forebears.
Now let us deal with the problem: "Why is there evil in the world?" from several different angles, and on each provide answers which spring from a new understanding of entropy and its opposite, order:
1) Question: Why is there any suffering among conscious beings, animal or human? Couldn't the Creator, or Whatever It Is in the scheme of things, make it so that life could exist without the terrible natural mishaps that occur, and the savagery of beasts and human beings who wound, kill and then eat each other? Why were things not constituted otherwise so that these terrible apparent evils could be avoided?
Reply: There is inescapable suffering, " natural evil", for a variety of reasons. One is due to Nature itself, in the form of floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornados and the like, which are unwittingly destructive of life. There is no evil intent on the part of Nature, merely the elements at work following a natural pattern, into which human beings just happen to be thrown. Natural evil arises, and suffering occurs, in part because of a lack of information on the part of the individuals. Had the skiing party known of loose snow and an impending avalanche, it would have chosen a different slope to ski on.
More fundamentally, natural evil is due to the very structure of life itself. As detailed above, every living creature needs to incorporate "negative entropy" into itself. In animals, this means ordered food molecules. This "negentropy" can then be tapped to compensate for the entropy generated by those same animals just in being alive, i.e. via the metabolic reactions in the individual cells, in moving about and generating the heat of a normal body temperature. This is true of human beings, cats, dogs, birds, worms and bacteria. That is, generating entropy is a universal phenomenon of life, which must be compensated by the living creature incorporating into itself an equal or greater amount of negentropy, or it will die.
The struggle for food, and to avoid being eaten, at every level of life is one of the most intense, continuous and all consuming activities of living creatures. It also is responsible for their worst miseries: not just the compelling drive of hunger but the equally terrible experience of being prey for other animals. Certainly much of the travail of human life over many thousands, even millions, of years has been due to this driving need for, this absolute necessity of, obtaining food. And this is true to an even greater degree in other species who literally do not know when, or if, they will next eat, or be eaten. There is no easy way out of this. One either eats or dies. If one eats, another dies. If one doesn't eat, it dies. This is one important reason why we have inescapable natural evil. Life as we know it could not exist without it.
Someone might ask "Why could not all forms of life live off the energy from sunlight, the way plants do through their mechanism of photosynthesis? This way there could be life but no pain and suffering." The problem is that photosynthesis can produce only a limited amount of available energy when compared with "standard" food (composed of ordered molecules). Photosynthesis provides only enough energy for a vegetative, sedentary existence. Plants don't move around quickly; they can't. Energetic movement and activity require a much more concentrated source of negentropy, i.e. the bodies of plants or animals as food, because there is a lot more available energy (negative entropy) in this more concentrated food. Thus if there is to be any evolutionary progression beyond plants, it must be in the form of plant eaters or flesh eaters.
There is also the natural evil of death. If nothing else gets us, death will come from a built in, genetically limited lifespan. This is paradoxically thought to be an asset to most species. The reason is this. Every species has some evolutionary niche (life cycle in the environment) which they inhabit. The more members of the species which pass through their niche, the faster the species can adapt to changing environmental conditions, i.e. evolve. Faster adaptive evolution means a better overall survival rate and more offspring. Thus species which develop or inherit a built in aging and death mechanism have an advantage, as a species, over those species which do not, because more of their individual members can pass through their niche during any given period. Over time the "programmed death" species will supplant the "eternal" group. What may seem, or be, bad for the individual can be good for the species.
(2) A second question is: even if there were some overall melioristic direction to evolution, how could we, or the Creator, endorse the hardships and deaths of so many innocent humans and animals to achieve that end goal? Often the wicked prosper and the good suffer. It seems unfair that one person should go through life with ease and another with endless struggle. War, disease, differences in wealth and natural abilities, rest on different people (and species) differently, without respect to their behavior or moral worth. When such beings die they are gone for good. Whatever good or bad comes out of evolution, the process can never repay, or undo, the evil done to them. How can one label this unfairness in degree of suffering as anything but an unmitigated evil?
Reply: The death of innocent individuals is morally explainable if all individuals are, on a deeper level, part of the same unitary Being. The identity which exists between A at time 1 and time 2 is fundamentally the same identity as that which exists between A and B as separate individuals. If it is morally proper for A to suffer at time 1 so that he may participate in a greater good at time 2, so also is it proper, on the largest scale of cosmic consideration, for individual A to suffer so that a later individual B will obtain a more rewarding life. This is not really a foreign notion for us. Parents sacrifice themselves for their children, and citizens fight and die for their country, in both cases so that another generation may flourish from their suffering. When the eventual reward substantially outweighs the past suffering, and the reward is not possible in any other better way, this sort of asymmetrical suffering participates in a greater overall good.
Granted, "everyday life ethics" rather than "universal or cosmic ethics" demands special equitable rules to govern our interpersonal human behavior in practice on this planet. But such local (or "Rawlsian") ethics are relevant only to human life, not to the great majority of all life and consciousness. As the cosmos evolves, a broader ethic applies. What one may call cosmic ethics allows us to see how a great legacy of apparent evil can be viewed as an essential part of a greater overall good. The overall mathematics of the Value Calculus makes their suffering, if it is necessary to achieve the greater cosmic good (which it is) eminently justifiable - by a factor of 10 (100) or more if we take the number 1 as that quantity encompassing all the suffering of all animal and human life on Earth for the past 1 billion years. An individual will endure a large amount of pain for a much greater amount of later happiness and this, we propose, is what is happening on a cosmic scale, in the divinization of the external and internal, the matter and Spirit of the cosmos.
(3) A further question: why must things evolve at all? Why didn't the Creator make the world perfect from the beginning. Why couldn't we just have a perpetually perfect condition, to remain so everlastingly?
Reply: A perfect state is not, we now know, a simple state but a highly complex one. This complexity requires, in physical terms, the coherent movement of energies, and a supply of (Gibbsian) free energy to move things. Structured consciousness, including happiness, requires the expenditure of such free energy. This commodity is not unlimited in the cosmos described by the Big Bang. The cosmos is largely unstructured at the moment of Creation and becomes more structured with time. Entropy is generated when free energy produces or modifies structure.
Over great reaches of time free energy will become exhausted. Contraction of the cosmos may begin and continue to a point where a new Big Bang can take place and start the process over again. Or the cosmos may expand indefinitely with free energy approaching zero over time, an apparent cosmic disaster if one values consciousness in its many and various forms.
(4) A final question: why is there moral evil - or sin - in the world? Why do people do things to others which seem meanly unnecessary, and which increase the sum total of suffering? It is one thing to eat to stay alive and quite another to kill an animal or human for "sport" or out of malice, or just to be deliberately mean and injurious.
Reply: This too comes from individuality and self-ishness; and the ignorance or incapacity to understand the essential identity of all consciousness. Such moral evil comes largely from ignorance. Lying, theft, bullying, mayhem are all instances of the immoral person's extreme concentration with (him)-Self rather than other, equally deserving selves. The wicked person acts to his own benefit at the expense of others because he does not recognize or understand that "other" as the mirror image of himself, and in large degree identical with himself.
To bring what is most desirable, those mental states that are intrinsically superior and without equal, requires knowledge and free energy to impose that order, in a quasi-permanent fashion, upon Nature itself. Nature generates this knowledge through the instruments fashioned by Darwinian natural selection, which turn out to be (on this planet) human beings. Nature does now have such complex living instruments, in the form of human beings, to impose and maintain that order upon itself.
Human beings are at one end of a long chain of increasing complexity generated by free energy from the Sun at the expense of the Sun's entropy. It took a great deal of time and competition for food (negentropy/order) to generate the intelligence and foresight of human beings. All of it was compensated for in entropy and suffering. But now the payoff stage begins. Nature, through her instruments, which are part of her, will begin to act upon herself and all that she contains to carve out of the buzz of consciousness the perfected state of Being.
1) The Problem of Evil, ed. by M.M. Adams and R.M. Adams. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1990). p.1.
2) Schroedinger, Erwin, What Is Life & Other Scientific Essays, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956, p.73.
3) ibid., p.73.
4) Metaman, by Gregory Stock. New York: Simon & Schuster (1993) p.322-323.
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