The Ultimate Fate of The Universe
Entropy and wishful thinking
Entropy can be understood as a measure of disorder and, per the second law of thermodynamics, it tends inexorably to increase in a closed system. As a state of maximum entropy is reached, a heat death (also known as the Big Freeze) is bound to be the end state of the universe.
There’s no escaping entropy, then. Or is there? Sometimes I like to think that humans can beat entropy. I don’t mean that complex organisms such as ourselves are an indication that entropy can be reversed — they aren’t. I mean that perhaps humans, through their intelligence and agency and purpose, can beat it.
It occurs to me that, if entropy is essentially a statistical phenomenon — think of randomly fluctuating particles that are infinitely more likely to end up in configurations indistinguishable from one another than otherwise, that is, configurations that are uniform and uniformly boring, where nothing “interesting” can happen — could it not be the case that if particles had intentions and the power to act on them, the statistical view would lose ground? Can’t humans be seen in that light?
No doubt physicists would have little trouble dismantling this idea of mine in no time. Albert Einstein himself referred to entropy and the second law of thermodynamics as the only insights into the workings of the world that would never be overthrown.
Still, one could argue that, since understanding ultimate reality is so hopelessly beyond our reach, and that no matter what we believe and think we know about the functioning of the cosmos, we can never truly grasp it, then why not just believe whatever makes us happy and gives hope and purpose? Well, an answer to that is that, even if we may never fully grasp the ultimate essence of the universe (our understanding of reality may resemble an asymptote: we may forever increase it without ever completing it), we do understand a lot of its workings. We have made lots of progress in that regard, and no doubt will continue to do so in the future.
It’s clear then that we can’t just make up our own reality by pretending we know nothing. We do know a lot.
So at most perhaps we can opt to imagine whatever we like with respect to what we do not yet know — an ever-diminishing realm. But it is unacceptable, I think, to substitute comforting made-up stuff for what is clearly understood already about the nature of reality, that is, the laws of physics (and chemistry, biology, etc.).
Surely not everyone agrees with this. Some claim they do, but in reality question and even reject outright what is already established science and make up instead anything they want in order to make sense of their lives.
We shouldn’t necessarily mock or disdain such positions. Life is hard. The cold facts of science offer neither comfort nor meaning. On the contrary, they reveal our utter insignificance. Most of what we cherish, of what we regard as the pillars of our existence, seems to collapse under the indifferent revelations of science. So it’s understandable that people choose to believe whatever makes them happy, and if there’s not a shred of evidence for such beliefs, so be it.
For my own part, I find it difficult to adopt such positions. I tend to accept reality as revealed by science, however discomforting it may be. And I tend to leave alone what we don’t know. This isn’t easy. I think we humans have great trouble in leaving gaps in our knowledge empty. What we don’t know we like to fill with whatever conjecture we can come up with. And even with respect to deep existential questions, not only do we not dwell on them for long, we mostly don’t care! We just live — mostly without reflection, without awareness of much of anything. We go about our lives busily following our instinctual urges and satisfying our bodily and psychological needs. And when we do stop to reflect a little, still we often make stuff up and go on as before (this is not necessarily a bad thing). My imagining we can beat entropy is one example.