Cleaning up Entropy


“Why do I have to clean when it will just get dirty again?” Every child makes this argument at some point. Some of us made it many times. My mother did not take this questions seriously when I asked it for the first time at eight years old. She assumed I just wanted to get out of work. I legitimately wanted an answer to what I thought was a compelling philosophical query. Also, I wanted to get out of work.

“We have to clean because a clean house is nicer than a messy house,” she said to me. “Now go clean your room!”

Many years later, I told my boss in a restaurant job that, although I was perfectly willing to clean because it was my job, I did not like to do it. It bothered me, because I could not get over the fact that everything would just get dirty again.

“That’s a very childish attitude,” he told me. To his mind, that sort of self-indulgence was for kids, not working adults. Working adults get to work. He finished with, “Now go clean your room!”

There are two reasons why it might bother you to clean when everything will just get dirty again. The first is that you are lazy and childish, and you do not want to clean when you just got a new Call of Duty game and those enemy combatants are not going to shoot themselves. Your specific excuse might vary. The second reason is that you are a Deep Thinker™. Deep Thinkers™ think about things, like entropy.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy is always increasing. Every chemical reaction loses some of its energy to random heat. That random heat cannot be used in any physical reaction ever again. It is wasted. Every time anything happens, the universe gets a little messier. Eventually, the whole universe will be made of random heat and no physical reactions will ever happen again. There is nothing we can do about it. I know this. I cannot stop thinking about it, because that is the way my brain works. I am a Deep Thinker™. So why bother cleaning anything? Why bale out a sinking submarine?

Yesterday I was reading a book on self discipline. It was by turns annoying and inspirational in the way that self-improvement books always are. At least, the good ones. The book discussed the fact that people who achieve great success in life are long-term thinkers. They are willing to sacrifice happiness and gratification in the moment to ensure success and greater and happiness in the future. The book kept going on about this point. If you want to be a successful, be a long-term thinker. Successful people are long-term thinkers. All I could think was, yes, but they aren’t very long term thinkers. They think far enough into the future to see the payout on their investments and the fruition of their decades-long plans. But not long enough to see that they will eventually be withered and rotted and dead, and none of that will matter to them any more. They are not actually long term thinkers. They are goal oriented thinkers. That is a great thing to be. It leads to success. It is also a difficult thing to be, if you are a Deep Thinker™. We can see that being a Deep Thinker™ is a problem.

Rene Descartes, the “father of modern philosophy,” was definitely a Deep Thinker™. He wanted to figure out the fundamental underlying structure of the world. The first thing he had to do to achieve this was to tear down all of his embedded assumptions about how the world worked. After all, if mankind did not already have this stuff figured out – and it was obvious we didn’t – then that meant many of the basic assumptions mankind used had to be wrong. Descartes tore down his assumptions using a technique called radical doubt. Radical doubt is just what it sounds like. You doubt absolutely everything by default. There is no world, no matter, no god, no thought. They all might be illusions, and so you have to assume the do not exist are until you can prove otherwise.

Descartes then began to systematically add back into his worldview those things he felt had ironclad proofs for their existence. The first and most famous element he added was the self. This the famous “I think, therefore I am,” argument. Descartes reasoned that the very fact that you can think is irrefutable evidence of your existence. It makes intuitive sense. If you think “I don’t exist,” then how could you have thought that at all without first existing? Descartes went on to add back into his system God and mathematics, then build the rest of his philosophy on these central pillars.

That is all well and good, but it turns out that once you start down the path of radical doubt, it is hard to turn back. No matter how solidly you think you have proven that something exists, if you think about it enough you can always find some reason for doubt. Even Descartes believed it would driver you bonkers, if you did it too much. To the best of my knowledge, he did not actually use the word bonkers. Radical doubt is just one way to drive yourself nuts. Almost any sufficiently abstract method of parsing the fundamental nature of the world can lead to madness, if you dive too deep and stay in too long.

No matter how Deep a Thinker you are, you have to deal with the fact that you live in the real world. You have to learn to deal with the short term and the medium long term, ephemeral as they may be. Just because things will continue to get dirty does not mean you do not have to clean them. That does not mean it won’t frustrate the heck out of you. Why does the universe have to keep getting so messy all the time? Can’t we have a universe where things do not need to be cleaned? It turns out, according to Stephen Hawking at least, we very nearly did.

Hawking posits an early state of the universe, shortly after the big bang, in which all matter was evenly dispersed particles of equal mass. Think of a three dimensional grid all across the universe, with a single particle at each intersection, perfectly uniform. The law of gravity states that all objects with mass will exert a gravitational pull on everything else proportional to their mass. This means that in a universe full of equally sized particles, with equal mass and equal distance from each other, they would all also exert equal gravity. They would stay in perfect stasis with each other, unable to ever move. The good news is that no one would be have to clean anything. The bad news is that matter, stars, planets, and life would never form. You would not have any entropy, because nothing would be happening. But you would also not have anything happening.

The universe did not, in fact, stay this way. You might have noticed. This is because nothing is perfect. Space itself contains tiny imperfects, and there is no way that every one of those particles was perfectly even in mass. It does not take very much imperfection to get the ball rolling. Any change in the system, and some particles begin to move towards others. These particles bond together due to the force of gravity. Sooner or later, you have nebula, then stars, then planets, and eventually…pudding pops. Also life.

Life itself is dependent on entropy, because entropy is very nearly a necessary byproduct of an imperfect universe. There is a paradox here, because life is, in a sense, a defiance of entropy. It is not a literal defiance of entropy, because every chemical reaction in life produces waste heat, just like every other chemical reaction. But life moves towards increased complexity, while the universe, when looked at with a broad enough lens, does the opposite. From a more poetic perspective, any act performed by sentient beings that has meaning is an attempt to add complexity to a universe that is inclined to revert to less complicated forms.

The natural state of things is to get dirtier. Even if you never go into your room, it will get dustier all the same. Even if you never wear your socks, you will still lose them, as they decay and fall apart into individual sock molecules. There is nothing you can do about this. You cannot take away entropy. You can reduce the randomness in a closed system, but you cannot make it go backwards, and you can never get get the wasted energy back. In a very real sense, you can never clean your room, because you cannot restore it back to the sate it was in before. All you can do is create a new environment that does not appear dirty. Every act of maintenance, whether it be cleaning your room or daily exercise, is an act of creation. Every act of creation is a denial of the fact that the universe will eventually end in heat death, and in that moment nothing we do will have mattered. All life forms do this. Humans just happen to be the ones that realize what they are doing.

The element that distinguishes humans from other animals (let’s pretend there is only one) is that we care about things that do not matter right now. We make plans for the future because we prioritize things that we imagine over things we see in front of us. At a certain age, we gain the ability to forego a cookie now for two cookies in the future. We are also capable of making grander and more ambitious plans for the future, that go beyond even the acquisition of cookies, and we are willing to sacrifice current pleasure and gratifications to do it. We do this because we have highly developed predictive capabilities. We can not only predict the medium-long term with some accuracy, but we can care enough about that time frame to factor it in to our present actions. We can imagine the future, and it is important enough to us that it affects our present.

But we cannot imagine it too well. Humans have the ability to imagine and place importance on the medium-long term future, while simultaneously ignoring the actual long-term future. If we had the first ability but not the second, our species would die out, or else revert to a naturalistic pre-techological state. We would not make any plans, because we would spend all of our time dwelling on our inevitable demise. That would put a serious damper on career prospects.

Human beings have achieved a great deal because of our ability to think deeply. However, it is important not to discount how much we have achieved by not thinking deeply. Every act that has meaning, whatever that meaning may be, is a defiance of the fact that we will some day die, all of our work will be forgotten, and the universe will be a vast stretch of useless heat. Cleaning up is not only important, it is every bit as important as great works of art, literature, and science. Because it is the same thing. It the deliberate creation of complexity where there would otherwise only be chaos. Hopefully, next time you have to clean something, you can find comfort in that.

I know it has never helped me. I have dishes to wash, and I would have really appreciated a logical conclusion that would have gotten me out of it. Man, philosophy never helps anyone.


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