Remember the reason for the season

As we in the United States prepare to celebrate the 4th of July, also known as Independence Day, I want to remind my readers to think about the real reason behind the holiday.  This has a bit of the character of a devout Christian enjoining everyone to remember “the reason for the season,” at Christmastime, and I’m far from embarrassed by the comparison (though we have more immediate reasons to connect the 4th day of July with this celebration than Christians do with December 25th).

The celebration of the 4th in modern America—and for some time longer, as far as I know—tends to center on the launching of fireworks, nominally in recollection of the battle commemorated in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and on the celebration of the flag itself.  While I have no deep problem with enjoying those symbols, I am impatient with the fact that the flag has become the center of that celebration, and the focus of American patriotism, as well as with the blind and thoughtless idea of American exceptionalism, especially in the era of “Make America Great Again,” and other such vacuous statements.  We have become a people that, on the surface, seem to think of America as exceptional for reasons of fate, or Divine Providence, or some other mere happenstance.  But if America is great, it is not great in any set of its current circumstances, but in the ideas upon which it was founded.

I encourage everyone to reread, on the occasion of the celebration of the birth of the United States of America, The Declaration of Independence, and preferably also the United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.  These are the ideas at the heart of what America really means, and if America is ever to achieve the greatness made possible by those ideas, in any durable and important way, it will need to do so by commitment to the principles there described.

The key sentence of the Declaration of Independence is the second one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

These were revolutionary concepts, though they had their roots in the Enlightenment principle that the purpose of government is to serve the people governed.  In this they are very different from traditional “Judeo-Christian values” (despite those frequently being claimed as our government’s basis), for those ideas are inherently authoritarian and dogmatic, while those of America have more the character of the scientific method.  Governments are a means of solving problems, and must always, in principle, be open to revision and improvement.  This is perhaps the most important, the most crucial aspect of the Constitution:  not the famous division of powers, with its various checks and balances, excellent though those things are, but the idea that the Constitution is amenable to continual and constant revision and amendment, as new, hopefully better, ideas come to the fore.

The first ten such amendments are the Constitutional framers’ attempt to codify more fully the notion of “unalienable Rights,” as described by Jefferson in the Declaration, and are sensibly called The Bill of Rights.  They are the explicit statements that, no matter what expediency might seem to justify it, and even if a majority desire it, a government has no business infringing the rights of the citizens, even be it one individual whose rights would be infringed.

The very nature of American government, as it was founded, contradicts any notion of blind patriotism.  The nation, the law, the government, these are not ends in themselves, but are means to an end, and they serve the rights and well-being of the citizenry.  Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and when it fails to protect those governed, it is the right—many would say the duty—of the citizenry to make changes, for an infringement of the rights of any individual is a threat to the rights of every individual.

The United States is only great to the degree that it strives to live up to these ideals, which are still probably best expressed in its founding document.  This is what we should remember and celebrate on this anniversary of the birth of the nation:  not a flag, though the flag is nice; not a song, though the song is stirring; not fireworks, though they are fun, and the battle they recreate was no doubt impressive.  The United States of America is not a place, but an idea—the idea that government exists for the sake of the individual citizens of the country, not the other way around.  It is the duty of the government to protect and nurture the rights, the liberty, the pursuit of happiness of the people it serves, and dissent should not merely be allowed but is a fundamental duty.

Read the Declaration on this Independence Day.  Read the Bill of Rights.  Participate fully in your local, state, and federal government.  Vote.

And by all means, if you disagree with me (or with your government) feel free to say so and to do something about it.

I don’t want to believe

Fans of The X-files will no doubt recall the poster on Mulder’s office wall, with its stereotypical picture of a flying saucer and the words, “I want to believe” written on it.

Well, I for one don’t want to believe.

Despite being a fan of at least the first four seasons of The X-files, I don’t want to believe.  It seems bizarre to me that, as a culture (as a species?) we have elevated the notion of belief as a good thing in and of itself, and we often respond to people based upon the strength of their belief, as though it were a sign of personal strength, as though it were something we should admire or even emulate.  We’re often told that we need to believe in ourselves*, that we need to find something in which to believe:  a religion, our nation, a set of ideals, what have you.  Rarely are we ever enjoined to question whether this is always a good thing.

Given, however, that humanity’s greatest strength—the attribute that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom—is our ability to reason, it seems absurd that so many of us respond to, and even reward, those who accept the truth of propositions not adequately founded on evidence and argument.

I don’t understand this tendency, and I don’t think I really want to understand it.  To me, belief beyond the level justified by reason is not a strength—it’s not even neutral—it’s a weakness.  If your conviction doesn’t scale with the evidence, then you are, in a very real sense, deluded.  If your understanding of reality is out of sync with what reality is, then sooner or later you are going to collide with reality.  In such collisions, reality always comes out on top.  It can’t do otherwise; it’s reality.  I don’t just believe this; I’m thoroughly convinced of it.

Of course, at times I run afoul of the multiple meanings and connotations to the word “belief”, and I understand that this is a legitimate issue.  After all, when someone counsels others to “believe in” themselves, they rarely mean for them to believe without restriction or reservation.  They’re just advising people to have confidence in their own abilities—not to think that there’s nothing at all that they can’t do, but to recognize that they do have abilities, and can accomplish many things.  It’s hard to feel too critical about such advice, if it’s not carried it too far.  But even when we’re confident in ourselves—for good, sound, experiential reasons—it’s rarely good to believe that we’re the best in the world at everything.  It’s rarely even accurate to say that a given individual is the best in the world at anything.  If we can’t decide, from among a pool of a handful or fewer, who the world’s greatest basketball player is, then it’s pretty unlikely that there’s any one thing in the world at which any one person could readily be called the best.

We’re exhorted to believe in God, to believe in our country, to believe in a set of ideals, to believe in our political party, to believe in a philosophy—not as conclusions, but as starting points and, ultimately, as endpoints.  To maintain such beliefs persistently requires from one a near-paranoid protection from argumentation.  Such beliefs are delusional in character, even if they happen to be correct; if you believe something without having arrived at that belief honestly, then even if that belief happens to accord with reality, you can’t claim to be right.  You can only really consider yourself lucky to have stumbled into a valid conclusion.

I don’t want to believe; I want to be convinced by a body of reasoning, with my level of conviction always on a sliding scale, adjustable by new inputs of evidence and argument, and always—in principle—open to refutation.  If I’m not amenable to correction, I’m as much a victim of self-deception as a person who thinks he’s Napoleon.

I don’t really like to use the word “believe,” even in its more benign forms, such as when someone says, “I believe that’s true, (but I’m not certain)”.  I prefer to use such terms as “I think,” “I suspect,” “I’m convinced (beyond a reasonable doubt),” and “I wonder.”  When presented with a proposition that I consider highly unlikely, I like to use Carl Sagan’s polite but dubious phrase, “Well…maybe.”

In this, I’m much more in line with Scully than with Mulder.  I’m deeply skeptical of the whole panoply of paranormal perfidy such as that with which Mulder was obsessed, though I am open to being persuaded and convinced.  But I don’t want to believe, whether in the existence of the supernatural, or the rightness of certain political ideas, or in any religion, or in the power of positive thinking, or anything else without adequate support.  Faith, I think, is not a virtue, and I suspect that it never has been.  I’m convinced that doubt, reasonable doubt, is the virtue.  If that means that I’ll go through life never experiencing the untrammeled confidence of the true believer, that soaring, absolute conviction that I am on the side of right, and those who oppose me are not…well, good.  I’m sure non-sanity of that sort has its moments of joy, but I think I’d prefer skydiving or free solo rock climbing.  Those activities would be dangerous to myself, but at least they’re unlikely to endanger anyone else.

Belief is dangerous, because when it collides with reality, the believer is quite often not the only casualty of the collision.  Often the results are explosive and cataclysmic.  So I don’t want to believe.  And I really don’t want you to believe, either.

nonbelief

*this is perhaps the least objectionable form of belief, but it can still be problematic, as the personality disorders of some public figures shows.

What would you do?

Imagine there’s a person you hate more than you hate any other human being; indeed, this may well be the only person you truly hate, more than Hitler or Stalin, more than Ted Bundy, more than your most loathed and offensive political antitheses.

This person’s every habit disgusts and repulses you.  Their laughter is at best grating, and at worse rings false in your ears, less melodious than a braying donkey.  Their wit is sophomoric, their wisdom trite clichés.  Their physical presence is frankly appalling; they stink, their breath is nauseating, their hair and their body habitus are the quintessence of unattractiveness, their features are disturbingly asymmetric, their ears protrude oddly and unevenly, their nose is off-center, and their posture makes you feel uncomfortable.  Even their flatulence is exceptionally rancid, as though some of their own internal organs have already begun to decay while they still live.

Lest we be mired in the superficial, it’s also clear that this person is horribly selfish, petty, irritable, judgmental, condescending—hateful and misanthropic, nihilistic, dismissive of all possible goodness.  They wish foul and horrific vengeance upon even strangers who commit the most minor of offenses, and were they given power and impunity, they would no doubt leave much of the world a wasteland.

When you see others treat this person with courtesy, with kindness, and even at times with respect, you cannot comprehend how they could be so fully duped.  Do they not realize what a Lovecraftian monstrosity it is with which they are interacting?  Do they not recognize, at some level, how appalling and foul this person is?  Don’t they know that the few seemingly kind, or mildly impressive, things that this person does are merely traps full of inevitable betrayal and disappointment?  Don’t they realize that this person always fails those who rely upon him, always disappoints those who expect anything good from him.  Can’t they see, just by looking, that he’s the living refutation of goodness itself, the very force of entropic chaos made flesh?  Or perhaps that grandiosity pays too high a compliment?  Can they not at least see that he is utterly pathetic, as pointless as any slime mold, but with none of the biological interest and uniqueness that might justify attention or curiosity?

Does not at least some part of them—some deep, animal instinct for self-preservation—cause the hackles to rise on the backs of their necks when they get too close to this person?  Do they not find that he would be worthy of pity if he were not so inescapably repugnant, so completely deserving of each and every bad thing that happens to him?

What if you knew such a person?  What if that person were part of your life, and had been for as long as you could remember?  You’re encouraged to love this person, but that’s akin to someone recommending that you love Jeffrey Dahmer, or Timothy McVeigh, Pol Pot, or the Boston Strangler.  Maybe Jesus, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or other similarly elevated souls could honestly find it in their hearts to love this person, but for you…well, for you, a mere mortal, how can your attempts at love not be overwhelmed by all the ways in which this person is unlovable, the things you find impossible to ignore, even while others either brush them aside, or don’t seem to notice them in the first place?

Imagine some people even offered or suggested methods by which you could physically, neurologically, change how you respond to this person.  But that would surely be akin to imbibing Marx’s opiate of the masses.  Do they really think you would consider it a good idea to blind yourself to the presence of such a negative force?  Do they really think that such ignorance could ever be bliss?

They don’t know what you know.  If they did…well, if they did, they would share your loathing.

Imagine you knew such a person.  Imagine this person worked in the same place you worked, shared your commute, watched the same videos, read the same books; imagine you could never be free of this person’s reactions to these things, that you could never not be given their commentary on whatever you tried to enjoy, that their enjoyment made you suspicious that your own enjoyment was inappropriate, or even prurient.

Imagine that this person was with you wherever you went, waiting for you when you awakened in the morning, and still there when you finally were able to get them to stop annoying you enough that you were able to get to sleep—for too short a time, giving too little rest.  You never know a moment’s peace or freedom from this person in your waking life, and they often invade even your dreams.

There is no way you can escape from this person while you are alive, no way you can live free from the presence of the most loathsome, the most pernicious little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth, no respite from the disgust engendered by this person’s presence…

…because that person is you.  That person is yourself.

What would you do?

Dr. Pedantic speaks…or, well, actually, he writes.

At work yesterday, I was listening to the song “What You Came For (featuring Rihanna)” on our office music source.  This is not a rare occurrence; the song gets played at least once daily.  It’s one of those songs that has only a few lyrics, frequently repeated, but one doesn’t mind too much because the tune is catchy, Rihanna has beautiful voice, and listening to her voice conjures the image of Rihanna herself, which is never a bad thing.  The words, limited though they are, are evocative, and despite having heard them an uncountable number of times before, today one of the lines struck me, specifically, the declaration that “lightning strikes every time she moves.”

This sounds like the description of someone well worth avoiding.  I mean, if lightning strikes every time she moves, she would indeed be a very dangerous person.  Just how dangerous would depend on how we interpret “every time she moves”.  Does it count even if she merely twitches her finger?  Does breathing count as moving?  Imagine the carnage, to say nothing of the ozone, that would surround such a woman!

Then I thought more carefully and realized that I was drawing unwarranted conclusions.  After all, the lyrics just say that lightning strikes every time she moves.  They don’t say that lightning strikes where she is, every time she moves.  If we assume that lightning is striking somewhere on Earth at nearly every instant—and if that’s not quite true, it’s surely striking on Jupiter, and possibly also on Neptune, if not on Earth—it can honestly be said of pretty much anyone that lightning strikes every time that she, or he, moves.

It’s a bit like that old statement about drinking early in the day:  It’s always five o’clock somewhere.  Now, this at least cannot be strictly true.  It would only be precisely true every hour on the hour.  But one could make the statement accurate just by saying that it’s always after five somewhere, and that would take care of the nitpicking.

This led me to wonder just what generalizations that sound dramatic might be true in a trivial sense pretty much anywhere.  It didn’t take long to come up with some.  One could, for instance, make the seemingly terrifying statement that “everyone who pisses me off dies,” and be telling the truth (unless the transhumanist movement is correct, and some of the people who are currently alive will never die because of advances in technology).  Still, even if people end up extending their lives to a tremendous degree, it seems likely that the universe itself will eventually arrive at a state where no life of any kind is possible.  This is probably an inescapable consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (see here).  If there is no escape allowed by the laws of physics from this eventual universal heat death, it’s not unreasonable to say that everyone alive will eventually die.  Thus, it is a true statement—as far as it goes—that everyone who pisses me off dies.  It’s also true, unfortunately, that everyone who doesn’t piss me off dies.  But when you’re trying to be scary, I guess you’re not required to make full disclosure.

In a similar vein, one could threaten someone into doing what one wants by saying to them, “If you don’t do exactly what I say, you are going to die.”  This, again, is a true statement, even if the speaker never has any intention of killing or otherwise harming the person being addressed.  What’s more, even if the person does exactly what you say, they are still going to die.  It may take years—a dozen, a hundred, a million, a trillion, who knows?—but it’s a reasonable assumption that eventually each person will die.  That’s probably a better assumption even than the guess that lightning is always striking somewhere whenever a woman in a song moves.

The dread super-villain, Dr. Pedantic, might well choose to elaborate on his threats, saying, “If you do not do as I say, you will die.  And I don’t just mean that you will eventually die, but that you will die sometime within the next seventy-two hours, approximately, and it will be a painful, violent death at my hands—figuratively speaking—unless something else, by chance, kills you before I have the opportunity to do so.  And, of course, barring any intervening events that make it impossible for me to carry out a violent act upon you, such as my own death or capture.  However, these are relatively unlikely events, and though past performance is not a guarantee of future results, I have not yet failed to carry out such actions when they were warranted against someone who failed to obey my commands.  And to be clear, there have been other such people.”

Dr. Pedantic gets a bit boring sometimes, and his would-be victims occasionally lose track of what he’s trying to get them to do; he doesn’t quite get the art of using intimidating rhetoric.  Neither does he grasp the intention of such poetry as the statement that lightning strikes every time a woman moves; he doesn’t understand that the song is actually just saying that she is such a “striking” figure that, no matter what she does, she almost always seizes the attention of those who happen to observe her.

In any case, as the song says, whether or not lightning literally strikes every time she moves, it’s not that important, because even when everyone’s watching her, she’s looking at you.  Aren’t you lucky?  At least, you’re lucky if the words are figurative, much more than than you would be if she were, literally, emitting large bolts of discharged static electricity with every movement.

But even if the statement is meant in an entirely figurative sense, you’re still not safe.  After all, no matter what you do, everyone is going to die some day.

Probably.

A daily game of roulette

As someone who’s suffered from dysthymia—not infrequently veering into full-blown depression—since he was a teenager, and whose personal philosophy is borderline nihilistic, and who suffers from chronic pain, and whose marriage failed, and who spent three years in prison in Florida for trying (naively, it must be admitted) to help treat other people who have chronic pain, and who lost his license to practice a career he’d worked at for a very long time, and—this is the most unkindest cut of all—who doesn’t see his children because they don’t really want to see him (one of them won’t even interact with him); and as someone who bothers to keep going at all mainly just because he’s writing books and short stories, none of which may ever be read by anyone other than family members and possibly old friends…as such a person, each day for me is very much like a game of Russian roulette.

The cylinder with which the game is played is very big, to be sure, and there are many, many more empty chambers than that one full-but-oh-so-consequential one.  If there were not, the game would have long since ended.  Nevertheless, if one plays that lottery often enough, one is sure, eventually, to “win,” and I play it daily. It’s been a very long time—subjectively, it seems like a lifetime—since I’ve had a day without at least a moment in which I suspected that permanent oblivion would be a net gain when compared to its alternative.  There’s plain few days in which I never feel like just lying down in the middle of nowhere and never getting back up, just letting the elements do their implacable work. There are many days in which I fantasize about wading into the Atlantic Ocean (conveniently nearby) and then just swimming out, as far as I can, until I can’t swim anymore. (This latter idea is appealing because it causes very little inconvenience to others; one might as well not be rude).

I’m not sure what keeps the other chambers of that roulette gun empty, to be frank.  It’s probably nothing more than that mindless survival drive that was brutally driven into my biology by the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of natural selection.  There certainly isn’t much inherent to the continuing struggle that makes it seem anything but a pointless, Sisyphean task.  I often feel like one of Tolkien’s Ringwraiths:  they do not die, but neither do they grow or obtain new life; they merely continue, until at last each breath is a weariness.

What sensible person would bear these whips and scorns when he could his quietus make with a bare bodkin?

Well…so far, I would, it seems.  I’m far from convinced that it’s the correct choice.  I spin that metaphorical cylinder every day, and I am, quite honestly, not afraid of the day when the hammer falls on a live round…not in any real, deep way.  But the damnable organism that I am just mindlessly carries out its functions, at high and low levels alike, without so much as a “by your leave.”  It’s most inconsiderate.

I don’t really know what to say or do about all this.  I’m not really asking for help.  I’m a qualified medical doctor, though no longer in practice, and I understand the neurology and the neurochemistry and the psychology involved better than 99% of the general public.  I’ve called crisis hotlines before and was once handcuffed by imbecilic PBSO deputies for my trouble—causing nerve damage in my left wrist that lasted almost 2 years—before being brought to a squalid and pointless place where the limitations of our mental healthcare delivery systems became even more viscerally apparent to me than they had been before.  I don’t mean to go through that adventure again.

I’ve been medicated (the latter occasion a case in point), and I’ve been in therapy, and I’ve used neural stimulators and meditation.  I’m quite well read in the philosophy and science and fiction and poetry and music on the subject matter, let alone the trite, banal, condescending, and sometimes frankly insulting social media memes that relate to it.  I sincerely doubt that anyone has any arguments about the topic that I’ve never encountered nor thought of on my own.  After all, it’s a subject that’s consumed me for three quarters of my life, and I’m a voracious consumer of information, who has little to no social life to distract him.

I honestly don’t know that there is an answer, and I’m not even sure what question I should ask.  Nature isn’t obliged to be satisfactory of our wishes or convenient for our needs.  I don’t really even know why I’m writing this.  Maybe it’s just to avoid misleading anyone about me.  I have the faculty of humor, and tend to respond to things I find funny, and to try to make amusing comments, and to show appreciation for good intellectual points, and for noteworthy events, and for fine people and organizations.  I have a strong sense of curiosity, and I like to understand things, and to share matters that seem interesting.  Because of these facts, there are times when I probably seem upbeat and positive, happy and amused; indeed, there are probably occasional moments when those descriptions really do match my mood, if not my character.

Yet the game is always there, every day.  The cylinder spins, the hammer is cocked, the trigger is pulled, and the firing pin strikes—so far—an empty chamber.  I’m not talking about a real gun here, of course (I no longer can legally own one); it’s a metaphor.  But it’s a true metaphor.  The specifics of the game are not literally as described, but the stakes are just the same.  And one cannot, in principle, keep playing forever.  I frequently can’t help but wish that some happy turn of fortune would take the game out of my hands, preferably in a slow, degenerative, and painful fashion.  But such is not likely to be my fate; I come from a line of mostly physically robust forebears.  I guess the slow, degenerative, and painful process for me is the very thing I’ve been describing, the thing that makes me wish for something more direct and literal.  I don’t know whether that counts as irony, but it is certainly an impressive little twist of the knife of fate, and that, I guess, it the only other weapon with which I am met, even as I spin the wheel of the first one each day.

The undead of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld say that life is wasted on the living.  I’m often inclined to agree with them, at least about myself.

Not all the time.  But a lot of the time.  At least once a day.

Whether I need it or not.

The Irony of Entropy

If you’ve studied or read much physics, or science in general—or, more recently, information theory—you’ve probably come across the subject of entropy.  Entropy is one of the most prominent and respected, if not revered, concepts in all of science.  It’s often roughly characterized as a measure of the “disorder” in a system, but this doesn’t refer to disorder in the sense of “chaos”, where outcomes are so dependent upon initial states, at such high degrees of feedback and internal interaction, that there’s no way to know based on any reasonable amount of information what those specific outcomes will be.  Entropy is, in a sense, just the opposite of that.  A state of maximal entropy is a state where the outcome is always—or near enough that it doesn’t matter—going to be pretty much the same as it is now.  A cliché way of demonstrating this is to compare a well-shuffled deck of cards to one with the cards “in order”.  Each possible shuffled configuration is unique, but for practical purposes nearly all of them are indistinguishable, and there are vastly greater numbers of ways for a deck to be “out of order” than “in order”.

Let’s quickly do that math.  The number of orders into which a deck of fifty-two cards can be randomly shuffled is 52 x 51 x 50 x……x 3 x 2 x 1, notated traditionally as 52!  It’s a big number.  How big?

80658175170943878571660636856403766975289505440883277824000000000000.

To quote Stephen Fry on Q.I., “If every star in our galaxy had a trillion planets, and each planet had a trillion people living on it, and each person had a trillion packs of cards, which they somehow managed to shuffle simultaneously at 1000 times per second, and had done this since the Big Bang, they would only just, in 2012, be starting to get repeat shuffles.”  Now, how many ways are there to have a deck of cards arranged with the cards in increasing order (Ace to King) within each suit, even without worrying about the ordering between the suits?  If my math is correct, there are only 4! ways to do that, which is 4 x 3 x 2 x 1, or 24.  To call that a tiny fraction of the above number is a supreme understatement.  This comparison should give you an idea of just how potent the tendencies are with which we’re dealing.

You could describe entropy as a state of “useless” energy.  Entropy is, famously, the subject of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and that law states that, in any closed system, entropy always tends to stay the same or increase, usually the latter.  (The First Law is the one that says that in a closed system total energy is constant.)

When energy is “partitioned”—say you have one part of a room that’s hot and another part of a room that’s cold—there’s generally some way to harness that energy’s tendency to want to equilibrate, and to get work done that’s useful for creatures like us.  Entropy is the measure of how much that energy has achieved a state of equilibrium, in which there’s no useful difference between one part of the room and the other.

This draws attention to the irony of entropy.  The tendency of systems to become more entropic drives the various chemical and physical processes on which life depends.  Energy tends to flow down gradients until there’s no energy gradient left, and its this very tendency that creates the processes that life uses to make local order.  But that local order can only be accomplished by allowing, and even encouraging, the entropy of the overall world to increase, often leading to a more rapid general increase than would have happened otherwise.  Think of burning gasoline to make a car go.  You achieve useful movement that can accomplish many desired tasks, but in the process, you burn fuel into smaller, simpler, less organized, higher entropy states than they would have arrived at, if left alone, for a far longer time.  The very processes that sustain life—that are life—can only occur by harnessing and accelerating the increase of net entropy in the world around them.

Although it seems like the principle most well-embodied in Yeats’s Second Coming, wherein he states, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” entropy is held in highest regard—or at least unsurpassed respect—by physicists.  Sir Arthur Eddington famously pointed out that, if your ideas seem to contradict most understood laws of physics, or seem to go against experimental evidence, it’s not necessarily disreputable to maintain them, but if your ideas contradict the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you’re simply out of luck.  And Einstein said of the laws of thermodynamics, and of entropy in particular, “It is the only physical theory of universal content, which I am convinced, that within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts will never be overthrown.”

The reason the Second Law of Thermodynamics is so indisputable is because, at root, it owes its character to basic mathematics, to probability and statistics.  As I demonstrated in the playing card example, there are vastly more ways for things to be “disordered”—more arrangements of reality that are indistinguishable one from another—than there are configurations that contain gradients or differences that can give rise to patterns and “useful” information.  WAAAAAAY more.

The Second Law isn’t at its heart so much a law of physics as it is a mathematical theorem, and mathematical theorems don’t change.  You don’t need to retest them, because logic demands that, once proven, they remain correct.  We know that, in a flat plane, the squares of the lengths of the two shorter sides of a right triangle add up to the square of the length of the longest side (You can prove this for yourself relatively easily; it’s worth your time, if you’re so inclined.)  We know that the square root of two is an irrational number (one that cannot be expressed as a ratio of any two whole numbers, no matter how large).  We know that there are an infinite number of prime numbers, and that the infinity of the “real” numbers is a much larger infinity than that which describes the integers.  These facts have been proven mathematically, and we need no longer doubt them, for the very logic that makes doubt meaningful sustains them.  It’s been a few thousand years since most of these facts were first demonstrated, and no one has needed to update those theorems (though they might put them in other forms).  Once a theorem is done, it’s done.  You’re free to try to disprove any of the facts above, but I would literally bet my life that you will fail.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has a similar character, because it’s just a statement of the number of ways “things” can be ordered in indistinguishable ways compared to the number of ways they can be ordered in ways that either carry useful information or can be harnessed to be otherwise useful in supporting—or in being—lifeforms such as we.  Entropy isn’t the antithesis of life, for without its tendency to increase, life could neither exist nor sustain itself.  But its nature demands that, in the long run, all relative order will come to an end, in the so-called “heat death” of the universe.

Of course, entropy is probabilistic in character, so given a universe-sized collection of random elementary particles, if you wait long enough, they will come together in some way that would be a recognizable universe to us.  Likewise, if you shuffle a deck of cards often enough, you will occasionally shuffle them into a state of ordered suits, and if you play your same numbers in the Powerball lottery often enough, for long enough, you will eventually win.

Want my advice?  Don’t hold your breath.

Playing with space-time blocks

According to General Relativity, our experience of space and time is a bit like seeing shadows in a higher-order, four-dimensional space-time.  This is probably not news to many of you; the basics of Relativity have become almost common knowledge, which is no doubt a good thing.  But many people may not realize that the tenets of General Relativity and Special Relativity, with their abolition of simultaneity or any privileged point of view in space-time also imply that the entire past, and the entire future, of every point in space and every moment in time, already or still exist, permanently.  I’m not going to get too much into the how’s of this—I refer you to, and heartily recommend, Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which has an excellent explication of this notion.

The upshot of this principle is that, in a very real sense, our past is never gone, but is still there, just where it was when we lived it.  Similarly, the future is also already in existence (applying time-specific terms to such things is a little iffy, but we use the words we have I suppose, even though we must accept them as metaphors).  In this sense, a human life is not an isolated, ever-changing pattern in some greater, flowing stream so much as a pre-existing rope of pattern in a higher-dimensional block of space-time, like a vein of gold running through a fissure in a rock formation.  Its beginning is as permanent as its end.

We know that General Relativity cannot be absolutely and completely correct—its mathematics breaks down at singularities such as those in the center of black holes, for instance.  But within its bailiwick, it seems to be spectacularly accurate, so it’s not unreasonable to conclude that it’s accurate in the above description of a human life—indeed, of all events in the universe.

But what does this mean for us?  How does it impact the fact that we experience our lives as though the sands of the future are flowing through the narrow aperture of the present to fall into the receiving chamber of the past?  How does General Relativity interact with consciousness?  We seem to experience the present moment only as an epiphenomenon of the way fundamental principles translate themselves into chemistry and biology as measured along some fourth-dimensional axis.  We can’t decide to reel ourselves backward and reexperience the past, or fast-forward into the future, even though it seems that our existence has much in common with the permanently-encoded data on a digital video file.  We cannot choose to rewind or lives any more than can the characters within a movie we are watching.

Similarly, according to this implication of General Relativity, we could not, even in principle, have lived our past differently.  Were we to rewind and then replay events, they would work out exactly as they had before, just as a movie follows the same course no matter how many times you watch it.  The characters in a movie might learn later in the film that they had made some tragic error, yet when you rewind the show, they revert to their previous selves, ignorant of what they are always ignorant of at that point in time, subject to the same story arc, unable to change anything that they did before.  Likewise, it’s conceivable that, when our lives end—when we reach the point where our pattern decomposes, diffuses, and fades—we may go back to the start and reexperience life again from the beginning.  (This depends heavily on what the nature of consciousness is).  Indeed, we may be constantly reexperiencing it, infinitely many times.

Though this seems to be a kind of immortality, it’s not a particularly rewarding one, as we wouldn’t gain anything no matter how many times we replayed our lives.  For those of us with regrets it would be a mixed blessing, at best.  For those who have endured lives of terrible suffering, it seems almost too much to bear.  But, of course, reality isn’t optional.  It is what it is, and there is no complaint department.

Ah, but here’s the rub.  We know, as I said, that General Relativity cannot be quite right; crucially, it does not allow for the implications of the Uncertainty Principle, that apparently inescapable fact at the bedrock of Quantum Mechanics.  Quantum Mechanics is, if anything, even more strongly supported by experiment and observation than is General Relativity; I’m aware of no serious physicists who don’t think that General Relativity will have to be Quantized before it can ever be complete.

But of course, as the name implies, the Uncertainty Principle says that things are—at the fundamental level—uncertain.  How this comes about is the subject of much debate, with the two main views being the “interaction is everything, the wave-function just collapses and probabilities turn into actualities and there’s no point in asking how” that is the Copenhagen Interpretation, and the Many Worlds Interpretation, originated by Hugh Everett, in which, at every instance where more than one possible outcome of a quantum interaction exists, the universe splits into appropriately weighted numbers of alternate versions, in each of which some version of the possible outcomes occurs.  It’s hard to say which of these is right, of if both are wrong—though David Deutsch does a convincing job of describing how, among other things, quantum interference and superposition implies the many-worlds hypothesis (see his books The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity).

But what does the Everettian picture imply for our higher-dimensional block space-time that is at once all of space and time, already and permanently existing?  Are there separate, divergent blocks for every possible quantum divergence?  Or does the space-time block just have a much higher dimensionality that merely four, instantiating not just one but every possible form of space-time at once?

If this is the case, why do we conscious beings each seem to experience only one path through space-time?  Countless quantum events are happening within and around us, with every passing Planck Time (about 10-43 seconds).  The vast majority of these events wouldn’t make any noticeable difference to our experiences of our lives, but a small minority of them would.

This is the new thought that occurred to me today.  It’s thoroughly and entirely speculative, and I make no claims about its veracity, but it’s interesting.  What if, whenever we die, we start over again, as if running the DVD of our lives from the beginning yet again, but with this important difference:  Each time it’s rerun, we follow a different course among the functionally limitless possible paths that split off at each quantum event?  Even though most of these alterations would surely lead to lives indistinguishable one from another, everything that is possible in such a multiverse is, somewhere (so to speak) instantiated.  Reversion to the mean being what it is, this notion would be hopeful for those who have suffered terribly in a given life, but rather worrisome for those who’ve had lives of exceptional happiness.  At the very least, it implies that there would be no sense in which a person is trapped in the inevitable outcome of a given life.  You can’t decide to behave differently next time around, but you can at least hope that you might (while reminding yourself that you may do even worse).

Of course, all this is beyond even science fiction—well, the earlier parts aren’t, just the notions of a person’s consciousness reexperiencing life, either the same or different, over again.  But it was and is an interesting thought to have on a lazy, early Sunday afternoon in the spring of the year, and I thought I would share it with you.