The Noble Struggle with Entropy: Just Keep Pedaling the Bike

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” W. B. Yeats

Entropy is the law of the universe embodied by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a pillar of classical physics. It says that in any closed system—a system that is fully self-contained—things always get more disordered.

Life is made pretty difficult because of entropy. Things we create tend to fall apart of their own accord. When my wife and I clean the house just before she leaves for a week-long vacation, inevitably it will be a mess by the time she returns, simply because Ellie and I are living in it daily. Businesses, too, require constant maintenance in order to remain productive. We have to work effectively with the steady advance of entropy if we want to build more structure and harmony into our lives.

The law of entropy is unforgiving. But there is a force of nature that works against entropy. That force is you.

According to the view of biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, life is characterized as an “autopoietic” or self-organizing system reliant on organization, structure, and process. All three of these elements involve generating order out of disordered raw materials.

How do living systems counteract entropy? They can do so because they are not closed systems, so the law doesn’t apply. Living systems take in energy from the surroundings and build structure out of it. But in doing so they always create waste products that get spit back out to the surroundings. When the total tally is made, entropy wins. But for the living creature itself, entropy loses. Living creatures are fantastically successful at counteracting entropy by rebuilding cells and organs in their bodies, by building houses and roads out of raw materials, and by inventing physical technology, social technology and structures of government. All of these things create order for the living creature to benefit from, even though, overall in the universe, entropy increases.

You can become even more conscious of your power to generate order in your life. The process I have pointed out called “meaningful history selection” allegedly brings about meaningful situations for us to experience. Meaning is, in a way, the opposite of order. By taking meaningful action, I suspect that you bias the “tree of possibilities” toward opportunities which build whatever you are intending (either consciously or unconsciously). You may not see the results immediately, because the opportunities do not flow directly from your actions. Yet you can count on opportunities showing up if you do the work.

The Ride of Your Life

Imagine life is like riding a bicycle. When you are looking ahead and pedaling hard, you don’t think about your results, or the fruits of your labors. You just keep pedaling, you keep doing the work. And from this effort opportunities pop out of the woodwork that are related to your efforts. This is the effect of meaningful history selection.

But then it is so tempting to turn around and examine what you have created. It is easy to get attached to the opportunities. Yet it is hard to pedal a bicycle effectively when you are looking backwards. So you stop pedaling, and you also stop building momentum. The opportunity waiting around the next bend starts to fizzle away.

So as a human being, as a creator, I see my job as investing my time and effort into the noble struggle with entropy. Rather than seeing this as a negative framing, it motivates me (and also happens to be true). The minute I stop creating, entropy continues its inexorable march forward. As creators we each have the power to counteract it, but it is relentless and we are human. We cannot, ultimately, conquer entropy. Through the struggle to create, in the face of entropy’s steady advance, we gain wisdom. We learn what matters and what doesn't. When we apply ourselves according to that wisdom, we find ourselves living in flow.

Sky Nelson-IsaacsComment