How Thermodynamic Science Undermined Reductionism

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Brendan Graham Dempsey:

"The laws of thermodynamics came about by studying how energy behaves in closed or “isolated” systems—which is to say, containers cut off from the rest of the environment. Originally, scientists were looking at how heat acted inside engines (steam engines being quite the craze in the early 1800s). Today we might think of a thermos as a good example of an isolated system, since it’s specifically designed to retain the temperature of what’s inside by keeping it as insulated as possible from the surrounding environment. By studying how heat behaved in closed systems like this, scientists sought to formulate universal laws about energy (just as Galileo formulated universal laws of motion by means of isolation and simplification).

As codified in the first law of thermodynamics, then, it was discovered that, in a genuinely closed system, the total amount of energy remains fixed and unchanging. No energy is coming in or going out, nor can energy itself ever be created or destroyed. Its total amount will remain constant—even if it changes form or distribution.

So far, so good. (This idea of “conservation” pairs well with the idea of the conservation of motion in Newtonian physics. Nature always balances her books in the physical accounting of the world.)

But things become more problematic with the second law, likewise deduced from observation, which says that the total energy in the system will gradually and irrevocably dissipate until a homogenous equilibrium state is reached. Differences even out, distinctions blur, and gradients are eradicated over time.

Think what happens when you add hot water to a thermos of cold water. That energetic hot water won’t stay all clumped together in one place; instead, the heat will spread out (or “dissipate”) until all the water in the thermos finally becomes one uniform temperature. This is called “entropy,” and the second law asserts that free energy is always being entropically dissipated over time—degraded, you could say, until eventually it’s totally useless and the system reaches a uniform, featureless balance: equilibrium.

This insight created a big problem for the conception of Newtonian reality as particles in motion whose future and past states could all be predicted with deterministic certitude. Instead of being able to deduce it, once something reaches equilibrium it’s impossible to know its earlier state (AKA its “initial conditions”). You can’t deduce from a warm thermos that there was ever hot water of a certain temperature added to cold water of a certain temperature; all of that information is lost once the temperatures mix due to entropy.

The laws of Newtonian physics were completely reversible. Gravity might bring a rock down, but enough force against gravity could throw a rock right back up again. The laws of thermodynamics, by contrast, had a clear irreversible trajectory. The hot and cold water will mix spontaneously over time, but trying to separate them again requires a lot of energy—free energy that no longer exists in the system, precisely because it’s been dissipated.

In short, according to Newton’s laws, time was negligible; according to the laws of thermodynamics, however, time has a clear direction. It gives us what Arthur Eddington famously called the “arrow of time.” And, according to the laws of thermodynamics, that arrow seemed to move only one way: from a gradient to equilibrium, from difference to sameness, from distinct order to jumbled chaos. According to the second law, entropy in a closed system can only increase, suggesting the universe itself must be like an engine irrevocably running out of fuel, destined for dissolution and death.

At least, that was how its cosmic implications came to be interpreted by an increasingly modernized world. Primed to imagine life as a meaningless accident in an indifferent cosmos, this discovery fell comfortably in line with the grim reductionist worldview—even though it actually flew in the face of the scientific reductionism that had helped found that worldview (and would eventually help overthrow it entirely—something we’ll come back to).

Anyway, the cracks in the reductionistic edifice didn’t end there.

Interestingly, at roughly the same time the laws of thermodynamics were being discovered, the theory of evolution erupted onto the scene and caused its own disruptive stir. According to this new theory, the vastly different kinds of species we see in the world came about not through divine fiat all at once (as the traditional religious story had told it), but through an eons-long unguided process of continual branching and pruning of the tree of life from the shoot of an initial common ancestor.

As Darwin expressed it concisely in The Origin of Species in 1859:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

In this way, life was continually diversifying over time, creating more and more novelty, generating more and more difference. “And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being,” concluded Darwin, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.”

This process seemed to follow its own set of universal principles, different from Newtonian law. The “elaborately constructed forms” of the animals, says Darwin, “have all been produced by laws acting around us”—laws new to science, such that “whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” That is, against the static universe of Newtonian physics, a dynamic process of diversification was leading to more and more elaborate forms over time.

Again, despite the challenge this posed to classical reductionism, the immediate interpretation of this theory only fed the growing divide between materialist reductionists and religious traditionalists. Against the protests of the traditionalist holdouts (who fought evolution as a threat to their mythological sense of meaning), those committed to modernism and science felt compelled to embrace the conclusion that Darwin’s insights confirmed the basic hunch of the reductionist worldview. Life was not the product of any Intelligent Designer, but only blind mutation and nature’s savage “culling of the herd.”


But, like entropic energy itself, that larger hope would only grow fainter and fainter with time, until, by the 20th century, it seemed to dissipate altogether. The reductionistic worldview ushered in by modernity had become the new cultural default. The old naïve holism of religion was lost, along with all its assumed sense of value and meaning. Reductionist science—along with nihilistic interpretations of thermodynamics and evolution—had fundamentally changed people’s perspective regarding the part that humans played in the cosmic whole, leading them to no longer see themselves as agential wholes but only deterministic meat-suits moving through space.

As a consequence, people today who feel they know a thing or two (and likely find themselves in positions of power) can, as we said, confidently assert: Life’s just a cosmic accident; the fit survive by preying on the weak and stupid; morality’s a fairy tale invented to keep people in line; and, sooner or later, the sun will explode, the universe will end in heat death, and none of this dazzling sound and fury will have meant a goddamn thing—so why not live it up while we can? By the early 20th century, all of the ingredients for the meaning crisis were firmly in place.

As it turns out, however, this nihilistic worldview is actually… well… just simply wrong. It is based on contradictions, incomplete science, and unjustified extrapolations—failures that the new science has since begun to correct, but which nevertheless still hold sway in the public imagination. Let’s unpack this and, in the process, introduce the new science of complexity.

First of all, the classical reductionism of Newtonian physics was reversible; it didn’t matter in which direction you “ran the tape”—backwards or forwards—everything was just a matter of deterministic particles in motion.

However, both thermodynamics and evolution were different. They presented a model of reality quite contrary to this idea, with laws that had a direction. Entropy demanded a distinct “arrow of time,” and descent with modification meant that life was growing more and more varied with time.

Thus, despite being subsumed into the bleak modern worldview, these paradigms seemed to contradict some of its founding assumptions.

But if this were true, and the universe was irreversibly unfolding in some particular direction, which direction was it? Thermodynamics and evolution glaringly contradicted one another on this crucial point. One suggested the world was losing its usable energy and winding down towards the simple uniformity and homogeneity of equilibrium; the other, that the world was becoming ever more differentiated and elaborately structured—even in a “progress towards perfection.”

Well, which was it? Chaos or order? Inert sameness or dynamic novelty? What was the true ending to the cosmic story science was telling?

The resolution of this conundrum would only come with the transcendence of the reductionist paradigm altogether—a process set in motion towards the end of the 19th century, and only fully realized quite recently."

For more, see The Birth of Emergence [1]