Thermodynamic Hypothesis Behind Big History

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Robert Aunger:

"What brings together events as disparate as the origin of stars, the French Revolution and the invention of windmills into a single analysis? Christian argues that the grand sweep of events, linked together in a seamless explanatory framework, provides intellectual satisfaction and a richer context to human experience. However, beyond such aesthetic concerns, investigations at this scale are important because historical laws might be detected in this expanse of time: big history can serve as the foundation for ‘big theory’. Where exactly might such historical laws be found? Certainly, historians have long been preoccupied with identifying those events which have a special significance in determining the subsequent course of history. However, a rigorous method for selecting these events from among the myriad possibilities has been lacking. As a result, historians have been limited to the idiosyncratic identification of ‘landmark’ events, or to putting boundaries around temporally and spatially clustered events (the ‘periodization’ of history). These practices have fallen into disrepute in some quarters, being characterized as an attempt to break a continuously emergent process into arbitrary pieces (such as the ‘Renaissance’), which then acquire an unnatural grip on the mind. Nevertheless, the first step toward historical laws must be the discovery of a rigorous foundation for organizing historical processes into analytical units larger than individual events; otherwise one is left with chronologies that are simply ‘one damn thing after another. At a minimum, historical narratives ascribe cause-and-effect relationships between events. The dependence of effects on the prior occurrence of causes indicates that historical processes only run in one temporal direction: they are not reversible. A rigorous expectation for irreversibility can be found in thermodynamics: historical processes are irreversible because, at a macro-scale, entropy increases over time. The universe was very hot at the time of the Big Bang, but has progressively become cooler as it has grown larger, leaving less energy available to perform useful work as time passes, meaning that previous kinds or levels of order cannot be maintained. At the same time, in the grand sweep of big history, the opposite pattern of events is obvious: a trend toward the production of increasingly complex, but localized systems. For example, organisms are more complex organisations than stars, and social systems are more complex than organisms. From a thermodynamic perspective, temporal order (i.e., history) thus requires spatial order, which implies that historical systems must be out of thermodynamic equilibrium. Any law-like description of major events in macro-history must therefore be centrally concerned with how increasing levels of thermodynamic disequilibrium can occur and be sustained. Big history can thus serve as the focus for the discovery of laws describing major transitions in the direction of historical change that account for this increase in the maximum degree of structural complexity over time, despite the imperative for thermodynamic entropy to increase."