October 01, 2015

The Lemming Within Us

Is the blue-dress/gold-dress frenzy officially over? Good. It was getting crazy for a moment. The way that photograph made people realize that "reality" is nothing more than a construct concocted in our brains opened the door to the collective realization that what we see is actually just an interpretation that allows us to function in the world.

We see colors under different shades a different way (the "white" tile under the table vs. the "black" one to its right) because the brain gets confused between perceiving colors during day and night. The "reality" is that they are exactly the same color once you apply the same light intensity.

This differentiation needs to occur in our brain; a mental shortcut happening in our left hemisphere (the one that connects the past with the present) tells us that colors look different under the shadows, and shapes our perception mechanisms to make better decisions in the environments we live in. After all, it's the result of thousands of years of evolutionary iterations instilled in our brains, right? Natural selection. Hail Darwin!

But is it? Are the rules that govern us and our evolution in this beautiful blue marble inscribed in the Atheists' bible?

What if the reason this illusion exists in our brain (this evolutionary adaptation) was in fact just an illusion? What if "evolution" was not this epochal trial-and-error mechanism that weeds out unfit outcomes to arrive at the most "optimal" forms of complex life? What if the only feasible outcome is us; and we're really not the triumphant expression of biological superiority, but just logical conclusion of a mathematical formula that governs the molecular interactions within us at the sub-atomic level?

Well, there's 31-year-old a guy asking himself this question. And he has solved it.

Jeremy England bases his theory on the Second Law of Thermodynamics --the Law that states that hot things cool down; that gas diffuses through air; that eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble. In essence, that energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy (or the dissipation of energy) happens. And in so doing, everything (inert and live matter alike) will reach a state of "thermodynamic equilibrium." You and I will die and be as cold as the coffin we'll be interred in. A cup of hot coffee will eventually cool down to the temperature of the room it's sitting in.

Put in other words, a chunk of atoms surrounded by an environment (like a certain temperature in the atmosphere or the ocean), tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with their environments, reinforcing each other. In chunks of atoms that happen to be living organisms, this is achieved by replicating (reproducing) themselves. Exponential population growth is irreversible (in the sense that the present is never like the past) and therefore population growth is a manifestation of entropy. After all, more living things mean that we're able to better absorb more energy in our environment (the sun) and dissipate it. But, to reproduce, matter needs to become a well structured living organism in the first place. Here's England's breakthrough idea: under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self organize (become alive!) to be more efficient at energy dissipation. Because entropy has to occur.

Thus, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is what dictates the origin of life.

This means that the primordial soup had no "special" ingredients. It was bound to spark life eventually, or else entropy would not have occurred. This means that life is just a special case of energy dissipation, one that just happens to be sentient and self aware (or at least we'd like to think so) in the case of one ├╝ber complex single species. It means that humanity is an entropy accelerator (perhaps the most efficient one there is in the planet). But most importantly, it means that we, as well as all living (and non-living) things in this planet, are nothing more than marionettes moved by this hand:

You can forget about self-determination. We're just lemmings destined to follow the secret manual imprinted at our molecular level, as dictated by The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Dissipate, dissipate, dissipate.

Having learned this, now think about the next point: where are we headed? We all know how "efficient" humankind is at extracting energy from our environment. Please look at these words by Jeremy England:
"We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,”
In other words, civilization's complexity (what economists call "prosperity") is simply a (THE) consequence of this self-accelerating mechanism of energy dissipation, from energy extraction (oil drilling, sun harvesting, wind farming), to replication; to self-reinforcing factors that will drive all of us lemmings into the next cliff. Just like lemmings of eras past.

Earth is a system on track to dissipate its energy away into the cosmos, and we, we are nothing more than lemmings running in our wheel.