Just as soon as we start getting blasé about life – just as soon as we start to feel that it is a known quantity, a known thing – we fall under the power of the second law of thermodynamics. This is the point in other words at which we start to entropically degrade without knowing that we are entropically degrading! It is the point at which we start to decay without knowing that we are decaying, the point at which we start to gravitate inexorably towards unreality without knowing that this is where we are gravitating to…
The whole point of the process of entropic degradation is that we don’t know that there is such any such process going on – as far as we are concerned everything is fine and dandy. As far as we are concerned everything is going along splendidly. Entropic degradation – we might say – is the process by which in we progressively lose perspective on what’s going on and because we are losing perspective we are at the same time losing the ability to see that we are losing perspective. If we could see that we were losing perspective then the seeing of this would itself be perspective! That would be like forgetting something but at the same time remembering that you have forgotten it – consciousness is only lost when we don’t see that it has gone. The moment we fall under the dominion of the second law of thermodynamics we lose consciousness, we lose the ability to see the process that is deterministically unfolding and so it could be said that at this point a kind of separation takes place – the separation between what we think is happening and what actually is happening!
What actually is happening when we fall under the sway of what we might refer to as ‘the spiritual equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics’ is as we have said that we start entropically degrading – we become subject to the process whereby we are constantly being replaced with inferior versions of ourselves without us realizing that this ‘sinister substitution’ is taking place. Reality keeps on being downgraded on us but we don’t spot it. We deludedly think that we’re being true to ourselves throughout and that we’re staying on track; we think that we’re progressing (or at least trying to progress) in a positive direction. We are moving towards our goals, our hopes, our dreams, etc, and so the illusion is that we’re actually getting somewhere. Maybe we achieve certain things in life, maybe we accumulate certain official certificates attesting to our accomplishments, in which case we definitely believe that we’re getting somewhere…
As soon as we fall into the trap of thinking that we actually know what life is all about (or what reality is all about) we automatically head off on a ‘fantasy journey’, therefore. The ‘split’ that we have been talking about occurs – reality goes one way and we go another! Reality goes on its way and we go on our way and no one spots the divergence (particularly since we tend to do this in large groups). We are all pretty much familiar with the second law of thermodynamic as it applies to physical systems –
All ‘information-containing differences’ are ironed out until eventually everything levels out on the ‘zero-information containing level’
When scientists and the scientifically-informed community at large first started to talk about the ‘heat death of the universe’ at the turn of the nineteenth century they would have been better off calling it the information-death of the universe. That gets the idea across better. When we take a purely mechanical view of things (a view that contains the classical Newtonian laws of physics and nothing else besides this) we can see that the universe is doomed to approach closer and closer to the informational graveyard where no new events ever occur. This is the great ‘winding down’; this is when things start to become seriously uninteresting…. The proviso (or condition) contained in the famous second law of thermodynamics is however the phrase ‘…in a closed system’ and so everything depends upon whether we assume the universe to be a closed system or not. If it’s an open universe that we’re living in then the second law doesn’t apply – or rather, it applies only on a local scale. With regard to the application of the second law that we’re talking about here in this discussion, a local closed system is created every time we assume that our maps of reality, our models of reality, actually equal what they are representing. This is the point at which we start relating to the world as a ‘known thing’; this is the point at which we divert from reality and ‘fall asleep’. As Heraclitus said two and a half thousand years ago –
The awake share a common world, but the asleep turn aside into private worlds.
We might wonder when this split takes place. When do we fall asleep? It isn’t of course particularly hard to answer this question – what we’re talking about here is the point at which the world started to lose its magic, its mystery and this ‘shift in perspective’ happens just as soon as we ‘grow up’ and take our place in the consensus reality. Science fiction writer Brian Aldiss puts it well,
When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults and they enter society, one of the politer names of Hell. That is why we dread children, even if we love them. They show us the state of our decay.
Just about all of us adults have ‘closed our accounts with reality’ (as William James says); we are possessed of a type of heavy seriousness that has to do with the involuntary attachment we feel to whatever it is that we think we are, and to whatever it is that we think that life is all about. Our thoughts and beliefs have a deadening hold on us and this hold marks the end of any magic that the world might have had for us; we can be enthusiastic about life still but our enthusiasm is all about our idea of life which is now serving as a sterile surrogate for the thing itself. We are serious about our idea of who we think we are and what we think our life is about and we are ‘serious’ in the way that we are because of the way in which we now believe ourselves to understand ‘what it is all about’. Our so-called ‘understanding’ weighs us down, therefore – it pulls us down to assume our dutiful place in an entropically down-graded version of reality, a grey old version in which there is no magic or mystery to be found…
Being ‘serious’ means that we no longer have any curiosity about what’s going on – we’re no longer curious because we’re adults and we ‘know’. We’re not interested in reality any more, we’re interested in our ideas of reality, we’re interested in the games that we are playing and which have taken the place of reality. Thoughts and ideas are not worthy substitutes for life however – they are of a fundamentally different nature. Thoughts and ideas and beliefs are dead, mechanical things which bear no resemblance whatsoever to life, to reality. They are something else entirely – they are we could say the antithesis of life in exactly the same sense that the ‘dead letter’ is the antithesis of the ‘living law’.
We could say therefore that the degree to which we are not serious about our thoughts, our ideas or beliefs, our models or theories, is the degree to which we are actually living. Otherwise we are dead, mechanical things like our thoughts. To be involuntarily attached to our thoughts is to be our thoughts. When we are living in the creative gap that exists between our thoughts, between one goal and the next, between known areas of experience, then we are ‘open’ and when we cling to our thoughts (to our ideas of who we are and what life is) then we are ‘closed’. When we allow our thoughts to define reality for us we are ‘closed’. When we live in a known domain that our thoughts can make sense of then we ‘closed’. Inasmuch as the world appears as a faithful reflection of our expectations (inasmuch as it does not appear new when we see it) then we are living within an organizationally closed system and if we’re living within an organizationally closed system then we are subject to the second law of thermodynamics.
To put this in a non-technical way – when there’s no new information coming in then the only way is down! The status quo can only ever degrade. We might think that when there is ‘no new information coming in’ we could perhaps make do with the old, since the old information was obviously ‘good enough at the time’, but this isn’t how it works. This isn’t how it works for the simple reason that there’s no such thing as ‘old information’! If it isn’t new then it isn’t information – it’s not real, it’s only ‘an echo of the real’. What has actually happened when we create a closed system for ourselves is that we have created a loop, a short-circuit, a tautology. The freeze-frame of reality which is the organizationally closed system is now a ‘representation of itself’ – it isn’t a representation of anything else because the very fact that the system is closed means that there can’t be anything else. Everything has to be ‘literal’ in a closed system because there simply are no other levels of description, no other ways of looking at things to draw upon. We’re trapped in ‘the one way of looking at things’.
In an open system there are always more ways of looking at the world than the one we happen to be using at the time. There are always other levels of description available – this is what ‘open’ means! Because there is no possibility of a ‘final description’ (or rational definition) of what anything is (this being – we might say – the key ‘deficiency’ of an open system!) there won’t be any such thing as ‘a literal meaning’. Or rather we can have literal meanings if we want to, but they won’t mean anything! They will be plainly visible as dead things, mechanical things. The type of descriptions that have currency in an open system are metaphorical ones, ironic ones, humorous ones – such forms of communication have the capability of partaking in reality because they are not black and white, because they are not ‘rational’. Literal descriptions on the other hand partake in nothing other than themselves and this is why we can say that they are ‘dead’ rather than ‘living’. They belong to the dead mechanical world – the world of appearances, the world that doesn’t actually really exist…
The literal world is a representation of itself, nothing more. It refers to itself, and that is all. What else could it represent, what else could it refer to? It is closed, after all. There is a framework, a fixed or abstract context, and everything (absolutely everything) is related to this, referenced to this. The whole set-up is self-referential and what this means – in the simplest possible terms – is that it isn’t real. Stuff in this SR world is only real when it has been referenced to the unquestionable template or yardstick and thereby proven to be real, the only snag here being of course that the template itself isn’t real! So if we argue the point on the basis of ‘self-referentiality demonstrating informational redundancy’ we can say that there is no way that closed system can be real. We can say that whatever it is that seems to be happening in a closed system isn’t really happening at all…
We can say this – and what we are saying is perfectly sound – but at the same time we have to note that as far as we are concerned (in our organizationally-closed tautological private universes) our activities seem very much to be real, just as we ourselves seem to be real, and things appear to be pretty much carrying on as normal! This brings us back to our central thesis – that with regard to our subjective experience of things – this so-called ‘process of entropic degradation’ doesn’t seem to be taking place at all. From our everyday point of view, this whole discussion seems to be a lot of unnecessary hypothetical conjecture – conjecture that can’t be verified on the basis of our actual daily experience of life. We might therefore be excused for wondering how we can get away saying that there is such a thing as ‘invisible entropic decay’ going on if we can’t see it or prove it in any way. What kind of a half-baked argument is this?
The thing is however that ‘proving stuff is over-rated’! Proving stuff, as we have already said, merely means comparing it to our taken-for-granted template and since this template is itself unproven (and unprovable) we might as well forget about this habitual objection of ours. Nothing worthwhile can ever be verified from the basis of our everyday point of view, our everyday mode of consciousness. Our everyday mode of consciousness is after all no more than the output of the rational mind, the output of the rational process, and this output doesn’t tell us anything at all about the input! This is like watching a satellite news programme and imagining that this news show is telling you something genuinely true about the current world situation! We can’t ‘work backwards’ when presented with the output of an informational-processing system because information processing always involves irreversible data loss. This is an absolutely fundamental principle that we are talking about here, a principle that we simply can’t get around. All re-presentations of the original involve data loss and this is just another way of saying that all re-presentations of the original are entropic degradations of that original. The only thing that isn’t an entropically degraded version of the original is the original – or as Robert Anton Wilson says, ‘the only thing equal to the universe is the universe’.
The over-all point that we are making here over and over again is that no matter what we do we just can’t get away from the second law of thermodynamics. Just so long as we are in the realm of form we are subject to it. The realm of form (or the physical universe) is itself an entropically degraded analogue; all determinate structures, rules and linear processes are entropically degraded analogues. As soon as we move away at all from the original we become subject to the second law of thermodynamics. This is a rather mind-bending thing to consider however – it is by no means as straightforward as it might initially sound. What we’re essentially saying here is that to move away from the original nature of things is to become ‘unreal without knowing it’. This, as we have been saying, is our fate when we fall under the influence of the second law. The crux of the matter is this:
When the Original is re-presented (or ‘serialized in linear time’) this is a virtual operation
It’s an operation alright but it’s a virtual one! It’s an academic exercise. This is another way of saying that it happens, but only on its own terms and ‘its own terms’ aren’t actually real. They don’t exist anywhere outside of the academic exercise. The Original can’t be re-presented – it can’t be serialized in linear time! This is like saying that a unique event can’t be made a regular occurrence; of course it can’t – it would no longer be unique in this case!
It sounds as if we are just playing about with the meaning of words here but we aren’t. What we’re looking at here is a cosmological truth! It’s like saying that if everything is part of the Whole, then actually there’s no such thing as ‘the part’! Everything is really just the Whole and the Whole is all there is; when we divide it up then we aren’t really dividing, in other words. The so-called ‘dividing’ is just an academic exercise we’re carrying out. That’s just a virtual operation. Once we cotton to there being ‘a Whole’ (and it can be very hard to cotton on to this) then we realize that there can never be anything that isn’t part of that Whole. We realize that we can’t ever be separate from the Whole – we can pretend that we have separated something (some class of elements, some regular group of phenomena) and treat what we have separated as being fundamentally different from everything that isn’t in this class, that isn’t in this defined group, but really its only different because we have said that it is. It’s only ‘different’ because we are playing the game that it is. This is a purely academic exercise in other words, an operation that only makes sense within the terms which it itself assumes…
Virtual operations are never more than that, but the thing is that we lose sight of the fact that the terms which we have assumed are only there because we have said that they should be there. We lose sight of the fact that the virtual operation is only a virtual operation and instead we think that it is real all by itself. Our attention shrinks until it is only concerned with ‘what is going on in the box’ and we lose sight of the way in which we were responsible for putting the box there in the first place! As a result of this pernicious ‘loss of perspective’ we fondly imagine that the hook from which the whole shebang is hanging is a real solid ‘proper’ hook when really it is only an imaginary one. It’s all happening on a false basis. Everything has switched around therefore – the (supposedly) real is being supported by the unreal, rather than the unreal being supported by the real, which is the way it’s actually working. Reality runs the virtual operation – the virtual operation does not run reality! Or as we could also say, the ocean gives rise to the waves rather than the waves giving rise to the ocean.
A wave might seem to exist, as a wave, but it will ultimately prove not to exist. You won’t be able to catch it and catalogue it and put it in a jar! Ultimately, the wave will reveal itself to be no more than the ocean which manifested it, which facilitated it. The ocean was playing at being a wave, in other words, and that’s why we were never going to be able to separate the wave from the ocean and preserve it in a labelled jar on a laboratory shelf. So although it is very easy to embark upon the virtual operation (as easy as falling of the proverbial log, in fact) of imagining that the wave is separate from the sea, it’s never really going to pan out that way. The separation is only in our heads. When we believe in the separation we can get very excited about it and make all sorts of plans as to what we’re going to do next; we can think enthusiastically about how great that is going to be (and feel very good about this feverish mental activity) but it’s all just an academic exercise. It’s never going to actually live up to what it says on the label. It’s never going to live up to the promises made in the glossy promotion brochure.
Ultimately, the virtual exercise proves to not have happened at all – that being the nature of virtual exercises. It’s all fine on one level – its fine on the level of theatrical appearances – but that’s all. It’s only ever going to be real on that level – on the level of theatre, on the level of empty appearances. Eventually – via a process of inexorable ongoing revelation – the empty proves itself to be empty, the froth proves itself to be only froth (no matter what we might have thought it to be). The froth might have looked like a whole continent to us, complete with mountains and valleys and lakes and rivers and forests and fields and deserts and cities and motorways but in the end it’s going to reveal itself as being just froth. Froth like the froth on the top of your pint of Guinness. No point trying to buy any real estate here to build a house on (or applying to the council for planning permission). You’re better off drinking the pint rather than spending your life dreaming about what you’re going to do with the froth on the top!
This gives us another way of looking at what we have called ‘the spiritual equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics’, which is as we have said the process by which the inferior copy of the original in time gets to be replaced by an inferior copy of itself and so on and so forth, the nefarious process in which even the shoddiest of substitutes will be before long substituted for by an inferior version of itself. The point at which all this started happening – we said – was the point at which we ‘broke up with reality’ and replaced the Cosmic Flux with a static, stale, self-referential bubble of virtual reality. The (virtual) separation then takes place – reality happily goes its way and we go ours. We might be reminded here of the notion of ‘the Fall’, of the notion of ‘Origin Sin’. We have been unceremoniously expelled from the Garden and hardship, sickness and death is now going to be our lot! As the familiar words of Genesis verses 3:17-19 put it:
Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;
Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life
“Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”
The exoteric Christian view is that we have sinned (or partaken in Original Sin) and must on this account be punished. Going against God is seen as a ‘wrong thing’, as perversity of human nature. We really shouldn’t disobey God! Similarly, we could say that cutting ourselves off from Reality is a perverse or unnatural act, We could say that opting for a virtual reality bubble (a private sterile universe) is a deeply ‘contrary’ sort of a thing to do. On one level it is, but on a deeper level of course it’s still very much part of the natural order of things. As the Taoist sages have said, we can’t ever really depart from the Universal Harmony of all things! Breaking from harmony is part of the harmony. No one can depart from the Tao and to think that we ever could is a major misunderstanding of the Tao. Major misunderstandings of the Tao being of course as much ‘the Tao’ as anything else is!
On the superficial level of things (the level of the image, the level of the word, the level of the thought, the level of appearances) reality (or ‘depth’) is excluded but this is only ever a very provisional sort of a thing. This is only ever a game – a state of affairs that we are only temporarily able to believe in. We have taken out a loan from the Bank of Reality but we are going to have to pay it back! We ‘pay back the loan’ by becoming aware of the unreality of the constructs which we have invested so much in, by becoming conscious of the lack of reality in ‘who we think we’ are and ‘what we think we are doing’, and this awareness is pain. We could also say that we pay back the loan by ‘becoming aware of our separation or disconnection from reality’. The ‘pain of the disconnect’ starts to manifest and we fight against it by displacing it via a whole range of neurotic symptomology but no matter how we stall or prevaricate we are still going to have to pay back the loan (which was ‘us getting to believe that the unreal was real’) one way or another. As Jung says, we’re going to have to pay back what we owe down to the last penny!
Eventually, the crudeness (i.e. the crassly ‘parodic or mocking nature’) of the substitute world within which we are living (or trying to live!) will become visible in a way that we are no longer able to deny and what guarantees this ‘outcome’ is the inexorable advance of the entropic process, which can – from a spiritual point of view – be seen to be the process in which things are revealed to be what they really are.
In this context, the ‘second law’ is nothing other than the ‘law’ of truth, and the ‘entropic process’ the process by which ‘illusions are finally seen to be illusions’. Instead of being a unconditionally negative sort of a thing, therefore, the entropic principle is eventually revealed as being nothing other than ‘the Great Law of Return’…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.