Life Versus Entropy

Prompted to post this morning thanks to the click-bait statement “Schrödinger spread the misconception that life works against entropy” in this tweet:

In fact it’s a link to an Arxiv paper by Kate Jeffery and Carlo Rovelli, one which I’ve had bookmarked for a couple of weeks. I think Carlo shared it when it was published.

On the statistical mechanics of life: Schrödinger revisited

Along with Carlo Rovelli’s

Where Was Past Low Entropy?

My take is that Schrödinger is not misleading provided you make the distinction between local and global effects. Schrödinger is definitely worth revisiting in  order to understand, but he’s not wrong. In fact life’s “efficient” drive to replace entropy with order and excess energy (under local exploitation) is part of the drive in the global entropy increase of the cosmos. Clumping of material structures in vortices and galaxies (ie at all scales) is part of the same drive. Bacteria and mould in your compost heap. Local order, globally accelerated chaos. Life is “simply” the next stage after bio-chemistry has evolved from physics.

That statement is a summary of the position I arrived at thanks to Rick Ryals (who sadly passed away Dec 1st, 2018).

The drive is a kind of teleology, one that makes increasingly complex and intelligent life “inevitable” in an evolving cosmos, one evolving to its maximum entropy end according to the 2nd law.

I last mentioned this stuff only a week or so ago, in the footnote here “Who’s In Charge?” . Also I need to posthumously archive Rick Ryals “Entropic Anthropic Principle” material and have had Rick’s original 2006 “post” bookmarked recently whilst I cogitated.

‘So the second law of thermodynamics is never violated when the entropy of the universe always increases via the described perpetually inherent thermodynamic structuring, which enables the universe to continuously “evolve”.’

Also, this quote from the Rovelli / Jeffery paper:

[L]ife is not an improbable “fight against entropy” —as Erwin Schrödinger famously put it in his adventure into biology (Schrödinger 1944)— but is rather a statistically favored process directly driven by entropy growth, in which movement of a system within a space of available states leads it to discover —and traverse — channels between metastable states.

Absolutely – “a statistically favored process directly driven by entropy growth”. Life builds order and excess energy locally and temporarily, but is “driven” by overall long-run entropy growth. It’s “statistically favoured” – so is an inevitable part of the story.

Also significant, the concept of a continuously evolving universe. “Evolve” in scare quotes. Another current scientist who seems to get the structuring at all scales is Erik Verlinde, who also looks at entropy as the inverse of information, fundamentally limited in its density at the event-horizon of black holes. A topic on which Sabine Hossenfelder posted just last week, and dissed Darwin in the process!

That information density limit is the true quantum of fundamental physics. (See Smolin’s view-based realism.)

It’s all happening.

13 thoughts on “Life Versus Entropy”

  1. That’s why i am a member of the dutch labor party(PVDA) although i guess that almost no other member of this dutch party has based his or her political view nor their personal identity on the above. As living creatures we have to work to overcome entropy if we like it or not, Homeostasis must for that reason coincide with the principle of least action. But to make life more fun you have to work a little harder, i learned to live with it and am enjoying it. Cheers Eddo

  2. Yes, good take, the workers’ struggle.

    In the Schrödinger / Rovelli terms, it also emphasises that struggle is local and temporary in cosmic terms. We only live once, we need to make a dent while we can here and now.

    I am a full fledged, grown-up adult
    I’m tryin’ make a dent, tryin’ to get a result
    I’m holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite
    Tequila to drink and avocado to eat

    Gimme Shelter plus Food Rearranged?
    Self-Actualised Loudon meets Malsow and Pirsig

  3. The paper sets out to prove that “even in a closed system entropy growth can accompany an increase in macroscopic order.” But one can agree with this and still ponder a teleological force; it means only that this supposed force will lose the battle with entropy, making of life a tragedy rather than a comedy.

    In fact I’m inclined to agree with the scientific conclusion. The evidence for an infusion of energy, perhaps some dark undiscovered energy, is not strong enough for physics to make the case against the entropy we observe as a fundamental law. The world will end in heat death. God is not eternal. And by the way, free will is an illusion.

    The idea of the world ending would be inconvenient for a theology of an eternal God, but we don’t even know what “eternal” means these days. Time, and all related human concepts, have been reduced absolute non-entities; time and the eternal are both illusions, not required at all by the math. Also, we are a loss to find the line between alive and dead, when the change is a matter of slow, random degree.

    The question of free will, however, is unaffected by the finding. Within the scientific conclusion, there might still be room for a force to struggle despairingly against entropy. To a scientist, it might well look like a statistically favoured change in metastable states. To the forces struggling, if there are any, it would look like a long-range defeat of their collective will. In any case the scientific conclusion would be no use whatever in helping them decide what to do.

    But this hypothetical force I have conjured, this Sisyphus that pushes the rock, feels despair, and wonders what to do — does it not seem familiar to us? Does it not in fact speak to us, in an odd way that takes us outside our calculations and perhaps gives us a funny feeling in the tummy? The math doesn’t need it, and yet it is as immediate to every scientist as the “sense perception” on which the whole of physics is supposedly erected.

    Let’s be realistic: the scientific account has left something out. But this is not to say that the scientific consensus is incorrect. It is only to suggest that there are other accounts, which do not leave out this visceral component of experience, and which do not unhelpfully explain it away as illusory. Literature, politics, and law are some of the languages of these accounts. They have as little use for subatomic particles as physical accounts have for free will. Luckily the practitioners of these other areas keep their opinions about subatomic particles to themselves.

    I may be tilting at straw people here, but anyway the question of whether a hypothesized organizing principle works within or outside of entropy, though profoundly interesting, is fundamentally a phyics question. Any comment from outside physics circles would be as useless as an idea from a Greek philosopher.

  4. Initial comment AJ, you suggested:
    “an infusion of energy, perhaps some dark undiscovered energy”

    This is not suggested (by me or Eddo) – there just needs to be an excess of actual energy in the process. “Flourishing” rather than simply “surviving” in order to “live” – (per earlier linked post) – the”excess” is available for creative, constructive, problem-solving use We’re talking entirely naturalistic science here.

  5. We may be talking at cross-purposes, which is my fault for not reading the linked articles before posting my rant. If access is free,I’ll look more closely into what is meant by an “excess” of energy.

    In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy this curious attempt to link quantum mechanics and consciousness. I came upon it by way of, where the contributor explained, “Think of it as geocaching by way of Marianne Williamson.”

  6. You won’t find any more definition than the natural language sense of “excess”. A homeostatic balance of “more than” zero. Materials and energy used in living “exceeding” that needed to counteract entropy.
    (Originally – Eddo’s question at the end of the Damasio talk.)

    Not remotely tempted to follow that “randonaut” link 😉
    (There is no reason for a sci-fi idea that suggests we’re living in a “simulation”.)

  7. It’s moot anyway. I only posited the “infusion of energy” as the hypothetical opposite of entropy, that is, of the unopposed natural loss of order. Opposition from _outside_ the system would have to involve such an infusion, I think. But the idea that “entropy growth can accompany an increase in macroscopic order” seems entirely uncontroversial to me. I’m not arguing against it, and I’m not completely sure who is. That iis, I’m not sure to whom this solution is addressed — to theists, perhaps, or those who invoke supernatural forces as an explanation for increases in order?

    Within this uncontroversial proposition, however, there seems to lurk some sort of support for the idea that “life is ‘simply’ the next stage after bio-chemistry has evolved from physics,” as you summarize it. It’s one thing to say that what we observe as life is explainable in terms of statistically favoured stable states appearing during an overall process of decay (although not quite stable enough to last, apparently), but it’s another thing to say that life appears somewhere down the road in this process; that at some point, these statistically favoured states take a qualitative or emergent turn and we call them “life.” If they are there all along, then when exactly do they become life?

    To me it seems more productive to avoid such philosophical conundrums altogether, and to allow that while statistically favoured stabilities are an interesting physical phenomenon, they don’t give us license to sustain an account of an essentially lifeless physics in which “life” emerges as some kind of physics metaproperty, and is reducible to it. If physics recognizes “life” in some peculiar developments within the overall entropic process, then it recognizes something that exists within nature, and nature is not “lifeless” at any point in its history where these peculiar developments take place.

  8. Let me supplement the discussion with another quote from Whitehead (The Function of Reason, p. 4). If nothing else, it’s a reminder that the idea of “statisticallly favoured metastable states” is a new frame for an old picture.

    “In fact life itself is compartively deficient in survival value.The art of persistence is to be dead. Only inorganic things persist for great lengths of time. A rock survives for eight hundred million years; whereas the limit for a tree is about a thousand years, for a man or an elephant about fifty or one hundred years, for a dog about twelve years, for an insect about one year. The problem set by the doctrine of evolution is to explain how complex organisms with such deficient survival power ever evolved. They certainly did not appear because they were better at that game than the rocks around them.”

  9. Fascinating. “Nothing new under the sun” still applies.
    A tree survives by giving up its individual identity in favour of the species a la “Selfish Gene” 😉
    If one grain is worn off a rock, that particular rock ceases to exist, never to be seen again.

  10. A tree that gives up its individual identity can be said to “survive” only in a Pyrrhic sense. More accurately, it is the “selfish gene” that survives and persists for a longer period than the tree — perhaps for a period roughly commensurate with the rocks, although on the geological evidence they tend to last longer than any particular genetic expression of life.

    Then too, if the duration of a rock is questionable because with the loss of one grain it is no longer the same rock, how much more fragile is the gene, which with every new form, indeed every new physical incarnation in terms of atoms ingested that morning, “ceases to exist” in just the same sense.

    The paradox of identity, often exemplified by the “ship of Theseus,” reminds us that when we ask whether something is “the same,” we need to ask “the same_what_?” This qualification of context resolves all contradictions, but at the expense of suggesting that something is both “the same” and “not the same,” apparently defying the law of the excluded middle. We have to accept that in ordinary language this can come about, because ordinary language straddles many contexts; but for any successful logic, the law of the excluded middle restricts the logic to a given context only.

  11. Life is the pattern, dynamic patterns.
    Genes are not the individual biochemical atoms, molecules and structures, but the encoded pattern independent of physical embodiment.

  12. Coming back to this after a long while.

    Yes, genes are patterns; but it is the patterns, not just the genes, of which we may also use the terms “same” and “not the same.” If a rock is not the same because of the loss of one small particle, why is a gene the same with the alteration of one small part of its current pattern? Isn’t it now, by the same argument, a different gene?

    This is what I meant when I said, “Then too, if the duration of a rock is questionable because with the loss of one grain it is no longer the same rock, how much more fragile is the gene, which with every new form, indeed every new physical incarnation in terms of atoms ingested that morning, ‘ceases to exist’ in just the same sense.” I don’t mind if you think of the gene as a pattern. If pressed, I would have to point out that any pattern change would necessarily have a corresponding physical change, but it isn’t necessary to open that ontological puzzle box just now. It’s enough that we begin to look at what we meant by “pattern.” Is a “gene pattern” something that mysteriously survives minor changes to its composition? But then we could also say that of a “rock.” So we could safely say that a rock exists for aeons, and is “metastable” in a way that makes a “gene pattern” look short-lived.

    There’s a temptation to reach for mathematical solutions, as if a gene could be summarized in a formula, unlike a rock. There’s certainly something more systematic about a gene. But to suggest as an answer they are “statistically favoured metastable states” is not enough to exclude rocks, which are also statistically favoured metastable states.

  13. The rock is an individual there is no gene for that rock (if there were, different story).
    Most (biological) genes replicate near perfectly, some (individual physical copies) can be damaged or destroyed, but the pattern remains in the life host.
    The maths – or the simple “digital” form of the information – is the key for the gene, unlike the random rock. (There is a half-way story for a rock comprising a regular pattern of ordered crystals … )

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