Life is hard. But why? Isn’t the universe supposed to be “kind”? Why does everything always feel like an uphill battle? Is it your fault? Are you insufficiently enlightened, or is there something more fundamental?
Science has an answer. There is a god-like phenomenon out there -- entropy -- that’s trying to mess with everything you do, all the time. If God is good, she's also chaotic. God made this beautiful kingdom that constantly unmakes itself. Yet God made you, her feeble minion, with an unending urge to tidy up all that she's undoing. Dooming you to an unwinnable battle for eternity.
What is entropy?
Entropy makes pizza go bad. Kills puppies. Entropy brings ruin to beautiful art, makes civilizations vanish without leaving a trace, makes stars disappear, entire galaxies die out, and of course, makes every cell division just a tad imperfect, making your whole life a race against time. So is entropy the agent of destruction, a god of death? Well not quite. Entropy is also the agent of creation. All that there is, is thanks to entropy.
Let’s take a step back. It wasn’t always messy like this. In the beginning, everything was perfect, and there were no tears, no suffering, no bad guys, and it was just harmony and grace.
But perfect ain't good -- all there was then, was nothing. With perfect, there were no puppies, pizza, or planets either. All of the universe was packed into one tiny little perfectly “orderly” point.
Then shit blew up - and has been blowing up for 13.8 billion years. The Big Bang was the end of perfect nothingness and the start of the process that led to the big mess that we are.
This process consisted of, among other things, an increase in total imperfectness or disorder. Entropy is a measure of disorder.
The workings of entropy
Let’s look at an example smaller than the creation of the universe, like a cup of coffee. A hot cup of coffee packs a large number of agitated molecules into a relatively compact space, which is why it's hot. As the coffee cools down though the air that surrounds it gets slightly warmer, leaving the molecules in the cup less agitated but far more molecules that surround the cup more agitated, meaning the total number of agitated molecules is now greater. Hence the total number of possible states for molecules in hot coffee plus cold air is smaller than molecules in cool coffee and slightly warmer air. A larger number of possible states are likely to be more disorderly than a smaller number of states. Thus, as the coffee cools down, disorder -- or entropy -- increases.
The same story goes for any quantity of matter or energy, with low entropy when packed into some organized formation and high in entropy when in disarray. A whole egg has lower entropy than a splattered one. An organized table has lower entropy than a disorganized one. A small hot universe has lower entropy than a big messy one.
The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of a closed system cannot decrease. It's like if your house was a closed system with no outside source of energy, care, or love, then everything inside the house -- which is made of chemical bonds held together by nuclear forces -- will keep decaying into simpler states, rotting and decaying into disorder eternally.
Entropy and the existence of life
If disorder has to keep increasing, how come we can have perfect un-splattered eggs at all? Because entropy in one local system can decrease by raising the entropy of another adjacent system. You can have a high-entropychicken that makes perfect low-entropic eggs in your real-world house as long as the energy to fuel that process comes from outside. In this case, it comes from the sun. The sun in return is constantly dissipating massive amounts of energy and constantly moving to a higher-entropy state.
Our dearest star is constantly dancing towards a high entropy death so that you can live, breathe and enjoy low-entropy eggs.
Entropy also explains why life is rare. There are many configurations of matter in a disordered universe, of whichonly an infinitesimally small number of configurations can yield life. So by necessity, life is highly orderly. Living things have much lower entropy than their non-living counterparts. In fact, the definition of life is the ability to use energy to create more low-entropic and very orderly copies of itself!
For the simplest single-cell life to exist, though, a staggering amount of total entropy increase is necessary. Just to create the heavy elements that make up such life, you'd need a hundred stars over millions of years to live and die, leading to on average one supernova among them, producing all that material in a 0.25-second brilliant flash of death. Good thing that the universe is so vast, making even rarest events not that rare.
So, life -- a phenomenon that is defined by its entropy reducing efforts -- is also the result of vast entropy increase.
Here lies our dilemma.
The struggle for low entropy
Like all life, we humans feel the urge to produce more little humans. Particularly as intelligent life, we take pride in our ability to build tools and mold our surroundings such that our environment is even more suitable for future little humans. A process commonly described as building a better future.
Ask any scientist, entrepreneur, farmer, or artist about why they do what they do. Chances are they have been working tirelessly to "build a better future". They'd say that this is what gives their life meaning. By necessity, this better future for our low-entropic clones is a future with lower entropy overall in our immediate surroundings. The very thing that gives life meaning is our struggle to lower entropy around us!
No wonder Michaelangelo “saw the beautiful angel in the marble and carved till it was set free”, as opposed to seeing the marble surrounding the angel as beauty.
That's just how the human brain -- a pattern-recognition machine -- has evolved to work. Patterns are more orderly than lack of patterns, which means the brain is designed to spot low-entropic states. Every time you open your eyes or ears, you are seeking patterns that signal low entropy. Even when you are merely thinking, your thoughts gravitate towards abstractions of low-entropy concepts - like words or objects. So even in the thought-world, you prefer being low-entropic.
The problem, of course, is that the universe keeps trying to move everything to higher entropy. The only way to maintain lower entropy is to constantly put work into it.
So what's the endgame? Someday, the universe is going to die with all of its energy and matter reduced to just a vast space of photons in a state of essentially the highest possible entropy. We exist somewhere in the middle, between the big bang and ultimate heat-death. We also exist in a cosmic scale river flowing in the direction of higher entropy but encapsulated in a momentary low-entropic ripple.
All of this explains why it is hard to be content and happy. There’s always more disorder in the universe, and your brain - the order-seeking machine - will always push you to want to create more order. That’s a lot of frustrating - and ultimately un-winnable - work. Every step of the way, entropy is trying to mess with your work.
Your quest for happiness is also you fighting the universe.
Many ancients struggled with the dilemma of life. Curiously, they all arrived at similar wisdom - let go. Surrender. Some philosophies explicitly advise this, like Buddhism and Stoicism. Others conjure up intermediary divinity that one must surrender to, like Catholicism or Islamism. It seems like no matter where you look, all the known paths to enlightenment lie through some form of not-fighting.
The processes and end results purported by all religions are remarkably similar. You start with a mind filled with chaotic thoughts. Then you work hard - through prayer, meditation, or total submission to the divine - for years. Finally you arrive at a state of mind that is supposed to be clear, free of disorganized thoughts, still, in perfect harmony, at peace, like the surface of a tranquil pond. Essentially a low-entropic representation of thoughts!
The lessons of entropy
Consider the truth: you are an entropy-reducing machine that exists solely because of entropy increase.
That is unsettling. To know that the process that’s trying to get rid of us is the same process that created us. To know that the force that ruins all that we make also helps us breathe. To know that our doomed struggle is also what gives us meaning.
But this knowing is also liberating. It gives us permission to not self-flagellate for the inevitably imperfect results of our order-making projects. It invites us to extract joy from the process, and detach ourselves from the outcome. It urges us to be present, because this miniscule tidied-up sliver of the universe too will soon be eviscerated by increasing entropy.
This knowing is peace. This knowing is surrender. This knowing is the path of the peaceful warrior: at peace with the very entropy that is the adversary.
So dearest order-making machines, warrior-on. Entropy will fuck you, inevitably -- but knowing that will make it all a bit more bearable. Almost pleasurable, possibly!