August 2012

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Ethics and Entropy

by Jonathan Wallace

When I was about six or seven years old, I dreamed an autumn leaf was wrapped around the earth, and that we were all going to die from the loss of light and the encroaching cold before the night was out. I sat with my family and the neighbors, in calm despair, while their daughter played sad minor key music on the piano. I have never understood quite where this dream came from, or why it was vouchsafed to a child, but I have lived my life in the knowledge I acquired that night, that things fall apart, "tout casse, tout passe, tout lasse", nothing gold can stay.

Much later, I learned that when matter is converted into energy, and vice versa, something is always lost, so that over time the universe will become sparse of fire, colder, lose substance. In the 1960's, at age 10, I read a science popularization, by George Gamow, which still postulated there might be a steady state universe, creating new matter somewhere; but by the next decade, this idea was exploded, and we all knew that the universe is in fact a clock running down, like the earth in my dream, destined to end with a whimper. In the '90's, I read Hawking's Brief History of Time, and appreciated some beautiful glosses he added to the idea: that coffee cups fall and smash, but are never seen to leap from the floor and reconstitute themselves; that the universe tends in a direction of increasing disorder; that time and the universe are co-extensive (this was a shock) and that therefore there were no dark, quiet aeons "before the universe"; that on the day the universe expires, so will time.

The concept of entropy, of increasing disorder, seemed to apply to almost every element of daily life, either directly or metaphorically: the human body, breaking down across the decades, resulting in the old people around us who could not stand up straight, who no longer had their teeth; the street outside our home, fracturing in the winter, buckling and bubbling in the summer; the way toys broke while being used for the purpose intended, sometimes within an hour after one got them; and then, not really dictated by the Second Law, but more by humans imitating the Second Law, increasing chaos in human affairs, democracies which thrived two hundred years and then broke down, empires falling apart, proud ancient races destroyed by uncouth barbarians.

I understood at some point also that anything one did to oppose chaos, to make order, was a "death defying act", that humans have some ability to fight entropy, to instill order and forestall disorder. Every constructive and creative act opposes entropy: making a coffee cup from the raw materials; building a house; forging a community; writing a poem, play or novel. Of course, in doing any of these things,we are creating an artifact on which destructive forces immediately go to work; the coffee cup will eventually chip or break, paint will flake away, the pages of novels will yellow and tear, and even their electronic versions will be erased or compromised. Human courage consists in large part--the part that is not itself warlke and chaotic, a promoter of entropy-- of throwing off artifacts, trying to stay ahead of disorder, freezing time and things in little knots of art and creation which will degrade more slowly, last longer, than most things around them.

We will lose this battle, personally when we die if not before, and later as the artifacts we have left behind degrade and die in their turn; and finally when the universe narrows down to a point and dies, and time and history and all life and memory with it. (I take some comfort, as I have said in some of my plays, from the idea that death too will pass away on that day.)

Before we even get to an intimate knowledge of entropy, there is a terrible denial, the clinging to the idea of a God, immortality, some kind of a "plan" which is itself a form of order which would explain the constant ceaseless violence, randomness and increasing chaos so evident in life. For those who intellectually make their way through this, who get beyond the denial (I believe most people don't), the knowledge of entropy seems to me to have three possible effects: one may align oneself with the strongest force in the universe, and begin promoting disorder, which in general means being evil in one's beliefs and actions; one can fall into despair; or (the solution I endorse), calmly and resignedly promote order, by making things, building communities, trying to help other people fight chaos in any way one can, while knowing one will eventually lose in the nature of things.

At the same time as I stared at entropy, I felt a love for ethics, though I could not believe in God, given the evidence of randomess I saw, the lack of any apparent governing intelligence. The first day I knew how important justice was to me, was the day another child attacked me in the school lobby, I defended myself and we were both sent to the principal, who did not want to hear my explanation and regarded us as both equally wrong. I became hyper-aware as a child of how casual most adults were about fairness; how law itself, rather than being a deeply held imperative, was very often simply obeyed for fear of being caught. Every once in a while, the comfortable middle class adults of our community--most owned houses, nobody was out of work or in danger of eviction or hungry--had the opportunity to buy items which "had fallen off a truck" (typewriters for example) and had no compunctions about doing so, even though someone else was suffering from their theft. Much later, I observed the phenomenon of software piracy, in which people entirely confused practical and moral considerations, thinking that the practical unlikeliness of being caught equated to a moral permission. I came to understand that the truest test of the importance of an ethical rule was (as a kind of thought experiment) the extent to which you would obey it in private even if nobody would ever know that you had.

One day I told the truth in a situation where nobody would ever have known if I chose not to. Ten years earlier, I had suggested to a friend that her rather shady boyfriend had stolen an item from my house. I found the item years later in my parents' basement, where I had had no recollection of storing it. I ran into the woman on the street in Manhattan one day and I really hesitated, had to overcome a lot of resistance, before I told her I had falsely accused a man she now had not seen in a decade. She smiled and thanked me and said something like, "Nobody would do what you've just done", and I was rewarded, at least a little, for an embarrassing truth. I have wondered much since what was the force that caused me to speak, which gave me little choice. It couldn't have been the expectation of praise, because she could just as easily have been angry at me. Also, the shame of my bad behavior at least seemed to equal if not exceed any praise I might receive for correcting it. Some of the people who correspond with me about things they liked or disliked in the Spectacle would say, of course, it was God who motivated me, whether I acknowledge him or not. But God cancels himself out in this sort of equation, as the statement "waves crashed on the shore" then communicates as much information as "God sent waves to crash on the shore". I can say with some certainty I was not motivated by the fear of any external consequences if I did not speak, as I do not believe in lakes of fire. At most, I was perturbed by an internal consequence of silence, a very private feeling of shame and unease, of not having seized an opportunity to set something straight (to dispel some chaos, instill some order).

I have struggled, in various essays, to find a basis for ethics without God--based in practicality, in the Prisoner's Dilemma, as a way of living well. The best theory I came up with, was that in the absence of a belief in God or hellfire, following an ethical ruleset is itself an artistic act, a commitment to beauty which is a form of order (the form most satisfying to the senses, but perhaps all ordered things are beautiful).

I was on the edge of an insight which I never had in my fifty-eight years, until it was given me by James Tiptree Jr. in an essay I read last week. Tiptree, a writer of science fiction short stories of whom I was barely aware when I was a fan of the genre in the '60s and '70's, was really Alice Sheldon, who assumed she was more likely to be published as James, then was trapped by unexpected success into an eleven year impersonation. Sheldon, who deceived many friends-by-correspondence (women and men) who thought she was male, some of whom did not forgive her when the truth came out, applied some interesting ethical rules to her own dilemma: after the initial lie, there would be no others; in her autobiographical essays, every detail which pertains to gender is carefully left ambiguous, for example a reference to Tiptree's "gonads". Sheldon paid heavily for her choice, because as she won every major award in the genre, was unable to accept them in person or socialize with other writers or fans. Once she was "outed", she wrote some bitter essays about the experience of being a woman in America: never trained to deal with life, treated by others as a fool or an ornament.

I found a compilation of her essays, letters and lesser stories from year 2000 at an outdoor sale (I was handed a box I could fill with paperbacks for $6.00). Sheldon killed herself, after shooting her older, sick husband, sometime in the 1980's. There it is, a throw-away statement in a series of essay-letters she wrote her biggest fan, the insight on the edge of which I trembled, but never clearly saw: that for a confirmed atheist, constructing ethical rulesets, and living by them, is a way to fight entropy. Reading this, I had that click, that sense of rightness, one has a few times in a lifetime, reading only the clearest and most masterful writers. "Why of course it is," I thought. And the two great themes of my life were joined, connected to one another, by a writer to whom I had not even paid attention before.

While I do not believe in natural law, in ethics as an externality to ourselves, I appreciate an insight which grounds ethics more substantially in the soil in which we grow. Being alive, staying alive, acquiring food and shelter, all are a fight against the Second Law; anything we build or do must be stolen from, or organized against, chaos. Ethical rule-sets are a away of fighting chaos better, more. A connection I never saw now seems obvious and simple, like all epiphanies.

Another thought

Please think of this essay as ending with the word "epiphanies". In writing it, however, I had another thought, which perhaps would be better dealt with in another essay, but which I want to sketch out here. If ethics seeks order, is there an argument for a rigid ethics of behavior imposed autocratically? I remember from books and movies an idea which probably came to apotheosis in the 1960's, of a stifling, airless fundamentalism, in which everyone from top to bottom behaved correctly, but had no life and spirit. Humans organized like ants.

Off the top of my head, I think this is a straw man, a crock. It is an imagined world which cannot exist in real life. Given the flaws and failures of human nature, the people at the top of every pyramid of power believe themselves to be higher life forms than the people below, exempt from all rules. So that in every world of airless compliance with rigid rules, the people who run it are either secretly amassing wealth, or ordering their disciples to have sex with them, or molesting children, or breaking their own rules in some other way (sex with people of the same gender, for example). A review of authoritarian communities, ancient and modern, suggests this is an inescapable result: corrupt venal popes with mistresses, homosexual Nazis, Russian autocrats with bigger dachas and better cars than everyone else, Chinese party officials who can mysteriously, on salaries of a few dollars a year, afford to send their children to posh European private schools. And of course today, religions which are pyramid schemes, where one has to pay increasing sums of money for greater levels of enlightenment; and the tedious rondelay of one powerful fundamentalist minister after another, exposed as gay, or promiscuous, or drugged out, or stealing from the congregation.

So all of these structures, which purport to promote order, contain the seeds of chaos within them, to which they succumb. Not to say that looser, more democratic and compassionate structures are not also destroyed by human venality and dishonesty; just that they may, at their best, aspire to something finer, more beautiful, less hypocritical, than autocracy.