Thinking about Entropy

One way to think about entropy is as a measure of disorder in a system: where disorder is high, entropy is high; where disorder is low, entropy is low.

I don’t have the exact quote in front of me, but the late anthropologist Gregory Bateson (the husband of Margaret Mead), in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Ballantine 1985), has as clear a definition of entropy as I’ve ever encountered. He offers it as a simple dialogue exchange between himself and his daughter:

Daughter: Why do we so often call my room ‘not clean’?

Bateson: Because there are far more ways for a room to be called ‘not clean’ than ‘clean’.

Combining Bateson’s wonderful definition of entropy with the second law of thermodynamics (entropy, in a closed system like our universe, increases over time), we arrive at something startling: life is about lowering entropy at the local level (as in cleaning a bedroom, brushing teeth, or writing a blog post free of spelling and grammatical errors).

And if you’re, say, a tree, you channel the sunlight and water you encounter into branches and leaves. That’s the way you try to keep entropy “down” for you (at the local level). 

This insight about what life is is followed by something more startling still: what we as human beings notice as entropy is linked to desire. Put differently, entropy is a measure of a local desire. You have to care whether your bedroom, your teeth, and your blog posts are the way you call “clean” (exactly the way that you want them). If you don’t care, then whatever state they just happen to be in at any given moment is dandy with you.

But if we desire something to be perfect, then how do we lower the entropy on it? By some combination of the following:

  • work
  • thought

This is Adam’s curse. We’re not in the Garden of Eden. We have to work and think to get things into the order we really want them in or we have to be content with things exactly as they are, and say with Buddhist equanimity, “Ah, so.”

I could, for example, work at this blog post some more, but I’m under the pressure of other demands and desires today (I have to get my kids to school this morning, and I have a perfect storm of back-to-back meetings at work that will require my focus).

And so, for now, I’m letting this blog post go into the world as is, higher in entropy than where I’d like it to be.

Ah, so.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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