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The Heat Death of Humanity: Progressivism as the Second Law of Thermodynamics

February 23, 2015

I don’t agree with (or to be honest, understand) – all the Nietzschean / Great Chain of Being stuff in the post series “Neoreaction: is it for real?“, but I thought this was an amazing line:

“Modern thought, by contrast, is based upon relationships of difference and opposition (and the overcoming of such differences and oppositions)…For the modern progressive, difference is opposition and reflects an inequality of power; it is something to be overcome…Have you ever wondered how the political left keeps finding new forms of inequality to campaign against? Their crusade will never end, for they know that any relationship of difference can be reconceptualized as an oppositional relationship reflecting a power imbalance.

I think this captures an important reason why many of us find progressivism so creepy and dystopian. Sure, each individual progressive cause has a purported justification of kindness and associated human interest story. Yet if you zoom out, you realize that any human difference, viewed through the oppressor/oppressed lens, can (and likely will) be perceived as an inequitable inequality, due to a power imbalance, which must be eliminated to achieve justice.

If only certain limited differences were targeted – like suffrage not being universal – this crusade could well be beneficial. Yet what we see is progressively increasing outrage over progressively smaller differences. It looks much less like a force for actual justice than like an anti-difference paperclipper – eternally dedicated to a single instrumental value which it has mistaken for the only terminal value.

A process of this form, dedicated to eternally seeking out and removing differences, can only ever end in universal homogeneity – utter blandness and sameness. It seems that perhaps progressivism is the embodiment in human systems of the second law of thermodynamics, which can be roughly stated as “the tendency of natural processes to lead towards spatial homogeneity of matter and energy, and especially of temperature“. That is, redistribution which eliminates differences. The second law is extremely progressive – for what could be more unjust than an unequal initial distribution of matter and energy, the ultimate resources?

Let us hope that with humans, unlike thermodynamic systems, this is not a true law – universal and inviolable – but merely a tendency. For the ultimate result of the second law is that we will eventually reach the heat death of the universe – a thermodynamic equilibrium where homogeneity is so great that no work can happen, which means no life can exist.

Fortunately, this is estimated to be at least 10^100 years off. That gives us plenty of time for human differences to flourish, thrive, separate, insulate, persist, recombine, and re-separate along the way. Not the superficial kind of differences – like skin reflectance – but real differences: different cultures; religions; legal systems; immigration requirements; currencies; methods of exclusion; models of thought. Let us, as a species, use the time that our universe has been given for dynamic systems to exist, rather than allowing the progressivism paperclipper to prematurely cause  the Heat Death of Humanity.

One of the things life has taught me this decade is the importance of exclusion and boundaries, which are highly relevant to this metaphor. A thermodynamic system with poor borders (less insulation), will have greater thermal conductivity. It may do more work initially, but it will also move at maximum speed towards that final resting state where all energy is evenly distributed. Such a state is peaceful in precisely the same way as death; for without flows of energy, there can be no life (in vivo or in silico – as no computation is possible). I suppose those who think human extinction is fair or just will consider this the state of ultimate fairness. I don’t particularly care for that final solution.

So if you even care about life existing – let alone the infinite diversity possible therein – then (contra Caplan), boundaries (such as national borders) are an absolute necessity. No differences, no energy flow, no (thermodynamic) work, no life. As in the stars, so on the earth: romance flows from polarity; trade from comparative advantage; thermodynamic work from heat differences; evolution from variation; economic competition from competing alternatives. All progress is driven by differences; so to erase differences is (counter-eponymously) to end progress.

Please chime in – this is just my opening prompt and I’d love to hear more discussion and speculation of these physics/politics parallels. How tight is the parallel here? And perhaps most importantly, what is the physics parallel for the countervailing force? Some have suggested Extropy, and others Negentropy (most notably Schrödinger). These anti-entropic forces are perhaps most embodied by biological life (while still respecting the Eddington rule). Whatever the parallel, what can we learn from it in our quest to avoid – or maximally postpone – the heat death of humanity?

p.s. Some people have interpreted this post as being a position of extreme conservatism. That is not at all my intention. Extreme conservatism is also death, simply of a different type – the death of stasis, of extreme boundaries such that all systems are disconnected, no energy can flow, no larger pattern be created.

However, I find this less dangerous because I think that stasis is more immediately recognizable and also more reversible than heat death. Systems can be connected and boundaries torn down, but once heat death has occurred, it takes Maxwell’s Demon to restore a living universe. Breaking an egg is easy; putting Humpty-Dumpty back together is hard. I am interested in diverse, rich, dense, evolving patterns; it is immediately clear that such patterns cannot exist in stasis; but less clear that they also require insulation to persist.

UPDATE: Related is “Gardens Need Walls“, a great post on boundaries and complex systems:

  1. February 23, 2015 3:15 pm

    Reblogged this on Joseph Ratliff's Notepad.

  2. February 23, 2015 4:52 pm

    Is grey goo that bad? It seems like it’s only a terrible fate if it’s only a local extremum on the energy landscape.

  3. February 23, 2015 5:01 pm

    I don’t think you can use this insight to argue against opening national borders – the argument proves too much. Suppose we grant for the sake of argument the notion that having some sort of border maintains “energy differentials” that are useful to humanity – why would *existing national boundaries* be the best place to put those borders and why would we expect anything like the existing set of restrictions/policies to be the best ones for maintaining those differentials?

    To maximize these sort of differentials might we not be be better off with strong border controls around each house? Around each city? Each county? Each state? If not – if you think you have good arguments to the effect that allowing free trade and free movement of people between Santa Clara and San Jose has benefits that outweigh the cost (*including* the cost in terms of reducing “energy differentials”), don’t similar arguments apply to allowing free trade and movement of people between, say, the US and Mexico? If not, why not?

    There are open borders today between Alabama and New York. Has this fact eliminated all the differences and inequalities between those states? or even substantially reduced them?

  4. February 23, 2015 5:50 pm

    Now this post hits a nice existential note, I hope it leads to some good discussion. I remember reading something similar, that the purpose of life is to intercept all the energy in the universe that isn’t doing work, and put it to work. If I can remember where that came from I’ll drop another note.

    There seems to be fundamental personality types where one sees a resource and needs to save it for another day, and another type that sees a resource and needs to put it to immediate use. There doesn’t seem to be any way to convince either type to see things the other way.


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