One of Albert Einstein’s great legacies is his Gedanken experiments (or thought experiments). He was a competent mathematician, of course, but more than that, his strength was in his ability to ask interesting and novel questions and then use his imagination to crystallize how different components relating to those questions could come together.
In physics, numbers and formulas provide the fixed nails on which theories hang as they find their final form. For Einstein, one of his breakthrough theories came from the realization that the speed of light must always be constant — that it’s the one thing that isn’t relative to anything else. Imagining a railway carriage moving at a particular speed, and contrasting that with the speed of a beam of light, he realized that he couldn’t make the thought experiment work unless the speed of the beam were constant relative to both the railway carriage and the railway station from where the carriage left.
E=mc2. That’s what the thought experiment yielded — the idea that energy and mass are interchangeable. The spacetime that makes up our entire conception of the Universe is composed of both matter and energy, yes, but they are tangled with one another, interconnected to a point where anything with a mass, anything that moves or vibrates, can be broken down to energy. In this sense, the Universe is a thermodynamic system, where everything possesses energy capable of doing work. This simple idea is what makes the laws of thermodynamics fundamental to our understanding of reality.
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed from one form to another. The second law of thermodynamics states that, as energy is transformed from one state to another, more and more of it is wasted — meaning that as time goes on, we get more and more entropy, or disorder, in the Universe, until at some point in the far future the Universe will destroy itself because it has reached maximum entropy in what is referred to as the heat death of the Universe.
If this is where the story ended, nobody will blame a person for slowly decaying into a state of depression. Except, something strange started to happen some 4 billion years ago. On a tiny speck of dust, in a relatively tiny galaxy, in a tiny, tiny part of the Universe, a process called abiogenesis occurred for the very first time. This tiny speck of dust is the floating rock we call Earth, and this process is otherwise known as the origin of life.
We don’t know how life came to be, we don’t know why it came to be, but we know that out of non-living matter living entities eventually arose and began the evolutionary process of increasing their complexity relative to their environmental habitats. As the evolutionary tree grew out with time, so did the variety in species. This went on for billions and billions of years until some two hundred thousand years ago when a great ape by the name of Homo Sapiens — or, modern humans — began to roam the planet.
This brings us to a very crucial point. With the arrival of humans, the Universe suddenly became self-aware in a way that it hadn’t previously been before. Not only that, but this self-awareness also pointed us in a singular direction that continues to be the driving force of both culture and civilization: The collective generation of order in the fight against entropy.
Biological organisms are strange because they generally maintain their internal states and their external form, in a kind of homeostasis, in the face of a constantly changing environment. They fight entropy by virtue of existing, by virtue of how efficiently they use their energy. As a human being, you don’t break down with every change that happens around you — either you know how to manage it through prior experience or you simply adapt, and you do this very efficiently. In the words of neuroscientist Karl Friston: “Biological systems somehow manage to violate the fluctuation theorem, which generalizes the second law of thermodynamics.” In other words, our very existence is a fight against the heat death of the Universe.
This knowledge, of course, does nothing to account for the fact that as individual beings we are likely to die even far before this heat death has anything to say about it. And that is true. Using the first law of thermodynamics (the idea that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed into something else), we might bring ourselves some solace in knowing that we are a part of the Universe and that our energy turns into something else, just like it was something before we were human, but it doesn’t actually stop our physical body from withering away. But that’s a limited way to understand the power of our collective efforts.
Not only are biological organisms great at creating order with their bodies, but humans, in particular, have learned to harness energy outside of their bodies to create order in the external world. First, we discovered fire, which likely gave us our big brains. Then we built simple tools that allowed us to domesticate animals and plants. Then we settled down in agricultural communities. With time, we developed meaningful technologies that gave us the leverage to use energy in such a way as to run a collective civilization where we have things like corporations and art and the rules of morality. The world of abundance we know today is the resulting phenomenon.
We are a species dominant due to our ability to cooperate flexibly in exceptionally large groups, and this cooperation has allowed us to create the knowledge to understand how the Universe works. We think. Our self-awareness allows us to understand our surroundings, and that understanding allows us to create culture, along with civilization. And while our individual bodies may wither away and die long before the heat death of the Universe, as long as we continue to have culture and civilization, our contributions, whether they be through raising decent children or inspiring innovations, will live on, in big ways and in small ways.
In nature, we have consumer species and producer species. Producer species are plants and bacteria that convert the energy of the sun. Consumer species are organisms that eat to fuel their bodies. In this sense, all large animals, including humans, are consumers. In the ecological food chain, we take more value than we add, whereas producers add more value than they consume. Except, abstracted away, humans produce value in a different way, a lasting kind of value when we build civilization.
Each individual person is a bundle of energy. This bundle of energy consumes not just food, but also information and knowledge from the existing cultural thought soup. Our mental models, our education, our values — all of these things we consume from our surroundings. But when we use this complex mixture of consumption to produce, we add something back to the environment. The act of creativity, which is what humans innately do best, is the act of producing more than the sum of our consumption with the energy contained within the human body.
When someone takes action to raise awareness in our fight against climate change, or better yet, builds a technology that helps us take it on, they are producing something that creates more value than the sources of their consumption. When someone creates a work of art that changes our cultural perception for the better, or when a sage or a saint guides our moral compass in a more meaningful direction, they are producing something that creates more value than the sources of their consumption.
Even the simple act of working on yourself, your character, your inner world, ordering it so that it sets a better example for people on the outside produces more value than your sources of consumption. It’s an action with indirect consequences. Little things add up to big things, and big things eventually break down barriers that were previously considered unbreakable.
We don’t know where we came from. We don’t know where the collective culture and civilization are going. We don’t even know that they can overcome this fight against entropy. As it currently stands, according to the current laws, it doesn’t look like it. But we also don’t know for sure that they can’t. We don’t know what kind of discoveries lie ahead. What we do know is that, collectively, as a species, we are moving forward. We are adding more order to the world, and that order is largely good, no matter what metric we use to define it. In 10,000 years of civilization, we’ve come far. There’s no telling how far we could go if we widen our horizons to another 10,000 years. Even if we deny the value of the moral arc of civilization, the creativity, the interestingness, that it has enabled in our quest for self-awareness means something even if only because of things like hope and curiosity.
We are all tied in this interconnected web of actions and meanings that create ripples as a whole that could reach all kinds of corners of the Universe. We have bodies of mass that move and vibrate to give us energy. From a first principle view, the purpose of life is to use that energy to produce more than you consume, to act creatively in the world, to add order to culture and civilization in the grand fight against entropy, on whatever scale you are capable of doing so at. We might win, we might lose, we might perish, but the attempt itself is what helps us transcend our temporary condition.
Humans aren’t perfect. We are beautifully flawed in various complex ways. But one thing that differentiates us from any other organism that we know of is our potential. We are the Universe observing itself to make sense of itself. And the knowledge we create in that quest, the outcomes we produce, have the possibility to take us to places we have yet to even imagine.
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