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Playboy 60th Anniversary Essay: Entropy
  • December 23, 2013 : 15:12
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The rejection of Governmental power in aid of the governed is so rare as to be the stuff of legend. (When George III heard of George Washington’s resignation as commander, the king remarked, “He is the greatest man in the world.”)

The question, finally, is, What is going on here? How is it possible that Germany and England, twice in two decades, retired to the traditional dueling grounds to kill off an entire generation of their youth? Why did we follow France to Vietnam, and Russia into Afghanistan? Why have we, the citizen-owners of this country, allowed an entrenched class of bureaucrats to have control over our laws and resources? Here is my own law of thermodynamics: The blonde always breaks up the band.

The successful band attracts groupies. The groupie, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse of the most successful member of the band may inherit a certain power. He or she, at the least, may, in bed, comment upon or indeed contravene the decisions made in the studio. He or she is taking easily offered (cheap) power and using it. Does this make these operations evil? Not necessarily. The paramour may very well have the interests of the band at heart and may even have musical knowledge and insight. But the mechanism of decision (the band in the studio) is forever altered and weakened. The other band members, faced with this new regime, each will find his or her own blonde (paramour, agent, brother-in-law), for the precedent has been set, the compact has been broken, and energy will take the most efficient path downhill, and thus it ends in court. As it does with our government in the waning days of American hegemony.

What can one say of a country in which elected officials voted, in a 2,400-page bill, to give the government power over six percent of the economy, according to laws that no one had read? “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it,” said Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House. Is this an example of daylight madness? Of course.

It is also an example of the dissipation of energy.

Money, put in the vulgate, has burned a hole in our pocket. The larger yacht looks not only attractive but essential to the billionaire, the trophy wife to the successful merchant; and our actions in concert cannot but partake of our individual nature, which is to expend energy and, after the fact, to explain the expenditure as reason.

Is the West dismantling itself because we are fools? Of course we are fools; we are human. Is this devolution inevitable? Yes, though its course and speed are unforeseeable. Is my view overly bleak? I don’t think so. The human body, a machine, has its natural span. We have extended the human life span greatly, but it cannot be extended indefinitely, as such would fall afoul of the Second Law.

We might understand our lives as a house built on a cliff. In an attempt to enjoy the view (get something for nothing), we spend much time and energy (including the expenditure of information costs) testing the soil, researching various modes of construction, studying or paying others to study winds and tides and the optimum architectural design to promote structural longevity. And then we build our house. Do we intend it to last forever? We know that neither it nor we will last forever, but we plan to have it last a “reasonable” amount of time.

But we may have sited our house in error, winds may change, the soil reports may have been inaccurate or, indeed, fudged; a freak, which is to say rare but probable, wind or earthquake may tumble our house down the cliff. It may outlast us, but neither it nor we will last forever. And no civilization can last forever.

Note that a large component of energy is expended in information costs: what is the best site for the house, what are the best materials, who is the best architect, what is a reasonable price and so on. The Wright brothers profited from their own pursuit of information, from years of testing and thought, and from the energy expended by hundreds of others in studying not only the nature of flight but of air, winds and mechanics.

Now the United States has turned its back on manufacturing. And the current administration is, inexplicably, tragically, opposed to development, experiment and the personal wealth that funds them; we may see, if we step back, an astonishing phenomenon. We, American citizens, do a small fraction of the physical work done a century ago; we do a fraction of the manufacturing work done a generation ago. But the energy this work amassed must be dissipated (just as the billionaire must dissipate the hundred million or so for the new yacht advertised as “the latest thing”).

Our current administration, our President, who has not vetoed one spending bill in one and a half terms, has risen to power as a proto-Marxist; that is, one dedicated to an equal distribution of goods, such equality effectuated by the state’s ability to confiscate and award.

Note that those things he has done in supposed support of conservation (banning drilling, banning the Alaska pipeline, banning development the EPA might find objectionable, attempting to overtax medical devices, bludgeoning a health care bill through Congress) have, inevitably, resulted in a greater consumption of energy—just as the production of the electric car uses more energy than the continued use of the aged internal-combustion vehicle.

All expenditure of energy increases disorder. It seems there is no exception. Is there, however, any comfort? I think so.

A myth is not an untruth. It is an attempt to state, poetically or symbolically, a shared foundation belief that cannot be empirically proved. When quantum physicists posit the big bang, they are, essentially, retelling a myth first noted some time before.

I refer to Genesis, in which we are told there was nothing and then there was something. The something, in the Bible, is called God; the physicists call it the singularity, that which came from nothing and caused everything. Both formulations may be reducible to “Damned if I know.…”

In the Bible we are told God created the heavens and the earth (the universe, which was void and dark), and the spirit of God hovered upon the face of the waters. And so the first process described in our foundation myth (the foundation myth of the West) was evaporation, which is to say the movement of energy from a more- to a less-ordered state.

God then, as we know, created light, day, night and a firmament between the waters below and the waters above, which machine we may, if we wish, recognize as a cell and the text as a description of the cell dividing. The cell, of course, grows into various creatures and, eventually, culminates in Woman and Man, who, in their first human act, get into trouble.

And there we have it. Adam and Eve form a family, which begins to fight and kill. Other families arise; none are happy. Jacob’s prosperity leads to children who quarrel, and one of them, Joseph, is abandoned to slavery. He rises to be vizier of Egypt. Moses, another Jew risen to prominence, takes the slaves out of Egypt, and they reward him by clamoring to go back and put an end to all this foolishness.

They do not know how else to dissipate (employ) their energies. So, as they cannot any longer use their energies according to the way of slaves, they turn their energies on Moses, who has forced them into this new, traumatic position.

I will not belabor the parallels with the current position of Western democracy wending its way back to the sea.

Of what is all this headlong elaboration in aid? Toward what are we rushing and why? This daunting problem seems to admit of no solution at all, but if we address it not as a problem but as a solution in itself, it may begin to make some sense.

If before the big bang there was nothing, and if all energy since then is expended in the manner best suited to return the world to that state, then all seemingly random permutations of energy dispersal must be attempts to accelerate the return to chaos.

Life then, human and otherwise, may be understood not primarily as the desire to perpetuate life (which just begs the question “Why?”) but as an attempt to maximize this dispersal.

The paramecia, reptiles, primates and so on evolved toward the agent best capable of waste; that is, the human being, whose sole adaptive excellence is the ability to conceive of and create increasingly effective engines for the discovery and dispersal of energy.

Though we may not find this purpose flattering, we may draw comfort in being part of a universal plan in which even if God did not love us, he must admire our capacity to throw ourselves into our work.

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