Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Schrödingers Whirlpool

Erwin Schrödinger introduced the idea of negative entropy to characterize Life. It’s a mystical concept, as I’m sure he well knew. For Life bathes in a colossal gusher of local energy from Sol. That astonishing light and unimaginable heat vanish surely and almost completely into the Universe, leaving nothing but agitated motion among the sparse molecules spread across the lightyears. Life thrives in the flow, but it is not energy, nor does it violate the laws of energy.

Energy spreads out until it is useless. This loss, we feel it as a loss for some reason, is remorseless, like the flowing of the water remorselessly through a billion channels from the highest clouds to the level of the Sea. But what are we in such a scheme? A physicist sees Life as somewhat counterintuitive, comparing it perhaps to a capacitor, some curious electro-chemical mousetrap that holds back some of that energy flow for later use, where the word "use" itself implies an unscientific refutation of entropy.

It is a mystical concept, I repeat. It has confused generations of creationists. Living things are not immune to entropy and pose no challenges to it. The apparent complexity and organization of life is a product of the flowing energy, slowing it down but an instant, similar perhaps to an eddy in the flowing river. The eddy is not made of water, and causes the water to tarry only a short time. The eddy is not the water, yet the eddy is a complex form that holds together in itself, an apparent spirit of the water, retaining its form and dancing in the water for the span of its moments or days. It seems alive. By Schrödinger’s light, it is alive, and its path cannot be predicted. Nor can ours. But the energy goes its way.


People who apply mystical concepts to the workings of the human universe are almost always misled by those concepts. People who get mystical gratification from understanding those workings, however, can have the profoundest impact on the rest of us. Schrödinger was from that second group, as were Adam Smith, Einstein and Darwin, who found that there was grandeur in his view of Life. Carl Sagan tried to express this in his series, Cosmos, which I recommend as still inspiring after two decades. Wonder and awe and even mystical experiences are common to those who explore the world with the cold scalpel of reason. Why that is so, I can only guess, and my guess is this: it is because the real world is worthy of such emotions, and the mystical world is worthy of such a scalpel.

While Darwin had the pleasure of his discovery, that marvelous engine of Beauty, I suspect that Thomas Malthus, who has also given us a great truth, had trouble getting out of bed. I imagine that he found it hard to breathe from time to time, as I do when I think about his offering to us. It is the straitjacket of reproductive life. The Malthusian Denialists are rampant among us. It’s hard to blame them. Bartletts’s Law suggests that this simple idea is indigestible, that humans cannot, by their nature, understand it . Perhaps, as has been suggested, Bartletts’s Law is an inevitable outcome of natural selection when the human mind meets Malthus. Can anyone who comes to understand him reproduce as productively as before? Darwin certainly could, but he was an unusual creature.

These thoughts are occurring to me as I try to put the work of Joseph Tainter in perspective. I am pondering the subject at Steve Sturgill’s behest. Steve has, I think he would agree, been driven to pessimism at least in part by the school of thought currently thrashing in those waters that Tainter described so cogently.

Tainter, in my abrupt summary, has identified energy and complexity as the limiting factors, the controlling inputs, of modern civilization. Even research and development, he would say, requires increased complexity and energy inputs that are reaching a saturation point. The Law of Diminishing Returns would indicate that increasing inputs into the business of solving problems rewards us with smaller and smaller payoffs.

I would like to generalize his viewpoint and make a statement I can agree with. Every society, every growing system, requires one thing that it does not have. The limiting factor could be energy, labor, land, knowledge or just plain resolve. If the society gets more of that one thing, then it will be short of something else. Each solution requires effort, concerted action, and probably some physical inputs, such as energy or nitrates or water. The odds are that sooner or later the society will, solving many problems as it grows, finally stumble upon a required input that the society is congenitally unable to provide. The suggestion was that the Roman Empire lacked energy resources, provided in those days by slaves, and resolved the issue in a dysfunctional way, by adapting a strategy of conquest, which could not be sustained. It is obvious that the problem is growth itself, to which there are indeed limits.

We know, however, that we have not reached those limits yet, for the growth of GDP still outpaces population growth. We are, however, borrowing against a future that will come to its limit more abruptly because of our profligacy. Abrupt limits lead to collapse. Do we have a choice? I certainly think so, but not as we are.

One of the limiting factors in our society is decision unification. The democratic structure does not allow for rational choices pursued patiently. And autarchy, plutocracy, and kleptocracy are much worse in every way except single-mindedness. We see this amply demonstrated in the ecological crimes of the USSR, the PRC, the states of the Warsaw Pact and Saddam’s Iraq.

Part of Tainter’s thesis is that complexity increases continually. Most of what he sees as complexity is Division of Labor as delimned by Adam Smith in 1776. We become more productive by breaking difficult jobs into many parts and allowing people to specialize in each part. It applies to manufacturing, regulation, research and general scholarship alike. But it is only one of the ways that we improve productivity. When I was a child, my father had several mechanics who worked on his car. One of them was a specialist in carburetors. He had studied them for decades and could take one apart and put it back together in the dark. Today, he would be out of a job. There are no carburetors, so no repairmen. Things have been simplified, not complicated. There are also no computer repairmen or vacuum clearner repairmen because we have become so productive at producing them that it’s cheaper to replace than fix. Maybe they still have carburetor mechanics and vacuum cleaner repairmen in Cuba, but that speaks to other problems.

I used to be a computer programmer, but now most of these jobs are gone. Why is that? Software has added to our productivity so effectively that upgrades have become nuisances rather than eagerly awaited benefits. People can do a lot of their own programming now because it’s so packaged and programming languages have improved. Outsourcing is routine. Simpler in some ways, harder in other ways. People can’t program their VCRs, so we now have the Geek Squad. That complicates things a little for now, but in ten years your electronic devices will interface with humans much more conveniently. Part of our complexity input is being reaped in the form of simplicity output. So Tainter is not necessarily correct. At least not yet. And maybe we can change in more fundamental ways as well. Maybe we can learn to observe ourselves, rule ourselves and regulate our growth.

2/13/2007 1:28 AM

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At Tuesday, February 13, 2007 7:51:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

That's very good JJ. I'll give it a slower second pass this evening to see if my slightly tangent take on Tainter is really different from yours, but in the meantime I'm impressed.

> ... the real world is worthy
> of such emotions, and the
> mystical world is worthy of
> such a scalpel.


Top of the day to you! sls

At Tuesday, February 13, 2007 9:36:00 AM, Blogger mal said...

Whoa! mighty deep post there!

I remember all the students that walked around like they had seen God after finally grasping the implications of entropy.

The common thread I see among so many of the great intellectual contributors (OK, excepting Newton) is a certain intellectual humility before the universe. I abhor the creationists narrow view of the universe and believe they are guilty of hubris before God.

What is our purpose if any in the universe? I don't know. I am not sure if we are capable of really grasping it, yet. I accept that there is purpose, otherwise, whats the point?

As far as society limiting itself? It really is technology driven. The Romans were great examples. They overcame a lot of hurdles. Was slavery an answer to energy? Hard to say. It was a common practice in most societies of the time, even if it was inherently inefficent.

I am thinking every society is bounded and driven by physics. Any problem is solvable with enough energy (work). The question is whether the energy is available?

At Tuesday, February 13, 2007 11:42:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Thanks, Steve. Your approval warms me. I don't believe I've completely triangulated my feelings about this, nor that I completely understand what Tainter had to say. I'm looking forward to your comments and challenges.

At Tuesday, February 13, 2007 12:42:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...


There is certainly a lot of personal arrogance among scientists who have had long strings of successful results. Most of them realize that, facing the complexity of the universe, intelligence as an input also has diminishing returns.

Stephen Jay Gould believed that science and religion were two separate "magisteria". Science is one side, and Creationists are messing around on the wrong side of the fence. Your reasons for living and the goals in life have to come from somewhere else, though. Science won't answer those questions. As for me, whether I have another life coming or not, humankind is the best thing I have found so far on this Earth. Recognizing that I am finite, my goals are to share the love of those close to me and do what I can to help the species. If there is any objective purpose, I don't know, but I'll make do with my own purposes for now.

The Romans definitely used slavery as a way to maintain their culture. It was certainly a brutal culture and I'm not sure the intellectual payoff was worth the cost in suffering. The reasons that Romans uses slaves may have had more to do with tradition, vengence and punishment than any conscious decision to supply an energy input. The effect of something is not necessarily the same as the intent of something. Toward the end of the empire they had developed waterwheels and were using them in Gaul, so they had a choice.

Your last paragraph is a paraphrase of Tainter's assessment. But surely we have enough energy to satisfy our social requirements in the short term. There are clear paths laid out by many to make our society more energy efficient and more energy productive as well. Why don't we move down these clear paths in an expeditious manner? It is because the real shortage is elsewhere, as I believe it was in the Roman Empire as well. We just don't know how to act in a concerted and focused manner. Resolve, focus, decisiveness, persistence are all missing.

The path laid out for controlling our growth is another matter. It is not so clear how to do it. China is the only one so far to attempt it. What people haven't realized yet is that natural selection will not let us control our growth. The wisdom to do so appears here and there, but the ability to socialize those sentiments is lacking. It will take a major change in our governance algorithm before we can respond to anything but crisis or manage our own development at even a national level.

At Saturday, February 17, 2007 9:32:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

> Things have been simplified,
> not complicated.

Well, it depends on your perspective, I think. Modern fuel injection systems are much more complex that the carburators they replaced, but from the perspective of the one swapping out parts, probably not. I like to think that effective complexity is reduced, from some perspectives, as overall complexity is increased in the wider scheme.

That's probably fine as long as incremental complexity in product or process is reasonably allocated, which seems not always the case. Maybe this is unavoidable. Is management rewarded for taking the long view based on intangibles?

What I pull from between Tainter's lines is that, given awareness and proper attention, complexity could be managed. But not, as you say, as we are.

I do have a pretty pessimistic outlook, and part of it has to do with the issue Tainter raises, but I thought there was ample justification for pessimism long before I read Tainter. Probably since the early 70's or so. I seem to be used to it, though. I sleep well and breath easy most of the time. I imagine Malthus did, too. Desensitization, I think they call it. Resignation.

> Part of Tainter’s thesis is that
> complexity increases continually.

I think he's saying that that's the tendency because it's how we've learned to deal with problems in the past, but that through awareness of the curve, and where we are on it, we might learn to make corrections.

Que sera, sera.

At Sunday, February 18, 2007 9:29:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

What do we mean by complexity? I take it to mean the necessity of interfacing people with different specializations. The division of labor is taken to finer and finer levels of higher and higher skills, allowing less and less flexibility.

That's not what I see happening anymore. Today, anyone can man a fast food counter. The training required is minimal. You don't even have to read or know how to make change.

Anyone with a basic education can fit into the front office of a major company. You specialize in the things that humans do most naturally. You learn the product line. You learn the customers. You plug into a spreadsheet that is intuitively obvious. You point and click with a mouse that you used as a kid for playing computer games. You interface with a lot of software that makes life easy, but everyone understands each other and most people in a modern corporation can help out with the neighbor's job when necessary. Nobody is learning specialized skills like shorthand these days. The only increasing complexities are legal issues, which is a superfluous complication of modern life. It is one way that we have shot ourselves in the collective foot.

The assembly line still requires special skills, but only the engineers have to really specialize.

As for the carburetor, it required annual cleaning and adjustment. It never seemed to be tuned quite right. It contained dozens of parts that no one understood but had to be installed correctly. A fuel injection system, however, is a clean, modular element of an automobile that requires zero maintenance, hence no mechanics, and is seldom repaired. The design may be the end product of some very sophisticated thinking, but no one has to master that logic outside of the factory.

At Monday, February 19, 2007 7:58:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

I think it's a matter of perspective. I take "complexity" to include, along with the interfacing of people with different specialties, that of the various devices and processes we employ. The carburetor, while requiring a skilled individual to tweak and maintain, did not have to coexist with multiple sensors and computers networked together under the hood. Each of the computer chips under the hood is a complex device in itself, as is the system they comprise.

Not that there's anything wrong with modern fuel injection, of course. Modern cars are better than those of the carburetor age.

My wife is buying a new refrigerator today. It's got computer chips and digital displays, too. Is that an improvement or just something else to break down?

Computer network complexity brought about by the need to protect sensitive elements greatly increases the difficulty and cost of managing and using computer systems. Human interfaces break down as the people setting policies and making hardware rules move to their needs as they understand the mission, while those implementing business functions struggle to keep up and deal with constant changes. I have two high-powered computers at my desk because it was simpler and more reliable than dealing with the complexity of maintaining separations between systems required by rules pretending to even the playing field for competitive market elements. In the meantime, both computers are still hooked up to the same physical infrastructure, and who's to say the intended purpose was actually achieved?

I don't know, JJ. Kurzweil says something about increasing complexity being what enables the exponential rate of change inherent in evolving systems. Maybe I'm just projecting my own limitations again.

At Wednesday, February 21, 2007 10:07:00 PM, Blogger mal said...

"The path laid out for controlling our growth is another matter. It is not so clear how to do it."

So true! The vast majority of people think that many concepts are "obvious" and "self apparent". Not hardly! Some one(s) had to make an intuitive leap somewhere along the way. The best are the ones that appear so simple in hindsight. I hope we are due for some more in the social realm soon

Ask the Incans about the wheel *S*

At Thursday, February 22, 2007 11:17:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Mal, Ideas that change the world do seem to be simple, and yet people have a hard time accepting them. Adam Smith explained the "invisible hand" in 1776. And yet, there are still people resisting those simple economic ideas in Cuba and Venezuela and other places today.

Once having seen the wheel, you can't take it out of your mind. It changes you so thoroughly that you can no longer imagine yourself as you were before you understood the concept. The water wheel, the horse collar, the plow, the germ theory, the number zero, the alphabet, are all the same sort of thing -- simple ideas that eliminated a lot of complexity and allowed a lot of new complexity to blossom. What kind of people, we wonder, could they have been not to see these things?

We've already had some of these essential simple ideas in the social realm, you know. That's what Darwin and Adam Smith and John Nash were all about. Their formulations are a lot more powerful and widely applicable than people imagine. E.O. Wilson and Milton Friedman and other scientists have extended and applied these simple ideas to create whole new fields of endeavor.

The fact that you can't see these things coming is what makes me an optimist. Tainter is right, but only in the moment. Each new idea creates a fundamental shift in culture that can increase our strength and give us a new chance to capture control of our future. At some point we're going to have to stop wasting these opportunities.

At Tuesday, March 13, 2007 3:18:00 AM, Blogger OregonGuy said...


Complexity is never a mask for poorly defined theses.

Spiritualism has never been defined as anything other than spiritualism. Trying to rename it for argument's sake is just as fallacious as naming a pig a pony because you need a pony. Ponies are cuter than pigs, but they're not ponies.

Use is utilization. Period. If I have a tree with a thousand apples growing on it, my eating three apples doesn't alter its utilization. It is underutilized. If you grew up on a farm you'd understand underutilization better. Thinking a thing doesn't make a thing true. Or false. Some arguments have conclusions that follow the argument as a natural conclusion to the argument. These are called "apodictic" arguments.

Trying to include Adam Smith into the domain of dualists is a reach. I can't think of a single dualist argument ever made by Adam Smith.

Obfuscation is not a gift. It's a curse. Unless you're trying to hide something. Then it's a fluffy pillow with bunny rabbits on the pillowslip.

The problem of apodictic argument is, the argument is self-evident. Math was never intended to mask.

Poseur. Climate and weather are two different things. Duh. Which is the predicate?

At Wednesday, March 14, 2007 9:21:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Thankyou for your comment Oregonguy. I admire your education and incisive argument. I'm having a little trouble, due to my noobity no doubt, understanding what you are saying.

I have advanced several arguments. The first argument is that Life is not really a product of negative entropy. In my fragile hold on the concept, I imagine that negative entropy involves going backwards in time. The mathematics, which I understood at one time are probably beyond me now, but I'll do my best to understand if you care to explain it.

Life does not violate the laws of thermodynamics. Do you dispute that? Life on Earth, in fact, plays an extremely small part in the energy flow of the solar system (is this what you refer to as under-utilization?), but represents a consistently explainable part of that energy flow. There's no magic requiring that we modify physics to explain it.

I thought I used the word "mysticism" rather than spiritualism. Do these concepts bear the same meaning? What I meant is perhaps better described as fantasy-based conceptualization and a sense of wonder. Do scientists actually mean it when they describe a vision of linear molecules as snakes that bite their own tails? Adam Smith gives us a strong feeling for the working of the markets by envisioning an invisible hand. I sense that he actually experienced such a vision, though I don't think it came from the Spirit of Christmas Past.

I really don't think I am trying to hide anything. I am mostly trying to understand. Whatever I am posing at, I guess I'm not good enough to get away with it.

You refer to my comment on Belmont Club. Be assured that I have the greatest respect for Wretchard, but he was obfuscating. There is a difference between climate and weather, especially when it comes to prediction.

At Thursday, March 15, 2007 1:13:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I'm not saying that these scientists are obfuscating by using imagery and analogy. I'm suggesting that they use powerful conceptualization tools to communicate a new way of thinking. While such methods may not adhere to the expected norms of scientific discourse, they are ultimately more helpful.

(I hope you're not saying that I'm obfuscating.)

At Saturday, March 17, 2007 5:12:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Must have been a drive by.

I looked up your comments at Belmont and thought they were spot on. You must get lonesome there!

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 6:00:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

That's all right. I don't mind. It makes me think a little more clearly when I'm getting shot at.

Oregon guy is a real blogger who seems to make some sense on his own site. He was mad because he thought I "attacked" Wretchard, but I think he's more than a dittohead. He gets emotional, I guess.

The people over there are very conservative, but there is a healthy mix of opinion and they frequently have interesting things to say. Wretchard, in particular, is deep. He's a good writer, sometimes a great writer, but also a serious analyst and an honest thinker. I agree with him often and usually learn something. He seems to have some sort of inside info. Like everyone, however, he loses perspective because of his friendly audience. I know I hit a nerve on that comment because he's written about three pieces on Global Warming since then.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 6:01:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

By the way, I'm reading a Dawkins book right now that references Schrodinger and whirlpools in a closing chapter. Coincidence or the Zeitgeist?


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