Centropy, Entropy, and Ethics in the Universe

Levi Bryant recently posted about Entropy. He writes:

Entropy is the measure of order in any system. In this regard, to take a rough and ready criterion, the more probable it is that a particular element is located anywhere in a system the more entropy that system embodies. By contrast, the more improbable the location of an element in a system, theless entropic that system is. Thus, systems characterized by high entropy are highlychaotic or disordered, while systems characterized by low entropy are highly ordered. Finally, those systems that maintain the improbability of the location of their elements over time are referred to as “negentropic”. “Negentropy” is a sort of portmanteau word combining “negation” and “entropy”, signifying “the negation of entropy”. In other words, negentropic systems like my body or a corporation are systems that maintain their order.

I posted a comment which read:

I’ve always been somewhat confused by definitions of entropy in terms of probability. It makes perfect sense if I think about molecules of gas in a closed chamber; but on the scale of the universe as a whole in space and time, why is it that entropy is assumed to be more probable than “negentropy”? In the universe we observe (which includes ourselves as observers), there seems to be no reason to assume that disorderliness is anymore probable than orderliness. I see more reason to assume the opposite. Clearly, objects tend to age; but in the case of organisms, the process of aging is also (for the first half of life at least) a process of development and complexification. Phylogenically, organic life has moved from the very simple (prokaryotes) through various stages to the very complex (social mammals). I’ve read complexity theorists who account for this negentropic movement in terms of the tendency of matter to seek equilibrium of energy gradients. But what produces these gradients in the first place? Doesn’t matter also have a tendency to congeal, to fold in upon itself, to complexify? If so, why do we refer to this tendency in the negative, as if it were incidental to the dominant entropic tendency of nature? What about the more neutral term “centropy”?

To which Bryant responded with:


The thesis is not that entropy is more probable in the universe, but that the degree of entropy in a system is a measure of probability in that system. Your questions about gradients suffers from the same problem as intelligent design arguments in biology. You’re basically saying that if there’s order there must have been a designer or an author and are unable to conceive emergent order without authorship.

To which I responded with:


I certainly would not want to conjure up a transcendent designer. That is why I spoke of matter itself having the tendency to complexify. My comment was not an attempt to suggest we need a designer to account for cosmic order. My point was that order seems no less probable than disorder on the cosmological scale. This makes the term “negentropy” seem inappropriate, since it defines order as if it were the accident and entropy the necessity. If we assume something like the big bang model is correct, then leaning on entropy to explain away all the order in the universe as an accidental by-product requires positing that the universe began in a state of hyper-improbability/zero-entropy.

Instead of positing something so improbable because of what seems to me to be an extra-philosophical commitment to nihilism (where everything inevitably is blindly running down towards heat death), why not posit a tendency to life/organization right alongside the tendency to death/dispersal? More appropriate terms for the former tendency might be “centropy,” or “exergy,” which could be understood to operate alongside entropy as the two poles of some more basic, ineffable power/energy underlying the creation and destruction of everything.

Later in the same post, Bryant links his thoughts concerning entropy to Ray Brassier‘s ontology of extinction. I quote Bryant at length:

In many respects, the role that entropy plays in my thought places me close to the metaphysical, political, and ethical conclusions of Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound, Brassier argues that the ultimate truth of existence is extinction. In making this claim, he’s not simply pointing out that we all die, but is claiming that at some point the human species will become extinct and that the universe itself will undergo heat death…Brassier argues that the thought of radical extinction carries with it an enlightenment. What might this enlightenment be? Why might this horrific thought of erasure, extinction, be enlightening and ethically invigorating?…I must know the nature of physical reality to answer the question of how best to live, how best to organize society, what to aim for, what to hope for, etc. Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation…If we situate Brassier’s radical nihilism in this context, we can see why it is a sort of enlightenment. The truth of extinction is not the gloomy thought that all is pointless because everything is going to be destroyed anyway. Rather, the thought experiment of radical extinction hopefully accomplishes three aims. Insofar as the truth of every person’s life is death (i.e., there’s no afterlife), we should not direct ourselves to an afterlife, but rather should devote ourselves to this life. How can we live in relation to ourselves, to others, and to the earth in order to best live this brief spark that we possess? How should society be transformed and organized to maximize this existence? Second, the truth of extinction with respect to the existence of the human species has the effect of decentering us. We can imagine a world where we are absent. As a consequence, we are not at the center of existence. We are one being– certainly important to ourselves –among others, and we are a being like the others destined to pass away. This discovery encourages us to both respect other beings, but also to recognize the fragility of ourselves and the world we rely on and therefore attend to the preservation of that world. Finally, the extinction of the universe cures us of messianism. There is no apocalypse, no final revelation of the truth, no final salvation, just this world. As such, we should squarely direct ourselves at this world and the work required to maintain this world, not at a world to come or an afterlife.

It’s somewhat easy to tell “just so” stories about how one metaphysical position or another will effect the general public’s common sense ethical beliefs and practices.  Bryant’s story is isn’t entirely improbable, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, would tell a story about reincarnation and karma that might be even more ethically compelling to those who experience it as true. Rather than the horrific thought of erasure, Tibetan Buddhist accounts of reincarnation suggest what may at first appear to be the even more horrific thought of endless suffering. Though the doctrine of non-self is difficult to square with that of reincarnation, I don’t believe it is entirely wrong from the perspective of this tradition to suggest that all “I” really am in this incarnation is a collection of dependently co-arising causes and conditions. In other words, I am karma. My suffering as as separate self is the result of accumulated karma; further, I should not hope for extinction, since this same karma, “my” suffering (which is also the suffering of every sentient being), will continue to reincarnate forever. Forever, that is, unless the inherent emptiness of all supposedly self-existent things is realized here and now. From this perspective, one is lead to compassion for all presently existing beings (human or non-) precisely because any of these beings could be the reincarnation of one’s own mother.  Similarly, one is lead to compassion for all future beings because that in us which doesn’t die (i.e., karma) will be present in and as them.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason Hills says:


    I have not been following that conversation, but if I understand rightly what you mean by “gradients,” then you are right. That is, given a certain context/system/ecology/etc., higher-level complexity becomes far more probable. Hence, in “life-bearing” worlds, life is far more probable than on worlds without. I suspect what you mean by “gradient” might be this point. If that is the case, then yes, we do not need to invoke any transcendent designer.

    Your point about nihilism is well put, and it makes me think you have been reading Whitehead….. 😉

    I also note that Levi does like to tell “just so” stories more than others.

    Keep it up,

    Jason H.

  2. Leon says:

    “Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation”

    All materialism? Really?

    Easy and cheap shots again by that bigot. And “just so” stories is about right. I saw absolutely no argument in his post, just schmoozing to save himself when Brassier finally meets him in June.

  3. Leon says:

    Let me follow the above without ad hominem.

    What about “transcendental materialism” and a hope for justice and the resurrection of the dead? Is not then the virtual God a proper metaphysical messiah?

  4. Instead of worrying about the eventual extinction of everything, perhaps we should apply our minds to the here and now. How do ethics and entropy get related? Life has been defined by Isaac Asimov as enzyme-catalysed reduction in entropy. Reverence for life – apart from its other obvious justifications – could flow from this. In fact It can be generalised that most negatively ethical acts involve an increasing of disorder. If this is true, ethics goes beyond the relations between persons.

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