Entropy: Why Life Always Seems to Get More Complicated

Murphy's Law states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

This pithy statement references the annoying tendency of life to cause trouble and make things difficult. Problems seem to arise naturally on their own, while solutions always require our attention, energy, and effort. Life never seems to just work itself out for us. If anything, our lives become more complicated and gradually decline into disorder rather than remaining simple and structured.

Why is that?

Murphy's Law is just a common adage that people toss around in conversation, but it is related to one of the great forces of our universe. This force is so fundamental to the way our world works that it permeates nearly every endeavor we pursue. It drives many of the problems we face and leads to disarray. It is the one force that governs everybody's life: Entropy.

entropy

What is Entropy and Why Does It Matter?

What is entropy? Here's a simple way to think about it:

Imagine that you take a box of puzzle pieces and dump them out on a table. In theory, it is possible for the pieces to fall perfectly into place and create a completed puzzle when you dump them out of the box. But in reality, that never happens.

Why?

Quite simply, because the odds are overwhelmingly against it. Every piece would have to fall in just the right spot to create a completed puzzle. There is only one possible state where every piece is in order, but there are a nearly infinite number of states where the pieces are in disorder. Mathematically speaking, an orderly outcome is incredibly unlikely to happen at random.

Similarly, if you build a sand castle on the beach and return a few days later, it will no longer be there. There is only one combination of sand particles that looks like your sand castle. Meanwhile, there are a nearly infinite number of combinations that don't look like it.

Again, in theory, it is possible for the wind and waves to move the sand around and create the shape of your sand castle. But in practice, it never happens. The odds are astronomically higher that sand will be scattered into a random clump.1

These simple examples capture the essence of entropy. Entropy is a measure of disorder. And there are always far more disorderly variations than orderly ones.

Why Does Entropy Matter for Your Life?

Here's the crucial thing about entropy: it always increases over time.

It is the natural tendency of things to lose order. Left to its own devices, life will always become less structured. Sand castles get washed away. Weeds overtake gardens. Ancient ruins crumble. Cars begin to rust. People gradually age. With enough time, even mountains erode and their precise edges become rounded. The inevitable trend is that things become less organized.

This is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is one of the foundational concepts of chemistry and it is one of the fundamental laws of our universe. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system will never decrease.2

“The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature.” —Arthur Eddington

The great British scientist Arthur Eddington claimed, “The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”3

In the long run, nothing escapes the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The pull of entropy is relentless. Everything decays. Disorder always increases.

Without Effort, Life Tends to Lose Order

Before you get depressed, there is good news.

You can fight back against the pull of entropy. You can solve a scattered puzzle. You can pull the weeds out of your garden. You can clean a messy room. You can organize individuals into a cohesive team.4

But because the universe naturally slides toward disorder, you have to expend energy to create stability, structure, and simplicity. Successful relationships require care and attention. Successful houses require cleaning and maintenance. Successful teams require communication and collaboration. Without effort, things will decay.

This insight—that disorder has a natural tendency to increase over time and that we can counteract that tendency by expending energy—reveals the core purpose of life. We must exert effort to create useful types of order that are resilient enough to withstand the unrelenting pull of entropy.5

“The ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” —Steven Pinker

Maintaining organization in the face of chaos is not easy. In the words of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, “The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life because everything is pulling you to be more and more complex.”

Entropy will always increase on its own. The only way to make things orderly again is to add energy. Order requires effort.6

Entropy in Daily Life

Entropy helps explain many of the mysteries and experiences of daily life.

For example:

Why Life is Remarkable

Consider the human body.

The collection of atoms that make up your body could be arranged in a virtually infinite number of ways and nearly all of them lead to no form of life whatsoever. Mathematically speaking, the odds are overwhelmingly against your very presence. You are a very unlikely combination of atoms. And yet, here you are. It is truly remarkable.

In a universe where entropy rules the day, the presence of life with such organization, structure, and stability is stunning.

Why Art is Beautiful

Entropy offers a good explanation for why art and beauty are so aesthetically pleasing. Artists create a form of order and symmetry that, odds are, the universe would never generate on its own. It is so rare in the grand scheme of possibilities. The number of beautiful combinations is far less than the number of total combinations. Similarly, seeing a symmetrical face is rare and beautiful when there are so many ways for a face to be asymmetrical.

Beauty is rare and unlikely in a universe of disorder. And this gives us good reason to protect art. We should guard it and treat it as something sacred.

Why Marriage is Difficult

One of the most famous opening lines in literature comes from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. He writes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

There are many ways a marriage can fail—financial stress, parenting issues, crazy in-laws, conflicts in core values, lack of trust, infidelity, and so on. A deficiency in any one of these areas can wreck a family.

To be happy, however, you need some degree of success in each major area. Thus, all happy families are alike because they all have a similar structure. Disorder can occur in many ways, but order, in only a few.

Why Optimal Lives Are Designed Not Discovered

You have a combination of talents, skills, and interests that are specific to you. But you also live in a larger society and culture that were not designed with your specific abilities in mind. Given what we know about entropy, what do you think the odds are that the environment you happen to grow up in is also the optimal environment for your talents?

It is very unlikely that life is going to present you with a situation that perfectly matches your strengths. Out of all the possible scenarios you could encounter, it’s far more likely that you’ll encounter one that does not cater to your talents.

Evolutionary biologists use a term called “mismatch conditions” to describe when an organism is not well-suited for a condition it is facing. We have common phrases for mismatch conditions: “like a fish out of water” or “bring a knife to a gunfight.” Obviously, when you are in a mismatch condition, it is more difficult to succeed, to be useful, and to win.

It is likely you'll face mismatch conditions in your life. At the very least, life will not be optimal—maybe you didn't grow up in the optimal culture for your interests, maybe you were exposed to the wrong subject or sport, maybe you were born at the wrong time in history. It is far more likely that you are living in a mismatch condition than in a well-matched one.

Knowing this, you must take it upon yourself to design your ideal lifestyle. You have to turn a mismatch condition into a well-matched one. Optimal lives are designed, not discovered.7

Murphy's Law Applied to the Universe

Finally, let's return to Murphy's Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Entropy provides a good explanation for why Murphy’s Law seems to pop up so frequently in life. There are more ways things can go wrong than right. The difficulties of life do not occur because the planets are misaligned or because some cosmic force is conspiring against you. It is simply entropy at work. As one scientist put it, “Entropy is sort of like Murphy's Law applied to the entire universe.”8

It is nobody's fault that life has problems. It is simply a law of probability. There are many disordered states and few ordered ones. Given the odds against us, what is remarkable is not that life has problems, but that we can solve them at all.

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Footnotes
  1. Hat tip to Brian Cox. I first heard of the sand castle example from his television series, Wonders of the Universe.

  2. A closed system is one that is not taking in any energy from the outside. In other words, unless you add outside energy to keep things orderly, the natural trend of any closed system is to become more disordered.

  3. The Nature of the Physical World (1915). Chapter 4.

  4. For scientific nitpickers: you will never be able to reverse entropy in the long run. Billions of years from now, every atom in the universe will be scattered and spread out such that entropy is maximized and nothing is orderly. But in the short run, we can create local pockets of order within our lives.

  5. As the renowned scientist Steven Pinker noted, “The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” See: The Second Law of Thermodynamics by Steven Pinker.

  6. Interestingly, this is how the first forms of life arose. As the sun beat down on the earth it provided the additional energy necessary for molecules to form into structures that could resist the chaos of entropy. The extra energy helped the first forms of life maintain order.

  7. There is a related insight here. You should probably quit things faster than you do. There is always a risk that you will quit too early, but of all the possible things you could be exposed to and invested in, it is very unlikely that you are currently engaged in the best thing for you. Thus, if results are not coming easily, move on.

  8. Galileo's Finger by Peter Atkins.