The Missing Arrow of Time

One Way - 001

According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics we live in a entropic universe of irreversible decay over time.  But given that all of natural evolution seems to be endlessly progressive; it begs the obvious question, “How does Mother Nature spontaneously generate ever-increasing Emergent Complexity?” 

The Laws of Thermodynamics are arguable the Fundamental Laws of The Universe.  It was the German physicist Rudolf Julius Emmanuel Clausius who was the first person to rigorously formulate the Laws of Thermodynamics. In 1850, Clausius published a paper in which he described the universal principle of the conservation of energy as the “First Law of Thermodynamics”, stating that:

“Energy can be neither created nor destroyed; it can only be converted from one form to another.”

The principle of the conservation of energy states that the total energy in the universe remains constant.

[Note: Some 60 years later, thanks to Einstein equating matter with energy, this principle was revised to state that the total of “matter and energy” in the universe remains constant.] 

Thermodynamic Definition of Entropy

Clausius also addressed the significance of the one-way restriction on the spontaneous movement of heat. Clausius proposed a concept, which he defined in terms of the “Direction of Spontaneous Change”. This concept he called “Entropy” and he characterized it as:

“The property of a system that measures the degradation, of energy availability, associated with spontaneous change.”.

Clausius then formally formulated the “Second Law of Thermodynamics” using his own newly fashioned concept of entropy — he stated that:

“All Spontaneous Change in a System is accompanied by an increase in the Entropy of the System.”

This first formal statement of the Second Law, states that spontaneous change occurring in one direction only is measurable by an increase in Claudius’ newly formulated theoretical quantity, entropy.

[Note:  It should be noted that despite this ever-increasing entropy that accompanies all change, this formulation of the Second Law does not rule out the possibility of change that is accompanied by a decrease in entropy; it merely states that such change will not occur “spontaneously”.]

Probabilistic Definition of Entropy

During the 1870’s the Austrian physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann, formulated an alternative to the thermodynamic definition of entropy, which he defined in terms of mathematical probability; Boltzmann stated that:

“Entropy is a measure of the ‘probability’ of finding any given system configuration.”

This “probabilistic” definition of entropy led to a new way of interpreting The Second Law of Thermodynamics; this new interpretation implies that:

“The State of any System will always move from the Less Probable to the More Probable and will continue to do so until the Most Probable State is reached.”

It was this interpretation of the Second Law that ultimately led to the general understanding that entropy increases as a system spontaneously moves from order to disorder.

So it seems that the second of the two fundamental laws of the universe (i.e. the laws of thermodynamics) dictates an all-pervasive “universal decay over time”.  If this is true, then how did sentient beings like ourselves even get to be here, to be able to think about and discuss all of this?…

Relentless Decay into Disorder

Although the concept of entropy is barely known outside the world of academia, ever since its initial conception it has been a true heavyweight concept within the scientific community. Over the years, this fundamental concept has been adopted, into many other scientific disciplines not directly related to physics. In all of these fields, the basic “interpretation” of the concept is always the same. This interpretation is summed up by the standard dictionary definition, which is; “Entropy is a measure of disorder”.

This explanation of the ever-increasing entropy in the universe means that, we have to view all natural or spontaneous processes as having a natural tendency to move from order to disorder over time.  As a result, all order in the universe seems destined to ultimately eventually decay into disorder.

Consequently, ever since the formulation of the concept of entropy, and its association with the one-way nature of spontaneous change, it has always been assumed that the natural tendency of the universe is towards turmoil, disorder, and destruction.

Relentless Increase in Complexity

This theory of irreversible decay however, goes against our intuitive sense of everything that is going on around us. We do indeed sense that we live in an irreversible universe, but our intuitive sense of an irreversible universe points in the opposite direction.

When we look at our world, we see a world of progression; we see a world not decaying into disorder and nothingness, but progressing to ever-increasing complexity. Our universe would seem to be constantly evolving, replacing old worn out structures with new, ever more complex ones. There seems to be a direct conflict between Boltzmann’s evolutionary “regression towards featureless random uniformity” and Darwin’s evolutionary “progression towards rich integrated diversity”.

The Export of Entropy

In 1977, the Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for his work on his “Theory of Dissipative Structures”.  Prigogine’s theory suggests that complex ordered structures can indeed come into existence if these entities possess the capability of “exporting” their internal disorder to the external environment.

However while this theory would seem to go some way towards solving the paradox of how order can emerge from chaos, it still does not manage to identify what fundamental forces are actually driving nature to progress to ever-greater complexity.   We still seems to be missing Evolution’s Progressive Arrow of Time!