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Nick Gall's Weblog
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Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Process is unchanging change? 'process' is change that is held to continue unchanged from a given point of view. This is a line tossed off by Salthe in the work cited in my previous post. It seems very profound to me. It seems to solve the endurantism/perdurantism dichotomy by suggesting how a process is like an object/structure in that it is unchanged over time from a given point of view. And an object is like a process in that it changes over time. Thus, process vs. information (i.e., structure) are simply two equally valid views of the same phenomenon, just as wave vs. particle are two equally valid views of energy. Somehow Quine's metaphor of Neurath's boat seems apropos here as well, though I haven't thought this through.

5:54:20 PM      

Evolution as Entropy. In searching for information on the "evolution of complexity," I came across a paper entitled The Natural Philosophy of Ecology: Developmental Systems Ecology (Infodynamics) by Stanley N. Salthe. It confirms my own recent insight into the "purpose" of evolution. Evolution of complex systems such as humanity or life itself is not an exception to the Second Law of Thermodynamics; it is a consequence of it. Complex systems evolved to maximize the production of entropy! As I put it in my rough notes back in October 2002:

One species is more successful than another in the biological reproduction sense to the degree it can successfully transform energy into copies of itself.

This is restated more generally (and more accurately in terms of entropy production rather than energy transformation) by Salthe:

Dissipative structures, and any systems that expand or grow, can be viewed as maximizing their entropy production, subject to constraints (which increase with age). The expansion of material systems can in general be viewed as a way to maximize entropy production, as the growth itself requires entropy production, and also delivers access to new energy gradients.

Accordingly, the dis-equilibrium that was the "big bang" is returning to equilibrium as quickly as possible through the evolution of matter from energy, astronomical bodies from matter, organic chemistry from planets, biological life from organic chemistry, and intelligence from biological life. Or as Salthe puts it:

Behind these considerations lies the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. According to Frautschi (1982), Landsberg (1984) and Layzer (1976), the expansion of the universe has been so fast that the system went out of global equilibrium rapidly, and has been trying to return to equilibrium ever since. As the system cooled, physical particles emerged, which then gave rise to matter, and this in turn gave rise to mass, which continually aggregated as collisions brought about by a random search for equilibrium evoked gravitation. In this scenario the system has been getting further and further away from an equilibrium distribution of energy and particles, thereby increasing the drive toward equilibration at the same time, thus making the Second Law of Thermodynamics an ever more powerful attractor in the material world as the universe expands.

Given the brute fact of masses of matter stuck in agglomerations nowhere near equilibrium, what can a system do to facilitate the approach to equilibrium? Following Schneider and Kay (1994), on the model of the Bénard instability, the massive frictional world finds a way to increase entropy production by way of convections facilitated by organized configurations abutting energy gradients, which they can use in an orderly manner (see also Swenson, 1997). This is the general explanation for abiotic dissipative structures like hurricanes and eddies; increasing the steepness of energy gradients spontaneously triggers the organization of material systems that will dissipate these same gradients as rapidly as possible. From this point of view, living systems are just a continuation of this project of reducing energy gradients. The evolution of animals is especially easily interpreted in this way: detrivores acquired movement to burrow into gradients; then they acquired mouths and claws to hurry the disintegration; then predators, as well as herbivores, evolve to hurry the production of detritus; then some of these became homeothermic so that gradients might continue to be dissipated even in the absence of activity; then some of these invested in large nervous systems, which consume large amounts of energy continuously. This scenario provides the basic 'meaning' of ecological systems, whose successional phenomenology shows a tendency to maximize energy flows (Lotka, 1922 / Odum and Pinkerton, 1955) by way of configurations and processes at many scalar levels. The punch line -- form results from, and further mediates, convective energy flows, which more effectively degrade energy gradients than would slow frictional conduction, like diffusion.

If I can paraphrase the punch line, and I don't think I have this exactly right yet: Information (i.e., forms, configurations, structures, organizations) production increases in order to increase entropy production. Or perhaps: Information flow increases in order to increase entropy flow.

I cannot begin to describe how important this insight is. I am amazed I have never come across this view before.

4:30:25 PM      

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