The Game of Life

To review, the three laws of thermodynamics:

  1. Energy is neither created nor destroyed.
  2. Systems over time tend toward increasing entropy.
  3. There is a defined state of maximum entropy.

We believe the universe has to obey the laws of thermodynamics, and yet we look at the complexity we see in the world of living things, and wonder if all of creation doesn’t represent a violation of the laws of thermodynamics.

Scientists tell us it is not, but it’s a very complex issue. Here’s how they explain it.

They say we have to look at life as one or more complex, self-organizing systems. By “complex,” they mean, more complex than a box of steam. By “self-organizing,” they mean that the definition of entropy varies from one system to another. Each system designs its own lowest energy state. None will represent the absolute lowest energy state possible, and that’s not the game. The game is to design the most efficient system. You need your system’s organization at a given energy state to be more efficient than your competitor’s.

If you’re a teacher, there should be a little lightbulb going off over your head. Arranging the desks is the sideshow. The real action in your classroom is happening in 28 or so extremely complex, self-organizing systems found between the ears of your students. You’re in there programming their neural networks. Each little brain is going to organize itself its own way, and some are going to program their networks better than others. Those are the ones who will win, in terms of making the best grades. But all of those brains need to be trained, and you’re the one training them. And you know as well as I that some people are better at that than others. There’s every possibility that, on average, your students might do quite a bit better than the ones in the school across town, even though your school is in a poor neighborhood and doesn’t get the funding it should. This is the sort of thing that has lasting effects. Your kids are going to compete for jobs against the across-town kids someday. Sun shines on wheat, wheat becomes Cheerios, Cheerios turn into glucose, glucose turns into ATP, ATP turns into electrical activity in neurons, neuronal activity turns into concepts, and concepts turn into money, someday. It is your job to turn that sunshine into cold, hard cash, and to do it as efficiently as possible so your kids don’t starve when they are too old for their parents to buy them Cheerios.

Incidentally, that energy chain — the one that starts off as sunshine and winds up as one of your kids getting accepted into Harvard Medical School, does (theoretically) comply with the second law of thermodynamics. All that information you are cramming into those young brains settles into the lowest possible energy state if you do your job right. You kid is lucky he lives in the US or Canada or Europe, because those systems do a really efficient job of converting sunshine into cereal; those cereal-making-systems likewise settle into a lower energy state than those of developing or declining nations. Same could be said for the transportation system that gets those Cheerios to market, and the economic system that encourages people to invest in farm equipment, grocery stores, and diesel truck parts.

To be clear, “efficiency” in this case refers precisely to the task of fighting off the second law for as long as you can. Think of life as being an engine; you want to keep the engine running. By definition, a running engine is hotter than the environment. Has to be. The hotter the engine, the more powerful. The work of life is to not cool off. If you equilibrate, you die.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. The laws of thermodynamics were designed to study closed systems, ones in which heat is not being added. I gave you a box of steam, but not a stove to heat it with. The earth is an open system. We get heat from the sun every day. So another way of expressing the thermodynamic game of life is, you are trying to design a system that will maintain itself in a particular configuration, that is better than your neighbor’s configuration at making something useful out of sunlight.

Note that I use the term “sunlight” abstractly. If sunlight is turned via photosynthesis into plant material, and that plant material is converted into coal, and that coal is converted into electricity, and your system does a really good job of using electricity to build products, build weapons, improve health, and to mine more coal, then ultimately your system is doing a really good job of managing energy that originally started out as sunshine. If you do that better than your competitors, you win.

Not a bad story. It’s such a good story, in fact, that some people express the laws of thermodynamics in terms of game theory. It’s said that the poet Alan Ginsberg came up with this theme, which in my opinion is awesome. To wit:

(The law of conservation of energy): You can’t win.
(The law of increasing entropy): You can’t break even.
(The law of maximum entropy): You can’t get out of the game.

Some have proposed additional laws of thermodynamics, which can also be expressed in game theory:

4. You can’t play for long unless you get your opponent’s chips.
5. The faster you get your opponent’s chips, the shorter the game.
6. The goal is to make the game last for as long as possible. (See rule 1. You can’t win.)

As we’ve seen, the game of thermodynamics can apply to intelligent life, as it is expressed in all the complex systems found in modern civilization.

And you can also see that it applies to the ecosystem as well. We see now that the laws of thermodynamics are consistent with evolution. In fact, it’s driving evolution. As it turns out, if you apply an energy source to a planet that is teeming with complex self-organizing systems, thermodynamics will drive evolution in such a way that it will inevitably result in systems that grow more and more sophisticated over time.

The same thing apparently applies to star nurseries — giant clouds of gas that are self-organizing into stars and planetary systems.

So it’s not just life that is fighting off the second law of thermodynamics. Life is but one type of complex, self-organizing systems.   The theory is, that the evolutionary pressure is so great, life was inevitable.  In fact, intelligent life was inevitable.

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