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Carl W. Cole
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In Defiance of Entropy
 
 
One of my favorite sources of awe is that we exist in defiance of one of the Universe’s most fundamental characteristics,  it’s tendency to increasing disorder (entropy).
 
The second law of thermodynamics is,  I guess,  formally defined in terms of the non–reversibility of energy conversion to heat energy but  -  because heat is random motion  -  it essentially asserts that at a macroscopic level the amount of randomness  (disorder,  random movement,  entropy)  can only increase.   Within a closed system or other limited quantity of space and matter,  order can increase – that is,  heat energy can be converted into more ordered forms of energy – only as the result of external influence that ultimately results in a greater degree of randomness elsewhere in the Universe.
 
And yet,  here we are,  little local pockets of extraordinary order.   We are complexities within incredible complexities that result ultimately in awareness,  in matter that is – however briefly and partially – able to look back at itself.   We observe,  we think,  we construct abstractions that predict and validate future states of the matter around us,  we construct abstractions that are themselves complexities within the complexities that we are,  we construct abstractions that convince us that we are somehow separate from what we observe,  and we marvel at it all.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
 
– from Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu  (translated by Feng – English)
Not only do we exist as order in defiance of disorder,  we exist as the result of a sort of higher level order that accumulates increasingly complex and localized order.   To approximate contemporary cosmology in "100 words or less":   At the Big Bang,  the stuff of the Universe explodes from a singularity,  cools into fundamental particles,  atoms and molecules,  clumps into regions within which galaxies accumulate under gravity,  within which stellar systems accumulate under gravity,  within which increasingly complex elements form and around which planetary systems form and on at least one planet,  molecules become self–replicating in increasingly complex ways from single cell organisms to multicell organisms to sentient beings that accumulate varied and complex abstractions called culture and knowledge,  look out at the stars and down at the DNA molecules within their own cells,  and are amazed.
 
All that order and complexity seems ultimately to have been driven by gravity,  the tendency of matter to move toward itself.   It is as if matter,  having been flung from the singularity out through the Universe,  carries an inherent tendency to return to the singularity.   When that tendency is expressed,  when that potential is at least partially realized,  the energy released is used to create the localized order of which we are part but,  of course,  at the expense of greater randomness elsewhere in the Universe.   On one hand,  gravity pulls the stuff of our existence together into fantastically ordered form;  on the other hand,  entropy appears to be an inevitable state of dispersion,  randomness,  and disorder.   The tension between gravity and entropy is then a fundamental expression of yang and yin.
The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
 
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.
 
– ibid
If we are born of gravity–driven complexities,  then perhaps it is in our very nature to "come together".   Yet,  if the struggle between good and evil is but another face of the great yin–yang,  of the dance between order and disorder,  then the second law suggests that the triumph of good over evil is at best a transient,  local possibility and is ultimately unachievable.
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
 
– ibid
Each of us is the Universe being temporarily and partially aware of itself.   That which we cannot observe overwhelms what we can see,  that which is unknowable dwarfs all that we might ever understand,  that which we are is immensely greater than the simple bag of skin that we sense as self.   I suspect that wonder and awe are uniquely human,  that they are simply our names for the face of the unknowable.   All of the abstractions that we treasure so dearly,  all of the clever words and complex ideas,  all of our science and art,  all fall short of the unknowable.   Abstractions are inherently less than the reality they represent and,  no matter how complex our accumulation of them,  fundamentally cannot describe the whole of existence.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless,  one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring,  one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;  this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
 
– ibid
Words can bring us to that gate and their very complexity and beauty can convince us of the greater complexity and beauty of that which is beyond them.   But to go beyond that brink,  we must abandon the very words that brought us to it.   It is our reliance on words,  our abstracted view of existence,  that holds us back.   To connect with our whole,  we must simply experience it without any of the mind’s cleverness.   This essay is,  at best,  a bit of such cleverness.   This entire exercise of finding awe in our existence in defiance of entropy serves,  at best,  only to bring us to the edge and then becomes heavy baggage that weighs us down.   To go farther,  we must set aside those very thoughts of gravity and entropy,  of order and disorder,  of greater and lesser self,  and even of wonder and awe.   The next step is to empty ourselves of all those things and step quietly into the abyss that contains them all.
Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness,  which is the way of nature.
 
– ibid
Postscript:
 
And if one does that,  if one abandons words and self and then steps into the abyss,  what becomes of everyday life?   I may be the greater self but I am also the lesser self that peers out of this bag of skin.   I must still help my wife with her project,  I must still pay bills today,  and tomorrow I must still go back to work.   If I occasionally speak or even hint of these things to most of the folks I interact with each day,  their eyes become distant.   How then do I interact constructively with them,  perform that tasks that come to me,  and yet still connect with that which transcends?   Simply by doing each as it comes.
In dwelling,  be close to the land.
In meditation,  go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others,  be gentle and kind.
In speech,  be true.
In ruling,  be just.
In daily life,  be competent.
In action,  be aware of the time and the season.
 
No fight:  No blame.
 
– ibid
 
 
Copyright 2004, 2005 Carl W. Cole
If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come. ~ Chinese proverb