In the first of the Lord of the Rings film, Lady Galadriel says to Frodo that, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” Similarly, Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Now, consider these two quotes and compare them to the following from Energy: A Beginner’s Guide by Vaclav Smil:
“A key thing to note is that kinetic energy depends on the square of the object’s velocity: doubling the speed imparts four times more energy, tripling it nine times more – and hence at high speed, even small objects can become very dangerous. Tornado winds, in excess of 80 metres per second (nearly 290km/h) can drive featherweight pieces of straw into tree trunks; tiny space debris (a lost bolt) travelling at 8,000m/s could pierce the pressurised suit of a space-walking astronaut, and (although the risk has turned out to be very small indeed) a space vehicle can be damaged by a micrometeoroid travelling at 60,000m/s.”
Why are the above presented together? Well.
In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered a lecture describing “the two cultures”, the splitting of intellectual activity into camps of the sciences and the humanities. He proposed that the split was harmful for progress in both arenas. Some agreed, some disagreed, and many debated the concept. I don’t care much about that disagreement, though. What I care about is that the humanities and the sciences appear to mirror one another. The inner truths of the former are reflected in the outer truths of the latter.
Smil implies that, in terms of capacity to cause damage, size is irrelevant if velocity is sufficiently extreme; Mead said that a few can change the world for the many. This is just one example of the convergence of the outer laws of the universe and the inner condition of humanity. Are there others? Yes.
Here’s one. The four laws of thermodynamics can be stated as follows:
– Zeroth law: If two thermodynamic systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third one, then they are in thermal equilibrium with no one.
– First law: Energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system.
– Second law: The entropy of any isolated system always increases.
– Third law: The entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero.
I’d be lying if I said I understood the above entirely. But I do understand the following from Venkatesh Rao’s Tempo. In a section called “Death by Entropy” he writes:
“Narrative-rational decision makers are mortal agents who have a fixed capacity for absorbing open-world information and battling entropy, before they succumb. They exhibit entropic aging. They climb the Freytag staircase and die. This idea of mortality of course, is philosophical rather than literal. I like to refer to this philosophy as thermodynamic theology.
You do not need to understand the laws of thermodynamics at a technical level to appreciate the core tenets of thermodynamic theology. For our needs, this irreverent (and surprisingly accurate) folk version of the laws is actually more appropriate. The three laws of thermodynamics are:
1. You cannot win.
2. You cannot break even.
3. You cannot quit the game.
Some add a zeroth law: you must play the game. There is no point in lamenting, like Kurt Vonnegut, “I didn’t ask to be born.” The calculative-rational rule of thumb offered by Stephen Covey, “win-win or no deal”, does not apply to life. You cannot opt out except through suicide.
Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman proposed a fourth law that can be stated as the game keeps getting more complicated, and there are always more different ways to play.”
The physical laws of thermodynamics have a theological equivalent; outer mirrors inner.
Another: Isaac Newton’s Third Law of classical mechanics states that for “every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Does that not sound like the concept of “karma”? Another: an example of the principle of least action is that, in the words of Fermat, “light travels between two given points along the path of shortest time.” Humans, as well as light, also have a tendency to traverse two points using the shortest and easiest possible route. Another: the law of gravity is inexorable, and thus our bodies have evolved a capacity to function whilst directly opposing it. Is it not also true that we form ourselves in the negatives of our deepest fears? Those who most fear imprisonment are those who most energetically pursue independence. Those who most fear isolation and aloneness are those who exert the most effort to belong.
There are many, many more connections between laws of the physical universe and the condition of humanity that can be made. I won’t provide any more. But I will make this observation: progress in the outer realm can be unlocked in the inner realm, and vice versa.
For example, I’m no physicist. I’m mostly interested in practical philosophy, in the reality of the human condition and what we can do with it and about it. But perhaps I can gain more insight by an exploration of physics or chemistry or biology? Similarly, if I were a researcher in the hard sciences, perhaps I could unlock the next few steps along my path by absenting myself from my discipline and considering the nature of religion and belief?
I’ve talked before about the virtues of walking many paths at once. B.H. Liddell Hart said, in his biography of William Sherman:
“To the irresistibility of this progress Sherman’s flexibility contributed as much as his variability of direction. Moving on a wide and irregular front—with four, five or six columns, each covered by a cloud of foragers—if one was blocked, others would be pushing on.”
The same can be applied to the sciences and the humanities:
There are immutable laws concerning the universe, just as there are immutable laws concerning human nature. The two are connected and we can use that link to leapfrog our way towards a greater understanding of our inner and outer world.