Why We are Here
It is often said that the existential question “why are we here?” is beyond the reach of science.
I disagree: science has already answered that question.
The question can of course be approached in many ways, depending on one’s metaphysical or religious predilection. In another hub I advocated the existentialist (or humanist) position that human beings are here for whatever purpose they choose. For many of us, the best choices are motivated by love and justified by reason. But for those of a religious bent such humanism does not suffice, so external authorization is sought (the legacy, in my view, of the bicameral mind of our ancestors). But neither of these positions really addresses the ultimate question: why, of all things, did the universe happen to produce human beings?
The science-based answer I present here is neutral in regard to the existence or non-existence of God. If God exists, then the answer gives us deep insight into his or her mind. If God does not exist, the answer stands on its own. So for present purposes we can dispense with the God concept; it is superfluous.
The answer to the question “why are we here?” can be deduced from first principles, which I take to be the laws of thermodynamics. My reasoning is as follows: anything that happens (i.e., any kind of real change, including that which led to our being here) happens because of the flow of energy—or said another way, change entails the movement of heat, i.e. thermodynamics. It is thus governed by two laws. The first law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed: i.e., nothing comes from nothing. The second states that whenever something happens, some of the energy that went into making that thing happen is lost to heat—that is, it is converted from a form that can be used to perform work (‘exergy’) into a form that cannot (‘entropy’): i.e., nothing comes for free. The irreversibility of time manifests this second law. So do many other well known, everyday phenomena, like diffusion, melting ice, the eventual breakdown of vehicles and appliances, death and aging (some biologists will disagree with this last example, based on a fallacious argument about life being inherently regenerative; but I will leave that story for another hub...).
As I stated in my series of hubs on the nature of change, I prefer to think of the second law of thermodynamics as the One Law, because like Sauron’s “One ring” (from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), it can be said “to rule them all.” Ultimately anything that happens does so as a result of dissipation. In other words: shit happens in order to dissipate energy gradients.
You can probably see where I’m going. But to get there we need to extend the One Law with a corollary. And that is this: whenever an energy gradient is dissipated (as must eventually happen, according the One Law), it is dissipated as fast as possible given existing constraints. Rod Swenson, a theorist who developed this idea, refers to it as the Law of Maximum Entropy Production; more commonly it is known as the Maximum Entropy Production (MEP) principle. The idea is simple and quite intuitive: Swenson illustrates it by having us imagine a cabin on a cold snowy mountain. The cabin is heated by a woodstove that has just run out of fuel. Over time the heat within the cabin will dissipate into the surrounding air. By the MEP principle, this will happen as fast as possible given existing constraints. Thus, it will happen more quickly if doors or windows of the cabin are opened (removing constraints) than if they remain closed.
Swenson states his Law of Maximum Entropy Production as follows:
A system will select the path or assemblage of paths out of available paths that minimizes the potential or maximizes the entropy at the fastest rate given the constraints.
I am going to argue that this principle holds the key to understanding the origin, development, and evolution of human beings, life itself, and the universe as a whole. In short, the MEP principle answers the question “why are we here?” with: “in order to maximize the rate of entropy production”. If you look around you, I think you will be hard pressed to find any evidence that refutes this. But I am getting ahead of myself.
A major sticking point in discussions of thermodynamics is the mistaken notion that the second law only produces disorder. This notion, an oversimplification of the statistical mechanics developed by Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) to interpret the second law, is often used by intelligent design sophists to argue that the natural origin of life is extremely improbable (if not impossible), because life is highly organized and hence 'goes against' the second law. The usual counterargument (based on the same misunderstanding of thermodynamics) is that the second law only applies to closed or isolated systems that are near thermodynamic equilibrium, and hence does not prevent the spontaneous origin life. This is all nonsense. The second law—the One Law—applies to everything and all systems, be they open, closed, near to, or far from equilibrium. While the One Law does indeed entail the progressive disordering of systems that are near equilibrium, it often entails the opposite in natural systems that are far from equilibrium, as shown by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003). We can observe many self-ordering processes that manifest the One Law—for example, the formation of ice and other crystals, or vortices such as hurricanes and tornadoes. These phenomena all produce local increases in order, in the service of dissipation and with a global increase in entropy.
Moreover, they do so as fast as possible given existing constraints.
Do you see where I’m going? No? Read on...
Let’s back up a bit and consider what goes into the creation and dissipation of energy gradients. In the thought experiment of the mountainside cabin, the gradient was created through work—the building of the cabin, the cutting of wood for the stove, and the work done by the trees to produce that wood (as well as that contained in the structure of the cabin). All of this work was accomplished by dissipating various energy gradients (including that between the hot sun and the much cooler earth, which sustains most life on the planet). After the fire in the cabin expires, the rate at which the thermal gradient dissipates depends on how many openings exist in the cabin, as well as its insulation, etc.—that is, the gradient will dissipate as fast as possible given the existing constraints present in the cabin’s structure.
Consider what will happen if the cabin is abandoned. Because of the One Law it will gradually deteriorate over time, a victim of the many irreversible ‘forces of nature’—wind, rain, infestations—all of which serve to dissipate energy gradients. Now say a wayfarer happens upon the cabin after many years of such neglect, and uses it for winter shelter. He builds a fire in the stove, then goes to sleep, allowing the fire to die out. I think you will see that it won’t take long for the chill to set in—the heat dissipates much faster than it did before the cabin fell into disrepair. The reason is that holes in the structure have removed constraints, in the service of a larger world of dissipation.
So, not only does dissipation occur as fast as possible given existing constraints, but wherever and whenever possible, it works to remove whatever constraints happen to exist in a given locale. Toward that end dissipation drives creation as well as destruction, usually at the same time, one coupled to the other—whatever works to bring about the fastest possible production of entropy. Since entropy is always produced as fast as possible given constraints, and since the randomizing effect of the One Law eventually removes constraints, the rate of entropy production is bound to increase. Life is inevitable, because it allows a faster rate of entropy production than is otherwise possible. And the same is true of intelligence, culture, and technology.
Which brings us to why we are here: from the foregoing, you may have guessed that our purpose, in the bigger picture, is to dissipate energy gradients and maximize the production of entropy. And it is quite obvious that we are doing a damn fine job of it. Without us, all that rich energy buried in the earth’s crust would remain there, undissipated. The One Law prohibits that sort of thing form going on indefinitely. So the universe produced us to take care of it.
And there you have it: science’s answer to the ultimate existential question. We are here to serve the One Law. This is not to say that we can’t choose how we serve it—which brings us back to love, reason, existentialism, secular humanism, paganism, religion, whatever. But serve we must. Those who don’t serve don’t survive. Natural Selection—Darwin’s Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life—is the executioner of the One Law. We struggle for life because we are part of nature’s dissipation project. And those who do the most effective job of dissipating are, for a time, nature’s “favoured races”—until someone else comes along that does a better job, or the gradient is completely dissipated.
So the next time someone asks you “why are we here?” tell them that it is because prehistoric life was buried beneath the ground and transformed into coal and oil, creating yet another energy gradient that needed to be dissipated as fast as possible. That particular job required brains and technology: so here we are.
I apologize if this sounds horribly nihilistic. But it is an inescapable conclusion of science, one that for emotional reasons I myself have resisted for many years. But to no avail: like death, there’s no getting around it. It explains everything. To quote Roger Waters: “What God wants, God gets...God help us all.”
Doug Kent on October 04, 2020:
In his book "The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth", Joe Brewer describes an interesting idea about how human's current trajectory of planetary overshoot-and-collapse took roots 3 million years ago when hominids gained the distinct ability for conceptual metaphor, and how one thing led to another following the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.
ahmadjoyia on September 26, 2014:
Very interesting. However, as I understand it, the humanism is to be kind and compassionate to other fellow humans irrespective of his caste, color or creed for the betterment of all humans. This very noble principle is, I think, against the annihilation of human race which is to maximize entropy generation as per 2nd law of thermodynamics. So, I think you have answered "How (and not why) we are here", that is, to full fill the nature's requirement of increased entropy generation generation. So, in essence the reason for our existence is set things in order (anti entropy). Of course one can observe all around that all scientific inventions are in essence, to create ordered state for human comfort. Such as air conditioning is to work against nature, hydal power generation (or through any other method) is to force disordered state of water in the dam to an ordered state and hence running the turbines. etc. These all processes are human endeavors against the nature. Think if evil is to create disorder ( maximize rate of entropy generation), what is opposite of it? So, in the end, the question remains: Why humans are here in this universe?
Georgi on March 03, 2013:
Thermodynamics of origin of life: Why is there life?
(Why does life originate and exist now? It is the main question!
How does life originate? It is the second question!)
The transition between the animate and inanimate matter is a slow. It was predestined by the action of "thermodynamic principle of the substance stability" ( http://www.mdpi.org/ijms/papers/i7030098.pdf ) which describes the forward and backward linkages at the transmission of information between structural hierarchies during the chemical and biological evolution. http://gladyshevevolution.wordpress.com/article/th...
See: Thermodynamics and the emergence of life.
The phenomena of life can be explained on the basis of quasi-equilibrium hierarchical thermodynamics of dynamic systems which stands at the solid foundation of thermodynamics of JW Gibbs. Theory can be constructed without using the concept of dissipative structures of I. Prigogine and his ideas about negentropy.
From the point of view of thermodynamics, the phenomenon of life is defined as: "Life is the process the existence of the constantly renewed polyhierarchical structures during cycles of transformation of labile chemical substances in the presence of liquid water on the planet."
Professor of Physical Chemistry
Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on March 25, 2012:
While I agree that the choice that the universe ultimately makes is indeterminate, I'm not sure what "optimal" would mean in this context. Most effective at dissipating perhaps?
The result of our interference as measuring observers is indeed strange!
npolynomial on March 24, 2012:
Of the infinite possible ways of energy dissipation, even in the smallest system, the method by which the universe "chooses" the optimal seems to be an indeterministic process. Perhaps the reason for quantum effects. Specifically a particle can exist in a range of positions represented by a wave function. Speculatively, it's almost like all possibilities are attempted, and the one with most entropy production is then chosen. And by the observer trying to measure the position / momentum simultaneously we are interfering somehow and a strange result is forced......
Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on February 18, 2011:
Good point Eddie. There are many routes toward entropy maximization, and the problem of which is the "best way" is intractable. I agree that humanism is the way to go.
Thanks for the excellent comment. I will check out your blog.
Eddie Devere on February 17, 2011:
Nice article. In future articles, you might want to highlight the fact that there is no way to prove which route will lead to the maximization of entropy. i.e. there is no guaranteed way to prove that your way of maximizing entropy is actually the best way. And perhaps, this leads back to your comments on humanism:
Since there is no right way to maximizing entropy production, we have to treat other people with respect because we never know if their way of living is better than my way of living.
Also, I've been blogging about very similar topics, so check out out the blog titled "The meaning of life...Increasing the entropy of the universe" and leave me some comments.
Micky Dee on December 29, 2010:
The law of life is to be at peace, multiply, and perpetuate peace. Nice hub!
Jason Hill on November 24, 2010:
Very informative, thanks for sharing!
Tony Lawrence from SE MA on November 15, 2010:
On the "it's only perception" stuff: http://www.coreywdevos.com/2009/08/03/does-quantum...
Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on November 14, 2010:
Bishop Berkeley would have concurred, Mentalist acer!
Mentalist acer from A Voice in your Mind! on November 14, 2010:
Our existence is in order to expidite enthropy,without human perception of dissipation then there would be no formula for subtraction OR addition,just the status-quo,to me that is the same as nothing...quantum physics cannot equate atomic mass(gravity)so conciousness may be the only thing that is real;)