The term entropy was initially used in thermodynamics to measure the number of ways in which a thermodynamic system can be ordered. Today the term is used in a wide range of contexts, from music to politics. The higher the entropy, the more chaotic the system looks. Things change, and some of us don’t always like that. But according to one point of view, the entropy of the Universe and nature in general, that is, the degree of disorder or randomness in the system may be what contributed to the emergence of life in the first place.
According to this, when a group of atoms is set in motion by an external source of energy, such as the Sun, and surrounded by a source of heat, such as the atmosphere, it gradually rearranges itself to dissipate more and more energy. From this point, under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the properties associated with life. What effect can entropy have on the Universe? According to chaos theory, there are hidden patterns and interconnections in the apparent randomness of systems. If you know the initial conditions and figure out these underlying patterns, you can predict the disturbances that will occur in the future. In other words, chaos is not as disorderly and random as it may seem. However, when talking about the role of entropy as a measure of process possible, it is important to see the wisdom of living systems that emerges here. The energy exchange of which is organized in such a way that is possible and impossible from the thermodynamic point of view reactions take place in them. These are all reactions in which entropy decreases and free energy increases; one example is the biosynthesis of various substances.
The concept of entropy was introduced into science in 1865 by German physicist and mathematician Rudolf Clausius to characterize energy transformation processes. Later, Ludwig E. Boltzmann, an Austrian physicist, and philosopher gave it a statistical interpretation. Entropy acts as a measure of the orderliness of the system and reflects that part of its energy that has degraded, that is, dissipated evenly in the form of heat. Thus, the less order in a system, i.e., the smaller the energy gradients, the greater its entropy. The connection of entropy with the orderliness of a system is obvious in Boltzmann’s entropy formula, which relates entropy to the thermodynamic probability:
S = klnW, where S is entropy.
The potential of modern philosophical thought is the basis for analyzing the concept of entropy. In the classical view, entropy is a measure of the disorderliness of a system. However, the identity of entropy with the disorder cannot be proved in principle. The disorder is not directly observable; we cannot introduce a criterion of order, how ordered the system is. The amount of disorder is determined by the subject. The subject determines a given complexity as much as it thinks or imagines. Therefore, the identity of entropy and disorder could only be asserted and accepted without proof.
As a rule, each new discovery, each new theory changes not only science but also the psychology of humankind. It is worth noting that modern knowledge is increasingly endowed with a subjective component and moves away from the ideal of science as objective knowledge. Such knowledge is relatively abundant, with such a concept as entropy attracting particular attention. The situation with this concept resembles how the scientific community’s acceptance of quantum theory took place in its time. Strange as it may seem, the concept of entropy, in its classical sense, entered our lives very easily. But is the definition that was given to entropy correct? There are many different views on this subject.
Let us try to consider the complexity in the perception of the non-classical interpretation of the concept of entropy. The cognitive subject accumulates knowledge, some of which is taken on faith. The emergence and existence in the science of sets of axioms and principles also have its roots in our belief that the world is a perfectly harmonious whole, amenable to our cognition. The real world enters human consciousness in a specific representation, determined by established terms, special terminology, and concepts. The accumulated knowledge includes various concepts from explicit and implicit knowledge. One of such concepts is “entropy”, which is in the field of tacit knowledge, i.e., such kind of knowledge which is not fully or partially formalized. Part of the fundamental concepts on which the worldview is based is built on faith. This forces us to recognize that faith can be a source of knowledge. The establishment of truth becomes dependent on our views, preferences, and a number of grounds and criteria that are implicitly present and cannot be defined formally. In such a case, there are serious limitations to the truth of the one or the other definitions accumulated by the subject and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Indeed, sometimes the scientist relies on intuition, which in no way falls within the scope of scientific knowledge. It is worth noting that explicit knowledge is a type of knowledge that is easily formalized and systematized, i.e., easily transferable. Using transparent and clearly formulated knowledge rules, the subject can quickly learn it. We can say that only part of scientific knowledge is objective; the rest is subjective, focusing on a part, so-called tacit knowledge, in turn accompanying the process of cognition. But it is important to note here that it is also impossible to have a purposeful process of awareness without tacit knowledge. And it is indeed true that it is the recognition of tacit knowledge that complicates and enriches the picture of traditional science. Implicit knowledge is a little-explored world, where common sense and scientific intuition reside.
In the classical sense, the concept of entropy emerged from the principle of observability. Through the prism of this principle, science looks like a separate organism living in its paradigm. According to this, every explanation must be consistent with experimental data. But the real difficulty lies in verifying obtained data when using this principle because neither the methods of obtaining nor the methods of verification can be considered sufficiently reliable. The observability principle appeared quite early but was developed only with the development of the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Even in Galileo’s time, when conducting research, scientists proceeded from the idea that what is interesting is what is observable, and what is not observable must be avoided. By “correctly” posing questions, inconsistencies in this or that theory could be avoided. But Galileo understood that there is a problem of establishing a correspondence between theory and experiment, and one cannot absolutize the criterion of observability since our perceptions may not be confirmed by a deeper analysis, which, for example, often happens with quantum theory. Of course, theoretical perceptions may be confirmed by observations, but as experience shows, they may or may not be accurate as well as theoretical perceptions themselves. So, common sense and scientific intuition fall into the realm of implicit knowledge, and also, according to the principle of observability, representations can be wrong. Then a conclusion suggests itself that incorrect knowledge gets into accumulated knowledge, so the picture of the world is distorted, that is, it is perceived less objectively. In the process of cognition, there is a probability of attributing additional meanings to the object of cognition! And here, it is important to note that the natural sciences and philosophy cannot develop without making mistakes. However, it should be noted that this is only one facet of such a complex concept as entropy. Especially since the great French mathematician, theoretical physicist, and philosopher of science Henri Poincaré observed that entropy is “monstrously abstract”.
Entropy can also be seen as a subjective phenomenon. It determines the discrepancy between the model of the process, i.e., our perception, and the process itself. The better the model agrees with the observation, the lower the entropy. However, most of the problems with understanding entropy can be solved by understanding one thing. Entropy is qualitatively different from other thermodynamic quantities, such as pressure, volume, or internal energy, because it is not a property of the system but of how we view the system. And that makes it very different from other quantities commonly handled in physics. Entropy is a function of the system’s state, which does not depend on the transition from one state to another, but only on the initial and final position of the system.
Entropy in our lives
Entropy is present in every situation where change occurs. Its most striking feature is that it is present in virtually all life processes, whether in small or large quantities. There is currently no known mechanism by which once an amount of entropy has been produced, it cannot be destroyed. The total amount in existence can only increase and never decrease. Any process that generates entropy cannot return that energy because it is an irreversible system. This does not mean that the body can return to its original state, only that this amount of heat leaves your body. If there is no room to accommodate entropy, the body cannot return to its original state. This function is quite challenging to describe, but it is very useful in everyday life. Not only physics, but many disciplines have found applications of this concept, including chemistry, biology, climate change, sociology, economics, information theory, and even business.
In economics, the concept of entropy explains the unforeseen development of the market. The economic goal is not achieved because the system has proven to be disordered, uninformative, etc. Entropy in economics acts as a quantitative measure of disorder, a measure of the work unnecessarily done to achieve the goal, the proportion of incidental phenomena, and any activity’s process. The movement of money in the economy is asymmetrical. Also, suppose we assume that money is analogous to energy. In that case, the second law of thermodynamics can be adapted as follows: there is no economic system whose only outcome will be the transition of money from producers to consumers.
In the broad sense in which the word is often used in everyday life, entropy means a measure of a system’s complexity, chaos, disorder, or uncertainty: the fewer elements of a system are subject to any order, the higher the entropy. You invited your friends to a New Year’s Eve party, and by making a place for it and ordering everything as much as you could, you got a system with little entropy. After the party is a success and results from complete chaos in the morning, you have a system with large entropy. To put the apartment back in order, you need to clean up, which means spending a lot of energy to do so. The system’s entropy has decreased, but there is no contradiction with the second-order of thermodynamics – you have added energy from the outside, and the system is no longer isolated. It is possible to look at our life as solid entropy because the measure of chaos sometimes exceeds the measure of common sense. Perhaps the time is not so far off when we will come to the second principle of thermodynamics, because sometimes it seems that the development of some people, and whole nations, have already gone backward, that is, from the complex to the primitive.
In the process of globalization, there is a transformation in all spheres of human life – a directed process, which is realized through the incorporation of foreign elements in its parts, outwardly not destroying the system itself but gradually making it work in a new way in accordance with its internal laws. The interpenetration of cultures and civilizations, the strengthening of their influence on each other, all these diverse and opposing processes developing simultaneously give a reason for different assessments of what is happening. The disintegration of modern civilization with nature, the flood of disordered information, and the disbelief in progress and the future represent the modern era as a system of disillusionment with humanist ideals and the capacity of reason as an instrument of knowledge. Thus, based on the concept of entropy as an element of the global transformation of cultural codes, we can define the modern era as a period of growing chaos as we approach the tipping point, the so-called Bifurcation point, the moment of choosing a new version of the stabilizing order. That is, modernity carries the potential of both chaos and new quality because the higher the level of diversity of styles, traditions, and innovations, the stronger its energy saturation, entropy, connection with reality, and the historical process. Modern notions of entropy view the modern era as a stage of humanity’s evolution, which will take it to a new stage of development.
Entropy in communication
Information theory is closely related to entropy, but in this case, information is a text, and information is contained in a text. In the first case, information is a measure of the organization of a system. Just as the entropy of a system expresses the degree of its disorder, so information shows the measure of its organization. The second meaning of information is related to the philosophical concept of reflection. Relative information, that is, what the text contains, turns from a potential situation into an actual situation, and perception takes place at the level of reflection. In this case, the amount of information is defined as a value inversely proportional to the degree of probability of the event about which the text refers. This means that if there is a change in the text that reflects the impact of another system, it can be argued that the former becomes a carrier of information about the latter.
The concepts of “entropy and information” were first linked in 1948 by Claude E. Shannon, an American mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer. Thus, three variants of entropy are known. In thermodynamics, Boltzmann’s entropy is a measure of the chaotic, homogeneous nature of molecular systems and, according to Clausius, is proportional to the amount of bound energy in the system that cannot be converted into work. In information theory, Shannon’s entropy is a measure of the reliability of information transmitted through a communication channel and is used to calculate the amount of information. During World War II, Claude E. Shannon worked on detection and targeting devices for air defense systems and also developed cryptographic techniques, including for government communications, and it was through his development system that Churchill and Roosevelt’s secret negotiations took place. In many ways, this experience led Shannon to develop information theory. At his prompting, entropy came to be used as a measure of helpful information in the processes of transmitting signals over wires. The notion of entropy in communication is closely related to noise and unhelpful signals, and in principle, Shannon understood information as necessary signals useful for the recipient. Noise in communication is overcome either by repeatedly repeating the same message or duplicating it through other communication channels.
In addition, Shannon suggested that applying information theory to biological systems might not be a stretch, assessing the nervous system as a rather complex communicative system capable of processing information in a “very unobvious way“. Information is the opposite of entropy in the role of the possibility of reducing disorder. And entropy acts as information uncertainty in the system. In other words, the more information a system contains, the more it is ordered. In summary, two ideas form the basis of Claude E. Shannon’s philosophical legacy. The first indicates that the goal of all control should be to reduce entropy as a measure of uncertainty and disorder in the system environment. Control that does not solve this problem is redundant, that is, unnecessary. The second idea is that everything in this world can be represented through a communication channel. The channel of communication is a person, a whole functional environment, and any state as a whole. And if technical, informational, humanitarian, governmental solutions are not coordinated with the bandwidth of the channel environment they are designed for, then don’t expect good results.
Human consciousness may be a side effect of entropy
As we already know, the concept of entropy, resulting from the Greek word for ‘transformation’, was first introduced in thermodynamics to define a measure of irreversible energy dissipation. It is a side effect of any basic process, and already in such a concept, this phenomenon has found its way into the other disciplines of natural science. Since ancient times, many psychologists and philosophers have considered consciousness to be integral, indivisible, and something permanent. After all, our brain creates this illusion exceptionally convincingly. In reality, consciousness is an entity subject to incredible fragmentation, down to the activity of a single neuron. One might think that consciousness obeys the inner monologue, but in reality, we make many decisions without inner speech… We consider conscious what is describable, and unconscious what is not subject to the “declarative self”.
Although consciousness is a crucial part of being human, researchers still don’t truly understand where it comes from and why we have it. Just like the Universe, our brains might be programmed to maximize disorder – similar to the principle of entropy – and our consciousness could be a side effect. Because the second law of thermodynamics states that entropy can only increase in a system, it could explain why the arrow of time only ever moves forwards. A new study led by researchers from France and Canada has applied the same thinking to the connections in our brains and investigated whether they show any patterns in the way they choose to order themselves while we’re conscious. What if consciousness arises naturally due to our brains maximizing their information content? What if consciousness is a side effect of our brain moving towards a state of entropy? A ‘surprisingly simple’ result was found as the participants’ brains displayed higher entropy when in a fully conscious state, so normal wakeful states are characterized by the greatest number of possible configurations of interactions between brain networks, representing the highest entropy values. This leads the researchers to argue that consciousness could simply be an unexpectedly occurring property of the system that is trying to maximize information exchange. This study is a good starting point for further research and possibly will arrive at a new hypothesis for why our brains tend to be conscious. That is just beginning to understand how the brain’s organization might affect our consciousness and a nice reminder that we’re all connected by the laws that govern the Universe.