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Life, energy, the universe and everything

In Douglas Adams' science fiction series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a computer dubbed Deep Thought discovers the "answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything." After seven and one-half million years of computation, it spits out the answer: 42. The story goes on to explain that the answer is inscrutable because the beings who programmed Deep Thought didn't know what the ultimate question was.

That seems a fitting place to begin exploring my slightly expanded version of Adams' question, namely, the answer to the question of life, energy, the universe and everything. It is, of course, hard even to know what question is being asked. But, for me it is a question about the structure and purpose of life in the universe. Adams discusses (humorously, of course) the ultimate question in one of his later novels. Here is the Wikipedia version of that discussion:

In Life, the Universe and Everything, Prak, a man who knows all that is true, confirms that 42 is indeed The Answer, and confirms that it is impossible for both The Answer and The Question to be known in the same universe (compare the uncertainty principle) as they will cancel each other out and take the Universe with them to be replaced by something even more bizarre (as described in the first theory) and that it may have already happened (as described in the second).

My point is that attempts to answer ultimate questions often devolve into nonsense, sometimes humorous nonsense and sometimes just boring nonsense. Let's see if I can at least avoid the boring nonsense.

From a purely physical point of view humans, and in fact, all life, are ideal mechanisms for collapsing energy gradients. An energy gradient is simply a span of space in which the heat content is higher at one point than another. As you might surmise, the universe is chock full of energy gradients, and they can be exploited to do work for us: to grow crops, mine minerals, manufacture goods, transport those goods, and provide the myriad comforts that constitute modern life.

The energy gradient most important to humans is the one spanning the distance from the Sun, a giant thermonuclear furnace, to the Earth, a coolish, rocky planet. With a universe of countless stars and planets, this example suggests that life is likely to be quite prevalent across the cosmos. In fact, the Second Law of Thermodynamics--the one that tells us that entropy is moving us toward a universe of less and less order and thus one seemingly less and less amenable to life--actually favors the formation of life because life itself depends on the energy gradients which are the basis of the Second Law.

All well and good then. We could stop here and announce that the overarching cosmic purpose of human beings is to collapse energy gradients by dissipating the energy they provide, energy that allows us to live and conduct our daily business. We need only eat and then burn the calories by walking to get into a vehicle which in turn burns more energy and then go somewhere to buy something produced by a factory that is busily collapsing energy gradients for a profit. We could also just sit at home burning calories at our basal rate of metabolism--perhaps with the furnace or air conditioning on--in order to get similar results. We are mere agents of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, remorselessly carrying out its dictates to move the cosmos continuously toward a more and more entropic state--one that will end with the heat death of the universe in which all energy is evenly distributed, meaning no energy gradients exist. Without the gradients, essentially nothing happens, nothing changes.

(For a full and captivating account of the relationship of life to energy, I recommend reading Into the Cool.)

At the other end of the spectrum, humans are considered the vessels of consciousness, perhaps the only living beings to have self-awareness including an awareness of their own inevitable death. We know thoughts exist because we have them. And yet, they are dimensionless abstractions, objects without weight or substance.

Our purpose in life, according to many contemplative traditions, is to ponder the universe in order to understand it and in order to commune with it in some profound way. Some traditions, however, seek to manipulate the universe to our liking. The scientific method is a contemplative tradition of sorts that seeks to apply what we learn about the workings of the universe in order essentially to speed up the degradation of energy gradients in pursuit of greater control over our environment. This presumably leads to better lives that come from that control. On the other hand, the mystic religious traditions seek to gain a direct apprehension of the mystery of the universe, one beyond words and thus inexpressible except through the changed attitudes and behaviors that result from such enlightenment.

The description of these two paths is a bit more inspiring than the description of humans as mere agents of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But, both depend on that law and our role in collapsing energy gradients.

What is being called into question today is not our basic need to live on the energy gradients available to us on Earth. No humans can exist without such gradients or be blamed for doing what nature designs humans to do, namely, to seek out those gradients wherever they are and use them to enhance our survival and our ability to propagate. This innate drive actually forms the basis for what we call culture: art, architecture, music, and literature. Without high degrees of energy dissipation, such cultural emanations would not be possible for we would all have to live close to the land and eke out a bare existence.

As it turns out, surpluses--that is the extra energy that farmers produce in the form of food and fiber and that which those who extract energy-bearing minerals such as coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium produce beyond what they need for themselves--are the basis of civilization. Surpluses have allowed at first a few and now a huge number of people to carry on livelihoods that merely consume the surplus. The ancient Romans achieved a complex culture and empire powered by the Sun in the form of surplus wheat and Mediterranean winds for sail transport. Today, of course, we've built our complex civilization using energy-dense fossil fuels that vastly enhance our production of food and that power a worldwide mining, manufacturing and logistics system.

What is being called into question today are both the rate at which we are exploiting the Earth's available energy gradients and the sources of those gradients. In practical terms, this means the rate at which we are consuming the nonrenewable energy resources mentioned above and the rate at which the fossil fuel portion of those resources is spewing climate changing gases into the atmosphere.

In part, it is a question of goals. Our avowed goal these days is to grow continuously the rate at which we collapse energy gradients. This gives us what we call wealth and is believed to increase our well-being. The second assertion is the object of hot dispute and the center of our inquiry here.

Alan Watts, the great interpreter of Zen to the West, liked to point out that we don't sing a song or dance a dance to get to the end. These pursuits are enjoyable in their process, not their completion. The arts are often characterized as the highest fruits of civilization, and yet, they represent pursuits which are good in and of themselves, and not for some purpose outside of themselves. We enjoy beauty for itself, not in order to get something done. Beauty is the end, not the means.

The huge amounts of work which we can get done by exploiting the energy gradients available from fossil fuels and uranium have caused us to become overly concerned with means. We can now accomplish so much that we spend very little time contemplating what is worth accomplishing. Almost everything becomes an instrument to accomplish something else, all in the service of raising the rate at which we collapse energy gradients which is thought to lead to wealth which, in turn, is thought to lead to well-being.

The argument which we are now engaging in and will be forced to engage in for a long time is this: What rate of exploitation of the Earth's energy gradients is sufficient for a good life? Our answer for the past century and a half has simply been "a higher rate." And yet, on its face this answer has no qualitative component. That higher rate has included devastating pollution and destruction of the natural landscape; the possibility of catastrophic climate change; vast economic and social inequality and the social and geopolitical tensions and violence that go along with them; and endemic illness borne of degraded diets poisoned with chemicals that are said to reduce crop loses from weeds and insects. The list is very long indeed. Many of the tasks we do, which use up some available energy gradient, seem to make things worse for us, not better.

So, is there some optimum rate of energy gradient exploitation? Again, it depends on one's goals. If the goal is to extend the continuity of the human species far into the future, then the answer is a rate far below the current one--a rate commensurate with the rate at which renewable energy can produce power. If the goal is to throw the biggest, most energy-intense party ever thrown, then the rate must be increased. But the consequence of that will be a far shorter reign for humans, or at least for the technical civilization we've built. That civilization remains almost entirely dependent on nonrenewable fuels that must someday start to decline and take our current civilization with them--unless, of course, we drastically restructure our civilization before that day by, for instance, greatly reducing our rate of energy use.

But, moderation has gotten a bad name in the age of fossil fuels and uranium-235. We imagine that moderating our consumption will leave us poor and unhappy, partly because a century of advertising has convinced us of this. But moderation and even asceticism have long and venerable histories. There are, of course, the religiously-inspired ascetics who report that living simply actually increases one's happiness. Essentially, what they are saying in energetic terms is that lowering the rate of exploitation of energy gradients is good for the soul.

Moderation has a nonreligious heritage, too. Epicureanism, first and foremost, refers to an ancient Greek school of philosophy that, contrary to popular understanding, proposed moderation in all things in pursuit of a pleasurable life. It preached that overindulgence can lead to pain and suffering and thus the opposite of a pleasurable experience. (For a contrasting Greek school of philosophy, see the Cyrenaics who emphasized the intensity and immediacy of physical sensation as the primary avenue to a pleasurable life.) Epicureanism is thus another form of lowering our rate of exploitation of energy gradients, but in this case, in order to heighten our pleasure--for the long term, of course.

I offer these last two ways of thinking about our energy use to suggest that the idea that humans are evolutionarily designed ONLY to seek out ever more energy gain may be flawed. Clearly, there is a portion of humanity that understands that maximum energy gain does not necessarily coincide with maximum happiness. Indeed, excessive energy use may actually reduce one's happiness suggesting that perhaps OPTIMUM energy gain would be a better goal.

We humans are by our very nature energy dissipating structures. As it turns out, the rate of energy dissipation that makes for a good life is a persistent question in philosophy--just not put in those terms. Our age is now obliged to face quite directly what rate offers maximum happiness or at least maximum satisfaction--taking into account the broadest meaning of those words including the desire to belong; to love and be loved; to experience the full range of physical, emotional and spiritual experiences available to humans; and even the desire for meaning itself.

I don't suspect you've been laughing at my exploration of the issue of ultimate meaning as you might at Douglas Adams' fictional and facetious quest for the same. But, I hope you have at least been entertained. I can't help but focus on my role as a dissipative being. It's really what I write about every week. But in the end, that focus is too narrow to capture the experience that is being human. In fact, I don't think there are any words or concepts that can easily summarize what it is to be human and what constitutes a good life. The universe and our place in it remains as ever unfathomable.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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