Image: Christopher Windus
Entropy, you might remember from high-school physics, is a very interesting term. In case you don’t, it refers to the dissipation of energy. That is, over time, energy dissipates in its environment until thermo-equilibrium is reached—until energy is uniformly dissipated.
What’s key to understanding entropy is grasping why it exists. And it’s actually relatively simple: probability. The probability that energy in a warm cup of coffee will spread across a room, as an example, is far higher than the probability that ambient energy will randomly concentrate to warm the coffee.
Entropy, then, is a force that tends to equilibrium.
Life, on the other hand, is a concentration of energy. Where entropy acts to create disorder, life acts to create order. What’s interesting, though, is that life evolved to seek homeostasis with its environment—it is a force that tends to equilibrium—an interesting correlation to say the least.
In his book The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio argues that one of the primary drivers of evolution is this quest for equilibrium. And central to this argument is the idea of how feelings emerged.
Going all the way back to the Cambrian Explosion — the event that most scientists agree spawned complex life — and track the evolution of organisms to us complex, complicated, convoluted bunch of humans, an interesting idea emerges: organisms need to gain some kind of equilibrium with their environment in order to survive, or homeostasis.
To do this, they developed senses. The more data that can be extracted from the environment, the most likely any organism is to adapt. And the more able an organism is to adapt, the more likely they will survive. Following this reasoning leads us to Darwin and Natural Selection.
But where this idea got really interesting for me is when the nervous system is introduced. The nervous system is simply a more advanced way to gather data from the environment. But it also enables the gathering data from inside the organism. To be best geared for adaption, there are two sets of data that need to be compared. What is happening outside the organism and what is happening inside it. The nervous system was a step-change in terms of fulfilling both criteria.
Then, at least with humans, the mind came.
The mind, Damasio argues, is a complex imaging system. It is a mechanism that maps the environment in terms of images. These images can be stored, analyzed, manipulated, even created somewhat independently of data being extracted from the environment. But they still serve a very specific purpose: homeostasis.
The example he gives is with heatwaves. In a heatwave, there is an increased risk of both homicide and suicide, and, in particular, violent occurrences of both. While there are many potential explanations, Damasio believes that dehydration is a likely culprit. Thinking about my mood swings when I am short of a bit of water leads me to subjectively concur.
And, what do you know, suicide and homicide are both not conduce to survival.
So we invented ways of dealing with that. Air-conditioners, well-designed homes, breathable clothes, and so on. Each, lightly disguised as comfort, has actually played a non-trivial part in survival.
This all points to another conclusion, and one that really caught my attention: the role of the mind in relation to the body. If we look at the elements of humanity that truly differentiate us from other animals, we can loosely group them under “culture”. Art, music (to a degree), theatre, language, tradition, and so on. All of these cultural tenets have, among other things, served to create homeostasis between people and their environment.
Think about how many traditions have grown out of a need in a particular environment? Or recipes? Or, even music. They all serve to band people together. And if there is one thing that banded people do well, it’s survival.
More than that, however, it led me to realise that nervous systems are tools used by the organism, not the other way around. Or, put differently, the mind — our advanced environment, cultural, experience mapping machine — is something that is employed by our bodies.
While we tend to identify with our minds, we are not our minds. It’s easy to see why this has happened, though, why a self-image is created by the part of a person that deals with imaging, but it’s not so easy to understand what it means.
If we are not our minds? Who are we?