Ludwig Boltzmann developed a statistical explanation of the second law of thermodynamics by defining entropy as being proportional to the logarithm of the number ways in which we can arrange a system [see ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th 2017]. The mathematical expression of this definition is engraved on his head-stone. The second law states that the entropy of the universe is always increasing and Boltzmann argued it implies that the universe must have been created in a very low entropy state. Four decades earlier, in 1854, William Thomson concluded the dissipation of heat arising from the second law would lead to the ‘death’ of the universe [see ‘Cosmic heat death‘ on February 18th, 2015] while the big bang theory for the creation of the universe evolved about twenty years after Boltzmann’s death. The probability of a very low entropy state required to bring the universe into existance is very small because it implies random fluctuations in energy and matter leading to a highly ordered state. One analogy would be the probability of dead leaves floating on the surface of a pond arranging themselves to spell your name. It is easy to think of fluctuations that are more likely to occur, involving smaller systems, such as one that would bring only our solar system into existence, or progressively more likely, only our planet, only the room in which you are sitting reading this blog, or only your brain. The last would imply that everything is in your imagination and ultimately that is why Boltzmann’s argument is not widely accepted although we do not have a good explanation for the apparent low entropy state at the start of the universe. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his book Nausea ‘I exist because I think…and I cannot stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing.’ Perhaps most people would find horrifying the logical extension of Boltzmann’s arguments about the start of the universe to everything only existing in our mind. Boltzmann’s work on statistical mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics is widely accepted and support the case for him being genius; however, his work raised more questions than answers and was widely criticised during his lifetime which led to him taking his own life in 1906.
How is your negative capability? The very term ‘negative capability’ conveys confusion and ambiguity. It means our ability to accept uncertainty, a lack of knowledge or control. It was coined by John Keats to describe the skill of appreciating something without fully understanding it. It implies suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it. This is difficult because we have to move out of a low entropy mindset and consider how it fits in a range of possible mindsets or neuronal assemblies, which raises our psychological entropy and with it our anxiety and mental stress [see ’Psychological entropy increased by effectual leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021]. If we are able to tolerate an optimal level of ambiguity and uncertainty then we might be able to develop an appreciation of a complex system and even an ability to anticipate its behaviour without a full knowledge or understanding of it. Our sub-conscious brain has excellent negative capabilities; for example, most of us can catch a ball without understanding, or even knowing, anything about the mechanics of its flight towards us, or we accept a ride home from a friend with no knowledge of their driving skills and no control over the vehicle. Although, if our conscious brain knows that they crashed their car last week then it might override the sub-conscious and cause us to think again before declining the offer of a ride home. Perhaps this is because our conscious brain tends to have less negative capability and likes to be in control. Engineers like to talk about their intuition which is probably synonymous with their negative capability because it is their ability to appreciate and anticipate the behaviour of an engineering system without a full knowledge and understanding of it. This intuition is usually based on experience and perhaps resides in the subconscious mind because if you ask an engineer to explain a decision or prediction based on their intuition then they will probably struggle to provide a complete and rational explanation. They are comfortable with an optimal level of ambiguity although of course you might not be so comfortable.
It is traditional at the start of the year to speculate on what will happen in the new year. However, as Niels Bohr is reputed to have said ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’. Some people have suggested that our brains are constantly predicting the future. We weigh up the options for what might happen next before choosing a course of action. Our ancestors might have watched a fish swimming near a river bank and predicted where it would be a moment later when their spear entered the water. Or on a longer timescale, they predicted that seeds planted at a particular time of year would yield a crop some months later. Our predictions are not always correct but our life depends on enough of them being reliable that we have evolved to be good predictors of the immediate future. In Chinese thought, a distinction is made between predicting the near and distant future because the former is possible and latter is impossible, at least with any degree of confidence (Simandon, 2018). Wisdom can be considered to be understanding the futility of trying to predict the distant future while being able to sense the near future through an acute awareness and immersion in one’s surroundings. This implies that a wise person can go beyond the everyday predictions of the immediate future, made largely unconsciously by our brains, and anticipate events on a slightly longer timescale, the near future. In engineering terms, events in the near future are short-term behaviour dominated by the current status of the system whereas events in the distant future are largely determined by external interactions with the system. This seems entirely consistent with the Chinese concept of wisdom arising from ‘vanishing into things’ which means to become immersed in a situation and hence to be able sense the current status of the system and reliably anticipate the near future. Some engineers might call it intuition which has been defined as ‘judgments that arise through rapid, non-conscious and holistic associations’ (Dane & Pratt, 2007). So, in 2021 I hope to continue to exercise my intuition and remain immersed in a number of issues but I am not going to attempt to predict any distant events.
About four years ago I wrote about living in bubbles and rarely coming into contact with people outside of our bubble [see ‘You’re all weird‘ on February 8th, 2017]. This was in the context of our experience of the media and our surprise when electorates make apparently irrational decisions. Since early this year we have been encouraged to live in more literal bubbles in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19; so, for example, we have created bubbles of researchers using our research labs in shifts to avoid a total shutdown of research when someone tests positive for coronavirus. For many people, the pandemic has isolated them in a bubble of one that has created concerns about the well-being and happiness of individuals living and working alone. When asked about the place he is happiest, the artist Ai Weiwei responded ‘Every place is equal for me. Even in detention I could still find joyful moments’. He finds ways to connect to other people and their emotions by reflecting on who he is, which leads to moments of joy. He believes that success in life is about finding yourself in way that ‘doesn’t need ambition or talent. It just needs a functioning mind, emotion and simple judgment.’ During lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it has become more important to maintain the life of mind through reading and discovering new ideas. As Jarvis Cocker said in a recent interview: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same things, rechewing the same thing. I find that really boring.’ I hope that these posts have brought you new ideas and ways of thinking during 2020; writing them has certainly kept my mind active and stimulated. So, I plan to continue in 2021 and hope that you will continue to read them. Best wishes for a happy New Year!