New Criticals

So everything I just told you I learned from Jeffrey Wicken, who is in my estimation the most important American thinker since Richard Feynman and easily the most underappreciated. Had you ever heard of him? Exactly. This is mostly the peculiar fate of a man trying to communicate profound philosophical insights to the contemporary scientific community. Anyway Wicken’s premise was simple: the second law of thermodynamics is teleological. That’s it. But with this understanding firmly in mind, natural selection is absolutely relieved of “the burden of the architect.” There is purpose in nature, because it is an irreducible element of all irreversible processes--they produce entropy. Or, saying the same thing in a way that is more familiar to biologists, irreversible processes reduce free energy gradients. There is absolutely nothing “intentional” about this “purpose.” It is an emergent, statistical property of any sufficiently large ensemble of matter. So there’s our first baby step on the road to demonstrating that life is natural. If the question is “How can a universe that has no goal or intention in mind spontaneously produce beings that exhibit goal-oriented behavior?” Then we have, as our first clue, the insight that the universe is, against all reason, “doing” something: it is probabilistically increasing the number of available quantum microstates in time, which is the technical way of saying in language our current understanding of the second law. Explaining the second law (and the first) will require its own post which will tell its own childish story, beginning with Boltzmann and his ferocious insight turned into suicidal mania through Schrodinger’s notions about “negentropy” to Wicken’s synthesis of biological and physical dynamics. It is a sad history, full of confusion and polemics just like the century that nurtured it.

Jeffrey Wicken, 1942-2002

Thumbnail of Evolutionary Tree here.