A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book
Entropy’s empirical effect at the macro-level of human life is death. With death we enter the realm of the seriously poetic that I feel Carroll’s naturalism fails to deliver. His upbeat statements about a life that ends at death sound superficial. His allusion to his own happy marriage and a successful, well remunerated career of a man still young, strong and healthy, suggests that we are being counselled by someone personally unacquainted with tragedy or serious loss of the kind that has been known to cripple the human will to live.
The ultimate challenge in life, in my opinion, is the human condition itself, defined as it is by death or its equivalents, the result of an intrinsically entropic material energy. We may call it the “human problem” because it has such a paralyzing effect on our species. But it is certainly not limited to humankind. It affects all of life. But our nearest cousins, sentient animals, seem not to be aware of death because they are limited in their ability to anticipate the future; their conatus dominates their psychic states freeing them from the sense of impending doom that affects human beings. Regardless, everything alive dies reluctantly and struggles with all its strength to defend its life and that of its offspring. Those who have heard the desperate wailing of a cow that has been separated from her calf will never again make the mistake of thinking that animals do not suffer loss.
All energy is the result of disequilibrium. The tension in “energy” refers to a non-dismissible bias toward equilibrium. When equilibrium is achieved, the energy disappears. The dissipation of useful energy in the quest for equilibrium is called entropy.
If matter as mass is a form of energy, it is necessarily also entropic, that is to say, it is held together “unnaturally” in a state of tension seeking equilibrium. When the parts under tension achieve the equilibrium they “seek,” the tension — the energy — will disappear and all that will remain will be the residue of what was once held together under tension.
The entropic dissipation of energy affects all matter in our universe. Therefore the eventual disintegration of everything made of matter appears to be an inescapable feature of life on earth, and probably everywhere in our material universe.
LIFE, on the other hand, is anti-entropic; it exploits entropic disequilibria: energies that result from displacements and driven to seek equilibrium. LIFE appropriates the force of entropy and diverts it to its own ends. The living energy available to an organism during life is the expropriated tension-toward-equilibrium (= dissipation and death) of its gathered components.
We, living matter, call the disappearance of energy, death. A biological organism dies when the components at various levels of composition, macro and micro — bio-chemical, molecular and atomic — which had been gathered out of various locations, assembled and held together “unnaturally” (thus creating a massive multi-level disequilibrium) under the forcible drive and direction of DNA to form a living individual, can no longer hold together and they return to their former states. The “particles” remain, their individual energies now determined by their own entropy. Nothing ever disappears except the energy gradients involved.
It is precisely its “being-toward-death” that provides the organism the energy — the ability to do work — like a battery whose artificially skewed electron-to-proton ratio creates voltage. The irresistible “gravitational pull” — like water falling on a paddled wheel — to restore equilibrium is the energy utilized by LIFE, and which we exploit for our identities and our endeavors, just as we exploit the flow of electrons to start our cars and power our cell phones. So the very LIFE we cherish so much is really the appropriation of our components’ “desire” to abandon their unnatural conjunction as us and return to their former state … i.e., to die. To convert to entropy — to die — is the energy source tapped by LIFE.
If somehow you were able to do away with “death,” therefore, you would also have eliminated the very wellspring of living motion: entropy. Death in a universe of matter, I submit, is intrinsic to LIFE. This is a contradiction for human beings and constitutes what we call “the human condition.”
One of living matter’s more creative achievements was to use reproduction to bypass the natural entropy of all living matter. The dying organism reproduces itself and its progeny receives a full quota of energy at zero entropy. But there was a twist. We have to remind ourselves that at the dawn of life, simple cell division, mitosis — endlessly cloning the same individual — was superseded by the counter-intuitive innovation of coupling two distinct individual organisms producing a third independent of each — meiosis — also known as sexual reproduction.
Sexual reproduction was invented by eukaryote single-celled animals 1.2 billion years ago and it allowed for the production of genetically superior cells with a far greater range of capability. The achievement was exponential, for it not only accomplished its principal goal, the transcendence of death, but it also created species — a community of individuals based on biological relationships which carried LIFE into the future in the place of the individuals who died. We are the beneficiaries of those seminal discoveries; they determined the basic structure of the bodies and behavior of everything that came afterward. It happened before the Cambrian explosion, and those advances made possible the emergence of all complex multi-celled organisms in existence, including us. The genetic sex-based relationships that are so fundamental to our personal identities and social lives originated in that epic achievement made by a single celled organism so tiny that it cannot be seen by the naked eye.
Sexual reproduction outflanks death but it does not overcome it. This was the “immortality” devised by matter’s living energy, and it was obtained at the cost of the individual organism which dies. LIFE transcended death by appropriating it. Individual organismic death was integrated into matter’s energy transcending itself and evolving. Nature’s concern, apparently, has never been the eternal life of the individual, it is something else … .
Scientists argue about the mechanisms involved here, but the details are ultimately irrelevant to the individual human being who is faced with an inescapable contradiction intrinsic to the human organism itself: there is a conatus — an irrepressible desire for endless LIFE — emanating from the very same matter that is entropically programmed to dissipate and die. Death’s sting is felt even more intensely because the relationships that make life meaningful — built on LIFE’s reproductive strategy — are terminated for the individuals at death. A death that may be acceptable to those inured to their own physical pain becomes intolerable when it means the permanent loss of irreplaceable loved ones: partners, spouses, siblings, parents, children, kindred, friends. The sense of isolation and abandonment that accompanies loss of such devastating proportions can be immobilizing. There is no solution to this problem. It will not go away and it is not only confined to the old and deteriorating. It pervades all of life and is dismissed only at the price of a shallow immaturity or a selfish and cowardly refusal of intimacy and commitment.
In concrete terms, we are inconsolably addicted to human LIFE in human community. Saying the same thing in abstract philosophical terms: we are only satisfied by communitarian existence, which in a material universe means being-here together. In the “philosophy” that Carroll agrees must guide the relationship among the intellectual disciplines, existence must be the controlling concept, because in all biological LIFE existence is the driving force.
Our individual relationship to LIFE is not limited to intellectual analysis. We are not only computers. We are sensitive human beings driven by the conatus whose loving embrace of what we are produces a pathos we all share. This pathos is at the root of all our poetry. We take our relationships seriously, and the fact that entropic life means that struggle as we will, each and every loved one we have will be lost to us either by their death or ours, spits in the face of the efforts we make to bind ourselves to one another with hoops of steel. If you are readily reconciled to this situation, it is my personal opinion that there is something lacking in you. “Cast a cold eye on life on death, horseman, pass by …” If you think the poet meant that that was the way he wanted to live, think again. What I hear Yeats saying is that this is what we are reduced to — the only alternative left to us — under the broken regime of entropic matter. It’s a seething anger that echoes Dylan Thomas’ “rage against the dying of the light.” This is the problem that Carroll does not address: the human condition. Death is not just a neutral biological event for us, it is a disaster of catastrophic proportions because of the internal contradiction in matter’s energy. Matter is simultaneously conatus and entropy — LIFE and death. And for someone who claims to offer a picture so “big” that it will explain the “Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself” such an omission reveals a lack of depth that can only be described as pathetic.
Death or its equivalents is the purview of religion. All religions are focused on taking away the sting of death. Some, like the Western religions of the “book,” evolved a belief that “life will be changed, not taken away” and the human person will live on in another world of “spirit” where all relationships will continue forever. Others, like Buddhists, avoid any talk of an afterlife and suggest rather that the problem resides with the unrealistic expectations that result from placing too much credence in the promptings of the conatus. The quest for permanent existence, they say, is a self-imposed false hope that aggravates suffering. Buddhism is entirely compatible with the conclusions of the reductionists’ worldview, and Carroll’s inexplicable silence regarding Buddhism’s poetic capacity to accompany science and address the internal contradiction at the heart of matter, in my opinion, displays his lack of any real interest in the “poetic” side of the issue. His interest in religion seems confined to insisting that in any form it is incompatible with science.
Existential suffering is a real phenomenon for human beings. And if you are going to insist that “religion” is incompatible with science, then it seems to me that, at a minimum, you have to show that you understand what religion does, and attempt to provide some alternative way of confronting (not just dismissing) existential suffering — i.e., the human condition. Being human is as real a manifestation of matter’s energy as any atomic, chemical or biological phenomenon. What is the “meaning” of lives and loves that disappear? Carroll’s promise is empty for he offers no meaning. There is no “poetry” in Carroll’s “poetic naturalism.” He has not convinced me that he has yet to feel the full brunt of what it means to be living matter in this material universe.