Entropy, consciousness and sense of time

Like gravity that tells us which way is “up”, entropy is said to tell us which way is “future”. But unlike gravity, which is a nearly-constant acceleration acting upon us, entropy is a property of relatively large systems. So can we “feel” entropy?

Entropy and time

To illustrate entropy, we use the classic example: a bottle full of gas, suddenly opened. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that the gas will expand to fill the new volume available to it. Conversely, placing an empty bottle inside a room full of gas would never collect every molecule inside it. This tendency towards disorder is quantified as entropy — but entropy is only a property of the entirety of the gas cloud as a very large collection of microscopic molecules.

Gravity affects all particles, even a single particle alone in a vacuum. Each particle of that gas “feels” the acceleration of gravity, but no single particle can “feel” entropy.

Entropy is more fickle than that, even. In closed systems, the total entropy can never be lowered — but nothing is guaranteed when it comes to local or open systems. Entropy can easily be lowered in many cases at the expense of total entropy, which can only rise. It’s safe to say that nothing on a human scale is truly a closed system, being as we are only a minuscule speck in the infinite expanse of the universe. We don’t even know if the universe itself is open or closed.

And so the question: how do we “feel” time passing? Even while staring at a wall, we have a sense of movement, that we traverse time like a fourth dimension. We certainly have no need of observing a thermodynamic process like a bottle of gas being opened in order to feel time moving by. We don’t need to observe our own body processes responding to entropy (such as hunger). Holding your breath and closing your eyes, you still feel time passing, even between heart beats.

Organic reduction of entropy through emergence

As I said before, it is possible to reduce local entropy at the expense of global entropy. Nature performs this miracle all the time in a process known as emergence. This occurs when many, many tiny components are exposed to huge influxes of energy. These tiny components tend to spontaneously organize themselves into larger structures, capable of reducing or even reversing their own entropy. A simple example is a desert full of many grains of sand, exposed to the terrific energy of endless winds. The sand grains tend to organize themselves into sand dunes, thus reducing their entropy.

Taken further, this describes life-forms very well. As living beings, made up of countless cells, animals are structures that minimize or reverse their own entropy.

Does consciousness reverse entropy?

And what of consciousness? Obviously this is a field that nobody currently understands very well, but we can still make observations of this strange phenomenon. I’ll use a very primitive model of the consciousness, which is probably wildly simplistic and inaccurate.

Our senses provide input, and translate events as they happen into signals.  These signals are consumed by the consciousness and stored in “memory”. Thus, the disparate signals reaching us from the outside world become organized spontaneously into what we can access later as memories. The brain, which has something to do with all this, consumes a huge amount of energy. I believe that this mimics the emergence phenomenon mentioned earlier: a huge influx of energy and information that organizes itself. In a word, the consciousness exists in an entropic minimum — or even in a realm of negative entropy, consistently.

To answer our question, maybe entropy does tell us which way is “future”. The world may be decaying, but our consciousnesses are busy organizing and reducing entropy. And thus, we “feel” time flow towards the lowest internal entropy of our consciousness, just as our bodies feel we are being accelerated “down” towards the center of the Earth.

Posted on June 21, 2011 at 4:44 pm by eli · Permalink
In: Uncategorized · Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

One Response

Subscribe to comments via RSS

  1. Written by Michael
    on March 25, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    That really helps me to organize a lot of my thoughts on this subject! You should read From Eternity to Here.

Subscribe to comments via RSS