Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Entropy, attachment, and the good life

Schrodinger, the famous physicist, proposed that life should be defined in terms of entropy. The universe obeys the laws of entropy, which basically describe how all ordered systems move in the direction of becoming less ordered. Schrodinger defined life as a temporary reversal of entropy. Life appears to violate entropy by going in the opposite direction and creating ever more order, but it is actually forestalling entropy as all of that order comes crashing down when we die and entropy is satisfied. The Buddhist understanding of suffering and attachment is very consistent with this. Attachments can create happiness when they are satisfied, but latent in that happiness is is the inevitable decay and/or catastrophic loss of what was achieved, along with the suffering caused by this. 

This can be used to interpret the first Nobel truth, that life is suffering. If we map suffering to the decay caused by entropy then happiness derived from attachment is generated by temporarily reversing entropy. So, happiness is literally built on suffering as it is created by temporarily reversing the natural flow of entropy. Metaphorically, happiness is like an eddy in a rushing river, inevitably the water will flow down. This is a useful way of understanding it as it explains how attachments can produce real joy, and yet be derived from suffering. 


Ancient cultures such as the Greeks and the Vikings seem to have had a sense of this as well. In these cultures a "good life" was often seen as going out on a high. That is, achieving something great then experiencing a sudden death. In a way, this avoids the suffering that is latent in the joy of the achievement because the decay comes very fast and its all over. In fact, the Buddhist and Christian notions of punishment in the after life can be seen as a way of discouraging this live fast, die young strategy. However, the more important question is, does Christianity or Buddhism offer a better solution to the problem of suffering? 

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