A Thermodynamic Interpretation of History
CHAPTER 10.2: Power, The Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Problem of Evil
10.2.3. The Origin of Good and Evil in the Human Experience of Thermodynamics
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2004, 2006 by L. C. C.

Where did human values come from? Why do people universally consider certain things (like stealing, murdering, or timidity) "wrong", "bad", or "evil" and certain things "good" (like reciprocity, bravery)? We can discover the reason for this by considering the most general and constant characteristics of good and bad things. Plato says calepa ta kala, "beautiful things are hard" (The Republic). Hesiod, in Work and Days, says the similar in his exhortation to his evil-doing brother Perses:

thn men toi kakothta kai iladon estin elesqai rhidiwV. leih men odoV, mala d'egguqi naiei. thV d'arethV idrwta qeoi proparoiqen eqhkan aqanatoi. makroV de kai orqioV oimoV eV authn kai trhcuV to prwton. ephn d'eiV akron ikhtai, rhidih dh epeita pelei, caleph per eousa. (ll. 286-292) Badness can be got easily and in shoals: the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows: long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard.

This is indeed the most general characteristics of good and bad, that good is hard to achieve and bad easy. It's harder to be courageous and responsible, and easier to be cowardly, indulgent, and taking from others without regard for reciprocity. Why? Because this is the state of affairs dictated by the thermodynamic structure of the universe, by the second law: order-formation is a uphill process, its dissolution downhill; the former specifically requires the infusion of energy into an open system, and the latter demands nothing, but is the natural state of any closed system. Think about the example Stephen Hawking gives to illustrate the arrow of time in A Brief History of Time (p. 144 - 5), that it is easy to shove a glass cup off the table and watch it break into pieces on the floor; but that we would never see the reverse happening, pieces of broken glass falling onto the floor and automatically assembling into a whole cup. If we want the disordered pieces to assemble into an ordered whole in the form of a cup, we have to spend much more time and energy than we did in breaking it to glue these together. This tells us where human beings originally derive the idea of "good" and "evil": whatever is or is conducive to order-formation is good, whatever is or is part of order-dissolution is bad, and what are usually universally considered good are precisely the things that contribute to or preserve order (whether of society or of the personal self) and what are usually universally considered bad are those that help dissolve order (of society or of the self). (This is meant when Plato had Socrates say in the Republic "What destroys and corrupts everything is the evil, and what saves and benefits is the good" (to men apolluon kai diafqeiron pan to kakon einai, to de swzon kai wfeloun to agaqon, 608 e3), which therefore expresses a primordial human experience.) Good is being far from equilibrium and going against the second law and in the opposite direction to the arrow of time, which is entropy increase (Introduction).

Good is hard and evil easy, as discussed, because of the statistical situation that governs the formation of order. Hence, in relation to the definition of virtue (h areth) as the "mean state" (mesothV), which, we'll show, means really the most ordered state, Aristotle (The Nicomachean Ethics, II. vi. 14 - 15.) has also mentioned that this state of our disposition (exiV) is the most difficult to achieve because:

eti to men amartanein pollacwV estin.... to de katorqoun monacwV: dio kai to men raidion to de calepon, raidion men to apotucein tou skopou, calepon de to epitucein....

esqloi men gar aplwV, pantodapwV de kakoi

Error [missing the mark] is multiform, but success is one way only: which is why [to fail] is easy but [to succeed] is hard; easy to miss the target and difficult to hit it....

Goodness is simple, badness manifold.

That thermodynamics, or the statistical situation governing order-formation, clearly explains why this is so immediately demonstrates that Aristotle's virtue, anything good, or whatever successful endeavor, all consists in order-formation which is hard because it is statistically the least likely configuration. In the figure below, for example, total order (with all whites on one side and all blacks on the other) has only one possible form (given rotation), whereas the disorderly state comes in many configurations and so is the far more frequent outcome:

 o o | * *        o * | * o    o o | o *
 o o | * *        * o | o *    * o | * o
 o o | * *        o o | * o    * * | o *
 o o | * *        * * | o *    o o | * *
 o o | * *        o * | * *    * o | * *
 o o | * *        o o | * o    * o | o o     

     1                1            2             3   ...etc.             
low entropy      high entropy
 ("virtue")          (bad)

At the tribal, pre-ethical stage, goodness and badness are represented by good and bad gods, and (religious) taboo is a system that preserves order (whether of society or of the cosmos) by forbidding things that cause the dissolution of order (which not only include the typically evil things, but also the unscrupulous use of originally good things). Since order or what is good, just like life in general, is "an island of low entropy in an increasingly random universe", hence precious and always endangered, it must be protected with special caution and handled and reared with care.

From this point on the understanding of order (what is good) and dis-order (the dissolution of order or what is bad) begins evolving during the First Axial on two different paths. On the one hand, on the path toward the second mode of salvation, everything is interiorized. Order becomes the order of the "soul" (the mind), i.e. its concentration and stabilization away from the equilibrium state of the exterior material world, and dis-order means such equilibrium of the mind with the material world (the "wandering of the mind" among the material things in the world). To ensure the order of the soul one then attempts to have as little commerce as possible with "things" around, which means: withdrawing from excessive consumption of them (the life of luxury) and from indulgence in bodily desires in general (including commerce with women in sex: obviously this is from the male standpoint). That is, asceticism, as seen with Pythagoreanism, Orphism, Platonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and somewhat Daoism. This is the personal level. On the other hand, the new, better conception of order develops on the collective level by externalizing the interiorized order of the personal level (the politea of the soul written large to become the politea of society [polis], in Plato's words). This path itself diverges in two directions. One is just this externalization of the internal order of the soul, the greatest example of which is Plato's Republic: each component of the system (each class) dutifully performing its own function without wanting to go beyond its own and do others': justice (dikaiosune) in the sense of equilibrium or homeostasis ("each to its own") is said to prevail in such society. The Confucians in China think likewise (they call it "rectification of names" [正名] such as in Analect 12. 11: "the prince is prince, the minister is minister, the father is father, and the son is son." [君君、臣臣、父父、子子。]). Embedded in this externalization is the other meaning of "justice" in the sense of "fairness" which has continued from tribal reciprocity, itself also based on the thermodynamic experience of equilibrium and equiprimordial with the experience of good and evil. This strand finds expression during the Axial Time in the Golden Rule: "Do onto others as you would others do onto you." Or in Confucius' negative formulation of this Biblical rule: "What you don't like being done to yourself, don't do to others."1 Then with the enlightened mystics there emerges a different path of ethics that leads to total inclusion, universal compassion, even for animals, the "Liebesakosmismus." The other direction is without externalization of the internal order but treats the collective order itself simply as a "collective soul". This path is taken by the testamental religions such as Yahwism (e.g. the ten commandments). After the transition to the structural perspective, the general positivistic spirit of the West causes the degeneration of "each to its own" and the Golden Rule into social contract theories, and of the collective order of Yahwism into the "morality" of fundamentalist Protestantism. Then, in the secular domain "morality" also becomes dissociated from order (whether of the self or of the society) in general, and becomes purely a matter of caring for the welfare (physical and psychological well-being) of other people (or sentient beings; although this when sublimated could converge with universal compassion again). Thus today's "ethics" is a continuum between justice as fairness and the care of welfare (in their theoretical form in analytic philosophy: the Kantian-Rawlsian justice vs. utilitarianism). This is a brief sketch of the evolution of "good" throughout history. All these will be explored later.

Evolution of human understanding of order

              religious taboo
       (including social reciprocity)   
         |                          |
         |                          |
     (personal)            personal asceticism 
     asceticism       written large & reciprocity
         |                          |         
         |                 |-------------------|
         |                 |                   |
         |           each to its own &     collective
         |           the Golden Rule      order by law  
         |                 |                   |
         |                 |                   | 
         |                 |             "fundamentalist          
         |         "social contract"       morality"
         |                 |                   |      
         |                 |                   |      
         |                 V                   |
         |         contemporary "ethics"       |
         V        (faireness & "welfare")      V

      PERSONAL                  COLLECTIVE 

As the concrete social organization of human beings evolves and their consciousness differentiates, they supplant the previous with the new conception of order (of society in association with the cosmic environment) proper to their current state of social organization and consciousness: this is their new "worldview" (Weltanschauung): in Voegelin's words: "The order of history emerges from the history of order", i.e. human history as the quest for a better and better or truer and truer order.

But in this evolution certain themes remain constant, and they constitute the constants of human values across cultures and times. From their positive valuation of order-formation which goes against the arrow of time of the universe, human beings come to regard as good, precious, and admirable anything that seems to go contrary to the direction of nature, anything that is an "uphill" process, anything that is hard -- unless it contributes to the dissolution of order, of what is already regarded as good. Thus, for example, they value bravery, courage, calmness in face of death, disregard for personal safety at battlefield with intention solely fixed at the completion of the mission, and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the good of the group. This forms the foundation of "virtue" (h areth; see the discussion of Aristotle, later). The tendency of contemporary researchers is to focus on possible genetic origins ("altruistic genes") for these anti-selfish behaviors that otherwise make little sense in Darwinian natural selection concerning single organisms; and it is without doubt that the necessary existence of human beings in groups (the problem of supraorganismic formation) has a "brain-washing" effect on the individuals, pressuring them to elevate the interests of the group above those of the individuals. The modern researchers look in this direction because they are positivists, i.e. nihilists who see no more intrinsic value in altruism than in selfish behaviors. Our opinion is that human beings since primitive time do see intrinsic value in altruism, bravery, and courage in that these behaviors go in the opposite direction of what nature seems to dictate, that they are "hard" -- everyone is aware that timidity, selfishness, and egocentrism seem more "natural" and are "easier"; being selfish and cowardly and unethically taking advantage of others for the benefit of oneself is like going downhill, an effortless journey whose destination lies close, to use Hesiod's words. Hence these are not admired in themselves, in addition to whatever adverse effects they might have on the preservation of the social collective. Their opposites -- altruism, bravery, and ethical faireness and self-restraint in the treatment of others -- are like an uphill journey, "long and steep is the path that leads to them", hence they are in themselves admirable, in addition to whatever positive effects they might have on the prosperity of the group. Consider that, experientially, bravery, courage, and the restraint of one's natural tendency to rob from others all feel like concentrations of one's soul or mind, whereas timidity, etc., all feel like "giving in" to the natural flow of things. When we see a person displaying bravery, we think "He has overcome nature and got himself in order" and give the thumb-up for such difficult achievement. When we see however a person curling up into a little ball in fear, we think "He has given in to nature" and feel disgusted. These behaviors are thus metaphorically assimilated in the primordial human experience to either order-formation (or -concentration away from equilibrium) or order-dissolution (or its equilibrium with the disordered, random environment). When Aristotle (in The Nicomachean Ethics) refers to these former virtuous behaviors (resulting from the virtuous state of the soul, i.e. the orderly, inner state or disposition: exiV, hqoV) as "beautiful" (kalon: usually translated as "noble"), or when Plato refers to the good as beautiful (Symposium, 201 c; the most orderly is the most beautiful and the best), they are expressing a natural human preference for the orderly state that goes against the natural direction of Nature (this is why the beautiful and the virtuous are "hard"). The thermodynamic arrow of time of the universe, in making certain formations "uphill" and other dissolutions "downhill", is what provides the primordial yardstick or measure for human beings to construct a value system of what are good and beautiful and what are bad. It is not necessary nor sufficient to appeal to genetic programming to explain human valuation of altruism, etc., for we are not like computers automatically executing tasks without awareness: we have a psychological aesthetic liking for altruism as well. It is necessary (maybe sufficient?) to appeal to our experience of the thermodynamic structure of the cosmos in order to explain this universal human aesthetic psychology.

The human love of "virtue", begun since the very beginning, since the tribal time (a masterful hunter who hunts expertly and distributes the meat comme il fault is admired as a "virtuous" hunter), still persists today, but divorced from ethics (timid people and emotionally chaotic individuals are no longer considered "immoral"), continuing, in everyday life, in our admiration for extraordinary people in general or in women's attraction to attractive men (timid men, men who "don't have their life together", etc., are just "unattractive", i.e. not beautiful, not aesthetically pleasing), and, in the intellectual life, in existentialism, such as in Ortega y Gasset's praise for the traditional minority "who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties" -- this is harder, and therefore admirable -- as against the modern majority "who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection" -- this is easy, and so detested (The Revolt of the Masses, authorized translation, p. 15). In ancient time, that is, "morality" is compacted of order-good-beautiful, or order-ethics (right and wrong)-aesthetics (for the Greeks, the gentleman, the fully developed person, is kaloskagathos). Morality in antiquity is a matter of care for the order of the self; it is not about others. The differentiation of facts and values, and of aesthetics and ethics, and the change-over from the order of the self to the welfare of others as the focus of morality, are all functions of modernity.


1. 己所不欲, 勿施於人.

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