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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Entropy; Timshel; Life

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The rest is the explanation; go and learn. -- Hillel the Elder
Big Al quipped, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." He also posited that, "One seeks the most general ideas of operation which will bring together in simple, logical and unified form the largest possible circle of formal relationships." These two statements, one jocular one not, both prescribe the guiding attributes of a generalized truth.

In seeking a simple (i.e., concise) general physical description for life, it seems plausible to me that I must ascribe to it a compatibility with basic natural law, as well as some spark of the sublime, so as to differentiate the essence of what is animate from the inanimate. In so doing, I propose to define life such that it does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and also incorporates the concept of free will, in the sense of an innate ability for making willful and, potentially, creative choices. The former aspect of my definition incorporates natural science, acknowledging that life exists within the 4-dimensional fabric of spacetime. The latter introduces the divine or, if you prefer it, sublime ingredient — that which differentiates living from inanimate objects.

The Second Law specifies that entropy, the measure of randomness in a closed physical system, increases with time. Entropy is that physical phenomenon responsible for the inexorable expansion of the universe toward a state of complete dissipation of useful, creative if you will it, energy. This, crucially, does not obviate the possibility of temporary localized reductions in entropy, however.

Consider the possibility of a temporary and localized reduction in entropy. Such a physical possibility is ordinarily designated a physical potential. Thus, let us consider the physical potential that serves to quantify a realizable (but as yet unrealized) reduction in entropy. Bearing in mind that a realized reduction in entropy implies a realized reduction in dissipated or useless energy, it, correspondingly, implies a realized increase in available or useful energy. At this point we have a plausible candidate for a physical description of what we know to be life, when we see it: a potential reduction in entropy. I will now address the need to incorporate a qualification that imputes a certain something, which will give the definition a spark of the sublime.

Timshel is a transliteration of the Hebrew word that means "thou mayest." It is a succinct exposition of the philosophical concept of Free Will. 'Timshel' memorably appears as the last quote in Steinbeck's East of Eden, and is, arguably, the principal theme of that novel. 'Thou mayest' suggests a divine (or from an as yet unknowable source) grant of potential. If we define an adjective "timshel" as a contextual extension to mean 'Thou mayest cause', it gives us the means to express, in local spacetime (i.e., in local 3-dimensional space and also temporarily), that aspect of potential for a reduction in entropy, which offers a possibility for an increase in useful, and conditionally creative, energy.

Thus, entropy and timshel give birth to a definition for life that incorporates both a natural potential and the philosophical concept of Free Will:
Life is timshel entropy reduction.
The rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the student.

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