Saturday, December 10, 2011

Something for Nothing


There is something in the human psyche that wants to get something for nothing. It is a desire to cheat reality, to win over entropy, to obviate consequences. In the end, wanting something for nothing is the desire to escape a lawful universe.

The other day I had a long discussion with a friend that involved this desire carefully rationalized as a breakthrough within science. My friend, who is scientifically illiterate, refused to accept the definition of science, that it is limited to the study of the physical universe (aka: material world) by use of the scientific method. Instead, he seemed to want to use the cachet of science to contradict itself, and in the process, to deny its boundaries. That he has profound confusion about what constitutes matter made the whole discussion even more difficult—he thought that gases are not material, but he would not allow me to interrupt to clarify such problems of definition. This rendered the conversation frustratingly meaningless, because no definitions of terms were mutually agreed upon. 

The discussion involved the claim that a businessman from Italy had discovered a process and developed technology through which one can expect to get ten times the energy out that was put in. (The claim turned out to involve a “cold fusion” machine, but I did not know that until far into the discussion).

Now such a claim may simply mean that this man has developed a very efficient process using a certain amount of energy input in order to get the use of energy stored in a fuel source of some sort. We do this all the time, at different levels of efficiency, depending on the sophistication of the physical and chemical processes we have discovered. For example, our use of fossil fuels involves input of energy to effect combustion in order to break the energy stored in carbon bonds, freeing it for our use. Of course in all of these processes, the laws of thermodynamics are evident, and we know that we can neither get more energy out that was put into the system in the first place—that is, we cannot create matter and energy out of nothing—nor can we expect to get all of the energy out of the system for our purpose—that is, we cannot have perfect efficiency.

I do not think the above is the claim, because I was being pressed very strongly to “think out of the box” and deny the veracity of the laws of thermodynamics themselves. It was put to me that should this magic process (it was unexplained ergo magic) be true, wouldn’t I have to admit that the laws of thermodynamics are wrong. Einstein’s name was thrown around a good deal, as was the claim that this businessman had made several theoretical “breakthroughs” just in the past six weeks. Breakthroughs, it was implied that obviated our understanding of thermodynamics,and that the discoverer was loath to publish in order to protect his proprietary interest in the process. (In general, publishing theory does not endanger one’s proprietary interest in technology derived thereof, if only because the first is not at all the same as the second, and theory only shows a technology is possible, but not how it would work).

My friend seemed to have no idea that Einstein’s groundbreaking work in special and general relativity, as revolutionary as it was, did not overturn Newtonian mechanics, rather it resolved problems relating to special circumstances and established the speed of light as a constant in the universe, which is still more evidence that the universe is a lawful space/time. Einstein did not replace physics with magic, rather he began a revolution that extended human understanding of how the physical universe operates. (My ex-husband is a theoretical physicist and can undoubtedly explain this better than me, but this is the very, very short of it).

Certainly, if I were shown physical evidence that one can get something for nothing, I would have to rethink the laws of thermodynamics. But they are called  physical laws for a reason: they are fundamental to how the physical universe operates. Therefore, I am confident that if I am shown real evidence that appears to contradict them, an explanation can be found that leaves thermodynamics intact. The ongoing evidence that our understanding of thermodynamics is correct means that it more likely that the proverbial hell will freeze over than that the laws of thermodynamics will be overturned. (That hell is exothermic and so will never freeze over is demonstrated in this bit of humorous reasoning in response to a mythical exam question here).

The discussion came to no particular conclusion, and indeed it could not, given that there was no agreement on what the definition of terms was nor on the boundaries and limits that define science itself. As a scientist—and I used this phrase numerous times—I do not transgress the definitions of the physical universe and the method we use to discern them. What my friend did not accept is that science stops when non-physical “forces” are brought into consideration. Whatever one is doing beyond these limits, it is not science, and scientists have no reason to consider it. 

I think my friend was a little surprised also that I reacted quite strongly to his insinuation that it was his job to broaden my horizons as it were, that is to get me out the box he thinks I am confining myself to “as a scientist”. I, on the other hand, am quite content with the amount of stuff (literally) that exists for us to learn and discover within the bounds of the universe, and I find that the reality is far more surprising and wonderful than any magic that people can invent. As a libertarian, I don’t see it as my job to broaden anyone’s horizons and I do not take kindly to those who feel it is their mission in life to change my worldview.

What intrigues me, though, is this desire of human beings to get something for nothing. That desire is so great that they will use magical thinking, and insist on all manner of evasions of reality in order to acquire it, leaving themselves open to all kinds of scams, collapses and disasters. 

Ever since the Hebrews developed the story of the gate to Eden being barred by a flaming sword, the limitations of existing in a lawful universe have both made human knowledge possible and have caused humans to evade that knowledge using magical thinking. We imagine that there must be a way to get back to the womb. Even in the womb, of course, something is not provided for nothing. The price of order is energy, and that is never free. It may be abundant, but there is always a cost to getting it into the particular form needed to build up complexity and order. And when energy is not obtained, the order disappears.

Those who wish to get something for nothing wish to live outside the bounds of a lawful universe. This is an impossibility, it is a fundamental contradiction. A lawful universe is one that has regularities in its function, that is predictable and knowable. This regularity means that all substance has particular characteristics that establish its identity, and that we can count on each discrete thing to act in a particular way. From particular types of atoms combining in particular ways, we can predict how particular substances will always behave by their nature. This is necessary for something so complex and ordered and wonderful as life to exist.

It is impossible to even imagine what a universe without order, without lawfulness would be like. By definition, cosmos (universe) is the opposite of chaos. It is not by accident that science—the process of discerning the lawful characteristics of the  physical universe—arose in a culture that accepted the lawfulness inherent in cosmos, and the goodness of the material world. To deny either is to be profoundly anti-life.

We can see empirically that those who act upon the notion that within human beings, the spiritual* and the physical can be divided end up destroying both. One does not exist without the other, entwined as they are in a fragile, living whole. Therefore, those who act on the notion that something can be had for nothing become vampires, feeding off of the living energy of others. Physically, they must loot or mooch off of the work of others, and spiritually they must enslave others.  That is the cost of denying reality.

*I use the word spiritual here to mean the complex of emotions and notions that rise from our understandings of ourselves as living organisms in a material world, not as metaphysical in the religious sense--that is something endowed from outside the cosmos. 

Any population of organisms can sustain a certain small number of cheaters, that is those who wish to get somebody else’s something for nothing, and often a population will do so because so long as the number of cheaters is relatively small, the cost of removing them is greater than the cost of giving them a free ride. But when whole societies buy into the notion that something can be had for nothing, and institute it as a matter of policy, they begin to enslave others to produce what they consume, demanding and consuming more and more, until their consumption outstrips production. Insisting that the material needed to sustain their lives and civilization exists without thought or effort, they try to get by fiat what they refuse to make for themselves. This leads to a collapse of biblical proportions, producing great suffering and death, and the civilization may even cease to exist.

History is replete with this same story told in various forms, the details weaving different color into a similar pattern. You can’t get something for nothing. There ain’t any such thing as a free lunch.

The very existence of life depends upon there being a cosmos within which things are what they are, and not what they are not. They can be counted upon to act in certain ways. To suspend this law of nature is to invite not wonder and power, but chaos and death. The wonder of it all is that it is here in the first place, and it all works well enough to sustain life even for a little while. It seems churlish to complain that life requires effort from the living.  

If there ever was a snake in the orchard, the one who began whispering into the ear of the human being; human taken from the humus; that snake whispered that nothing is better than something, and that something can be had for nothing.

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