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January 10, 2006

entropy and dialectic

The world grows more alike. Global culture is more uniform today than at any time in the past. Ecosystems are more similar, thanks to human interventions and the mixing of species. Although there are countervailing trends toward diversity, the pressure for similarity is palpable and powerful.

two explanations

I think two theories help to explain this pressure. The first is entropy. In nature, when unlike things come into contact, they become more alike. Likewise, when cultures interact through trade or conquest, they come to share features.

A natural system loses dynamism as entropy grows, to the point that a perfectly entropic universe would be a smooth and inert field of matter. If there were no differences, then time itself would end. Some of the anxiety about globalization derives from fear that cultural differences will disappear, and with them, human dynamism. Some of the impetus for environmentalism arises from fear that all ecosystems will become alike. (This is why biodiversity seems so precious and "invasive species" are such a concern.)

Entropy is fundamentally mindless. It is "noise," the opposite of a meaningful "signal." In nature, only intelligence can reduce entropy. For example, by sorting objects into separate piles, a person can make a heap less entropic. In the domain of culture, human beings can use their intelligence to wall themselves off from contact with outsiders, but such barriers always ultimately weaken. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies: the entropy of a closed system tends to increase. However, intelligent beings can also deliberately create new cultural forms in opposition to global averages. Even by the simple act of remembering the diversity of the past, we can make our own minds more complex.

The second explanation is Hegelian. Contrary to popular belief, Hegel never said anything about a thesis meeting its opposite (the antithesis) and generating a synthesis. His model is much more plausible. It starts with consciousness: naive thinking and doing. In a world of diverse people and cultures, a conscious person or group will sooner or later encounter and recognize alternative values and ways of being. At that point self-consciousness arises. This is an uncomfortable feeling, full of tension and doubt; but it is also generative and dynamic, and it can lead to what Hegel calls reason. Hegelian reason is the deliberate and informed creation of values and beliefs, based on the available alternatives. Reason will again become self-consciousness whenever, having built a satisfactory solution, a person or a group realizes that there are other available solutions. That new stage of self-consciousness can again become reason. The whole cycle is "dialectic."

Like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Hegelian dialectic leads ultimately to universal sameness, but it is a sameness deliberately constructed by human beings through the application of intelligence and will. Barring a catastrophe, world culture should become more uniform but also more sophisticated, because it will encompass more history and more awareness of alternatives. It will not be a static state of sameness, but a dramatic narrative leading toward consensus, recorded in the minds of the human actors.

Perhaps the most profound issue of our era is whether we will grow more alike through dialectic or through entropy. Since I am unable to think of any other way to explore this tension, I have made it the theme of a long narrative poem (only part of which is online so far).

consumerism and creativity

I suspect that entropy is connected to the problem of consumerism. Raw materials have been globally traded for a long time. However, the salient feature of "globalization" is the exchange of finished, consumer products. The volume of such trade has surely increased with deregulation and with new communications technology. As a result, people can choose from rapidly growing menus of cultural products. This choice increases as a result of market exchanges, but it is also something that we fight for--for instance, when people who favor "diversity" in education demand more choices in the curriculum, or when civil libertarians assert a right to purchase information from abroad.

Everyone who can choose from a global list of finished cultural products becomes more like everyone else: a phenomenon that Russell Arben Fox insightfully describes. This is a passive, detached, inert sameness. The only way to prevent it is to block people from exercising consumer choice, which restricts their freedom--and never works for long.

In contrast, when we make things, we put our own stamp on them. We thereby exercise Hegelian "reason." Unlike restrictions on trade and communication, policies that support the local creation of cultural products expand freedom. And even if everyone's creations turn out to be increasingly similar as history proceeds, at least the resulting sameness will be something that we human beings have made. Likewise, an environmentalism devoted to creativity (rather than preservation) would make the world less entropic even as we put a human stamp on nature.

[This post is being discussed on the Philosophy New Service "community" page]

January 10, 2006 7:14 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


Another great post, Peter. Should be included in your "best of" topics on the left of the screen.

I hadn't before thought about entropy in terms of global cultural and habitat homogenization. Initially I would think entropy leads to the disorder of established systems and therefore opportunities for new ordering. You suggest entropic growth leads to a loss of dynamism. Am I wrong to stress new potential dynamism? Or is the Hegelian reason you mentioned the source of this new ordering I see?

Two responses on commercialization and culture:

1) This is perhaps THE underlying theme of political philosophy from early moderns (Montesquieu) through Nietzsche. Tocqueville and Nietzsche both saw the growing equality movement and the political and spiritual consequences, offering divergent responses.

To counter the deadening LAST MAN syndrome of equality under a State growing in power, Tocqueville believed in the local CIVIC experiences in which the heart enlarges as one peers in the face of one's neighbor. This is the new ordering I see possible amid global dispersion of cultures, breakdown of previous lifeforms and homogenization.

There's lots more political philosophy on the manners and mores that emerge from commercial societies and their relation to liberty, or the creation of more liberal regimes. You really should teach a class...

2)Current scholarship on globalization and culture is rather one-dimensional in my view. Mostly "post-Marxist" cultural social science studies focusing on oppressive nature of Western values and markets or the trangressive uses of Western pop-culture by marginal groups (or at best, an appreciation of how religious fundamentalism is a response to modernity's ruptures, a la Barber's Jihad and McWorld).

Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen displays a personal and scholarly passion on these issues that intrigues me. http://www.gmu.edu/jbc/Tyler

Few other libertarians show an interest in culture diversity and the many impacts of the globalization trade they advocate.

January 10, 2006 11:29 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Scott D

From David Airth, via email:

Wow! I broke into a bit of cold sweat when I read your piece. I have been thinking on the same subject for a long time. I even wrote an essay entitled "Hegel and Thermodynamics" for my blog.

How did you come to think about this? I will have to read your piece again and see how many things we have in common on the subject.

This is David's essay.

January 10, 2006 12:06 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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