Tragic Sense of Life

From the humble coffee mug to the farthest reaches of the universe, everything we can see demonstrates of one of life’s most profound and provocative lessons.

Starting next week, only paid subscribers will get this newsletter on a weekly basis. You can subscribe here.

My morning coffee reminds me of my ineluctable predicament.

It sits there, on my desk, freshly percolated, and still steaming.

But an hour goes by, and its temperature returns to thermodynamic equilibrium with the rest of the room.

The last few sips, at this unsavoury temperature, retell the story of my own situation in an entropic universe. My coffee, like everything, moves only in one direction: from hot to cold.

What made my coffee hot in the first place? The energy that excited the molecular state of my mug — whether extracted from a coal mine or harvested from the solar radiation with photovoltaic cells — was a unique occurrence. Never again will that lump of coal be burned. Never again will that wave of radiation strike the Earth. Never again will that gust of wind push a turbine. Just as the coal mine cannot be replenished, the sun cannot be refuelled.

From the vantage point of thermodynamics, the notion of truly renewable energy is an odd bit of make-believe. Entropy says that nothing can possibly be renewable forever. Even the gases that give rise to new stars must, eventually, run out. Therefore, the particular sequence of chemical interactions used to raise the temperature of my coffee will never be repeated: this instance of energy is a singularity.

Thus, the law of entropy states that everything moves towards disorder. The energy that was harnessed to heat my coffee has been distributed out into the world, now lost in chaotic non-usefulness. It was transferred to my hand, the air, and the desk upon which it was sitting. It irreversibly rushed towards uniformity with everything around it. Like the combustion that released it, it too is now gone. Irrecoverable.

Like the heat it once possessed, the structural integrity of my mug itself is no less susceptible to entropy. Just as rocks, mountains, and continents erode, it too will disintegrate. Like energy, matter is destined to scatter. Everything falls apart eventually. Everything is temporary. Everything becomes nothing.

My morning coffee reminds me who and what I really am. It is a microcosm of every program, project, institution, monument, and building I touch. It reminds me that no matter how much energy I discover, mine, refine, and exploit, the edifices I leave behind are just as impermanent as the calories I burn while creating them. Indeed, little else in the human universe is more entropic than recognition, applause, and ego. Although they might be concentrated for a time, they too are guaranteed to dissipate eventually.

We spend so much time worrying about whether or not our lives matter that we often fail to ask, “Does it matter if it matters?” We are here, now, regardless of any answer we might give in response. Entropy simply poses a question: what will we do with the present, today, if it affords us no other guarantee than that it will one day be forgotten?

Rather than dictating meaninglessness to the human condition, entropy forces us to ask the most important questions about meaning itself. If every single thing lasted forever, we would have no metric or criteria to determine value of a single day, relationship, or vision. If today never ended, today would have no value. Existence is valuable and meaningful because it is a limited resource. An entropic future means this experience, this life, these people, this day, and this cup of coffee, are the bearers of meaning itself.

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), the Spanish writer, proposed: “if it is nothingness that awaits us, let us so act that it shall be an unjust fate.” And there is another old adage that has trickled through the centuries (attributed to everyone from Isidore of Seville, Gandhi, to Mohammad) that says something more or less to this effect: “Study as if you were to live forever. Live as if you were to die tomorrow.” Combined together, these sayings seem to be worthy advice for consideration while living in a universe of entropy:

If it is nothingness that awaits us,

Let us so act that it shall be an unjust fate:

Let us study as if we will live forever.

Let us live as if we will die tomorrow.

Thanks for reading. If you’ve found value in this newsletter, or just want to support the work I’m doing, consider becoming a paid subscriber or buying me a coffee.

You can follow me on Twitter.