Entropy, Ego, What’s the Point?


Rather than launch into a technical description of entropy and the relationship of energy and entropy lets try this first.

More entropy means more disorganization and more ignorance. Low signal to noise. Less information. Like static preventing the faithful transmission of data. Think of loud static on a radio when you are trying to listen to music on your car radio.


If I tell you I mixed up the numbers one through ten and put them in a bag, then I picked out two, say a 3 and a 7, all you know about the next one I will pick is that it is not a 3 or 7. So they are mixed up, disorganized, and we have a bit of ignorance about some aspect of that system. Relatively high entropy. If I throw in some letters or blanks into the bag along with the numbers, i.e. static, you are even less able to predict the next thing to come out of the bag!

Now I tell you I ordered the numbers from ten down to one. There are no blanks or letters. I picked out a ten. Next picked will be… nine! Very good. You had little to no ignorance. But I had to put extra energy into ordering the numbers compared to throwing them in the bag. I had to have some way to assure they stayed in order as well. Low entropy, but it took more energy.

Meditation can be seen as aiming for high energy, low entropy. But I am not sure that’s quite true for zazen. You’d have to ask a Zen teacher. Certainly “mindfulness” is like that.

A circle is low entropy. You know everything about it and it took energy to create it (minimally mental energy, in addition perhaps energy to move the pencil or program and run the computer).

Symmetry is not ignorance. True, by definition symmetry is present when you can’t tell something has changed, like someone else spinning a circle while your eyes are closed, so that seems like ignorance. But to do that experiment, you need to know that the experiment was planned and then do it! That’s a lot of knowing, organization and energy!

Information is low entropy. It takes energy to put 0’s and 1’s in some order and that is one aspect of what information is. Ordered dualism.

Meaning is how we interpret and experience information. It is our perspective on it. It is contingent to the max. It is easily colored by our wishes and desires, by our egos.

I just read that the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who unified the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces (along with others, of course; anyway major physics achievement) wrote: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

That seems very nihilistic and depressing. Perhaps that’s how he meant it. If so, somehow he had dealt with it because some four decades after writing that he is still writing books!

On the contrary, that seems very Zen to me. And liberating. It relieves us of arbitrary values and goals. The kind the ego sets up to measure ourselves by, so we can achieve them and reassure ourselves. Except when we don’t.

What ultimate, objective, cosmic, universal, non-dualistic “point” could there be? Any point we could articulate would be a human construct, limited and contingent, a dualistic notion of use in only a very small corner of time and space.

Matthieu Ricard writes in his book “Altruism” that the ego is the crystallization of our identity. He writes that we try to protect it. That’s pretty good, but I am not sure that it is quite right. There is no single anatomic brain space that houses the ego. I think the ego is the process by which we protect our identity. The identity is our sense of who we are based on our conditioning (biologic and psychological, contingent on where and when we are). It is how we organize our sense perceptions and react to them. It is our karma, if you will. It is how we try to make the world comprehensible, to find a point. The ego is the process of having and wanting there to be a point. A point is like a location, a beacon, a polar star that the ego can refer to on the horizon to measure itself and its position by so it can better protect us as we cruise through the world of time and space, the world of the six senses.

So as the universe becomes comprehensible, what we comprehend may not be to our ego’s liking. It may not put our bodies (brains included) at the top of the heap. It may remind us that our limited sensory experience is a pretty pale reflection of the vastness of the universe. Of course comprehensible in this context means the forces of nature. The things physics studies. That which can be measured. It does not mean the whole shebang.

To be clear: I am not suggesting a lack of values. I hope you value compassion. I hope you don’t value your suffering and especially not the suffering of others. I am only suggesting not being seduced into thinking that is the “point.”

Or is it? We can chose to embody compassion, we can aspire to the low entropy high energy state. Is that the “point” of our lives, our minds, the dream, the whole show? Some think so. I admit to liking that view. But maybe that’s the point! It is a goal to like, admirable to be sure, but do I like it because it makes me feel better about myself? Is that my ego protecting me?

No “point”? Perhaps that’s kind of like “ordinary mind is the way.” Or the miracle is chopping wood and carrying water. You don’t need a “point” writ large to the universe to eat when hungry, or to be compassionate. That is the functioning of the universe. What needs to be added? What would be the point?



Information Is The Dreams Stuff Is Made Of


Recently Stephen Hawking announced a new theory about what happens to information at the event horizon of a black hole.

Some scientists took him to task. They said in effect: isn’t it a bit of grandstanding to announce such a thing without showing your work?

I like that. Hold authority’s feet to the fire! That is the scientific way!

The question is: why do scientists care?

It turns out to be a question that is basic to the scientific view of how the universe is put together. Leonard Susskind wrote great book about it called “The Black Hole Wars.”

You see, information is conserved.

Like energy over all is conserved, is the same at the beginning of a process as at the end, though not the specific forms of energy (e.g. chemical energy becomes heat).

And most definitely not like entropy. Entropy is not inherently conserved!

Information that is conserved is not exactly the same as “meaning.” It is the possibility of different states. You know, like 0 or 1 in the binary code that the computer uses.

Or the letters of the alphabet. If you see:


in an e mail you think “laugh out loud.” Heck, you can program a robot to recognize it and make “ha, ha, ha” sounds.

Doest the robot know mirth? Joy? What it is to laugh?

Do you?

Is that information?

No, the idea that LOL means “laugh out loud” is meaning gleaned from information.It is not inherent in the information. We supply the meaning. Conscious, sentient beings do. If someone finds the letters LOL in a message many years from now, odds are it will not have meaning to them. Maybe not in very many years; I understand LOL is going out of fashion already. But it will have information.

LOL could have been randomly generated (a complex thing to do) or it could have been from a program that says: insert consonant-vowel-consonent.

Take a circle. Little information is needed to generate the circle:

  1. a definition (all points equidistant to one given central point)

2. and the variable (the distance).

The circle is symmetric. If you shut your eyes and I spin the circle around the central point, when you open your eyes the circle looks the same. No change. Symmetry.

But the universe has changed. The energy I used to move my muscles to move, say a cut out circle, thus spinning the circle, or by tapping circle moving instructions on a computer keyboard to spin a computer soft ware generated circle, comes from energy stored in my muscle cells.  The cells take glucose and break it down to CO2 and H2O molecules and use the energy released from the chemical bonds to create high energy bonds in ATP  (adenosine tri-phosphate) molecules, then the muscles use the ATP molecules for energy, breaking the ATP phosphate bonds (creating ADP, adenosine di-phostphate and then passing on the phosphate released from the ATP; don’t worry if this doesn’t mean much to you. The details aren’t critical) and thereby changing the energy state in the ATP/ADP/Actin/Myosin structure and thus changing the molecular structure of actin/myosin in muscle to create movement.

This chemical/mechanical process resulted in more molecules with less energy in their chemical bonds than the original glucose molecule, and released excess energy as heat. Also heat is generated by my fingers moving the circle or pressing the keys (friction and the energy of my fingers interacting with the molecules in the paper as I move the paper circle or computer keys as they crash into each other). The change in the molecules and the cells and the infrared photons (the heat released) pinging around create a less organized, higher entropy situation.

So the circle is unchanged, it is symmetric, it is in the same state after we spun it that it was  before we spun it, but the entropy of the universe has increased. We can re-create the glucose molecules, but it takes CO2, H2O, cellular organization and energy, for example in  the complex biological process of photosynthesis. But there will still be the same or more entropy each time we go about making any change.

So even a symmetric situation in the “real world” is not totally symmetric.  Even if we do the circle spinning as a thought experiment, where you don’t actually move the circle, as you did when reading this pretty much, takes energy! The energy of the chemical reactions and electrons moving about in your brain when you think generates heat and entropy.

Which leads us to thermodynamics and Maxwell’s demon.

But I digress; lets hold on doing more thermodynamics and Maxwell’s demon for this post. I will do more on that later.

For now, let’s get back to the idea that in the world of change and movement, the world of the senses (themselves of course information processors) information is conserved. Not meaning, just information.

Meaning is contingent. It is not conserved. It is relational, and generates entropy or uses energy to decrease entropy. Either way, energy and entropy are involved in meaning, playing off each other, perhaps. Energy is conserved. Information is conserved. Entropy is not. Meaning is not.

I find that very hard to get my head around. Why should that be? For that matter, why should it be that energy and information are conserved?

Perhaps it is because those conserved elements of reality were never created and can’t be destroyed, no beginning no end, so how can they fundamentally change?

Meaning is dualistic. It is not conserved. It is contingent on context.

Perhaps the universe at its core IS information. Some physicists think so. Every aspect of the universe that is, well, an aspect, is an aspect because it could have been otherwise (not necessarily just any old otherwise, perhaps a specific set of otherwise consistent with the laws of string theory, quantum field theory, whatever). Otherwise it isn’t an aspect.

0 and 1. Yin and Yang. Duality. That is what physics studies, after all. That is the core of our experienced universe of the senses.


Remember: information is not meaning, It is not essence, noumena. It is phenomena. It is occurrence.

Information is the dreams stuff is made of.

Meaning is determined by sentience.  Consciousness. Is there silicon sentience? If so, that robot will know mirth. And why not? Why should we be carbon chauvinists? Perhaps the very quantum fields can coalesce in many ways to find mirth.

When communications scientists developed the idea of information, it was to quantify the fidelity of communications. Does a phone message get through ungarbled? Not whether the speaker or her message was coherent. Do the 0’s and 1’s that make up your e mail message stay the same, or are some lost in  the “tubes” of the internet? It doesn’t matter if the email is LOL or a consonent-vowel-consonent randomly generated, whether or not it has linguistic or human intellectual or emotional meaning, if at each slice of time and space there was an either/or, a 1/0, there was information.

I will elaborate later. But I don’t know that I will get past the following no matter how hard I try:

Everything that happens according to scientists does not change the total information in the universe (though you can rob Peter to pay Paul energy/information, more here less there. Shuffle it around. That takes energy if we are talking about information). Information cannot be irretrievably lost.

This relates to symmetry (lack of change in some element of a system even if something somewhere else changes)

This relates to energy.

This relates to thermodynamics: what is likely to happen, and the role of entropy.

There is relationship between entropy and ignorance (another post; this is one of the technical definitions of entropy: how we can know the state of the components of a system) but as implied here, there is a connection between a type of contingent sense of meaning, meaning as we ascribe it to the stuff of daily life, meaning as motivation in our world of the senses, of our karmic experience, that is also part of entropy.

There is an Akashic record. Information in the universe is never totally lost. If you could lose information, modern physics collapses. Ask Dr. Susskind (or read his book!). This akashic record is not about some mystical new age vision of some grey haired old guy writing in a large parchment book with a quill pen somewhere or Santa Clause remembering if you were naughty or nice. In theory you could piece back all of the energy and information transitions and reclaim the original. Sure it may take time and energy without beginning and without end, so our technology may not be up to it.

Perhaps this “akashic record” is the manifest mind of the universe. It doesn’t have to track information back, put it back togeher. Perhaps it is the process, the functioning. It is not dualistic. It isn’t stuck in meaning in things like “LOL.” Maybe that is our dualistic perspective.

The process of oneness, of unfolding, of compassion, that is the flavor I suspect of this akashic record.

It is kind of fundamental and I find it kind of interesting!





As(K) The Wooden Puppet


A couplet from the poem by Yung Chia Hsuan Cheh caught my eye.

The poem is called either “Song of Enlightenment” in the Translation by Sheng Yen in his book “The Poetry of Enlightenment, “or “Song of Realizing the Way” in the translation in “The Roaring Stream, A New Zen Reader.”

The lines are:

Ask the mechanical puppet

When it will obtain Buddhahood through practice

(Sheng Yen)

Put this question to a wooden puppet

Can Buddhahood be gained by seeking it?

(Roaring Stream)


While I tend to prefer the Roaring Stream translation as being more fluid and less technical, in the case of this couplet I like Sheng Yen’s translation more. After all, why ask can Buddhahood be gained by seeking of a wooden puppet, as seems to be the case in the “Roaring Stream” translation? It is a perfectly good question, by why ask it of a puppet? You might ask a Roshi or even a fledgling Zen student, somebody actually doing it, about the point of practice, but why ask a puppet a question about the nature of practice, attainment, enlightenment?

In Yen’s translation we are asking the puppet if IT will obtain Buddhahood. This is presciently modern.

After all, if one takes the vision of the modern absolute materialist (or for that matter ancient as such did exist before the scientific revolution) we are but organic puppets, water and carbon and a bit of other stuff come to life. In fact, that is literally true. After all water is present in pre-solar system gasses in space and microscopic diamonds (a few carbon atoms) may have been the first crystalline substances in the universe.

It is indeed a basic Buddhist view that all composite things are conditional, contingent, without essential inherency. All created things are a dream, like a flash of lightning, a bubble, a cloud, to quote the Diamond Sutra. We take form and substance from the propelled momentum of our karma or cause and effect, from the dharmas or laws of nature, pretty much the same thing. So as far as that goes, materialists and Buddhist are on the same page there. We are conditioned, brain and body, by our past and our makeup (the elements, the skhandas, whatever).

Are you a wooden puppet?

To the degree you are atoms and conditioned brain responses, yes.

Hence asking the wooden puppet about sentience.

Can a wooden puppet practice hard enough to be something it’s not? Can it magically become sentient like Pinocchio? Can you?

Is Mind an emergent phenomenon? Or is it the Nature of nature?

Ask the wooden puppet.