Disorder (uhh…Entropy)


Entropy is the measure of energy in a closed system.  When something has more energy, there is more disorder.  Think of the molecules in a an ice cube versus that in water vapor.  The molecules in the ice cube have less energy and they are all arranged nicely in a solid.  Water vapor’s molecules, on the other hand, are warmer and are all over the place…disordered.  So, scientifically (and in engineering, of course), the concept of entropy is used to measure the amount of disorder and energy in a system.  In a closed system, entropy NEVER decreases.  This is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics:  “entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium — the state of maximum entropy [disorder].” (Thanks Wikipedia)


This is a scientific law, but it necessarily has had philosophical implications.  Many, regardless of whether or not they have a scientific background, have referred to entropy to explain why things are the way they are.  Everything naturally flows towards more disorder; if left alone, things will become disorderly.  So accordingly, something must tidy it up.  At the worldly level, it must be man.  At the cosmic level, it must be the divine.  For some, it proves the existence of God.

But I am straying from my original intent.  I do think that the Second Law of Thermodynamics can have philosophical implications.  That is, it can give us some perspective on life in general.  At this point however, I would like to turn my thoughts away from what determines order or disorder, and limit the discussion to the fact that there simply is disorder in our system.  In other words, since the tendency in a system is toward disorder, then there will definitely be disorder in your life.

This flows nicely into the Stoic triad of control, fate, and impermanence.  If my life is orderly and just so right now, then I better enjoy it while it lasts.  Something will upset this order, because it is the natural way of things.  I cannot control most of it; it will happen as it is fate; and things that are so now, will not be so later…they are impermanent.

If your life is in disarray now, if it is messy, then maybe you should consider yourself lucky:  it is the natural way of things and you are in harmony with nature.  I know, that may be a sick joke, but in humor there is truth, no?  Seriously though, you can take heart in the fact that this is just the way things are.  Hopefully, you have already prepared for this state with your reflections on reality.

Which brings me to our place in a world of disorder.  If there is much I cannot control, this means that there ARE things I can.  I need to concentrate on those things I can control: my mental outlook, reactions to the insults, tragedies and attacks that come my way, not to mention my ability to reduce the chaos as much as possible for those around me.  I can reduce the entropy in my world.  I would definitely concentrate on the “world” inside my head, then limit my efforts to anything around me within a stone’s throw (or soccer ball’s kick, if you will), but that’s just me.

Remember, that entropy/disorder increases in a completely closed system.  Since our own “system” is nothing even close to being closed, and we are surrounded by “systems” that are not closed, we can add order to each in our own way.

Just be mindful that the march toward disorder will continue, no matter what you do.

OK now, how about a quote from a Stoic giant.  I think this one applies from Epictetus.  Think of the onion and shellfish as the order in your life, and the ship as the reality of disorder:  “Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellfish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.”


"Never go far from the ship..."

“Never go far from the ship…”

Seneca’s God (Vis-à-vis Plato)


Thus far, I have written quite a bit about how we can be happy by understanding the nature of reality around us.  Understanding is very important for our happiness, but isn’t it only the beginning?  To understand is to survive, but what makes us thrive?  What inspires us and leads us to our greatest happiness?  What is the meaning of all this?

I struggle with this question often.  Some days (or even moments), I find myself duty-bound to all of humanity.  Other times (yes, it could even be in the next moment), it seems that the greatest good is to “first, do no harm.”  In other words, if I mind my own business, and take care of myself while burdening the fewest number, then I am living the virtuous life.  Often, the good seems to be in being present for and helpful to those closest to us; to really be present and aware is what brings true happiness.

This meaning of life, this purpose seems to transcend from some universal order, some predetermined destiny of how existence should be, and whether or not we are living according to this plan.  At this point, it seems, is where the question of God comes in.  Seneca proposed that God is, in essence, the first cause.  That which drives all creativity, including our own.

Why am I here?

Why am I here?

However, this “first cause” description requires a little background.  You may already know that much of Seneca’s thought has been gleaned from his letters to his friend Lucilius.  In what is referred to as his 65th letter, he expounds upon the meaning of life to his friend.  According to Seneca’s recall of Plato, there are five causes:  matter (wood, bronze, rocks..the stuff), the agent (God), the form (the ways in which matter is combined to make up our reality), the model (the pattern upon which something is created), and the end view or purpose.  So, God uses a model to put the matter together to form it toward the end goal.  For all that we do, we follow this same series of causes.  When we start a project, build a life, or endeavor on a journey, we do so using these five.  Not a bad way to look at things in my opinion.  It’s a good way to organize a complex reality.  There certainly can be others, but let’s stick with this one.

As I mentioned earlier, the first cause is the agent. According to Seneca, this is God.  It is also our own reason, which is derived from God.  In fact, reason and God are one and the same.  In this 65th letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca proposes that the first cause is “surely Creative Reason- in other words, God.  For those elements to which you referred are not a great series of independent causes; they all hinge on one alone, and that will be the creative cause. ”

So, it seems that Seneca places the highest importance on our creative reason as if it were godly.  However, he admits that he is unsure of this to his friend.  After coming to this conclusion he asks his friend Lucilius for help in the matter:  “Either give your opinion, or, as is easier in cases of this kind, declare that the matter is not clear and call for another hearing.”

What is clear is that Seneca thought these existential questions to be extremely important to our happiness:  “And that which creates, in other words, God, is more powerful and precious than matter, which is acted upon by God.  God’s place in the universe corresponds to the soul’s relation to man.  World-matter corresponds to our mortal body; therefore let the lower serve the higher.”

I tend to think that our ability to reason, and more precisely our ability to conceive our purpose in the universe is a divine gift.  The fundamental question that remains is what are we to do with our life?  This question has, in my opinion, already been answered:  we must pursue virtue.  But now, as Pandora’s box has been opened, some trickier questions remain:

  • What is virtuous?
  • How do we pursue it?
Pandora's Box.  Much worse than a can of worms.

Pandora’s Box. Much worse than a can of worms.

Fortunately for my blogging career, all of our human reason hasn’t quite answered these questions, yet.  Looks like I’ll have enough material to keep me busy.  Of course, I haven’t really solved much for myself or anyone else today, have I?

Out of My Control…Even Me? On Sleep…


Everything around me is out of my control.  Sometimes, even my own body and mind are not mine.  I wanted to sleep this morning until 9 am at least (it is my day off after all), except I awoke at 6:30 with my eyes wide open.   I gave myself until 7 to go back to sleep.  By 6:50, my mind was already filling with ideas.  Sometimes, even my own psyche is out of my control.  If I were a psychological guru, I suppose I could have forced myself back to sleep, or at least tried a little harder to relax.  Wow, think about that statement for a moment:  “try a little harder to relax”?  Is that an oxymoron or what?  It seems like many of us do a lot of that.  We work at resting…hmmm.



I think part of our effort to “work at relaxing” comes from the fact that we misunderstand what we can and cannot control.  For example, perhaps I was misguided about whether I had a choice in the matter of sleeping.  How many of us have convinced ourselves that we can will” ourselves to sleep with our cerebral cortex only, while forgetting the other parts of our brain.  We can just think ourselves to sleep…yeah, right!



Also, let’s not forget about that circadian rhythm.  In my case, my own sleep cycle complicates matters.  You see, two nights ago I was called in to work all night:  7 pm to 7 am.  I had the opportunity to nap during that time, but I had little meaningful sleep.  When I returned from work, it was about 7:30 am and I was exhausted.  I fell asleep on the spot.  I awoke 6 hours later…not bad, but not that great either after being awake for basically 24 hours.  I hardly felt refreshed by bed time, which turned out to be 1 am.  Cycle–all–out–of–whack.  Out of my control.

Sleep when tired.

Sleep when tired.

So, even though I know I could have used more sleep, I only slept from 1 am to 6:30 am last night, and that’s that.  So, that will be 2 rounds of 6 hours of sleep, in the last 48.  Some people can live on this kind of sleep, but not me.  I can accept this.  Maybe I will get a little nap today.  Notice the “maybe” in that statement.  It is a very strong maybe; it implies a lack of control.  I cannot control much of what the day has in store for me.  I may have chores to do, my wife may have plans for me today, my children may need me right when I should be napping, or I may actually lay down to “saw some Z’s” and I won’t be able to get to sleep.  Out of my control.

All things considered, I don’t feel that tired anyway…yet.  At least I’ll get a full night sleep tonight.  Oh wait, scratch that, it’s Christmas eve.  Now there is something I can be sure about…that I WON’T get much sleep on Christmas eve, as a father of two young children.  Up late playing Santa, up early enjoying their excitement.

Out of my control.  Sometimes, like on Christmas eve and morning, it’s just fun being along for the ride.  Possibly, I’m just excited for Christmas and that’s why I can’t sleep.

MAYBE that nap will be had tomorrow.


Merry Christmas…Stoic Style


If life were a race around a track, Christmas seems to be when I get my split time.  Like in a NASCAR race, I find that Christmas is my time to check where I stand in my life.  It is when I pass the pole.  If life is a series of fence posts that I pass on my journey, then Christmas is that familiar landmark, that pink and purple mailbox that I pass that awakens me to the fact that I have made progress…at least progress toward something.

Santa making Stoic progress.

Santa making Stoic progress.

More than any other time, more than my birthday, more than New Year’s day, more than any other day, Christmas time turns me toward reflection.  All of my living loved ones either are with me, or communicate with me.  All of those I have lost, come back to me in my memories as well.  I see all of the change in everyone’s families in their Christmas cards.  I pause to see my children celebrate again, but they are all one year older.

“…nights growing colder
Children growing up, old friends growing older
Freeze this moment a little bit longer
Make each sensation a little bit stronger
Experience slips away…
The innocence slips away”  –Neil Peart (from the song “Time Stands Still” lyricis for the rock band Rush)  See it and hear it, here.

A time for reflection.

A time for reflection. (photo:  Wong Mei Teng)

I observe myself as well.  I can remember my attitude about the Holiday throughout the years, and how it has changed.  I observe how I fit into the grand scheme of others’ lives.  It’s always a little different every year.  Former close friends are more distant, new friends are closer, relationships are rekindled from the past as well.

As Marcus Aurelius reflects in his Meditations:  “Is any man afraid of change? Why what can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And canst thou take a bath unless the wood undergoes a change? And canst thou be nourished, unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Dost thou not see then that for thyself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?”

Christmas is a time when I slow down.  It is an excellent opportunity to dwell in the present moment, but also one to observe that time marches on, with or without us.  That’s why how I spend my time is very important if I am to be a man of virtue.