Holding Things Together

When it comes to order as opposed to chaos, that is, of holding things together, physicists speak of four fundamental forces of the universe. There is gravity, electromagnetic force, and the so-called “strong” and “weak” forces that hold particles together and govern their relations. These four forces supposedly explain everything. But what about life? And what about meaning? Do not living organisms have their own “life” force that holds the cells and parts of cells together and regulates their interactions? As for meaning, what holds the words a language together so that they make sentences? Why can’t just any word be combined with just any other? There must be something that makes meaning happen. Can these forces not also be considered “fundamental” forces of the universe? This question is important, at least if we want to avoid “physicalism,” that is, reducing everything to matter.

Let us call the force that turns inanimate matter into living organisms “negentropy” and let us call the force that holds words together to make meaningful sentences and thoughts “power.” In 1944 the Nobel Prize winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger published a book entitled What is Life?. The question arises because living systems do not follow the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that is, the law of entropy. In living systems, order increases rather than decreases. This goes against the law of entropy. Life, therefore, is a fundamentally different form of order than matter. Life is a so-called “emergent” phenomenon which means that we don’t know where it comes from or how it comes into being, but we know it did and that it is very different from the purely physical organization of matter which the law of entropy regulates. In distinction to merely physical organization, which does not negate entropy, life seems to do this. Negentropy means the negation of entropy. Entropy is the tendency of energy to dissipate to equilibrium, that is, the equal probability of all states. For Schrödinger, this was a paradox. How can entropy be negated, and systems move from being less organized to being more organized? Another Nobel Prize winner, Ilya Prigogine, spoke of “dissipative systems” which run energy through their structures much like water running through a mill or food going through the metabolism of organisms. Such systems use entropy to negate entropy.

What does it mean to say that a system “uses” entropy, that is, the dissipation of energy, in order to maintain itself and even change its environment? The theoretical chemist John Avery in Information Theory and Evolution (2003) argued that since negentropy is improbable and improbable states contain “information,” or according to Shannon and Weaver’s Mathematical Theory of Information (1948), actually are information, negentropy amounts to constructing information. This mathematical and chemical concept of information was then transferred to psychology and transformed in the process to signify semantic information, or what we call meaning. Antoni Kepinski, a Polish psychiatrist spoke of an “information metabolism” which transformed sensory data into information which guided the actions of an organism in its environment. If one sees a wolf, one constructs information that tells one to run away. If one sees an apple, information is constructed that guides one to eat it. Information is not merely mental; it is a force that makes action in the world possible and guides organisms towards certain goals.

Just as life must be thought of as an emergent phenomenon, so must meaning as well. Meaning emerges on the basis of operations of a central nervous system that is especially complex in certain organisms, but we don’t know how or why. Meaning is a different or a “higher”  level of emergent order beyond matter and life. For this reason, we can assume that there is a fundamental force that brings meaning into being and governs its interactions with the world. We propose calling this semantic or linguistic force “power?” Power is a mystery. There are many theories of power, that attempt to explain why or how certain forms of social order, certain social practices and institutions, or certain exemplary persons gain and use power. This is the terrain of sociology and political science, as well as psychology and even economics. In the world of meaning, power is everywhere, and it is mostly something that is criticized for, as it seems, it is inevitably misused and abused. No one likes power, except those who have it and those who need it. For those who have it, it is always a question of how to maintain it. And for those who need it, it is always a question of legitimation, whether it be God or Nature or The People who make power legitimate.  For all these theories, the common denominator is that power resides either in the hands of God’s representatives, or those who are by nature privileged, or in the will of the people. But what if power were not exclusively human? What if power were a fundamental force of the universe just like gravity or negentropy? What if power was the force that keeps things together on the level of meaning? Admittedly, things may not always be in the best order. Nothing says power must create the best of all possible worlds, just as evolution or negentropy must not create the best of all possible biospheres. The question of the right way of “holding things together” seems to be open on all levels. Nonetheless, today more than ever, there appears to be a need to find some norms and rules for what a “good” ecosystem, as well as a “good” society, might be. If there is a right way and a wrong way of holding things together on all levels of order, then perhaps there is an ethical dimension to the entire universe, and not merely to human actions. Perhaps we need to reconsider the foundations of ethics and look for the “good” beyond considering it a quality of human actions alone.