entropyWe really differ very little from the so-called pre-moderns. This is above all the case with our social sciences and in many of the orientations of philosophical thought. When encountering phenomena such as lightning or a terrible storm, the early Greek might have evoked Zeus or Neptune. When seeking to explain some sort of social phenomenon, we evoke things like “social forces”, “power”, “ideology”, “structures”, etc. When seeking to account for some form of thought or knowledge, we evoke things like “categories”, “reason”, “intuition”, and so on. In both cases we believe that we have explained something, but all we’ve really done is provide a short hand name for the phenomenon we wish to understand. In naming it we believe that we have somehow accounted for it. These names are our Greek Gods. What we have here is what Hegel called “tautological ground”:

Five year old: “Why do the planets move about the Sun and objects fall to the Earth?”

Parent: “Because of gravity!”

Child: “What is gravity?”

Parent: “The manner in which planets move about the sun and things fall to the earth.”

Child: (discouraged expression)

This sort of practice sticks out to me with special clarity when I reflect back upon my days among Lacanians. If there was one sort of question that was off limits, it was questions pertaining to ontogeny or development. Ontogeny, the Lacanians declared, was always necessarily off limits because it was inherently “mythological”, retrojecting the very thing it seeks to ground back into origins. Such was the argument. One wonders whether the vehemence with which they denounced questions of ontogeny wasn’t more a defense formation than anything else.

read on!

We would do better to perpetually start from the standpoint of entropy in our posing of questions about the social, the political, the nature of mind, intersubjectivity, etc. In French Continental circles it is fashionable today to ask “how is change possible?” However, it is not change that should astonish us. What should astonish us when we contemplate social orders and minds is that they are ordered at all. There is no hardwiring that links neurons together in a particular way and no two brains are identical– indeed, one and the same brain is constantly rewriting its synapses –yet somehow we manage to cognize the world in very similar ways. In principle, humans could behave, group, and interact in an infinite number of ways, yet by and large we stop at stop lights and go when these lights turn green. The real mystery is how systems that are, by right, capable of such high entropy nonetheless manifest such low entropy. The real mystery is how a person manages to maintain something like a “character”, “self”, or personal identity over time with such shifting synapses and where memory is not an indelible trace but a reconstruction in the present. The real mystery is how a social organization manages to remain more or less ordered or low in entropy across time, rather than shifting perpetually like gas particles in an chaotic fashion.

The point of posing these questions in terms of high and low entropy is not to maintain a reactionary stance where we seek to maintain reigning orders, but rather to direct our attention to the right sorts of questions so as to cease evoking Zeus to explain what we set out to explain. That is, such a shift moves us away from a merely descriptive approach to the world that confuses names with grounds or explanations of phenomena, to a real chance of uncovering genuine grounds. It helps us to avoid falling into tautological modes of explanation.

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Western philosophy and science has been the so-called “locality hypothesis”. The locality hypothesis, articulated nicely in Lucretius’ axiom that “nothing can come from nothing”, is roughly the thesis that things must touch or interact to affect one another. Although this hypothesis has now been called into question in the highly specific and strange(!) case of quantum entanglement where particles at very great distances appear to immediately influence one another in a way that exceeds the speed of light (thereby excluding the possibility of any information exchange), this hypothesis has been extremely fruitful in shedding light on the workings of the world. If the locality hypothesis is kept firmly in mind, it significantly changes the way you conceive of the world about you. For example, where before it might not have ever occurred to you to consider how vision is possible, you now wonder what might allow you to see something over there, here. There must be some interaction with your eyes and the object you see, but what is that interaction? The transfer of photons of light, of course. Yet now you see that what you see as simultaneous to you is not, in fact, simultaneous as light takes time to travel. The world becomes a very strange place when the locality hypothesis is kept in mind.

The problem with explanations of social phenomena through things like “social forces”, “power”, “social structures”, “ideology”, etc., is that it black boxes the entropy reducing mechanisms, the local interactions, that are the very things to be explained. In moving in an overly hasty fashion to explanation it believes itself to have explained what it sought to understand when instead it has simply given a name to the phenomenon. As a result, it denies itself an insight into all those small little local interactions through which something like social structure emerges, foreclosing the means to change the forms of social organization it would like to change.