Steven Pinker on the Second Law of Thormodynamics. Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself. What needs to be explained is order, not disorder

By Steven Pinker*

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy always increases over time.

Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid monotony and stay there.

The Second Law is acknowledged in everyday life in sayings such as “Things fall apart,” “You can’t unscramble an egg,” and “What can go wrong will go wrong.”

In 1915, the physicist Arthur Eddington wrote, “The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of nature.” Why the awe for the Second Law? I believe that it defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind and striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.

The Second Law also implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The human mind naturally thinks that when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone must have wanted them to happen. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future.

The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food.

What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth.

An underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that the world is being driven off a cliff. But it is in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. It’s better to figure out how to solve them, by applying information and energy to expand our niche of life-enhancing order, than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.


Steven Pinker is a psychologist at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of “The Sense of Style.”  This article is re-posted from edge.org and is here with permission.