The Meaning of Life: According to Thermodynamics


The meaning of life is to dissipate as much energy as possible… at least according to thermodynamics.

The proposed forth law of thermodynamics by Rod Swenson tells us that entropy must increase at the maximal rate possible. He gives the analogy of a cabin in the cold mountains which is being heated by a fire. The fire doesn’t just heat up the fire pit but rather spreads out across the room to heat the entire cabin. The heat will push its way through cracks in the door, the window and the floor in order to try to bring the cabin to the same temperature as outside. 

The idea is that entropy increases as much as possible, and thus the heat from the fire spreads out as much as possible.

If you believe Mr. Swenson’s 4th of of thermodynamics, there are some interesting philosophical consequences regarding the meaning of life and our purpose here on earth. The reason this is the case is because the law of maximum entropy production not only tells us about entropy, but also about self organizing systems and how and why life exists.

In this lecture: Rod give us the example of Benard rolls, which are convection patterns which take place when you boil a pot of water. As the water heats up, the water inside of the pot reach a point where it begins to flow in a circular pattern. In this case, the water inside of the pot begins to organize itself into a pattern when heat is applied.

Swenson says there is:

“The need for a physical selection principle which accounts for spontaneous ordering (Macro from Micro)” and that “there has to be a physical/nomological answer to ‘why the world is in the order production business. What is it?'”.

In the lecture (and on Swenson answers this by explicitly stating:

“To satisfy the balance equation of the second law, ordered flow must be more efficient at dissipating potentials than disordered flow, and it follows from this that the more order produced, the faster potentials are minimized, and this brings us to the second and final piece of the puzzle.”

 In other words, Swenson says that the reason why our world is so ordered and why water begins to convect when heated is because it increases entropy the most. Since entropy must always increase at the maximum rate possible, there must exist a kind of pressure which forces a system to self organize. As you heat up the pot, there is a lot of heat going into the water – and since we know heat wants to spread – the most efficient way to do this  (in its current state) would be to begin convecting.

Swenson notes that entropy increases significantly when when the pot begins to convect. You can see the chart below which shows a dramatic increase in entropy and heat loss once the water begins convecting.

What about the meaning of life?

We can use these ideas to examine how cells, organisms, and life as self-organizing systems. Swanson proposes that the reason why life exists at all is because all living things increase entropy. Just like there is a pressure on your pot to create Beynard Rolls, there could of been pressure on a pool of water to convect proteins which bumped into each other formed RNA and which continued to interact to form DNA and simple cells as we know them.

Regardless of the way it happened, the idea is that:

All living things are self organizing.
Self organization takes place in order to increase entropy production.
Therefore, all living things exist to increase entropy production.

This means that the reason we exist from a thermodynamical perspective is to increase entropy. This however, only applies to our cell rather then to us as macroscopic entities. The pressure to self organize is experience by humans only on a micro level – that is – only our cells feel the pressure to work together to deliver the human experience to you. Our heat keeps pumping and our lungs keep working as a result of this self organization.

Philosophically, the meaning of life, our purpose, and what we should do with our time is a completely different matter which needs to be addressed on a macroscopic basis. Although our cells exist to increase entropy, as macroscopic beings we have the opportunity to choose what we do with our time.

Although we have the pressure of wanting food, shelter, water, friendship, and love, the way in which we get these is not determined by a physical law and thus we must choose what to do with our time. On a macroscopic level, life therefore has no inherent meaning, and you are free to create meaning and what brings value to your life as you see fit.