Man / Machine, The man / machine series

A note on the ethics of entropy (Man / Machine IV)

In a comment on Luciano Floridi’s The Ethics of Information Martin Falment Fultot writes (Philosophy and Computers Spring 2016 Vol 15 no 2):

“Another difficulty for Floridi’s theory of information as constituting the fundamental value comes from the sheer existence of the unilateral arrow of thermodynamic processes. The second law of thermodynamics implies that when there is a potential gradient between two systems, A and B, such that A has a higher level of order, then in time, order will be degraded until A and B are in equilibrium. The typical example is that of heat flowing inevitably from a hotter body (a source) towards a colder body (a sink), thereby dissipating free energy, i.e., reducing the overall amount of order. From the globally encompassing perspective of macroethics, this appears to be problematic since having information on planet Earth comes at the price of degrading the Sun’s own informational state. Moreover, as I will show in the next sections, the increase in Earth’s information entails an ever faster rate of solar informational degradation. The problem for Floridi’s theory of ethics is that this implies that the Earth and all its inhabitants as informational entities are actually doing the work of Evil, defined ontologically as the increase in entropy. The Sun embodies more free energy than the Earth; therefore, it should have more value. Protecting the Sun’s integrity against the entropic action of the Earth should be the norm.”

At the heart of this problem, he argues, is that Floridi defines information as something good, Fultot argues, and hence the opposite is something evil – and he takes the opposite of information and structure to be entropy (this can be discussed). But there seems to be a lot of different possibilities here, and the overall argument deserves to be examine much closer, it seems to me.

Let’s ask a very simple question. Is entropy good or evil? And more concretely: do we have a moral duty to act as to maximize or minimize the production of entropy? This question may seem silly, but it is actually quite interesting. If some of the recent surmises about how organization and life can exist in a universe that tends to disorganization and heat death are right, the reason life exists – and will be prevalent in the universe – is that there is a hitherto undiscovered law of physics that essentially states that not only does the universe evolve towards more entropy, but it organizes itself as to increase the speed with which it does so. Entropy accelerates.

Life appears, because life is the universe’s way of making entropy faster.

As a corollarium technology evolves – presumably everywhere where there is life – because technology is a good way to make entropy faster. An artificial intelligence makes entropy much faster than a human being as it becomes able to take on more and more general tasks. Maybe there is even a “law of artificial intelligence and entropy” that states that any superintelligence necessarily produces more entropy than any ordinary intelligence, and that any increase in intelligence means an increase in the production of entropy? That thought deserves to be examined closer and in more detail, and clarified (I hope to return to this in a later note — the relationship between intelligence and entropy is a fascinating subject).

Back to our simple and indeed simplistic question. Is entropy good or evil? Do we have duty to act to minimize it or to maximize it? A lot of different considerations prop up and possible theories and ideas are rich and complex. Here are a number of possible answers.

  • Yes, we need to maximize entropy, because that is in line with the nature of the universe and ethics, ultimately, is about acting in such a way that you are true to the nature and laws you obey – and indeed, you are a part of this universe and should work for its completion in heat death. (Prefer acting in accordance with natural laws)
  • No, we should slow down the production to make it possible to observe the universe for as long as possible, and perhaps find an escape from this universe before it succumbs to heat death. (Prefer low entropy states and “individual” consciousness to high entropy states).
  • Yes, because materiality and order are evil and only in heat death do we achieve harmony. (Prefer high entropy states to low).

And so on. The discussion here also leads to another interesting question, and that is if we can, indeed, have an ethics of anything else than our actions against one other individual in the particular situation and relationship we find ourselves. A situationist reply here could actually be grounded in the kind of reductio ad absurdum that many would perceive an ethics of entropy to be.

As for technology, the ethical question then becomes this: should we pursue the construction of more and more advanced machines, if that also means that they produce more and more entropy? In the environmental ethics the goal is sustainable consumption, but the reality is that from the perspective of an ethics of entropy, there are no sustainable solutions. Just solutions that slow down the depletion of organization and order. That difference is interesting to contemplate as well.

The relationship between man and machine can also be framed as one between low entropy and high entropy forms of life.

1 thought on “A note on the ethics of entropy (Man / Machine IV)

  1. Given humans almost instinctive drive to seek out patterns and form causal narratives about most everything we experience, it does seem as though intelligence (defined as g, and tested through visuo-spatial pattern recognition) is an anti-enthropic characteristic (as in, it wants to create order where there is none). And seeing as artificial intelligence is an attempt at surpassing the boundaries that constrain human intelligence, it isn’t unreasonable to describe it as a step in the pro-entropy direction.

    On a different but related note: the law of unintended consequences seems to inadvertently say something about the inevitable increase in entropy. Think of free trade agreements, for instance. They are written and enforced to make the flow of information, goods and people – energy, in essence – smoother. It’s an attempt at creating a procedural order for trade. However, more often than not, the outcome is a gargantuan piece of legislation requiring dozens of highly skilled lawyers just to understand the dos and donts. In an attempt to create order, the amount of confusion and disorder has risen, requiring new efforts to sort things out, and so on. Viewed from this lens, entropy becomes almost self-propagating.

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