(This post is inspired by dipping into people like Heinz von Foerster, Scott Kelso, Mike Turvey, Francesco Varela, and many others, including the modest, but so insightful, Wei Wu Wei.)
When I first heard cognitive scientists talk about thermodynamics, I was perplexed. I did not see what this arcane belief in physics had to do with cognition. It has taken a while to dawn on me. The second law is the one that says that entropy, or disorder, must increase in a closed system, such as, for example, the whole frigging universe. And it’s a peculiar law. There is no experiment you can do to test it, as the only closed system is, many believe, that which we call the whole universe. It is more of a belief. And it is a peculiar belief too. Scientists cling to it dearly, and it underwrites the distinction between far-from-equilibrium systems, like life forms, from the dead stuff, which has a tendency to fall apart. Believe me, I know. Most scientists, I fear, have no idea why they subscribe to this belief. It’s just taken to be the thing we know absolutely. But, if we hold our knowledge of it as true or false in abeyance for a moment, what exactly hangs on this issue? What does the question mean?
My own understanding of the relevance of the question came about thus: As I studied movement, and coordination, I came to see that we must understand time if we are to understand that which we are. Because the arrow of time–which is our favorite story about the eternal present–is the fabric upon which intentional behavior is woven. Things that are meaningfully coordinated provide scintillating, alternative operationalizations of the notion of time. Define lawful change, or a dynamic, so, and you see one kind of regularity. Define it another way, and different things come into focus. The locus of agency shifts as you redefine time, and questions of the locus of agency and our belief in ourselves as subjective agents, are two sides of the same coin.
The second law of thermodynamics is the belief that there is one way to measure the arrow of time. It is the only foundation stone of physics where time is necessarily directional, and the direction is given by the concept of order or structure. Here, too, we see a belief that that which deserves the appellation “real” is that which is revealed if we get our notion of time right.
Heinz von Foerster seems to have a nice illustration that if we subscribe to the arrow of time, as defined by the Second Law, to be a description of the universe, then there can be no self-organizing system, no entity that is worthy of the name “real”. Here a link remains to be made to the experiential domain. The subject. For von Foerster, like I, does not buy into the notion of Mind, that is distinct from an outside world. As he says in his introduction to the book Understanding Understanding,
I am unhappy with this discrimination between objective and subjective: How do I know the objects? Where are they? Of course, I can reconfirm or establish a rich connection with an object by touching or by smelling it or talking about it, and so I had the idea to make the object a representation of the activity or behavior of the observer, instead of the passive being looked or just sitting there.
He speaks here of the impossibility of finding the subjective if you insist on one definition of time, or, equivalently, of objectivity. Of course self-organizing systems can be identified, but each requires a different definition of time. This relativizes their claims to be the origin of agentive cause.
Wei Wu Wei, as ever, is very clear about this:
As long as anyone tacitly accepts Time either as really existing, or even as the basis of consideration, he is only concerning himself with objectivity. (source)