On What is and Should Be: Low Entropy as a Material Correlate for Ethical Value
This was one of two thesis submissions for my honours degree in philosophy completed in 2021.
Can the way the world is tell us anything about how it should be? In this paper I will argue that yes, the structure of the world we encounter and the underlying patterns upon which our moral intuitions map onto can give us an indication of what might be the material correlates for states of affairs that are ‘good’. By material correlates, I am referring to the characteristics of things that exist in the natural world and how these properties appear to be present in states of affairs which are generally determined to be good.
In this exploration, I take the axiom that a universe with life is better one without it, as an assumption of such kind is, to my knowledge, necessary for any project of this nature. I will accept the position of ethical naturalism, the idea that there are moral properties and relations and that these are determined by the way things are in the natural world (Copp, 2003). A common objection to this position, intuitionism, the idea that our intuitions can provide us with a priori knowledge of objective moral truths, will be briefly discussed. I will reject this position as a legitimate means of determining ethical truths by appealing to contemporary psychological literature and evolutionary science, which support the notion that our intuitions are, in fact empirical, though not in the conventional sense of the word.
I will, however, argue that we should not do away with our moral intuitions entirely when seeking out what might constitute the good, as they may still be highly instructive. I will explore how our intuitions ‘map onto’ the promotion of the good amongst our species, though, not for all organisms. In an attempt to avoid anthropocentric reasoning, I will briefly explore the Natural Goodness approach and see how it has been used to identify or justify what constitutes the good amongst various species. We will see that, across every single member of the phylogenetic tree, from simple single-celled organisms to whales, there is a commonality. Viewing living organisms as non-equilibrium systems that must process energy and information to survive, and act in a way that maintains the structure of their bodies and the processes that support them, we will find that in every instance, organisms act in a way to minimise local entropy. A brief discussion of the second law of thermodynamics will ensue, framing living organisms as complex adaptive systems that process energy, matter, and information to perpetuate across time. I will explain the recently proposed means by which organisms achieve this feat, the Free Energy Principle, which is a new unifying theory of biobehaviour that explains how organisms delay the decay to equilibrium that the second law of thermodynamics makes a certainty. Given that entropy is a measure of disorder and that all organisms appear to attempt to minimise entropy, or to put it another way, generate and preserve local order, I will spend some time discussing our more colloquial conceptions of order and how they map onto these physics-based definitions. I will frame order as a spatio-temporal territory where action — the manipulation of matter, energy, and information — is likely to have its intended consequences.
Having attempted to lay down some of the science that explains how life takes shape and persists across time, I will discuss why, through a thermodynamic lens, low entropy or order may be the material correlates for that which is objectively good. While perhaps outside the purview of conventional ethical discourse, any attempt at grounding a naturalistic ethics must attempt to reference thermodynamics, as it is a near scale-independent aspect of physics that explains the structure we find in the universe, including life itself, and how it changes across time.
Unlike a lot of contemporary moral philosophy, I will not discuss anything related to whether or not language (moral semantics) can or cannot capture moral facts. I will not distinguish thermodynamic entropy from other forms of entropy and the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ will be used synonymously.
1. Ethical Naturalism & Intuitionism
A radically naturalistic metaphysics is necessary for us to be able to model the structure of objective reality (Ladyman et al., 2007, p. 1), and thus, the ethical concerns associated with the natural world within which we are situated and are a product of. A perspective of meta-ethical naturalism will be taken in this paper, though not defended, as the detailed discussion it requires is beyond the scope of this essay. That being said, outlining some common objections to the naturalist approach, and my response to them, will be fruitful for this discussion.
Naturalism is the perspective that our philosophical investigations of the world should be consistent with what science tells us about the way the world is. Ethical naturalists see that there are moral properties and relations and that these are determined by the way things are in the natural world (Copp, 2003).
Naturalism is a popular position amongst philosophers, with nearly 50% of surveyed philosophers subscribing or leaning towards the view, while only a quarter subscribe to non-naturalism (Bourget & Chalmers, 2014). Moral philosophy may perhaps have more non-naturalists than other disciplines. The highly influential philosopher G. E Moore whose “revolutionary work,” Principia Ethica, “set a new agenda for 20th-century ethics'' (Hurka, 2021), was an ethical non-naturalist, as are other influential contemporary meta-ethicists, such as Parfit, Schaffer-Landau, Enoch and Wedgewood (Ibid).
Ethical naturalism is reasonably unpopular in contemporary moral philosophy. This may stem from the perception that “[n]ormative facts are just too different from natural ones'' and thus, cannot be a “be a subset thereof.” (Enoch, 2011, p. 97.) There exists an overwhelming, at least for some, perception that “[n]ormativity is, intuitively, so fundamentally different in kind from natural phenomena that a reduction of the former to the latter may seem hopeless or even absurd.” (Chappell, 2019, p. 125.)
This apparent ‘distance’ between the elements of the natural world and the objects that capture the attention of our ethical sensibilities has given rise to this idea that moral or ethical properties are ‘non-natural’, divorced from the material circumstances that appear to coincide with them. But how, then, can we get access to any form of ethical knowledge if moral properties are distinct from the physical world entirely? To deal with this issue, non-natural moral realists put forth the idea that we possess a form of ‘moral intuition’, a special capacity that gives us access to the moral realm (Ridge, 2009). This position, that moral truths are self-evident or accessible through intuition, has been dubbed ‘intuitionism.’
Intuitions are without a doubt useful in daily life and are likely instructive of what may indeed be ethically valuable, as we will explore in the next section. However, claiming that our intuitions are a legitimate means of identifying what is objectively good, a property which must emerge from the physical phenomena that make it up, is fraught with issues.
In the book Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized a work that aims to “defend a radically naturalistic metaphysics” (Ladyman et al., 2007, p. 1), Ladyman et al. write on intuition:
“Attaching epistemic significance to metaphysical intuitions is anti-naturalist for two reasons. First, it requires ignoring the fact that science, especially physics, has shown us that the universe is very strange to our inherited conception of what it is like. Second, it requires ignoring central implications of evolutionary theory, and of the cognitive and behavioural sciences, concerning the nature of our minds.” (Ibid, p. 10).
These criticisms, which were levelled at the use of intuition to ascertain metaphysical truths, are just as applicable to intuitionism in meta-ethics as well, as are the examples of relevant scientific fields listed. As any legitimate naturalistic investigation of what is objectively good must be consistent with the best science of the day. The ethical non-naturalists, claiming that there exists some form of separation between the natural and non-natural in some Cartesian way, have a difficult task ahead of them.
In his book, Moral Realism: A Defence, the ethical non-naturalism Russ Shafer-Landau, writes that “[w]hether we place ourselves in the naturalist camp will depend... on whether we think that ethical investigation is thoroughgoingly a posteriori.” (Shafer-Landau, 2003, p. 61.) The idea that our moral intuitions cannot be considered a priori when examined through an evolutionary lens will be discussed in the following section.
2. Intuitions, Evolution, and Ethics
Our species, like all, has been shaped by the forces of natural selection since life first emerged over a billion years ago. The morphology of our bodies and our sensory and processing apparatus have developed over time to improve the likelihood of survival and procreation.
For the majority of the history of more complex life, instinct (or intuition) has guided the actions of complex lifeforms. Lifeforms like insects, fish, birds, or mammals don’t think about how they are feeling and then act, their actions are entirely (or almost entirely) dictated by those impulses.
It is only in recent years, from a biological perspective, that the capacity for thought or reason has emerged, with our species being the prime example of lifeforms that have this capability. However, we are not solely rational animals. While we have the capacity to employ ‘rational’ thought, our actions are by no means dictated solely by the mind. Intuition or instinct shapes our lives more than, perhaps, we give it credit for or realise. Instinct or intuition precedes rational thought as well. Our bodies process and react to information in our environments before they enter conscious awareness, and at times, without this information entering conscious awareness at all.
Intuitions are without a doubt useful, however, claiming that our intuitions are a legitimate means of identifying what is objectively good, is misguided and unscientific, which, if we are exploring what a naturalistic ethics might posit, is a problem.
2.1 Issues with Intuition
One of the problems with relying upon intuition to act as a sole guide or indicator of ethical value is that ethical intuitions vary from person to person. What may be morally intuitive or common-sensical to one person may not be to another, and this has been verified to some degree within the psychological sciences.
Work done using the Big 5 personality trait model, the most scientifically valid personality assessment we currently have at our disposal, has done a lot to indicate how much our personalities influence how we interpret and act within the world, and in turn, the value judgments we make. The model outlines 5 broad dimensions — Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Agreeableness — that combine to produce our personalities.
We do not see the world and then interpret what we see based on our personalities, rather, our personalities partially act as a filter through which we see the world (Antinori et al., 2017). Personality is largely determined at birth as it has strong genetic components, though it is somewhat, but not completely, malleable (Maclean et al., 2011; Zimmerman & Neyer, 2013).
Our personality traits play a significant role in shaping our political leanings. Research demonstrated that those that are higher in trait Openness are more likely to be liberals, and conservatives high in trait Conscientiousness (Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008; Jost, 2006). Conscientiousness has been shown to correlate with an individual's propensity to experience disgust (Druschel & Sherman, 1999; Tybur & de Vries, 2013). Those higher in disgust sensitivity are more likely to “condemn moral transgressions more harshly” (Karinen & Chapman, 2019).
Research has shown reliable differences between what the salient moral dimensions are between conservatives and liberals. In the paper Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations, where the researchers examined how moral judgements vary across the political spectrum, the authors found that:
[L]iberals showed evidence of a morality based primarily on the individualizing foundations (Harm/care and Fairness/ reciprocity), whereas conservatives showed a more even distribution of values, virtues, and concerns, including the two individualizing foundations and the three binding foundations (Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity). (Graham et al,. 2009).
Differences in moral reasoning do not only differ between individuals or members of certain political cohorts, but between entire cultures. In the behavioural sciences, the population samples used for research in the world’s top journals are normally exclusively WEIRD. That is, the sample populations are from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. These societies only account for roughly 12% of the world’s population. A review of “comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers.” (Heinrich et al., 2010.) This includes studies related to moral reasoning (Ibid).
Causal factors are, of course, critical to discussions of morality. For instance, what we could take to be the ‘American’ perspective, that one’s personal financial situation is dependent upon how hard they work and not socio-economic circumstances or luck of birth, may contrast substantially to perspectives held by those in more collectivist cultures. Our social environments influence our moral intuitions as do our personalities.
Such variety between the moral intuitions amongst our species poses significant problems to the intuitionist account. However, we need not throw out intuitions altogether as tools for ethical naturalistic investigations, as they may still have tremendous utility. To put it simply, these intuitions, while diverse, when taken in aggregate (as is prudent when considering a social species like ours) may map onto patterns in the world that are objectively good, patterns that result in the generation and preservation of order. Just as ants require morphological diversity to operate as a hive, perhaps we also need variations within personality, and thus our intuitions, to preserve and generate order and survive. The connection between order and the good will be explored later in the paper in Section 5.
2.2 Ethics as Empirical, not a priori
As was discussed in the previous section, intuitionists claim that our moral intuitions can provide us access to a priori knowledge of ethical facts. However, viewed through an evolutionary lens the claim is baseless. Rather than being a priori, our moral intuitions are in fact empirical. The distinction depends on the time horizon within which we look. By empirical, I am not referring to the experience of a particular individual in their lifetime, but the experience of an individual's ancestors. It is these experiences, across millions of years of natural selection, that give rise to the intuitions we feel and that guide our actions.
If any moral determination is arrived at by seemingly a priori reasoning, it is only due to the influence our evolutionary history has had on the formation of the intuitions that give rise to these a priori notions. Ethical a priori knowledge cannot exist. However, looking to evolutionary science to shed light on questions of objective morality also poses problems.
2.3 Evolution & Morality
All organisms have been shaped by the processes of natural selection. The Darwinian perspective tells us that all characteristics of an organism are the result of adaptations to the environments their ancestors were situated in. Adaptations that improved the likelihood of an organism to survive are considered to be are said to improve the ‘fitness’ of that organism. This is true for all organisms, including our species. From an evolutionary perspective, all of the characteristics humans exhibit, from our morphology, social nature, and our faculties of perception and cognition, are the result of the process of evolution.
Given the Darwinian forces that have shaped our species across time, several philosophers have argued that our moral intuitions and the content of our moral beliefs can be explained, at least to a certain degree, by evolutionary theory (Copp, 2008; Blackburn, 2000; Joyce, 2006; Kitcher 1993 and 2006; Ruse, 1986; Sober and Wilson, 1998; Street, 2006). One example is our tendency to be altruistic, which has numerous biological explanations for having developed (Samir, 2020).
This ‘Darwinian hypothesis’(Copp, 2008), the idea that our moral intuitions are in a large part a result of our evolutionary history and are fitness conferring, poses some problems for a naturalistic moral epistemology. If our moral senses or intuitions have been largely shaped by evolutionary forces and they contribute to our fitness as a species, it’s not obvious how they provide us access to underlying, objective moral truths. From this view, our moral intuitions and beliefs are only instrumental, conferring fitness rather than having any epistemic bearing on moral truths. Due to this, the challenge for moral realists is to explain how “Darwinian forces caused our moral beliefs to track the moral facts because the capacity to detect moral truths promoted reproductive success.” (Copp, 2008, p. 194, emphasis mine). This is known as the ‘tracking thesis’ (Ibid).
A weaker version of the tracking thesis is the ‘quasi tracking thesis’, which is the idea that our moral intuitions track moral truths approximately and that this capacity improved the reproductive success of our ancestors (Ibid). In line with this quasi-tracking thesis, Copp puts forward a version of ethical naturalism he calls ‘society-centered moral theory,’ with the aim being to reconcile the quasi-tracking thesis with the demands the Darwinian hypothesis places on moral realists. Namely, explaining the link between how our evolved moral intuitions map on to underlying object moral truths. The general idea of Copp’s society-centered moral theory is that moral truths are rooted in the moral codes and norms a society has that contribute to the ability of a society to meet its needs. In order to persist across time, societies need “social stability, cooperation among their members, and peaceful relations with their neighbors“ — there needs to be a shared set of norms that are enacted for there to be social order. Given we are a social species, adherence to these norms or acting in accordance with the moral codes of a particular society would increase the chances of one’s survival. It is social order that our moral intuitions and beliefs, from this perspective, have evolved to maintain, as our well-being is dependent upon it. By Copp’s account, this connection between the moral truths of a society and how they contribute to fitness is what gives support to the quasi-tracking thesis.
This view promotes the idea that our evolved intuitions may grant us access to moral truths, but perhaps only in the domain of our own species. However, the purpose of this paper is to outline what could be the material correlates for ethical value in general, not just with regards to the matters of man. If our evolved intuitions only grant us access to moral truths that are relevant to our species, developing a justified, species-agnostic conception of the good may pose quite a challenge. However, I believe this potential impasse can be avoided. Examining what may constitute the good for all life forms and identifying similarities across them may aid us in developing a more universal conception of what the good may be.
2.4 Ethics Beyond the Our Species
Questions of objective morality must extend beyond the concerns of humanity. There is no substantive reason why other lifeforms are objectively not ethically valuable, as it is far from obvious what separates humans from other, more complex animals sufficient to justify viewing our species as the only organisms who have intrinsic moral value. Some argue that it is the fact that we are conscious beings that grants us this moral significance, however, the science of today makes it apparent that we are far from the only organisms who possess any degree of sentience.
Given that, from an evolutionary perspective, our ethical intuitions evolved to ensure our own survival, it’s impossible to justify ethically evaluating other species by our own standards. To extrapolate objective moral truths from the behaviour of one particular species, is fraught with bias, and what is good for, as well as necessary for, the flourishing of an individual of a species varies substantially. So how could we come to ethically evaluate the actions of species so far removed from our own?
3. The Natural Goodness Approach
When seeking to identify what might constitute objective good it can be instructive to remove the idea of man altogether, as we are biased in our interpretation of what might be considered due to our evolutionary history. Our anthropocentrism leads us to overvaluing or focusing on questions of ethics that occur in our world and at the spatio-temporal scale in which we live. There is no reason to believe why questions of objective ethics would be overly concerned with phenomena that happen at our scale and that involves us. For all we know, the true intrinsic ethical value of the biosphere could dramatically dwarf that of our own species, even if we increased our population by orders of magnitude.
Our intuitions also fall short when evaluating the actions of other organisms. Some spiders eat their mate after procreating. Some sharks eat their siblings while swimming in the womb of their mother, awaiting to be birthed. Gorillas and walruses fight for control of the harem. Carnivores must kill other animals in order to survive. It is a rare person, however, who will judge these lifeforms by human standards.
So how could we ethically evaluate the actions of other organisms? The natural goodness approach, coined by Philippa Foot, is one method. The natural goodness approach ethically evaluates the moral actions of organisms within the biological context or background in which they exist. The general idea being that what is good for that organism is a result of how that organism has evolved; they are a consequence of what these organisms are and what they do. The actions that are ‘good’ are those that contribute to its survival and that of its progeny, and will improve the likelihood of that organism flourishing.
Here are some examples as illustrations of this idea. For plants, developing a root system which effectively provides nourishment is ‘good’, whereas the situation where the root system isn’t sufficient to sustain and fuel growth in a way consistent with how the organism has evolved, is ‘bad’. Birds of Paradise that engage in mating dances are good, whereas those that don’t, or perform poorly for whatever reason, are bad (this is, of course, not a binary evaluation). Actions that are at odds with the nature of what an organism is and what they do are said to be defective. For instance, a lion that only eats grass would be said to be defective, as would a person bereft of empathy such that they struggle to socially integrate. These forms of action, activities that an organism needs to do in order to fulfill the needs placed on them by their evolutionary history, have been termed Aristotelian necessities. These are things that are “necessary because and in so far as good hangs on it.” (Foot, 2001, p. 11.)
“We invoke the same idea when we say that it is necessary for plants to have water, for birds to build nests, for wolves to hunt in packs, and for lionesses to teach their cubs to kill. These 'Aristotelian necessities' depend on what the particular species of plants and animals need, on their natural habitat, and the ways of making out that are in their repertoire. These things together determine what it is for members of a particular species to be as they should be, and to do that which they should do.” (Ibid.)
This is consistent with Copp’s ethically naturalistic society centered moral theory. We have evolved to be a social species. Thus, prosocial actions, the actions that promote the cohesion and flourishing of the society in which we find ourselves in, and, in turn, benefit ourselves, from the perspective of the natural goodness approach, are deemed to be objectively good. Antisocial behaviours, including violence, dishonesty, and theft could be considered bad.
Aristotelian necessities vary dramatically between species, and can vary between members of the same species depending on how they have adapted to local conditions. While the means by which Aristotelian necessities can be realised varies dramatically across living organisms, there is a commonality that links them all together.
In a display of prescience, Foot writes:
I believe that evaluations of human will and action share a conceptual structure with evaluations of characteristics and operations of other living things, and can only be understood in these terms. (Foot, 2001, p. 5)
In fact, the commonalities between humans and other living organisms runs far deeper than the conceptual. There is a commonality across all lifeforms that is necessary for their survival and flourishing. Fundamentally, all organisms must take in and harness energy in order to survive and procreate. While the means employed towards this endeavour vary substantially, be it through photosynthesis or carnivorous eating habits, the end result is fundamentally the same. In every instance, from the smallest of single-celled organisms to our globally-interconnected species with our sprawling cities, there is carnal drive to generate and preserve order, the use of free energy to minimise entropy locally. This could be the organism-agnostic characteristic an objective morality could begin to be based on.
In the next section, I will discuss the relevance of thermodynamics to all lifeforms, and by extension, its importance when evaluating what could be considered to be the material correlates for objective ethical value.
4. Entropy, Energy, and the Generation and Preservation of Order
"If your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation."
Sir Arthur Eddington
When attempting to explain what a naturalistic ethics might look like, it is prudent to cast aside our anthropocentric tendencies as the project requires us to see the world through an objective lens, not one that is coloured and heavily influenced by the Darwinian forces that have shaped our species.
One potential way of approaching this project is to try to make a reference to the natural characteristics that all things that appear to have ethical value possess, as from the perspective of ethical naturalism, the good must in some way be a consequence of the material configurations that constitute it. The natural entities that appear to be most ethically salient, in this regard, are lifeforms.
As a consequence of being things of this universe, all of life is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Thermodynamics gives structure to the world around us, as everything that we perceive in the universe is a manifestation of energy and its transformations, and it is these processes that the study of thermodynamics concerns itself with. Given the universality of the laws of thermodynamics and the unequivocal role it plays in the generation of structure in the universe, it could be considered to be a foundation upon which to construct a coherent theory of what constitutes the good from the perspective of ethical naturalism.
We will begin with a brief discussion on the aspects of thermodynamics that are relevant for this project.
4.1 The Laws of Thermodynamics & Entropy
The First Law of thermodynamics is based on conservation of energy which is the idea that the amount of energy in the universe is fixed and that it cannot be created or destroyed, only transmuted from form to form. The first law makes clear that there is a cosmic limit on energy in the universe, a boundary which cannot be broached.
The second law describes the nature of these energetic transformations and is the one that is most relevant for our discussion. When energy is converted from one form to another, the transformation isn’t perfectly efficient (this is the case for irreversible transformations, reversible changes can only occur at thermodynamic equilibrium, though this is the source of some controversy (Norton, 2015)). Irreversible energy conversions always result in a fraction of the energy being ‘wasted', unavailable to do work. Over time, in an isolated system, the inefficient transformations will eventually lead to the system being in a state of equilibrium, or in other words, a state of complete disorder.
It is widely acknowledged that the irreversibility granted by the second law gives time its direction and gives rise to the concept of entropy, where entropy can be thought of as a measurement of disorder. The universe is a closed system, and thus, entropy or disorder in the universe is always increasing. It is this unceasing march of disorder that spells out what the ‘death’ of the universe will be. Known as the heat death of the universe, some unfathomable amount of time in the future, the entropy of the universe will be at its maximum, the cosmos will be in a state of complete disorder and devoid of anything interesting, let alone beings capable of perceiving such things.
As mentioned, thermodynamic entropy can be thought of as a measurement of disorder. A system that has a very high level of disorder is said to have a high entropy, and conversely, systems that are highly ordered are said to have low entropy. Entropy is a statistical measure. It is related to how likely a particular arrangement of matter, or state, is likely to occur, where a state can be conceived of as the set of the positions and velocities of all of the particles in a system. Some states are statistically more likely to occur in the universe than others. The higher the likelihood, the higher the entropy.
Let us take sand and sandcastles as an illustrative example. There is nothing especially interesting or surprising about a disordered collection of sand like that you might walk on top of on a beach. However, sand organised in such a way such that it resembles a castle is incredibly uncommon; coming across one on the beach is a somewhat surprising event. Sandcastles are far more ordered when compared to sand you might walk across on a beach, and thus have a lower entropy. Over time, of course, this castle will begin to deteriorate, its entropy increasing with time until the castle disappears. This decay from order to disorder across time is true for everything in the universe. However, there is something special about living organisms, we defy the decay to disorder, at least temporarily.
4.2 Lifeforms as Complex Adaptive Systems
“If it’s in equilibrium, it must be dead.“
As physicist Erwin Schrödinger observed in his book What is Life, living systems are the most atypical thermodynamic systems, as they, unlike most systems, avoid decay to equilibrium (Schrödinger, 1992). Life somehow resists the universal disorganising pressure of the second law, in some instances, surviving for hundreds or even thousands of years.
To avoid the inevitable decay to equilibrium, energy must be found and used to maintain form and function. The methods by which different organisms realise this can be completely different (as discussed in the Section 3), but the result from a thermodynamic perspective is the same. Form is maintained, life is sustained. Order persists.
This tendency to seek out, process energy, and to adapt, makes life a complex adaptive system. Complex systems abound throughout our world. Examples include cities, cells, the global climate, insect colonies, the economy, and the brain (Thurner et al., 2018). What exactly a complex system is, and what the definition of complexity is still is still a point of debate and discussion, as the discipline is relatively young. In their recent book, What is a Complex System, mathematician Karoline Wiesner and philosopher James Ladyman write that there is no "single natural phenomenon of complexity", but “complexity science does exist”, instead of it being "merely branches of different sciences." (Ladyman & Wiesner, 2021)
While there is still an ongoing debate about what complexity is, there is some widespread agreement about what constitutes it. Complex systems are composed of lots of interacting units, agents, or components, and from their interactions arise phenomena which cannot be explained reductively. For instance, we can’t explain the behaviour of a flock of birds by analysing an individual bird, or the behaviour of an ant colony by examining a single ant, or an economy by trying to understand a single person. The property of the irreducibility of phenomena, the observation that “the whole something else than the sum of the parts”(usually quoted as ‘the whole is greater than the some of the parts, but this is a misquote), is called emergence.
Complex systems are characterised by their non-linearity, randomness, the presence of feedback loops, the generation of spontaneous order and self-organisation, to list a few of their properties. These characteristics, many of which are a consequence of the number and nature of relational interactions, makes them difficult to model and predict. The famous Butterfly Effect is a poetic exemplification of this. This is why weather predictions are so often inaccurate, as are changes to the economy. It is only since the invention of the computer and the exponential advances we have seen in computational power, that modelling complex systems has become possible. The nature of complex systems, their nonlinearity and sensitivity to tiny perturbations and thus their irreducibility, means that we exist in a world of fundamental uncertainty. The state of the world in the near future is impossible to know.
Complex systems are usually nested within other complex systems. For instance, our cells can be found in organs, which are parts of our bodies, which exist in social groups, which exist within the global economy, which is nested within the biophysical system of our planet. This nesting of systems within systems and the dependency they have on one another has great consequences for what should be considered within our ethical deliberations.
In all of the instances of complex systems — these dynamic, low-entropy, ordered systems — the use of energy to maintain form and function across time is present. As life is a complex adaptive system, they too harness available energy to maintain its form across time, or from a thermodynamic perspective, maintaining the set of states in which organisms can survive and thrive.
The 21st century has seen a first-principles approach come to light that explains the processes by which all of life persists and avoids decay. The Free Energy Principle.
4.3 The Free Energy Principle
We discussed previously that the organismic preservation of order — the avoidance of entropic decay — is a characteristic all life forms have. It is only recently that the universal process by which life achieves this feat might have been discovered. It is called the Free Energy Principle (FEP). Originating as a unifying theory of the brain and behaviour in neuroscience (Ramstead, 2017), it has convincingly been extended to apply to all biological systems (Friston, 2012). It is a first principles approach that has resulted in a statistical conception of the dynamics of life, explaining how biological systems are able to persist across time in light of the second law of thermodynamics (Constant et al., 2018).
The FEP has been described as difficult to understand and is currently the subject of fervent debate. Describing the FEP in more detail, while perhaps necessary for a serious discussion here, is beyond the scope of this essay and likely my understanding of it at this time. However, my aim is that the brief description I give below will capture the essence of the principle, and will be sufficient for the purpose of this essay.
The FEP rests on the idea that there exists a separation between an organism and its environment, and that these can be modelled as internal and external states, respectively. External states, the states of the world in which organisms are situated, are constantly fluctuating, prone to random, unpredictable, disturbances. Internal states are more consistent. (Friston, 2012). The term state is used in the same sense as it was used in the section on entropy, where a state is the set of the positions and velocities of all of the particles in a system.
Not all internal states are conducive to life, of course. Organisms must occupy an incredibly restricted set of states in order to continue living. Our bodies, like the bodies of other organisms, are constantly adapting, maintaining temperature, pH, or other variables so that they can continue to survive. We know this as homeostasis. According to the FEP, the preservation or limiting of internal states is accomplished by the organism developing a model of the external world and acting in a way such that the organism’s internal state is restricted to a limited set of states. This limiting the number of internal states can be thought of as minimising surprise. Surprise here being an information-theoretic view of how unlikely a particular sensory state of an organism is, not the psychological phenomenon of surprise — though they are linked in some ways. States that are not conducive to the perpetuation of the life of an organism are ‘surprising’ and are to be avoided.
But how do organisms know which states are desirable and which are not? There’s a tremendous amount of complexity involved with the array of activities our cells carry out to maintain life, and it is computationally impossible for an organism to identify and track all of these changes and act based on these measurements. Instead, most organisms aggregate and coarse-grain over the activity of trillions of cells, turning them into bodily sensations, like hunger, fatigue, or pain. Organisms then use these bodily sensations as a means of identifying deviations from bodily states that are conducive to life, and act in a way to minimise negative sensory states from occurring.
To minimise the chances of an organism experiencing surprising sensory states, and thus, visiting internal states that are not conducive to sustained life, lifeforms develop a predictive model of the irreducibly complex and dynamic external world, and act in a way consistent with it, updating their predictions based on feedback of the environment. (Some FEP scholars say that organisms themselves are a model of their environment, but a discussion of this distinction isn’t necessary for this paper.) This is where the ‘free energy’ in the free energy principle comes in. Free energy references the amount of energy available to an organism to improve its representation or model of the world.
In summary, all organisms embody a model of the world and their place in it, and act in a way to minimise the surprise they experience in order to continue to persist across time. It is this surprise minimisation that enables organisms to resist the natural tendency to become disordered (Friston, 2010.)
As Andreas Wagner writes, “[o]rganisms live and die by the amount of information they acquire about their environment.” (Wagner, 2007.)
Before moving onto the final section where I will discuss how this all relates to questions of ethics, we will explore the conception of order in more depth, as from the perspective of this paper, it is critical in evaluating what could be constituted as ‘good’ from a naturalistic perspective.
Order has a great many meanings. People can be orderly, operating in a methodical, predictable, and tidy fashion. We can ‘order’ things, or arrange them, according to certain characteristics in relation to one another, for instance with regards to height or size. When appliances are broken, we label them as ‘out of order’ to indicate that they will not function in a way that is usually expected of them.
There are commonalities across all of these things, but coming to a definition of the theme they share is quite difficult. Indeed, in the burgeoning field of complexity science where order is a characteristic all complex systems possess, “the notion of order may mean so many things that it must be carefully qualified if it is to be of any analytical use in a theory of complex systems.” (Ladyman, 2021, p. 104. )
In each of these examples of the property of being ‘ordered’, there’s the impression of correlation, a sense of determinism, so that when we encounter ‘order,’ things are likely to progress as expected.
As we saw in the section on the FEP, our entire cognition is based on this principle. It is more efficient for an organism to predict what the immediate environment may be like (internal and external) than to sense and process all of the relevant information. Rather than universally perceive, process and act, we predict, perceive, process, and act. We alter our actions if sensory input differs to a large enough degree to warrant a change in action.
As discussed, order (or disorder) is a word used to describe the entropy of a system, and thus can be used to reference the structure living systems embody. However, order extends far beyond our own biology. The environments in which we are situated are also ordered, to a certain degree. For instance, the societies in which we live (at least in more developed countries) and the artifacts which shape our interactions with the environment (infrastructure and technologies, for instance) are usually reliable and predictable. When we turn our taps on, we expect clean water to stream from them. When we get the bus to work, we expect the bus to arrive relatively on time, that the driver will obey the road rules, and that people on the bus will act in a predictable, orderly fashion. A polity that has ‘law and order’ is one where there is a widespread respect for and obedience to the rules of a society. In all instances, our social worlds are ordered, they generally proceed in ways that are expected of them.
Extracting from these various notions of order, we can frame order from a more material perspective. An ordered system could be thought of as a spatiotemporal territory where action — the manipulation of matter, energy, and information — is likely to have its intended or predicted consequences.
Spatio, as we act within space, and temporal, as these actions occur across time. Order is temporally bounded and diminishes the further a time horizon extends due to ever-present entropic decay, the increase in disorder, and the fundamental uncertainty living within complex systems provides, the ever-present potential of small changes in the system having outsized consequences in the near future.
Living in an ordered society is necessary for us to fulfill our basic biological needs and live dignified lives. We know that when we go to the supermarket there will be food available, that our rooms will be illuminated when we flick a light switch, that when we get sick, there are medications available to help us mend. Rather than having to labour on farms, our ordered societies produce enough energy (as calories and in other forms) so that we can spend our time learning, creating, doing things not constrained by our energetic necessities.
All of this is dependent upon the economy which is one of the most complex things we know of in existence (Beinhocker, 2006) and is fundamentally, an order-creating system (Arthur, 2019). As Georgescu-Roegen writes in his paper The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, “the economic process materially consists of the transformation of high entropy to low entropy” (1971). The production of order from the economic process has resulted in a dramatic improvement in the well-being of people around the world. Prior to the industrial revolution, roughly 1 in 20 people lived in a state of extreme poverty. Today, that number is now only 1 in 10 (Ord, 2019). What accounts for this reduction in poverty is that the economy has helped generate a far more ordered world where we can manipulate the world around us (energy, matter, and information) in order to better satisfy our needs. Order begets order.
There is a saying that neatly brings this term order in connection with the ethical realm: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” This implies that there is something about bringing order to the world, or maintaining it, that is ethically desirable. This idea of order extends beyond quaint sayings. It has been hypothesized that the very myths that underlie our cultures, the collective narrative manifestations of our psychology that has been shaped over our evolutionary history, capture this idea. In these myths, the omnipresent hero confronts the terrible unknown where chaos (disorder) and potential destruction lurks, and in doing so, triumphs. From their brush with danger, the hero learns new things and returns to society, and having brought order to the world, they are lauded for it (Peterson, 1999). Variations of this story have been retold countless times across generations, be it orally around a fire or projected onto a screen, and some date back before written history. From an evolutionary perspective, the persistence of these myths imply they provide some adaptive benefits to the societies that keep them alive. Given that the gnawing tide of entropy is always lapping at our feet, threatening to subsume us if we do not confront the unknown and adapt as necessary, it is reasonable to see why myths that capture some aspect of this universal phenomenon would survive throughout the ages. What I find to be truly fascinating is that this reading of mythology appears to be consistent with the aforementioned FEP.
In the following section I will combine the previous topics explored into a discussion of why entropy might be a material correlate of ethical value.
5. Order and Ethical Value
The final section of this essay will bring together the variety of concepts and ideas discussed into something I hope to be somewhat unifying and coherent. The general aim is to explain how we could come to an understanding of what is good, and by extension, what should possibly be, by examining the world and what our ethical intuitions map onto within it, the similarities that exist between every organism we know of, to attempt to identify what may be the material correlates for the good.
In arguing against a naturalistic ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau states that there are “four important features of the recognized sciences, and that ethics fails to exemplify any one of them to any significant degree”, and that “[i]n the first place, ethics lacks the kind of precision and susceptibility to quantification and cardinal measurement that the recognized sciences possess.” (Shafer-Landau, 2003, p. 60)
I am proposing that entropy — “a quantification and cardinal measurement that the recognized sciences possess” — could act as a natural indicator of ethical value.
Given that ethical naturalists see that moral properties and relations exist and that they are determined by the way things are in the natural world, framing or explicating these moral properties in reference to one of the bastions of physics, the second law of thermodynamics, could provide a robust foundation upon which the ethical naturalist project could be built upon.
The rationale behind thermodynamic framing is that it is central to how our universe evolves across time and that it is fundamental to all life, not just our species. Any attempt to outline what may truly be a naturalistic ethics must be done in accordance with our understanding of reality itself, and as it appears to the physicists of our time, the laws of thermodynamics may some of the robust laws of our world.
5.1 Moral Intuitions Revisited and Revived
In the first section of this paper we explored the problems with thinking that our intuitions are capable of granting us a priori knowledge of ethical truths. Our intuitions have been shaped across time by evolution to improve our survivability, and thus, are anthropocentric in nature and are likely to run afoul in certain situations pertaining to objective ethical questions. As mentioned in that section, these issues with intuitionism do not mean we should discard intuitions as a means of identifying ethical value entirely. While our ethical intuitions are largely the result of Darwinian forces, it may be the case that our evolved moral intuitions do track underlying objective morality to some degree, and that this improves our fitness. As discussed, this is known as the quasi-tracking thesis.
If there is some underlying objective good that our moral intuitions map onto, an illuminating question we could ask is what are the characteristics of such circumstances or entities that may be constitutive of, even if partially, this perception of ethical value? By investigating the characteristics of entities or situations that we perceive as having certain degrees of ethical value, and by going through a process of critical reflection, we may discover that our intuitions imperfectly map on to the generation and preservation of order, the minimisation of entropy across time, and it is this that is an indicator of what is objectively good.
As we saw in Section 4, all organisms are out of equilibrium systems that use energy to delay the inevitable decay to equilibrium across time. This is true for our societies as well; it is a constant characteristic of life. If we accept that there is some underlying objective morality and that all living organisms possess a degree of intrinsic value, the universality of this entropic defiance and the role it plays in organismal well-being, grants substantial weight to the quasi tracking thesis.
5.1.1 Living Systems
Based on the universality of local entropy minimisation across the phylogenetic tree and acceptance of the quasi tracking thesis, it could be argued that the more ordered or complex an organism is, the more intrinsically valuable it is. This seems to correspond to our ethical intuitions. Let us briefly look at some organisms, how ethically valuable we intuitively think they are, and their corresponding levels of entropy or complexity.
From a thermodynamic perspective, bacteria are incredibly simple when compared to the forms of life we are used to seeing, and it doesn’t seem like humans care much for them at all, and if we do, it is only due to the instrumental role they play in improving our lives (gut flora, for instance). Moving up in scale considerably, we get to insects. Again, we don’t seem to care much for insects either. Most people do not grimace with regret after stepping on an ant or when we kill a spider that has managed to find its way into a home. We exhibit more care for bees, but this is largely due to the role they play in maintaining ecosystems (a point I will discuss further below), rather than due to their intrinsic nature. These dispassionate responses towards lifeforms begin to change as we reach organisms that are more complex, for instance mammals. When it comes to rats and mice, we are happy to lay out traps for them in our homes to dispose of them. They also feature heavily in our scientific experiments, though some ethical guidelines must be adhered to. That being said, scientists working with rats do experience some displeasure when having to carry out experiments that put these little mammals in harm's way. As we move up in terms of organismic order, we seem to become more and more concerned with the well-being of such creatures. Conducting experiments on more complex mammals like primates requires adherence to far stricter ethical guidelines because there is something about these organisms that leads us to perceiving them as more ethically valuable. Treating animals of this level of complexity poorly is also a punishable offence. For instance, in countries like Australia, it is a crime to torture animals like dogs or kangaroos. The same is not true for insects, of course. A child pulling the legs off of an ant might be scolded by their parents for doing so, but these are hardly matters that provoke public outcry and draw attention from the law.
Dolphins, elephants, and whales are some of the largest and intelligent organisms on our planet and are intuitively conferred high levels of ethical value by most people. It appears, at least from examining the aggregate of our social intuitions, that the more complex an organism is, the more intrinsically valuable it is perceived to be.
It could be said that it is in fact sentience and the capacity to suffer that is what leads us to grant some organisms greater intrinsic moral value than others, but even if this is the case, according to contemporary neuroscience, sentience is dependent upon the complexity of an organism's neural architecture. Consciousness or sentience doesn’t appear to be possible without a high degree of complexity, so the low entropy to intrinsic value mapping still stands.
5.1.2 Non-Living Systems
The property of ‘living’ is not necessary for something to be perceived as ethically valuable. For instance, people generally think a well-functioning, prosperous economy is of crucial importance. When citizens of countries are surveyed about critical issues, the economy is likely to be towards the top of the list. Prior to the most recent presidential election in the United States of America and in the midst of the worst pandemic we have seen in a century, a survey of US voters found that 34 percent placed economic recovery as the biggest issue the country faces (2020 early exit poll: Voters rank rebuilding economy as more important than COVID-19, 2020).
These results correspond with the idea that highly ordered systems are viewed to be ethically valuable. As discussed, the economy is one of the most complex systems we know of in existence and is largely responsible for the historically anomalous levels of prosperity and well-being most of us alive today experience. This perception of ethical value is most likely due to the instrumental role the economy plays in improving well-being.
The economy is an obviously valuable, non living, complex system. However, complexity may not be necessary for a non-living object to have some degree of ethical value. The Mona Lisa is not a complex system, though I’m sure some in the world would rather a person die than see the painting go up in flames. Different tools and artifacts seem to have varying degrees of ethical value. The Large Hadron Collider in Cern would widely be considered to be more ethically valuable than a simple hammer. The ethical value non-living things possess could be seen as a function of how much benefit they can potentially bring to living organisms. Their ethical value lies in their instrumental value.
5.2 Scale, Perspective, and Ethics
It is critical to spend some time here exploring the role scale (spatial and temporal) and perspective play, as what could be deemed to be good can vary dramatically depending on the perspective taken. For instance, in Canada there’s a type of beetle that has been decimating the forests in British Columbia. Between the years of 2000 and 2015, the Spruce Beetle has destroyed forested areas twice the area of Scotland. From the limited frame of the beetle, nothing seems to be awry from an ethical perspective, as it is living in accordance with the way in which it has evolved. However, the decimation of the forests in British Columbia and the various species which rely on it as a habitat is objectively bad from another, more global perspective. The net entropy change is an increase, an overall reduction in order.
Taking a global view appears to be necessary for evaluation questions of objective ethics. This is especially important when looking at ecosystems. Some ecosystems have what are known as ‘keystone’ species. Keystone species occupy a critical position in an ecosystem, contributing to its overall structure and maintenance. If one of them were to disappear, the ecosystem could collapse leading to a vast loss of life (and a net reduction in order). A keystone species does not need to be too complex to have this important role for the sustaining of an ecosystem, they can be quite simple organisms. Take phytoplankton for example. These microscopic algae are at the bottom of several marine food chains and produce half of the world’s oxygen. Viewed alone, from this entropic perspective, we would say that they aren’t intrinsically too ethically valuable. However, when we consider the vital role they play in maintaining global ecosystems (highly complex, low-entropy systems) their perceived ethical value increases substantially.
5.3 Entropy and Ethical Decision Making
If we accept that low entropy can be an indicator of the good, even as an approximation, then we now have a species-agnostic measure that could help inform us when attempting to make difficult ethical decisions. Given that we live in societies with access to limited resources which we can allocate towards specific ends, questions of which ends we should pursue are those we have to attempt to answer. Having a measure that can grant us some ability to roughly quantify the ethical value of a system could provide us with new tools when it comes to evaluating confounding ethical dilemmas. A contemporary example could be the threat of biosphere collapse, which would result in a dramatic decrease in order in the world. Casting the instrumental value of the biosphere aside (which is likely to be astronomical), through this lens it could be ethically justified for human societies to take actions which substantially reduce the overall quality of life of the members of our species in order to preserve the biosphere.
As discussed, low-entropy systems do not need to be complex to have a perception of ethical value. Their value likely lies in the instrumental value these things can contribute to our lives. However, if even we’re at a loss as to the instrumental value a more ordered object might grant, their mere presence is indicative of value. An example that exemplifies this point up quite well is the heuristic of Chesterton’s Fence (Chesterton, 1929). One could stumble across a fence in the middle of a field and think that it is useless, devoid of value, and that destroying it or removing it would be of no moral consequence. However, such a thing would not exist unless someone thought, for whatever reason, the fence would be of some use. Before disposing of the fence without a second thought, it would be prudent to find out what the purpose of the fence is, as its destruction (the act itself constituting an increase in disorder) could be problematic for some reason unknown at the time, potentially leading to destabilizing consequences.
5.4 Low Entropy & Value Only as Correlative
I would like to make clear that I am not proposing that we cast all evaluative questions in terms of entropy. The purpose of this paper is simply to highlight how thermodynamic order features heavily in questions of objective ethics, and if we accept this, it could provide us with new ways of asking and answering questions about the good. Across all scales where ethical value seems to be present, so too is the property of entropy. As scale increases, so too does the level of order present in the system. From the smallest of organisms to an intergalactic space-faring civilization, the necessity to defy decay to disorder is present.
In this paper, I have argued that entropy, specifically low values of entropy (or the presence of order) can be indicative of ethical value and could provide a substantial basis upon which a naturalistic ethics could be built upon. Given that all of life needs to minimise entropy locally in order to not only survive across time, but to flourish, as well as the universality of the means by which this is achieved (the FEP), and that this corresponds to our moral intuitions which we have reason to believe do give us some access to objective moral facts, there is a strong case for entropy being a material correlate for the good. Having something quantifiable and rooted in the natural world could also grant us with new ways to evaluate ethical questions, though it is far from the only method we would need to employ.
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