One of the biggest misunderstandings in science

Most people share an intuitive understanding of the concepts of order and disorder. The concept of ‘entropy’ is often simply explained as…

One of the biggest misunderstandings in science

Most people share an intuitive understanding of the concepts of order and disorder. The concept of ‘entropy’ is often simply explained as the systemic tendency from an orderly state to an unorderly state: a cup will only fall into pieces, but throw pieces are unlikely to fall into a cup. Even a rock (order) will, according to entropy, eventually turn into dust (disorder).

The direction from order to disorder is a one-way trip.

This ‘arrow of time’ of entropy is best known as the second law of thermodynamics, and it is undisputed.

However, scientists have long been struggling with a natural phenomenon that seems to defy this law: organic life, in all its forms. And indeed, living organisms are apparently able to stay in an orderly form, by the use of some force, for a period of time. Even stranger: why would life have come into existence at all, when it is much easier to just not exist at all. Where does this power come from, and how does it work?

Every attempt to explain this has failed. Lots of theories are out there, but they are merely descriptive, they describe the processes (at many micro-levels) that seem to be involved, but none is able to explain it. The small amount of papers addressing this always recognize this aspect: it is still not properly understood.

The best theory available is probably the Free Energy Principle, by the famous neuroscientist Karl Friston. It describes how an organic ‘unit’ (a cell, an organ, a brain, an organism, etc), will try to ‘mirror’ its environment by means of sensory inputs, so that it needs a minimal amount of energy to adjust to changes in that environment. This is indeed a description of the mechanism that can be seen at many microscopic and macroscopic levels, most impressively at the cellular level, and the development of the brain. This principle has even been used to make advances in the development of deep learning algorithms. It has helped to clarify a lot of biochemical processes, and even applies to many other processes in other domains.

It certainly DESCRIBES how organic life-forms do this, but it does not EXPLAIN it.


There are two important misconceptions, that humans make, that prevent a deeper understanding of how and why this mechanisms works, why it moves towards ‘order’, instead of ’disorder’.

The first misconception

The first misconception concerns the idea of ‘order’ versus ‘disorder’. These concepts are only intuitively clear, but not formally defined.

Let me illustrate this. I think we can agree that ‘entropy’ in the universe always increases. A cup falls into pieces, a rock as well (just another timescale), and so does everything in the universe: from order to disorder.

Now imagine a pond on a sunny day, without any wind. The surface of the water is smooth. Then you throw a stone in it. You would consider that an act of disorder, right? The water splashes chaotically, disturbing the smoothness. Then, the water will dissipate the waves from this splash, and return to a smooth surface again: an orderly state.

But this is the wrong way: the pond moves from disorder to order!

Of course, this is a matter of ‘semantics’. We only use these terms intuitively, and not in a formalized or strictly defined way. We can’t measure when somethings goes from ‘order’ to ‘disorder’. They are very fluffy concepts.

Fixing the first misconception

When properly defined, it turns out that what we call ‘order’ is actually an accellerant for more ‘disorder’.

To understand this, we need to redefine entropy in formal terms. Entropy is all about the dissipation of available energy. A system will tend towards the most homogeneous distribution of energy it can reach, from the state it is currently in. The splash-energy from the stone is distributed over all the water particles in the lake.

‘Orderly’ structures can emerge from large local differences in concentration of energy. Think of a local weather-system with big internal differences in temperature and humidity. But instead of slowly mixing the warm and cold air into a nice average, a tornado can occur! Apparently, the distribution of potential energy is sometimes more efficient by means of a tornado. This depends of course on humidity levels, and air pressure differences as well. But it is clear that in some ‘initial states’ of local differences in temp/pressure/humidity, it is easiest resolved by means of a tornado process. This tornado is a local form of ‘order’ (you can easily recognize it as a singular unit that differs from its surroundings). The tornado decreases the local differences, so at some point it will be easier to just regularly mix the high and low temperature particles again: the tornado has reached a saturation level (or an exhaustion level, depending on your point of view).

The point is: these forms of ‘order’ can exist only locally (in space AND time), and they can exist as long as they provide an easier way to dissipate local differences in concentrations of energy. Order serves as an accelerant for increasing disorder. The intuitive semantics fail to distinguish between ‘state’ and ‘process’. There is only a process of distribution of energy, and sometimes this accelerates locally, for a while (which to us sometimes looks like ‘order’).

Both examples of the universe and the pond show this dissipative behavior, and thus clearly follow this formulation of the law of entropy.

The second misconception

In trying to explain the occurrence and resilience of life forms, the perspective is consistently at the level of the life-form itself: the cell mirrors its environment, the brain mirrors it, etc.

But it cannot be explained from the level of the single organism at all. A single life-form cannot exist by itself, it can only exist within a larger system. A single animal can only exist within an ecosystem. A brain can maintain its free-energy-principle only within a body with blood providing oxygen, and sensory organs providing sensory inputs. A single cell can only last within a body, or local ecosystem. Every organic unit exist only because it exists within a larger whole. It is from this systemic perspective that the genesis, evolution, and (spatiotemporal) robustness of organic life can be understood.

Fixing the second misconception

Referring back to the fix of the first misconception, any system will try to dissipate its available energy in the most efficient way. In a simple system this may follow a nice and regular process. But we have seen that in systems with large local differences in concentrations of energy, local structures may arise that cancel out these differences more efficiently. Now imagine a super-complex chemical soup, in the neighborhood of vulcanoes, steam, lightning, etc. Then it is not hard to imagine that some molecular structures are able to dissipate these energetic differences easier than other structures. Just like tornados, but just much more complex, much more variables than just temperature, air-pressure and humidity. Now also chemical reactions, electric potentials, crystallization are at play, for example. Given enough time and abundancy in chaos, even more elaborate structures can occur that dissipate even more efficiently. When encountered in multitudes, they may even form meta-structures that dissipate even easier. Stretch this some more (billions of years of opportunity), and you may encounter structures that we call ‘organic life’. The system accidentally falls towards ever more efficient ways of dissipating the local differences in energy-concentration.

So it is not the organism that tries to minimize its free energy, it is the hosting system that tries to dissipate its energy as easy as possible.

(The tornado does NOT try to minimize its energy itself, it is the local weather-system (the host) that tries to dissipate local differences).

Local maximae

It may take some re-reading to wrap your mind around this idea, but it will make sense, since it is, in essence, an extremely simple concept. One just has to accept the idea that a nonlinear dissipation (tornado, life-form) can sometimes be more efficient (energetically cheaper) than a linear (regular) dissipation. You can see it every day when you flush your sink: it will show a vortex.

Also, remember that the easiest dissipation (with or without an orderly structure) always depends on the initial state. A system can only find easier ways that are closest to this initial state, a so-called ‘local maximum’ (plural ‘maximae’). After saturation, this local maximum will disappear, and it will fall towards another local maximum. Your body switches local maximae multiple times during the day. These maximae are so close to each other that one does not ‘feel’ this. All species are local maximae of energy dissipation that are much further away from each other. Eventually, any local maximum of dissipation will saturate. In the case of organic life, we often call this ‘death’: a leaf falls from the tree, a cell in your body dies (apoptosis), an organism dies, etc. But within the larger system (cell, animal, ecosystem, etc), all these saturation-levels and saturation-speeds are always optimally aligned towards each other, so that the system as a whole can distribute all available energy as easy as possible.

It is important to recognize the arbitrary aspect in occurrence of these local maximae. Any existing local maximum is just a single solution of an infinite number of solutions of local maximae, at least within a large and complex enough system, such as life on earth. An existing solution may not be the absolute cheapest solution (for dissipation) possible, it is just one of the nearest solutions relative to an initial state.

A technical note

In this piece, I am combining the Principle of Maximum Entropy Production, nonlinear dynamics (applied to hierarchies of biochemical saturation processes), statistical mechanics, and thermodynamic entropy, into a statistical inference that explains the emergence and relative ‘robustness’ of organic life-forms.

Of course these principles can be applied to other socio-economic domains as well (economic systems, financial systems, technological systems, etc). On my website you can find more publications and references on these topics.