Scott Aaronson on order and chaos


One of my first ideas was to write about the Second Law of Thermodynamics [in response to’s Annual Question], and to muse about how one of humanity’s tragic flaws is to take for granted the gargantuan effort needed to create and maintain even little temporary pockets of order. Again and again, people imagine that, if their local pocket of order isn’t working how they want, then they should smash it to pieces, since while admittedly that might make things even worse, there’s also at least 50/50 odds that they’ll magically improve. In reasoning thus, people fail to appreciate just how exponentially more numerous are the paths downhill, into barbarism and chaos, than are the few paths further up. So thrashing about randomly, with no knowledge or understanding, is statistically certain to make things worse: on this point thermodynamics, common sense, and human history are all in total agreement. The implications of these musings for the present would be left as exercises for the reader.

Or, in cartoon form:



  1. Kenny says

    I agree with the idea but I’m always … confused? frustrated? … that this is (in my experience) trotted out to uncritically support the author’s political preferences. It seems unfair to basically exclude all conservative forms of order from those warranting protection and, simultaneously, exclude all liberal or progressive forms of chaos from those warranting criticism or derision.

    It’s simply not the case that all forms of order are worth preserving or protecting, as I’m sure Aaronson would agree actually. And similarly, some amount of chaos inevitable and some other amount is *worth enduring*. But then this idea, without any such supporting details, seems little more than a call for permanent and inflexible stasis, which of course isn’t it’s intended usage.

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