Only Two Reasons To Do Something
I’m looking for the right thing to do.
I’ve found there are only two underlying reasons for the things I do. I think that’s important, and I want to tell you about it.
This comes out of a history of ideas. I had a good education. I learned about the laws of motion. I learned about information and computers and natural selection. I was able to learn about these things because thousands of people went ahead of me and used repeatable observation to nail down their ideas about how the world works. And they told me what they found.
So I know what kind of thing I am. I am made of matter. The same matter that makes up everything else in the world. We’re all a swirl of particles moving around and bumping into each other. There’s nothing magic about the particles. The particles are simple. The world is complex because there are so many particles, not because the particles themselves are complex. They’re simple, but there are a lot of them. There are so many of them that the number is not easy to distinguish from infinity.
It’s not too hard for me to get comfortable with the idea that I’m made of simple particles, so long as there are enough of them. I’ve stood between two mirrors and looked at an endless series of reflections. But here’s the hard part: I don’t tell these particles what to do. I’m not in charge, and neither is anyone else. The particles do their own thing. They follow their laws of motion. No will or desire directs their movements. They do what they’re going to do anyway, and my wishes have nothing to do with it.
This is hard to get my head around. I am part of an unconscious swirl of matter. The world may be deterministic or indeterministic, but it follows laws. There is no magic in the world. There is no different place I can go and get free will. I do not have free will. I am a thing that happens.
At the same time, I just thanked thousands of people who did things they intended to do, for reasons they understood, and in the hope of good results. That is free will, isn’t it?
It’s not a contradiction. I’m saying free will comes later. There is no kind of free will that comes before the working of matter, but there is a kind of practical free will that is bound up with the kind of thing I am. You could describe me as a thing that uses my knowledge of my surroundings to make decisions that seem likely to advance my purposes. And as it turns out, I have two purposes. Understanding these purposes requires a deeper look into the workings of matter.
The first thing to notice about matter is that the disorder of the universe is always increasing. That’s part of the laws of motion. It’s a big deal. The universe as a whole is going to get more and more messed up, until everything dies. It will take a long time, but that’s the way it is. There’s nothing to be done about it.
So that looks like bad news. But it turns out the bad news also contains some important good news. The big movement towards disorder contains smaller countermovements towards order. The countermovements can’t win in the long run, but they can exist for a while.
One kind of countermovement is a heat engine. That’s anything that turns the movement of heat into mechanical energy. While the heat keeps moving, it keeps generating energy. The meaning of this movement is summed up by its direction. Its direction is opposite the larger movement towards disorder. Everything else follows from this fact.
There is no need for any will or desire to cause this to happen. It can happen by itself, like a small eddy in an unstoppable flow of increasing disorder. Even as overall disorder keeps rising, a heat engine can generate useful energy and maintain some local order.
In the big picture, the universe is young and highly ordered. There are small hot stars and a lot of cold empty space. Someday the stars will burn out. But for now, heat is flowing from the hot stars out into cold space. This is the great flow of order into disorder. Along the way, the heat goes past space stations and planets.
A space station has solar panels that turn some of the heat differential into useful energy. The residents can use the energy to maintain themselves. They could also use part of the energy to build more space stations. But for the moment I would like to look past the space station. I would like to look at an uninhabited planet.
This planet has liquid water, but no life yet. The sunlight causes water to evaporate from the ocean, leaving the salt behind. Cooler air allows the water to rain out onto the land and flow back into the sea. It is a simple process. A causes B, and then B causes A. Each time the process goes around, it gets a push. It gets a push because energy feeds into it. This is how the loop keeps going. How it got started is unimportant. The fact that the process keeps going is important, because it maintains lakes filled with clean water. Clean water is more ordered than salt water. Cleaning the water costs energy.
Heat doesn’t do this trick all by itself. In a world that had only steam, there would be no recondensation. There would be no local ordering. It’s only the difference between hot and cold that keeps the process going. That heat differential gives the process a push each time it goes around. This is how the great flow from order into disorder creates a countermovement whose direction is back towards order. Evaporation and rainfall, driven by sunlight, is an example of a local ordering process.
This countermovement against disorder is like an eddy in a river. When I stand by the side of a river flowing downhill, I see small eddies that turn back uphill. They keep turning and turning, and sometimes they carve small basins for themselves. Now, to be careful, the increase of entropy is not quite the same. It is a flow towards disorder, not downhill. And the eddies turn back towards order, not uphill. These eddies are small shreds of order that maintain themselves for a while.
No one started evaporation and rainfall. No one wills it to happen. These are just particles following their laws of motion.
This is the way I think about processes in general. A process is something that happens by itself. To keep going, it needs a push each time it goes around. Energy feeds into a loop where A causes B, which causes A, which causes B, and so on. There is little meaning in how such a process gets started, but great meaning in how it keeps going. This is how local order maintains itself.
I think the same way about life. Life is just another process. No one started it. It is made up of particles following their laws of motion. It happens by itself. These cells are little shreds of order that maintain and replicate themselves. They survive against the flow of increasing disorder. That direction is the meaning of their existence. They survive in order to survive.
Looking at this single-cell world, we notice that they are using a new trick. They remember what worked in the past. Their memory allows them to adapt themselves to their surroundings. Memory and adaptation are new. These things weren’t present in the case of evaporation and rainfall.
The memory exists as a genetic code. Each cell contains DNA that describes how the cell is put together and how it keeps its subprocesses going. This information varies from one cell to the next. Some survive, and some do not. Adaptation comes about by trial and error. The survivors carry the adaptations that allowed them to survive. When the surrounding conditions change, trial and error changes the genetic code. This maintains the cells better in their changed surroundings.
Genetic information is like history. It is a memory of what worked in the past. It is a rough draft of what may work in the future. There is still nothing here that looks like intention or free will. It is an accident of the current that made one kind of eddy carve itself a better basin. And that’s why the eddy is still around. In that sense it has purpose.
For this to work, the process has to both read and write the genetic code. It has to be bigger than one cell. The full process isn’t found in any one cell. No one cell writes meaningful changes into its genetic code.
A cell reads and duplicates and occasionally miscopies its genetic code. But a meaningful change, a change that adapts cells to their surroundings, only comes about through a process of natural selection. That happens among a population of cells, not inside a single cell by itself. Maintaining local order in this way requires the full machinery of evolution.
Since the process maintains itself by trial and error, it has to include error. It depends on the ongoing creation and destruction of individuals. Always more are born than can live. Many die. A few survive, for a short time. Without this churn and destruction, evolution cannot maintain its pool of genetic information. It needs constant destruction just to keep genes adapted to their surroundings. Because it operates on winners and losers, it must have losers. That is not a bad thing, by itself. It is simply how evolution works.
To watch what evolution is doing, we have to look at the pool of genetic information instead of the individual cells. Evolution uses the pool of information to move against the increase of disorder. Or, to say it the other way around, genetic information is a form of local order that maintains itself through a process of evolution.
There are a lot of interesting things about information. One of them is related to disorder. It turns out that the math that describes the information content of a message is the same as the math that describes thermodynamic entropy, the disorder of a system. The reason for this coincidence is that it takes more words to describe a messy thing than to describe an ordered thing. When a thing becomes messier and messier, you need more and more information to describe it. The size of the description is a good measurement of how disordered a thing is. That’s entropy.
But entropy shouldn’t be confused with written information. Entropy is not written down anywhere. It can’t be written down anywhere. There is way too much of it. Maybe the description of a very simple system could be written down, but a complete description of any normal object wouldn’t fit in the universe. There is no purpose in writing it down. There is no process that does this kind of work. Entropy is noise, and the noise is always increasing.
The information in DNA is a different kind of thing. It is written down. It is materially represented information. It has been written, and it can be read. The readability is not an accident. This kind of information has been written in order to be read. The reading and writing go together.
There is a name for the thing that does the reading and writing. We call it a computer. That’s our name for a process that reads and writes materially represented information. A simple computer, like a Turing machine, does very little more than read and write information. All computers read and write information, and all materially represented information is read and written by computers. Computers and information are like lock and key. They go together.
We described evaporation and rainfall as a local ordering process. Then we can describe evolution as a computational local ordering process. It’s computational because it uses information. The kind of local order it maintains is genetic information.
But genetic information isn’t the only information out there. And evolution isn’t the only computational local ordering process.
As we move from single cells to multicellular organisms, we encounter animals with nerves that use information. Their nerves react to what happens around them, and they remember things that happened in the past. This information is different from genetic information. For one thing, it doesn’t last as long. It only lasts as long as an individual animal.
But there is more of it. Big animals carry more information in their nervous systems than in their genes. It must be useful. Each animal reads and writes its own mental information, so each individual carries a complete computer. That is different from the way evolution handles information.
This new process, let us call it an individual thought process, is another computational local ordering process. It uses mental information stored in an animal’s nervous system. It does not, however, maintain itself independently of the evolutionary process.
Since the individual thought process does not create new individuals, each individual remains dependent on the evolutionary process for reproduction. Because of this, individual thought is a subprocess of evolution, not an independent process. Its meaning exists only inside the meaning of the controlling process. It serves evolution.
To see how this works, we could look at an animal faced with an important decision. Will it snap at prey, at the risk of arousing a larger predator, or will it not snap? Will it get something to eat, or will it get eaten? The mechanism of the decision comes under selective pressure. An individual that knows more about its surroundings may be able to make a better decision. Then it may be able to leave more offspring. If a larger nervous system with more information makes better decisions, the evolutionary process may favor a larger nervous system.
There are many other pressures, of course. The genetic code holds some instincts and an overall design for the nervous system. But its own store of information is small. The individual thought process uses a much larger store of information, which is put there to help individual animals seek advantage within the evolutionary process. Its purpose goes back to the purpose of its controlling process.
The thought process works by watching and learning and understanding. It is more efficient than trial and error. But it is still part of a struggle for individual advantage. A monkey or a raven makes difficult decisions in a complex social environment. The animal has rivals and allies. Whom to help? Whom to betray? Selective pressures have built a complex brain that could be used for many purposes. But these animal still have only one meaningful purpose. There is a single underlying reason for an animal to do something: evolutionary advantage.
To step back for a moment, not every animal response or behavior has an evolutionarily meaningful reason. Plenty of meaningless events occur. Some things are the way they are because of founder effect or genetic drift. Some things are historical accidents that haven’t been under strong selection one way or the other.
Some behavior is maladaptive. Occasionally, a predator that has lost its own offspring will temporarily treat a captured prey animal as though it were offspring. That’s just a mistake. The wrong instinct for the situation. It may or may not be a selective disadvantage. A small mistake doesn’t make much difference. Bigger mistakes come under selective pressure.
The most important behavior traits are the way they are because they confer evolutionary advantage. Many animal species show cooperative behavior (reciprocal altruism), where they give help to their close relatives (kin selection), or to non-relatives when they can enforce an obligation to return the favor. Ever wonder why you hate a cheater so much? Monkeys feel the same way.
But now we come to the point of the story. Humans have two reasons for what they do, while monkeys have only one. Those same humans, who hate a cheater, also sometimes vote for universal education, universal health care, and income for everyone.
Think about that for a moment. Why would they want to insure everyone’s life and well-being? That includes relatives and non-relatives, cheaters and non-cheaters, people with good credit rating and people with bad credit rating. This sort of action makes no sense as part of a struggle for evolutionary advantage. Instead, it makes perfectly good sense as part of a completely different process.
Unlike any other animal, humans are part of a shared thought process that is largely independent of evolution. We haven’t yet started adapting our own bodies, or using artificial reproduction, but we have actually built tools to read and write genetic information, and we’re able to take control of many existing processes. We are acting in ways that intentionally ignore evolutionary advantage. We are acting this way because the future belongs to the shared thought process.
The idea of refusing to take an advantage over someone else, simply to be able to talk to them freely and openly, is a starting point for the shared thought process. Open communication is very important. My individual thought process can serve either evolution or shared thought, and it may do a bit of both. But I can’t try to control someone else and then imagine they’re going to tell me the truth.
People who don’t threaten each other can exchange and compare ideas. They can try out and improve tools and ideas in their own lives. And they can tell others what they found.
One person alone can do almost nothing. Nevertheless, individual independence is the way to independence from the evolutionary process. Eventually we will be able to maintain ourselves with our own tools and our combined thinking ability. We will replace everything that evolution used to do to us, with us, and for us. But for the moment each of us is still part of two processes.
That is what I mean by saying that I have two reasons for doing something. I am either doing it for my own evolutionary advantage, or I am doing it for the survival and independence of the shared thought process. There are two meaningful purposes for me, and they are defined by these two processes. Both processes are trying to turn back the rise of disorder around me. I just think one works better than the other.
My self-interest in one process is not the same as my self-interest in the other process. Many people around me are still pursuing evolutionary advantage, and I have to get along with them. Sometimes I am forced to look out for my own advantage. People can only use the tools they have in hand.
Meanwhile, everything is changing. The tools in the hand of each individual are becoming more and more powerful. This is helping people to assert control over their own minds, bodies, and tools. They don’t have to share these things with anyone else, and they think it increasingly wrong to try to control someone else’s minds, bodies, and tools.
Our outer surroundings in the world are shared. Traditionally, government and business controlled those shared surroundings through simple gang violence. In the past, that was all that could be expected from a struggle for survival. But people who no longer see themselves as part of a struggle don’t need to join gangs. Instead, they defend themselves only when unavoidable, and negotiate for control of their wider surroundings through the shared thought process. They give up many different kinds of control and intimidation in exchange for the ability to talk to each other.
We still need to be productive together, and we still need to insure each others’ lives. Business and government can fill these needs without controlling people. Eventually, as our tools become more powerful, these needs will come to an end, too. Each person will control their own means of survival.
I have become comfortable with the idea that there are two reasons for everything I do. Sometimes my two motives agree. Sometimes they disagree. Once I recognize them for what they are, there is no real contest between them. I know perfectly well which one is right. My difficulty is to sort out my own motives and make sure I understand why I am doing things. Even when no one else is trying to influence me to their advantage, I still have to stay in control of my own mind.
And I have to get along with the people around me. I am confident in the strength of the shared thought process. I see things moving in the right direction. But this won’t happen by itself. Of course, at the level of basic matter, everything happens by itself. But at the level of human beings, these events depend on practical free will. Nothing happens unless we make it so. What will we do? I don’t know. It will be interesting to see.