The Purpose That Drives Us

I’m sure you have asked yourself this question many times. There’s some variation of this question that visits me every day – What is it that drives a person? What is it that enables us to act? Why do we create? Why do we industrialise?

Riding at the coattails of these questions are a few answers – To feel happy. To achieve a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. To give back to society. To help raise the standard of living.

Dissatisfied, you ramble a little longer on this path and arrive at a tunnel. You traverse through the first few tunnels with confidence. After a while, you reach an intersection that seems familiar;  you seem to have passed this intersection a while ago. Slowly the feeling sinks in –  you have lost your way. You lose yourself trying to find the purpose that enables you. 

The same happens to me too.

During one such inquest when I was ruminating on this question, a random thought struck me. Why Billions of us do all that we do? The answer was simple – We attempt to reign in the chaos. We seek to establish control.


What is chaos? Chaos, Merriam-Webster instructs us, has its origins in the Greek word meaning abyss. The abyss of Tartarus, of the underworld. In the 1600s it morphed to its now-familiar version to mean confusion and disorganisation. [3]


Historically, everyone from Her-Majesty to a House-Wife made similar observations about chaos. Homes tend to get messy, gardens tend to grow weeds, hair turns Gray, and their beverage turns cold. No one had tried to formulate a formal explanation for such phenomena.

Chaos was the colloquial term used to identify this type of disorder. Later on, with the advancements in Science, in the 1850s, a German Mathematician, Rudolph Cassius rechristened disorder. He renamed it Entropy.


Entropy is a measure of the multiplicity in a system. Contrary to the popular notion, it doesn’t directly mean the disorder/ chaos. For example, consider a Rubik’s cube. In a Rubik’s cube, the state where all the elements/ pieces on one side which are of the same colour represent an ordered system. There is only one state for this to exist. However, for all other arrangements of the elements, the Rubik’s cube is in a state of disorder. And, there are several ways to arrange these elements. Entropy represents this multiplicity. However, for reasons of simplicity and also because my attempt is not to present a technical paper, I have used these terms interchangeably here.

Also, the paths available to reach an ordered system in a Rubik’s cube are very few. However, those required to attain a state of disorder are several. It is common knowledge that one needs to spend considerable time and energy to bring a Rubik’s cube to its ordered state. However, taking it to one of the multiple states of disorders requires you to flick one row or column of the cube. You can accomplish this with your eyes shut.

From a statistical point of things, Entropy, or the disorder of a system is more probabilistic than order. Consider that example of the Rubik’s cube itself. The probability of an ordered state is only one of the several possible states to exist. The same does not apply to disordered states. Every state other than the ordered state has a high probability of occurrence.

All the above-cited examples – from your coffee turning cold to you turning old – are an inevitable trend towards disorder/ multiple states. These are simple illustrations for the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy in a closed system always increases, and as a consequence, the energy of the system decreases. The Universe is also a closed system. 

Entropy reigns over everything. Everyone and everything succumbs to it – species, organisations, planets, galaxies, even the Universe. Entropy is the ultimate conqueror. Entropy can lay claim to being a Universal Law and walk away with the crown comfortably.


Higher entropy indicates higher disorder and lower energy in a system. So, conversely, lower chaos, or entropy must be an indication of higher energy. Our attempt to reign in this turmoil is an attempt to overcome entropy. To bring order to disorder. Consequently, it should naturally mean that lower entropy would entail higher energy to be expended to overcome chaos. In line with this, we spend energy organising – our homes, calendars, gardens, businesses, society – our lives. This, I believe, is the purpose that enables us. To ensure our victory in the battle against entropy, despite the knowledge that it is a war we are going to lose.

“The irreversibility of time is the mechanism that brings order out of chaos”.

Ilya Prigogine

WHY “ACTION”? WHY NOT “NO ACTION”?

If that were the case, wouldn’t it suffice if we did nothing against it, to mope towards chaos?

Here’s why I believe otherwise.

First, if it were Universe’s nature to remain stagnant against entropy, you would cease to exist too. Life took birth as a fight against entropy when a few atoms coalesced in sunlight to form microscopic molecules that manifested as the building blocks of life. These tiny molecules would endure hardship over millennia to give rise to You. It would suffice to say life was born from chaos. It is no wonder that life is chaotic.

We are a very peculiar system – one where chaos is continually being reigned in ever since the arrival of life. If you bring a person from the early 1600s to the present day, they would be in awe of the order that exists around him/ her. They would see that sanitation has improved, women don’t die of childbirth, a few droplets of medicine prevent diseases that wiped out cities; people aren’t killing each other, etc.

Secondly, a hidden force in the form of evolution was operating as a tailwind in our effort to become efficient. A Neanderthal required about 4480 calories per day to sustain the European winter. For the modern Homo Sapiens male, this number is about 2500 [2]. We see a reduction of over 40% in energy consumption. But, there’s a catch here. Our direct energy consumption may have plummeted, but, considering the total energy we consume from other sources (fossil fuels, solar energy, etc.) this number will rise higher. Consider this – the average per capita energy consumption in the US is around 1377 Watt-hour (1184 Calories)[4]. Simple math shows us that combined energy consumption (direct and per capita) would be around 3684 Calories. We still seem to be consuming lesser energy than our ancestors. But again, an exponentially higher number of us consume this energy. Holistically, the total energy consumption has shot through the roof.

There is a constant drive towards efficiency – not just as a species but in the methods we operate too. We evolved from being a hunter-gatherer to a cultivator. We went from being a band of 150 individuals to form metropolises with individuals 100,000 times the size of this band. We harnessed the power of the wind, water, coal, and industry. We built cities of human settlements, and we built farms to satiate the hunger of their occupants. Imagine if Neanderthals were to populate the Earth in the same numbers as we do today – from where do you surmise the next meal would come? After exhausting all the meat that was available on the planet, the next place you would look to for food was your neighbour’s arm. All our limbs remaining intact today are a result of this efficiency. By being more efficient, energy is now being expended to reign in chaos, because that is where our purpose lies.

Lastly, let us take a step from the external to the internal – from the chaos outside to the chaos within. Distractions reign over the mind in the form of information – notifications, colleagues, books, blogs, news, designs, plans, recipes, mail, etc. Our constant effort to tame it is a tiring exercise, but we keep at it nonetheless. We adopt various techniques – meditation, focusing on our breathing, mindfulness, etc. – to achieve this. We cannot live without information; we have to learn to manage the overload of information. It is a formidable weapon in our fight against entropy [5]. We use accumulated information and prior knowledge to develop improved technology that will help us in this fight and stave off this enemy for an extended period. We also bear the burden to gather and assimilate new information to pass it on to future generations to repeat this process.

We were born out of chaos and evolved to become better at delaying entropy by transferring chaos from the internal to the external. With a percentage of this entropy transferred to the external, the disorder associated with it also went out. Since the entropy of a closed system always increases, as a Universe we’re heading towards chaos. Still, by leveraging our resourcefulness, human beings and the Earth as a system seem to have slightly tilted the balance in their favour.

THE ASTONISHING FEATURE

Despite hurtling towards chaos, our subconscious seems to be aware of that which is in our control and that which is not. Hence, we proceed to work on that we can influence and let alone the rest. It is perhaps to this effect that Epictetus points us towards in The Art of Living. Here is a noteworthy passage that speaks for itself:

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”

Epictetus

Throughout our evolution, we see a constant purpose – to bring order and to reign in chaos. If you look at it from the point of Physics, our purpose in life is very clear – to tame Entropy.

Isn’t it ironic, that amidst all the chaos many Millennia ago, the Universe breathed life into existence? What was the result? The birth of an innumerable variety of life forms, each with a purpose to create order to favour their own propagation. I see it not as a consequence of chaos, but as a means to fight it.

In the abundance of chaos, with a purpose, humans have thrived. In the absence of chaos, without purpose, humans stand deprived.

References:

[1] https://jamesclear.com/entropy

[2] https://phys.org/news/2018-04-neanderthal-nose.html

[3] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/chaos-meaning-and-history

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electricity_consumption

[5] Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies – Cesar Hidalgo

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