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  • Writer's pictureAnnie Berbert

Systemic entropy and evolution: Re-evaluating Murphy’s Law

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

If anything can go right, when will it?

Whenever something went wrong, my mother always rehearsed Murphy’s Law with enough of a sardonic tone of disgust, that I knew this law was not official. The phrase, “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong,” got us through multiple family vacations so disastrous they’d have made Chevy Chase blush. But it was Mr. Stevens, my high school chemistry teacher, who motivated me to weave this mantra into my world view when he taught me about entropy — or the proclivity of energy to move to a state of greater disorder. He used our disheveled teenage bedrooms as an example of entropy, explaining that just as it took more energy to clean those rooms than it took to mess them up, so would it take more energy to change burnt carbon back to its original form. My mind melded this idea of a world moving towards greater chaos with Murphy’s Law that if things can go wrong, they will, and I quickly became my own worst enemy to any concept of hope.

Paradigms built on the premises of Murphy’s Law and entropy are, by definition, doomed to collapse. And in that space of deflated dreams, I found my depressed self looking for a new framework, asking Murphy, Mom, and Mr. Stevens: “Could there be situations in life where if things can go right, they do?” With that question hovering, I stood back and observed the overarching development of humanity — from wheel to wagon to automobile to airplane to rocket, from inhumanity to improving human rights, from cave drawings to cinematic theater — it became readily apparent to me that, despite all our contemporary squabbles and conflicts, humanity is progressively moving to a higher state of being rather than to a more chaotic one. This realization provided the primary answer to my question: evolution.

The evolution of human thought, innovation, emotion, and behavior has — on so many levels — gone right.

The contradiction between entropy and evolution is not a new conversation by any means. And the two concepts are not entirely parallel contradictions. Entropy deals with the movement from order to disorder, whereas evolution deals with the movement from simplicity to complexity. But the fascinating piece is evaluating how these concepts of entropy and evolution correlate to our emotional well-being, professional growth, and personal relationships. In what contexts do our lives move towards chaos and in what contexts do we evolve emotionally, professionally, socially? When are things more inclined to go wrong, and when are they more inclined to go right?

Closed Systems A particularly intriguing aspect of entropy is that it expands in closed systems. A closed system is one in which matter is not allowed to transfer in or out of the system. It is isolated, does not interact with other systems, and obeys the laws confined to it. This means that disorder, uncertainty, and randomness expand in restrictive paradigms.

Symbolically, this feels relevant to our personal growth and development. When we invest time and energy into systems that are closed and fixed, our sense of well-being becomes more chaotic and disordered. We see examples of closed systems everywhere — in business, political, religious, and personal relationships where complicity is favored over collaboration; where the exchange of ideas cannot be transferred easily; where work is compartmentalized and isolated; where people cannot interact freely with one another; and where individuals are expected to obey and support the infrastructure of the organization rather than contribute to and create a dynamic, engaged culture. It should come as no surprise to anyone that disorder, uncertainty, and randomness pervade this type of system. Who can feel energized, empowered, creative, or valued in the structural limitations of a closed system?

Open Systems In an open system, matter is allowed to transfer in and out of the system, making evolution possible. Open systems interact with information, energy, and materials. This means that growth, development, and progress are all able to flourish in an open system.

On a symbolic level, when we invest time and energy into systems that are open, our sense of well-being becomes more expansive, intricate, and whole. Open systems in relationships enable a free-flowing exchange of ideas; allow for spontaneity and connection; honor independence and interdependence; enable collaboration and unique idea-sharing; empower the individual voice and allow everyone to impact and create a culture of growth and opportunity. It should come as no surprise to anyone that progress and innovation evolve in this type of system. Who wouldn’t feel energized, empowered, creative, or valued in the expansive interactions of an open system?

I suppose that being cooped up in an old, brown Volkswagen van with my parents, four other siblings, and all our luggage for hours on end was a pretty closed system. Very little matter could get in or out, including airflow. It’s no surprise that I ended up with gum in my hair and the door managed to be kicked off its hinges before we got home. In that environment, anything that could go wrong pretty much did, and chaos was the only thing with elbow room. I have since come to realize that if evolving my soul is my ultimate goal, then I need open, interactive systems and spaces where I can both rejuvenate and engage, contemplate and express, hear and be heard, observe and contribute, be autonomous and connected. When those spaces are openly given and received, then very little can go wrong, and most everything feels right.

Photo by Pawal Janiak on Unsplash. Image here has been cropped from the original.

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