The problems with your parents may have their roots in the Big Bang
An understanding of the entropy born at T= 0 can explain a difficult childhood, and perhaps everything else
Part 2 in a 2-part series inspired by Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin.
Still No Word From You, from another angle
In part 1 of this series, we explored Peter Orner’s incredible collection Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin, in particular the themes of a paternal schism.
Among other things, Orner writes deftly about the relationship (or non-relationship) with his own biological father, and his reaction (or non-reaction) to paternal episodes that defy explanation.
And in part 1 of this series, we generalized the themes of an unexplainable paternal schism out to the unexplainable parent in general, and then attempted to resolve this quandary through literature, and a literary analogy.
In part 2, we’ll explore the theme of resolving the unresolvable parent through quantum physics and an understanding of our universe’s origins―though we will rely on literature as well, and in particular Alan Lightman’s book Probable Impossibilities: Musings On Beginnings And Endings.
So let’s take a step back from the way, way, way downstream results of a father who leaves without explanation, or a mother who is pathologically unable to share a single kind word.
Let’s go back to the beginning of it all―the very beginning.
Let’s take a step back in time, and take a look at what we understand — to some degree at least
Don’t worry about unexplainable parents for the time being.
Let’s first go back to the beginning of this universe, the very beginning.
Let’s go back to when Time began, or rather T = 0.
T = 0 and T > 0
We don’t know what happened before T = 0, the moment the Big Bang brought existence into being.
We don’t even know what the term before means in that context, or if it holds any meaning at all.
And there is also quite a bit we don’t know about the time after, including our current state of existence.
But existence after the Big Bang is not a complete mystery.
We do have a handle on post-Big Bang existence to some degree, which we could call T > 0.
Then universe expanded very quickly, from subatomic size to light years in diameter, and among other things, the laws of the universe came into being.
The speed of light was set (if it was not set at or before T = 0), and similarly, gravitational and molecular forces were also set (again, if they were not set at or before T = 0).
And then there was something else made.
Some call it a concept, some might call it a physical property.
Some might call it a law, no less flexible than the fact that the speed of light will be 299,792,458 meters per second everywhere, from your living room to the most distant galaxy.
This concept, measurable physical property, law―or whatever else you want to call it, is called entropy.
Entropy — the persistent drive towards net disorder
Every moment, the universe as a whole gets disordered a bit more.
Whatever you do―from eating a carrot to cleaning your room―the universe becomes more disordered with every action.
In the case of eating a carrot, the act of eating is a disorganization of the theretofore highly organized structure called a carrot. You are disorganizing the carrot in the service of keeping your body organized, but still―the net order of the universe decreases.
Cleaning your room certainly organizes your immediate domain, but it might send a bag of trash or two to a landfill.
Again, net disorder.
At the moment of the Big Bang, or perhaps a small moment after―the universe was the size of a grain of sand, and was as ordered as it was ever going to get.
But then the universe was brought into a real existence, and it has been getting more disordered ever since.
Let’s begin to tie these seemingly different concepts together
Entropy and parental dysfunction seem quite different at first.
And they are certainly different in terms of scale, both physical and temporal.
Entropy is everywhere in this universe at once, and has been around since time immemorial.
Parental dysfunction, as far as we know, is only in disparate pockets on earth, and as far as its timing is concerned―Freudian analysis has only been around for a century or so.
But they may be quite related, and we will present two arguments―the first one large, and the second one specific.
The Large Argument — entropy is behind parental dysfunction because entropy is behind everything
And when we say everything, we mean that entropy is behind everything.
And this starts with time itself.
In Lightman’s book Probable Impossibilities, Lightman cites physicist and all-around public intellectual Sean Carroll:
Carroll and other physicists believe that order is intimately connected to the “arrow” of time. In particular, the forward direction of time is determined by the movement of order to disorder.
Time driven by entropy?
Or maybe time doesn’t exist by itself―perhaps there is only entropy?
Regardless, Lightman doubles down on this sentiment later in the book:
One might say that the forward direction of time is the increase in disorder. Indeed, without these changes, we’d have no way of telling one instant from the next.
Without entropy increasing, there might be no time.
Without entropy increasing, there might not be anything.
An entropy-free universe might be a highly-ordered sphere of Jell-o, where nothing occurs.
And entropy may be more than just time, it may be everything
Lightman doesn’t just stop at time. He examines entropy on a smaller scale, to the earth-localized process of evolution:
Perhaps the most well known example of disorder in biology is the shuffling of genes — both by mutation and by the transfer of genes from viruses and other organisms.
Everything we are, and everything we are able to do as humans is because of a series of chaotic occurrences within our genes.
And of course, the chaos that made us isn’t just within our genes. The entropy of the universe also made us.
Think of it―millions, or perhaps billions of years ago, a distant star followed its entropic directives by ejecting a steady stream of cosmic radiation.
One particle of that cosmic radiation may have traveled billions (or more) kilometers, over millions (or more) years, all to hit a single cell at just the right base pair of its DNA, which yielded just the right mutation―
A nanometer to the left or the right, or a nanosecond too late or too early, and―
If it was long enough ago, there might be no complex life on earth. We might still be a bunch of cells covering this world, and nothing more.
In that case, entropy certainly did us a service.
And of course, that is but one example―one single errant bit of cosmic radiation spreading itself out an unfathomable expanse, and then changing the biological fate of an entire planet.
There’s also the errant asteroid that cleared out the dinosaurs to make way for the mammals, and―
Well, there’s everything.
Without entropy, nothing would happen. To quote Lightman again:
One might say that the forward direction of time is the increase in disorder. Indeed, without these changes, we’d have no way of telling one instant from the next.
To sum up, entropy may be responsible for your unexplainable parent because entropy is responsible for everything.
Let’s get a bit more specific than this though.
Let’s see how entropy can lead to very, very specific dysfunction.
The Small Argument — entropy brings parental dysfunction downstream, through the nature of biology and evolutionary pressures
All right, let’s get specific.
Entropy may be the cause of everything that happens, but let’s explore a singular branch of entropy, one that might result in an unexplainable parent, among other things.
Let’s start with biology, which―in some regards at least―is the greatest counter to entropy in the known universe.
Biology brings organization — incredible organization
There are certain things we know of that defy quantification.
The universe is unfathomably large.
The period before T = 0 might forever be a mystery to us, including what the term ‘before’ means.
Biology yields unfathomably, impossibly, explanation-defyingly complex and ordered structures.
A thought experiment — what is the most complex structure in the known universe?
What is the most complex structure in the known universe?
An astronomer can observe galaxies and black holes, exoplanets and objects on the far end of the universe.
But in terms of finding maximal complexity, the astronomer must turn away from her telescopes and instead walk into an MRI machine.
In short, the most complex―and ordered―known object in the universe is the human mind.
One could of course argue that the elephant mind, which contains three times as many neurons as the human mind is the most complex structure in the known universe―but for this argument, let’s just call it the human mind.
Regardless, think of it―
The universe yields impossibly large structures―there are, for example, supermassive black holes with 3 million times the diameter of earth.
But even the largest, most powerful supermassive black hole is not that complex, and certainly not that complex compared to a human mind.
Heck, the most powerful supermassive black hole might not even be that complex compared to a wolf mind, or even a deer mind―
Or perhaps even a fly mind, with 100,000 neurons all acting in perfect synchronicity and balance.
In short, biology brings an incredible amount of organization to this universe, one that seems to counter the forces of entropy, and perhaps surpass them.
But life does not surpass the forces of entropy, because entropy cannot be surpassed.
The complexity and order of life comes with a price, and that is where our problems begin.
The price of biological order
The first component of why highly ordered biological structures still bring an increase in net entropy is a direct one:
If a non-plant biological structure wants to keep its own order, it must consume and disorder other theretofore ordered biological structures.
If a deer-structure wants to stay ordered, it must spend much of its day disordering grass-structures.
If a wolf-structure wants to stay ordered, it must spend much of its day stalking a hierarchy of deer-structures, so that it can disorder at least one of those deer-structures.
That’s a net price to pay in terms of overall order, one that brings ever more disorder to this universe―
And there is a second price to pay on the level of each individual organism as well.
And that is the price of constant threat.
The constant threat of disintegration
The gift of an impossibly-ordered body and mind does not come for free.
The constant threat of disintegration, of their own body falling into disorder.
Deer-structures must constantly forage for grass to keep starvation at bay, but the main threat to them is the wolf―
There are always wolves lurking beyond the deer’s sight, and downwind to negate the deer’s well-organized set of 297 million olfactory receptors.
And the wolves are under constant threat as well. They have their own predators as well of course―humans and bears can kill wolves for consumption, or just to eliminate competition―but even absent external threats, the internal threat of hunger is always with them.
Wolves tend to gorge themselves and then go without eating for days, but still―wolf-structures must disorder a prey-structure every two weeks.
If not, the wolf will disintegrate into disorder themselves.
In short, there is a price to the impossibly-intricate order biology bestows upon an individual―and that is the constant duty to maintain that order.
And that constant stress does not leave a lot of room for tropes like being a good parent.
But before we get to that, there is one more curveball existence throws at us, and that is the set of pressures born by evolution.
Evolution, the organizing force of meta-order
Evolution is a goalless process, and has one and only one set of imperatives on the individual level:
Deliver one’s genes to the next generation, or help do this with genes similar to one’s own.
Sometimes that can deliver greater complexity of structures―case in point, humans and the most complicated structure in known existence―the human mind.
Sometimes simplicity is more ideal―case in point, Escherichia coli, which only have a handful of genes, but still find a way to live in most every mammal on earth, including you.
But whatever the case, evolution takes biological pressures to the next level.
A biologically ordered living structure must only maintain their own order, but for a species to withstand the evolutionary process, they must also maintain their order across time―
Or according to those who think entropy is time, perhaps evolutionary pressure bears the full and direct force of entropy itself.
Regardless, the fight against entropy through one’s own existence is quite difficult indeed, and when you take that fight beyond your own existence and across the expanse of time―
That is quite difficult indeed.
And this difficulty doesn’t always leave room for what we would call ‘good’ parenting.
Case in point, the lobster.
If you think your parent was unexplainable, wait until you meet the lobster
A female lobster can carry up to 100,000 eggs.
It takes her up to a year to gestate the eggs, and then she keeps them attached to her body for another year.
And then she fans them away.
And then her offspring are on their own.
In a stable population, her evolutionary goal would be to have two of those offspring survive until adulthood, and then mate themselves.
Let’s do the math, and he see how little room evolution leaves for good parenting in the face of entropy.
99,998 lobster children sacrificed so that 2 may grow into adulthood
Every lobster you see has, at the very least, thousands of siblings who did not make it.
Every lobster you see did not meet their own parent.
Every lobster you see made it through the unforgiving ocean on their own, with only their genetics, their instincts and an oversized helping of sheer luck guiding them into adulthood.
Let’s dial back the anthropomorphism, but keep the math
Applying a human sense of morality to the lobster life cycle isn’t quite an authentic way of seeing things.
But still, the math illustrates just how difficult it is to maintain a sense of biological order across not only one’s own existence, but across time as well.
And it also illustrates how in the evolutionary fight against entropic forces, there is not always space leftover for tropes like being a good parent.
Being a good parent doesn’t hurt things, of course, but it is not required to persist, and sometimes there is not enough order left over to allow it to persist.
Let’s tie these disparate analogies together, and then come to a conclusion
Unless your parent gave birth to 99,998 doomed offspring that they left in the forest, comparing them to a lobster isn’t a productive way of looking at things.
The conclusion is this:
In the battle between evolution and entropy, fought across the battlefield of biological existence, there is almost no margin for anything beyond existence and persistence. So beyond being born, nothing is guaranteed―and that includes having a good parent.
That makes a bit of sense but―
This is not a boot camp, and if you have an unexplainable parent, you don’t need one.
So let’s get a better conclusion than this, one that takes into account what you receive with entropy.
Entropy delivers a cost, but it also delivers beauty
Entropy brings difficulty, but it also brings gifts to existence.
Think of the peacock.
Entropy delivered a gene mutation a long time ago, and through evolution―with a helping of runaway sexual selection―now we have the peacock, and it brings beauty to this existence.
In fact, we get whole forests of beauty.
We also get cities. Not all of them are beautiful, but some certainly are.
This is not to paint an overly-rosy picture of childhood trauma, saying that it is somehow worth it, or that everything happens for a reason.
Unexplainable parents are not worth it, and everything might not happen for a reason in this amoral universe.
The unexplainable parent as the collateral damage of an entropic existence
We could consider the unexplainable parent, and perhaps the resultant childhood as collateral damage.
Collateral damage does not happen for a reason, and it certainly isn’t all for the best.
Collateral damage is not required and in fact should not occur in any war.
But it does occur, none of it is your fault and―
If you can get past internalizing your unexplainable parent’s misbehavior, realize that you are in an incredible existence, all brought into being by entropy.
You live in a world of planets and life, and indescribable beauty brought from universal forces that do not always go your way.
And you live in a world where you can check out Still No Word From You: Notes In The Margin from your library.
And no matter what upbringing and circumstances this entropic universe has delivered to you, that is a good universe indeed.
Jonathan Maas is the author of Klareana: The Human Child, and directed the movie Spanners, which is available to watch for free on YouTube.
This article gathered insights from Alan Lightman and Sean Carroll, and the book Probable Impossibilities: Musings On Beginnings And Endings is a great place to find them both.
Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin is available wherever books are sold, and has been lauded by The New York Times, among other places.
Jonathan Maas recommends you read any tale by Peter Orner, and if you want a different, albeit equally incredible take on the responses to the difficulties of life, you should read the graphic novel Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank, by Peter’s brother, Eric Orner.
Additional reading suggestions
Maggie Brown and Others — by Peter Orner, published by Little, Brown and Company
Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live — by Peter Orner, published by Catapult Books
Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings by Alan Lightman.
Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank — by Eric Orner, published by MacMillian Books
Klareana: The Human Child — by Jonathan Maas, published by Cynical Optimist Press