Entropy on Hold

Philosophy and Physics

I’m going to put the entropy book on hold for a bit and get back to it later. The basic theme of Arieh Ben-Naim’s book seems quite blunt and compelling: that entropy can be understood only through atoms or molecules — allowing for the distinction between micro- and macrostates — and that the apparently inexorable increase in entropy is the result of some macrostates having lots of possible microstates. (The author introduces different terms: “dim” vs. “specific” events, respectively.)

Ben-Naim presents various mathematical models using simple rules and shows how the system’s “entropy” rises to a relatively likely macrostate (or close range of macrostates), especially in systems with a large number of identical components. These more likely macrostates “hide” information in the form of their many microstates, which although distinct on the microscopic level produce no observable change in some all-encompassing macrostate. In many ways the book has a simple and direct message, but his side pleas against other interpretations and definitions of entropy (such as increasing disorder instead of increasing amount of missing information) can make for a confusing read.

In any event, more about that in the future when I have the energy to re-read Entropy Demystified. A few days ago I bought a book that’s even closer to my core interests. Bernard d’Esagnat, writing in his On Physics and Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2006), states he will avoid discussing metaphysics in detail, but:

Still, in the present book the metaphysical domain has willy-nilly to be approached in one respect. For indeed one piece of information that contemporary physics clearly yields, as we shall see, is the absolute necessity of carefully distinguishing between two concepts of reality. One of them is ontological reality, that is, the notion referred to when “what exists independently of our existence” is thought of or alluded to. The other one, empirical reality, is the set of phenomena, that is, the totality of what human experience, seconded by science, yields access to. (p. 4)

D’Espagnat intends to describe the philosophical importance of quantum results on “nonseparability” with its nonlocality and holism, the universal applicability of quantum rules, and finally “quantum measurement theory and the immensely puzzling riddle of the nature of consciousness” (Schrödinger’s cat and all that). I’ll post comments as I make my way through the book.

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