Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The Bubble Boy

As part of the set up of several Star Trek episodes, an alien intelligence maintains a earth-like conditions inside a small bubble on an otherwise inhospitable planet. The protected zone serves as a stage setting for the delicate dramas of the fragile humans. Now I don’t think the habitable part of the Earth was laid out by any intelligence whatsoever—I’m on the record that Tom Fool Nature did it—but our actual situation is strikingly similar except that the playground we inhabit is not a symmetrical volume in the midst of a wilderness, but an exceedingly complicated network of intersecting passageways that from very far off or very close in looks like a continuous space. I may think I can wander freely in these parts but a random excursion to the middle of Gerry Avenue or even a trip out of my clothes and then down the hall will disabuse me of this theory.

Spinoza famously suggested that a conscious stone would believe it was acting freely as it tumbled down a hill. I think we are more like a counter on an abacus that somehow manages to ignore the rod upon which it slides. I do not point out the fact to provide an occasion for existential anguish, however. It is part of a general explanation of how beings of limited power and intellect can function at all.

There is also a thermodynamic way of making this point. An individual, thinking human is a very high peak of negative entropy, but the exception we all represent to the usual law of ruin is only possible because we are located in a region already maintained at low entropy, indeed at the center of a concentric set of such regions: the brain in the body, the body in the city, the city in the human world, the human world in the biosphere, each shell excreting its disorder to the next.

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