Disorder and the Watercourse Way (How to Watch the World Burn & Stay Sane)

*Part 3 in “How to Watch the World Burn and Stay Sane” posted in bite-sized segments each week. Intro here. P1, P2*


The second law of thermodynamics states that everything in the world tends towards disorder/chaos. This law affects every part of our daily lives, e.g. the lukewarm coffee on my table dissipating heat or my tabletop collecting more and more dust. On a grander scale, events unfolding around us: the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crises, etc., are to the naked eye, also forms of disorder and chaos. Instinctively, we see disorder as something negative and attempt to avoid it at all costs. Hence, most people take pride in the organization of space and time, such as having a tidy room or a rigorous schedule. However, we know that eventually, everything tends to become disordered again.

On an existential level, we are afraid of the unknown, and we feel helpless when we can’t make sense of a disordered world. (Un)fortunately, this is the default and immutable setting for the universe. Although you can’t stop the process of entropy, gradual decline to disorder, what you can do is take a different view of the chaos or disorder around you. When you view your body under a microscope, you’ll see the white blood cells and antibodies in your bloodstream frantically attacking bacteria, viruses and other foreign microorganisms. However, if your cells did not fight, you would get sick. Moreover, the body is continuously trying to achieve balance in the internal system through homeostasis, which is essential to human survival. So what is seemingly disorder at one level can be viewed as harmony at another. Who is to say that the chaos/disorder around you is not achieving harmony on a different plane. It’s a matter of perspective.

Chaos & the butterfly effect

In chaos theory, there is the concept of the Butterfly Effect, coined from the work of meteorologist Edward Lorenz. He discovered that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings over the Amazon could influence the weather in Texas. This theory does not mean the butterfly could directly cause a tornado, but what this necessarily implies is small changes in the initial conditions of a system can potentially create very different changes in the final state. You can never determine the actual overall trajectory of an interconnected system.

When we apply this to human civilization and historical events, it means that it is not necessarily the momentous moments that defined it but the small ones that led up to them: Not just the “What-If,” but the most trivial of “What-Ifs.” According to chaos theory, nothing is wholly deterministic or predictable. What may have been the outcome if this happened or that happened? We can’t know. That’s the crux of it all. So we get stuck as to what to do about any given situation because we’re afraid we’ll make a mistake or that something of unforeseen consequence will arrive at our doorsteps.

The watercourse way

While the world wiggles around, time is an arrow that shoots in one direction. As Stephen Hawking puts it: “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.” If everything remained stagnant, flowers wouldn’t bloom, nor would butterflies emerge out of their cocoons. In the knowledge that everything will fall apart and dissipate, entropy drives us to create and express ourselves. From entropy, we derive purpose in our lives. However, the key is not to force or control anything. By attempting to force everything to bend to our will, which is impossible, we cause a great deal of frustration, anxiety, and suffering for not just ourselves but the people around us.

In Taoism, there is the idea “Wu Wei” (無爲). Although translated into “no-action,” it is better defined as “effortless action.” Swim with the current rather than against it. Get into the flow of things. Cultivate the ability to know when to act, when not to act. Also, we can draw on the Chinese conceptualization of nature to guide us. In Chinese, the word for nature is “zi ran” (自然). Which translates to “that-which-comes-upon-itself” or simply as “spontaneity.” Seeing oneself as part of nature, we can see that existence is spontaneous. However, we have detached ourselves from nature. Human hubris views nature as something that can be tamed and controlled. This arrogance prevents us from realizing the spontaneous nature of our existence. The inability to accept change, uncertainty, and impermanence is one of the chief causes of our feeling of helplessness in the face of a chaotic world.

*Follow for part 4 coming soon. If you feel like buying me a cup of coffee/supporting my work, click here.*



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Nathan LIAO

Economics. Politics. Culture. Society. “Pennies for my thoughts?” @natesnotwoke