15 February 2009


I just wrote an overly long overview of Thermodynamics for a school function and I thought I'd share one of philosophically interesting ideas generated by the field: (I'm leaving off talking about Creationism, The Arrow of Time, and many other interesting, but more talked about, concepts in favor of my own personal favorite. And, of course, I though I'd share this Moxy Fruvous video, which says everything better than I ever could:

Moxy Fruvous - Entropy

Heraclitian versus Parmenidean metaphysics

This is to my mind the most interesting philosophical question posed by Thermodynamics. Heraclitian metaphysics are process conceptions, where as Parmenidean are substance conceptions. Parmenideas proposed the idea that the way to understand the world was through the idea of unchanging stuff (atoms). He said that in order to understand the world the natural philosopher much examine closely this unchanging stuff for its universal, necessary, and certain characteristics. Heraclitus on the other hand said that everyone recognizes experience to be particular, contingent, and positive of some uncertainty. He, therefore, said that in order to understand the world you should look at the Logoi (plural of Logos meaning rules or laws) for change. With the advent of the Calculus we were able to model change in a much more sophisticated way and as the Statistical Mechanical world view became more prominent we start seeing that the world has qualities which are not exclusively Parmenidean; that is, knowledge of the world cannot be said to be universal, necessary, or certain.

This is also sometimes called the idea of “stochastic law”, stochastic being a 75 cent word for statistical. It is quite odd, on its face, to say that a Law is only probably true. And of course this is what we do say with respect to Thermodynamics as well as many other areas of modern physics.

I’d rather not say that the Heraclitian and Parmenidean metaphysics are in conflict with each other, but rather complement each other. But I think if modern physicists had to give up either the idea of the ultimate reality Matter or the Idea of the ultimate reality Energy, they would en mass give up the idea of the reality of Matter: (that is, side with a process rather than with a stuff.)


The rise of the science of thermodynamics brings the idea of energy into the center stage. But energy is only real in specific forms and no specific form of energy is really Energy. That is to say that Energy has a generic character, but it only manifests itself as Heat E, Gravitational E, Chemical Binding E, ElectroMagnetic E, Etc. So there are rules,(logoi) to the transformation of energy, because if there weren’t you couldn’t talk about reality, but the ‘thing’ Energy does not itself exist: it is ontologically vacuous. So we believe that each specific form of Energy is an instance of a more generic concept which is not itself observable or necessarily real. Another way to put this is that the generic form of energy is what is conserved, and what the first law applies to: the specific forms can be mutilated however you like.

This really shows the gulf between atomistic/Parmenidean THINGHOOD thinking and process/Heraclitian metaphysics of dynamic change. Energy is immaterial, but it has explanatory characteristics of mater: it has properties: it can act upon matter and change it without being material itself.