Monday, May 30, 2011

A Summary of My Philosophy of Life: How Best to Expand Life?

It's easy to read one of my posts (like my rant earlier today on Germany's decision to close nuclear power plants) and to miss the underlying reasoning behind a particular line of argument. So, I'd like to summarize as briefly as possible my philosophy on life because it comes across in the posts here and there, but it's impossible for me to repeat my philosophy of life in each post.

From my understanding of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, the meaning of life is to expand life and to consume exergy (i.e. available work.) Examples of exergy are sunlight, fossil fuels, temperature gradients in the Earth, the wind, and materials that are capable of nuclear fusion/fission. We should be consuming as much exergy as we can, but we should be consuming the exergy in such a way that we can consume even more exergy in the future, i.e. we should be choosing those technologies/fuels with the largest estimated rate of return on work invested.  Life propagates itself through the consumption of exergy. Life consumes exergy to build structures inside of cells (such as mitochondria) that allow it to consume more exergy, some of which goes back into building more cells and more mitochondria, and some of which goes into looking for more exergy. What's true for bacteria is true for us, and true for our economy. For example, power plants require work (force times distance) to build in order to generate work (i.e. electricity), which can be used to build more power plants, and so on and so on.

Fossil fuels are a form of chemical exergy, just as wind energy can be thought as a form of mechanical exergy. But it doesn't matter what type of exergy it is, as long as we are consuming it in such ways as to be able to generate work (such as electricity) in order to build more power plants. In some locations, the best option may be geothermal power plants, and in other locations, the best option may be coal or natural gas power plants. In all locations, the calculation that estimates the rate of return on work invested should include the cost of environmental damage from emitted pollutants. Right now, we are pretty good at estimating the environmental and economic damage of some pollutants, such as NOx and SOx, but there is a huge disagreement over the estimated environmental and economic damage of emitting a ton of CO2.

The problem, of course, is that we have no way of proving what is the best way to consume the most amount of exergy because we have no way of predicting the future, even with the best supercomputers of the future. We have to make educated guesses about what are some of the best ways to achieve a high rate of return, knowing that the answer we calculate is only an educated guess. We have to develop models of the future, and we have to act as if the models were true (until a new model does a better job of estimating the future.) So, we need to maintain some humility due to the approximate nature of our models, but we can't become pushovers and stop doing anything.

We need to continue to grow life, both on this planet and on other planets. There is plenty of sunlight and fossil fuels on this planet to give each person 10kW of electricity even with a population ten times more than today's population. (Note: the US average power consumption is 1.4 kW by comparison.) Also, we need to consume exergy at a high rate of return here on Earth so that we can continue to fund research into those technologies that will help us populate other planets. If we end up choosing low rate of return technologies like wind or solar, then a significant portion of our population will have to be building and maintaining the power plants. A low rate of return technology ends up killing growth, and this ends up limiting the amount of people who can be scientists (or entertainers)! It ends up limiting the amount of non-gov't luxuries.

Instead, we should focus on technologies with high rates of return on investment so that either the government or wealthy individuals can invest money in exploring the solar system. We need to develop self-replicating solar robots that can populate the Moon and Mars (just for starters.) We have so much more left to do, and so much more exergy left to consume. We haven't even come close to achieving our goals of populating other planets.

But as I mentioned earlier, even if we could all agree that the meaning of life is to expand life and consume exergy, none of us would agree on the best way to expand life and consume exergy. And that's good! This is why I write blogs and read blogs on this topic. We can always learn better ways to consume exergy and expand life. There is no right answer. There's only a right question:  how to expand life as fast as possible?   The answer is not 42. And the question is not: what is six times seven?

Does this philosophy leave us hanging?  If we can't predict the future outcome of an action, does that mean that there are no virtues, like courage or honesty? Is there no meaning to life if we can't all agree to the right course of action?

I suspect that many of us are okay with knowing the right question and not knowing the right answers. Why? Because if the right question is "how to expand life as fast as possible?", then it's pretty clear that there are some questions we don't need to be asking, such as:
"How do we live sustainably?"
"How can I minimize my impact on the environment?"
"What can I do to prepare for the Ends of Days?"
"How can we maximize happiness for everybody?"

If we want to head in the right direction, we have to be asking the right question. I think that we'll find that virtues (like honesty, courage, and sacrifice) will still exist in a society that realizes what the main question is, but the people living in that society will be smart enough to realize that they shouldn't put these virtues in front of the goal of life (to expand and consume exergy.)

I think that some ancient societies (like the Greeks and the Medieval Catholic Church) focused on the virtues (honor, courage, faith, and sacrifice) at the expense of the goal of life (to expand and consume exergy.)  At some point in time, our Western society gave up trying to teach that the role of government should be to help people to become virtuous. And that might be a good thing if it weren't for the fact that we seem to be living in a society that can't agree on any virtues and can't agree on any meaning on life.

The virtues (honesty, courage, hard work, sacrifice) are not ends to life. They should not be valued higher than life itself. The goal of life is to expand and to consume exergy. Most of the time, these virtues are in alignment with the goal of life. But not always. Sometimes honesty, courage, hard work and sacrifice are at odds with the goal of life. For example, lying is a important part of being a part of the military or security forces. Courage can be a bad virtue if you think that you should be skiing without a helmet. Hard work can be a bad virtue if you end up doing other people's work and micromanaging. And sacrifice can clearly be both a bad or a good thing. Sacrificing to save the life of child in a burning building is a good thing, but sacrificing one's hard earned money to somebody on the street who will use the money to buy alcohol is not a good thing. The virtues should be a guide and not a rule book.

In all cases, we need to be smart enough to realize that we should chose growing life over the virtues when they are at odds. And so we are left knowing the goal of life, but we are left without a set of instructions on how to live one's life in accord with the goal of life. No computer can ever solve for the optimal way to life one's life. I think that this is a good thing! It keeps things interesting.

"I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' it-self, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a time until--aw, look at me, I'm ramblin' again. Wal, uh hope you folks enjoyed yourselves." (BL)

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