Entropy as Empathy, and the Analogs for Social Structure and Culture


Inside a church, Lucca, Italy, 2015

“A law is more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different are the kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its range of applicability. (Thermodynamics) It is the only physical theory of universal content, which I am convinced, that within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts will never be overthrown.”   Albert Einstein

My friend and colleague Jake Leachman has a paradigm-creating post on mapping thermodynamic entropy to empathy here.  It’s not for the casual reader, but it’s worth stumbling over regardless of background.  Here’s the killer quote, that maps directly to our understanding of diversity of viewpoints as driving creativity in groups:

“The entropy of mixing is defined in thermodynamics as the increase in total entropy observed when initially separate fluids in equilibrium mix without chemical reaction. The entropy goes up because a considerable amount of work would be required to separate the fluids again, work that you can only return a small fraction of. The entropy of mixing always leads to an entropy higher for the mixture than the pure components alone, and the maximum entropy of mixing likely occurs near an equal parts mixture.”

There are two punchlines that are really important — if entropy quantizes the number of paths one can take from one given thermodynamic state to another, then entropy maps well to empathy.  That one’s out of Jake’s head.  The second is my observation that if social structure maps to physics, culture, as a more expansive, up-and-down-the-v-Meme scale, maps to chemistry, just as the variety of elements possess many diverse properties.  One can now characterize multiple world culture/structure dynamics by understanding the dynamics of how fluids mix.  That opens up multiple strategic directions for prediction of how organizations will react to larger societal change, as well as each other.

We’re going to continue to think on this, needless to say.  We’d invite you to do so as well. Read Jake’s post.

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