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Monday, October 08, 2007

Pontifications on the Extended Order: Part 4 - Power and Morality

The second law of thermodynamics postulates that the universe is becoming ever more random. Every significant closed system that's not already maximally random is continually converging towards a state of maximum entropy. So it's quite remarkable that everywhere we look we can find order emerging from the chaos: life, civilization, economies, etc. To be clear, the entropy of the universe as a whole is increasing, but in our little nook of the vast universe, some mysterious force is fighting back, temporarily enabling life and our extended order.

So what is this force? I think Nietzsche identifies it well:
"[the] world is the will to power -- and nothing besides!"
The self-organizing systems and extended orders we see are then the results of the interactions of competing entities, each with their own will-to-power:
"My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (—its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement ("union") with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on."
One of the critical things that will-to-power "thrusts back" is the natural pull towards randomness. Will-to-power is the basis for self-organizing systems and the extended order. The end of will-to-power means the end of the world and the acceleration (at least locally) of the trend towards randomness.

I find Nietzche somewhat impenetrable, so let's switch to an author/philosopher and story that's easier to relate to. Here's the key Nietzche-like quote from the story I have in mind:
There is no good or evil, only power and those too weak to seek it.
That is, of course, Lord Voldemort from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling. This single quote encompasses a vast amount of Nietzche's work: Nietzche wrote a books called "Beyond Good and Evil" and "Will to Power" and also created the concept of the "√úbermensch" who is someone clearly not "too weak to seek" power. If J.K. Rowling didn't intentionally create a character encompassing much of Nietzche's philosophy, it's a remarkable coincidence that such a key character is central in her 4,000 page epic tale.

Voldemort is terribly evil and is ultimately defeated. That might be seen as Rowling refuting Nietzche's philosophical constructs. However, Voldemort is not defeated because he is wrong about good, evil, and power. He is defeated because he doesn't understand where real power comes from in the wizarding world and he is too weak to seek that understanding. As Albus Dumbledore explains in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows":
And his knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.
So the complication is that Voldemort thought he knew where power comes from, but it turned out he was wrong and he ended up paying dearly (with all of his lives) for being wrong.

That's very important in our non-wizarding world as well. It's very difficult to know in our extremely complex world what actually creates power and how much power can be derived from any given source. Sources of power can only be discovered and tested through a process of trial and error over the millennia. This is true whether the source of power is economic, political, religious, etc.

Let's examine Voldemort's claims that there is no good an evil. On the surface, I disagree with that, but I suspect Voldemort would still agree with my outlook regarding good and evil. Something that increases the ability to exert and extend the power of the entity is good. Anything that dissipates that power is evil.

That's the basis for all morality. It's more fundamental than the golden rule or religion. If a self-organizing system violates this basic morality it will cease to exist in fairly short order and continue its journey toward chaos.

There are two different ways to extend power: cooperation and competition.

People or entities that cooperate usually each end up with more power than those that don't. Perhaps some of the entities end up with less relative power but since the power pie is bigger each still ends up with more power in an absolute sense. Many things are required for cooperation: trust, reliability, loyalty, etc. These things are universally recognized as good. Some other things by themselves are evil but as part of the extended order are actually beneficial. Greed in a free-market system is an example of this and this means that greed is good.

When thinking about extending power, competition in the form of domination and subjugation probably quickly comes to mind for many people. The alpha-male warrior, stopping at nothing, ruthlessly brutalizes and intimidates those around him until he emerges as the undisputed leader. That is certainly a form of exerting power and in some circumstances it does extend the leader's power through dominating others. In days of old dominating others was often a great way for an individual to extend power.

However, the overall power of the group is diminished by this arrangement. The additional power gained by the ruler is more than offset by the power lost by the rest of the members of the group. This weakens the group and makes it susceptible to domination by other groups. Thus, using power morality calculus, especially in the modern age, subjugation and domination is immoral. It was not, however, at an earlier point in the development of the extended order.

Humans are wonderful story tellers and masters of narrative so we weave stories about history and power to make things that historically increased power sound good and those which dissipated power sound bad. We rewrite history as needed to make those narratives fit the current knowledge regarding power. That's why the saying is "History is written by the winners".

For a somewhat more concrete definition for power, let's start with physics. Power in a mechanical system is work per unit time (P = W/t). Power in an economic system is similar: work (or output) per time which is annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Power in politics is the control of and/or ability to redirect economic power. Even military power is a subset of economic power. There are other forms of power as well. However, for self-organizing human systems, which inherently strive to exert and extend their power, most power can be related to economic power.

I believe that both the current state of, and every change to, the extended order over time can be explained by the extended order striving to exert and extend its power. The development of religion, trade, politics, diplomacy, war, slavery, human rights, self-sacrifice, altruism, etc. can all be traced to what worked to increase the power of one or more entities of the extended order, and, most importantly, the overall power of the extended order itself.

In Part 3 of this Pontifications series, I already gave a glimpse of this by looking at the fact that "Rights Make Might". In further Pontifications, I'm going to examine non-obvious examples of power driving events. For example, in one of the next essays in this series, I'm going to describe how the abolition of slavery in the United States was power enhancing and that it was inevitable that slavery would end for that reason. Many essays after that will be dedicated to creating a convincing argument that power is the central motivator of all self-organizing systems in our extended order.

Because the process of maximizing power requires trial and error and vast amounts of time, many of our current "trials" will turn out to be errors. Because the extended order is so complex, some of these current errors may be with us for centuries before they are rectified since nobody can really be sure whether various institutions and policies extend and enhance power or dissipate power. However, I think that from the perspective of maximizing power, certain institutions and policies are clearly negatives and could be rectified immediately. Future essays in this series will identify those policies and describe why they are counter productive.

The one thing I won't delve into is why will-to-power exists. I'm personally uninterested in what causes will-to-power and I'll leave it to the theists and atheists to explain it.


erp said...

Can the will to power be categorized as survival, the foremost instinct of our primitive ancestors as it is for us.

Bret said...

I think that survival is a side-effect of will-to-power. According to Nietzche according to wikipedia: "... since the will to power is fundamental, any other drives are to be reduced to it; the "will to survive" (i.e. the survival instinct) that biologists (at least in Nietzsche's day) thought to be fundamental, for example, was in this light a manifestation of the will to power."

I agree with that. I think that few humans are content just with survival. We get out and about, have families, and generally work to extend our power, even though doing such things increases our risk of non-survival.

A second example is the fact that we have an all volunteer army. Nobody who is strictly interested in survival would join a military establishment during time of war voluntarily.

Of course, one can only exert and extend one's power if one survives, so of course individuals will work toward survival as well. The group can continue without some of its members, though it too loses power when its members die, so survival is important to the group and important to the group regrading its members.

Anonymous said...

I'm personally uninterested in what causes will-to-power

Well, Bret, to paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be very interested in the will-to-power, but the will-to-power is very interested in you.

erp said...

I think the survival instinct is primeval and the will to power is a learned behavior which greatly enhances our changes at survival by causing us to take control over our environment and gain power over others to better secure our own safety and that of our progeny.

Anonymous said...


So the will-to-power is not an evil--a fault in our natures? It's a survival mechanism that is part and parcel of the Darwinian story? We should be grateful for it?

Thanks, erp, you've put my relationship with my wife in a whole new perspective. Let's roll!

erp said...

Peter, you're up early!

Why are statements of opinion considered erp's doctrine. I think the chicken came before the egg, you may think it was the other way around, but does that mean we endorse and approve of it? I don't think so, at least I don't mean to imply endorsement.

BTW - I'm neutral on Darwin and while I'm not sure that there is a God who created the universe and everything in it, I'm pretty darn sure that it's not my handiwork.

Grateful? I just re-read my comment and don't see anything about gratitude. I merely stated an opinion on an interesting idea and don't understand what it has to do with changing your relationship with your wife.

IMHO you and your wife along with your kids should always be "ready to roll" if by that you mean protecting, by peaceful means, of course, yourselves from the inherent dangers and uncertainties of daily life.

Bret said...


I didn't say I wasn't interested in will-to-power. I said I didn't know where it came from and didn't really care where it came from.

I'm very interested in will-to-power itself.

Bret said...


Try thinking about it at a higher level. Does an ecosystem as a whole have a survival instinct? I'd say not really, or at least it's secondary, but it does have will-to-power or it wouldn't exist. Same with civilization and the extended order.

I don't think simple survival is enough. These complex systems wouldn't've gotten started, in my opinion, without a more fundamental force.

Bret said...

peter burnet wrote: "'ve put my relationship with my wife in a whole new perspective."

I'm not following - you seem to be in a cryptic mood this morning. Could you please elaborate?

erp said...

Bret, you're arguing the Borg and I'm arguing individual cells in the same time and place trying like crazy to survive and eventually evolving into colonies, ecosystems or whatever. That's as high a plane I can reach these days.

I'm glad you didn't understand Peter's reference to his wife either. I hope he will enlighten us.

Oroborous said...

Peter means that now sees that he has a socially-acceptable reason to dominate his wife and extend his power. It's a joke.

If we are to accept that individual cells and ecosystems have will-to-power, then we're at religion, like it or not. "I am."

Or at least "the Force".

Bret said...

oroborous wrote: "If we are to accept that individual cells and ecosystems have will-to-power, then we're at religion, like it or not."

I don't dislike the religious explanation, but it could also be an emergent force based on the material structure of the cosmos.

erp said...

Oro, It's not a very good joke. Why would anyone want to dominate anyone else, especially the one person in world who's his life partner and beloved? Just asking.

Bret said...

Greater power generally comes from cooperation rather than domination - and this is especially true between husband and wife. So not only is it not socially acceptable (of course), but it also thwarts will-to-power and weakens the couple and the extended order.

Oroborous said...

It's funny in the way that the punchline "that was no lady, that was my wife" is funny.

Maybe you had to be there.

Hey Skipper said...


Every significant closed system that's not already maximally random is continually converging towards a state of maximum entropy. So it's quite remarkable that everywhere we look we can find order emerging from the chaos:

Is it less remarkable if one takes into account that will to power only takes place -- so far as we know -- in an open system?


I think you are on track with the will to power as an emergent property of the survival instinct.

It is a food-chain kind of thing.

Bret said...

hey skipper asks: "Is it less remarkable if one takes into account that will to power only takes place -- so far as we know -- in an open system?"

No. What's remarkable to me is the density of self-organizing systems in our little corner of the universe.

hey skipper wrote: "I think you [erp] are on track with the will to power as an emergent property of the survival instinct."

I don't see it, especially when it comes to higher order entities. What does it mean for an extended order or ecosystem to have a survival instinct?

Hey Skipper said...

What does it mean for an extended order or ecosystem to have a survival instinct?

For a species, it means the same thing, at a different level of abstraction, as it does for an individual.

For an extended order, or ecosystem, it might be different, but I doubt it.

That is why I think erp has hit the nail on the head. The will to power is just an elaboration of the survival instinct.

Consider the inverse: posit a species -- including plants -- within an extended order that does not have a will to power.

Any survivors?

Anonymous said...


I don't think it is very funny either. But I think it flows pretty logically from what you said about my will-to-power securing my safety and that of my progeny, which you will appreciate I tend to see as a good thing.

Seems to me the only think left protecting my wife from me is her own will-to-power. Hmm, maybe Hallmark could use this theme for its anniversary cards. "Honey, I love you because our wills-to-power are perfectly balanced".

erp said...

Peter, The greeks had a word for that, it's called harmony.

Skipper, great minds do think alike.

Bret, I think we're talking about the same thing using different terminology.

Oroborous said...

[M]aybe Hallmark could use this theme for its anniversary cards. "Honey, I love you because our wills-to-power are perfectly balanced".

That's actually pretty good.

It would have to be tweaked just a little, but it would make a funny card for a niche publisher, or a Hallmark subsidiary.

A picture of Nietzche on the cover, obviously Photoshopped to be holding a bunch of flowers...