03 March, 2017

Theory of Being -- IV: Prana and Entropy

This is the fourth in the series called Theory of Being. A clearer understanding of this post is possible when the reader has read through the earlier posts in this series.

To summarize the main elements, we started by noting that the universe as we know it can be broadly divided into two realms -- the energy realm and the information realm. Everything in the physical universe can be reduced to energy, and everything in the conceptual realm is fundamentally built from information.

We also started to develop a new theory of the universe, inspired by the dharmic worldview. Here, the building block of the universe is an entity called "Being". A being is a template that can host energy and information. The "state" of being is the information content in being. Beings tend to settle down into "stable" or "sustainable" states, which is called its dharma. These are states that correspond to robust optimality given its operational neighbourhood (called its Vidhi).

Beings can compose with one another to form bigger beings, with the entire universe itself forming the ultimate Being.

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The tendency of beings to settle down into stable states is treated as axiomatic, as it is based on ample empirical evidence -- be it in the quantum dynamics of sub-atomic particles, or the elasticity of solids, or the dynamics of fluids or the phenomenon of homeostasis in living beings.

The philosophy of dharma that characterizes Eastern thought is built on the concept of sustainability of beings. This in in contrast to "particles" and "mechanics" that forms central elements of Newtonian worldview, that can be traced all the way to ancient Hellenic Greece.

It is not that Western thought has not recognized stable states or Eastern thought has not recognized mechanics. For instance, the relatively recent discipline of Game Theory, also dubbed as "A Beautiful Math" is predominantly based on understanding equilibria and stable states. Game Theory is applied as much to biological and social phenomena as much to physical phenomena.

The question we are now posing is to understand the way in which mechanics feature in the hermeneutics of dharma.

Even though stability and sustainability form the fundamental building blocks of the dharmic worldview, there is another important concept that we need to consider. This is the concept of Prana.

Prana is variously translated as "force", "energy", "life", etc. Of course, none of them capture its essence exactly. The closest working definition of Prana that we will be using to develop our theory is Prana as "vitality".

Prana is basically the fundamental element of vitality in the universe. It is what makes beings seek different levels of dharma or stable states.  A being with low levels of prana settles down in a "lower" state of dharma and a being with high levels of prana can reach "higher" states of dharma.

So how do we understand, and perhaps quantify this "lower" and "higher" states of dharma?

"Lower" and "higher" states of dharma can be distinguished by their "information content" or entropy.

Consider a society of beings each of whom are trying to maximize their survivability. (Note that, a society of such beings is also a being which is trying to maximize its sustainability.)

Each being has some needs for its survival, which requires it to build connections with its environment, made up of other beings. Let us say that we have one such society with low levels of "Prana". The beings do not have much vitality and have just enough resources to build just one connection. The beings are focused solely on their survival and do not have the wherewithal to process complex notions like social fairness and such. The beings just connect with one another so that they can get to everybody else, as quickly as possible. So in what kind of a stable state, does such a society end up?

Some truly awesome research efforts have shown that, the resultant "dharma" for such a society, looks somewhat like this:

Star graph: Image source: Wikipedia

A "star" network is an emergent stable property (or an "equilibrium" in Game Theory parlance) resulting from individual beings exercising their Prana to maximize their sustainability.

As we can see, a star network is optimal in the sense that, anyone can reach anyone else in the network, in a maximum of 2 hops. Given very little Prana of just making one connection, this is the class of network with the shortest separation, that can be built. No one imposed a star graph on this society -- it emerged as a stable property from individual beings seeking to sustain themselves! This network now becomes a "being" of the "star" variety. We are already talking evolution here!

So how does the "star being" fare with respect to its sustainability? For one, it is quite efficient, since anyone can reach anyone else in a maximum of two hops. The "star being" is also robust against random failures. If every node is equally likely to fail, and there are n nodes in the network, then, for (n-1) possible failures, the rest of the network (and the "star being") continues to function. It is only one critical failure (of the central node) that can kill the "star being".

However, the "star being" is also innately vulnerable because the central node is heavily loaded in comparison with all the other nodes. It has to manage (n-1) connections, while every other node manages just one connection. The heavy load on the central node makes it most vulnerable to burnout and collapse, which would in turn, bring down the entire "star being".

The star network also has very low information content or "entropy". If we have to describe a star network over a given set of n nodes, all we need to specify is which node is the central node. The rest of the network can be reconstructed just by knowing who is the central being.

We can make this society reach a higher level of dharma by infusing more "Prana" into the constituent beings. We can do this either by empowering them with more resources (by providing enough energy to make more connections), or by empowering them with richer information constructs like "fairness".

Let us take the second case to understand the concept of Prana. As we can see, Prana is not just energy. Increasing awareness also increases Prana. The vitality of a being towards sustaining itself is based not just on its energy, but also on its awareness.

When beings are aware of the network that they are part of, and understand concepts like fairness, they would be able to see that the star network that they created is not very sustainable. The network is its own adversary -- by overloading the central node and by giving it an unfair amount of load.

So how would a collection of beings operate towards sustainability, when they are empowered with the concept of fairness? They form what is called as a "scale-free network" or a "hub and spoke model" as shown below: 
Scale-free network. Image source: Wikipedia
A scale-free network has several "hubs" with different levels of "centrality". No node in the network is so overloaded that it has to manage all communications between all nodes. But a few nodes are slightly more central and manage more load than others. Failure of these nodes, do damage the network, but none of them will damage the network to such an extent that the failure of the central node in a star network does, where the entire network gets totally broken.

The "scale-free being" is more sustainable than the "star being" even though it is less efficient. In the "star being" anyone could communicate with anyone else in a maximum of just two hops, which is not the case here. But the "star being" was also inherently unsustainable, as the very nature of the being made it vulnerable for a fatal internal failure (of the central node).

The "scale-free being" also has more information content, or "entropy" as compared to the "star being". In order to describe the network we need much more information than just specifying who is the central node.

So basically, increase in Prana increases the information content of the stable state that the being settles down in -- a "higher" form of dharma, if you will.

Prana is not just about "living" beings -- in fact, there is no difference between living and non-living beings in dharmic thought. Prana is the "cosmic energy" that permeates everything in the universe.

The concept of annealing shows how infusion of Prana (heat energy) in metals can make them change their stable state, and change the characteristic nature of the metallic compound. Although annealing has its roots in metallurgy, the process itself is generic and is applicable in various other domains.

Now think of a computer that is fresh off the factory and just has the inbuilt firmware. When we switch it on, it settles down to a state where it can perform a very basic set of operations. Its Prana is very low. Now, add more Prana to this computer in the form of an operating system like Linux (ok, even Windows or Mac 😋), and suddenly it settles down in a state with much higher information content, and capable of doing much more things!

Dharma (the teleology of sustainability) and Prana (the teleology of vitality) form the basic building blocks of the universe!