Cosmically speaking, it’ll do no harm if you sleep in tomorrow

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer

Between global warming and fracking, we often hear the word energy. In Woodstock many believe that “Everything is energy.” Of course, whenever you say “Everything is X” (mind, God, energy, consciousness, whatever), you’re actually saying “All is one.” No matter; everything really is energy anyway.

Physicists used to believe in many types of energy: chemical, electric, magnetic, radiant and so on. Nowadays science says it’s all kinetic energy – the energy of motion. Consider heat: Is this a separate kind of energy? It certainly has power: Heat raises gas pressure that can drive pistons. But in truth, heat is merely the motion of atoms. The faster atoms move, the more energy is exhibited; so once again, it’s all kinetic energy.

Whether the universe is finite or infinite, it has all the energy that it’s ever going to have. This energy never decreases in the least. This seems counterintuitive only because we seem to observe energy being depleted. The gasoline in our car is converted to power that turns the wheels, and eventually the fuel is gone. In reality, in addition to supplying motion, some of this energy goes out the tailpipe and is dissipated from the hot engine block to warm Earth’s atmosphere a little. None of it is gone.


Moreover, there seems to exist an unimaginably vast underlying energy field, sometimes called vacuum energy or zero-point energy, and this pervades the cosmos. Finally, even inert solids like rocks are actually immense energy clumps, since matter and energy are equivalent. Thus, once again, it’s all energy.

All this energy unfolds spontaneously. Planets orbiting stars, mutating thunderstorm clouds, scurrying mice all effortlessly exhibit this endless energy. In actuality, there are no separate events.

Most people labor under the illusion that they must perform their lives as if they were sources of energy separate from the universe. Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century philosopher who deeply influenced Einstein, liked to say that a man can act as he wills, but he cannot will as he wills. He argued against the widespread illusion of personal power.

For what it’s worth, physics does indeed join Eastern thought in rebutting the notion that each of us is a separate island of effort and energy isolated from the rest of the universe. When Einstein repeatedly averred that free will is an illusion, he did not consider this a bleak outlook. Rather, he found the revelation freeing, and said that it helped him forgive people of their apparent faults.

Most readers would provide various reasons why they think that they do actually have free will. I’d probably reply, “You can’t help thinking and saying that” – which wouldn’t win any friends.

Anyway, just thought that I’d throw this out as we gaze up during these enchanted August nights, to the accompaniment of fireflies and crickets.