Mike Spencer
Artist Blacksmith

Maxwell's Demon of the Mind

Die Energie der Welt ist konstant.
Dei Entropie der Welt strebt einem Maximum zu.

The energy in the universe is constant.
The entropy in the universe tends to a maximum.
-- Boltzman

Things get messy, fall down, get old, wear out and decay. Your coffee gets cold and you can't find your keys. Everything falls into disorder if you don't labor furiously to prevent it. The world's like that.

But people keep coming up with new ideas. You can do anything in your imagination. Roger Penrose and Neal Stephenson write great fat books that have never before existed. New order emerges, sometimes effortlessly, sometimes with effort, often by whim. The mind, it is easy to suppose, must be different.

In 1871, Jame Clerk Maxwell proposed the Gedankenexperiment that continues to bear his name:

... if we conceive of a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us. For we have seen that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics. [1]

Sounds just right. Our heads must be full of little Maxwell's Demons that enable us to be creative!

...there may be a quite appreciable interval of time...so prolonged that we may speak of the active phase of the demon as metastable. There is no reason to suppose that metastable demons do not in fact exist: indeed it may be that enzymes are metastable Maxwell demons....We may regard living organisms, such as Man himself, in this light. -- Norbert Wiener [2]

Ahhhh, well. But in the long run, "metastable" is temporary. Maxwell's Demon doesn't exist and simply isn't allowed by the second law of thermodynamics. People are dissapative systems and we use up a lot of energy burning our food to feed that wonderful, creative brain.

Nevertheless, it's entertaining to look for where in the brain the demon might put in his working hours, were he in fact responsible for all the as yet unexplained creativity of the mind. The obvious place is the neural synapse. When one neuron reaches out (as they all do) to touch another, there is a tiny little space where they touch. When the toucher neuron fires, a few molecules of special and critical chemicals are released, cross that tiny gap and alert the touchee. The result is as varied as the numerous types of neurons and synapses in the nervous system but one can imagine, instead of all that difficult biochemistry and neuroanatomy, that there is one of Maxwell's Demons guarding each gap, allowing or disallowing his one bit of information to stimulate or inhibit the postsynaptic neuron. And we may fancy that from the cooperation of hundreds of such demons working diligently for each of our 10- or 100-billion neurons emerges mind, consciousness and all that follows.

The only laws of matter are those which our minds must fabricate, and the only laws of mind are fabricated for it by matter. -- J. C. Maxwell [3]

Maxwell's Demon of the Mind is forged, raised and welded steel, brass. About a meter high. Collection of Sunny Besen Thrasher, Toronto.

Maxwell, J.C. (1871). Theory of Heat. , reprinted (2001) New York: Dover. Quoted on Wikipedia, where you may find a
much more extensive treatment that the rather cavalier one offered here.

In Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.

Quoted in Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire.

Created: Thu 29 May 2008 Michael Spencer
Updated: Wed 15 Oct 2008 Michael Spencer