I have long been intrigued by the conservation laws. Conservation of energy, momentum, charge, and so forth all seem to point to a more basic conservation, of which they are all instances. I was therefore interested to read in Bill Dembski’s latest book, Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information, his discussion of Conservation of Information in search routines. He has apparently demonstrated (I have not read the demonstrations, which appear in the technical literature he cites in the book) that increasing the likelihood of a successful search – i.e., a search that has an object and finds it – over and above the walk of a blind drunkard who is not looking for anything in particular may be accomplished only through additional investment of information in the search routine. This can be done in a number of ways: by a more comprehensive specification of the configuration of the object, or by adding a feedback circuit to the algorithm, or by adding strange attractors to the configuration space (so that the environment of the search itself embodies more information) or some other similar measure. But any such improvements of search efficiency – of the likelihood of success – come at a cost of their own: it takes information to inform the search. At best, then, informed search will cost just as much as blind search, and cannot cost less. But then also if the information added to the routine is not essentially perfect – free of noise and error – then the addition will cost more information than it saves: the overall cost of the search, plus the cost of the search for the improvements to that search, will exceed the cost of random wandering about the configuration space.
Now, not only is biological evolution amenable to treatment as a search, and likewise also any instance of biological homeostasis (of, e.g., blood sugar, predator/prey, biomass/watt, ecological climax, etc.), but so are physical processes in general: e.g., protein folding, electron shell completion, the tendency toward thermodynamic equilibrium, angle of repose, weather, and so forth. Any sort of homeostasis or regularity, anywhere in nature, can be treated as a search (perfectly regular sorts of transactions would be searches with a probability of success equal to unity). All such procedures proceed until they reach their goal state. Indeed, search itself can be treated as a search for the Least Path between states of affairs. So we can understand the conservation laws of physics as all variations on, and instances of, the more general Conservation of Information.
One of Dembski’s main points is that, by definition, search is aimed at the achievement of some particular value of some property. Search is teleological. If natural processes can all be treated as searches – which does seem to be the case – then they are all teleological. So, he strikes yet another blow for Aristotelian causality, against modern materialism.
A while back I remarked over at bonald’s site that there is Conservation of Fairness. Whatever we do to make society more fair cannot create more fairness than was already present in society, but rather can only move it around – for, one man’s fairness is another’s injustice. In theory, such reforms might possibly transpire without decreasing the overall fairness of society. But in practice, such interventions always impose costs of their own – e.g., the political cost of the search for the right public policy – that have the overall effect of reducing net total social fairness.
The net efficacy of all sorts of policy interventions in natural social processes is similarly constrained by Conservation of Information. E.g., make education free, and you get worthless education. Get everyone to college, and the information conveyed by a college degree goes to zero, along with its economic life value. Subsidize bread, and base bread goes to junk, while the price of real, nutritious bread rises. In the ideal world model of the legislator’s mind, these measures can be undertaken without net cost to society. In the real world, there is always friction, and permanent dispersion (as heat) of embodied value.
Aphorisms expressing this fact abound: There’s No Free Lunch; You get what you pay for; It takes money to make money; The harder I work, the luckier I get; Garbage In, Garbage Out; As ye sow, so shall ye reap; You can’t fool Mother Nature; What can go wrong, will go wrong; and so forth. In his masterful essay Compensation, Emerson explains with irresistible rhetorical power that nothing can happen that is not somehow compensated by nature. It is the law of Karma, the order of being: the local system of laws may not exact an eye for an eye, but one way or another, nature does, upon someone or other. God is not mocked.
Conservation and compensation are ubiquitous, and so therefore is the practical fact of waste generated by any effort to frustrate or deform their operation. This ubiquity suggests that reality conserves value of all sorts. You can’t increase the value embodied in one part of the system of nature without reducing the value embodied in the rest, by at least an equal amount.
Does this mean we should just stop? Does it mean that we should, for example, leave off working for a better, more humane society? By no means! Such work is itself a search, by which society seeks its goal state of homeostatic rest. We cannot reach that goal, but we are bound by our nature to seek it. Interventions in the natural operations of society, and of men, and of our models and theories about reality, will certainly continue, willy nilly. The only question is whether they will be sane, or not; whether they will comport with nature, or disagree with her. Anything we can do to improve the fit of policy to reality is going to reduce the cost of the waste heat it generates.
Finally, this. Conservation of value means that the net value of the universe cannot be increased by re-arrangements of the value already embodied therein. Re-arrange the deck chairs as elaborately as you like, the boat is still going down. This seems like discouraging news. And if the universe had access only to its own ontological resources, it would be. Indeed, the creaturely introduction of noise to the cosmos would in such a case be likely to destroy its remaining embodied value almost immediately.
Fortunately, however, the universe is at every instant provided with a titanic flux of new value: new information, new causal power, new opportunities of beauty, new formal originations: new being. The world cannot call upon its own ontological resources to furnish novel eventuation, cannot itself serve as the source of new becoming; but then it does not need to, thanks be to God. Becoming is the ingress to the created order of novel specificity and definiteness: of new information, and of additional value. With each new event, the created order is more fully formed.
New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.
New mercies, each returning day,
hover around us while we pray;
new perils past, new sins forgiven,
new thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.
If on our daily course our mind
be set to hallow all we find,
new treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.
Old friends, old scenes, will lovelier be,
as more of heaven in each we see;
some softening gleam of love and prayer
shall dawn on every cross and care.
The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask:
room to deny ourselves; a road
to bring us daily nearer God.
Only, O Lord, in thy dear love,
fit us for perfect rest above;
and help us, this and every day,
to live more nearly as we pray.
– John Keble
 By *at least* an equal amount. So, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is implicit in the conservation laws.
 Thus the acme of the hedonic value of lived experience is to be found through askesis: in the cessation of activity, in stillness and rest. Rest in a satisfactory resolution of disparate inputs is the final end of all action. Askesis is the deliberate, methodical elimination of inessential inputs; as it cuts off the vain bedevilments of secular life, that distract and harry and confuse us, so it more easily permits arrival at rest. Not that this advantage is bought cheap: the increase in the probability of supernal rest furnished by askesis comes at the cost of a huge investment of life’s information – a huge decision – in and for the procedure. Of all human enterprises, none requires a capital investment as total and as heroic as monasticism.