Value is Conserved

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.[1][2]

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


[1] By *at least* an equal amount. So, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is implicit in the conservation laws.

[2] 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.

11 thoughts on “Value is Conserved

  1. Pingback: Value is Conserved | Reaction Times

  2. Whence things have their origin,
    Thence also their destruction happens,
    As is the order of things;
    For they execute the sentence upon one another
    – The condemnation for the crime –
    In conformity with the ordinance of Time.


  3. A few questions:

    1) In positing a conservation of fairness, do you distinguish between fairness (i.e. the liberal, bastardised form of justice) and justice (iustitia, the virtue)? If referring exclusively to “fairness” the argument has some intuitive force, but if applied to justice does not seem to work. I do not see how being more just in making a certain court ruling or policy would result in injustice elsewhere.

    2) Does the influx of new value refer to grace as received through the Sacraments, or otherwise conferred directly by God; or grace as received through “ordinary” divine conservation (i.e. what keeps the world in being from one moment to the next)? Regardless of the answer, it’s difficult to see how this can be squared away with the conservation laws (especially if it is the latter case). If at every moment new value is input into the universe, why is the very lack of such an input asserted by so many physical laws (and, indeed, an egress of value suggested by the sorrier and sorrier states civilisation is sinking into with each passing day?).

    3) Off-topic, but I emailed you about something a couple of weeks back. Did you receive it?

    • Thanks, John. Answering in order:

      1. I meant fairness in the first sense. Justice would be the maximum of true fairness. Obviously justice is not conserved, in the sense that it is not maintained. All other social arrangements than that of justice are more or less defective; and we may take it as a given in this fallen world that all our social arrangements are somewhat whacked. The notion of conservation of fairness then is that by moving things away from justice, we cannot hope to increase the amount of justice out there, in the first place, nor in the second can we hope even to make things more fair in the liberal, bastardized sense. If you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can’t get around the fact that you’ve robbed Peter.

      2. The influx of grace I meant was of the latter sort, the ordinary divine conservation that keeps the world in being – that keeps it becoming. The interesting thing about this general grace is that it furnishes to all newly arising creaturely occasions – all new events – an opportunity to achieve perfection in the implementation of their proper form. Thus at every new moment of the world’s history, there is nothing in principle that prevents it from establishing itself as a completely just and beautiful portion of Heaven. What holds it back is its heritage, of which it must take some account, and to which it must connect itself rationally – which, therefore, it must to some degree reiterate. Only thus may the causal integrity of the world perdure from one moment to the next, so that it remains our own world, and not something radically different. So while in principle the influx of divine grace that enables a new creaturely occasion to come to pass provides it all that it needs to be perfect, in practice it is limited to the justice that it inherits from its past. It is this achieved justice that is then conserved in the transactions among creaturely occasions – or, often, dissipated even further.

      At the eschaton – wherein the grace that can perfect nature at any and every one of its moments does finally perfect nature in all her moments from then on, so that Christ is thenceforth all in all – the game changes, and the redeemed world, a new and radically different creature, is nevertheless causally connected in good and rational order to its fallen past, without needing to reiterate that Fall.

      3. Sorry, I didn’t get your email. My Exchange server has been having all sorts of issues lately. I’ll email you, and then it should accept your message back.

  4. The sci-fi flick Interstellar seems to me to argue that value is conserved. The obscure, three-year-old independent sci-flick Radio Free Albemuth, based on the novel, published posthumously, by Philip K. Dick, also seems to argue that value is conserved.

    The heathen, Anglo-Saxon concept of wyrd, which we encounter in Beowulf and Macbeth, seems to me to argue that value is conserved.

  5. Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place

  6. Interestingly, this is almost the exact theodicy that is proposed by de Maistre in his St. Petersburg Dialogues.

    (Where de Maistre errs, but Kristor likely does not, is in making this the whole of his theodicy, rather than merely an understanding of created “fate,” (or, indeed, wyrd, Fortuna, etc.) which, since Boethius, has traditionally been held as distinct from and subordinate to God’s providence.)

  7. Dear Kristor,

    I don’t understand this argument. It is fairly obvious values can be destroyed by malice, see the major totalitarianisms of the 20th century. Yes, it is possible to make the world very, very unfair and unjust for the vast majority of people, without even making it that pleasant for the small minority of rulers. Therefore they are not preserved, they can be destroyed. And if it can be destroyed, it can be created and improved as well. For example toppling totalitarian terrorist tyrannies is a good way to create / improve justice.

    To me the question is what is that level of natural justice you cannot improve beyond, really what is the ceiling, and how that relates to the modern world.

    I don’t think we in the modern world live in some kind of Rothbardian homesteading-and-voluntary-exchange kind of natural justice, do we?

    BTW I’m with John Medaille here:

    • Conservation of value doesn’t mean that value is not lost to usefulness. It often is. It just means that value doesn’t up and leave the universe – that’s just not the sort of thing that facts can ever do. Rather, when value is lost to us, it is because it has been dissipated out into the rest of the created order, in such a way as no longer to be available to us for enjoyment or use. The analogy is with the loss of potential energy to heat.

      The analogue in human affairs can be made clear if we consider the wastrel son who dissipates his father’s estate. The value of the estate is not thereby utterly destroyed – the lands, stock, currency, and artifacts thereof are still mostly in existence and available for human use – it just leaves the family. To the extent it is consumed (as through gluttony) or destroyed (as when through carelessness a house is burned down, and the values thereof forever lost to humanity), it may even leave the human economy altogether. In such cases, the value is dissipated to the rest of the universe as actual heat.

      A new house can be built upon the smoldering ruins of the old, just as a new and more just society can be built on the ashes of a failed totalitarian state. In both cases, the denizens thereof will enjoy life more, and may even live more righteous lives. But, the new orders don’t recapture the values dissipated in the destruction of the old. They capture values still present elsewhere in society, in the form of potential useful work. They come at a great cost in human labor.


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