Dying Well, 2

Kinetics and Cosmology

2022-05-23

Our movement lies in nature; we are its death. —Thomas Nail

Death is a reality. We begin again with Plato, but take issue with his subsequent premises.1 Death can be other than the separation of the soul from the body (as Simmias argues); it is possible that life may not come to be from death (as Cebes fears).2 If death is a reality, but the second and fifth premises of Socrates’s argument are shown to be false, the dialogue’s line of reasoning collapses. And as identified in the previous essay in this series, this is in fact the case, because Plato does not have the historical benefit of the developments in the field of thermodynamics that saw the discovery of entropy (i.e., the second law of thermodynamics) in the 1800s.3

As a reminder, Plato has Socrates state: “if, instead, coming-to-be were a linear process from one thing into its opposite only, without any bending back in the other direction or reversal, do you realize that all things would ultimately have the same form: the same fate would overtake them, and they would cease from coming to be?”4 Socrates positions this counterargument as that which, if it were true, would defeat his own, but the consequence of which, that “everything would ultimately be dead,” is for him obviously too absurd to accept.5 There is no room for the justified doubts of Simmias and Cebes, and in order to silence them, Socrates concludes with an appeal to authority, to a shared cultural belief, rather than allowing for the persistence of open but necessarily uncertain inquiry.

But what if we do begin again, holding open the question of death, of what it means to die well, of what it means to do philosophy under the paradigm of entropy? Perhaps we might avoid the logic of scission that Plato instantiates on the basis of his incorrect understanding of death. If we take death as real, as a phenomenon or process of the real, and not as a flight from the real, how then is our thought transformed? Thomas Nail’s philosophy of motion, his kinetics, presents us with one possible pathway forward.

Recently excerpted by Ill Will for their series Worlds Apart,6 Thomas Nail’s “Kinocene Ethics,” the final chapter of his Theory of the Earth (2021),7 is, as the editors describe it, a “reciprocal transformation of philosophy and cosmology” whereby “philosophy appears at once as a material and cosmic activity” and the cosmos “becomes, in a deeper sense, philosophical—that is, ‘capable of philosophy.’”8 At the heart of this transformation is Nail’s idea of “kinetic expenditure,” the set of “many profligate techniques” whereby the cosmos develops and exhausts itself.9 Where the Platonic paradigm requires the eternal recuperation of energy, Nail’s entropic paradigm acknowledges the actual use of energy, that the amount of energy available for “conversion into work” is steadily decreasing.10

I have struggled with how to present Nail’s thought, other than simply saying, please read it yourself. As such, rather than take a position here as master or academician, I step into the entropic fold, condensing my citations into fifteen theses for a “kinetic pluralism,” a manifesto for “metabolic communism.”11

Nail writes:

  1. Humans are the cosmos continued by other experimental means to increase the expenditure of the planet and the cosmos, but not alone.
  2. Kinetic expenditure is the tendency of matter in motion to spread out from higher concentrations to lower ones.
  3. The material meaning of life is to help improve the expenditure of the universe.
  4. The tendency of life is thus to die well together with others.
  5. Death is not an unfortunate part of life; instead, life is a part of death that reproduces itself—not in order to live but in order to die and help others die.
  6. If we want to live and persist on the earth as one of its animals, then we have to give our lives generously back to the earth and help it hasten its dissipation.
  7. The key is to increase the rates and patterns of kinetic expenditure in such a way that the patterns sustain themselves, so that they can keep on experimenting and expending.
  8. Matter always flows asymmetrically, entropically, and in metastable patterns of increasing disequilibrium.
  9. The ideas of equivalence, equilibrium, reversibility, and scarcity are false—meaning they have not been physically found in nature so far.
  10. The more ways of living there are, the more ways there are to consume and expend different energy sources.
  11. No single organism can use all energy sources, so nature requires an army of specialized levels, relations, and singular techniques.
  12. The more kinds of people and technologies there are, living in the more diverse ways, the more thoroughly we will be able to degrade and expend planetary energy.
  13. In nature there is only the tendency to allow increasing experiments in motion and expenditure that do not undermine further experiments toward increasing expenditure.
  14. If we want to survive, we need a materialist commons, where we treat each main pattern of the earth’s motion as a commons for the others.
  15. The metabolic commons is also a cosmic commons in which the sun, solar system, and broader universe participate directly in self-degradation.

Unlike Socrates’s stultifying arguments, these words of Nail’s presents us with a program for action. “Life,” Nail writes, “is a gift given to the organism to intensify the expenditure of the cosmos and itself.” By living and dying well, we participate in the expenditure of the cosmos as “commons for itself,” existing “in order to unravel itself.” Through our societies and technologies, our “[a]rt, culture, and sexuality,” all of our myriad techniques of “thinking, doing, and being,” we are nature, the cosmos, the real as it “continually struggles to become other than it is,” all so that it might “expend itself faster.” Contrary to the undeath of Socratic ideality, Nail’s metabolic communism provides us with an ethic of generous dissipation, accepting death so that more life might come from it. If we follow Nail’s argumentation, if we accept his claims, we find ourselves upon a new “hypothetical ethical ground,” a new description or “metaethics” of the very basis of ethical action itself—our planetary survival. Nail admits of no universals here, no ghastly idealism, but only the particularities of life on this delicate, wondrous planet. And so we repeat Nail’s maxims with which he concludes his text: Increase planetary expenditure! Compost everything! Increase diversity! This is the kinetic program, the means by which we might come to understand how to die well, in whatever corner of earth we call home.12


Notes

  1. Plato, Phaedo, trans. David Gallop (Oxford, UK: Oxford World Classics, 2009), 64c. 

  2. Plato, Phaedo, 86c-d, 88a. 

  3. Gordon W. F. Drake, “entropy,” Britannica, n.d., https://www.britannica.com/science/entropy-physics

  4. Plato, Phaedo, 72b. 

  5. Plato, Phaedo, 72c-d. 

  6. Ill Will, Worlds Apart, https://illwill.com/series/worlds-apart: “Worlds Apart is a new series exploring cosmology, ecology, science fiction, and the ends of capitalist society. What lies at the root of the West’s war of annihilation upon the Earth, our only home? How must the revolutionary imagination respond to the destruction and construction of livable worlds? How are communities inventing, defending, and inhabiting sites of collective life against industrial expansion and ecological devastation, and what limits do they encounter along the way?” 

  7. Thomas Nail, Theory of the Earth (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021). 

  8. Ill Will, Introduction to Thomas Nail, “Kinocene Ethics,” Ill Will, April 21, 2021, https://illwill.com/kinocene-ethics

  9. Ill Will, Introduction, n.p. 

  10. Drake, “entropy,” n.p. 

  11. Nail, “Kinocene Ethics,” n.p. 

  12. All citations Nail, “Kinocene Ethics,” n.p.