15 Apr 2009

Power Perpetuation in Nietzsche and Lord Kelvin

by Corry Shores
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1066 of The Will to Power, Nietzsche references Lord Kelvin when arguing for eternal recurrence.]

As forces battle, resolution tends to accumulate. Eventually a dynamical system will exhaust all its potential energy, and in a sense be "dead." William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) addresses this notion of entropy as expressed in the second law of thermodynamics. Like Nietzsche, he refuses to think that it is possible for the universe to ever exhaust its energy in a state of equilibrium. Also in a way similar to Nietzsche, Kelvin posits an "overruling creative power" that adds energy to the system. But his suggestion resembles a theological postulate. God keeps winding the watch. For Nietzsche, there is no such deified uncaused cause. It is far more mundane and worldly: the cast of dice.

One force might battle another. The first could be overwhelmingly stronger than the second. Part of what determines the outcome of the battle are the master-slave relations between the forces. The stronger force masters the weaker opponent. But the weaker force (our willpower, for example) can overcome these deterministic limitations by affirming raw wild chance. We might see that we are up against slightly superior forces. Even if we did our best, we probably will not overcome them. But say we never back down to this opponent. Time and time again we battle. He wins, wins, wins. One time dust flies in his eye for the instant of a critical moment. This tips the scales, and we overcome the superior force. It was chance. We won because there was the frenzied "noisy" interference of raw wild lunatic winds. Without the wind, the outcome is determinable. No extra force gets added to the system. But the winds brought change. They added force to our power. Pure insane chance adds power and creative novelty to cybernetic systems. It does so by adding wild chaotic noise that jiggles all the delicate parts around so that some unexpected outcome emerges [see this entry where Bateson discusses the pervasive effect small changes cause in cybernetic systems.]

Nietzsche builds his argument from Lord Kelvin's recognition that purely mechanistic theories lead to a final conclusion of dead equilibrium. Nietzsche goes further by incorporating his infinity theory. Time stretches back infinitely. That means every possibility must have happened already. If equilibrium were to happen, things would get stuck forever. But things are still changing dynamically, so the world must never have been in a state of equilibrium. If stasis never happened despite an infinite amount time and opportunity to do so, it cannot be possible. Thus stasis can never happen, even with an infinite future. So we cannot follow a physical theory if it concludes someday there will be equilibrium. Hence Nietzsche's advocacy of chance.

Here is the passage from Nietzsche's The Will to Power.
This is the sole certainty we have in our hands to serve as a corrective to a great host of world hypotheses possible in themselves. If, e. g., the mechanistic theory cannot avoid the consequence, drawn for it by William Thomson, of leading to a final state, then the mechanistic theory stands refuted. (549a)
And this is the opening paragraph to Lord Kelvin's "On the Age of the Sun’s Heat" where he explains the death of the universe and the creative forces that will prevent it:
The second great law of thermodynamics involves a certain principle of irreversible action in Nature. It is thus shown that, although mechanical energy is indestructible, there is a universal tendency to its dissipation, which produces gradual augmentation and diffusion of heat, cessation of motion, and exhaustion of potential energy through the material universe. The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. But it is impossible to conceive a limit to the extent of matter in the universe; and therefore science points rather to an endless progress, through an endless space, of action involving the transformation of potential energy into palpable motion and thence into heat, than to a single finite mechanism, running down like a clock, and stopping for ever. It is also impossible to conceive either the beginning or the continuance of life, without an overruling creative power; and, therefore, no conclusions of dynamical science regarding the future condition of the earth can be held to give dispiriting views as to the destiny of the race of intelligent beings by which it is at present inhabited.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Transl Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1967.
This section available online at:

Thomson, Sir William (Lord Kelvin). "On the Age of the Sun’s Heat." Macmillan's Magazine, vol. 5 (March 5, 1862), pp. 288-293. From reprint in Popular Lectures and Addresses, vol. 1, 2nd edition, pp. 356-375.
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