Idle Theory From Physics to Ethics


The whole of Idle Theory is perhaps best regarded as an attempted incursion of physics first into biology, and then into ethics, and from ethics into economics, politics, and law. This sort of enterprise is usually regarded as impossible, because it is held that one cannot derive 'ought' statements from 'is' statements, or values from facts. It is an an apparent impossibility that Idle Theory disregards, simply by stating that values are facts of life. It is factual to say of someone that they are tall or short, young or old, fat or thin. It is equally factual to say of someone that they are Christian or Muslim, conservative or radical, nasty or nice. People have sets of values in exactly the same way that they have hands and feet.

The novelty of Idle Theory lies in its elementary physical model of life as a process that alternates between being busy and being idle. While busy, living creatures perform work to acquire and store the energy they need to survive for some period of time, and while idle they perform only essential metabolic work - breathing, circulating blood, etc. - and otherwise do nothing, gradually using up stored energy. And this view of life, as continuously alternating in time between the two states of busy and idle, introduces two new kinds of time - busy time and idle time -, such that time = busy time + idle time.

It should be added here that idle life is not constrained to do nothing, to merely exist. It is physically perfectly possible for an idle living thing to become physically active, just so long as it does whatever extra work is required to power this physical activity. Idle living things may actually be very busy, at least to all appearances.

But this is not how physical biologists usually think about living things. They tend instead to have an equilibrium model of life as steadily acquiring and expending energy. And this is normal. This is how, historically, a great many physical phenomena have been approached, because it is mathematically convenient to do so. Non-equilibrium processes are mathematically complex. Or, at least, they are if you don't have computers to produce simulation models that employ simple mathematics. And since such computers have only become widely available in recent decades, it's entirely unsurprising that the use of equilibrium models has been the norm. And Idle Theory is a non-equilibrium model of life, alternating in time between two states.

This alternating system is an unorthodox view of life, but hardly one that is a physical impossibility. And indeed we may witness this alternation between busyness and idleness in the natural world, in something as simple as the daily alternation between waking and sleeping, or the annual alternation between summer and winter.

The introduction of the idea of busy and idle time adds a new dimension to understanding life. It is a scale on which, at one extreme, there can be that kind of life which is always busy, and at the other extreme, a life that is always idle, and with every possible shade in between. "Idleness" is a measure of how idle a living creature is, and it has minimum of zero - completely busy -, and a maximum of of one - perfectly idle -. scale of idleness from 0 to 1

In and of themselves, the idle and busy states are purely descriptive, and are as ethically neutral as any other physical measure, like mass or length or time. It is of no account whether a living thing is very busy or very idle: it is just so.

However, in the scale of idleness from 0 to 1, there is an asymmetry. And it is that that any living thing with zero idleness is at the threshold of death. Working continuously, it only just manages to acquire as much energy as it expends. And this means that if circumstances become even slightly more arduous, so that it must work longer than all the time - which is impossible -, then it becomes unable to acquire as much energy as it expends. And, as a result, it loses stored energy (fats, sugars) and finally ceases to function at all. In short, it dies.

And so the threshold of death is to be found at zero idleness. And idleness is thus a measure of how 'alive' a living creature is, where 'aliveness' is an indication of how far it is from the threshold of death.

But equally, up at the other end of the scale, a living creature that needs to do no work to stay alive, and is consequently perfectly idle, is in some senses unconditionally always alive. Whatever circumstance it finds itself in, it will survive. It is not merely alive, but also theoretically immortal. And so, while zero idleness is the threshold of death, perfect idleness is immortality. scale of idleness from death to immortality

And so, next to zero idleness must be written Death, and next to perfect or unit idleness must be written Immortality. Real living things, of one sort or other, occupy the space between. They are neither immortal nor dead. They lie somewhere in between, either nearer one extreme or the other. And, in general, it seems that real living things usually end up dropping out of life through the doorway of death, rather than the doorway of immortality.

And there is a further asymmetry to the two extremes of idleness. And this is that it is generally extremely difficult, and most likely impossible, to achieve perfect idleness. It is, like the velocity of light, something that can only be approached. On the other hand, it is very easy to achieve zero idleness and death. An otherwise largely idle animal might find that, on accidentally breaking a leg, that despite all its efforts, it can no longer forage for food. And the same might apply to the loss of vision, or of teeth, or of any other essential bodily organ. And since process of ageing is one of a slow and progressive loss of physical capacity to work, ageing must generally be accompanied by falling idleness. And it is because dying is easy, and immortality is difficult to the point of being impossible, that we should be unsurprised that all creatures that live eventually die instead of going on living indefinitely.

In modern conventional wisdom, however, instead of vitality being associated with idleness, it is more generally associated with busyness. We tend to look upon busy bees and ants, rather than slugs and sloths, as embodying the exuberant fullness of life. In this respect it may be suggested that we are entirely mistaken. For to the extent that bees and ants actually are busier than other creatures, to that extent they are nearer the zero idleness threshold of death and extinction. And equally while we consider human societies to be vital and lively to the extent that they are industriously busy, we make the same mistake also: the busiest human societies are those which are nearest to collapse and disintegration. Indeed, war might well be regarded as an extreme state of busyness - and war brings death.


But if the choice between 0 and 1, or between busy and idle, would seem to be ethically neutral, the choice between life and death (or between immortality and death) would not seem to be ethically neutral. For while men may view the prospect of being either busy or idle with equanimity, few men view the prospect of death with equal equanimity. Indeed, men continually act to stay alive. And where they do not, it is most often because their life has become in some way intolerable, in some way choiceless. Or men may surrender their lives simply to save those of others.

The scale of idleness, from 0 to 1, is also a measure of freedom of choice. Busy creatures are mostly constrained to do whatever is needed to ensure their continuing survival. At zero idleness, at the threshold of death, they have no freedom of choice whatsoever. By contrast, idle creatures are largely free to do whatever they choose to do. Living things are part-time free agents. But life is not simply a matter of choosing: it is a matter of choosing to live, and therefore of choosing to go on choosing.

And the preference for life rather than death may arise because there is an illogic inherent in preferring death to life. Those who prefer life are those who choose to go on choosing - who choose to choose. But those who prefer death are those who choose to not choose. And choosing to not choose entails a contradiction or negation. It may actually be impossible to make such a choice. The suicide who takes his own life may not be choosing to not choose, but instead choosing to end choicelessness - which is a variant of choosing to choose. The hero who lays down his life to save others is not choosing not to choose, but choosing to allow others to carry on choosing - which is again a variant of choosing to choose. If so, life always chooses to live, because it cannot choose death.

Or again, it might be said that if there once existed two forms of life, one that regularly chose to live, and another that regularly chose to die, then the latter has long since been extinct, and only the former survives.

In general, living things act to continue to live, and to avoid death. And they go to very great lengths to do so. A lion pursuing a deer is primarily concerned with obtaining its next meal, and with staying alive. But the fleeing deer is equally concerned with staying alive as well. To the extent that living creatures eat and breathe, or turn leaves towards sunlight, they are engaged in staying alive. The instinct of survival is very powerful. Indeed, it seems to be integral to all living things to not only live, but to seek to live. They not only live, but they also value their lives.

And when we speak of something being 'a matter of life and death', we speak of a matter of primary importance. Whatever else we value, we value life above death. And yet life and death are objective physical states.

And to the extent that they value their lives, living things will generally be inclined to live idler rather than busier lives, because the more idle they are, the less chance there is of their death, and the more busy the greater their chance of death. They will in general act to increase their idleness, and thus their 'aliveness'. And Idleness might also be regarded as roughly corresponding to the probability of continuing to live. At zero idleness, the probability is near zero: at unit or perfect idleness, it is a complete certainty.

And matters of life and death, it may be argued, are the ultimate concern of ethics, far more even than matters of good and evil, or right and wrong, ought and ought not. The greatest crime, it might be suggested, is that of murder, which reduces idleness to zero. And every other crime entails some reduction in idleness.. If, next to murder, we place physical assault, it is because such assault tends to injure, and reduce idleness, rendering victims disabled in the the everyday conduct of their lives. And in the same way that anyone is disabled by violence, they are equally disabled by the theft or destruction or vandalisation of possessions on which they depend for their survival. The theft of a few pennies from a rich man might be an inconvenience, but from a pauper it might mean the difference between life and death, between the next meal and the last one. And where people are misdirected by lies, they necessarily find it takes longer to do whatever they intended to do, and their idleness is reduced. And any reduction in their idleness kills them a bit, pushes them closer to death.

And in this manner all actions may be regarded as having consequences in terms of increased or decreased idleness, in gains and losses of idle time. Actions are either good or evil according to whether they are conducive to life or to death. And actions are approved to the extent that they increase idleness and the probability of continued life, and disapproved to the extent that they decrease idleness and the probability of survival. And indeed, codes of conduct and laws may also be judged by the degree to which they increase or decrease idleness: good laws enable men to live idler lives. And whatever acts to decrease anyone's idleness pushes them towards death, and whatever increases idleness pushes them towards life.

And while fear of death is a stick which may drive men to increase idleness so as to evade it, the love of idle life may also act as a corresponding carrot to increase idleness. For while idle time is nominally time in which nothing is done, it is in fact time in which an infinite number of things can be done. The man who can do nothing is the man who can do anything. It is in idle time that people can play, dream, talk, fall in love, paint pictures, write poems, and in short engage in everything that constitutes human cultural life. If anyone might think that 'doing nothing' is likely to be a condition of boredom, it is only for lack of imagination. It ought to be as much a part of human education to show people that there actually are other possible uses for idle time other than, for example, getting drunk.

Of course, many people would dismiss the ethical vision of Idle Theory. In an age where 'having morals' is almost exclusively involves a prurient concern with sexual conduct, an American president may be impeached for lying about a single extra-marital relationship. Or again, the piously religious may regard the infraction of the smallest regulation of religious life to merit eternal damnation. And so on.

But this only goes to show that we live in an age of, on the one hand, scientific order and, on the other hand, ethical chaos. It might even be said that ours is an age that is devoid of ethics. For ethics cannot merely consist in a set of rules of behaviour, but must surely also include a justification of such rules, an account of why they are good rules. And in this respect, while Christianity has supplied a set of rules - the Ten Commandments -, it has not provided any justification for them beyond the authority of prophets. But equally, while religious authority has never provided an ethical rationale, secular rationalists have done no better themselves. And Idle Theory's ethics, as it stands, is simply another tentative suggestion for the ethical rationality which we currently lack.

And yet ethics is foundational to human society. Economics, which is concerned with the 'fair' exchange of 'goods', is quite clearly a branch of ethics. And so also is any politics which is concerned with improving the 'wellbeing' or 'prosperity' or 'security' of human society. And quite obviously law is a branch of ethics to the extent that it is concerned with punishing 'wrongdoers'. If we have no rational ethics, it follows that we can have no rational economics, or politics, or law. As a result, it can be no surprise that pretty much all the most serious problems that our world currently faces are economic, political, legal, and ultimately ethical problems.

And, at least from the viewpoint of Idle Theory, ethical behaviour isn't an optional extra. For ethical conduct, in interpersonal relations, in trade, in politics, and in law, all serve to increase social idleness, and the health of society. And unethical conduct acts to decrease social idleness, and with it the health of society. And the ultimate price of this is toil, suffering, and finally death. And there is no technological fix for this, no magic bullet, no easy way out.

But in a world in which tens of thousands of researchers and academics investigate issues of science, technology, medicine, economics, and much else, who is investigating ethics? Nobody much.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: July 2006