Posted by: dacalu | 6 April 2011

Entropy

There was an article in the Onion in 2000 with the wonderful title, “Christian Right Lobbies to Overturn Second Law of Thermodynamics.”  For those of you not in the know, the second law states that the disorder of a system can only increase or stay the same unless you put work into it.  Properly, the law speaks about heat transfer, but the the practical effect is that order comes from organizing things – putting energy in – and if you don’t put energy in, they run down.  Clocks run down. Closets become messy.  And, yes, even the physical universe will run down with time.  We say that entropy (the measure of disorder) increases.  If you leave something alone, it will continue to have the same amount of energy and organization.  If random forces act on it, then it will only become less organized and not more.  This explains why dropping a tea cup results in a mess or why dropping a deck of cards results in them spreading out in a heap instead of spontaneously sorting themselves into suits.

Entropy reflects a particular story about the universe.  If the universe is the set of all things, then it must be a closed system.  That being the case the universe will tend toward disorder with time and, we think, it will end in heat death – complete disorder and lack of potential energy, fragments of matter distant from one another at absolute zero.  Kind of depressing isn’t it.

Evolutionary biologists, like myself, find the Onion article funny because Entropy should be just as disturbing to fundamentalists as evolution.  If you don’t make a distinction between Divine order and physical order, if you think the Bible is all about scientifically accurate statements, you should find the second law deeply disturbing.  As a fictitious senator says in the article:

“I wouldn’t want my child growing up in a world headed for total heat death and dissolution into a vacuum. No decent parent would want that.”

So, apparently it isn’t science contradicting scripture that bothers fundamentalists.  Nor is it a question of Christian purpose and hope.  It must be something else…  I think it has much to do with wanting humans to be special, not just emotionally to God, but empirically, demonstrably, and effectively.  That, however, is a topic for another day.

Today I want to talk about competing narratives about the world.  If you are concerned that science and religion have different stories about the world, I share your concern.  They do.  Christianity has always, and always will recognize that it presents a different picture.  This only becomes problematic when you feel you can only look at one picture at a time (an issue that will recur over and over in Wednesday’s Christian).  I’m happy having both, or many, and using them as appropriate.  I’m even willing for them to be incompatible (much as the wave and particle formalisms for light are incompatible in optics).  I can have that kind of flexibility precisely because I seek knowledge for the sake of understanding rather than for it’s own sake.  I have no vested interest in discovering a truth that I can hit people over the head with and force them to agree with me.  I do have an interest in discovering truths that help me interact with the world in a productive way (science) and discovering truths that help me connect to God and neighbor (Christianity).

Back to entropy.  From a scientific perspective, I use a story of a universe in which the second law applies.  I believe the universe will end in heat death.  It is a story of decline and disorder, but also a story that tells us important things about life (we eat to acquire energy, to heat our bodies and repair disorder, to continue living – humans as closed systems would die) and about stars (stars burn hydrogen to produce heat and to radiate heat and light), and about a hundred other things.  The second law tells us that if order is maintained, we really should look for an outside source of energy.  Science tells us about a universe of atoms moving toward heat death.

Christianity presents an alternative.  Christians recognize, and have always recognized, that matter moves toward heat death – or as Paul would say, death has dominion over the world of the flesh.  We also recognize that if you start looking at souls instead of atoms, the world looks a great deal different.  The Christian perspective has people coming into relationship with one another and with God.  Christ entered the world to “atone for sin,” that is to make us one with God and one another (at one = atone).  The Bible states that the “Kingdom of God is at hand.”  It doesn’t mean that some sore of physical castle will appear from another dimension.  It means that there is a different lens through which to view the world, a spiritual lens, and through that lens, we see individuals forming communities of love.

Christianity cannot provide an alternative physical hypothesis about heat death (or for that matter evolution).  It is not a theory of atoms.  No one can prove Christianity scientifically, nor should anyone mistake it for common sense or irrefutable logic.  Anyone who says so is selling you something.

Christianity can give you a different perspective, a complimentary and additional perspective that helps you to see the whole more clearly.  The Christian story teaches us to look at and value individual souls.  I’m glad that I have both perspectives.  Both give value, and not just the value you would expect.  Yes, the scientific story gives me power over the universe, but it also teaches me humility and makes me value the sacrifices made for all living things.  It shows me that I have limited time and must make the best of it.  Yes, the Christian story encourages relationships, self sacrifice, and (occasionally) obedience, but it also reminds me that stories about death will, in the end, be stories – not Truth.  It encourages me to hope for lasting knowledge AND understanding.

What is the good news?  The good news is that the whole physical world will pass away, but you, the very essence of you will not.  The good news is that you have the ability to understand and work in a limited, and therefore precious, universe.  We must not forget the story of death – it happens all the time, but even more importantly, we have a story of resurrection.

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Responses

  1. Great post! Thanks, Lucas.

  2. You were doing great until I reached the line “Vacuum is space without matter.”
    That seems very wrong to me. Where my own head seems vacuum to the particles and rays that pass through it so effortlessly. I will read more. thanks


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