That brilliant and entertaining atheist Steven Pinker has defined ‘the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.’
That might need a bit of explaining, not least to me. Entropy is, crudely, the measure of disorder in the universe. A low-entropy state is an ordered state; high entropy is a disordered one. Because disorder is much more likely than order, disorder (high entropy) tends to be what everything leads to.
So you have a cold gas tank next to a hot gas tank. Open a valve between the two, and soon the temperatures of the two tanks will be the same. This is because there are many more ways for molecules to mix randomly than there are for all the hot molecules to be in one place and all the cold ones in another. (This tendency for entropy to increase over time is the well known Second Law of Thermodynamics.)
Or consider all the molecules in your body. To get them all working together in some vast machine, called you, is hugely rare compared with all the possible way of arranging those molecules that do not result in a living you. This is one of the reasons we spend much, much longer being a corpse than we do being a living body; it’s just so much easier for all the molecules.
The only way to keep entropy low in this system– to keep your molecules in order — is to take energy from elsewhere, for example by eating a bag of french fries. So you can artificially maintain a local low-entropy state (your life and existence) by adding energy from the outside (eating french fries).
A fridge works the same way. It keeps at a low temperature, compared with the rest of your kitchen, by taking energy from the grid and pumping heat out of the fridge into the kitchen. It’s a local low-entropy system. Your freezer compartment, more so. You and your fridge/freezer, therefore, thermodynamically speaking, are brother and sister.
Hence Pinker’s statement that the purpose of existence is to keep entropy locally as low as possible. So we feed babies, we heal sicknesses, we clean up mess, we order information pleasingly. Our whole life is about borrowing energy from elsewhere to keep our low-entropy show, otherwise known as human life and culture, on the road.
Because the Second Law always wins, this is a battle we must eventually lose — as individuals, as a species, as a planet, as a galaxy and maybe as a whole Universe.
Rereading the Kingdom of God in entropy terms, possibly.
Now we depart from Pinker. It’s interesting–at least to me– to re-read the Kingdom of God in terms of entropy.
When Jesus walked on earth, he clearly went round reducing entropy wherever he went: healing the blind, curing lepers, stilling storms (does that reduce entropy? I hope so) , raising the dead and so on.
There are several interesting thoughts that arise from this, none of which I am qualified to follow up.
- It is a mystery of physics why the Universe started in a low-entropy state. It is much more overwhelmingly likely (you would think not knowing any better) to start in a high entropy disordered state, if only because there are just so hugely many more disordered states out there than ordered ones. (Just like Tolstoy said: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way; so many options.) Of course we don’t really know if some as-yet-unguessed physics made a low entropy beginning inevitable, but at the moment, it isn’t obvious. A low entropy beginning to the Universe iseasy to explain theologically (though not cosmologically): God likes to start a new story on a fresh sheet of paper.
- Jesus evidently didn’t borrow energy from elsewhere when he went about decreasing entropy. At least we don’t read of it. He stills the storm in Galilee, but it didn’t get colder in Samaria. He feeds 5000, but not by sucking energy from elsewhere in the Universe, which is the kind of thing farmers do when theyfeed 5000 people – they take energy from the sun and grow crops. Jesus lowered entropy without borrowing energy from elsewhere
- That leads us to a thermodynamic definition of a miracle: ‘an inexplicable local lowering of entropy’. This kind of thing is impossible for us creatures, but is easy if you are God, who, it is claimed, created the whole show and holds it all up with the word of his power.
- Hence, the ability to decrease entropy without borrowing from elsewhere is a good thermodynamic definition of divinity.
- The new heavens and the new earth also seem not to be bound by the Second Law. Paul talks of a day when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:21).
- So the final state of the Universe is a lower entropy state than now, not, as we would expect from the Second Law, a higher one. It is brought into order in Christ, not decaying into heat death. Paul talks in Ephesians 1 about ‘ … when the times reach their fulfillment—[God brings] unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)
- The Bible describes a universe starting in a low-entropy state and finishing in a low-entropy state, with all the business of the Second Law being merely a wrinkle in eternity due somehow to the rebellion of humans.
- This (maybe) helps us put miracles onto a more coherent footing. They are not merely impulsive acts by a God whom (I like to think) occasionally lets his heart rule his head. They are the outliers of a low-entropy eternity making their way into our increasing-entropy, jumbled universe, the first rolling pebbles of the avalanche.
- See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. John 3:1-2 NIV.
Despite a physics background, Glenn Myers has been a writer all his working life–first in the software industry, then within the missions community. More recently he has been writing fiction and non-fiction that aspires to express Christian faith in ways that are both rigorous and imaginative. In 2013 he unexpectedly survived a coma and while recovering wrote the popular title More Than Bananas, How the Christian faith works for me and the whole Universe (now available as a free kindle download). He and his wife have two grown-up children. He blogs at slowmission.com.