Monday, August 27, 2007

POST #4: Entropy, the Concept

There is in physics a phenomenon the results of which you experience every moment of your life. With every breath, with every bite of lunch, with every synapse between brain cells, with every metabolic function in every cell, this physical principle is at work in your body. Some day, when your body lies cold in the grave, this phenomenon will still be at work in you. As you read this and listen to the gentle whirring of the hard drive on your computer, you are listening to the effects of this law of physics. The breeze outside your window, the clouds rolling by in the sky, the very light enabling you to see these things: these are all evidence that this fundamental principle is constantly at work. Einstein called it “the first law of all sciences.” It is everywhere, effecting everything.

This principle is often mentioned in the Bible. It has profound theological significance. But only in the last 150 years have we come to understand its operation. And only in the last 50 years have we come to understand its history, its origin. And thus, only in our time can we more fully connect the dots between this physical law, the Scriptures that discuss it, and the theological implications of that convergence. This principle is called entropy. You may be more familiar with its other name: The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

What exactly is entropy? The technical definition of entropy is “The measurement of randomness in a system; the measurement of the decreasing availability of useful energy in the universe.” With respect to energy and matter, our universe is lumpy. It is full of “chunks” of matter (which have not yet been converted to energy). It has hot spots and cold spots. Energy is not evenly distributed. It is this uneven distribution which provides the thermal energy to accomplish work. But this thermal energy available to accomplish work is constantly decreasing. Technically, entropy is the measurement of the “unavailability” of energy to do work. Physicists thus see our universe as presently in a state of “low entropy”, moving inexorably toward what they call “high entropy”, and ultimately leading to the even distribution of useless energy, resulting in a universe that is dark, very cold (about 2° above absolute Zero), and utterly dead. This state would occur somewhere between a trillion and 100 trillion years from now. So don’t lose sleep over it.

(Some scientists see the end of the universe somewhat differently. Instead of a cold dark expanse of nothingness, they envision a sort of reverse big bang, sometimes called “the Big Crunch”, in which all the energy of the universe converges upon a single point in an extremely hot, fiery implosion. This event would occur much sooner, perhaps in only 100 billion years. But whether a slow cold death, or a relatively quicker hot fiery death ... and there are a couple of other less popular theories also along way off ... the prospect of the “end-game” of entropy is not very inviting!)

In the figurative, or popularized use of the word, entropy refers to a lack of order, or a gradual decline into disorder. And while the technical use of “order” and “disorder”, “low entropy” and “high entropy” can sometimes be confusing, in the end, entropy simply means this: everything tends to break; my teenage son’s room only gets messier; teeth decay; iron rusts; wood rots; without the infusion of a heat source, everything gets colder; people, plants, and animals die; ultimately, planets disintegrate; stars burn out.

There is much confusion surrounding entropy, particularly among Young Earth Creationists. The law of entropy, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is often invoked as evidence against evolution. This is unwarranted. Others consider life itself to be in contradiction to the law of entropy. But the fact is, entropy is always at work, it never goes on vacation, and it does not “disprove” evolution. The Law of Entropy does not say that all things move toward disorder in all places at all times. To the contrary, we observe the organization of atoms, molecules, living cells, and a variety of other things all the time. Children grow up, exquisite snowflakes form, huge new stars are born, 747 jetliners are assembled, crystals self generate. The very composition of this article results from me organizing (some might dispute this statement!) my thoughts, and then bringing order to these letters on a page. Such occurrences, some the result of human activity, some of natural causes, might seem to defy entropy. But in each case, the Law of Entropy is still at work. As Richard Carrier (an atheistic scientist and critic of Creationism) correctly states on this page of his website. “it is still possible for a closed system to produce order, even highly elaborate order, so long as there is a greater increase in disorder somewhere else in the system.” In other words, in every process within the cosmos, there is always a net increase in entropy. When some new degree of order appears to arise somewhere, it is more than offset by increasing disorder elsewhere.

Entropy means that everything will eventually die. Our Sun will burn out. Earth will crumble into nothingness. All life forms will die. There will ultimately be no “matter”. Living in an “entropic universe” means that everything is driven by decay, by a slow wind-down, by death itself. In everything from ecosystems to the decay of the Sun, life itself is dependent upon death. In essence, we live in a “death-driven universe”

Did God create the universe this way? Was it his intention that the very driving force of all Creation would be death itself? Or is entropy part of the curse of sin? When did entropy begin? Prior to the information gleaned from cosmology over the last 50 years, no one knew the answer to that question. Theologians were free to place the origin of death and decay anywhere along the cosmic time-line that pleased them, or was consistent with their theological presuppositions. But we are no longer free to do so. We now know, with a high degree of certainty, exactly when entropy began. And the theological implications should not go unnoticed.

In the next posts, I will look more closely at the “timeline of entropy”, and discuss what this timeline suggests about our Creator, and his intentions.


Terri Neimann said...

I think this could be disparing if we are so arrogant to think we (as humans) are at the center of the universe.Galileo proved early in the 17th cent that the theory (that incidently made its way into theology) that the earth is at the center of the universe was dead wrong. Where did it get him excommunicated and executed from the Church.
...guess they didn't like his exegesis.
But you know...the rest of the story.The Church had to eat humble pie on that one.

The fact that we are not at the center of the universe should make us humble indeed. So having said this if we look at entropy from a nonhuman-centric angle of existence
perhaps its not so depressing.All organic and nonorganic matter becomes equally vital.Our quality of existence becomes hinged on the quality of the rest of the organic and nonorganic matter. So ultimately everything becomes one beautiful cosmic orchestration of ascent and descent back and forth to the One we call God.

Cliff Martin said...

Hi Terri,

I have two responses:

1) Yes, Copernicus did destroy the flat-earth geocentric assumptions that were foundational to much (wrong) Christian Theology. The Copernican Principal is now a cornerstone of cosmology. And Galileo added an exclamation point. However, if you stay with me through these articles, you will discover why I believe, for entirely different reasons than Ptolemic geocentricity, that mankind may well be central in the purposes of God for this expansive Universe. And if this is true, the self-effacing humility you speak of would be nothing more than a cop out. If we have significant cosmic purpose, it will not serve us well to consider ourselves mere incidentals in the larger scope of the Cosmos.

2) You’re right, entropy is not at all depressing. Everything you say about it is true. But your looking at life from within the confines of our entropic reality. The question I am posing is much larger. Even though now we could not live without it, and some aspects of entropy are indeed wonderful, the question remains: Is an entropic, death-fed Universe in keeping with the Creator-God of Life? Is it his best idea (Scripture seems to say it is not!). And therefore, why did God use entropy (death) as the foundational building block of all Creation? Stay with me ...

Stephen (aka Q) said...

An impressively clear summation of the law of entropy. I particularly enjoyed this statement:

In every process within the cosmos, there is always a net increase in entropy. When some new degree of order appears to arise somewhere, it is more than offset by increasing disorder elsewhere.

That explains why I find it so exhausting to achieve anything that's worth doing.

Cliff Martin said...


You're right about that! At the moment, it makes me think of my somewhat orderly state of my Living Room, Kitchen, etc. and the "offsetting disproportionate" mess in my Garage which is a direct result!