Forgiveness and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has seemed depressing to me. It states that anything left to itself, without new energy to sustain its structure, will become increasingly disordered. Molecules of different gasses in a container will move around until they all become thoroughly intermixed. Ice cubes in a glass of water will melt. And as the sayings go, “You can’t unscramble an egg” and “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”

This tendency towards disorder, this inability of things to remain what they are unless energy sustains them, is entropy. The Second Law asserts that entropy in the universe always increases. Sustainability is always in doubt. And in human affairs, entropy implies that nothing worthwhile—relationships, art, satisfying work, better communities—can remain finished and stable on its own. Ugh.

But Steven Pinker takes a more generous view in a short piece written for Edge and reprinted in the Wall Street Journal in 2016.

The Second Law also implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The human mind naturally thinks that when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone must have wanted them to happen….[But] not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

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And, Pinker adds, without a flow of economic energy, people go hungry. “Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food. What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth.”

I found myself thinking about entropy in connection with conspiracy theories. For some, it may feel satisfying to account fully for a disaster by tracing it to the stealthy plots of human enemies. But entropy and its agents— coincidence, irrational human impulse, materials and systems gone awry, among others—are all on stage as well, more difficult to identify, and much less satisfying to blame.

Pinker’s perspective also cast a new light for me on the familiar serenity prayer: that we should try to accept what we cannot change, find the courage to change what we can, and hope that we can tell the difference between the two. The Second Law puts a foundation under that difficult first step, the acceptance of those things that we cannot change. It’s easier to do that when we understand that conditions don’t easily stay as they are in the first place–and often no one is at fault. For example, we try very hard  to stay healthy, so it’s not surprising that we’re reluctant to accept the idea that bodies will fail eventually for reasons that are beyond our control. Similarly, committees and governments may bring the benefits of social order for a period of time, but we can recognize how such social efforts will fall into stagnation or conflict eventually without anyone being a villain.

On the sunnier side, entropy is sometimes described as a re-organizing and re-forming force, rather than as a dis-ordering one. An organized thing will if left to itself take on new forms, occupy more or less space, detach and reattach. If it’s the original thing that you are focused on and hoping to preserve, then indeed that thing will have “broken down.” Ice cubes melt and disappear. But a friendship may rearrange itself into a marriage, then into a divorce, then into a business partnership. Stars explode, their atoms of metals fly out into the cosmos and come together again in the Earth and in us. Entropy, transformation, Buddhist impermanence.

Still, for Pinker, it’s the disruptive aspect of the Second Law that we underestimate. In fact it “defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind and striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” Appreciating the Second Law means pursuing such purposes more consciously while understanding that, without blame, the tide always comes back in.

2 thoughts on “Forgiveness and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

  1. Human will against entropy? Are we not recepticals for the dynamics of physical laws?
    As 21st century expenders of energy systems do we not increase global entropy through our rapacity? Does our effort for beneficial refuges of order sustain against global multitudes of consumption unprecedented? Gaia may renew energy systems after this great primate age of systems exhaustion. Perhaps our extinction is warranted in the greater scheme of living systems. This energy system serenity prayer of acceptance and knowledge may not overcome our species’s competitive voracious capitalistic consumption and its entropic mountains of waste. It may be a romantic notion that our will and common sense can defy our compulsive
    Urges to divide and conquer, to get ours over theirs, to build big and hastily. Self- sustaining systems require patience, nurture, time, community. Can we shrink our populations to use one earth not four? Or is our incessant drive to kill and forage to survive our way not to survive in the long run?
    Refuges are hiding places as much as sanctuaries. Eventually the universe winds down to a hot uniformity- perhaps to cede to another universe. Or maybe we shall survive fhis sixth extinction in human bands that may
    patrol the planet as new Johnny Appleseeds.
    Science and community and wisdom may reign in another era. Plagues and wars and disasters may cut our species down to size.
    Meanwhile we are bracing ourselves for massive earth/ energy shifts. Pessimistic?
    Law of conservation a boon perhaps. E=MC squared. I try and dance and live and create and listen and act and receive against the odds. What a strange and industrious brood are we.


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