Forgiveness and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has always seemed depressing to me. It states that anything left to itself, without new energy to sustain its structure, will become continually more disordered. Molecules of different gasses in a container will move around until they 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. 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 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 thought about conspiracy theories and entropy. For some, it may feel satisfying to account fully for a disaster by believing in the plots and actions of secret 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 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 kind of foundation under that first step, the acceptance. It’s easier to accept what we cannot change when we understand that things don’t easily stay as they are in the first place and often no one is at fault. We may do the best we can to stay healthy, so we may be understandably reluctant to accept that our body fails eventually for reasons beyond our diet or exercise. Committees and governments can bring the benefits of social order, but we can recognize without blame how easily such social efforts, despite good intentions,  fall into stagnation or conflict.

Aside from Pinker’s article, entropy is sometimes described as a re-organizing and re-forming force rather than as dis-ordering per se. An organized thing will if left to itself take on other forms, occupy more or less space, detach and reattach. If it’s the original thing that you are focused on, then indeed that thing will have “broken down.” The ice cube is gone because the molecules rearrange throughout the water. A friendship may rearrange itself into a marriage, then into a divorce, then into a business partnership. Stars explode and their atoms of metals form Earth and us. Entropy, transformation, Buddhist impermanence.

But for Pinker, so powerful is the Second Law that it defines life’s purpose. The Second Law “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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