Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Spiritual Entropy, or: The Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Fallacy of Self-Help Christianity

If the weirdness of the title of this post didn’t turn you off from reading, then perhaps this is an article that can give you some help. But as I often must, let me start with a little science lesson.

One of the most important subjects to an engineer is that of thermodynamics – the study of energy conversion from one form to another. This is a critical aspect of any number of branches of fields of physics and engineering.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics (SLOT) is among the most thoroughly-proved laws in physics. Put in layman’s terms, SLOT says three basic things (my definitions for laymen are in parentheses):

1. Heat will never naturally flow from a cold object to a hot object (or: You’ll Never Buy A Perfect Refrigerator).

2. It is impossible to create an engine that perfectly converts all heat to useful work (or: You’ll Never Buy A Perfect Engine).

3. Unless acted upon by outside energy, a system will either have the same or more disorder as time passes (or: Today Is Always Worse Than Yesterday).

The third point there is the one I wish to discuss.

Entropy is the measure of how much energy is not available to convert for useful work. Or, to put it another way: it is a measure of how disorganized and random a system is. The SLOT says that unless outside energy is provided, a system will find its entropy (disorder) staying the same or increasing as time goes on. A system will never get more organized without outside help.

An example might be helpful. Say that I give you two photographs of the beach. Photograph A is of sand lying about randomly. Photograph B is of the sand stacked up and arranged to make a sand castle. If I tell you that no one came in between the two photos, and ask you to put them in chronological order, then you can do so easily. Obviously the sand castle did not build itself, so Photograph B must be the ‘starting point’, and photograph A is the ‘ending point’.

See, you naturally understand the principle of entropy whether you knew it or not: you know intuitively that a system is not going to gain more organization unless energy is put into it. My son’s Lego blocks will not build themselves into a spaceship—he must put the energy of his play into them. Sand castles do not spontaneously form—a little girl must put her energy into building it. Canyons don’t just naturally open—the river must impart energy to erode the rock. Plants do not just naturally grow—they must have energy from the sun. If I shake a puzzle box, it will not naturally fall together to make a puzzle.

Now we can all make changes—but it comes at the cost of adding energy and, in the end, increasing total disorder in the system. Take my typing this essay for example. I am taking random bits of data on my computer and turning them into ordered (or so I hope) knowledge. Yet this order comes at a total loss for the system – for I am using electricity from the wall (which requires burning of fossil fuels and more disorder); a computer (whose production resulted in great disorder for a variety of raw materials); my own energy (which came from food, whose production resulted in a great deal of loss); and further the use of this computer results in heat dissipating both from myself and from the computer. Stephen Hawking, in his book A Brief History of Time, estimated that if you read his book you would have read about two million bits of information; but in the process you will have generated a disorder increase of the universe of over twenty million million million million bits. There is no free lunch – everything we do increases disorder in the universe. This world is inevitably running down.

This is a law which is fairly easy for most laymen to grasp. It is natural for us to realize that things will decay over time, unless we actively maintain it. The sand cannot become more organized unless outside energy is added into the system.

Well, I submit to you that there is a similar law in our spiritual life—that the law of entropy also applies to our souls.

We Americans are a society with an extreme addiction to ‘self-help’. We believe that by exercising and dieting and working hard and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, things will get better in life. (We ignore how often this proves to be untrue. Perhaps the most amazing part about Americans is our brief memories of failure.) We apply this same logic to our spiritual life. We think that through Oprah and Dr Phil and pop psychology and yoga and Zen reflection time and environmentalism and new age-isms, we can somehow make ourselves more spiritual people.

We Christians do the same thing of course—heck, a lot of churches make such ‘practical’ ‘self-help’ messages their focus. If you just give till it hurts, if you just serve in enough ministries, if you just show up at church every time the doors are open, then you will become spiritual.

But that isn’t how life works. I submit to you that the laws of entropy are at work on our spirits every bit as much as they are at work on our bodies and the sand at the beach. You (that is, your spiritual you) cannot simply will yourself to be more spiritual, more orderly. Left to your own devices, you will decay into evil.

We prefer to think of someone turning evil as having made a choice to be evil. They “went to the Dark Side” like Vader. They made some choice to embrace the evil within them. That helps us sleep at night—because we believe it means that we (by our own choice and willpower) are fundamentally different than the Hitlers and Maos and Mussolinis of the world. We comfort ourselves by thinking that we would never sit idly by and patriotically do evil, like the Nazi Germans did; we would never kill innocents for our religion, like the Islmaofascist terrorists. “Sure,” we say, “we aren’t perfect. But I try to be good, and those people try to be evil.”

Well, you know what? You’re wrong. They all thought they were doing the ‘right’ things too. And just like you, they were trying to make their spiritual life somehow better through their actions--that they were doing the 'right things'.

But spiritual entropy says that is not possible. No matter how hard you try, no matter how tightly you cling to the laws that you follow (be it Mosaic Law or modern church expectations or Zen Buddhism or American societal norms or organic environmentalism or political philosophy or new-age scientism), you will not grow more spiritual. Trying to ‘will’ yourself to spirituality by adhering to some form of law will always fail. Always. You will either stay the same or get worse, but certainly no better (spiritually). Willpower is insufficient to overcome the natural decay of life. If you are left to your own devices, you will become more and more and more evil…and never actually realize that you are doing so.

Oh sure, by your own willpower you might be able to make some improvements—but they come at an overall cost to the system. If you get better in one area, other areas will get worse. You can diet and exercise well, but you stop paying attention at work; or your work is going great, but your home life isn’t; or you’re doing great as a parent but your sex life is suffering. Spiritually, maybe your Bible study is getting better but your prayer life stinks; or you are donating time to ministry but have gotten short-fused with your family. You may become more pious and avoid sexual sins altogether, but become judgmental and cruel to others in the process. Remember, the total amount of entropy (disorder) in your soul will always stay the same or get worse. If you make a gain through sheer willpower, something else will get worse and offset it.

If you wish to grow as a spiritual being, it is mandatory that you admit that you cannot do it yourself. You are the sand on the seashore, and no amount of ‘wanting’ it is going to make you change into a sand castle. You simply do not have the ability to build yourself up that way: the law of entropy forbids it. If you wish to be a castle, you must call upon an outside source to provide that energy for you. Only then can you grow spiritually.

You must have an influx of outside energy to grow spiritually. Always.

And, if the work comes from energy outside of you (i.e., God), then dispense with the self-delusion of believing that you are ‘partnering’ with Him to make it happen. When my wife builds a sand castle, the sand is not ‘partnering’ with her: it simply lies dormant and allows her to work it into the proper form—adding water if it is too dry, fitting it into the shape of a tower here or a drawbridge there.

By the same token, God does not need a partner. He needs simply a willing spirit that says, “God, I wish you to make me as you see fit. I yield to your plans.”

Understand spiritual entropy. Understand that you cannot work hard enough to make yourself spiritual.

“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works: otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” – Rom 11:6


  1. Comments open, I can't believe it :) I loved this post, it echoes a lot of my personal experience in AA and I had coincidentally heard the term 'entropy' the day before and didn't know what it meant. Thanks!

  2. Sorry about the comments thing. I'm now committed to having them open (...or at least until I change my mind, yet again). ;) Finally decided that my laziness of moderating is not a good enough excuse to limit the discussion about the posts. Besides, without comments it becomes me blasting my thoughts without feedback, which seems rather self-centered.

    Glad you liked it!

  3. How do you justify SLOT and evolution?

    1. Rahar, I actually do not justify them because I do not accept evolutionary theory. I find the theory absurd to the extreme mathematically if we are to suppose that random chance and time lead to the origin of the species; now maybe God chose to change body styles progressively, but this is creationism, not evolution.

      That said, your question is a common one. However, I would not personally recommend trying to use slot as an argument against evolution. SLOT is applicable in a closed system only--an open system like the Earth, which receives energy from the sun, would not apply because life forms here are receiving energy outside of themselves.

      You could argue on a universal scale though: the universe is a closed system, so by SLOT we should not see such massive information increases as you would see in evolution. All the evolutionist has to say, though, is that the total disorder increased enough elsewhere to offset the local organization here on the earth. Such a statement doesn't violate SLOT and--while not provable by him--is also not dis provable by you.

      So for me, SLOT vs evolution is the wrong way to go. I simply challenge people to actually go through the mathematics of mutation happening randomly and resulting in the fossil record...that is a powerful enough argument for me, mathematically.

  4. Very well presented, and lines up well with the idea of the Great Reformer. If such an idea exists in the mind at all, then it is reforming by nature, and a useful spark in this seemingly ever darkening univers.