Saturday, December 10, 2011

Time and the 2nd Law

Stephen Hawking discusses three arrows of time in his popular 1988 volume A Brief History of Time and subsequent updates. He defines an arrow of time as “something which distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.” One of the three is the thermodynamic arrow of time. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is one of the most fundamental characteristics of our created universe. It has operated in the past and still operates in our present, giving us a sense of time moving relentlessly forward. Our understanding of this law helps us comprehend how God established the operational rules for our universe at the initial creation event.

God set up the time dimension of our universe at the creation event described in Genesis 1:1. It stands to reason that the creator of our time dimension would also create other fundamental characteristics to enable successful operation of our universe. In particular, He established abundant life-friendly characteristics. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Decay or the Law of Entropy, serves as an umbrella for hundreds of other life-friendly characteristics.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states a fundamental reality. In our cosmos, all systems naturally proceed from a state of higher organization to a state of lower organization. Paint ages and peels; plants die and decay; hot water cools. Sometimes an apparent increase in order in an isolated system results from a reduction of order in some other system. Total order of the combined systems is reduced. For example, restoring an old, broken down, deteriorated automobile in the repair shop results in a localized increase of order when we look at the finished, restored vehicle, but the resources of the repair shop and outside vendors are diminished. When we look at the overall picture, the Law of Decay operates.

In this case, the Law of Decay (a reduction in the usefulness of resources) sounds like a bad thing. In this instance the Law of Decay works to our advantage. The owner of the restored vehicle may now drive down the street proudly, consuming fuel as he travels along. The gasoline is reduced to exhaust vapors and becomes useless as its heat energy dissipates, but it has provided a mode of transportation. The owner of the restored vehicle is happy to make these sacrifices.

Another example is provided by the consumption of food by living things. Food is a highly concentrated source of energy. As our bodies digest and otherwise metabolize food products, energy is produced. We are able to think, stay warm, and move about. The Law of Decay again works to our advantage. If the law did not operate, neither would we. One college biology professor, in his supplementary notes to students, stated if the process of energy transformation to lower states did not take place the organism would be dead!

Do we live in a world of decay? Yes, we do. For the most part, however, the Law of Decay works to our advantage throughout our lives. Carried to the law’s ultimate conclusion, eventually all organisms die. This includes the heartbreaking deaths of human beings. We function in the ongoing, linear dimension of time where the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics functions constantly. Stephen Hawking states the inexorable progression of increasing disorder helps us sense the passage of time: “Disorder increases with time because we measure time in the direction in which disorder increases.”

Holy Scripture deals with the subject of our universe’s bondage to decay in Romans 8:18-25. The Apostle Paul may or may not have been thinking in a modern scientific manner in this passage. He could have combined common sense observations of increasing disorder in his physical world with spiritual insights he had received by revelation. It is quite certain that “…our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us” refers to our present existence compared with our future existence in an eternal, perfect, new-dimensional existence. The colorful imagery of “…the whole creation groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (Rom. 8:22) could apply to our future deliverance from 2nd Law physics to a future New Creation reality where our current physics will no longer exist.

Decay and death have been present on this earth from the initial creation to the present. God created the Law of Decay as surely as He created our dimension of time. The decay has resulted in many beneficial energy transformations; the death of quadrillions of creatures has resulted in production of plentiful resources for our modern life. Of course, the deaths of billions of humans created in the image of God are not events to celebrate. Such deaths do, however, represent deliverance from conformity to the 2nd Law to something even better and more glorious yet to come for the redeemed in Christ.