On entropy and thermodynamics: integrating physics and theology from Brian Greene’s “Until the End of Time”

One of my epistemological assumptions is that truth is truth is truth, and thus the physical sciences and social sciences can help inform theological truths and vice versa, that ultimately everything will be able to be integrated into a One Grand Model of Everything. I take as a given that the best model of what “God” is, as informed by theology, should be able to fit within the best model of what the rest of the universe is, as informed by empirical evidence and the scientific method. It’s also been my experience that most of the “big questions” in life tend to invariably come back to the phenomenon of consciousness. Understanding consciousness is, I think, an essential piece of understanding the questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Enter Brian Greene’s latest book Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe. Greene is a materialist (a position with which I sympathize!), but I’m reading through it with an eye toward possible ways that the latest understandings of the nature of the reality and the structure of the universe can more fully integrate with our understandings of the nature of God and vice versa.

I’m also reading with the humility of someone who has a Ph.D. in political science and trained as a liberal arts scholar, but a very amateur enthusiast when it comes to the physical sciences. I’ve read lots of “pop science” books but have no formal training. So the likelihood is very high that I’m totally misunderstanding a lot of what I read. Nevertheless, we do the best we can.

In Chapter 2, “The Language of Time,” Greene gives an overview of the laws of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy. In a nutshell: energy is always conserved and states of matter will invariably flow from states of low entropy/high organization to high entropy/low organization. Also, the best models of the laws of physics seem to allow for time to run just as well from future to past as they do from past to future. Why, then, does time seem to flow in one direction only? Because of entropy: there are simply more ways for matter to distribute into states of high entropy/low organization than low entropy/high organization.

As I think about ways that understandings of entropy and time could possibly interact with theology, some questions occur to me:

Traditional interpretations of creation ex nihilo assume that God is separate from and prior to the Universe. Thus, God was present before the Big Bang and presumably was responsible for its occurrence. (I’m taking as an assumption that the Big Bang is a historical reality until the evidence demonstrates a better explanation.) Greene’s explanation of entropy (and corresponding predictions about the fate of the universe) assumes that all energy in the Universe is in a “closed system” and there’s no energy outside the system. Might a God who exists independent from the Universe be able to introduce novel energy into the system? If so, what implications might that have for our understandings of entropy, time, and the fate of the Universe?

A pure speculation: is God in a state of infinitely low entropy? In other words, is God characterized by infinite organization and no disorganization? Did a state of infinitely low entropy exist at the Big Bang? Is God coterminous somehow with the Big Bang itself?

Greene’s explanation of why time flows in one direction seemed to have a lot to do with randomness: if you shake out a bag of pennies, what is the likelihood of them all ending up tails? Not completely impossible, but exceedingly improbable. So when matter and energy “shake out” from moment to moment, the odds are that they do so in a state of more entropy/less organization than not, and thus time flows in that direction(?). If that’s the case, is it correct to infer that time could flow the other way if the randomness does produce a state of higher entropy, even if it’s exceedingly rare? In other words, is time flowing backward here and there throughout the cosmos from moment to moment while everything around it is flowing forward? (My limited understanding of this concept is showing here.) But assuming this is how it works, could God somehow introduce new energy into the Universe system such that entropy is decreased for something within the system, making time run backwards for it? Could, conceivably, living organisms that have died be reanimated by manipulating their states of entropy?

I’m excited to dig deeper into the book.

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