Kingdom Thermodynamics 3: The Boundaries

I followed the introduction to this series with a discussion of the principle of causality, and how it underlies the Second Law of Thermodynamics but is also inconsistent with Christian theology. In this third post I want to look at a different, but in some way equivalent, way in which the Second Law is in tension with theology. This relates to assumptions about what happens at boundaries, especially those at the beginning and the end of time.

The point which I am trying to make is rather clearer when presented in terms of space rather than of time. So I will start with what is I hope a simple analogy, so that those of you who are not used to too much technical material can get an idea of what I am talking about.

First imagine a large flag, flying in a gentle breeze. At one end the flag is fixed, tied to a flagpole, and can move only if the flagpole moves. The other end of the flag is flying free, with no immediate constraints. The middle of the flag is partially free, but not completely so because it cannot move too far from the pole. A point on the flag say one tenth of its width from the pole is even less free, because it is constrained to be close to the pole.

Then imagine a large banner of the kind which is fixed at each end to a pole, but is being carried so that it is loose in the middle. In this case both ends of the banner are fixed. The middle of the banner is relatively free, but it is constrained to some extent, to an equal extent, by both poles, for it cannot move too far from either of them. As for a point on the banner one tenth of its width from one pole, this is again quite tightly constrained by the nearby pole; there is also some constraint from the second pole, but this is much less tight.

Then try to imagine this same kind of situation transformed from space into time. This is rather hard. Perhaps one can imagine a group of children who are released from school to explore an area on condition that they all get home at a particular time – and imagine that they are actually obedient! As you watch how they spread out across the area, to start with this will be determined by their starting point and how fast they walk or run. As time goes on they will start to realise that they mustn’t wander too far as they must get home on time, and so their distribution will start to be affected by this. As they start to return, a time will come when their positions are determined by their need to get home, and hardly at all by where they started from.

Or imagine a dynamic caption of the type I have sometimes seen on TV programmes. It starts with a clear message, and then gradually and apparently at random letters in the message start to change until it becomes unreadable. For a time it looks as if nothing but chaos remains. But it gradually becomes apparent that a new message is forming. The changes turn out not to have been random at all, but to have been constrained by the intention to transform the message letter by letter into a new message.

All of these are examples of boundary conditions. In the case of the flag, the boundary conditions in space apply at one edge only, whereas there are no conditions at the other edge; but for the banner the boundary conditions apply at both edges. For the children, there is an initial boundary condition and also a final boundary condition, that they are in a particular place at a particular time. Similarly, there are initial and final conditions on the letters on the TV screen, that they form particular messages at the start and at the end. If you look at a point in space or time which is close to a boundary with conditions, the state at this point is constrained closely by the boundary conditions, but the constraints become much looser a long way from the boundary.

When we look at processes in time in the world as we know it, at least those which are not somehow controlled by intelligence and advance planning, it seems that no final boundary conditions can apply, although initial boundary conditions may be imposed. Thus processes in time are more like the flag than the banner, with the end flying free. In practice we can constrain the final state of something in time only by imposing tight initial boundary conditions, or by intelligent intervention. This is a direct consequence of causality operating within the universe, which implies that the state of something at the end of a period cannot affect any state or event during that period.

However, when we look at all of this from a biblical and theological perspective, the position is quite different. The Bible gives clear teaching about the future, including specific prophecies, some of which have already been fulfilled, and details about the end times. If the future is known in any kind of absolute sense, that is to say if these prophecies are more than predictions based on current data (like weather forecasts), this is a final boundary condition and so a breach of the principle of causality.

Theologians have taken a variety of positions on specific prophecies. Those of a more liberal kind have tended to discount all biblical prophecy, and to take apparent fulfilment of prophecies, such as those in the book of Daniel, as evidence that the prophecy was in fact written after the event. Open theists have taken a rather different line: prophecies are not absolute knowledge of the future, but rather a combination of predictions based on current data and advance announcements of plans which God intends to fulfil by working within the universe and within time.

Of course any theologian who presupposes that the principle of causality is a philosophical absolute is bound to take one or other of these positions on prophecy. However, this does not seem to be the biblical picture, as I briefly explained in part 2 of this series. The biblical position, as it seems to me, is that God knows the future absolutely, and at times communicates information about it to humans as prophecy. He has said:

I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please.’

(Isaiah 46:10, TNIV)

This flow of definite information from the future to the present is a breach of causality. Furthermore, it is related to the spiritual gift of prophecy (although revelation of information about the future is only a small part of that gift), and as such is an indication of a link between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and breaches of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I intend to explore this link further later in this series.

I do not intend in this series to discuss specific prophecies concerning events before the end of time. My interest here is more in the final state of the created universe, and how it compares with the initial state. As this post is already rather long, I will continue this discussion in the next post in this series.

Note: originally the next post was combined with this one; I then split them into two separate posts.

Kingdom Thermodynamics 2: Beyond Causality

In the Introduction to this series I explained my long-standing fascination with the Second Law of Thermodynamics and how it relates to Christian teaching, especially to Romans 8:19-23. I wrote about how I had been thinking about these matters on and off for about 30 years.

In particular I remember sitting in the Cavendish Laboratory library in Cambridge, in 1976 or 1977, looking at some rather heavy books dealing with the theoretical basis of the Second Law. While I don’t remember the names of the books, I do remember the basic point I discovered: the Second Law is not dependent on experimental evidence, for it can be deduced by pure logic. It must be this that gave Arthur Eddington such supreme confidence in this Law that he could write:

if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

But what I did not find in the books I consulted was a recognition of a hidden assumption in the logic. Yet it should in fact be rather obvious that there is some such hidden assumption, for without it there is no way that the time asymmetry of the Second Law can arise, within a framework of more fundamental laws which are all time-invariant.

The hidden assumption on which the Second Law of Thermodynamics is based is causality. That is to say, it is assumed that any event in the universe is caused solely and completely by other events in the universe which precede it in time, but cannot be caused or affected by any event which follows it in time.

To most people in the modern world this principle of causality seems so obvious that it can be assumed without question. This was certainly not always the case. And I will go on to argue here that there is a fundamental contradiction between causality and Christian teaching.

Nevertheless I must recognise that in practice the world in which we live operates according to the principle of causality. It is perhaps this rather than the Second Law of Thermodynamics which explains why we don’t see stationary objects suddenly start to move without an cause or applied force. If the principle of causality needs any experimental proof, it is in the precise and predictable way in which even at the sub-microscopic level physical, chemical and biological systems obey the Second Law. And we should be glad of this, for without this neither our modern technology nor our bodies would function.

But the principle of causality has implications which conflict with Christian theology. Causality implies that what happens now depends only on what has happened in the past within the universe. The Bible teaches that what happens now is preparation for the future consummation, that “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19, TNIV) and “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28, TNIV marginal reading).

Now it is not a violation of causality for an event now to be preparation for a future event, if it is caused by an intelligent being who is planning for that future event. In this sense we might be able to argue that current events which are God’s preparation for the future are caused by God, and so preserve the principle of causality. But this resolution only works if we place God within the universe, and his plans for the future within time – specifically, in the distant past. Some theologians (associated with Process Theology and Open Theism, from the limited amount I know about these movements) have taught that God is inside the universe and constrained by time, and in this way they could preserve the principle of causality. However, this view of God has not been accepted by most theologians, for the good reason that it seems to conflict with the biblical picture of God as separate from his created universe and not constrained by time or space.

If God is outside of the universe, an event caused by him has a cause from outside the universe, in contradiction to the principle of causality. Also, from a theological viewpoint all events are part of God’s preparation for the future and must therefore be at least in part caused by God. So all events have a cause outside the universe, and there is nothing left to be caused according to the normal principle of causality operating within the universe. Thus the classic view of God as outside time and separate from his creation is incompatible with the principle of causality.

But why then do we see the universe operating on the basis of causality and according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer was clearly written by the Apostle Paul: “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” (Romans 8:20, TNIV). In other words, the universe is currently experiencing “frustration” and “bondage to decay” through the operation of the Second Law because God has chosen to let it work for the time being according to the principle of causality. But, Paul promises, this will not always be true, for we and all creation can look forward in hope to the time when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21, TNIV).

In this verse Paul writes of this as something entirely in the future. But elsewhere, even in this chapter, he suggests that this “freedom and glory of the children of God” is something not entirely future, but which is already starting to appear among Christian believers:

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

(Romans 8:14-15, TNIV)

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

(Romans 8:23, TNIV)

In other words, as Christians we have already been adopted as children of God and given the Holy Spirit, and so in principle we already have “the freedom and glory of the children of God”. But we live within a universe which remains in bondage to decay; even our bodies are in bondage to decay working within them as they operate. Yet the promised freedom of the Kingdom of God has already broken through into our lives, and continues to break through, through us, into the world around us.

So, while we can expect the world and our bodies to continue to follow the principle of causality and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as Christians we should not expect to be bound by this principle and this law. In the spiritual realm we are not bound by them. And, as I will go on to explain in further parts of this series, we should expect to see times and places where these rules are not followed even in the physical realm, because the Kingdom of God is breaking through into the world.

But this is enough for this posting. More will follow. In the next part I look at “boundary conditions” of the universe.

Meanwhile, does anyone reading this know of any specialist forums, journals etc where issues like this are discussed? If so, please let me know by commenting on this.