Entropy and the Death of God

“God is dead, God remains dead, and we have killed him.” Nietzsche wrote these words in 1882, and since then, they’ve been misinterpreted countless times. However, if we interpret them accurately, they provide profound insight into the state of our world today.

“God is dead” refers to the end of consensus religion. From Constantine to the Enlightenment, Christianity was the dominant force in Western civilization: being Christian was the default thing to be. The basic tenets of Christianity—God is powerful and good, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, we live in a fallen world, etc—held the status of basic axioms, and were beyond questioning. The Christian world pulsed with meaning and morality: decisions large and small glowed with significance, everyday objects were weighed down by moral gravity, and even the humblest of work was elevated by divine mandate.

The Enlightenment changed all that. When rationality and empiricism ascended the throne of civilizational values, God found Himself deposed. He was no longer a basic axiom, prior to all questioning, but was now subject to the inexorable, corrosive nibbling of rationality.

At first, things seemed like they’d be okay for God. After all, He was a popular guy, and early rationalists like Descartes defended Him. But the writing was on the wall; once tenets of Christianity—including the existence of God—were open to question, it was inevitable that many would follow lines of questioning that didn’t resolve in God’s favour. It wasn’t that everyone stopped believing in God—it was that once believing in God became optional, it was no longer possible to build a society on the assumption of a divine mandate.

This led to problems which extended well beyond the confines of God and Christianity. Once there was no more assumed religion, there was nothing left to really justify morality and meaning. To fill this gap, some turned to nationalism, and some turned to hedonism—as Nietzsche predicted—but these alternatives proved hollow.

Worse yet, as culture and philosophy seemed to erode all basis for meaning, science was coming up with theories that seemed to undermine it even further. The theory of entropy was one such example.

The study of entropy began when natural scientists looked at engines, and realized that only a small fraction of the energy packed into the fuel made it into useful work. They discovered this wasn’t a symptom of poor engine efficiency, but a feature of the universe: every use of energy, no matter how efficient, will result in some wasted potential.

Entropy is a measure of disorder. When we run an engine, energy is neither created nor destroyed: the amount of potential energy stored in the fuel equals the amount that goes into useful work, plus the amount that’s burned off as heat. But the fact that some goes to waste means that entropy has increased. Entropy is the slow, unstoppable surrender of potential to actual, and the recognition that the potential always contains more energy than the useful bit of whatever is actualized. Entropy is also a measure of unlikeliness: the past is always less likely than the present, which is less likely than the future.

Increased entropy is a byproduct of things happening. Every time a thing happens, there’s slightly less potential for other things to happen. And the Second Law of Thermodynamics claims that there’s no way to reverse the process.

In the 20th century, scientists began the grim exercise of applying the theory of entropy to the whole universe: Entropy combined with cosmology suggests our universe will end in a “heat death,” where particles become further and further apart, until all the energy in our universe becomes unusable, and things just stop happening.

While the 17th century man would’ve cried “Heresy!”, the 20th century man gave a weary shug and said, “of course.” After all, God was dead. Christianity was discredited. Morality and meaning were without justification or basis. It made sense the universe would resemble the image we’d come to hold of ourselves: machines without souls, anticipating no afterlife.

And yet: while the back end of existence seemed to mesh nicely with the post-God nihilism predicted by Nietzsche, the beginnings posed more of a problem. There was something uncomfortably biblical about the Big Bang Theory, which was, after all, proposed by a Catholic priest. The beginning of our universe seemed beyond the purview of the cloaked and sickled law of entropy, and sparkled with hope—albeit, an increasingly desperate one.

“The Last Question” is a short story by Isaac Asimov, written in 1956, which offers a biblical teleology for the modern age. The story follows humanity through centuries and millennia, from 21st century solar panel technicians to immortals harnessing the power of stars. The humans are accompanied by a supercomputer, to whom they keep asking the same question: Is there any way to reverse entropy? The computer always gives the same reply: “Insufficient data for a meaningful answer.” Eventually entropy grows so high that humans abandon their bodies and merge with the computer, who floats in space, the last being in existence, still working on the question. Finally, it figures it out, and with no one left to tell, it settles on a demonstration: “Let there be light.”

While Asimov offers a parable about the ability to conquer entropy, others are finding areas where entropy may be our friend. Jeremy England, a physicists at MIT, has developed a new theory for the origin of life. While evolution does a crack job explaining how life changes once it already exists, scientists have always been embarrassingly short on mechanisms for explaining how life first emerged. England suggests a mechanism that includes entropy at its core: he argues that in conditions similar to those of early earth, matter will organize itself into “bubbles” which minimize entropy within themselves and maximize it externally. In other words, matter will begin to behave like life. In contrast to Asimov, who proposes a universe where the being who conquers entropy becomes God, England is proposing a universe where entropy itself takes on the role of God.

After declaring that God is dead, and that we killed him, Nietzsche goes on to ask, “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Without the comforts of God, we’re bereft, like orphans whose parents have died, abandoned in a world of questions and confusion. The solution, according to Nietzsche, is for us to step up and become adults ourselves, perhaps even parents of a new world. The key to this is entropy. Whether we conquer entropy or learn to harness its flow, the only way that humans will attain Godlike potential is by mastering it.

“God is dead, God remains dead, and we have killed him.” Nietzsche wrote these words in 1882, and since then, they’ve been misinterpreted countless times. However, if we interpret them accurately, they provide profound insight into the state of our world today.

“God is dead” refers to the end of consensus religion. From Constantine to the Enlightenment, Christianity was the dominant force in Western civilization: being Christian was the default thing to be. The basic tenets of Christianity—God is powerful and good, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, we live in a fallen world, etc—held the status of basic axioms, and were beyond questioning. The Christian world pulsed with meaning and morality: decisions large and small glowed with significance, everyday objects were weighed down by moral gravity, and even the humblest of work was elevated by divine mandate.

The Enlightenment changed all that. When rationality and empiricism ascended the throne of civilizational values, God found Himself deposed. He was no longer a basic axiom, prior to all questioning, but was now subject to the inexorable, corrosive nibbling of rationality.

At first, things seemed like they’d be okay for God. After all, He was a popular guy, and early rationalists like Descartes defended Him. But the writing was on the wall; once tenets of Christianity—including the existence of God—were open to question, it was inevitable that many would follow lines of questioning that didn’t resolve in God’s favour. It wasn’t that everyone stopped believing in God—it was that once believing in God became optional, it was no longer possible to build a society on the assumption of a divine mandate.

This led to problems which extended well beyond the confines of God and Christianity. Once there was no more assumed religion, there was nothing left to really justify morality and meaning. To fill this gap, some turned to nationalism, and some turned to hedonism—as Nietzsche predicted—but these alternatives proved hollow.

Worse yet, as culture and philosophy seemed to erode all basis for meaning, science was coming up with theories that seemed to undermine it even further. The theory of entropy was one such example.

The study of entropy began when natural scientists looked at engines, and realized that only a small fraction of the energy packed into the fuel made it into useful work. They discovered this wasn’t a symptom of poor engine efficiency, but a feature of the universe: every use of energy, no matter how efficient, will result in some wasted potential.

Entropy is a measure of disorder. When we run an engine, energy is neither created nor destroyed: the amount of potential energy stored in the fuel equals the amount that goes into useful work, plus the amount that’s burned off as heat. But the fact that some goes to waste means that entropy has increased. Entropy is the slow, unstoppable surrender of potential to actual, and the recognition that the potential always contains more energy than the useful bit of whatever is actualized. Entropy is also a measure of unlikeliness: the past is always less likely than the present, which is less likely than the future.

Increased entropy is a byproduct of things happening. Every time a thing happens, there’s slightly less potential for other things to happen. And the Second Law of Thermodynamics claims that there’s no way to reverse the process.

In the 20th century, scientists began the grim exercise of applying the theory of entropy to the whole universe: Entropy combined with cosmology suggests our universe will end in a “heat death,” where particles become further and further apart, until all the energy in our universe becomes unusable, and things just stop happening.

While the 17th century man would’ve cried “Heresy!”, the 20th century man gave a weary shug and said, “of course.” After all, God was dead. Christianity was discredited. Morality and meaning were without justification or basis. It made sense the universe would resemble the image we’d come to hold of ourselves: machines without souls, anticipating no afterlife.

And yet: while the back end of existence seemed to mesh nicely with the post-God nihilism predicted by Nietzsche, the beginnings posed more of a problem. There was something uncomfortably biblical about the Big Bang Theory, which was, after all, proposed by a Catholic priest. The beginning of our universe seemed beyond the purview of the cloaked and sickled law of entropy, and sparkled with hope—albeit, an increasingly desperate one.

“The Last Question” is a short story by Isaac Asimov, written in 1956, which offers a biblical teleology for the modern age. The story follows humanity through centuries and millennia, from 21st century solar panel technicians to immortals harnessing the power of stars. The humans are accompanied by a supercomputer, to whom they keep asking the same question: Is there any way to reverse entropy? The computer always gives the same reply: “Insufficient data for a meaningful answer.” Eventually entropy grows so high that humans abandon their bodies and merge with the computer, who floats in space, the last being in existence, still working on the question. Finally, it figures it out, and with no one left to tell, it settles on a demonstration: “Let there be light.”

While Asimov offers a parable about the ability to conquer entropy, others are finding areas where entropy may be our friend. Jeremy England, a physicists at MIT, has developed a new theory for the origin of life. While evolution does a crack job explaining how life changes once it already exists, scientists have always been embarrassingly short on mechanisms for explaining how life first emerged. England suggests a mechanism that includes entropy at its core: he argues that in conditions similar to those of early earth, matter will organize itself into “bubbles” which minimize entropy within themselves and maximize it externally. In other words, matter will begin to behave like life. In contrast to Asimov, who proposes a universe where the being who conquers entropy becomes God, England is proposing a universe where entropy itself takes on the role of God.

After declaring that God is dead, and that we killed him, Nietzsche goes on to ask, “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Without the comforts of God, we’re bereft, like orphans whose parents have died, abandoned in a world of questions and confusion. The solution, according to Nietzsche, is for us to step up and become adults ourselves, perhaps even parents of a new world. The key to this is entropy. Whether we conquer entropy or learn to harness its flow, the only way that humans will attain Godlike potential is by mastering it.