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Monday, April 01, 2013

The Resurrection, Superstition, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Maple leaf on concrete
Death and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (The photo above is of a maple leaf. This post is not an April Fool joke!)

Ephesians 1:18b . . . that you may know what is the hope of his calling, and what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to that working of the strength of his might 20 which he worked in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.  

The definitions of life and death are complex, and philosophical as well as biological. Generally, living things are in a constant battle with the second law of thermodynamics. So long as they can obtain enough energy, they win this battle. They can build themselves. They build themselves as non-random, ordered objects. Living things do this, however, only at the expense of order in the universe at large. We can expend energy to build, but, when we do, we are unbuilding something else -- we are causing entropy to increase. However, when we do so, we are taking energy from somewhere else.

For example, we can straighten the back seat of our car, or the dining room table. We change disorder to order. But, to do so, we must use energy that we have taken in in the food we eat, or, perhaps, electrical energy to run various cleaning devices. Starch, say, is an ordered food molecule, containing usable stored energy. Breaking it down changes the combinations molecules of starch into less ordered molecules of carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy in the process, and giving off wasted energy. Disorder arises through almost all natural processes, because of the unbending second law of thermodynamics. The only way to stave off that disorder is by having a source of energy to draw on. However, drawing such energy for use is related to increased disorder somewhere else. For example, the sun is gradually becoming more disordered.

One of the things that happens as a result of death is that the ability of a living thing to stave off the inexorable increase of entropy is gone. Death leads to decay. As Polkinghorne puts it:
In our present world, change and decay are built into the fabric of the universe. The processes by which genetic mutations produce new forms of life are the processes by which cells become cancerous. Death is the necessary cost of life. In fact, a theological defense of the existence of physical evil is that it is not gratuitous but the inescapable price of an evolutionary world, free to make itself within the independence its Creator has granted to it. John C. Polkinghorne, Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995, p. 107.

Not only does death lead to decay, but this decay is, in the practical sense, irreversible. If I had the money, and offered some famous research institution a trillion dollars if they could bring one dead maple leaf back to life, I wouldnt lose my money. It is not humanly possible to reverse the decay in a dead organism, or part of an organism, and bring it back to life. The second law of thermodynamics makes that impossible.

The resurrection, of course, is miraculous, any way you want to look at it. It wasn’t, or isn’t, humanly possible. (That doesnt mean that it didnt happen!) We cannot reverse the effects of the second law on a dead leaf, much less a dead human. No wonder Paul called resurrection power immeasurable in Ephesians 1:19-20. God’s promise is that Christians have this power working in us.

The biology text I am currently using says this: The irrational belief that actions that are not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome is called superstition. . . . different narratives, legends, fairy tales, and epics from all around the globe exist to help people understand the world around them. These stories explain everything from birth and death to disease and healing. (Jay Phelan, What is Life? Second Edition. New York: Freeman, 2013, pp. 5-6. Emphasis in original.) To be fair, Phelan is not particularly attacking religious belief here, but casts a wider net, including, among other things, the ritualistic actions of baseball players.

Phelan goes on to say that there are truths in religion that the scientific method doesn't reveal to us, and that these are based on personal faith, traditions, and mythology. (p. 6. Phelan put quotation marks around truths,” implying, I think, that hes not sure that they are truths.)

Phelan is mostly right. Beliefs that are not logically related to a course of events are sometimes believed to cause things that they dont. I classify the belief that vaccinations cause autism as one such superstition. There are religious beliefs that seem superstitious to me, and, no doubt, many of mine seem superstitious to, say, a Buddhist.

The resurrection, I claim (and Im not nearly the first!), is an event that there is evidence for. Of course some of my belief in the resurrection is based on personal faith, traditions, and perhaps even mythology. But I submit that there is evidence for the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says: 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, [Peter] then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at once, most of whom remain until now, but some have also fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, [the half-brother of Christ] then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all, as to the child born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. In other words, there were hundreds of people, in Pauls day, who had seen the living, resurrected Christ. Thats evidence.

There is other evidence for the resurrection. How else can we explain the transformation of Peter from a coward who didnt acknowledge that he was one of Christ's followers to a bold public speaker, proclaiming the gospel? How else can we explain the growth of the church? How else can I explain how a young lady of my acquaintance, with little interest in the things of God, living in sin with her boyfriend, and their child, had her life turned around, began attending church with her boyfriend and child, reconciled with her estranged mother, and was married to the boyfriend after the morning service on Super Bowl Sunday, 2013? (I know a similar story, about another young lady who married her boyfriend after church service in another place on the next Sunday. Both new wives said that they wanted to show others a life consistent with their faith. Both are living transformed lives.) I credit the power of the resurrection for these and other stories of transformation, and claim that such changes are evidence for the reality of the resurrection. I cannot prove, to the satisfaction of a confirmed atheist, that these events, in the First Century and the Twenty-First, are logically related to the Resurrection, but I submit that they are evidence for such a logical relationship.

Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

thanks for share.

Martin LaBar said...

You are welcome, Anonymous.

Thanks for commenting.