Modern Knowledge, Ancient Wisdom: “The Grim Reaper and The Second Law of Thermodynamics” by Trellia

This is a the fifth in a five-part miniseries about the intersection of Paganism and science by Trellia.  This article first appeared at Trellia’s Mirror Book.

“The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But 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.”

– Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington

Simply put, the second law of thermodynamics states that whenever energy is transformed from one form to another form, entropy (disorder) increases and energy decreases.

Scientists place particular prominence on the second law of thermodynamics for a number of reasons. It’s a theory that’s based on empirical evidence. It gives us a definition for the direction of time, i.e. the direction in which entropy increases. It tells us that the Universe has limits, i.e. energy cannot be converted with 100% efficiency. It may also tell us the ultimate fate of the Universe. In short, it’s a very powerful law.

The second law of thermodynamics also tells us something else. It tells us that ultimately, everything decays. Everything wears out and fades. Everything dies.

I find it intriguing that the second law of thermodynamics, one of the most important concepts in science, essentially describes death. And death, like life, is held in particularly high regard among Pagans, as well as followers of other beliefs.

Wikipedia alone lists some 200 deities connected with death found throughout world religions. That’s about the same as the number of fertility deities. Most religions have some kind of festival to venerate departed spirits, in addition to having a lot to say about the afterlife and the proper way to deal with the bodies of the deceased. Clearly, death is just as fundamental concept to religion as the second law of thermodynamics is to science.

Although it may seem morbid or bleak, I think this tells us that death is one of the most important aspects of existence. It is perhaps the only certainty in this universe. It unites us all — not just people, but animals, plants, rocks, stars and even the subatomic particles that make up everything. The fact that death is so powerful yet so commonplace means that we should not fear it. We should try to see death as constant, unifying companion, the one thing we know to always be true in a Universe full of uncertainty. In this way, death is perhaps the ultimate God.

The Author: Trellia

kodomonihiAlthough I’ve been interested in Paganism for many, many years, I have only recently started practising Paganism on a regular basis. As suggested in Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, I’ve decided to start a “Mirror Book;” a journal of my progress and thoughts in discovering my own spiritual path. You can read this progress online at The Mirror Book.

I would definitely describe myself as an Eclectic Pagan, borrowing from many different traditions, but I have a particular fascination with Shinto, the “indigenous” Japanese religion. This is partly because of my own background – I studied Japanese at university, lived in Japan for several years and currently work for a Japanese non-profit. It’s also partly because, as there is a thriving family of foxes living very near my house, I venerate Inari, a Japanese deity closely associated with foxes, as a patron deity; I have a shrine to Inari in my courtyard.

I’m also more than a little interested in the Gothic subculture; you can view my “Gothic Stereotypes” art here.

See Trellia’s other posts.

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2 Comments on “Modern Knowledge, Ancient Wisdom: “The Grim Reaper and The Second Law of Thermodynamics” by Trellia

  1. I like very much the view of the 2nd law as the “law of death.” But while individual organisms all die, reproduction makes life strongly persistent in the face of growing entropy. Perhaps that, rather than imaginings of afterlife, can console us.

    Thanks.

    Brock

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