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Life, Death and Entropy

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As I stood on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, my gaze remained fixed on a pair of legs sticking out of the burning pile of wood in front of me. Two feet emerged from this miniature Hades, blistered and cooked at the end of two exposed grayish femurs. This was once a person.

As a scholar pursuing interdisciplinary research in religion and science, I was in India for six weeks studying at the International Summer School for Jain Studies through Claremont Lincoln University, hoping to enhance my admitted ignorance about Eastern thought. However, in this moment when I stood with the Hindu faithful who came to the Ganges to pay final respects, my academic knowledge was inconsequential. I was struck by the fragility of life and the immensity of my own mortality: One day it will be my turn.

But why? Why do we get old? Why do we die? What happens after we die? What is the purpose of existence? In the face of existence we ask God, ask ourselves: Why is the path from life to death adorned by both the joys of creation and the sorrows of corruption?

We humans perpetually create wonderful things, only to have our sandcastles washed away by the evening tide. Since the dawn of conscious thought humanity has attempted to come to grips with this life. Existing in a space between the sacred and profane, many rely on religion to provide an answer to the fundamental question: Why do we exist at all in this life, where the push and pull of creativity and corruption bring humanity to the heights of joy and the depths of depression and anxiety?

When we consider the universe through the lens of the natural sciences, rather than religion, however, we find firm facts. We learn that the probability that entropy will always increase or stay the same lies at the root of the creativity, corruption and death that we see all around us.

Simply put, entropy is the tendency for systems to wind down over time as they use up the available energy. All forms of energy transfer imply a loss of usable energy for future work. An increase in entropy can establish an orientation toward which the energy transformation is directed. Thus systems tend to get more "disordered" relative to their original "ordered" state over time, unless a directed influence outside the system reorganizes the system.

Imagine ice melting in a glass of scotch. Although physics does not shows that it's strictly impossible for the scotch to cool again and for the ice cubes to reform exactly as they were, we all know from common experience that this outcome is vastly unlikely. Hence we generally witness a highly ordered, low-entropy state "before" (scotch with ice) and a disordered, higher-entropy, state "after" (melted ice yielding lukewarm scotch water).

Originally formulated by Rudolf Clausius and affirmed by Ludwig von Boltzman in the 19th century, this increase in cosmological entropy explains why we perceive an arrow of time. It's why we know that watching films in reverse "just doesn't look right." Finally, it's the force of entropy within biological systems that leads to the creativity that we observe in evolutionary processes, as well as corruption, degradation and ultimately death.

To what degree are the constructions of religious thought and theology a reaction to this "problem of entropy" encountered in human experience?

The Jain religion provides a rather profound reaction and response to what Jains describe as permanence, emergence and perishing: the multi-sided nature of reality (Anekantevada). The Jain ethic of Ahimsa is normally translated as "non-violence." When understood within the context of the Jain understanding of Karma as a law of cause and effect, however, ahimsa emerges as an ethic of minimal action -- an ethic of minimal energy consumption. Amazingly, Jainism contains within its theory an ethical method for minimizing one's "entropic footprint" in a universe that, according to the laws of thermodynamics, is tending toward a maximum entropy of thermal equilibrium -- or, in the existential terminology of Clausius, the "heat-death" of the universe.

Could it be, then, that the various religious philosophies and theologies that have developed since the dawn of consciousness are primarily trying to answer this "problem of entropy" that we encounter in every human experience? Perhaps, then, all of our religious conceptions -- God, afterlife, purpose -- grow out of a life and consciousness that is constrained by, but that also attempts to go beyond, the entropic limits of human experience.

Each of us is an individual enduring "I" who remembers the past and hopes for the future in a unified field of conscious experience. More importantly, we perceive this in others too. We don't want our lives to be limited by this corruption and death; we "know" that what is truly real is the life beyond this world as revealed in our religious scriptures. And so we hope, against the icy-cold truth of statistical and thermodynamic probability, that one day we will be freed from these entropic constraints -- free to live forever in paradise.

Claremont Lincoln University will be discussing end of life and other bioethical issues at the First Claremont International Jain Confence on Bioethics: Religious and Spiritual Approaches this August 24 and 25. All are welcome to attend. Click here for more information and to reserve your spot.