The Gospel of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics
Today’s spirituality/science blog involves a branch of science with a long, scary name: nonequilibrium thermodynamics.
Nonequilibrium thermodynamics (abbreviated ‘NET’) combines physics and biology, studying the energy processes of open systems. All living things, including you and I, are open systems. Put simply, this means that while we are individual selves, we are also interwoven with our environment, exchanging energy and information with it in constant cycle. Exploring how this occurs can help us understand life. So NET is meaningful.
I’ve been learning about NET from a wonderful book called Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life. It emphasizes that the guiding principle of NET is that “nature abhors a gradient.” A gradient is any difference across a distance: When somewhere is hotter than somewhere else, or when something is more highly pressurized than something else, a gradient exists between the two. Gradients, then, are always relative dualities: colder/hotter, more pressurized/less pressurized, etc. Nature moves to resolve these dualities into equilibriums—states where differences are reconciled, and energy and activity are minimized.
Gradients are tensions, like all differences. Nature moves to resolve its tensions into quietude.
In Judeo-Christian language, nature seeks Sabbath.
But without gradients, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. NET proposes that when gradients appear, life evolves to reduce them. Perhaps life on Earth evolved to reduce the temperature gradient between the hot sun and cold space: We feed on sunlight and dissipate heat into space, bringing the temperatures of both closer together.
We assist a reconciliation—it’s a romantic notion.
Perennial romantics, mystics understand NET intuitively. All the world’s mysticisms teach that the purpose of human life is to resolve the fundamental duality of self and non-self, realigning our essence with the sacred, undifferentiated unity of God. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas contains this passage:
Yeshua said to them,
When you make the two into one,
and when you make the inner like the outer
and the outer like the inner
and the upper like the lower,
and when you make male and female into a single one,
so that the male will not be male nor the female be female…
then you will enter the kingdom.
The Chinese Tao Te Ching contains this passage:
Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?
The high it presses down,
The low it lifts up;
The excessive it takes from,
The deficient it gives to.
It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient.
I read these passages and wonder: Are the Christian ‘kingdom’ and the Taoist ‘way of heaven’ analogous to equilibrium? Did the world’s mystics prefigure nonequilibrium thermodynamics?
Add your thoughts
“We assist a reconciliation-it’s a romantic notion”. Ahhh… Music to my ears. Balm to my heart.
Yeshua, may he rest in peace, is happy to be remembered. Elohim is happy to have been involved with creating the one who birthed this blog and is so enchanted with the interconnections between spirtuality and science.
The quotes you unearth are always the icing on the delicious cake of each new posting.
Wow great quotes Adam, thanks!
And didn’t Jesus something like “The high will be made low and the low high; the first shall be last and the last first”? And don’t forget Hermes Trismegistos, the Emerald Tablets, “As above, so below”–although that suggests the “gradient-reduced” state is already there!
I’m not sure that I would say when “NET proposes that when gradients appear, life evolves to reduce them. Perhaps life on Earth evolved to reduce the temperature gradient between the hot sun and cold space” Life has probably evolved to reduce the solar gradient, but other systems–Benard cells, BZ reactions (see my Amazon site), tornados–spontaneously arise to reduce other gradients. Not just life. Also I don’t believe it’s technically a temperature gradient that life is reducing so much as an electromagnetic (quantum packet) gradient between the quality energy of the sun and the low quality energy of background space; life also does measurably reduce the temperature gradient but it has bigger fish to fry.
In other words, reducing the temperature gradient (which rain forest ecosystems are best at) is secondary and more a sign of life reducing the gradient between the high quality energy of the sun and low energy outer space.
My Amazon Blog is here:
Thank you so much for your comment, and your compliments!
Your idea that Hermes Trismegistos’ saying “As above, so below” suggests the gradient-reduced state is already there inspires new ideas in me about analogies between mysticism and NET, spirituality and science: In Kabbalah, our physical ‘lower world’ is thought to be a reflection of the spiritual ‘upper world’. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Dharmadatu state, in which Buddha nature is realized, is thought to be ever-present (as Tath?gatagarbha—the ‘womb of Buddhahood’ within).
“As above, so below” also strikes me as a poetic hint to physicists seeking to reconcile general relativity (‘above’) and quantum mechanics (‘below’). Perhaps the Emerald Tablets’ intuition was correct, and there truly are unifying physical laws not yet discovered.
Regarding the correction you suggested—I’ll be writing a revised blog after typing this comment reply and posting it ASAP, with great appreciation for your contribution. Thank you again!