Thursday, November 02, 2006

Kingdom Thermodynamics 2: Beyond Causality

In the Introduction to this series I explained my long-standing fascination with the Second Law of Thermodynamics and how it relates to Christian teaching, especially to Romans 8:19-23. I wrote about how I had been thinking about these matters on and off for about 30 years.

In particular I remember sitting in the Cavendish Laboratory library in Cambridge, in 1976 or 1977, looking at some rather heavy books dealing with the theoretical basis of the Second Law. While I don't remember the names of the books, I do remember the basic point I discovered: the Second Law is not dependent on experimental evidence, for it can be deduced by pure logic. It must be this that gave Arthur Eddington such supreme confidence in this Law that he could write:
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.
But what I did not find in the books I consulted was a recognition of a hidden assumption in the logic. Yet it should in fact be rather obvious that there is some such hidden assumption, for without it there is no way that the time asymmetry of the Second Law can arise, within a framework of more fundamental laws which are all time-invariant.

The hidden assumption on which the Second Law of Thermodynamics is based is causality. That is to say, it is assumed that any event in the universe is caused solely and completely by other events in the universe which precede it in time, but cannot be caused or affected by any event which follows it in time.

To most people in the modern world this principle of causality seems so obvious that it can be assumed without question. This was certainly not always the case. And I will go on to argue here that there is a fundamental contradiction between causality and Christian teaching.

Nevertheless I must recognise that in practice the world in which we live operates according to the principle of causality. It is perhaps this rather than the Second Law of Thermodynamics which explains why we don't see stationary objects suddenly start to move without an cause or applied force. If the principle of causality needs any experimental proof, it is in the precise and predictable way in which even at the sub-microscopic level physical, chemical and biological systems obey the Second Law. And we should be glad of this, for without this neither our modern technology nor our bodies would function.

But the principle of causality has implications which conflict with Christian theology. Causality implies that what happens now depends only on what has happened in the past within the universe. The Bible teaches that what happens now is preparation for the future consummation, that "The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed" (Romans 8:19, TNIV) and "all things work together for good to those who love God" (Romans 8:28, TNIV marginal reading).

Now it is not a violation of causality for an event now to be preparation for a future event, if it is caused by an intelligent being who is planning for that future event. In this sense we might be able to argue that current events which are God's preparation for the future are caused by God, and so preserve the principle of causality. But this resolution only works if we place God within the universe, and his plans for the future within time - specifically, in the distant past. Some theologians (associated with Process Theology and Open Theism, from the limited amount I know about these movements) have taught that God is inside the universe and constrained by time, and in this way they could preserve the principle of causality. However, this view of God has not been accepted by most theologians, for the good reason that it seems to conflict with the biblical picture of God as separate from his created universe and not constrained by time or space.

If God is outside of the universe, an event caused by him has a cause from outside the universe, in contradiction to the principle of causality. Also, from a theological viewpoint all events are part of God's preparation for the future and must therefore be at least in part caused by God. So all events have a cause outside the universe, and there is nothing left to be caused according to the normal principle of causality operating within the universe. Thus the classic view of God as outside time and separate from his creation is incompatible with the principle of causality.

But why then do we see the universe operating on the basis of causality and according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer was clearly written by the Apostle Paul: "the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it" (Romans 8:20, TNIV). In other words, the universe is currently experiencing "frustration" and "bondage to decay" through the operation of the Second Law because God has chosen to let it work for the time being according to the principle of causality. But, Paul promises, this will not always be true, for we and all creation can look forward in hope to the time when "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21, TNIV).

In this verse Paul writes of this as something entirely in the future. But elsewhere, even in this chapter, he suggests that this "freedom and glory of the children of God" is something not entirely future, but which is already starting to appear among Christian believers:

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father."

(Romans 8:14-15, TNIV)

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

(Romans 8:23, TNIV)

In other words, as Christians we have already been adopted as children of God and given the Holy Spirit, and so in principle we already have "the freedom and glory of the children of God". But we live within a universe which remains in bondage to decay; even our bodies are in bondage to decay working within them as they operate. Yet the promised freedom of the Kingdom of God has already broken through into our lives, and continues to break through, through us, into the world around us.

So, while we can expect the world and our bodies to continue to follow the principle of causality and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as Christians we should not expect to be bound by this principle and this law. In the spiritual realm we are not bound by them. And, as I will go on to explain in further parts of this series, we should expect to see times and places where these rules are not followed even in the physical realm, because the Kingdom of God is breaking through into the world.

But this is enough for this posting. More will follow. In the next part I look at "boundary conditions" of the universe.

Meanwhile, does anyone reading this know of any specialist forums, journals etc where issues like this are discussed? If so, please let me know by commenting on this.


At Friday, November 03, 2006 8:51:00 am, Blogger Ruud Vermeij said...

If causality is not applicable to God, can He then undo something in the past?

If we somtimes are above those laws, can we then influence an event in the past by prayer?

Is it possible to 'cause' J.F. Kennedy not to be murdered, and completely change history?

If God is 'causing' events from outside the universe, isn't this still a case of causality? (The verb 'to cause' is linked to causality by definition!)

At Friday, November 03, 2006 10:18:00 pm, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Ruud, you ask some excellent questions.

To "can He then undo something in the past", I would answer "No". In the kind of model I have in mind an event is an event and cannot change.

This leads to an interesting point about prayer, and one which I need to think about more. I sometimes think about this when praying for someone who I heard was terminally ill but I don't know whether they have died. As long as I don't know whether they have died, I can continue to pray that they won't die. But if I hear that they have died (as long as the news is accurate), I can no longer pray that they won't die - although I might be able to pray that they are raised from the dead. Were my prayers between the time that they died and when I heard the news wasted? Well, obviously if I was praying for healing my prayers weren't answered. But if I was praying for them to turn to Christ before they die, then I still don't know for sure if that prayer was answered, unless someone tells me that that definitely happened. So, I don't think I can pray for Kennedy not to be murdered. But I can pray for Kennedy to turn to Christ in the instant between when he was shot and his death. Or can I? I need to think more about this. But I hope the model I am building up will provide a framework for such thought.

As for God causing events from outside the universe, I suppose that is in some sense causality, but it is not causality of the kind which underpins the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law depends on a network of one-way causal links between events moving forward in time. Direct input from God from outside this network would be incompatible. Anyway, if causality is to apply to what God does it requires that time is a parameter which can be applied to God, which implies that he is within time and so within the universe. But I suppose there is some room for middle ground between the Open Theists' God working within the universe and within time, and the more traditional theism in which God is completely outside the universe and outside time. Note that I am not arguing for a Platonic immutable God; he changes, but not in time. But I suppose I'm not quite sure what I mean by this.

It's getting late so I don't want to think about this more now. Maybe I'll come back to this later - maybe not!


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