Tuesday, December 10, 2002

The Inevitability of Entropy

There is no paint left on the weathered planks. The roof has fallen in over the porch. The wild grasses seek the sun through the gaps left by rotting boards.

Inside, the floor is strewn with trash: the twisted corpse of a metal folding chair, a broken ladder, an overturned paint can coated with mummified layers of yellowing latex. Someone painted these walls once. Someone hung pictures of newlyweds and graduates, of grandparents and children, of military men and their loyal women, smiling with hope for the future. No one, I’m sure, thought the house would ever look like this. No one planned for it to begin sinking back into the earth from which it had sprung generations ago. Someday, sooner rather than later, it will collapse into a pile of lumber and nails. There will come a time when no trace of it will remain. What was once a home, where a family made memories, will not even be a memory. It is not unlike your home or mine, for that matter. Everything we have built, everything that we see, that we touch, that we long to preserve forever will someday suffer the same fate. There is nothing we have made that will not someday be unmade, given enough time.

We build houses, temples, palaces, skyscrapers and pyramids quite literally as if there was no tomorrow. As if they will last forever. As if eternal existence is a matter of wood and brick, mortar and metal, of getting the foundation deep enough or the walls thick enough. Of course they never do.

Somewhere around the second or third century before Christ, a Hebrew philosopher calling himself “the Preacher” faced the inevitability of entropy. “When I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11) No matter what he had accomplished (and if you read his lonely, anguished essay, it was a great deal), he knew that someday it would all be gone.

Why, facing the entropic fate of all we do, should anyone ever bother to do anything? Because we know, deep within, that there is something called eternity. It’s not the universe. Einstein proved that, while it’s big, it’s not exactly infinite. It’s not time. Time is only a phenomenological construct, a way of measuring the spinning of planets around stars. It’s beyond space and time, yet includes them. It is what people of faith call God: the one Thing (though not properly a “thing” at all) that the Latins described as from √¶ternitas a parte to ante√¶ternitas a parte post, as if God strode across time from before to after.

We humans, conscious of our own lack of eternalness, yearn towards it. We equate the celestial bodies with it, because they seem so much older than we are. Heaven–the very word conjures up the notion of eternity, the dwelling place of God. A friend of mine said, “For months after my mother died, I would sit out on the porch at night–just staring out at the sky. It was like, that was God’s space out there, and I needed to be in it, because I knew she was in God’s space.”

The “out there” of the sky implies eternity, yet we know fully well that even the sky is not eternal: stars, galaxies, planets, moons are born, whirl around each other for a few hundred million years, and then collapse back into each other as hopelessly as an abandoned house. They are not eternal. They are not “God’s space.”

Of course, talking about God necessarily requires the suspension of certain rules about language. God, to be God at all, cannot exist in a “space.” The ancient ideas about gods and goddesses, who were little more than the projections of human hopes and fears onto the silver screen of the sky, do not coexist very well with a twenty-first century post-modern world view. God is not an old man in the sky, Michelangelo notwithstanding. Yet, to speak of Someone or Something that is Eternal requires me to use words which have only existed for a few hundred years and to write them using a computer whose technology is only a few years old. It requires writing nonsense sensically. So bear with me.

No comments: