Examining the second law of thermodynamics, and exploring the universal concept of entropy.
We live in a world filled with clichés—convenient assumptions and unquestioned conclusions that many of us use without giving them a second thought. In Blindspots (Park Street Press, 2015), philosopher Christian de Quincey provokes and illuminates the dark side of jumping to conclusions, casting a skeptical eye on 21 beliefs that keep science, philosophy and spirituality in the dark. This excerpt, which explores cosmological structures and the beginning of the universe, is from Chapter 3, “The Universe.”
Quick question, probably not easy to answer: Are there good reasons to believe the universe is eternal? If so, what would those reasons be?
Actually, I think at least half of the answer is easy. If we substitute “cosmos” for “universe,” then it is impossible to even imagine a beginning to the cosmos. It must have always existed. As we’ve seen, it could not have emerged from nothing. Nothing comes from nothing.
Now, if someone prefers to say, “God created the cosmos,” my response would be, “Who or what created God?”
Of course the only meaningful answer is that God had no beginning. If God did have a beginning, what could have caused that sublime event? This line of thinking inevitably leads to an infinite regress; in other words: no beginning. But if we accept that God had no beginning, why not accept the alternative: that the cosmos had no beginning? For me, in any case, “cosmos” equals “God.”
So that part is easy enough. But what about the other half? If the cosmos had no beginning, could it have an end?
Before answering that, I just want to be clear: It certainly seems that the universe had a beginning about 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang. And by all accounts it is also destined to come to an end, one way or another (either in a “big crunch” or thermodynamic “heat death”). So universes come and go. They have beginnings and ends. Ours is just one in a likely endless cycle of universes within the larger, almost certainly infinite and eternal cosmos.
Current cosmology, incorporating the concept of the zero-point energy (ZPE) field, suggests that all energy, information, and consciousness originate in (or, perhaps more accurately, are intrinsic to) this cosmic ZPE field, and we have good reasons to believe that everything returns there eventually—only to be reborn yet again as another universe (or universes). I refer to this as “recycled universes.”
Blindspot: What would it mean for the cosmos to “come to an end”? Where would all the energy and information (not to mention consciousness) go? It can’t evaporate into nothingness. If we say it could, what would that mean? Just as something cannot come from nothing, something cannot become nothing. We have no way of understanding such a process or state of affairs—either scientifically or philosophically.
So it all goes on and on and on . . . each time building on the experiences of prior universes.
According to the second law of thermodynamics, the universe is destined to end forever in a final and eternal “heat death.” What is this law, and who discovered it? Sorry if I am being ignorant, but this physics stuff is mostly foreign to me.
The scientist most famously associated with the formulation of the second law of thermodynamics is the Austrian Ludwig Boltzman. Essentially, the law states that in any closed system (e.g., a sealed room, a sealed bottle, your closet, the universe) the natural tendency is for the elements in the system to degrade from order into chaos. In other words, left to themselves, closed systems spontaneously diminish order and organization and increase disorder. The technical term for disorder is entropy.
A good close-to-home example is your bedroom closet or kitchen drawer. Now, be honest: How organized is it? If it’s anything like mine, it’s probably quite disorganized and cluttered. Well, that’s entropy at work. Unless you consciously choose to reorganize the contents of your closet every time you use it—in other words, add more order—it will naturally become more and more disorganized over time. You have to choose to inject order back into it to counteract the inevitable rise of entropy, as predicted by the second law. That’s just the way things are in all physical systems.
And that includes the universe. According to the second law, the universe as a whole, because it’s assumed to be a closed system, is gradually “running down” as energy is transformed into entropy. The dire prediction from this law is that eventually all of existence everywhere, not just on Earth, will end in what is called the heat death of the universe. When that happens, all organized energy will have turned into chaotic tepid heat, and nothing will ever happen again. Now, isn’t that something to look forward to? Kinda cosmologically depressing, eh?
Blindspot: Well, no. Not really. Why? Because the second law refers to purely physical systems and takes no account of the fact of consciousness. That’s a major blindspot. Now, the interesting thing about consciousness is that it can make choices. And choices are creative. In other words, while physical systems may be subject to the second law and fall into inevitable decay, any system with consciousness can counteract the slide into entropy. And we know from panpsychism* that all systems include consciousness—therefore the second law doesn’t have absolute rule. Consciousness injects order into systems by making choices, increasing coherence, harmony, and organization. This works for the universe as much as it does for your closet.
Life itself is a well-known example of systems that run against the grain of entropy. Living systems build up order from their environment—however, we do so at a cost. As we metabolize energy, which we need to do to go on living, we also produce waste (more disorder) that goes back into the environment. So, according to the second law of thermodynamics, life is a cosmic “fluke,” an accident, and is constantly fighting a losing battle with death and disorder. Again, this scenario completely leaves out the undeniable presence of consciousness. We don’t live forever, but the cosmos itself will never tumble into eternal decay. Let’s be thankful for “small” mercies!
So, breathe easy. The heat death of the universe is not nigh. And, in fact, it is unlikely to ever happen because of the existence of consciousness.
In one of your lectures, you mentioned that in the eternal scheme of things when one universe ends, another one begins, and that process continues forever. I have an even bigger question: Is there an end to eternity? I remember some scientist talking about the universe coming to an end. So, which is it: continuation or cessation?
First, regarding cessation or continuation, why would you think it’s either/or? Let me ask you this: Today will come to an end at midnight (or at sunrise, whichever you choose to mark the transition from one day to another). And as soon as today is over (cessation), tomorrow begins (continuation). Do you see that continuation requires cessation if anything new is ever to arise?
It’s the same with universes. (Think of the lifeline of a universe as a really, really long day!) When one universe comes to an end (cessation), a new one begins (continuation). I’m saying that that process of cessation and coming into being continues forever. There’s no contradiction. In fact, each implies the other.
Second, I’m quite sure you didn’t hear me talk about “the end of eternity”—that would be a meaningless contradiction. The very notion of eternity means “without end,” without cessation. Reality, cosmos, nature (whatever you prefer to call All That Is) does not come to an end. How could it? How could reality come to an end? However, our universe can, and will, come to an end.
So, what does that tell us? Well, it means that the universe cannot equal all of reality—the cosmos. The universe is one event (a very, very long event of some thirty to a hundred billion years). But no matter how long it is, it is not eternal; it will come to an end (either with a bang or with a whimper, as they say). According to modern physics and cosmology, the universe had a beginning 13.7 billion years ago in a big bang. And, because of gravity and the laws of thermodynamics, sooner or later, one of the following two end states will happen.
1. If the force of gravity is too weak to hold all the countless billions of galaxies together, they will accelerate away from each other, eventually whizzing off at light speed until every galaxy is left alone, isolated in its own lonely region of space-time—effectively sealed off in its own bubble universe. At that point, each isolated galaxy will continue to contract under the force of its own gravity, eventually collapsing into a black hole. Each galactic “universe” will end with a bang.
2. However, if the force of gravity is strong enough to hold all the galaxies together, they will, eventually, begin to slowly move toward each other, gradually gaining speed, until, at some far-distant time, they will fall into one another, ultimately collapsing into one almighty black hole. The universe will end with a massive big bang.
And if, for some reason, the universe manages to escape either of these doomsday scenarios, the final undoing will be the famous second law of thermodynamics. It says that every event that ever happens anywhere, at any time, in the universe burns up some amount of energy. Eventually, far into the future, perhaps a hundred billion years from now, all the available energy in the universe will have been “burned up,” or transformed into tepid heat. As physicists know, once energy becomes heat, it cannot be used to do any more work without some other source of available energy to serve as fuel. When all the fuel is used up (turned into heat), nothing more could ever happen again. The universe would come to a silent, eternal standstill. As we saw, this is famously called the “heat death of the universe.”
Bottom line: From the perspective of modern science, there’s no way out. Our universe will come to an end, one way or another. Charming, eh?
Blindspot: However, that does not mean the end of everything. If our universe collapses into a black hole, it will emerge “on the other side” as a white hole—which will be the beginning of a whole new universe, with its own unimaginable and unpredictable sets of “laws” or “habits.”
In case you’re wondering, science can never predict what a new universe will be like because once anything gets close to a black hole singularity, all the laws of physics, everything we know about space, time, matter/energy, and causality, completely breaks down. It’s a whole new ball game.
So, when one universe ends, another new one begins. Cessation followed by continuation. All of this birth and death of universes happens in the cosmos as a whole and continues for all eternity. (Perhaps it takes a break from time to time. Maybe even the cosmos needs a vacation.)
You say we can know for certain that consciousness exists—because even doubting or denying consciousness automatically demonstrates its existence. In other words, we need consciousness to be able to doubt or deny anything. I like that. You go on to say that because consciousness exists, it must have always existed. That got me wondering: Does the same logic apply the other way—if consciousness exists at any time, must it always exist into the future? Can consciousness ever not exist? I was wondering about the very far future and the state of the planet, and if this might imply a potential total death of the human race, including a total death of individual and collective consciousness.
You ask whether consciousness could ever not exist. Great question. From the perspective of science, there is no reason why consciousness should be eternal. It could be possible, for instance, that if the entire universe collapsed and disappeared into a black hole, then all the sentience, or consciousness, associated with that energy would also disappear. However, we don’t know enough about what happens inside black holes. I doubt that energy is ever actually destroyed—in fact, according to another fundamental law of physics, this time, the first law of thermodynamics, energy can never be created or destroyed. The most that can happen is that energy gets transformed from one state into another. So even if it were possible for the entire universe to collapse into a black hole singularity, the energy would still be “there.” It may not do very much, but it would still exist—and, therefore, from the perspective of panpsychism, its associated consciousness would continue to exist, too.
Blindspot: Just like the second law, the first law of thermodynamics refers exclusively to physical systems. It leaves out consciousness. And, just as the first law tells us energy is never created or destroyed, the same is true of consciousness. We could call it the first law of panpsychism: experience is never destroyed.So, logically, just as something cannot come from nothing, something cannot become nothing. We’re safe . . .
However, you seem to think of consciousness as human consciousness—which, as you will discover, I consider a very limited view. Yes, indeed, it is possible for the human race to die off; in fact, we are precariously fouling up our planet to such an extent that we run the risk of making this inevitable. No species lasts forever. It is almost a certainty (but not quite) that the human race will disappear sooner or later.
Even if our species happens to survive for as long as planet Earth does, there will come a time when our sun will consume everything in the solar system. And when that happens: no more humans or any other species—unless we manage to colonize other star systems or other galaxies. But even then, sooner or later, all star systems and galaxies will come to an end. Someday, our universe will end. That, too, is almost a certainty.
And there is no conceivable way we can “escape” from here into some other universe. So there will come a time when the human species will no longer exist. If that time comes before the death of the Earth, then other species will be around to carry the torch of consciousness—bacteria, cockroaches, and other animals and plants. But even these other species of consciousness will cease to exist when our planet, and then the universe itself, comes to its end.
How will the universe end? Some scenarios have it imploding in a “big crunch” when the entire universe of matter/energy collapses back into a black hole singularity. But remember that first law: even inside the black hole at the end of our universe, energy will still be there. Current cosmological models include the possibility (if not likelihood) that the black hole at the end of our universe will burst forth as a white hole, creating another big bang—and another universe. So the energy and consciousness of the cosmos continually get recycled.
When we consider the REALLY BIG PICTURE, I’m not sure what comfort we can gain. Yes, consciousness will continue forever, but it won’t be our human consciousness. Is this good or bad news?
Something to ponder.
*Panpsychism is an ancient, and recently revived, philosophy that explains how all matter and energy is intrinsically sentient—that consciousness goes all the way down to the most fundamental entities of the physical world. In other words, even molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles have some degree of awareness and choice (see Radical Nature for a detailed discussion of this philosophy).
Christian de Quincey, M.A., Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University and Dean of Consciousness Studies at the University of Philosophical Research. He is the award-winning author of Radical Nature and Radical Knowing as well as Consciousness from Zombies to Angels and Deep Spirit: Cracking the Noetic Code. The founder of the Wisdom Academy, he lives in Half Moon Bay, California.