What Kind of God… Entropy and the Arrow of Time?

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“(Tick tock tick) Doo doo doo-doo;

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’

Into the future.”

I’m of the generation when the Steve Miller Band’s song “Fly Like an Eagle” was blaring from car stereos in the high school parking lot as the spring term ended. We were anticipating the band’s annual summer trip to the Pine Knob amphitheater outside Detroit.

With that ear worm stuck in my head, I wonder: Is there anything in the laws of nature that gives us a sense of a time slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future? If so, it does not emerge from Newton’s equations, relativity, or quantum mechanics. The dominant view is that the flow of time from past to present to future is found in entropy and the second law of thermodynamics (although there are others). It is the transition from order to disorder, the inevitable increase of entropy, where natural science supports the arrow of time. The dropped glass always falls and shatters. It is only with the aid of a good video editor that we see the broken shards rise up and reform a glass.

So another way to answer the question I asked last week, “What kind of God would create a universe that obeys the second law of thermodynamics, where entropy always increases?” is that it is a God who wants there to be an arrow of time.

The Arrow of Time

Once again, we don’t generate the idea of an arrow of time from what is known in fundamental physics. Classical, relativistic, and quantum mechanics are all time symmetric. A process can run forwards or backwards in time; no direction is suggested by the basic equations.

Philosopher Huw Price, an expert on time, distinguishes between subjective and objective notions of time. Our subjective notions generally (1) privilege the present; (2) sense a flow of time; and (3) understand a difference between past and future. In the objective domain of physics, none of these three is supported.

It is the second law of thermodynamics that gives us a sense of the passing of time for inanimate, unconscious objects and systems. There is a lot more that can be said about the passing of time (the links below go a bit deeper) but suffice it to say that if God wanted there to be an arrow of time—a real experience of past, present, and future—entropy appears to be a major part of how God did it.


  • Brian Cox explains entropy and the arrow of time via sandcastles and glaciers.
  • Philosopher Mark Hocknull considers various aspects of entropy.
  • Wikipedia provides a nice summary of the various ways to understand the arrow of time.
  • Interviews with Huw Price and John Polkinghorne are just two of the interesting discussions of time produced by Closer to Truth.
  • Recently, there has been push back on the view that the arrow of time is not objective. Philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin offers some in this article, which is quite technical but the video embedded in it is more accessible.
  • This short video (3:53) produced by the Faraday Institute offers a nice introduction to entropy and its implications for us.

In God’s Unfolding Story

God’s relationship to time is a large and complicated subject. It touches on free will and foreknowledge. It is filled with conundrums about timelessness and eternity. Rather than enter that theological fray, I want to suggest something more modest. The kind of God who created a universe (maybe even a multiverse) governed by the second law of thermodynamics is a God who wants us to experience the flow of time so we can be part of God’s unfolding story.

Imagine a world without entropy and the flow of time. At first glance, the idea of living in a world with less decay and degradation might seem enticing. To see order maintained without it dissipating into disorder and to have less energy wasted sounds pretty good.

But at what cost? What would become of the journey of faith, of memory, or of the process of becoming without entropy and the flow of time? How would we remember God’s enduring promises and the saints who have gone before us? How could God draw us into the future glory about to be revealed to us that Paul writes about in Romans 8?

Remember, God entered into space and time, where he encountered the beauty of life as well as its decay and disorder. The most pivotal moments in God’s unfolding story happened during those three decades when, in Jesus, God experienced our human trials and tribulations. He lived through increasing chaos and the passage of time. And in doing so, Jesus laid the groundwork for our individual and collective stories to be part of God’s unfolding story. What is our faith if it is not remembering God’s promises from the past, seeking out God’s will for the present, and looking hopefully to our future glory with God and all the saints?

With the passing of time that is so central to our lived experience (biologically, socially, psychologically, and as Christians), entropy and the second law of thermodynamics remind us that there is at least as much decay and disorder in our world as there is order and new creation. Reality is both/and. Both order and disorder play out but, in doing so, they give us a direction for time in which we are privileged to experience, even participate in, the fullness of God’s story.

Cheers,

Drew

 

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