My latest poetic interconnection between spirituality and science 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?