The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

March 12, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: When Mortality Stares Us in the Face

My heart is heavy at the loss of life and destruction from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Before the earthquake hit, I was thinking about the subject of mortality because I learned earlier this week that a friend was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable blood cancer.

Mortality surrounds us.   We lose our grandparents and then our parents.  We lose peers.  We learn of close brushes with an early death–perhaps we experience one in our own lives, even if just the split-second veering from an almost certainly catastrophic car accident.  When we shelter pets, we sign up for the experience of having their deaths most probably precede our own, and if we love other animals a lot, we do this over and over again.

Some feel that, given ineluctable death, without God life is a cruel joke.  This is a framing problem, I think.  If one approaches life as an entitlement, it seems unjust when it is snatched away.  If one understands life as a time-limited privilege, death becomes a seriously sad but manageable fact.  In saying this, I am not advocating some stiff-upper-lip stoicism.  I am talking about a fundamental shift in thinking–and feeling.

The physical laws of our Universe which allow for life in the first instance also dictate its dissipation.  Under the second law of thermodynamics, i.e., entropy, things tend to disorder.  A good way to conceive of entropy is to think about an ordinary deck of 52 cards.  When you buy the deck the cards are ordered numerically within suits.  You drop the deck and the probability that it will fall into that order is infinitesimal.  That’s because there are exponentially more ways for the deck to be disordered than ordered.  So, ordering the deck takes a lot more effort than disordering it.

Ordered systems, such as living beings, are momentarily stealing order from the disorder through the expenditure of extra energy.*  Eventually however entropy will prevail, and we will all face the deaths of our pets and friends and family and ultimately ourselves.  This is not an easy fact, but neither is it cruel.  Life is in fact a privilege, not an entitlement, and we get the benefit of temporarily experiencing that privilege through the unique lens of our embodied human consciousness.  And what is death–that embodied consciousness’s coming to an end–like?  Most probably what it was like before your consciousness was born.  A great nothing.

None of this is to lessen the significance of the pain, grief and mourning we feel at loss.  Entropy hurts.  But it is possible without God to not rail against cruel fate or take pause in what dreams may come in the sleep of death.

*Metabolism is the biological mechanism that makes this consumption of extra energy possible in life as we know it.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson



  1. Please do not try to apply laws of physics as if they were laws of biology.

    Comment by Brian — March 12, 2011 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

    • Biological processes are necessarily bounded by the laws of physics.

      Comment by SAJohnson — March 12, 2011 @ 5:02 pm | Reply

      • Biology isn’t any less bounded by inertia, or magnetism, or the gravity.

        The second law of thermodynamics does restrict the life of an organism, how much we cannot say, as we do not know what interstellar travel technologies are possible. The life of an organism is not restricted to anything less than the lifespan of a civilization by any law of physics that doesn’t go through supervening laws of biology.

        Most restrictively, the second law of thermodynamics might prevent anything from living much longer than its host sun. Entropy was probably neither a sufficient cause of the death of anyone you know, nor the proximate cause of any of their deaths.

        If you know someone who has died of exposure…it would be very weird to generalize from that in a post about death while blaming entropy for the death of people’s pets, friends, and family. It’s like blaming the sun for all death because you had a friend who died of skin cancer, and then not mentioning either your friend or cancer.

        Comment by Brian — March 12, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

      • Indeed, biology is also bounded by laws other than the second law of thermodynamics. But the second law of thermodynamics places a particular restraint on biological order by requiring it to have a metabolism to consume the energy necessary to locally overcome entropy.

        In ORIGINS OF EXISTENCE: HOW LIFE EMERGED IN THE UNIVERSE, Fred Adams, a professor of physics at the University of Michigan, writes: “Metabolism is the way an organism processes energy to carry on the everyday business of being alive . . . Metabolism is the mechanism by which living creatures seemingly circumvent the second law of thermodynamics, the law of increasing entropy. Living organisms, by necessity, are highly ordered and have low entropy. Recall that entropy measures the disorder in a physical system. In this context, low entropy means low compared to the largest possible entropy that the organism–considered here as a physical system–could obtain. In thermodynamic equilibrium a system attains its highest possible entropy, so living beings must operate far from thermodynamic equilibrium in order to be alive. Because a system must expend a great deal of energy to continuously avoid thermodynamic equilibrium, life-forms must have a working metabolism to postpone death.” (pp. 167-68.)

        See also, Giancarlo Genta, Lonely Minds in the Universe: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: “Life is often defined as the ability of an organism to grow and reproduce . . . The ability to grow and reproduce implies the organization of matter from the external environment according to a well-defined structure, something causing a decrease of entropy in a limited portion of space. To do this, the living being needs to extract energy from the environment and therefore to exploit conditions of thermodynamic disequilibrium.” (p. 64)

        Richard Dawkins explains in The Greatest Show On Earth: “The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that, although energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can – must, in a closed system – become more impotent to do useful work: that is what it means to say that ‘entropy’ increases. ‘Work’ includes things like pumping water uphill or – the chemical equivalent – extracting carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide and using it in plant tissues. . .[B]oth of these feats can be achieved only if energy is fed into the system, for example electrical energy to drive the water pump, or solar energy to drive the synthesis of sugar and starch in a green plant. Once the water has been pumped to the top of the hill, it will then tend to flow downhill, and some of the energy of its downward flow can be used to drive a water wheel, which can generate electricity, which can drive an electric motor to pump some of the water uphill again: but only some! Some of the energy is always lost – though never destroyed. Perpetual motion machines (you can’t say it too dogmatically) are impossible.

        In life’s chemistry, the carbon extracted from the air by sun-driven ‘uphill’ chemical reactions in plants can be burned to release some of the energy. We can literally burn it in the form of coal, which you can think of as stored solar energy . . . Or the energy may be released in a more controlled way than actual combustion. Inside living cells, either of plants or of animals that eat plants, or of animals that eat animals that eat plants (etc.), sun-made carbon compounds are ‘slow-burned.’ Instead of literally bursting into flames, they give up their energy in a serviceable trickle, where it works in a controlled manner to drive ‘uphill’ chemical reactions. Inevitably, some of this energy is wasted as heat – if it were not, we’d have a perpetual motion machine, which is (you can’t say it too often) impossible.

        Almost all the energy in the universe is steadily being degraded from forms that are capable of doing work to forms that are incapable of doing work. There is a levelling off, a mixing up, until eventually the entire universe will settle into a uniform, (literal) uneventful ‘heat death.’ But while the universe as a whole is hurtling downhill towards its inevitable heat death, there is scope for small quantities of energy to drive little local systems in the opposite direction. . .The energy to lift the water (and hence to drive the turbines in the power stations) comes from the sun. This is not a violation of the Second Law, for energy is constantly being fed in from the sun. The sun’s energy is doing something similar in green leaves, driving chemical reactions locally ‘uphill’ to make sugar and starch and cellulose and plant tissues. Eventually the plants die, or they may be eaten by animals first. The trapped solar energy has the opportunity to trickle down through numerous cascades, and through a long and complex food chain culminating in bacterial or fungal decay of the plants, or of the animals that prolong the food chain. Or some of it may be sequestered underground, first as peat and then as coal. But the universal trend towards ultimate heat death is never reversed. In every link of the food chain, and through every trickle-down cascade within every cell, some of the energy is degraded to uselessness. Perpetual motion machines are [impossible] . . .'[I]f your theory [of the universe] 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.'” (pp. 413-15)

        No known organism has such an efficient and seamless system that it lives even a fraction of the tens-of-billions-of-years expected life of the Sun. That is not to say that it is theoretically impossible to some day reengineer life as we know it so that life spans are dramatically increased–but as you say, entropy prevents us from outliving the Sun (putting aside the possibility that the Sun itself may swallow the Earth one day) and, frankly, the idea that we could engineer a living organism that could last anywhere as long as the Sun is fanciful.

        Life as we know it as adapted to the dictates of entropy is necessarily finite and indeed relatively short-lived.

        Comment by SAJohnson — March 12, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

      • “…the idea that we could engineer a living organism that could last anywhere as long as the Sun is fanciful.”

        Fanciful? Google/wikipedia gave two multicellular examples that may have no limit to their lifespans as the first hit. That’s just evolution at work. Why would you think science will hit a brick wall when it comes to intelligently designing species, and that we won’t be able to do better one day? It never has before.

        How do they do it? By shattering an assumption you didn’t even realize you were making, “No known organism has such an efficient and seamless system…”; “…capable of cycling from a mature adult stage to an immature polyp stage and back again”.

        “…the second law of thermodynamics places a particular restraint on biological order…”

        A restraint that doesn’t cause the death of Earth creatures. Trying to navigate other natural laws and being far less than perfect at it is what kills us.

        It’s not the effects of this law of physics that’s actually killing people. You might as well say gravity is killing sentient beings, and then postulate aliens so massive their mass threatens to collapse them and turn them into black holes. Those would be about as alien to us as something directly threatened in its old age by this particular law of physics.

        “Life as we know it as adapted to the dictates of entropy is necessarily finite and indeed relatively short-lived.”

        The relatively short life of Earth creatures is the result of biological processes, evolutionary mutation and selection. Many, many (types of) creatures routinely live thousands of years. That’s not the sort of limit humans and our pets are bumping up against.

        Arguing that we are “adapted to the dictates of entropy” doesn’t mean much. Of course we’re adapted to comply with our universe’s laws of physics. How could any being or thing not be?

        Death and aging are well thought out by this guy:

        Comment by Brian — March 13, 2011 @ 1:39 am

      • According to your link, Mr. Grey has this to say about death, “He works to identify and promote specific technological approaches to the reversal of various aspects of aging, or as de Grey puts it, ‘the set of accumulated side effects from metabolism that eventually kills us.'” Metabolism is the biological mechanism the form of life we are adapted to locally overcome entropy. That mechanism, according to de Grey, eventually kills us. That is an aspect of entropy’s restraint on life that I am referring to. I am also referring to the ultimate restraint. Even the Sun will die out from the dissipating effects of entropy one day. Yes, there are organisms that live thousands of years. Thousands of years is barely a thin line on the scale of deep time. Maybe one day science will figure out how to engineer humans to live thousands of years. Thousands of years is not immortality.

        Thank you for pointing out the case of two creatures that theoretically may have no biological limits to their life spans. Here is what wikipedia has to say about the first, a jellyfish:

        Turritopsis nutricula, the potentially immortal jellyfish, is a hydrozoan whose medusa, or jellyfish, form can revert to the polyp stage after becoming sexually mature. It is the only known case of a metazoan capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature, colonial stage after having reached sexual maturity as a solitary stage.[2][3] It does this through the cell development process of transdifferentiation. Cell transdifferentiation is when the jellyfish “alters the differentiated state of the cell and transforms it into a new cell.” In this process the medusa of the immortal jellyfish is transformed into the polyps of a new polyp colony. First, the umbrella reverts itself and then the tentacles and mesoglea get resorbed. The reverted medusa then attaches itself to the substrate by the end that had been at the opposite end of the umbrella and starts giving rise to new polyps to form the new colony. Theoretically, this process can go on infinitely, effectively rendering the jellyfish biologically immortal,[3][4] although in nature, most Turritopsis, like other medusae, are likely to succumb to predation or disease in the plankton stage, without reverting to the polyp form.[5] No single specimen has been observed for any extended period, so it is impossible to estimate the age of an individual, and so even if this species has the potential for immortality, there is no laboratory evidence of many generations surviving from any individual.

        I do believe our intelligence has limits (and significant ones at that), and therefore that science will never come close to reaching the limits set by the laws of physics.

        Btw, gravity does kill sentient beings–in combination with entropy. That’s why we’re careful on ladders. Gravity can cause us to fall, that can crush the biological mechanisms necessary to sustain our metabolisms, and when our metabolisms that are necessary to locally overcome entropy fail, the return to thermodynamic equilibrium begins, and we die.

        Comment by SAJohnson — March 13, 2011 @ 9:56 am

  2. Humans are inclined to imbue nature with willpower, as if it acts with intent. It’s the way we make sense of our world and relate to it. Perhaps that the reason for gods, and why, despite their alleged omnipotence, act just like us.

    If we realize nature is amoral, not angry, we can stop asking pointless questions.

    Comment by oldancestor — March 12, 2011 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

    • The science seems to show that our minds are in fact predisposed to see intentionality in nature. It’s a kind of mental mirage. Because of this mental mirage, realizing that nature is amoral is often easier said than done. It is counter-intuitive. Understanding a more accurate counter-story can support the realization and help ease the emotional dissonance created by the gulf between how we intuitively believe the world works and how it actually is.

      Comment by SAJohnson — March 12, 2011 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

      • Despite some theists’ insistence that I have a void in my heart by going godless, I actually feel far more at peace now that when I was a Christian. I don’t feel emptiness; I feel uncluttered. I’m less inclined to paint my mental image of the universe with human features.

        Comment by oldancestor — March 13, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

      • That’s a very poetic way of putting it.

        Comment by SAJohnson — March 14, 2011 @ 8:59 am

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