Wonders of the Universe – Entropy wins?

Sorry for the hiatus in posting… I’m still recovering from turning 38 at the weekend. 😉

This post is therefore a little out of date now, but when you’re talking about the Universe and Deep Time who’s counting a few days? (Or even 38 years for that matter.)

Wonders versus Secrets

So while I’m still kind of on the subject of recent BBC factual series that have sadly expired on iPlayer, what did anyone else make of Prof. Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe? I only managed to catch the last episode, ‘Destiny’, before the whole series was whisked away into cyber-oblivion.

It seemed to me that Wonders of the Universe was a bit of a Yin to the Yang of Bible’s Buried Secrets. Where I suspect BBS had men with little interest in the Bible tuning in to appreciate Francesca, WOTU probably had a similar effect on those of the opposite gender with only a passing interest in the laws of thermodynamics. BBS delved into the obscure secrets of biblical archaeology and textual criticism, while WOTU uncovered the secrets of cosmology and the laws of nature. BBS attempted to subject some of religion’s big ideas to scientific-style analysis, thus often reducing them to merely interesting discussion points; WOTU dealt with the big questions of existence, also from a strictly scientific point of view, but with a reverence bordering on the religious. Both, however, had little or no room in the picture for an actual God.

I only managed to catch a single full episode of each, but I found Wonders of the Universe far more interesting – and also strangely far more challenging to my faith – than Bible’s Buried Secrets. Sorry Francesca.

The End of Everything: Entropy Wins

I felt strangely depressed after watching WOTU #4: ‘Destiny’, and not only because of Mr ex-D:Reem’s enviably youthful charm and intelligence. The overall message of the programme was that Entropy Wins, or as novelist Chinua Achebe puts it ‘Things Fall Apart’. In the end, in trillions upon trillions of years time, and in an ironic reversal of Genesis 1, the universe will be utter darkness, formless chaos and barren, empty void into which no light will ever shine again and no life be born. Time itself will end because there will be no more change, no more march of events. This is the Utter End. Forever and ever, amen. Revelation 21-22 it ain’t.

In the face of this apparently bleak (if unimaginably distant) future, Brian Cox’s small message of cheer was that Now, though just a millisecond in Deep Time, is an amazing time to live. We humans are privileged above all for we are the self-consciousness of the Universe, the only means by which the Universe can know and study and understand itself.

I suppose there is some sense of significance and comfort in this, but it’s not exactly a long-term hope; and for me the cheer is massively dwarfed and overshadowed by the unimaginable endless aeons of utter blackness and chaos that surround the infinitesimal eyeblink of human history.

It reminds me a little of Philip Pullman’s secular picture of the afterlife in The Amber Spyglass, where we don’t live on spiritually but our component molecules disperse to become part of the wider universe, shining in rainbows and sparkling in dewdrops. All very nice, but he omits to mention that some of our molecules will doubtless end up in less poetic locations – perhaps turds or cancer cells – and that in any case in his vision we’ll have absolutely no consciousness of what happens to our bits anyway.

But Love trumps entropy

Of course, to an extent Cox is right. In the physical realm, left to itself, entropy does win. Things do fall apart and tend towards disorder. Dust returns to dust, darkness to darkness, chaos to chaos. Nothing composed solely of matter and energy will last forever. The flesh, the physical nature, cannot of itself inherit eternal life.

Does that mean then that Rob Bell is wrong to say that ‘Love wins’? I believe not, for Love is not merely a phenomenon or arrangement of physical matter and energy. As I suggested in my theism post, the universe has reality, meaning and significance that are deeper than, more than, the configuration of its physical components and which outlive the collapse into chaos of those components. We have reality, meaning and significance that outlive our physical decay. Love – or Christ who is Love – is more real than material reality. Love trumps Entropy.

The old Narnia and the new

In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the children watch with sorrow as the old, beloved Narnia dies; stars fall from the sky, a giant hand squeezes out the sun; utter darkness falls, and with it utter cold.

But then Aslan opens a door into the new Narnia, the eternal and renewed Narnia, of which the old Narnia was only the shadowlands, the preparation, the chrysalis.

It’s easy to see this as false hope, as cheap delusional comfort in the face of the terrible endless darkness of entropy’s triumph. But it’s the hope of the Resurrection, the hope of Revelation 21, the hope of the coming Kingdom; the hope of the Love and Life that conquer death and destruction. It’s my hope.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Eschatology/end-times, TV and film and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Wonders of the Universe – Entropy wins?

  1. Terry says:

    John Polkinghorne is good on eschatology, in my opinion. If only I could remember what I read!

    I didn’t watch WOTU. I saw the first episode of one of Professor Brian Cox’s earlier series, and I watched a televised lecture he gave at some point last year – but I actually find him a bit soporific, so I gave this one a wide berth.

    The best documentary series I’ve seen recently is (forgive my spelling if it’s wrong) Jim al-Khalili’s Everything and Nothing.

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  2. johnm55 says:

    It reminds me a little of Philip Pullman’s secular picture of the afterlife in The Amber Spyglass, where we don’t live on spiritually but our component molecules disperse to become part of the wider universe, shining in rainbows and sparkling in dewdrops. All very nice, but he omits to mention that some of our molecules will doubtless end up in less poetic locations – perhaps turds or cancer cells – and that in any case in his vision we’ll have absolutely no consciousness of what happens to our bits anyway

    You obviously didn’t see the second episode ‘Stardust’ where he showed that Joni Mitchell was right when she wrote ‘Woodstock’

    We are stardust
    We are golden
    And we’ve got to get ourselves
    Back to the garden

    (although the last two lines seen to relate more to ‘The Secrets of the Bible’)
    We are made of stardust, all the elements that make up these bodies of ours were forged in the life and especially the death of stars. I found that inspiring. In fact I found the whole series fascinating and inspiring.
    I didn’t find the message of ‘Destiny’ unimaginably bleak, I like the idea that all things must pass, even the universe. I also like how it showed our utter insignificance in the scheme of the universe.
    I did already know and understand at a basic level at least quite a lot of the science that Brian Cox was explaining. I found his narrative of the creation, life and death of this universe compelling.
    I can understand why WOTU left god out of the equation. None of the creation narratives we have bear any relation to the science behind the universe, in fact ifthe science points to a god of any description it is to to the universe itself being god.
    I would recommend that you beg borrow or steal a copy of the full series.
    Terry is correct when he says that Prof. Cox can be a touch soporific, but the ideas he is trying to get across are anything but.

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    • Terry says:

      Perhaps I need to watch WOTU if it’s ever repeated, then. I do usually like science programmes, but I thought watching Professor Brian Cox (he’s always described as that, isn’t he? – never just ‘Brian Cox’) present would be counterproductive.

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    • Hi John,
      Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy what I saw of Wonders, and I’d definitely like to see the rest. I find the whole subject fascinating, and yes inspiring in a way. I just found the overall emphasis in ‘Destiny’ a little bleak. I’m happy with the idea that everything passes away (physically), but not that nothing lasts – not love, not goodness, not beauty, not meaning, not music. It’s a tiny difference in one sense, but it makes all the difference for me.

      I’d heard a clip from ‘Stardust’ and of course it’s a well-known idea – we are all made of stars. In one sense I do find that poetically and emotionally inspiring – but only because of emotions borrowed or co-opted from religion and specifically Christian theism. Stars have no great poetry in their strictly scientific sense; as Eustace says in Dawn Treader, ‘in our world a star is just a huge ball of flaming gas’. But Ramandu the retired star replies, ‘Even in your world, son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of’. Stars have meaning and poetry because they are part of a poetic, meaningful universe; otherwise they’re just huge balls of hot plasma.

      I agree that a programme like WOTU needs to leave God out of the picture, but I felt that Cox was slightly disingenuous here. On the one hand he seemed to reject supernatural belief (‘We used to worship the sun as a god but now we know better’); on the other he (to my mind) borrowed the emotions of, and strayed onto the territory of, religious belief in various places, particularly in the Stardust idea.

      I actually don’t agree that WOTU showed ‘our utter insignificance in the scheme of the universe’ – well, in one sense it did, but that wasn’t Cox’s message. Rather he sees us as uniquely significant because we alone are the universe made conscious, able to be aware of itself. To an extent I agree with this, though I don’t think it goes half far enough in expressing our significance. But the other side, the vast times and distances involved in the universe, don’t actually to me undermine our significance or worth at all. As C.S. Lewis said, we’ve always been smaller than the nearest lamp-post, but that doesn’t make it more important than us.

      I also disagree about the science pointing to the universe being god; to me that’s almost the one thing the science definitely doesn’t (and in my opinion can’t) point to, though I can see the appeal in that kind of thinking. 🙂

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    • John, not sure if you’re following these comments but I’d be very interested to know how you think the science points to the universe being god…?

      Dawkins speaks favourably in The God Delusion of Spinoza’s God (i.e. God = the universe) but I’m not sure that’s because the science points to it. In his case it’s more just that it’s the only kind of God you can accept if you’re a fairly committed philosophical materialist but with a sense of the wonder of the universe.

      As a layman I don’t see much practical difference between Spinozism and Pantheism, and though I find Pantheism appealing I think it has a lot of very deep and fundamental flaws. Panentheism on the other hand has a lot going for it in my view!

      All the best,
      Harvey

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