Yesterday I crossed a decade boundary. I left my twenties behind and became a tricenarian. The age number itself –30– is almost a misnomer for the reality: I am beginning my 31st year and have started my 4th decade outside the womb. (Because on your first birthday you’ve actually just finished one year since birth and are starting your second year, your second birthday is the start of your third year, and so on). This either confuses or disturbs many people, so I’ll settle on the normal social custom of simply saying, “I turned 30.”
As it all sinks in, I take stock of some of the things in my life that weren’t there just a few years ago:
- A house that I own and must maintain
- Assorted teas
- Thickening shampoo (I’m under no illusions here – it’s just a way to acknowledge the fact)
- An arsenal of oral health products
- Breathe-Rite strips
- Fitness paraphernalia (including clothing, pedometer, and a phone app)
- Light beer
Except for the assorted teas, every one of these is related to a difficult, yet inescapable reality about the way the universe works which can be summed up in one word: entropy. Webster tells us that entropy is “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder”. This trend to disorder is why I have to cut the grass in the summer and rake the leaves in the fall. The degrading effects of tiny particulates is why I have to change the water filter in my fridge and the air filter in my car. The law of entropy is at work in my body, too. I take multivitamins because aging bodies begin to lose vital compounds that they used to maintain despite their diets of Ramen noodles and pizza. The shampoo is my symbolic way of not going gentle into that good night of shrinking hair follicles. The fitness gear and light beer are both admissions that my metabolism has slowed and my belly does not look like it used to.
This noble fight against entropy, however, will eventually be lost, and the body will shut down. Upon death, entropy is finally unleashed and we all turn into dust. I don’t mean to sound dark or depressing (not that the contemplation of death is necessarily a bad thing), but that is the direction we’re all headed, and not to take account of that would be unwise.
This is the direction of all organic life on earth, and presumably, any life anywhere in the universe — because this is a universal trend, even on the cosmic level. We see things proceed from ordered to disordered states all the time. Time, in fact, may even be entropy, think some physicists. Since science only has a bunch of equations to explain the workings of the universe, and since all equations can work both frontwards and backwards, the question arises, “Why don’t we ever see time run backwards, since our equations say it could?” This intractable rule of entropy thus may be synonymous with the “arrow of time”, the insistence of time to flow or unfold in one direction. Because everything in the universe is subject to entropy, to falling apart, scientists believe the universe itself will eventually end up broken down into its smallest units of matter, all spread out, and unimaginably cold and dark.
The broad way of describing this macro process of entropy is to say, like Webster, that everything moves from order to disorder. But does it? Can the entire drama of the universe be described as beginning in perfect order and ending in complete disorder? Not from what we think we know about it. If everything in the universe expanded from an unimaginably dense singularity, the earliest moment in that expansion must have already been a little off balance —disordered, as it were– for energy to have formed the beginnings of clumps and voids. As energy converted into matter, the matter also clumped, and began forming clouds. Within these clouds, stars ignited, converting matter back into energy, but also then exploding under their own weight and, in the process, creating heavier and more ordered elements as they did so. This process of clumping, igniting, collapsing, and exploding created stars, planets, and galaxies in an upward spiral toward greater complexity and greater order. This more ordered state, you remember, came from an early universe of nothing but chaotic energy and a few magical forces. So far, then, we’ve seen a remarkable trend from disorder to order.
Now, I have to clarify that technically speaking, the definition of entropy in physics is a little more complicated than just “the trend to disorder”. Technically, even as elements and stars and planets and galaxies get more and more complex, on the level of individual particles, the process is still wildly chaotic and random; as particles are being shared from one clump of matter to the next, they’re still on their way to being freed again and jettisoned off into empty space.
But what does it mean that chaos at one level is resulting in order at another? Are particles (or something even smaller and more fundamental than them) the real drama of the universe, and everything their chaotic movements form –stars, planets, and even life itself– is merely a byproduct of their primary motion? Or could it be that particles are merely building blocks for stars, which themselves are merely building blocks for galaxies, which themselves are merely building blocks for the very largest units of order we know of: the cosmic web of galactic superstructures? We have a crisis of where to find meaning on this mind-bogglingly huge scale of material structure. Maybe because our own human size, our spot on this giant spectrum, is conspicuously close to the center.
In my thirty years breathing in this world, I’ve decided that life itself presents a very similar crisis. Life is made up of innumerably many moments, all flowing in and then right back out of our conscious present, like particles that are here and then gone again. But these moments are ordered into larger units, like hours, days, weeks, and years. We order our lives further into decades, or grade school and college, or “childhood”, or specific eras (that job, that tour of duty, that wild summer in Belize). Sometimes, in our more existential moments, we may even see our lives as flashes in the pan of history, strange bright wholes with no significant subdivisions or constituent parts. Where is meaning located in all of this? Is life about the small moments, or the long game, or the legacy? And what about relationships, which can range from lifelong relationships to momentary acquaintances. Are our closest friends and family the only really important people, or is every person you meet a significant encounter with a profound mystery? On what scale in time or relationships should we look for meaning?
Or are all these orders of life only illusions of order, because life, like the universe, is moving inexorably toward an endpoint? “I have seen everything that is done under the sun,” said the Teacher, “and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). There are two ways, I think, to think about an ending. One way is to conclude that it renders everything that came before it meaningless, and the other is to see that it is an aid to providing meaning. You couldn’t read a book without a last page. You couldn’t enjoy a play without a final curtain. In this world, a narrative requires an ending to give it form. It’s the end of a narrative that lets you assess the meaning in each moment or circumstance, in each character and relationship.
I think that all of our lives are like this; and all of our lives are a part of the grand narrative of the entire cosmos which also is like this. All of our stories are part of the one world story, and everything will be assessed for its meaning. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. … For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). The difference between an ending that renders everything meaningless and an ending that helps to actually give meaning is precisely whether there exists the perspective which stands above the narrative. Is there a perspective which remains before the book is opened and after it is closed? If not, then I can’t, for the life of me, understand how there could be any meaning corresponding to Truth in this world at all. But if there is that perspective, then the end becomes an End, a telos. And if that’s the case, then we’d be foolish not to look for meaning everywhere we can: at every scale in the universe, in the course of our lives, and in the people around us.
The smallest scale of our universe is in constant, frantic motion, driving time and all the cosmos toward a final curtain. Entropy, then, just gives a direction to our narrative. It also provides infinitely varied occasions for order to manifest on the stage of existence, and for us to partake of each of their particularly flavored draughts of goodness, truth, and beauty. Where some would see vanity and a striving after wind, I will endeavor to find meaning: in pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, work and rest; in friends and family, strangers and neighbors, young and old; in moments and lifetimes, past and present, and every division of time; in the sun, moon, and stars, in gluons and galaxies, in plancks and parsecs, and in all of the cosmos. I believe that all the world is a story, so I’m not bothered by the turning of pages, the closing of chapters, or the uttering of the final Word.
Yesterday I turned 30 — and that means something.