Thermodynamics is the “science of the relationship between heat, work, temperature, and energy. In broad terms, thermodynamics deals with the transfer of energy from one place to another and from one form to another.” (1) Although it’s a physical theory, strictly speaking, it seems to apply to other systems as well, including social. At first glance it might not seem to have any relationship to the Baha’i notion of progressive revelation, but upon closer examination of its first two laws, we can see that it does.
As a preliminary, it’s essential to understand the concept of a “closed system”. In simple terms, a closed system is one that is isolated from any other systems. It is “a region that is isolated from its surroundings by a boundary that admits no transfer of matter or energy across it.” (2)
The first law of thermodynamics says that the total amount of energy in a closed system is constant. Energy is defined as the ability to do work. Mass (matter) is a form of energy, in that matter can be transformed into energy, and energy can be transformed into matter. The first law also allows for energy to be transformed from one form to another: kinetic energy (the energy of motion) can be transformed into potential energy (the ability to do work, but isn’t doing so at the moment), and potential energy can be transformed into kinetic energy. A common example of kinetic and potential energy being transformed into each other is a roller coaster. At the start, the cars are transported by mechanical mechanism (often driven by a chain lift) to the highest point of the roller coaster. At this point, the cars are barely moving: they have lots of potential energy, but very little kinetic energy. As they start to fall down the hill, potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy of the moving cars. Part way down the incline, the cars have less potential energy and more kinetic energy than they had at the top, but the total amount of energy (kinetic plus potential) is unchanged (we’re talking about an idealized roller coaster – no friction or other energy losses). At the bottom, as far as the roller coaster is concerned, potential energy has become zero, and kinetic energy is maximum. As the cars start to climb the next hill, kinetic energy is transformed into potential: the cars slow down, losing kinetic, and move higher, gaining potential. At the top of the next hill the process repeats. This is an example of the conservation of energy.
The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy (scary term) always increases. This law is a bit more difficult to understand, especially on first encounter, but the broad concept is fairly simple. For our purposes, entropy is defined as the amount of disorder in a system. The second law simply states that with the passage of time, disorder always increases in a closed system. An example will help: for illustrative purposes, consider one’s living space (house, apartment) and its inhabitants to be a closed system. In its initial state, everything is orderly (“stuff” is in its proper place). As time passes (assuming the inhabitants are active), stuff starts to become scattered about more or less randomly. The pen that was in its proper place in the desk is now in the middle of the dining room table. That book that was in its proper place in the highly organized bookshelf is now lying on the corner of the couch. The TV remote, last used by “not me”, is nowhere to be found. The entropy (disorder) of the house as increased. Most of us are familiar with this scenario.
In my experience, making a mess is easy. “Are you trying to make a mess.” Me: “No, it’s easy. Doesn’t require any effort at all.”
At some point, someone decides that enough is enough, and it’s time to clean. Everything is put back where it belongs, and the house is orderly again. Has entropy decreased in violation of the second law? No. The decrease in entropy (disorder) in the house is accompanied by an increase in disorder elsewhere, namely in us. We are tired, perhaps hot and sweaty. We need a break. What has happened is that we had to do work: the chemical (potential) energy stored in our body is converted into the energy needed to move our muscles, among other things. In other words, our bodies are less ordered that they were before we started cleaning – their entropy has increased. The second law states that the increase in entropy in our bodies is greater than the decrease in entropy of the rooms. The total entropy of the system (stuff plus inhabitants) has increased. We can decrease the entropy in our bodies by eating, for example, but that requires an infusion of energy (the potential energy of the food) from a source outside the system.
And finally, before we get to the point, we need to understand that entropy is also related to information. The higher the entropy, the more information required to describe the system. An example is a jar filled with marbles: initially, there is a layer of 100 red marbles at the bottom, a layer of 100 green marbles on top of that, and finally a layer of 100 black marbles on top of that. The system is easily described (I just did so). Now we cover and vigorously shake the jar, until the marbles are thoroughly mixed up. In order to precisely describe the result, we have to specify the location of each and every one of the 300 marbles, which results in a huge increase in the amount of information (each marble’s location) needed. That also explains why it’s harder to know where things are in the messy house: there’s more information about the location of things to remember than when the house is in order.
In short, as I heard in a guest lecture when I was in college, the first two laws can be summed up thusly:
First Law: You can’t win.
Second Law: You can’t break even.
Finally, we have arrived at the main question. What does any of this have to do with progressive revelation?
The Baha’i concept of progressive revelation is quite simple: “Progressive revelation is a core teaching in the Bahá’í Faith that suggests that religious truth is revealed by God progressively and cyclically over time through a series of divine Messengers, and that the teachings are tailored to suit the needs of the time and place of their appearance.” (3) For example, God sent Abraham (He wasn’t the first, but one has to start somewhere), followed by Moses, then Jesus, then Muhammad, and then the Bab and Baha’u’llah. This process will continue for as long as humans exist. The Bab and Baha’u’llah are the most recent Messengers, but they are not the last: others will follow in the future, each followed by another in an essentially endless process.
There are a number of reasons for progressive revelation, but I want to focus on one particular one here. Simply put, religions decay (become disordered) with the passage of time. The founder of the religion (the Manifestation of God, or Messenger) gives us a clear and relatively simple message which establishes His religion. After He dies, there is no more Divine input into the religion; it is the hands of men. It becomes a closed system, in that there is no input into the system from the outside (God through His messenger). We start to disagree over the meaning of the Message – we start to confuse our understanding of the Message with the Message itself. We impose our own interpretations, which don’t agree with other interpretations, and the religion gradually decays into a myriad of different sects. The original Christianity of Jesus, for example, has divided into Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, and nearly uncountable versions of Protestantism.
In a word, the religion of the Founder (Messenger) becomes a victim of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy has reared its ugly head. Initially, the religion was relatively simple, which is to say that the amount of information needed to describe the religion was at a minimum. As time passed, and the religion was overlain with man-made accretions, the amount of information needed to completely describe the religion grew and grew in order to cover all the sects: its entropy had increased. Like our increasingly disordered house in the example above, there comes a point where God, figuratively speaking, decides that enough is enough, and sends us a Messenger to put things back in order. At this point, the previously closed system of mankind’s religious life became open; the Manifestation penetrated the boundary, swept away the old decayed religions, and created a new religion that built upon the pure message of the old one and introduced new teachings as needed.
Now according to the Second Law, if the entropy of part of a system (religion) decreases, there has to be a larger increase in entropy elsewhere. Taking the total system as being God plus mankind (in the sense of everything pertaining to mankind), and given that the entropy of mankind decreased, the entropy of God must increase. However, the good news here is that God is infinite (not “really big”, but truly infinite), including being infinitely ordered, and considering increasing entropy as a subtraction from that ordering, the amount of order in God is unchanged. Mathematically speaking, given an infinite set of elements, the infinite set is unchanged no matter how many elements one removes from it. Infinity – a huge number (which can even be infinite) = Infinity. That’s counter-intuitive, nevertheless true.
Similarly, God is also an infinite source of energy; God’s energy is not decreased by the amount, however large, of energy injected into mankind through the intermediary of God’s manifestation. Infinity minus whatever still equals infinity.
So in that sense, the fact of progressive revelation and the ubiquity of the laws of thermodynamics provide another reason to believe that God is infinite.
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