Thoughts on Gospel Doctrine Lesson 8

In my day, everything was pretty well under control. At best we had a tolerant scientific smile for anything suggesting catastrophism or any dramatic or spectacular event in history or in nature; this kind of stuff smacked of the apocalyptic visions of Mormonism, things classed in the lunatic fringe, apocalyptic sensationalism. There was no place in modern thinking for that sort of thing. Yet in all these books, regardless of the fields, authors today seem to be saying much the same thing. They all come to one very interesting conclusion, which a few quotations will make clear.

First, one basic proposition receives particular attention in all of them, the well-known second law of thermodynamics: everything runs down. And it is stated with strong and bemused reservations, because there is something wrong with it. Let us quote Watson, the biologist (and I understand he has a great reputation in England):

Left to itself, everything tends to become more and more disorderly, until the final and natural state of things is a completely random distribution of matter. Any kind of order . . . is unnatural, and happens only by chance encounters. . . . These events are statistically unlikely and the further combination of molecules into anything as highly organized as a living organism is wildly improbable. Life is a rare and unreasonable thing. [He belabors the point]: Life occurs by chance, and . . . the probability of its occurring and continuing is infinitesimal.

The rate at which numbers build up in the Second Law situation can be illustrated by considering a pack of playing cards. We can define an ordered, or tidy, state to be one in which the cards are arranged by value in successive suits. There are just twenty-four such configurations which arise from the different possible orderings of suits. This is itself a surprisingly large number, but the number of different ways the fifty-two cards can be arranged is about ten thousand million, million, million, million, million, million, million, million (1052). The chance of finding a shuffled pack in an ordered state is the ratio of these two numbers [24/1052].

Physicist P. T. Matthews:

The number of allowed states depends on the relative momentum of the decay products much as the number of points on the circumference of a circle depends on its radius. The decay interaction is the shuffling agent. . . . If it exists and operates on a time scale comparable with the age of the universe, then by relentless operation of the Second Law, essentially every proton would by now have decayed into lighter particles. . . . Clearly the opposite is the case, and there must be some very exact law which is preventing this from happening.

Had all the protons decayed, there would be no stable atoms, no elements, no compounds, no earth, no life. When the biologist said that life was wildly improbable, a rare unreasonable event, who would have guessed how improbable it really was? "A human being," writes Matthews, "is at very best, an assembly of chemicals constructed and maintained in a state of fantastically complicated organization of quite unimaginable improbability." So improbable that you can't even imagine it. So "wildly improbable" that even to mention it is ridiculous. So we have no business being here. That is not the natural order of things. In fact, he says that "the sorting process — the creation of order out of chaos — against the natural flow of physical events is something which is essential to life." So the physical scientists and the naturalists agree that if nature has anything to say about it, we wouldn't be here. This is the paradox of which Professor Wald of Harvard says, "The spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible. . . . In this colloquial, practical sense I concede the spontaneous origin of life to be 'impossible.'" The chance of our being here are not even to be thought of, yet here we are.

So as I say, in my school days it was fashionable to brush aside Paley's watch argument with a snort of impatience. If you're walking on the beach and find a beautifully made Swiss watch, you should not with Archdeacon Paley conclude that some intelligent mind has produced the watch. It proves nothing of the sort. Finding the watch only proves, quite seriously, that mere chance at work, if given enough time, can indeed produce a fine Swiss watch or anything else. Indeed, when you come right down to it, the fact that Swiss watches exist in a world created and governed entirely by chance proves that blind chance can produce watches. There is no escaping this circular argument, and some people use it. Today Professor Matthews states the same problem more simply:

If, after seeing a room in chaos, it is subsequently found in good order, the sensible inference is not that time is running backwards, but that some intelligent person has been in to tidy it up. If you find the letters of the alphabet ordered on a piece of paper to form a beautiful sonnet, you do not deduce that teams of monkeys have been kept for millions of years strumming on typewriters, but rather that Shakespeare has passed this way.

But to Professor Huxley or Professor Simpson this is sheer heresy or folly. It was the evolutionist who seriously put forth the claim that an ape strumming on a typewriter for a long enough time could produce, by mere blind chance, all the books in the British Museum, but did any religionist ever express such boundless faith? I don't know any religious person who ever had greater faith than that. Yet serious minds actually believed such an impossibility. They say it is impossible, but then it happens.

Remember, "the decay interaction is the shuffling agent [and] . . . by the relentless operation of the Second Law, essentially every proton would by now have decayed into lighter particles. . . . Clearly the opposite is the case." Now "there must be some very exact law which is preventing this from happening."

Kammerer's new law of seriality is in direct opposition to the second law: there is "a force that tends toward symmetry and coherence by bringing like and like together." That is a very interesting point. We say that light cleaves unto light, etc. What is that force? Nobody knows. They say it is there because you see it working. Buckminster Fuller calls it syntropy. The greatest Soviet astrophysicist today, the Soviets' foremost man in that field, Nikolai Kozyrev, has been working for years on this question. He claims that the second law of thermodynamics is all right, but it doesn't work. Something works against it, something stronger. He says,

Some processes unobserved by mechanics and preventing the death of the world are at work everywhere, maintaining the variety of life. These processes must be similar to biological processes maintaining organic life. Therefore, they may be called vital processes and the life of cosmic bodies or other physical systems can be referred to as vital processes in this sense.

Two things stand out in all this. First is the awareness of an organizing, ordering force in the universe that is very active and runs counter to all we know of the laws of science. The second is the awareness of great gaps in our knowledge that may account for our failure to discover the source of that force. This takes us directly to the subject of the temple — through you would never have guessed this from what I have said so far.

We talk a lot about the second law, but what about the first law — the law about the conservation of energy, which is the conservation of mass and matter, in all their forms. It is important too. With that law, the Latter-day Saints have never had any quarrel. We have always believed it. By contrast, the Christian world has its doctrine of creation out of nothing — creatio ex nihilo. Recently David Winston and Jonathan Goldstein, writing on Jewish Hellenistic thought, have shown at great length that the idea of creation out of nothing was totally unknown to the Christian or the Jewish Doctors before the fourth century A.D. It had no place in their doctrines. It was always taught in the early church, as the Jews teach yet, that the world was organized out of matter that was already there. This Mormon teaching was greatly offensive to the standard Christian doctrine that God created the world out of nothing. We Latter-day Saints don't quarrel with the first law of conservation of energy.

Surprisingly, we also accept the second law. In the course of nature, that law takes its relentless course. Jacob says, "This corruption [could not] put on incorruption" (2 Nephi 9:7; cf. Mosiah 16:10). There is no chance of it. As he put it, corruption is a one-way process that is irreversible: "This corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to endless duration" (2 Nephi 9:7). It could not be reversed. Incorruption can put on corruption — something can decay and break down, particles breaking down into smaller and lighter particles — but you can never reverse the process. Nevertheless, something is making it reverse. (This is what the scientists talk about. It is baffling everybody. In fact, Henry Eyring, at the University of Utah, talked about it years ago. The theory is that the universe is exploding, because it was wound up tight. But what wound it up? You have to start out with that.) "This corruption could not put on incorruption," wherefore this death and decay "which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration." And notice how he rubs it in: "If so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble" — that is, to disintegrate into mother earth — "to rise no more" (2 Nephi 9:7). That is the second law of nature, but according to Jacob, it is the first to which nature is subjected — the inexorable and irreversible trend toward corruption and disintegration; it can't be reversed. It rises no more, crumbles, rots, and remains that way endlessly, for an endless duration.

This would spell an end to everything, were it not that another force works against it. "Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement" (2 Nephi 9:7), he says — in effect, a principle of unlimited application. An infinite principle is at work here. "It should be infinite" — Jacob insists on that. It can't be limited, it can't be provisional, it can't be a mere expediency; it is an infinite principle, just as much as the other principle is. Without an infinite atonement, "this corruption could not put on incorruption." We could not save ourselves from entropy. Someone else must be there to do it. Notice what atonement means: reversal of the degradative process, a returning to its former state, being integrated or united again — "at-one." What results when particles break down? They separate. Decay is always from heavier to lighter particles. But "atonement" brings particles back together again. Bringing anything back to its original state is at-one- ment. According to the law of nature (those are Jacob's words — according to the first principle), that could never happen.

We noted that both the physicist and the biologist were aware of an ordering and organizing agent that opposes the second law. Matthews pays tribute to the Pythagoreans: "Why is it then that when we come to examine the inanimate world we find it controlled by laws which can only be put in mathematical terms?" For that matter, what do I know about it? Yet all inanimate nature conducts itself according to mathematical principles conceived of as pure theory by the human mind. Somebody must be working things out. And so we begin with the creation story.

There is matter. That is the first law: matter was always there. There is unorganized matter. Or as Lyall Watson says, "The normal state of matter is chaos." It always is and it always will be. The normal state of matter is to be unorganized. There is unorganized matter; let us go down and organize it into a world. That mysterious somebody is at work, bringing order from chaos. It would be easy to say we were making up a story, if we didn't have a world to prove it. Somebody went down and organized it. Matter was always there, always in its normal state of chaos; and long ago the protons should have all broken down, yet here is the world.

(Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, edited by Don E. Norton [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992], 10-14.)

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com