Sin isn’t Newtonian

(Part two of two on the apologetics offered by missionaries outside the Reason Rally)

In my second discussion outside the Reason Rally,  a pair of tag-teaming Christians were trying to bootstrap from my belief in immaterial laws of logic or morality to evidence for an immaterial God.  They must have thought they were handed a trump card when I admitted I find the doctrine of Original Sin to have an intuitive resonance. Humans have a tendency toward disorder, and the cruelties we commit warp our spirits and make it harder to be good in the future.

My Christian interlocutors seemed baffled I could recognize the destructive power of sin/immorality (depending on which of us was talking) but wouldn’t concede that Grace existed as a countervailing force. If I could recognize the would, they thought, I must be able to believe in the process (or Person) that could heal it.  Their argument reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s contention that a desire is evidence that something exists to satisfy that desire.

Here’s the parallel argument I wanted to bring up to them (but we got diverted onto another topic). Some discussions of sin sound like the Second Law of Thermodynamics applied to the soul.  Gradually entropy increases and order fades out of existence.  We have an intuitive resistence to this idea, whether applied to the soul or the body or perpetual motion machines.  I tend to get frustrated by it most in the lay approach to medicine.

Will not provide limitless (a) energy or (b) redemption

Cancer actually arises through a similar process.  Your cells become your enemy though gradual degeneration. Mutations and deletions accumulate during successive cell divisions until the safeguards against out of control reproduction have been eroded away.  The popular hopes for a general cure for cancer seem like Lewis-like thinking to me. The layperson’s perception of science is still powerfully shaped by antibiotics — the miracle drugs. The state of being healthy feels so natural and is so clearly what we ought to be that it feels like we must be able to fall back into the default.

We imagine health or goodness corresponds to an equilibrium with low potential energy.  It must take energy to be warped, and more energy to stay broken and resist sinking into that natural resting state.  Like a ball balanced precariously at the top of a ramp, we must only need a small impetus to be restored.

But we know now that’s not how everything in the physical world works.  I can’t do better than to quote Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, where one character explains why the study of heat upended our Newtonian ideas about the world (I did some splicing, so go to Northwestern for a fuller quote):

Your tea gets cold by itself, it doesn’t get hot by itself. Do you think that’s odd? …Well, it is odd. Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What’s happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere…

You can’t run the film backwards. Heat was the first thing which didn’t work that way. Not like Newton. A film of a pendulum, or a ball falling through the air — backwards, it looks the same.  But with heat — friction — a ball breaking a window — it won’t work backwards. You can put back the bits of glass but you can’t collect up the heat of the smash. It’s gone.

Identifying a way people break isn’t proof they can be restored.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • anodognosic

    Maybe this sheds some light on a frankly baffling objection to atheism that I have been seeing a lot: that the denial of heaven and God’s perfection would automatically mean a belief of human perfectibility and a secular utopia. Certainly, there have been examples of that throughout history, Marxism being probably the most prominent of them, and you see some now, such as certain (but by no means all or perhaps even most) believers in the Singularity. But I don’t think most rationalist-atheist types would deny the so-called fallen nature of humankind, even if they (we) would not put it quite that way.

  • Patrick

    I don’t think its helpful to speak in the voice of a mythology you don’t hold in order to endorse concepts similar to, but not actually the same as, that mythology. Particularly when you’re speaking to believers in that mythos.

    • leahlibresco

      It’s a fair point, but it’s pretty cumbersome and confusing to make up my own jargon.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Is “part one of two” in the intro here meant to be “part two of two”? There was already a “part one”…

    • leahlibresco

      Yup, thanks for the catch!

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    On a very anecdotal note, I tend to be the opposite: I tend to assume that was is broken cannot be fixed. Maybe this was from the sort of environmentalism I was interested in as a child. The very concept of healing seems counterintuitive to me, even though you say here that the inverse is counterintuitive.

    Less anecdotally, I would be careful about your analogies here. Is immorality actually a movement from order to disorder? I know that this is a controlling neo-classical ideology that continues to the present, but is that actually what immorality is like? Fascism is pretty ordered, but I wouldn’t call it moral. American foreign policy is also pretty ordered and, again, I wouldn’t call it moral. It’s not too bad as far as a metaphor goes, but I don’t think this can be the only metaphor you (we, people) should be using because I don’t think it covers all of its facets.

    This isn’t to take from your main point, though, that sin may be irreversible. Questioning the assumed possibility of grace is more than fair, but you haven’t provided anything more than an analogy so far. Do you have a particular reason to think healing isn’t possible?

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      I would be careful about your analogies here. Is immorality actually a movement from order to disorder?

      Generally speaking, yeah, I think it is. I think the point is that it takes work to do ordered (creative, productive, whatever) things, but much less to do disordered (destructuve, unproductive, whatever) things. I spend five hours putting a jigsaw puzzle together, it takes the cat 3o seconds to shred it. It’s much easier to be unhealthy than healthy (try losing 10 lbs vs gaining 10 lbs). When some sexy person at the bar comes on to you, it’s easier to say Yes than No. Killing someone can be done in a second; no matter how much heat energy you pour into them you can’t bring them back to life.

      I can think of all sort of instances where doing the “right” thing requires actual work but doing the “wrong” thing takes no effort whatsoever.

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        I can think of all sort of instances where doing the “right” thing requires actual work but doing the “wrong” thing takes no effort whatsoever.

        But isn’t that just because we tend to define morality in positive terminology rather than negative? Isn’t it the “right” thing to NOT go on a killing spree, just as it is “wrong” to go on a killing spree? The former is quite easy, and the latter I imagine would take a lot of energy

        There are all kinds of “wrong” things that would take a great deal of work to do, we just don’t think of them because we never have the slightest inclination to do them. The only “wrong” things we have a desire to do are things that offer us something in return- often a relief from the work that doing the “right” thing would require

        • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

          But isn’t that just because we tend to define morality in positive terminology rather than negative? Isn’t it the “right” thing to NOT go on a killing spree, just as it is “wrong” to go on a killing spree? The former is quite easy, and the latter I imagine would take a lot of energy

          Depends on how you define it, I suppose. As I said, killing someone takes a few seconds and relatively little energy (a twitch of a finger on the trigger), but no matter how much energy you expend, you’ll never ever bring them back to life. Or let’s limit it to what’s possible: taking a life is pretty simple and easy, but creating life takes 9 months and all kinds of energy and effort. (It’s involuntary effort, but it’s still effort.) Basically, any action that increases order takes more effort than one which decreases order. Construction takes more effort than destruction. Pretty much by definition sin is destructive, right? So the answer to the question of whether “immorality [is] actually a movement from order to disorder” seems to be yes.

    • leahlibresco

      Maybe I should say ‘rightly ordered,’ Christian? I’m talking about immorality as deviation from our natural end or telos.

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        WOO boy. You are going to get in hot water from that one. I’m inclined to all kinds of agree with that statement, but even my liberal Christian friends could get skittish with this whole “natural end or telos” story.

        But let’s say it were the case that we want to move toward the right order rather than the wrong one. (And, to be fair, at heat death things are pretty ordered in the sense that absolute homogeneity is an order.) That still doesn’t give me a reason to think that moving into order isn’t possible. Hard, sure. Impossible, though? Yes, it takes lots of work to heal, and sometimes it doesn’t happen. But it can happen, right? That’s all grace necessitates–that, under the right conditions, it can happen. (Unless, say, you were universalistically inclined. But the “under the right conditions” could be called upon: Beckian Hell/purgatory could be those conditions.)

        • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

          Clarification: I am not skittish. I’m just predicting that you will get in trouble for sayiing that. But you know that.

          And I am also a liberal Christian. (Or, as we might distinguish here in Canada, I am more socialist than liberal.)

        • leahlibresco

          I am always in trouble.

          I don’t think moral improvement and redemption is impossible (it’s not impossible for physical things to become more ordered, provided you pump in enough energy), but it seems to take a force outside yourself to pull you out of the hole.

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

            Hmm. Northrop Frye (not someone a person should ordinarily take as authoritative on any literary critical issues, mind you) said in Anatomy of Criticism that a tragedy feels inevitable, but a comedy feels contrived. He made no theological arguments, but considering he was clergy, I’m going to say he was thinking about grace.

            My thought, then, is that if it is true that redemption exists, and it does seem to need to come outside, then something like grace is after all likely. Now, it may not be the kind of thing ministers talk about, but I’m not sure at that point what your objection is. No, the existence of a wound does not prove the existence of healing…but if we know or believe that healing exists independently, does that lack of proof matter? (I do know that I get in arguments with people who I think have the right conclusion for the wrong reasons, though, so if that’s what your objection was, I totally get that.)

  • deiseach

    “You can put back the bits of glass but you can’t collect up the heat of the smash. It’s gone.”

    And now you have me thinking that this is a good argument for the necessity of the Incarnation for our redemption and against Pelagianism (for those of you unfamiliar with the term, very broadly and briefly it denies the existence of Original Sin and maintains that humans may choose by their own will to be virtuous and can attain to salvation by their own efforts without the necessity of grace).

  • Iota

    I guess part of the problem is that Original Sin without Grace is problematic because every good disposition is a manifestation of some Grace (I think, check that with a theologian,… :)). Original Sin without Grace = total void, at absolute zero temperature (to the best of my understanding, you have nowhere to go from there).

    Grace + Original Sin, on the other hand = you have something, but not all you could have (a glass of cold tea, for example). Additional grace = tea getting warmer. Sanctifying grace = you tea is always hot (because you always have Grace “on” as a source of “heat”).

    I’m not sure if these specific Christians would subscribe to that, though (because I don’t know their theology).

  • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

    There probably was a misunderstanding there, because you actually don’t recognize what Christians see as the full extent of the destructive power of sin.

    If I got you pegged correctly, you do recognize a character can be damaged beyond repairing itself, but you don’t think everyone is that damaged. So for many (most?) people, including for yourself, you see a realistic perspective of repairing their character without grace by doing good and forming it into habits. The without grace part is, of course, what we call Pelagianism and your Christian interlocutors probably didn’t get you believe that.

    Now if you thought the effect of sin as bad as we do, their bafflement would be quite reasonable. There would still be no logical reason compelling belief in grace. But if you knew yourself infected with the disease and knew where it leads and didn’t believe in the cure, then the logical reaction would be despair. And I suppose you just don’t make all that desperate an impression.

    So, to pick up some other phrases associated with that day, perhaps their first reaction was “I don’t believe you.” And if they had been a little crueler they might have thought you needed to be mocked, in public, with contempt.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m actually pretty pessimistic, but I just don’t see despair as useful. If I’m fighting a losing battle, I’ll still try to give up as little ground as possible, and despair won’t help me do that.

      • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

        I can’t argue against that as an abstract principle, it’s a large part of why I think suicide (assisted or not) is a serious sin.

        But if you are as pessimistic on character development without grace as a Christian would be, that must be a comparatively new (and positive) development. Because less than a year ago you still said:

        If it were I who was morally unmoored and dangerous, I would prefer to be put down, but I would not universalize this choice. I suspect it is primarily motivated by pride.

        This sounds to me like you actually embraced the conditional despair, just not its condition.

        Of course that change of mind wouldn’t be that big a thing, because on the cognitive level you were condemning your instinctive preference even then. Perhaps a tail event of your abandonment of stoicism?

  • Natalie

    You are extremely smart.

    • Natalie

      I wish I had a counter argument, but I don’t (yet)


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