Are heaven and hell real? If so, what are they? And how do we move towards heaven and away from hell?
These are the questions I’m going to explore with this post. My aim here is to connect the worlds of physics and evolution—both biological and cultural—to the world of human psychology and morality. After all, we are products of evolution living in a world governed by physics. Perhaps these two domains might have something fundamental to tell us about human nature and some optimal ways in which to orient our lives.
I’ll start with physics—namely, the concept of entropy. Entropy is a measure of how much chaos is present in a given system. The classic example used to describe entropy is that of a scrambled egg. Before the egg is scrambled, it exists in a rather orderly state, yolk separated from white, confined within a shell, etc. Once the egg is scrambled, however, that order disappears, and we’re left with a uniform and chaotic yellow liquid, where any one part of the egg is entirely undifferentiated from any other part.
What the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us is that the entropy of any isolated system is always increasing, meaning the system itself is always moving in the direction of increasing chaos over time. At the level of human experience and everyday life, this results in your room becoming cluttered through seemingly no effort of your own. It means paint chipping off the walls, structures deteriorating, your body deteriorating until that point of no return we call death. Maintaining order requires work, in the language of both physics as well as everyday human experience.
Why is this? Why do things naturally descend into hell, so to speak, in the absence of proper maintenance? Were we cursed by God as a result of our disobedience? Not exactly. The answer is actually quite straightforward, and involves a simple matter of probability. Put plainly, there exist far more possible chaotic configurations of things than there do orderly configurations of things. Furthermore, every particle in the universe possesses some amount of energy, meaning everything is constantly moving and thus changing over time. Since there are vastly more ways for things to change into chaotic arrangements than there are ways to change into orderly arrangements, probability dictates that nearly everything is going to change into a more chaotic state over time.
Imagine you had four Lego bricks to arrange however you pleased. You might choose to stack one on top of the other in various configurations, and depending on the type of Lego brick, there might actually be a crazy large number of ways to do this. But you could also arrange the Lego bricks by putting one in your bedroom, another in the bathroom, a third in the living room, and the fourth in the kitchen. Or for that matter, you might put one in Paris, another in New York, another in Beijing, and yet another in Moscow. Heck, you could put one on the moon or on a planet a million light years away. The point is, there are an infinite number of ways to arrange your Lego bricks in a chaotic fashion, while only a handful of ways to do so in an orderly fashion. If you were to arrange your Lego bricks in an entirely random manner, with the whole universe acting as your spatial constraint, then the odds are insurmountable against any of the bricks even coming close to stacking on top of one another. And this is the same principle for every single “thing” that exists in our universe.
This brings up another important question to consider: what do we mean by order and chaos? What makes two Lego bricks on two different planets a chaotic arrangement and two bricks stacked on top of one another an orderly arrangement?
Perhaps the following synonyms might do the job of connecting these two words to concepts we all understand: predictability and unpredictability. An orderly system is one that has some degree of predictability, whereas within a chaotic system everything is entirely unpredictable. Using the previous example, if the four bricks are stacked on top of one another in a repeated pattern, then knowing this gives me a high degree of predictability about the location of the bricks. If I know the location of one, I know quite easily the location of the others. Wherever I take one, I take the others with it in that same stable arrangement.
Yet this leads us to yet another question: predictable by whom? A human can predict things about its environment that their pet dog cannot. A computer can often make mathematical predictions about a complex system that a human brain could not. In other words, predictability depends on who or what is doing the predicting. Thus, we could see the level of order and chaos in a system as relative to that which is attempting to make sense of the system. The higher degree of accuracy a given cognitive model can obtain when making predictions about the system, the higher the perceived level of order of that system. In this sense, chaos and order are relative to a given subjective framework.
One last observation to make in this exploration: any computational system capable of making any sort of sense of anything must itself be orderly in nature. A chaotic system cannot understand anything, because it lacks any sort of structure. Imagine a human skull filled with a blob of tissue that had no coherent cellular structure whatsoever with which to process information; it would provide you with no coherent understanding of anything. What this means is that order must precede prediction. You cannot make predictions without first having an orderly brain. In this sense, order and chaos are more than just subjective terms, because subjectivity itself first requires order; order precedes subjectivity.
So let’s summarize what we’ve established so far:
Entropy increases with time = chaos increases with time = order decreases with time
Higher entropy = higher chaos = lower predictability
Lower entropy = higher order = higher predictability
Predictions require orderly predictors
Now we come to evolution, the miraculous process that sustains life. It is the fundamental goal of all of life to persist, to simply keep on for the sake of keeping on. In order to do this, life must be able to successfully navigate within its environment to one degree or another, lest it be overcome by the ever-increasing chaos. And in order to know how to navigate within nature, life must be able to make predictions about nature, in which case life must itself be orderly.
But how does life ever gain the ability to make predictions? How is it that life can ever successfully navigate within an infinite and chaotic environment?
Life persists through the following iterative process:
Generate an insane amount of diversity through random replication errors
Select only the few that can withstand the chaos
Life succeeds by creating a huge number of variants of itself, copies of genes with the occasional copy error. Through sheer numbers, a select few happen upon genetic copy errors that in some way increase their ability to navigate within the chaos of nature, thus increasing their chances of persisting over time. The chaotic environment itself is what prunes life. Those genes which happen upon small advances in navigational ability within the surrounding sea of chaos successfully emerge from the chaos more capable than before.
And here’s where the metaphors abound. In one sense, each gene mutation that gets selected for by the chaotic world means the death of the original gene and the rebirth of that gene into something new, something improved, something that’s a little more resilient against chaos. And such is life, a continual process of dying and rebirth as a result of facing the surrounding chaos and coming out the other side stronger than ever before. It is this process we call growth.
But the key here is to recognize that growth is gradual, that it takes place in tiny increments, and that it cannot happen any other way. Probability dictates that a gene is never going to happen upon a huge leap in predictive power and navigational skills overnight. Mutations are random and almost always counterproductive. It’s only a tiny minority of gene mutations that have even a minutely positive impact on that gene’s chances of propagating itself into the next generation. So if a gene encounters a monstrously chaotic environmental change well beyond its ability to navigate, good luck adapting to that. The key is to encounter small doses of chaos, little by little, step by step, adapting to one small change at a time, manageable from the already existing structural order accumulated over time, until yesterday’s apocalypse turns into today’s reasonable challenge. And the more one grows, the more one’s ability to grow, since growth depends on the already existing underlying structure. This is what life has been doing for the last 3.8 billion years. This underlying order we’ve inherited from our ancestors is what we call stability.
Growth is how we maintain and improve upon our existing stability, lest it deteriorates and descends into hell over time. But where is heaven in this picture? Perhaps at the top, as far away from hell as possible, where stability and order are maximized?
Let’s try to answer this question by getting a better understanding of the relationship between stability and growth.
For humans, the metaphor of stability and growth extends also to the evolution of culture. Where nature represents chaos, culture represents order. Where an increasingly unpredictable environment threatens our existence, culture provides stability and protection against that environment. Culture latches onto the best humanity has to offer and spreads that across time and space, allowing us to create and innovate at exponential rates, building and maintaining the walled city to keep nature at bay. Too little culture and there is insufficient stability and protection against nature. Yet culture run amok destroys nature, leaving nothing to revivify the culture.
We also see this same metaphor apply to the relationship between collectivism and individualism. The collective provides security and stability, protecting individuals within the group and providing a structure to be used and expanded upon by individuals. Individuals agree to play by the rules of the group in exchange for stability and belonging, as well as the freedom to build upon and reform the existing structure of the group. Without the sense of belonging to a group, individuals are lost and with no identity with which to ground them. Without a sense of individualism, there is no one to renew the structure of the group in the event that the group is overridden by toxic ideas or practices—chaos—leading to the demise of the group and all the individuals who constitute the group.
Amongst human ideology is a level of diversity when it comes to the amount of emphasis placed on stability versus growth. It is the more conservative voices in the room that emphasize the importance of stability and security, espousing the wisdom of long withstanding traditions, knowing quite rightly that the world “out there” is unpredictable and dangerous, that predators lurk outside the city walls. And it is the liberal voices that advocate for progress and growth, seeking to take the risky path and go beyond the city walls to explore the unknown in search of something of value.
Yet taken to their extremes, these emphases become toxic. With too much rigidity comes the arrogance of believing that you’ve got it all figured out, that you know everything there is to know about your environment, that nothing can break through the walls of your city. The truth, however, is that chaos is always rising, and if you foolishly believe your walls to be totally sound, you’ll never even consider—much less prepare for—the chaotic flood that’s coming. On the other hand, with too little stability there are no city walls at all. You’re at the whim of nature and its increasing chaos, without direction or purpose. It is at these extremes where conservatism gets twisted into totalitarianism, where liberalism descends into anarchy. Both of these places are their own kind of hell.
When we turn to Western religion we find a similar theme. God is viewed as stable and unchanging, the Solid Rock, the Strong Tower, the Mighty Fortress, the benevolent Father. Separate yourself from God and you descend into hell and death. Yet God taken to His extreme is also the cruel judge, the arbitrary tyrant, the Law so stringent as to be impossible to adhere to. Then there is Satan, the adversary, the one who strikes at the heel, the predatory Snake, that which tempts us into the unknown away from the safety of our fortress, that which opens our eyes to our own vulnerability and suffering, to the world outside our comfort zone, to both good and evil.
To run from God entirely is to run headlong into the jaws of the venomous Snake that awaits—hell—but to cling incessantly to God is a failure still to accept the necessary tragic conditions of life, a childish denial of the evil and suffering that pervade our world. The proper relationship is to have one foot anchored to the Solid Rock, and the other venturing into the surrounding fog in search of the Snake you aim to conquer. It is the wise father who recognizes this.
The same metaphor applies as well to art. A truly great work of art strikes a balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. Too much predictability is, well, just that. Predictable. It’s boring. It doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. And similarly, too much unpredictability is something I can’t make sense of; it’s meaningless, because I fail to connect it to anything. Somewhere in the middle is where art fulfills its purpose in our lives: to make meaningful connections where we might never have made them otherwise.
And to cap it all off, our capacity for stability and growth can be seen at the level of the brain. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the left hemisphere of our brain primarily deals with explored territory, things that are predictable, the linear details of life. This is the part of our brain engaged when everything is going exactly as expected, no hiccups, spontaneity suppressed, where life is mundane yet secure. On the other side, our right brain handles the unexplored parts of life, dealing with the unpredictable using holistic pattern recognition. It is the right brain engaged when things are going in an unexpected direction, when life is spontaneous and free, when attempting to learn something new.
Take each hemisphere to its extreme, however, and hell awaits. The overactive left brain will avoid any and all opportunities, challenges, and learning experiences, seeking instead the comforts of the known and predictable. It will refuse to face the unknown and as a result be entirely unprepared when finally forced to confront chaos. In contrast, the overactive right brain will avoid any sort of structure, direction, and focus. It doesn’t know where to go and so doesn’t go anywhere at all. Before long, this structureless mode of being lends itself to the whims of the chaotic world it inhabits. The sweet spot is instead when left and right brain are each at work, where you are both stable and growing. It is here where you become so fully engaged with reality that the tragedy of life is worth the profound meaning that you gain from it.
So where is heaven in this picture? It’s at the place where stability and growth are in perfect balance. Without the initial stability there can be no growth, and without growth what stability does exist eventually gets washed away in the rising tide of chaos. We need order and structure at the level of our genes, yet just enough chaos seeping in through random mutation to produce variability capable of withstanding the larger hell that awaits. We need both culture and nature, culture to protect from nature and nature to renew culture. We need both the conservative and the liberal in the conversation, providing us with both the wisdom of tradition as well as the adventurous spirit that questions tradition, and always constraining each other against the extremes of anarchy and totalitarian regimes. We need both the group and the individual, the group to provide structure, security, and belonging, and the individual to revivify the group. We need both the protective, loving father as well as the independence to face the frightening world outside our comfort zone. We need art that balances what we already know with that which we have yet to learn, art that takes chaos and somehow makes order out of it. And we need both the left and right brain to deal sufficiently with order and chaos, to fully engage in a way that makes life not just about surviving, but about flourishing, facilitating a sense of meaning through a stable growth.
The search for a final and permanent utopia at the top of this chart is a fool’s search, simply because there is no top. Efforts to achieve an end-all state of being inevitably dissolve into chaos, because the hell at the bottom is continuously rising, and thus stability requires growth in order to maintain itself. In looking for heaven within permanent stability we will always stumble upon hell. Rather, heaven is a place in which stability and growth are balanced at every level and in every aspect of life.
At what level do you have any sort of say over this balancing act? At the level of the individual: you. It has to start with trivial everyday concerns. You first need stability in order to grow. Develop habit and routine. Make your bed in the morning. Wash the dishes promptly following a meal. Present yourself in a way that immediately signals to everyone you encounter: “I am at least competent enough to maintain order at the level of my own appearance.”
Once you’ve established some level of order and stability in your life, you can consciously begin to grow. Force yourself to learn something today that you didn’t know yesterday. Step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself to face uncertainty. Maybe that means sitting down and truly listening to someone with whom you are fundamentally at odds. Learn to embrace confrontation, practicing each time to face it with both grace and resolve.
And here’s the final question I believe to be fundamental to human existence: can you accept fully the immense suffering that this life entails? Can you leave the innocence and insulation of childhood to go boldly face the dangers of the world as a proper adult? Can you voluntarily take up your cross and bear it? Can you come to terms with the fact that hell awaits you if you fail to align yourself properly with the “Kingdom of Heaven?” Can you own up to the stark reality of evil and tragedy in this world and firmly resolve to do something about it?
The answer is up to you.
This post owes a lot to the psychologist Jordan Peterson from the University of Toronto. Much of what I express in this post is inspired by his lectures, podcasts, and other interviews.