Opposing forces find each other: Jim Taylor


April 10, 2014

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Ancient Zoroaster got a few things right.

Zoroaster, whose name was probably closer to Zarathustra before the Greeks tinkered with it, lived in eastern Persia about 2,000 years before Christ. He’s credited with condensing a pantheon of minor gods into two—Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu (also known as Ahriman)—who exist in constant conflict.

By Jim Taylor | Lake Country Calendar

Ahura Mazda represents good, or truth—the spirit of light and enlightenment present in all of creation.

Angra Mainyu stands for evil, lies and a destructive spirit.

Traces of Zoroaster’s dualism survive among supposedly monotheistic Christians who still portray the world as a battleground between God and Satan.

I’m not a Zoroastrian. But I think he was right in identifying life as influenced by inseparable opposing forces. I would not call those forces gods, though. I think of them as life and death. Neither is intrinsically good or evil, but they are in constant tension.

Life evolves from the simple to the complex. Random DNA strings become viruses, which become cells, which cooperate to survive more efficiently, and eventually turn into biological bodies—whether plant or animal—some of which become autonomous individuals with intelligence, who form civilizations, which themselves grow more complex.

The pattern pervades human development. We start as single cells, which contain only the promise of becoming human. We mature into highly complex creatures capable, like no other species, of manipulating technology for our own purposes.

Entropy, on the other hand, represents the force of death. All forms of energy eventually degrade, or devolve, into heat, which dissipates uselessly into the universal void.

Your car converts the chemical energy in fossil fuel into heat. Some heat gets wasted out the tailpipe; some drives the car forward, building kinetic energy. When you apply the brakes, you convert kinetic energy into heat, which can’t be recaptured.

An electric vehicle re-captures some of that kinetic energy, storing it as electrical energy in a battery pack, for future conversion back into kinetic energy. But no engine achieves 100 per cent efficiency. Eventually, that stored electrical energy runs out too, and you have to recharge your batteries.

Entropy is irreversible. Once energy is lost, it cannot be reclaimed.

All living bodies die.

Even the thermonuclear furnaces of suns, stars, and nebulas will eventually cool, leaving only dark cinders whirling in gravitational orbits around other cinders.

And so I see life and death, evolution and entropy, see-sawing back and forth. For a while, life wins. All living creatures, from the redwood forests to lichens on rocks, from ants to humans, grow in complexity as they mature. They overcome entropy.

But eventually they age, they weaken, they die. And entropy takes over.

Sometimes species proliferate, and evolution flourishes. Sometimes species suffer mass extinctions, and entropy dominates. (Hinduism’s Shiva would appreciate this continuous dance of creation and destruction.)

I suppose that if biblical literalists deny evolution, they have to deny entropy too.

Billions of years from now, I expect, entropy will triumph. In the meantime, I’ll choose life. I’ll celebrate life in all its complexity and diversity, against undifferentiated uniformity.

Life over death. Evolution over entropy. Ahura Mazda over Ahriman.