Four Noble Truths and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

How do you spend and use a gift of something priceless?

If there is a single word that sums up the wisdom of Buddhism to me, it is the word “impermanence.” To not only understand impermanence but embrace it is the sword that cuts the Gordian knot of ignorance and unravels all the aversions (fears) and unwholesome cravings (greed) that bind us to the conditioned world around us.

I also believe that the dhamma is not unique to Buddhism. While, yes, it is found in all of the words of the Buddha, it is able to be found everywhere in the universe. There are words of Jesus that is dhamma. Mohammad has spoken bits of dhamma. Certainly Freud has dhamma in his work the way a good steak has big bits of marbled fat throughout it. And last night, I found dhamma in a beautiful place—the second law of thermodynamics.

Have you ever wondered about time? Why we only move forward? Why you can make an omelet from an egg but you can’t make an egg from an omelet? What dictates the flow of time? Would you be surprised it is the same scientific law that dictates entropy and impermanence?
Now, I am not a scientist but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express and I think I have enough understanding from some very brilliant minds on how the “Second Law” works. For the sake of this article, I will keep it as simple as possible but still be accurate.

The “Second Law” states, “Energy spontaneously tends to flow only from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused and spread out.”  That is, that the universe, from the moment of the Big Bang, has been releasing energy from the hotter matter to colder matter, from the active to the static, and from the full to the empty.  Put a pot on an electric stove coil and the heat from the coil heats the pan, and not the other way around.

This continual “spreading out” or dispersal of energy means that if we look at something today, tomorrow it will entropy and decay a bit later. In fact, it is that entropy that is a linear process and flows in only one direction. Since you cannot make rotted food fresh and an omelet an egg, this entropy is the mechanism that determines the flow of time and its direction.

Time is entropy.

The fascinating thing about time, entropy and the “Second Law’ is that they are all inter-dependent. If any phenomena were to cease being subject to the Second Law, it would be in a state of equilibrium and no longer be subject to entropy and therefore be static without time.  All life is dependent on there being time and since all phenomena are subject to entropy, that living time is impermanent.

As the Buddha said—all thing that arise pass. All things are impermanent. It is only the wise and unconditioned mind that can live within this truth. This truth is the major step in removing ignorance in our lives and seeing the world clearly.

WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)?

So what is the point of this trivia? How do I use the knowledge of the “Second Law” to increase my practice, become more compassionate, and more enlightened?

If I was to give you a big flawless diamond, would you believe that you had something of value? Of course you would. Even if you placed to value on money, you would acknowledge that most of society does and you could trade in that diamond for lots of money. Now imagine that you could see diamonds everywhere. They were as common as blades of grass. Would a diamond be worth a fortune or worthless? What if you had won a mega-million dollar lotto? Would a single diamond be as important to you when you could buy dozens of diamonds with pocket change?

What we value in the world is relative to our outlook. In a conditioned world, we create an illusion of permanent phenomena—this is called “schema.” Even when the world around us changes we edit our schemas and forget the previous definition. We see ourselves as who we are and as permanent things, and yet (at one time) we were all small children. Now we don’t think of ourselves as small children anymore, but why not? Because the schema we have about ourselves is continually being updated. And likewise, the schemas we have about the world around us are being updated.

These updated schemas let us believe in a permanent nature of things. And we suffer when those things change in drastic ways: a divorce, a death, something breaks, something ends. Our ignorance of the world creates inappropriate and misleading values of what is and what should be.

So when we come across any knowledge on the nature of time and impermanence works, we can embody that wisdom. We can see how temporary the world is, including ourselves. We have an opportunity to ask, “Is it more important to work 50 hours a week for that promotion or take more time to see my children grow up?” When life is seen as a countdown, each moment cannot be wasted.

When someone is diagnosed with a terminal disease, they re-evaluate what is important in the world. But we are all terminally ill. We are all dying. We just conveniently ignore that reality as our brains create and recreate our schemas of the world around us.

As the sands of an hourglass …

So if we are all terminally ill, if we are all impermanent, then how important is money compared to love? How important is reaching a state of bliss compared to reaching the corporate penthouse? How important is time spent with our children compared to watching TV?

Physics is the science that explains how the universe works mechanically, but sometimes it teaches us how to best appreciate this universe. Learning about something so mathematical like the Second Law of Thermodynamics has opened my eyes and lead to a metaphysical contemplation of how time works. Time is not only a measure of movement, or change, but by deterioration. The universe is dissipating and we see that occur with every drop of sand in the hourglass. That means that everything is finite and every moment priceless.

How do you spend and use a gift of something priceless?

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Buddha, Dharma, New Age


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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3 Comments on “Four Noble Truths and the Second Law of Thermodynamics”

  1. April 6, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    I agree time seems linear and irreversible and thus we cannot make an egg from an omelet. It’s also important to remember the impermanence of ourselves and our universe. I think a lot about time and I wonder about your use of the finite in describing it. Our time seems finite, but if time itself is finite, what happens when it’s over? What happens when there is no longer time? Is time really linear, or is that just our own perception, our own way of dealing with our world in an organized fashion? It’s very hard for our limited minds to understand no time, or infinite time and in the end, it doesn’t really matter if we understand it or not. It’s just mind candy. Something to play with. Yes, we are all dying and it’s important to appreciate the brief time we have been given to experience our human life. I appreciate your post. Thank you for sharing it.

    • April 6, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

      I hope that in my post, you can see that my concept of the finite time is only measured by the ability of the universe to continue atropy. Once the universe would reach a state of equillibrium time would stop because the universe would be stagnant. I do not assume that the universe will become stagnant, because I do not know what the future holds or what other forces there are in the universe that are not taken in consideration. As far as time, it is really linear BECAUSE that is our perception. The process of atropy only works in one direction and so our perception is only one direction. Our limited minds are biologically designed that way, we work with what we have.

  2. March 14, 2018 at 6:26 pm #

    What an incredible post! Thank you for sharing this.

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