Science in Christian Perspective



The Theory of Social Evolution and the Concept of Entropy
Department of Sociology
Emory and Henry College 
Emory, Virginia 24327

From: JASA 29 (June 1977): 91-94.

The Concept of Automatic Social Progress

Herbert Spencer, in his book Progress Its Law and Cause, formulated the classic statement of the Organicist-Functionalist idea of progress. He saw man as living in a triumphantly-evolving universe of which one intricately-coordinated part was the social world. It would, he thought, be folly to intervene in the operation of that world's characteristic processes because it was from them that the good society would emerge. Professing himself to be an agnostic, Spencer nevertheless proceeded to enunciate a worldview based on a naive faith in cosmic progress.1 In his grand scheme, devoid as it was of any clear epistemological rationale, there was a continuous cosmic movement from homogeneity toward heterogeneity, from incoherence toward coherence, and from upheaval and violence toward peace and tranquility. In the picture of the world which he projected there was no place for sin or for a fallen condition on the part of man. That which was ethically good was at all times that which was pleasant and biologically functional.

Writing in the generation which followed the trauma of the French Revolution, Spencer sought to reassure his contemporaries with a vision of social progress which saw it as one aspect of a cosmic sequence that was triumphantly underway.

The basic picture of the social world which Spencer projected has become largely normative for contemporary Functionalist sociology-a closed system programmed for perfection and leaving no room and no need for the supernatural. The result is a deterministic Weltanschauung which dogmatically refuses to recognize any historic role for human decisions based on ethical choices, or for charismatic leadership, or for revelation.

The willingness of contemporary Functionalists (protagonists of the general Spencerian tradition, who clearly constitute the majority school of current American sociological thought) to dispense with all nondeterministic concepts can be readily documented. The Instructor's Guide To Society Today is a group product, published by CRM Books, and representing a Berkeley based but widely-accepted approach to the teaching of sociology in American colleges.2 In the foreword to this Guide the authors state: "Determinism is another fundamental way of thinking that must be taught. Like all Americans, students tend to believe in individual free will." The Guide goes on to deprecate at some length the view that adherence to Naziism, contentment with poverty, and utilization of educational opportunity are all based on individual choice. It continues: "People are not easily weaned from this approach because it is instilled in them by the culture" (and because it is) "frightening to the ego to see oneself a creature of forces beyond one's own control," and concludes "The study of sociology is itself an antidote to this kind of thinking."

It is beyond the scope of this paper to delineate the ways in which this deterministic approach which is widely characteristic of present-day sociology teaching, and which is dogmatically assumed to represent the only way in which the subject can be taught, exerts its impact on the minds of students. That might well be a subject of another paper which could deal with such related topics as the determinism of Marxist "scientificism," the invalidity of Gouldner's "coming crisis" between Marxism and Functionalism, and the spread of those dogmatically materialistic conceptions of human society which are engendered by each of these.

The intent of the present paper is rather to raise certain questions concerning the naturalistic outlook which is endemic to the above-described approach to sociological knowledge and to the teaching of sociology, and to suggest an alternative means of interpreting man's social experience.

Can the corpus of presently-available sociological knowledge be so arranged that it will "make sense" of the historical facts and statistical data which form its "working capital"? Is it realistic, in the light of known -human motivations and proclivities, to assume that when and if man discovers what is good, he will do what is good? Are there areas in our social and historical knowledge, like the "black holes" of astronomy where the use of rational criteria to implement the search for understanding must be held in abeyance because material that is being discovered fails to fit into the framework of our previous moral, social, or historical categories? Does the secular historian face an array of materials for which his conceptual tools do not suffice? Is there a need for a new concept to designate those areas which continue to exhibit ambiguities which lie outside the research skills of the social scientists as such?

The Concept of Entropy in The Physical Sciences

The concept of entropy is commonly used in the physical sciences in connection with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Physicists seek to make it intelligible to the layman by equating it with the word "disorder." The usual statement of the Law is that "the amount of disorder in the universe always increases or remains unchanged for any process."3 To state this in another way we might say that the amount of order is not increasing. The universe is either remaining static, a view that contradicts observation, or it is running down. It is obvious that this is in contradiction to the Spencerian game-plan-the inexorable evolutionary process described above.

Entropy in the New Testament

Both the word entrope itself and its verbal form entrepo appear with a pattern of consistent usage in several significant passages in the New Testament. The verbal form literally means to "turn inward," that is, as applied to the motives or the course of action of a human being to "turn him back upon himself' to "stop him short" or "in his tracks." When it appears in the form of a noun it is therefore preferable to translate it as "humiliation," the experience of being "humbled," or "nonplussed." These terms seem to make it somewhat more intelligible than the Authorized Version's use of "shame."

We have two New Testament instances of the use of the word as a noun. When Paul was calling to account the members of the church at Corinth over the practice of going to law against their fellow-Christians,4 he said "I speak (pros: 'with reference to') your entropy." What he was seeking to convey was that their church, which had been confidently evolving within the context of its optimistic plans and prideful human programs, was suddenly finding itself "set back," "regressing," "turning in upon itself," "in a state of disorder."

Once more within the same epistle we find the apostle employing the word in its nominative form. Wishing to call attention to the fact that the corrupt ways of the Corinthian congregation were turning good associations into bad, he said, "I speak to you concerning your entropy."5 Again, the gist of what he intends to say is that they have programmed the affairs of their congregation, but that events have not worked out as they had planned.

Is it realistic, in the light of known human motivations and proclivities, to assume that when and if man discovers what is good, he will do what is good?

The verbal form entrepo is also used in directly relevant ways in several New Testament passages: In the parable of the "Wicked Husbandmen"6 Jesus tells of a group of sharecroppers or land tenants who had killed, one after another, their landlord's agents who had been sent to collect an assessed share of the crops. At last, after several such incidents, the landlord decided to take more decisive action-he would send his own son to entrapein them, literally to overawe them, throw them into confusion, and overwhelm any lingering protests or objections to the collection of the rent. The essential point is that Jesus pictured God as "Entropizing" i.e., overwhelming or throwing into confusion those who had become inured to an accepting attitude toward what they had come to regard as a safely-programmed and predictable pattern of events.

In the parable of the corrupt judge and the persistent widow,7 the authorized Version tells us that the judge "feared not" God neither "regarded" man. It is noteworthy that both the verbs used in this passage (phobeo: "fear") and (entrepo: "turn inward") appear in this passage as participles. We might therefore translate the verse as saying that the judge had gone through life neither fearing God nor being overawed, nonplussed, or thrown into confusion by any human person.

There are several other New Testament passages in which the verbal form entrepo is used, and each of them is susceptible to a similar interpretation. For example Paul tells the Corinthians that he is not writing to "put them down" or "throw them into confusion" but that, considering them "beloved sons" he needs to "warn" them.8 Again he tells the congregation of the Thessalonian church that, if there is anyone in their church who fails to obey the behests of this epistle, they are to shun this person so that he may he "put down," "set back," "thrown into confusion."9

In one of the pastoral epistles, where the author is exhorting young men to be sober-minded, grave, sincere, uncorruptible, and to show themselves as patterns of good works, he tells them that, above all, they should use sound speech, so that those who oppose them may be . . . and then uses a passive form of entrepo which should be translated "thrown into confusion."10

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we have the one remaining New Testament passage in which the word is used. In this instance the syntax is somewhat more complicated, but the essential meaning is that just as our fathers in the flesh have corrected us, and "set us back" or "stopped us" in our wilfull childish acts, so the chastening which comes from Cod will "yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness."11

The Utility of the Entropy Concept for the Social Scientist

The contribution which the entropy concept can make to the study of man's social life will be found in its utility for designating those situations wherein church programs, governmental schemes, and other social rubrics are thrown into a state of unforeseen confusion which does not fit, or actually contradicts, the models. Blueprints for group, community, or societal action perennially fail to take into account the fragmentary nature of human schemes and constructs. Hence Cod sometimes finds it necessary to "confound" the languages of Babel-builders, and to show them that their simplistic programs are inadequate.12 Statistically-minded social scientists convince themselves that the facts which they have gathered encompass final truth, but the Entropic Power which evaluates all human programs understands that, as with King David, when the "numbering" of the people assumes its intensive form, it becomes "mobilization," regimentation, and the destruction of human lives. Perennially, kings and rulers "take delight" in these things, but those who are charged with the implementation of their programs cringe when they see the direction that things are taking13

The author of this ancient Hebrew narrative was more than an "objective writer of history." He was a man of prophetic insight who clearly saw that "numbering" could he a step on the road to mobilization, and that the process thus initiated could bring an enormously increased degree of royal control-could, in a sense result in the "building of another Babel"; and that this would be in violation of God's will for His peoples' lives.

A realistic writing of history would necessarily include some happenings, some atypical events, some non-sequential processes for which a new concept appears to be indicated: the concept of social entropy.

In the late Twentieth Century, with its mega-states and super-pro grains, this biblical insight can he extremely relevant. The rise and fall of human cultures can he studied as mere exercisematerial in historiography, or it can be interpreted in terms of Sorokin's "ideational-idealisticsensate continuum," or of Spengler's "cultural life span" concept, or of Toynbee's classification of human civilizations into the "abortives, the arresteds, and the still-alives." In any event the study of sociology, and ultimately the teaching of the subject, must address itself, sooner or later, to "grandtheory" considerations that can be seen only in "macro" dimensions. Sociology's current concern with the statistical study of interpersonal relationships and other "micro" matters is to some degree a -form of escapism occasioned by the conviction that the projection of grand theory is elusive and somewhat futile. Current functionalist sociology is largely unwilling to eschew a value-free orientation and to embark on projects that contemplate even a tentative commitment to the interpretation of broader historical patterns. However, contemporary man is not satisfied to live exclusively in the micro dimension. He hungers quite as much as did his ancestors for some broader rubric by which to discover whether there is any master plan for the meaningful interpretation of his interpersonal, group, and emerging historical experience.

I wish to suggest that historical facts constitute the valid and essential subject-matter of sociological inquiry, and that, while large areas of history can be validly understood in Spencerian terms, automatic evolutionism with its faith in functional autonomy and its naturalistic closed system leaves much that is still to be explained.
It is possible to describe the historic process in these terms only by selecting one's facts, and leaving out those which fail to substantiate a preconceived historical model. The Moslem enshrouded in a microcosm of Islamic lore can become convinced that his own civilization is the epitome of historic perfection. Those who are members of the Sun King's court circle can find reasons for thinking that the ancient regime is perfect, final, and complete. Loyal Nazis are sure that their Reich will last for a thousand years. Indoctrinated Marxists are sure that "scientific Socialism" will prove to be the ultimate answer to man's problems. So men build their Babels, and construct ambitious blueprints, but just as scholars in the physical sciences have to say, "This is the best we can do at present with the data at hand but there still remains an area of entropy which our present knowledge cannot explain," so those studying historical materials whose subject matter is human lives-must say that here too there are areas that fail to correspond to man's Utopian plans or to substantiate his historic models. Thus a realistic writing of history would necessarily include some happenings, some atypical events, some nonsequential processes for which a new concept appears to be indicated. To fulfill this need the writer is proposing the concept of "social entropy."

This is not to suggest that we should construct a Christian apologetic based on reserving, with the continuing advance of scientific knowledge, successively smaller areas which are not yet explainable and calling them Cod. It is rather to propose as a valid hypothesis for understanding the nuances of history the concept that the areas which need to be reserved or withheld from normative historiographic study and labeled with the word "entropy" are kairos times-times of crisis and decision when forces are at work which cannot he understood by normative methods. The writer is therefore seeking to open rather than to close a door to new truth when he suggests that some of the not-yet-fully-understood factors at work in such times can best be explained in terms of divine or of supernatural activity within a world that is more than merely "natural," and a society that is more than solely "human."


1Robert E. D. Clark, Darwin Before and After (Chicago: The Moody Press, 1966), pp. 103-104. See also Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context (New York: Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, Inc., 1971), pp. 96-7.
2Inge Powell Bell, Diane Shorter, and Jeffrey W. Stone, (consultants), Instructor's Guide to Society Today (Del Mar, California: CRM Books, Inc.), p. 4.
3J. A. Cramer, "General Evolution and the Second Law of Thermodynamics," Journal ASA.
4I Corinthians 6:5. 
51 Corinthians 15:34.
6Matthew 21:37, Mark 12:6, Luke 20:13. 
7Luke 18:2-4.
8I Corinthians 4:14. 
911 Thessalonians 3:14. 
10Titus 2:8. 
11Hebrews 12:9. 
12See Genesis 11:79. 
13See II Samuel 24:2-17