The First Law of Thermodynamics and the Grain of All Philosophical Insight


Lawrence C. Chin



It has often been said that what distinguishes humans from all other life forms on Earth is their search for spirituality, which is articulated either as the immortality of the soul (self) or the divine being beyond and yet somehow underlying our present reality. And through these, salvation. Traditionally this quest for spirituality takes place either as “religion” or as “philosophy.”


My own work has been focused on demonstrating that what underlies this peculiarly “human” consciousness of ours is in fact the sudden, and complete, comprehension of the thermodynamic laws which is lacking in other species: hence they do not “think” like us.


Part of this thesis is the conclusion that, as consciousness of the thermodynamic structure of the Universe did form the motivating core of the human pursuit of spirituality in the past, the memory of the first law of thermodynamics was responsible for the content of human spiritual experiences.

That is, all enlightenment traditions of humanity past (the great philosophies and religions) have their origin in the human intuition or “memory” of the first law; or in other words, all that the great philosophers spoke in their great systems and all human religious experiences are expressions of (their memory or intuition of) the first law of thermodynamics, which thus constitutes the real content of human enlightenment.

Across all philosophies and religions one is always struck to see the repetition of the same image or of the same theme: the image of the Source of being as the Infinite, the Eternal, Being, God, The Unchanging, Taiji (the Ultimate), the One, Brahman, etc. It is as if there is but one thought -- and we demonstrate here that that “one thought” is conditioned by the human memory of the first law of thermodynamics, i.e. as the recall (anamnesis) of the law of Conservation. Any talk of the Infinite, the Boundless, the Source, etc., is reflective of the recall of the first law of thermodynamics: that despite all changes, and behind all the disintegrations of order, nothing really changes at all, nothing really gets destroyed, everything is conserved; the net amount is always conserved. "God", as passed down from the Mosaic theophany, is the same recall but this fact is obscured because in the testamental religions God is other-ized. But the Christian theologians of the Medieval period have demonstrated clearly (usually in the form of "proof for God's existence") that the God of the testamental theophany has the same experiential origin (the recall of Conservation) as the philosopher's Being or Source by showing the coincidence between the two: e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas' "essence (essentia) of God is to-be (esse), or Augustine's "God as the summit of beings" (being-ness, summa essentia); so have the Kabbalists clarified God as the En-Sof (Limitless or Boundless).

Human “salvation”, then, since it is always articulated in terms of the return to this Source, is the attempt to negate the second law of thermodynamics with the first law – the theme of all symbolic expressions that constitute all philosophies and all religions. While the first law promises Eternity (because of necessary conservation), the second law ordains necessary dissolution and meaningless, finite, and temporary existence enslaved to dissipative functions (eating and defecating) and which it has thus been human yearning to negate. This negation is the spiritual meaning of life.

This short communication will not cover the whole problematic of this relationship between the peculiarly human intuition of thermodynamics and the equally peculiarly human spiritual yearning, but is intended only to provide a few examples of interpretation which will allow us to see how behind the aforementioned most common theme in the field of philosophy is indeed the articulation of the law of Conservation.

1. Ancient Greece: the Presocratics

The Presocratics’ recall of Conservation is purest and most recognizable as such. The task that the Presocratics set for themselves is, as elsewhere, the search or articulation (i.e. recall) of the Underlying (hupokeimenon) or the Source (arche: origin, beginning). As Aristotle has summarized their task:

That of which all things consist [lit. “of which all beings are”], and from which they come into being and to which they return upon destruction [“to which they are destroyed at the end”], while this being itself under-remains and merely undergoes affectations, this they say is the element [stoicheion] and source [arche: source, beginning, origin] of all things, and nothing is either generated or destroyed, since this source always persists [sozomenes: is preserved, saved]. [1]

Nothing is ever generated nor destroyed, the underlying substratum (source) always persisting”: this is the philosophical, pre-scientific articulation of the law of Conservation; whenever things are destroyed, the matter of which they are made still continues and will serve to form other things in the future; even when the matter itself is completely annihilated such as during high temperature, it is simply converted to an equivalent amount of energy in accordance with Einstein’s E = mc2, which is the latest, final (scientific) articulation of the first law of thermodynamics: the conservation of matter-energy.

We can briefly look at two particular examples, Anaximander and Empedocles.

Anaximander says that the source and element of all beings[2] is the apeiron, or the Limitless/ Boundary-less/ Without-Definition. Apeiron is therefore the Hellenic equivalent of the Dao of Laozi on the Sinic side. From the apeiron come all the heavens and all that is in the cosmos. This source for the coming-into-being of beings is also that into which destruction happens according to necessity. [3]


Again, the memory of the law of Conservation gives us the experience of the “substratum” or “underlying.” The first law of thermodynamics means that nothing can come into being out of nothing -- which is to say that anything that comes into being must not be anything new but must be something that is already there (the law of Conservation does not permit creation ex nihilo); and that nothing is actually ever destroyed, for the amount of everything must always be conserved. Hence coming-into-being and passing-away is only the reshuffling here and there of an underlying constituent, merely the substratum manifesting itself here and now in this form and then and there in that form and then retracting these manifestations back to itself: a substratum must be posited.


In today's scientific (structural) perspective, this "substratum" is just energy: E = mc2 means just that matter (and so any of the "things" around) is simply a more concentrated form of energy, which is forever conserved in the same amount. The philosophical anamnesis of Conservation therefore results in the thinking that Being is One and Eternal.

As for Empedocles, he criticizes the doxa (illusion) of ordinary people:


Fools [nhpioi, not speaking, childish, senseless, infans] -- for they have no far reaching thoughts; they expect that what formerly was not can come into being and everything can perish and be utterly destroyed. For coming into being from that which in no way is is impossible [amechanon: without means or resource, impracticable], and it is impossible and un-known that what is should be destroyed. For it will ever be there wherever one may keep pushing it.


for their not consciously recognizing the first law of thermodynamics embedded in the conscious recognition of the effects of the second law. What is there must have always been there and will always be there: the law of Conservation. With the memory of the first law, Empedocles arrives at the substratum of the Ionians, the "unification field" of the four elements (water, fire, earth, and air), only that he adds to these also two "forces" (Love and Strife) mediating between them so as to explain how separate things may arise out of an original undifferentiated unified field. Empedocles describes this undifferentiated field under the influence of Parmenides:


Here are distinguished neither the swift limbs of the sun nor the shaggy might of the earth nor the sea; but rather, equal to itself from every direction and totally without limits, it stands fast in the thick obscurity of Harmony, a rounded sphere rejoicing in its circular solitude.[4]



This sort of undifferentiated circular “egg-like” from which the components of the cosmos differentiate out and which repeats itself in all sorts of creation myths and metaphysical speculations is a simple reflection of the memory of the law of Conservation. “When a thing is said to come into existence or perish, all that has really happened is that one temporary combination of these indestructible elements has been dissolved and another been established. Change in fact is nothing but a re-arrangement [since the amount of everything must be conserved: the law of Conservation]; and to account for the motion in space which alone could effect such a reshuffling, two motive forces, Love and Strife, take their place along with the elements as the only ultimate realities.”[5]



2. Ancient China: Daoism


In China almost about the same time as in Greece certain souls appear to articulate the philosophical insight into Conservation through the notion of “Dao.” We today know them as the Daoist philosophers. Consider, first, the example of Laozi, in Chapter 25 of the Daodejing:


There is a thing formed in chaos existing before Heaven and Earth [i.e. the substrate, before its “shuffling” into heaven and earth, into the everything of the cosmos, is indeterminate. “chaos” means the substrate, “the total amount,” “energy,” before its manifestation, i.e. its acquisition of forms, into things.] Silent and solitary, it stands alone, unchanging. [The experiential motive is thus the same as Empedocles’ degradation of Parmenides’ Being into the perfect sphere, without yet any differentiations within to form things, as the substrate or the total amount before its “shuffling”: “It stands fast in the thick obscurity of Harmony, a rounded sphere rejoicing in its circular solitude.”] It goes around [rotates?] without [ever] perishing. It may be the Mother of the world. Not knowing its name, I can only style it dao. With reluctance [or “if forced”], I would call it Great. Great means far-passing, far-passing means far-distancing [these refer to the experience of the substrate, the source of being, as indeterminate, unfathomably far-extending and -deepening, in a way like Anaximander’s naming of the substrate as the apeiron, the infinite], far-distancing means “reversing” [so somehow the nature of the source as indeterminately far-extending implies the pivotal Daoist principle of nature, the principle of things reversing themselves after reaching extremity].[6]


The famous Daoist wisdom is all the result of this pre-scientific intuition of the first law of thermodynamics. Consider the famous passage from Zhuangzi, in “The Discourse on the Equalization of Things” in the Zhuangzi:


To make distinctions is [commonly] to produce [construct, complete] things; to construct things is to destroy things. There are never construction and destruction of things, but the same running through them to make them One.[7]


Fung Yu-lan comments: “For example, when a table is made out of wood, from the viewpoint of that table, this is an act of construction. But from the viewpoint of the wood or the tree, it is one of destruction. Such construction or destruction are so, however, only from a finite point of view. From the viewpoint of the Dao, there is neither construction nor destruction. [There is only transformation of the eternally conserved substrate then into that but now into this, i.e. upokeimenon.] These distinctions are all relative. [Likewise:] The distinction between the ‘me’ and the ‘non-me’ is also relative. From the viewpoint of the Dao, the ‘me’ and the ‘non-me’ are also united and become one.”[8] This is a sense of oneness necessitated by the memory of Conservation. Because of our memory of the first law of thermodynamics, we all know that when we die, or when whatever gets destroyed, the constitutive material is always there, not losing a single ounce. All things are literally just one thing, at bottom. But we think things in terms of constructions and destructions, of something appearing and then disappearing, because of our partial perspective. So Kuo Hsiang, the Jin Dynasty commentator on Zhaungzi, comments with regard to this passage: “Construction and destruction originate from seeing only [from] oneself and not [from] the other; hence there is neither construction nor destruction, just as there is neither right nor wrong.” 


3. India: the Upanishads


Also at about the same time as the Daoists and the Presocratics a movement of spiritual enlightenment known as the Upanishads emerges in India which is just as evidently motivated by a pre-scientific intuition of the law of Conservation.


“The fundamental idea which runs through the early Upanishads is that underlying the exterior world of change there is an unchangeable reality [Brahman] which is identical with that which underlies the essence of man [Atman].”[9] This means that Brahman is the eternally conserved substrate of existence called for by the memory of Conservation, and that salvation -- the negation of limited temporo-spatial existence according to the second law of thermodynamics -- consists in the conservation of the self back into this substrate as source which is accomplished at the moment when one eliminates the illusion of the self, a self distinct from the substrate, from Being: the enlightened state of mind.


The Upanishads is full of stories of attempts at anamnesis of the Brahman as the eternally conserved source of being. Such definitive commencement of the philosophic intuition into Conservation as opposed to the religious or mythic is marked “with the earnestness and enthusiasm of the sages. They run from place to place with great eagerness in search of a teacher competent to instruct them about the nature of Brahman. Where is Brahman? What is his nature?”[10] (Today, we would call Brahman “energy.”) The beginning of the process is fraught with confusions due to incomplete extrication from the mythic mode which is unable to see beyond things, to articulate Being qua Being rather than in terms of beings, or Conservedness as such rather than in terms of what is conserved. “The whole process of Upanishad thought shows that the magic power of sacrifice as associated with Rita (unalterable law) was being abstracted from the sacrifices and conceived as the supreme power... [The search for Brahman] was at first only imperfectly realized. [In these stories, the early seekers] identified it with the dominating power of the natural objects of wonder, the sun, the moon, etc., with bodily and mental functions and with various symbolic representations, and deluded themselves for a time with the idea that these were satisfactory.”[11] "The sages in the Upanishads had already started with the idea that there was a supreme controller or essence presiding over man and the universe. But what was its nature? Could it be identified with any of the deities of Nature, was it a new deity or was it no deity at all?"[12] The inability to break through to a total abstraction of Being per se which results in the explication of Being in terms of beings, the identification of the conserved substrate in terms of one of the non-conserved worldly things, is like the early Ionians such as Thales and Anaximenes who attempt to identify the arche as one of the four elements. Prana (vital breath), "superior to the other organs, such as the eye or ear” and on which “all other functions depend," is meditated upon as the Brahman, the source of being. And “owing to the presence of the exalting characters of omnipresence and eternality akasa (space) is mediated upon as Brahman. So also manas and Aditya (sun) are mediated upon as Brahman."[13] "But as these were gradually found inadequate, they came to the final solution, and the doctrine of the inner self of man as being the highest truth the Brahman originated."[14]


4. Contemporary Philosophy (revised September, 2011)


Regarding postmodern thought and contemporary philosophy, the final analysis is not yet complete. Contemporary philosophy has completely veered off course from the ancient: it is no longer concerned with thinking about the "infinite" - which has to do with the first law - and certainly not with any salvation of the person. One has to study the history of western philosophy to understand how philosophy here gradually deviates away from the ancient intuition of thermodynamics.


Book Three of Division One of my Scientific Enlightenment Proper is meant to analyze the cause of this degeneration of modern Western philosophy. The outline is this. In modern philosophy, during the period of positivism, i.e. the Enlightenment, the natural human intuition of conservation was temporarily lost (e.g. the rise of "atomism": The Enlightenment scientists believed that the universe was composed of, on the one side, elemental chunks which were irreducible and with immutable properties, and, on the other, immaterial forces). This is why the positivist scientists and the philosophers of this age have had such a difficult time understanding traditional philosophy and religions.  This positivist spirit infected the general public as well, and the transcendentalization of Christianity has already previously eliminated the original intuition of conservation from the western religious experience. This is not to say that there occurred still, amidst the general climate of degeneration, occasional bursts of anamnesis of Conservation and so spirituality. For example, the Romanticism of Goethe. Look at the ending and the beginning of Goethe's two poems "Eins und Alles" and "Vermächtnis": "For everything must splinter into nothing, if it seeks to persist in being" and "No being can splinter into nothing. The Eternal constantly stirs in all things. Hold fast to Being and rejoice!".[15] . The seemingly contradictory pronouncements became intelligible if we read them as expressing the simple insight that there are only apparently destruction and construction of individual things -- individual things must eventually melt back into the eternally conserved Total Materiality which is not-a-thing itself -- while, underlying them, the material which have constituted them cannot ever have originated nor be destroyed because of the law of conservation -- no individual things can ever be completely destroyed, and when it is destroyed it has merely melted back into the underlying conserved Materiality which will soon rearrange itself into some other things. Certainly, the general climate of Romantic reaction against Enlightenment, a return to the primacy of feelings as against reason and a consequent love of nature as a whole, culminating in the Sturm und Drang to which Goethe himself belonged during his youth,[16] has greatly faciliated the anamnesis of what today would be codified as the first law of thermodynamics. You would think that the path which Goethe and the German Romanticists have opened up would continue as a geniune tradition of spirituality amidst the degenerate culture of positivism, but it would itself degenerate, as, started with Hegel, the so-called "Continental philosophers", though still talking about "Being", are no longer talking about the conservation of the materiality of things, but only about the intelligibility of things, how things have come to be known as what they are. This trend finally culminates with Martin Heidegger. There have thus been two threads of development (or degeneration) in Western philosophy. After the modern scientific discovery that matter and energy were interchangeable (Einstein's relativity) and the consequent quantitative formulation of the law of conservation – first of matter, then of energy, and now of matter-energy – the intuition of conservation such as leads to spirituality is only lately beginning to be recovered, as seen in the new age movement when the new-agers talk of "energy being the source of all" or "we are all made of and came from that energy, to which we return upon death". Some scientists have come to recover from positivism and to see conservation-spirituality as well, though only in a confused fashion, such as Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics.  But they usually erroneously treat this "recovery" as some extraordinary "discovery" due to forgetfulness of the past spiritual achievement of the humanity (as for example when they say: "Since the beginning of time people thought that the universe was composed of matter on one side and forces/ energy on the other. But Einstein's relativity has shown this to be wrong..." The scientist was projecting the positivist ignorance onto the ancients).




The proper object of ancient philosophy from East to West has been "Being", which refers to the undifferentiated substratum of which all things are made, and which is the ancient way of referring to the "energy" of modern sciences.  It is argued here that the notion of this "Being" came from an ancient, qualitative but not quantitative, as yet immature intuition of the first law of thermodynamics, the law of Conservation.  Insofar as spirituality comes from the experience of the self and other individualities being only partialities of and participation in a total, all-encompassing whole ("Being"), spiritual experiences are thus also founded on the intuition of the first law. During the rise of positivism which characterizes the immature phase of science from 1500 to 1950, this spirituality based on the first law was temporarily obscured in Western consciousness, though occasionally pronounced in the Romantic movement, but it is now regained in the Western world in many of the spiritual movements such as the New Age.


[1] Metaphysics, I III 3-4: ex ou... estin apanta ta onta, kai ex ou gignetai protou kai eiV o fqeiretai teleutaton, thV men  ousiaV upomenoushV, toiV de paqeasi metaballoushV, touto stoiceion kai tauthn archn fasin einai twn ontwn, kai dia touto oute  gignesqai ouqen oiontai oute apollusqai, wV thV toiauthV fusewV aei swzomenhV...


[2] archn kai stoiceion twn ontwn


[3] ex wn de h genesiV esti toiV ousi, kai thn fqoran eiV tauta ginesqai kata to crewn.


[4] enq'out'helioio dieidetai wkea guia
oude men oud
'aihV lasion menoV oude qalassa
'o ge pantoqen isoV eoi kai pampan apeirwn
outwV ArmonihV pukinwi krufwi esthriktai
sfairoV kukloterhV monihi perihgei gaiwn


[5] Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with A Selection of Texts, Cambridge University Press, p. 324.




[7] 其分也,成也;其成也,毀也。凡物无成與毀,復通為一。


[8] A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Free Press, 1997, p. 113


[9] Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 42.


[10] Ibid., p. 43.


[11] Ibid., p. 37.


[12] ibid., p. 43.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Ibid., p. 37.


[15] "Denn alles muß in Nicths zerfallen, Wenn es im Sein beharren will" and "Kein Wesen kann zur nichts zerfallen! Das Ew'ge regt sich fort in allen, Am Sein erhalte dict beglückt!" Quoted in Ronald Gray, Goethe: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1967, p, 244. Pantheism usually indicates the anamnesis in its simplest form.


[16] Will and Ariel Durant, Rousseau and Revolution, Simon and Schuster, 1967, p. 520 - 522