What is the philosophical significance of the First Law of Thermodynamics?



The Law states that “no energy can be destroyed or created, for it is constant; it can only be transformed from one form to another”. Do you think this alignes with many of the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism (Eastern philosphy in general) about everything infact being one “oneness” so to say, and death being non existant (which is weird to say since death implies non existence)? All is being, shifting from one form to another, everywhere the same, completely full like a sphere; constant outpour of energy cycling into eternity. What is your stance on this?

Вања Ђурић

Posted 2017-12-19T13:16:25.627

Reputation: 31

5"Do you think this alignes with many of the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism ... ?" NO. It is a phisical law and it is clearly "compatible" with death, as we can see every day. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-12-19T13:25:01.523


You can see Philosophy of thermal and statistical physics and Wilhelm Ostwald and Ernst Mach for a "philosophical" movement called Energetism.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-12-19T13:58:23.057

1This law is clearly compatible with the world-view you mention, and in fact no established scientific data is incompatible with it. But what we read into this is up to us. We could just dismiss it as a coincidence, as so many do. Or we could see this as an unscholarly approach and delve more deeply. Which we do seems to depend on our temperaments and prejudices more than anything else. I'm not sure anything can be made of your thought without a lot more development. Otherwise your just back with the ineffective woolliness of 'The Tao of Physics' or 'The Dancing Wu Li Masters'. – None – 2017-12-19T14:10:31.447

Ex nihilo nihil fit, nothing comes from nothing, was also a motto of Parmenides, one of the founders of Western philosophy, and the One, timeless, uniform, and unchanging, is a cornerstone of his metaphysics. Spinoza and others held vaguely similar views. So to the extent that conservation of energy "aligns" with vague platitudes extracted from philosophies it is not East/West specific. – Conifold – 2017-12-19T23:15:26.227

Prove to me that you exist. – ThisIsNotAnId – 2017-12-22T18:08:47.033

The accelerating expansion of the universe breaks energy conservation. Conservation of information, touted as a new law though not proven, is at least as interesting. Have a look at Noether's theorem, linking conservation principles & dimensions. Buddhist thought gives primacy to minds & mental processes, arguably, information. Increasingly physics is moving towards the idea space and time are emergent from an information layer (eg quantum spin networks). 95% of the mass-energy of the universe is a mystery - learning to dwell with that is our real progress. – CriglCragl – 2020-10-15T23:28:50.400



The Law states that “no energy can be destroyed or created..."

Not quite. In its classical formulation, the 1st law says that energy is constant in a closed system. As this isn't entirely true, it has had a number of reformulations to include rest energy and virtual particles. I'm not a big fan of them, scientifically speaking, as they require you to measure the energy content of the universe to verify.

Do you think this aligns with many of the teachings ... Eastern philosophy

It really doesn't. The religions you mention are very well developed and absolutely are not talking about energy in the thermodynamic sense. There are, of course, some points of crossover but it's generally superficial.

and death being non existent

Minor point but they tend to see death as a transformation rather than not actually existing.

And a comment on the attempt to link scientific theories to most extant religions. Please exercise caution here. These religions are very well established, very well documented and very well understood. They are not enhanced or validated in any way by superficial linking to modern science. The same goes with similar attempts in Christianity, usually with Genesis.


Posted 2017-12-19T13:16:25.627

Reputation: 1 687

2Indeed, many attempts to link scientific theories to any philosophical ideas are superficial. Careful consideration must be paid to exactly what is the connection. – Era – 2017-12-19T15:13:44.027

You can formulate energy conservation purely locally: Any energy change in a region is exactly of the same size as the net energy flow into or out of that region. There is no need to involve the complete universe for that. – celtschk – 2017-12-29T20:22:55.867


Although I agree with Alex’s answer, I think the following offers a different perspective. I don’t think it is in the best interests of religions to link too closely with the “energy” concepts from physics.

Energy is an idea that describes reality. Subjectivity is removed from this description and the description becomes data. We try to isolate our subjectivity further by using mathematics to manipulate the data and look for patterns. We then project those patterns back onto reality and proclaim that the patterns are not just in our mathematical models of the descriptions but they are also in reality as laws of nature. Since subjectivity was removed at the start of the process, subjectivity has no place in the resulting laws of nature.

Religious ideas are also descriptions of reality. Subjectivity turns these descriptions into stories and we project them back into reality. Out of this comes various deities. Since subjectivity was not removed, our deities are conscious like we are. These deities are like the laws of nature except the deities are conscious and the laws are not.

I assume that honest descriptions of reality reflect some truth about reality no matter their source and no matter how small. However none of the descriptions are reality itself. They are not complete descriptions. What I presented above is itself a description of reality and people may disagree with it.

How far should someone with a predominantly religious perspective associate with something like the first law of thermodynamics which describes reality in terms of unconscious energy? To what extent should that person align with an unconscious description of reality? Furthermore, a law of nature can be viewed as an unconscious deity that is deterministic and valid throughout all space and time. To what extent should that person align with a deterministic law?

Given a physicalist perspective, one can ask similar questions about various religions. They do provide stories about subjectivity, but some of those stories contain conscious deities. Conscious deities and unconscious laws of nature conflict with each other.

Frank Hubeny

Posted 2017-12-19T13:16:25.627

Reputation: 18 742


The law has one implication for dualism, specifically Cartesian dualism. If the mind controls the body (as in causing one's arm to rise because one wants to raise it), then where does the energy come from in a physically closed universe of which the arm and the body are parts ? Raising one's arm needs energy but this cannot derive from a non-extended, non-temporal substance such as the mind. If it did, then the mind would be creating energy in addition to that existing in the physical world.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2017-12-19T13:16:25.627

Reputation: 34 276

The energy to raise the arm is taken from glucose in the muscle. It is <em>not</em> derived from the nerve impulse that causes the muscle to contract. So already on the purely physical level, that argument doesn't work. – celtschk – 2017-12-29T20:15:30.040

@celtschk. Many thanks for comment. I defer to your expertise in physics but am I wrong about the extra energy from nowhere, added to the physical world, that dualism involves ? Great to have this kind of exchange. Appreciated. – Geoffrey Thomas – 2017-12-29T21:07:03.107

2A non-physical mind might just modify the flow of physical energy. Think about what happens to the water if you open a tap: You don't affect the amount of water that exists, you only allow it to flow where it would not have flown otherwise. No water is added to reality or removed from it by opening the tap. – celtschk – 2017-12-29T21:46:27.137

@celtschk. I take your point but just how, I wonder, could a non-physical mind operate in this way ? Your examples are all the physical world. But you have set me thinking in a direction I would not otherwise have followed, and that is greatly appreciated. Best - GT – Geoffrey Thomas – 2017-12-29T23:14:51.870

1One obvious place where the mind could influence physical systems is through quantum randomness. According to the current theories of physics, for most quantum events there is no way to predict which of several possible results will occur. There are several competing interpretations of this, but at least some of them assume that there is some genuine physical randomness (that is, the actual state of the world changes randomly). If the mind could influence the probabilities of those events, it could manipulate physical systems that way. – celtschk – 2017-12-30T10:32:17.287

@celtschk. Thanks, yes, I see that : but does quantum randomness create energy in the sense of increasing the total energy in the universe ? – Geoffrey Thomas – 2017-12-30T10:54:54.663

I'm not too familiar with those interpretations (they are not my favourite ones), therefore I can't say for sure. But I think you can make those basic random events so that energy is conserved. If you want to learn more, maybe this Wikipedia page is a good starting point.

– celtschk – 2017-12-30T11:04:20.270

@celtschk. Thanks for reply. Much for me to follow up. Best : GT – Geoffrey Thomas – 2017-12-30T11:59:36.710

@celtschk Dean Radin has done work showing how concentration can create significant deviations in a laser going through a double slit. Here is a talk he gave on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRSBaq3vAeY Whether we are in a physically closed system or not or whether energy is conserved or not I suspect is more assumption than fact. A dualist or an idealist could interpret that differently than a physicalist.

– Frank Hubeny – 2017-12-30T20:14:36.417