Eulogy from a Physicist and the Power of Self-Delusion

My daughter recently went to a funeral for a teenage girl who tragically died from meningitis. Also, tragically from my perspective, her family is part of the Unitarian Universalist faith. As such, they don’t believe in a personal God, let alone anything to do with Christianity. The father of the dead girl read a eulogy from a physicist at the service, and it would be hard to find a better example of the power of sinful human self-delusion.

Remember what sin is, and is not. It is not primarily an outward action or inward thought measured against a moral code. What it is, is alienation from a holy God whose nature demands justice against sin. It’s not unlike a nation or state demanding obedience to its laws, and requiring punishment for infractions. Law breaking must be punished or civilization breaks down. Reality is fundamentally moral.

In our fallen state we, like Adam and Eve, do everything we can to hide from God. His wrath against sin must be appeased, and we want nothing to do with it. The nature of sin revealed to us in Genesis 3 is that we, buying into Satan’s temptation, want to “be like God.” We are by nature usurpers, as Paul says, God’s enemies. Elsewhere he declares, “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” If you think this is just a Paul thing read the Old Testament and you’ll see where he got his understanding of human nature.

What has all this to do with a eulogy and self-delusion? Let’s read the eulogy by a physicist named Aaron Freeman:

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.

This is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. How comforting it must be to grieving parents to know their dead child is energy, particles, and photons. That although their child’s particles are “just less orderly,” they are still around.

I could go in many different ways with this “eulogy,”  but notice one thing that speaks to the delusion of my title. Mr. Freeman asserts that the parents if they rely on physics don’t need “faith.” The absurdity of such a statement is almost inconceivable, if not for the power of spiritual blindness that envelopes the fallen, sinful human heart. Sinful man would rather do anything, including go to the heights of logical absurdity, than submit to his Creator. All human beings live by faith, even physicists (I spend a good number of words proving this in my book). The assumption behind the assertion (and all assertions are informed by assumptions) is that just because we can empirically prove that photons and particles and energy exist, one doesn’t need faith. To not put too fine a point on it, that’s balderdash!

One other thing stood out when my daughter first read this to me. Mr. Freeman seems to think that personhood is irrelevant. That we are persons isn’t the important thing about existence; the concept of personhood isn’t what gives life and lives their value. No, what gives life it’s value, he implies, is that we are energy, particles, and photons. I say to my wife all the time, I love your energy, particles, and photons! We all know, intuitively, that we are more than the sum of our physical parts. We are persons living in a world filled with persons! And we are persons precisely because we are made in God’s image and derive our personhood from him.