Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Cultural Assimilation: It is the Zeroth Law
There are several laws of thermodynamics, all of which have applications across the various scientific fields. These laws also have deep philosophical implications, with the second law leading the charge in this regard. I have already written two articles describing the first law (energy balance). I will soon cover the depths of the second law, but I feel the need to discuss the most fundamental law beforehand. Strangely enough, there is a law that comes before the first law.
The zeroth law of thermodynamics states that if two systems are in thermal equilibrium with an external system, then they are also in thermal equilibrium with one another. Thermal equilibrium means that heat is not being exchanged between two systems. When two systems having different temperatures come into contact with one another, they will inevitably experience heat transfer. Once thermal conduction is complete, the collective system will arrive in thermal equilibrium.
A natural offshoot of the zeroth law is that if two surfaces baring different temperatures should come into contact, they will eventually both arrive at a common temperature, which lies somewhere between the two initial ones. Put mathematically, if surface A with temp A presses up against surface B with temp B, both surfaces A and B will have temp C after some time such that temp A<C<B. In a philosophical sense, the two systems will rub off on one another, or compromise, and find themselves altered, and after some time, identical, from a thermal energy standpoint.
The situation is analogous to what happens when two different cultures co-exist in a given environment. When cultures mix in a defined space, all cultures involved tend to experience change as a result. Non-Christians in North America, for example, are in the relative minority, and must endure Christmas music whenever shopping in December. In the province of Quebec, the language of majority is French, and Anglophones who live there are certainly impacted by the cultural differences associated with the language differences.
In the end, a middle ground tends to be forged across cultures. In Quebec, for example, businesses are allowed to have English signs, just as long as they have a smaller font size than the French ones. Out-of-towners may think this is a joke, but there is actually a defined ratio between French to English font-size that is enforced. As a resident of the province, it can sometimes feel like a mild dictatorship.
When two different surfaces come into contact, the temperature that is agreed upon is not necessarily half way in between the two initial ones. If one surface belongs to a significantly larger body, the final temperature that is agreed upon will be closer to it than the small body that is causing the change. In Star Wars, when a small ship strikes the death star, the death star is affected, but barely. It is the same in society. The larger culture tends to bend the smaller ones. They may experience some change, but the smaller ones risk being eaten.
The big fear among cultures, particularly minority cultures, is assimilation. Cultural assimilation implies the death of a culture, as its original life force would be lost. Smaller religious groups, like Judaism, fear nothing more than dying out, being absorbed over time by more massive religions. This is one reason why intermarriage is frowned upon by religious communities (particularly smaller ones).
The point that is not appreciated by religious leaders is that the cultural differences across different religions can make the human race collectively stronger. It is the lack of acceptance throughout divided nations that threatens to divide it further. Intolerance is the match that lights cultural differences aflame, and leads to a blaze of hate, which in a place like Israel, has burned for decades.
When cultures clash in a violent way, we can think of it as an act of heat transfer – two systems in search of thermal equilibrium. Beware: a permanent state of equilibrium is a dangerous thing to search for, because it is our differences that define us. They keep things fresh, offering different perspectives. If one culture were to overtake all others, there would be no culture left. Total assimilation is a bad thing. Like the zeroth law says, identical temperatures do not exchange heat. Similarly, commonality across all cultures would end the exchange of ideas, and in turn, slow progress.
It gets much worse. The zeroth law implies that the universe would die out eventually were it not expanding quickly enough. Were the universe to exist in a defined, enclosed space, all of the matter it contains would arrive at the same temperature sooner or later . This would certainly represent the end of life in the universe, as without temperature gradients, the chemical and physical reactions that support life could no longer occur (not to mention the fact that the average temperature in the universe is currently around -270 degrees Celsius). A thermodynamically bland universe is the death of the universe, and a bland society represents societal death. Cultural differences are the spice of life.
It seems that sharing land will always require that compromises be made. It would be nice though, if the mode in which these inevitable conflicts are resolved were respectful. Think of the harmony of the zeroth law, as when a father warms his daughter’s hands by covering them with his own. The skin in contact does not ask if it is fair to be exchanging heat. It does not complain. It simply follows the law. People, on the other hand, are more complicated than the cells of which they are made – but that does not mean that they cannot learn from them.