Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#25 - Entropy Arguments on Behalf of the Existence of a Creator

American Heathen:  aired: 22 December 2012

One requirement for becoming a physical scientist is being familiar with the physical laws of nature.  There are many such, of course, but one of the more interesting ones is the so-called 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and its related concept, entropy.  I wrote a semi-facetious essay on entropy and the 2nd Law here.

In very simple terms, the 2nd Law says that order in the universe never increases.  In order to increase order, you must expend energy extracted from some source, and if you do so, then although you may decrease the entropy locally, if you include your energy source in the calculation, the complete system must experience an increase of entropy.  You might find this concept more understandable than you might think – consider the order you impose on your home:  items are put in their proper locations, the bed is made neatly, pictures hang on the walls, etc.  But living in your home causes things to fall and break, things neatly stored away are used and become more disordered.  The only way to fix things is to do work to repair things and put them back properly, which uses energy (not just yours, either – it took energy to make the glue you used to repair your heirloom plate that fell off the shelf, more energy to make its container, more energy to deliver it to the store from which you bought it, etc.).  You can fix things that become disordered, but overall, the energy you expend as you do so causes entropy to increase overall, unless you can achieve 100% thermodynamic efficiency in using that energy.  At 100% efficiency, the global entropy would not change at all.   Anything less than that means increasing entropy.  No real-world use of energy is ever 100% efficient – the energy consumed that does no work only serves to increase entropy.  It’s the Law!

What does this have to do with the existence of a creator?  The creationists who might actually know a little about physics (evidently, just enough to misunderstand it!) like to make arguments similar to the following.  They ask, “How could life begin spontaneously on the Earth?”  In their view, it’s impossible for a mixture of simple organic compounds (postulated to be present before life developed, presumably suspended within the oceans) to assemble spontaneously to create the exquisitely complex process we know as DNA-based lifeforms.  By one of their favorite analogies, if we put the raw materials for a Rolex watch into a jar, they will never spontaneously assemble themselves into a Rolex.  Therefore, there must have been a creator, just as the raw materials for a watch must be combined by humans to make a Rolex.  The finely-tuned order that is DNA-based life could not possibly have have developed on its own, they say.  This is an unmistakable signature of the creator, according to this argument, and so constitutes evidence for the existence of a creator, they assert.  Along the way, they cleverly use the 2nd Law to frame an argument against the very science that the 2nd Law represents! 

Obviously, I believe this line of reasoning to be invalid.  Creationists apparently are unaware of the large number of self-organizing inorganic processes under the laws of nature.  Clouds of dust and gas drifting in space become stars.  Individual stars become incorporated into galaxies. Complex weather systems develop without any intervention on the part of any humans.  The beauty of the laws of nature developed by science is that they explain precisely and in detail just how many physical processes become self-organizing.  All the physical processes we see around us are guided by physical laws to take on the forms we observe, and science has allowed us to understand many of them.

The apparent violation of the 2nd Law by the development of life on Earth is simply a misunderstanding of that 2nd Law by the creationists.  The myriad of self-organizing processes I’ve mentioned necessarily consume energy from some source outside themselves as they develop, and in the real universe, that energy consumption is not 100% efficient.  Overall, there still is a net increase of entropy, despite the apparent decrease associated with a self-organizing process.

Biological science has yet to puzzle out the details of how life developed on our Earth.  It’s possible that at some future date, we may solve that mystery.  It’s also possible we may never know for certain the details of that ancient event.  But the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and the concept of an ever-increasing entropy in the universe is no barrier to the spontaneous development of DNA-base life.  There’s no need to postulate a supernatural creator to fill the “development of life on Earth” gap in our scientific understanding.

Any scientific idea that has yet to be validated by means of evidence is called “speculation” but the big difference between scientific speculation and a faith-based belief in a supernatural deity is that scientific ideas must at least satisfy the laws of nature as we know them.  No scientific speculation that violates known physical laws is possible unless it proposes to change those laws in a logical way (like Einstein’s Relativity Hypothesis, which has been validated countless times after it was proposed).  On the other hand, a proposed supernatural deity as the creator of life is, by definition, completely outside those physical laws, and therefore is thoroughly and totally unscientific.  In effect, the creationists believe their deity can violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics at will.  Hence, the “creator” hypothesis is necessarily independent of evidence, and indeed, no substantive evidence supports it.  Their attempt to use the 2nd Law to show that scientific ideas about the process of creating life must violate the 2nd Law cannot be a scientifically valid argument.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.