Sep 13 2013

More on Logic and Thermodynamics

Michael Egnor likes to play the game of Name That Logical Fallacy – or at least he likes to set up other people to play that game. He is a creationist neurosurgeon who has been blogging over at Evolution News & Views, an intelligent design propaganda outlet. In a recent post he attempts to reply to my post deconstructing a paper by Graville Sewell in which he claimed that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Egnor blows his first attempt at naming a fallacy.

Novella begins his critique of Sewell’s argument with the usual Darwinist ad hominem:

“Creationists will just not let go of an argument, no matter how many times it is pointed out to them that their argument is unsound. They simply find new twists of logic and distortions of science to resurrect their precious argument, clinging to it more tightly than Gollum held onto his ring.”

Calling it an “ad hominem” is a bit vague – is he saying my statement is an ad hominem logical fallacy, or just a personal attack? Turns out, it’s neither. The ad hominem logical fallacy has the structure of – “Person or Group A is wrong in their specific claim because they have this apparently negative attribute.” If I had said, “creationists are wrong because they are stupid,” that would have been a logical fallacy. Of course, I never did that.

An ad hominem attack is just calling someone stupid but not saying that they are therefore wrong. I did not do that either. I simply described typical creationist behavior, which I also documented by referring to a 12 year old article in which I debunked the same claims that Sewell is now making. (There are plenty of other examples.)  Ironically, Egnor provides further evidence with his rebuttal.

But let’s get to the meat of the exchange. Egnor fails to grasp my argument in its entirety, and instead tries to pick apart the pieces. He writes:

Sewell is right. Merely asserting that “the sun did it” is not adequate to explain a local reduction in entropy. If it were, one could explain the existence of anything– a building, a computer, a jet plane — just by asserting “the sun did it,” without invoking any other mechanism.

So the question that Novella fails to address is this: how can evolution be a sufficient mechanism to explain the dramatic reduction in entropy in living things? Bizarrely, Novella asserts:

“Life can use energy to decrease entropy — that one simple statement obliterates Sewell’s entire paper.”

Egnor is repeating Sewell’s straw man – that evolutionary biologists are simplistically saying “the sun did it” to wave off thermodynamic arguments. I directly addressed this point – Egnor only quotes my brief intro, and not my explanation, so let me lay it all out succinctly:

The second law of thermodynamics says that closed systems spontaneously tend toward greater entropy. Some creationists argue that evolution, which represents a spontaneous decrease in entropy, therefore violates the second law. (They are oversimplifying the concept of “entropy” but for the sake of argument, we’ll use the simple concept of “disorder”.)

Scientists then point out that the biosphere of the Earth is not a closed system, it received copious energy from the sun. In fact the total entropy of the Earth-sun system is increasing, but there is a local decrease in entropy on the Earth which does not violate the second law.

Creationists have then attempted to counter this by saying that simply providing energy from the sun is not sufficient, you need to also have a mechanism by which that energy is actively used to decrease entropy. I and others have then pointed out that there is such a mechanism. The sun does not just heat the Earth. Life uses solar energy to create food, grow, do work, reproduce and, in short, locally decrease its entropy. Non-living analogies (like tornadoes) are not valid.

That’s it – the creationist argument is vacuous and transparently absurd. If life can use solar energy to turn an acorn into a oak tree, then there is no second law argument to be made. Life uses energy from the sun to decrease entropy.

Sewell and now Egnor are trying some logical gymnastics to distract from this straightforward argument. First, by focusing on the mechanism by which energy is used they are departing from purely thermodynamic arguments. So – they begin by saying that the second law prohibits evolution, and when that is proven false they diverge to a non-thermodynamic argument (which I’ll get to shortly) but pretend they are still talking about thermodynamics.

What they turn the argument into is this – is evolution something that life does? Well, that’s the creationist argument, isn’t it.  It has absolutely nothing to do with the second law of thermodynamics, about balancing energy and entropy. It all comes back to evolution.

Egnor writes:

Which obviously begs the question. We are trying to explain how it is that life can reduce entropy. Novella’s assertion that life can use energy to do so merely assumes the thing — life — that we are trying to explain.

Wrong. It is a proven fact that life can reduce entropy. Plants make food, animals eat food, and they use energy from food to reduce entropy. We know that they do it and how they do it. This is not the question. It can be taken as an established premise – unless Egnor is arguing that plants growing from seeds is a mysterious process unexplained by science.

This is where trying to couch their argument in terms of entropy gets them tied into logical knots. Egnor cannot even acknowledge that life uses energy to decreases entropy – because that opens the door for life to also use that energy to evolve. What he is really trying to say above is that whether or not life spontaneously evolves is the question, not whether or not life uses energy to decrease entropy.

Egnor continues:

Darwinists offer evolution as that explanation. But evolution is a vague term — certainly Darwinists don’t mean that the fact that populations of organisms change with time is an explanation for life.

That’s incoherent, even for Egnor. Evolution is an explanation for how life changes over time, not the origin of life. It is not an explanation for how life uses energy to decrease entropy (we call that biology), rather it is one thing that happens as a consequence of life doing its thing.

To prove my point that this is all really about evolution, not entropy or thermodynamics, Egnor writes:

The Darwinist explanation for complex low-entropy life is natural selection. Natural selection is differential reproductive success.

How could differential reproductive success explain a reduction in entropy? First, it should be noted that differential reproductive success doesn’t create low entropy. It only preserves low entropy organisms that, as it happens, are more reproductively successful than their neighbors.

So how can low entropy states in living things arise in the first place, in order to be available for preservation by natural selection?

He’s back to the “selection is a negative process and does not create diversity” argument, just replacing “diversity” or “complexity” (when they want to abuse the concept of information) with “low entropy state” (when they are abusing thermodynamics). It’s the same fallacious argument, just disguised as a thermodynamic argument so they can pretend that evolution violates some law.

The argument remains a pathetic straw man because evolutionary biologists never argued that natural selection is the sole mechanism of evolution – so Egnor is misleading and incomplete when he says that natural selection is offered as the answer. Evolution requires at least two processes working in tandem – increasing diversity through recombination and mutation, and natural selection to preserve that diversity which is better adapted for survival and reproduction.

Creationists like to focus on one or the other at a time – natural selection does not create diversity, and mutations are random. Right – but mutations create diversity and natural selection is non-random (that is kind of the point).  I have likened this to arguing that cars cannot work because the steering wheel cannot propel the car and the engine cannot steer the car, focusing on just one aspect at a time as if that’s the whole car.

Once you have life, no matter how primitive, you have everything you need for evolution. All you need is something that can obtain and use energy to grow and maintain itself (at least temporarily) and reproduce with the possibility of variability. That’s life. There is no step in the process that leads to evolution that violated information theory or thermodynamics – organisms can obtain energy, they can turn that energy into biological fuel in order to carry out biochemical reactions and build structures. Organisms can grow. They can reproduce with variability. Not all of their offspring will equally survive, and variations that happen to confer some advantage are likely to be preferentially represented in future generations. Evolution is a consequence of all this, and does not violate any laws.

Next Egnor does deep down the rabbit hole of incoherence:

There would seem to be two ways. The first is law-like: matter can aggregate in low entropy ways in accordance with natural laws. Gravity draws clumps of interstellar rock into planets and solar systems. Quantum mechanics orders atoms and crystals.

But natural selection acting on random variation is surely not like this. Natural selection isn’t law-like at all.

What? Now he’s just making stuff up. What does “law like” mean, operationally, and how does this in any way relate to thermodynamics?


The second way that natural selection could reduce entropy is if it were intentional, in the philosophical sense that it could be like a mental construct imposed on nature. If natural selection could plan organisms, like an architect, it could locally reduce entropy.

Now who is begging the question – he is arguing that blind forces cannot cause evolution, you need “intention” like an “architect.” Why doesn’t he just say “intelligent designer” and be done with it.

Of course, he is just making this up also. This has not been established by any evidence or line of argument. He is trying to take as a premise the very controversial (and thoroughly debunked) conclusion of intelligent design. Again – none of this has anything directly to do with thermodynamics, it all just comes back to the, “you need a designer” argument.

What Sewell and Egnor have provided evidence for is just this – creationism is intellectually bankrupt. They cannot even keep their own arguments straight. They try desperately to wrap up their core assumptions into scientific jargon, but they don’t really understand the concepts they are dealing with.

Evolution does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. This does not mean that creationists will stop making that argument.

27 responses so far

27 Responses to “More on Logic and Thermodynamics”

  1. oldmanjenkinson 13 Sep 2013 at 9:27 am

    Another great article Dr. Novella. In my humble opinion the entire basis of their argument is bankrupt. They (creationists) base everything on Godidit. They try to “ground and pound” science so that it “fits” their hypothesis. Of course science does not work like this. They also appear to think evolutionary theory started and stopped with Darwin. I say this because they use Darwin as their point of argument. “The Darwinists” “Well Darwin” Darwin Darwin Darwin…. Darwin is to evolutionary theory what Freud is to Psychology/Psychiatry/Counseling. They (Freud/Darwin) attempted to explain things happening using observation and then codified it into an understandable “handbook.” But it didn’t stop there. As new data became available, their theory was flexible enough to be modified. And this continues today. To understand the counseling I provide, I need to have a historical perspective of Freud and Psychoanalysis. But that is as far as it goes. The foundation, the methods look similar to what he used, but our collective knowledge has changed by leaps and bounds. Of course for creationists, their knowledge stopped progressing with the bible. They offer no knew insights or knowledge to their “foundation.” Their folly lies with their premise. God created everything, therefore all evidence “must” show a creator was involved. I feel bad that because of this limited world view they are unable to see the majesty that is the natural world. They shackle the natural world with self imposed limits. With science we are able to look into things to find out the fundamental workings which gives us a better understanding of how and why something is the way it is. This is what separates us from the others animals on this planet. One of our ancestors looked up into the sky and asked “why?” At that time our knowledge base was limited. As the years have past to the present we still look to the sky and ask “why?” it is that we have a better understanding of the complexities of the universe. Of course because of our inquisitive nature, we will never stop asking “why?” On a final note, the scientists and researchers I have had the privilege to work with over the years have always impressed me the most not because of their knowledge, but because of their humility. They are able to say “I don’t know” but then follow with “Let’s find out why.” Creationists in my opinion seem to lack this capacity.

  2. The Other John Mcon 13 Sep 2013 at 9:45 am

    Just ask them point blank: “CAN/DOES LIFE REDUCE ENTROPY?” If they say yes, they have conceded their own point. If no, they are as high as a kite.

  3. pdeboeron 13 Sep 2013 at 9:53 am

    Not only is life (the acorn turning into the oak tree) a decrease in entropy, but so is reproduction. An oak tree turning into several.

  4. Skepticoon 13 Sep 2013 at 11:04 am

    Egnor is really terrible at constructing logical arguments, and especially does not understand logical fallacies. For example, see how he completely mangles the argument from ignorance fallacy in a reply to you over four years ago. It is cute though to see woos try to use the tools of critical thinking. It’s like he wants to be all grown up and quote logical fallacies just like a real skeptic.

  5. ccbowerson 13 Sep 2013 at 11:30 am

    “An ad hominem attack is just calling someone stupid but not saying that they are therefore wrong. ”

    In other words an ad hominem logical fallacy must be a non sequitur. If there is an argument with a logical connection to the negative attribute then it is not a fallacy.

    I think the reason why informal logical fallacies are hard for people to properly identify is that they are determined by the content of the argument, and not by the structure of the argument alone (unlike formal logical fallacies which are always wrong regardless of content – they are structurally invalid).

  6. ConspicuousCarlon 13 Sep 2013 at 12:18 pm

    What a pair of twits (To be clear, I am calling them twits BECAUSE they are wrong. I am not saying they are wrong because they are twits.). Even if you assume that God created the entire universe and humans in their current form, living things can STILL decrease entropy by consuming energy and performing work. Or do Sewell and Egnor think that all of chemistry is an illusion and God is constantly manipulating every single particle for every single molecule in every single reaction?

  7. jasonnybergon 13 Sep 2013 at 12:48 pm

    I never developed wisdom teeth. #MyMutation— Jason Nyberg (@jasonnyberg) September 13, 2013

  8. a_haworthrobertson 13 Sep 2013 at 2:15 pm

    I have read many articles by young Earth creationists and they are seldom as calm and matter of fact as Dr Novella in this new article.

  9. sonicon 13 Sep 2013 at 2:19 pm

    To make this somewhat farcical– I’m not sure Egnor is even right about what Sewell is saying.
    I think Sewell really does believe he is onto something– but he hasn’t made whatever point he thinks there is to be made– that’s clear.

    Paul Graham has a ‘hierarchy of disagreement’ where he defines-
    Name calling– sounds something like, ‘you are an ass hat’
    Ad Hominem– ‘attacks the characteristics or authority of the writer without addressing the substance of the argument.’

    I would think the use of the term ‘creationist’ could be considered ad hominem if used in certain circles, just as the use of the word ‘atheist’ or ‘communist’ or ‘nutjob’ or… (oh there are so many ways people label each other to marginalize) … is in other circles.

    Anyway- when I see the person making the argument labeled in a way that has nothing to do with the argument presented, I think it is an attempt to undermine the author and therefore prepare me to refuse the argument. But the arguments should be able to stand on their own… (what Egnor believes about god really doesn’t effect the nature of the argument made by another person– and Sewell’s beliefs really don’t matter, either. The math is good or it isn’t.)

    Question– would the actual argument about evolution and the second law be different if all reference to ‘creationism or creationist or atheist or Darwinist’ was left out?
    If so, what do those terms actually convey?

    Perhaps a bit borderline–

  10. Steven Novellaon 13 Sep 2013 at 2:44 pm


    I am writing not just about one individual argument or point, but exposing a cultural phenomenon – a funded and organized anti-science campaign focused around undermining the teaching of evolution. It has a certain intellectual history that should not be forgotten, and represents an important context for the individual claim.

  11. BillyJoe7on 13 Sep 2013 at 5:27 pm


    “would the actual argument about evolution and the second law be different if all reference to…creationist or atheist or Darwinist’ was left out?”

    But it is clear that evolution has filled most of the gaps of the god hypothesis.
    Therefore it is a threat to creationist ideology and lends support to the atheist outlook.
    That is undeniable and can’t simply be shoved under the carpet of accomodationism.
    Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

  12. locutusbrgon 13 Sep 2013 at 8:29 pm

    You do a great job of taking this down sequentially. I understand the SLT, yet they are adept at confusing the issue. All creationist arguments live on obfuscation. Really unashamed poor arguments. The sun does not add energy to the system, I mean really. So every spring leaves grow on trees by magic or all powerful super-being. I suppose that is no more delusional than the bible is the factual literal truth historically. My favorite part of these arguments is how they approve scientific method when they they want and dismiss it when they don’t. This is similar to you saying that evolution is true because of Genesis 6 in the bible.

  13. Emma Pootson 14 Sep 2013 at 11:54 am

    Although the ‘ argumentum ad hominem’ is conventionally described as a fallacy, circumstances exist under which it may be considered a reasonable argument. When an ad hominem attack on a person is substituted for a response to an argument it is a fallacy. But, when it asserts that the person is an untrustworthy source for the claim or that the person has some prejudice or vested interest that prevents them from being an impartial source then it is not fallacious. An ad hominem may be a fallacious or a valid argument, depending on the situation and context.

  14. BillyJoe7on 14 Sep 2013 at 4:55 pm


    “When an ad hominem attack on a person is substituted for a response to an argument it is a fallacy”

    I’d go a little further…
    An ad hominem attack is a fallacy when it is used to discredit that person’s argument which is never actually addressed.

    Also “on a person” is redundant (:

  15. tmac57on 14 Sep 2013 at 8:55 pm

    BillyJoe7- Couldn’t an attack on an ‘idea’ that is strictly name calling, without addressing the substance of the idea be considered an ad hominem fallacy even though it is not “on a person”?

    Example: Homeopathy is a crock of sh*t !!!

    No person involved,no substantive criticism. I’m not sure that the ‘to the man/person’ interpretation needs to taken literally to invoke a fallacious argument.

    BTW, homeopathy is a crock 😉

  16. BillyJoe7on 14 Sep 2013 at 11:39 pm

    “ad hominem” is Latin for “against the man” or, in non-sexist language, “against the person”.

  17. Yehouda Harpazon 16 Sep 2013 at 7:51 am

    “The sun does not just heat the Earth. Life uses solar energy to create food, grow, do work, reproduce and, in short, locally decrease its entropy. Non-living analogies (like tornadoes) are not valid.”

    That is incomplete.

    The reason that the energy from the Sun reduces the entropy of Earth is that it comes in as
    low-entropy radiation (short wave length), and comes out as higher entropy radiation (long wave length). As a result, the total energy on Earth is more or less fixed, but the entropy goes down. Earth also spontaneously increases entropy (like any other system), but whether the spontaneous increase fully compensates for the balance of energy depends on details. On the surface of Earth it didn’t.

    Life can generate low-entropy structures because it uses low-entropy energy.

  18. BillyJoe7on 16 Sep 2013 at 9:19 am


    You are entirely correct.
    However, your detail is also entirely superfluous to the requirements of SN’s article.
    Likewise I could point out, in response to your comment, that the total energy of the Earth is actually increasing but that would also be entirely irrelevant to the point you were making.

  19. sonicon 16 Sep 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Dr. N.-
    Yes- I see. You are right- there is a cultural phenomena.

    But I’m suggesting there is a bigger picture– that is all the things we associate with ‘denial’ come from ‘advocacy’.

    If I’m right, then one should be able to find the actions of ‘creationists’ (misrepresenting the other side, repeating poor arguments, ignoring contrary data…) in ‘advocates’.

    Take an example of Dawkins– an advocate for atheism. He misrepresents the other side, repeats poor arguments, ignores contrary data– exactly what the ‘creationists’ do.

    And we could get into republicans and democrats and those for gun control and those against, and any other situation where advocates face off.

    Oh, and that includes the ‘advocates for Darwinism’.

    I am not against advocacy. I think a person making an argument for something stupid is wonderful– it can really display how stupid the thing being argued for is.

    But the more I look the more I realize that it is important to figure out who are the advocates and what are they advocating because advocates demonstrate similar traits- that is they make the best case they can for the position they hold dear.

    And I’m the same way. And I’m thinking I’m most delusional when I don’t recognize it.

    My 2 cents.

  20. BillyJoe7on 17 Sep 2013 at 6:22 am


    “But I’m suggesting there is a bigger picture– that is all the things we associate with ‘denial’ come from ‘advocacy’”

    How about advocating for the truth.
    Hkw about looking at all the information and the sources of this information, assessing all the evidence, coming to a conclusion based on the evidence, and advocating for the truth based on those conclusions.
    How about that?

    “Take an example of Dawkins– an advocate for atheism. He misrepresents the other side, repeats poor arguments, ignores contrary data– exactly what the ‘creationists’ do.”

    Please put some meat on your naked bones.

    “Oh, and that includes the ‘advocates for Darwinism’”

    Oh does it just.
    You claim you’re not a creationist, yet you continually quote creationists in support of your views, and you continually use creationist language in your disparagement of modern evolutionary theory.

    “I think a person making an argument for something stupid is wonderful– it can really display how stupid the thing being argued for is”

    The irony.

  21. SimonWon 20 Sep 2013 at 8:26 pm

    But Dr Novella, if the creationists were to put their intellectual house in order, this would be a local decrease in entropy caused by living beings thus proving themselves wrong.

    Tornadoes and other meteorological phenomena are definitely valid. I did and undergraduate paper in the thermodynamics of self organizing systems before working for the Meteorological office as a scientist. Convections rolls are the first area of study in self organizing systems, and the analogous cycle is the earth’s Hadley cell, Ferrell Cell, and polar cell system. These cells transport heat from bottom to top, and from equator to pole whilst creating order (like trade winds) in the atmosphere. There is thus a localized decrease in entropy whilst the system overall transports heat more efficiently than by conduction alone, thus the total entropy production in the larger system (earth-sun) increases (as it must in classical thermodynamics).

    The paper examined the question of whether minimum rate of entropy production could be seen as some sort of guiding principle (which if true would I think be final and convincing evidence for an intelligence behind nature, the Universe unwinding at the slowest possible rate) but it turns out minimum entropy production is just a figment the classical thermodynamic systems in equilibrium and it is all more complicated than that as you push away from equilibrium into non-linear systems.

    I remain somewhat skeptical of the fundamental nature of some of the laws of thermodynamics. Once you’ve been exposed to negative temperatures and other such oddities, you realize that the laws apply because of the conditions that prevail (statistical mechanics), and there are special situations where things aren’t quite as you might expect (lasers and other cool things). These oddities might be especially relevant at say a singularity, and other interesting moments in the evolution of the Universe. Thus I live in hope of a Maxwell demon, or other magic device, but I’m not terribly optimistic of getting one any time soon.

  22. SimonWon 20 Sep 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Hey it dropped my (sic) after “cool things” – the humour was intended.

  23. Wayneon 21 Sep 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Egnor is challenging you Steve:

  24. BillyJoe7on 21 Sep 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Egnor wants an explanation for how life/evolution decreases entropy in terms of the following:

    1) The laws of physics.
    2) Teleology.

    He thinks life/evolution cannot be explained in terms of the laws of physics and that we will require teleology as well.
    There are two problems here for Egnor:

    1) Life/evolution CAN be explained in terms of the laws of physics/chemistry/physiology/biology
    2) Teleology is an hypothesis with NO supporting evidence.

    Of course he includes teleology for the specific purpose of introducing his particular version of the numerous gods that have littered human history.

  25. BillyJoe7on 21 Sep 2013 at 4:51 pm

    The other problem for Egnor is that SN has already answered this question.
    So he is following the strategy typical of all deniers:

    1) Ask a question.
    2) Ignore the answer.
    3) Ask the same question again.

  26. Nitpickingon 21 Sep 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Coming in late, Steve, but I have a “Thus I refute it!” answer to the Second Law argument of Creationists:

    “Miller-Urey Experiment”

    Take simple chemicals, apply energy, get sugars and amino acids.


  27. tmac57on 22 Sep 2013 at 10:15 am

    sonic- It looks to me like your last comment about advocacy was just a long winded way of saying that we all have our biases.
    That is not exactly ‘breaking news’ in the skeptical world now is it?

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.