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.

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