Sep 05 2013

The Second Law of Thermodynamics – Again

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.

Creationists are befuddled by the concept that life on earth can become spontaneously more complex over time – because they simply do not understand evolution. They therefore make an argument from personal incredulity: how can such a thing possibly occur? I cannot imagine it, therefore it is not possible.

Such statements may be persuasive to the masses, but not to scientists and intellectuals, so they upgraded this argument to make it sound more sciencey by stating it in terms of the second law of thermodynamics. This law states that in a closed system entropy can only increase, not decrease. Stated another way, closed systems tend toward disorder (more probable states) rather than order (less probable states).

There are many common sense examples of this – you can’t unbreak a glass, and tornadoes do not whip through junkyards and make jumbo jets out of the scrap. It is easy to understand why these examples are true.

Of course, every scientist familiar with this creationist argument knows why it is fatally flawed. The earth is not a closed system, it receives energy from the sun. The total entropy of the earth-sun system is spontaneously increasing, and the local decrease in entropy of the earth’s biosphere therefore does not violate the second law.

Creationists are not content with the utter destruction of their argument and cannot move on. They are love-struck and stuck in a bad relationship, and just cannot get out. Typically creationists, when they are refuted, do not correct their thinking and improve their arguments. Rather, they search for new logical fallacies to make their poor logic and bad argument more subtle. They also like to make their bad arguments sound more impressive and scientific, but this is all window dressing.

A creationist mathematician, Granville Sewell, has written an article called Entropy and Evolution in which he tries desperately to resurrect the second law argument, with a lot of hand waving and confusion. However – he makes no new arguments in his article. I rebutted the exact same arguments twelve years ago in this article.  Sewell is trying to dress up these arguments in more sophisticated lingo, but the bad logic is exactly the same.

His argument boils down to this – while it is true that in an open system like the earth entropy may decrease, such a decrease in entropy will not happen spontaneously unless there is a mechanism for it to do so, so evolution still violates the second law.

Yep – that’s all he’s got, and he takes a long time to say it. You have probably already seen the gaping hole in his argument. There is a mechanism for life to decrease its entropy, it’s called evolution. Sewell tries to take care of this fatal problem with a little prestidigitation, slipping in the following statement as if it is axiomatic:

3b. Natural (unintelligent) forces do not do macroscopically describable things that are extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view.

Says who? That statement, in fact, is the entire debate, and not something he can just state. He in no way established that this is true. He weakly tried to by equating evolution with other “natural” forces like tornadoes. If a tornado cannot turn rubble into a house, then evolution cannot turn atoms into people.

Sewell calls the argument that a decrease in entropy on earth is offset by a larger increase in entropy in the sun the “compensation argument.” I don’t like this term, because it has a misleading connotation, one that he is specifically going for. He argues that the compensation argument is insufficient, and is similar to arguing that a tornado can turn rubble into a house because the tornado gets its energy from the sun.

Missing from Sewell’s entire article is the one concept that renders his argument invalid: The order of life on earth is not just compensated for by energy from the sun. Life uses solar energy (with some extremophile exceptions) to do work and reduce its own entropy (at least temporarily).

Life grows, changes, uses energy, and reproduces. Tornadoes are not alive, and don’t exhibit the suite of behaviors that living organisms do. When an acorn grows into an oak tree, that is a massive decrease in entropy, not just offset by the sun, but fueled by the sun. When bees make their hive, is that a natural process or intelligent one? I think it’s both, further I would argue that bee intelligence (like human intelligence) is itself an entirely natural phenomenon.

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

Sewell acknowledges that there needs to be a mechanism by which the open system uses energy from the outside to decrease its entropy, but he then fails to acknowledge that life is that mechanism. It does all the things that are necessary to cumulatively decrease its entropy, and we call that process evolution. Sewell tries to wave this all away with his tornado argument, leaping to the conclusion that unintelligent systems cannot decrease their entropy, but he never addresses the real issues. He never addresses the core objection to his argument, making his paper nothing but a long misdirection.

Other creationists have argued that only systems that already contain the information necessary to turn energy into complexity can do this. but this is just a naked assertion based on nothing. It is also irrelevant. Evolution is about the change in life over time. Once you have life, you have a system that can use energy to make and evolve information.

The origin of life from non-life is a separate issue. But here also, there are no problems with entropy. We simply have chemical evolution instead of the evolution of life. Chemicals react, and if they have a source of energy to fuel their reactions they can even decrease their entropy.

There is no step in the process of life developing and evolving into all the complexity we see today that violates the second law. Each step of the way the systems that we are talking about can use energy (mostly from the sun) to locally decrease entropy, and the mechanisms of life allow for this decrease to be cumulative. In fact evolution can be seen as a process of cumulative entropy decrease by an open system receiving and using energy.

This is not the first time, and it probably won’t be the last time,  I have to make this argument. Creationists won’t abandon a useful argument simply because it is entirely wrong.

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