Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Why does the centre hold?

I just posted this to the LSN blog.

I may be totally off base here, not (I reiterate) being a science person myself. But aren't the two ideas, entropy and materialist Darwinian evolution, fundamentally in conflict?


Hey, has anyone else thought of this?

You know entropy? The tendency of things in the universe to fall apart, to dissipate energy, rather than come together in complex systems?

It's this: the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
No process is possible whose sole result is the transfer of heat from a body of lower temperature to a body of higher temperature.

In an isolated system, heat cannot flow spontaneously from cold regions to hot regions without external work being performed on the system. Entropy is a measure of the amount of energy in a physical system not available to do work, that gets dissipated in the working of the system. As a physical system becomes more disordered, and its energy becomes more evenly distributed, that energy becomes less able to do work.

This means that the entropy of an isolated system (a system that has nothing acting on it from the outside) can, at best, remain the same and will increase for most systems. Thus, the overall disorder of an isolated system must increase.

This is one of those universal laws of physics, the basic units of order that the universe is based on. For us non-science people, it can be compared with a statement like, "You cannot be both in the room and not in the room at the same time and in the same way".

I'm not a scientist, and I only made it as far as high school physics, but I remember a fair bit of it due to years of reading sci-fi novels (by real science-y people, like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Azimov, not the dragons-and-teenage-girl kind). So I have a question for the evolution people (the science-y kind, not the thump-the-Christians-over-the-head-with-their-own-Bibles kind).

If there's entropy, and entropy means that systems don't spontaneously become more complex but instead tend to fall apart, become less complex and eventually dissipate entirely, why do the evolution people propose that things “evolve”? Evolutionists not only propose that living things, very complex systems, spontaneously change over long periods of time, but that they tend to become more complex. Phytoplankton “gave rise” to plants. Single-cell organisms “moved on” to become multicellular autotrophs.

Entropy is an amazingly complex idea and I have nothing like the background I would need to start understanding it as it is defined in classical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics.

But the concept isn't that difficult to get. It can be observed:

Unless you apply some effort to them, simple systems do not spontaneously become more complex systems.

Both simple and complex systems (a stack of bricks and a mote of phytoplankton photosynthesising in the sea) tend to break down over time.

Systems that convert mass to energy, lose a bunch of the energy in the process.

Ultimately, the system breaks down entirely and its component bits dissipate.

In cosmology, entropy is described as a hypothetical tendency for the universe to attain a state of maximum homogeneity in which all matter is at a uniform temperature. This is called “heat death” in which no more energy is exchanged.

Things fall apart, as the poet said, the centre does not hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

I have physics friends back in British Columbia who refer to doing housework, fixing a car, paying bills, the general efforts one puts in to keep one's life going, as "fighting entropy". (Which goes to show that even strict materialist atheists need to apply some kind of cosmological meaning to daily life.)

I was fighting entropy in my kitchen earlier today, and the thought popped in there, "If complex systems only tend to fall apart when left on their own instead of spontaneously coming together in more complex systems - if there's entropy, in other words - how can evolution be true?"

I mean, the kind of evolution that is spontaneous, totally random, has no external force working on it. The strict God-is-out-of-bounds, Darwinian kind.

How can the less complex system just spontaneously become a more complex system? How can we have gone from inanimate matter, to phytoplankton to giant lizards? How can we have gone, spontaneously, from Homo Habilis to Homo Sapiens, without any external force acting on the system?

How, in fact, could life have come into existence at all from inanimate matter?

A while ago Pope Benedict addressed the atheists with this question: "Why does anything exist?" Why is there something instead of nothing? And, if there was nothing before, how did something come from nothing? Professor Stephen Hawking is said to have answered this by saying, in essence, "Before the something, there was another something”. Things exist because they exist; a banal response which only means that he has not looked back far enough in the chain of causality. If things exist now, but didn't before, where did they come from? To say they simply came from other things just ignores the question.

Cosmologists agree that "the universe," material existence, was not always here. In fact, they have even put a birthdate on the universe, about 13.7 billion years.

There was a time when something was not. But I have noticed something about cosmologists and physicists in general. Many of them are radical materialists, and seem incapable of grasping the existence of anything that is real, but exists outside of time and space. It seems like a kind of block in their imaginations. They can't seem to conceive of things that are real but not material.

But the non-material Real is actually necessary, logically, for the existence of (and certainly for the development into complexity of) the material universe.

Without an Actor doing things to the material universe from the outside, an outside force, the laws of physics say that things could not be. Systems could not have simply popped into existence from nothing on their own or become more complex over time.

Without God, their explanations of Where Things Come From are ultimately going to be reduced to absurd tautologies.


Mark S. Abeln said...

Life seems to go against entropy, but there is a huge trade-off: the sun generates enormous amounts of entropy converting hydrogen to helium. Nature, showing a complete disregard for energy conservation, uses only an insignificant amount of this energy to grow plant life on earth.

So we have less entropy here, but a lot more over there.

Zach said...

I recall reading *cough* a decade or two ago *cough* some Genuine Science Guys in Scientific American who asked the same question, and came up with nearly the same answer Mark explains above - that is, life on Earth is essentially surfing a huge wave of energy/entropy blasting out from the sun, and our little local bubble of order is OK, because the entropy of the entire system is increasing.

But yes, certainly at a surface level they would appear to be in conflict. And I'm not vouching for the correctness of the Science Guys™ reconciliation; I'm just noting that the apparent contradiction has been noticed for some time.


Anonymous said...

The Aristasians have a lot to say about this. I think it really is a blind spot, a kind of deep stupidity, and I find it pretty weird when people think about this stuff and don't at least become Buddhists. - Karen

Don Jindra said...

It poses no problem whatsoever. If it did we would have no stars, planets, crystals or snow.

Havoc Jack said...

A bit of discussion of the stat mech.

If you roll five dice, what's the chance of getting a Yahtzee on a single roll? About 1 in 1300, if I remember the figure right. I've seen it happen though, I roll a lot of dice. Statistical mechanics is based on the notion that, as you have a very large number of states, you're going to get something in the middle, average bulk rather than something on the end. Since your physicist is generally dealing with something like 10^23 atoms at once, this tends to work.

But the ends of the bell curve are still there. We have seven thousand reasons not to expect five sixes to turn up on the dice, but every so often it happens. So we could expect to see a spontaneous reversal of entropy (order from nothing) at the occasional, extraordinarily rare juncture. If you'll recall, Intelligent Design was largely an argument that the improbabilities are just too high. There are only so many molecules in a universe that's only 13.7 billion years old, which only gives rise to some number of potential states which still makes it unlikely for a spontaneous flagellum to develop.

Against that, the materialists push the anthropogenic principle. It's necessary for the existence of sentient beings who can see such a thing existing, so we shouldn't be surprised to see it exist. It might be a one in a million shot, but if it didn't happen we wouldn't have anyone to complain about the odds.

Like everything, it comes down to faith. If you're willing to believe in the existence of God, the Razor says God created the universe. If your worldview demands that you deny a creator that you're responsible to, then Occam suddenly favors the long odds.


Havoc Jack said...

...that all applies if you're talking about outcomes that have no natural bias. If a system does, then we shouldn't be surprised if the results do exhibit order. A simple experiment: I take a bowl, and a marble. I set the marble at any point in the bowl, and wait for it to stop moving. It always ends up in the center. That isn't a violation of thermodynamics.

On the topic at hand, once you get past certain hurdles, there are mechanistic arguments for how one thing proceeds from another. Specifically, natural selection as a mechanism for getting elephants out of mice, or what have you. Again, how plausible these explanations are is determined by the user, and what they'd prefer to believe.


hyoomik said...

The question of entropy vs. evolution is not a metaphysical one, but I have mulled it for a long time. I think they can be reconciled. Entropy is a law of thermodynamics, so it is a statistical law about the big picture and leaves out the details. Evolution is all about details. A situation of increasing entropy on the large scale can correspond to more finely tuned things on a small scale. If there were only a big hot area and a big cold area, nothing could live in the extremes.
Here is an other way to put it. The entropy of luke warm air full of white noise, and the entropy of the same air with Mozart music is the same in terms of thermodynamics. But the fine modulations of music would be impossible in air moved by a violent explosion (a paradigmatic anti-entropy situation).
Darwin was a very clever observer, but did not produce hard science that could be expressed in numbers and so verified. His concepts of species are vague and contradictory. Mendel on the other hand, produced hard quantifiable science. You could take Darwin out of modern biology and the whole thing would stand, but you could not remove Mendel.
(verification word: sorda)

Anonymous said...

...being a science person myself. But aren't the two ideas, entropy...

"But" is a coordinating conjunction; it connects parts of a sentence. While people, who think they are more clever than they truly are, tend to think it is acceptable to begin a sentence with this word, the reality is that the word is superfluous. If you would like two sentences for that paragraph, just begin the second one with "Aren't".

The English Language

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Gosh, thank you English Language! I never realised that my little blog was getting such prestigious readers.

I'm chuffed.

Mike Cliffson said...

(Can't comment at LSn don't know why):
Quite a big question!
1 If you can wade thru Theilhard de Chardin( a scientist, and very much a J of the old school)'s books my taste but not everyone's , he deals more than once with this very question- bear in mind that as a scientist he was foremost a practicing field paleontolgist,in china hwen the japanese invasion led to nearly 100% losses of his finds I believe, as regards his theoretical leanings he was a lamarkian, not a darwininian, let alone a neodarwinian, evolutionist, and that his superiors stopped him publishing work in his lifetime which they rightly feared might lead the weak astray, it did, and thirdly he was trying to set out where the then available evidence (preWWII) led eschewing his christianity for argument's sake, however happy he should be that that should be where it got him. "Mystical pantheist nutjob" has been said of him.

2. well worth following up all the links and books , and even as a post in itself:


A few quotes:
"About Granville Sewell's Paper

There's an old unsophisticated argument against Darwinian evolution that goes something like this: The second law of thermodynamics holds that entropy/disorder always increases. Darwinian evolution holds that entropy/disorder has decreased. Therefore, Darwinian evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Aside from the fact that Darwinian evolution doesn't always require an 'increase in order,' the problem with the argument, of course, is that there's more to the second law than the mere claim that entropy/disorder always increases. Entropy/disorder can decrease under certain circumstances when energy is input from outside the system. Thus, the second law actually holds that thermodynamic entropy/disorder will increase in a closed system. Since the Earth is not a closed system--for example it receives light and other energy from the Sun--the second law of thermodynamics is not a valid reason that Darwinian evolution is false. If Darwinian evolution is false, it has to do with something other than the second law of thermodynamics."

" Dembski formulated a stronger argument which he calls the "fourth law of thermodynamics," or a law of conservation of information."
" Sewell accepts as true the observation that entropy/disorder can decrease when energy is input from outside the system--but he argues that this fact is only relevant when that which is being inputted tends to create the type of order we're seeking to increase.

Natural forces may turn a spaceship into a pile of rubble, but not vice-versa--not because the exact arrangement of atoms in a given spaceship is more improbable than the exact arrangement of atoms in a given pile of rubble, but because (whether the Earth receives energy from the Sun or not) there are very few arrangements of atoms which would be able to fly to the moon and return safely, and very many which could not. The reader familiar with William Dembski's "specified complexity" concept [Dembski 2006], will recognize similarities to the argument here: natural forces do not do things which are "specified" (macroscopically describable) and "complex" (extremely improbable). Both are just attempts to state in more "scientific" terms what is already obvious to the layman, that unintelligent forces cannot do intelligent things.

(Granville Sewell, In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design, p. 72 (Discovery Institute Press, 2010).)"

· I ll save my own thoughts.

hyoomik said...

Obviously the English Language is simultaneously evolving and teetering on the verge of entropy. It is asked -- "The tendency of things in the universe to fall apart, to dissipate energy, rather than come together in complex systems? " But seriously. Punctuation tells how to make pregnant pauses when reading out loud. Where to raise the voice. We could do without it if we did as in Latin. Put a word like "autem" or "enim" close to the beginning of a sentence.
(verification word "caetan")

Date the Fossils Not the Rocks said...

Before there is any more discussion/debate about entropy I have a few suggested links that should bring everyone back down to earth. They are www.dinosaurc14ages.com http://www.sedimentology.fr/ http://www.dinosaursandman.com/ www.omniology.com. After reviewing these science sites if you still believe in evolution of man from a common ancestor over a imaginary millions and billions of years you have my deepest sympathy; I'll pray for you.

Hugosaurus Miller

theobromophile said...

"If there's entropy, and entropy means that systems don't spontaneously become more complex but instead tend to fall apart, become less complex and eventually dissipate entirely, why do the evolution people propose that things “evolve”?"

Entropy only increases in an adiabatic system. Earth is not adiabatic: as previous commenters have noted, the sun provides a massive influx of energy.

For non-science people, the increase in entropy is like saying, "Your room gets dirty, dusty, and cluttered in the normal course of events". With the expenditure of energy, however, it can get clean. The sun is the equivalent of a maid service or such.

theobromophile said...

Eek - precision issue. Entropy always increases in an adiabatic system, but may increase or decrease in a system that has an increase in energy.