Friday, March 13, 2015

The First Law of Holes and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The First law of holes: If you’re in one stop digging.
Right wing and fundamentalist Christians dig in over the 2nd law of thermodynamics!

The North American Intelligent Design community continues to seek justification for their “God-of-the-Gaps” dualist theologies. In a post on ID web site “Uncommon Descent” entitled The illusion of organizing energy dated March 10th somebody who signs on as “niwrad” makes the well-worn but erroneous claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics contradicts evolution. Quoting niward’s first and end paragraphs:

The 2nd law of statistical thermodynamics states that in a closed system any natural transformation goes towards the more probable states. The states of organization are those more improbable, then transformations spontaneously go towards non-organization, so to speak. Since evolution would be spontaneous organization, evolution disagrees with the 2nd law. 

To sum up, the 2nd law in the context of statistical thermodynamics, provides a fundamental reason why naturalistic origin of life is impossible. To resort to energy doesn’t solve the problem, because energy is not a source of organization, rather the inverse: uncontrolled energy can cause destruction (= non-organization). Only intelligence is a source of organization, and as such can explain the arise of life, the more organized thing in the cosmos.

niwrad’s motivation for this argument, as I have remarked before, is clear: As part of the “Homunculus ID” community niwrad’s aim is to first find a physics based argument against evolution, with all the associations of rigor and prestige that goes with physics, and then use it to support an implicit Natural forces vs. God theology. From the second quote above the drift of niwrad’s line of thought can be seen: He’s dichotomizing “naturalistic origins” against “intelligent intervention”, and by intelligent intervention we know he really means God did it!.  That niwrad has, or is at least moving toward, an interventionist theology of life’s generation is evidenced by this quote:

…systems that are KO, do not self-repair and remain KO until an intelligent intervention.

niwrad’s first mistake is that he sets up a straw man as I hope to make clear from the following quotes:

Notice that control has even to organize the energy itself powering the system. If energy really had the organizing capability evolutionists believe, one would ask why systems theory does such distinction in the first place…..
Energy can power the systems, but never can create the organized system in the first place. In short, energy is the fuel, not the engine…..
In all definitions of “energy” there is nothing that could lead us to think that energy is able to transform improbable states into probable states. Consequently, energy cannot change the situation of the 2nd law: energy cannot create organization, which always implies highly improbable states.

The inherent straw man here doesn't cut the mustard with me, although it clearly does for niwrad. His concept, mischievously attributed to "evolutionists", of a concentrated but otherwise undifferentiated lump of energy somehow having the power to organize may have its roots in the following general observation: To thrive biological systems require a low entropy energy source such as the Sun in order to reproduce. As organisms reproduce they are effectively annexing and organizing matter and the low entropy energy consumed by life in this process is then exhausted at a higher entropy. The upshot is that in spite of life’s ability to co-opt matter into ever greater organized communities this increase in organisation can only ever be local and the net result is always an upward trend in global entropy: The growth of life consumes low entropy but exhausts (or excretes) high entropy thereby more than offsetting the organization introduced by life.

As a specific example of the foregoing general fact consider the following scenario: Imagine we have a well-insulated and sealed box with the right internal temperature containing the appropriate nutrients and some fungal spores. Without any inputs or outputs it is possible for these spores to generate some highly organized fungal structures thereby effectively annexing and organising relatively large amounts of matter taken from the nutrient bed. But in spite of the local increases in order as the fungi grow and thrive there is, of course, an increase in global entropy. In fact in time this isolated system will run down completely and the fungi will die once they have exhausted the supply of useable low entropy energy. Thus, local organization increases are a temporary phenomenon allowed by the 2nd law, a law which doesn't prohibit the appearance of local pockets of order although it does prohibit increases in global order.

The category of system I've talked about in the foregoing paragraph only works by way of the biological machinery and information that has been “front loaded” into the system in the form of the fungal spores. This machinery and information provides a kind of constraint on the random thermal agitations of the system which means that as the global order in the system runs down it passes through states where local increases in order are allowed; the miracle brought about by the machinery of life is that it permits a situation of local order increases in the face of a global entropy increase. This means that what niwrad thinks of as a move to improbable states is in fact a move to probable states; these states turn out to be states where a local increase in order is highly probable. Moreover, to use niwrad’s dichotomized language, this system is entirely natural and entails no “Intelligent Intervention” in the dualist sense that people like niwrad habitually think of it. Of course, this life creating system needs the “front loaded” information in the form of spores, but it is precisely here that niwrad and many other Intelligence-of-the-Gaps theologians err.

For if evolution is to work in the way the academic establishment tells us it does and remain "natural" then it must work in a similar manner to our sealed box system. It is on this matter that niwrad makes his big mistake of completely underestimating the comprehension of at least some of the sophisticated evolutionary academic establishment as he tries to get past us his distorted straw man: Viz that those evolutionists believe mere undifferentiated and concentrated energy is enough to bring about organisation. Rubbish!

Using the isolated and sealed box as a prototype we infer that in evolution the global entropy of the solar system runs down, but as with the isolated and sealed box physics permits local increases in order, such as the creation of life .......and that creation occurs because there is present some kind of front loaded informational mechanism. niwrad and an unholy communion of right wing and fundamentalist Christians are unwilling to give credit to those atheist evolutionists who do understand the need for this front loading:  See for the example the comment section of  this blog post of mine where it is clear from the comments made by atheist Joe Felsenstein that he understands the need for this “front loaded” information, information which he sees being present in the fitness space that guides the random diffusion of the evolutionary process. He himself believes that this fitness space is implicit in physics and has given reason why he thinks this is so (Follow the links and see his post on “Panda’s Thumb”). Of course as an atheist Felsenstein doesn't feel there is reason here to then invoke theology, but the point is he completely understands the need for the a priori provision of information in evolution; although to him the origin of this information in physics is rather mysterious, a mystery which he leaves to the physicists.

Like other God-of-the-Gaps creationists niwrad sees himself fighting against what he habitually thinks of as the “naturalism” of evolution:

In this context the alleged naturalistic origin of life stated by evolutionism is a non-sequitur.

Well, the sealed box system disproves that idea! This is niwrad's second big mistake: Life can be generated by so-called naturalistic origins if providenced with the right "natural" information; something which I suspect the Divine Mind is more than capable of. But for niwrad and his right wing and fundamentalist friends this won't do because it would look too much like "naturalism", something against which they have staked all in the polarised stand-off against atheists. They would much prefer a creation absent of any life generating capability as that would give more support for those God-of-the-Gaps interventions: God-of-the-Gaps thinking is actually  prompted by the ID community's so-called explanatory filter; an epistemic method which when used in a theological context simply amounts to “Natural forces can’t do it, therefore God did it!”. These right-wingers won’t budge from their misconceptions about the true status of the Second Law of Thermodynamics because their stake in their erroneous position is far too high for them to back out now; in short they have backed themselves into a corner, or if you like, dug themselves into a hole. In being so intransigent they are doing untold damage to the Christian cause.

My own position re. this subject is that there is, in fact, no front loaded information in physical systems that facilitates them delivering biology in realistic times and that it is unlikely physics as we know it is up to this task – although I could be wrong here, this is my current thinking. More about my own exploration of this subject can be read in the links below. There are two strands to this thinking: a) Theological: That the immanence of God suggests something more than just a sustaining and intervening presence as per the homunculus IDists and b) Physical: That the physics of quantum mechanics looks suspiciously like a form of proactive declarative cognition with potentially huge parallel resources available.  

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