Friday, May 20, 2016
How frustrating is it to confront someone whose understanding of scientific principles is conditioned on his religious belief? Just as religious faith is immune to being disputed by any evidence or logic, so too are the false understandings of the workings of nature that the theist employs in his web of self-delusion to rationalize his belief in things that have no basis in reality. It is one of the mainstays of creationist pseudo-science that the second law of thermodynamics rules out any possibility of life emerging from a chemical primordial soup, or of living things evolving to more complex forms. The creationist will insist that science is in his favor. But he is profoundly wrong.
First, let me give a simple explanation of the second law. It says that every time energy is transferred, some of it is lost to the surroundings, and typically becomes waste heat that is no longer useful for doing work. That waste heat increases the random motion of the surroundings, and so increases the number of possible states that can be achieved. That's what we call entropy. The conversion of energy to wast heat is irreversible. In a closed system, where no energy is transferred in or out of its boundaries, the total entropy only increases over time. Note that structure within the system implies a constraint on the motion of particles, and so on the number of states that can be assumed by that collection of particles, and this means that the entropy within the structure is less than the maximum possible. Maximum entropy entails a state of maximum randomness. A closed system reaches its maximum entropy when it is in a state of thermal equilibrium, when the energy of all the particles it contains is evenly distributed, and all structure has broken down into random motion of constituent particles.
When energy enters a system, that energy can be freely dissipated as heat, or it can be constrained to take some other form such as mechanical motion that can perform work. For example, an animal eats some food, which provides energy from outside. That energy is channeled into useful forms - to grow the body, to repair damage, or provide mobility, for example. And some of it becomes heat. Building the non-random structure of the body actually entails a state of locally reduced entropy. How does this comport with the second law of thermodynamics? If the animal is regarded as a thermodynamic system, it is an open system, which means that energy is transferred into (or out of) the system. But the second law only implies monotonically increasing entropy for a closed system. Every decrease in entropy is accompanied by an increase elsewhere. If the entire world is regarded as a closed thermodynamic system, there is waste heat produced by the animal's consumption of fuel, and it exceeds any locally decreased entropy within the animal, so the overall entropy of the world increases. There is no violation of the second law.
Creationists claim that the formation of life itself is incompatible with the second law. The argument says that because thermodynamics causes material objects to deteriorate over time, there is no natural explanation for the initiation of life, which would require more complex organic molecules forming from simpler molecules, and the formation of cellular structures. But this is simply false. We understand that living things have more ways to make use of energy to do things like building structure, but even if we consider only non-living things, there are still plenty of examples of natural structure-building that we see all the time. For example, simple chemical reactions build molecules that are more complex than their constituent parts. Combustion produces water molecules from oxygen and hydrogen, with locally reduced entropy, while releasing waste heat to the surroundings that increases overall entropy.
Structures can be formed as a natural mechanism to facilitate the dissipation of heat. For example, the hexagonal column structure of basaltic rock observed at the Giant's Causeway in Ireland is formed naturally in the process of lava cooling. Similarly, the formation of organic cellular structures can also be explained in thermodynamic terms. Here is an article discussing a theory that explains how thermodynamics can entail the formation of proto-life cellular structures. The creationist who claims that these phenomena are violations of thermodynamic law simply doesn't know what he is talking about.
The creationist may be especially concerned with the increasing complexity of DNA molecules through the process of evolution. But once again, there is no violation of thermodynamics involved in this. The random mutation of a DNA molecule is still a degradation of the orderliness of the original structure. If the same DNA molecule continued to suffer random mutations, it would eventually become degraded to the point that it could no longer be recognized as DNA, as the entropy increases. This is all in keeping with thermodynamics. But since DNA has the ability to replicate, a single random mutation may be preserved, and becomes part of a new structure that can be more complex than the one it came from. The replication of a more complex DNA molecule still requires increased energy input from an outside source. There's no magic involved. It's all perfectly natural. And it's all perfectly consistent with the laws of thermodynamics.