Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Nature vs. God. The 2nd law of Thermodynamics and Philosophical Dualism

As a motif for the force of nature, feelings about the
green man are ambivalent and  confused. But he lurks
 in the  subliminal pagan recesses of Western thinking.
This post explores the God vs. Nature dualism that is endemic to much of Western thinking. To illustrate this I use as an example a post by Christian fundamentalist Danny Faulkner who writes articles for Answers in Genesis. In the twin article of this current blog post I approved of YEC Jonathan Sarfati’s treatment of the second law of thermodynamics; Sarfati advised YECs not to use it to challenge evolution. Unfortunately I can’t give a similar recommendation to Ken Ham’s tame astronomer Danny Faulkner. His article on the subject can be found here: hxxps://answersingenesis.org/physics/second-law-of-thermodynamics/

Nearly half of Faulkner’s article is his attempt to explain the second law of thermodynamics to his lay audience.  We have to get about half way into the article before Faulkner starts to betray his failure to grasp the nuances of this topic.  So far I haven't been impressed by this fellow's performance; he seems to lack intellectual incisiveness. (See here and here). But the tame scholars at Answers in Genesis are not there to convince those with an adequate grasp of science, rather to impress a lay audience of fundamentalists (which includes Faulkner’s boss Ken Ham) with the letters after their names and technical sounding arguments.

 Tame scholar Danny Faulkner and his AiG boss, YEC theme park manager Ken Ham.
Below I use the usual format of taking quotes from Faulkner's article followed by my own comments:

If disorder cannot decrease, then order cannot increase. It is this version of the second law of thermodynamics that leads to discussion of the naturalistic origin of life and biological evolution. Living organisms obviously are highly ordered systems, far more ordered than non-living things. The naturalistic origin of life would require that non-living things gave rise to living things, which would amount to an increase in order and thus would appear to violate the second law of thermodynamics. Furthermore, biological evolution would be the development of life over time, which involves increasing order, which also appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics. (My emphases)

MY COMMENT:  The first sentence here is misleading: The second law of thermodynamics tells us that global order cannot increase, but it does not prohibit increases in local order as we shall see. Entropy is an extensive property of matter not an intensive property; that is, it refers to a value integrated over an isolated region and is therefore not a differential law. 

As we can see from the above quote Faulkner is locked into the natural forces vs. God dichotomy. For Faulkner the idea that the cosmos generated living things from non-living matter is a necessary condition for a “naturalistic” origin of life and is likely to be viewed by him as dangerously subversive of his faith. This taboo exists because in Western dualist thinking profane “natural forces” are set over and against sacred divine activity. The subliminal thinking is something like this: “If nature did it then that means God didn’t do it. Therefore if nature did it faith is compromised”. The scenario of “molecules-to-man-evolution” is perceived, to quote Faulkner, as a requirement for the Naturalistic origin of life. For the YEC fundie this subversive concept must be opposed at all costs. Fundamentalists may use the cover rationalisation that they are simply following their literal interpretation of the Bible, but I propose that this is just a proximate cause – the real underlying cause is their philosophical acceptance of Western culture’s God vs nature dualism.  This dualism is enshrined in de facto Intelligent Design’s explanatory filter.

However, notice that Faulkner hedges his bets: He says that the emergence of life appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics; he doesn’t say that it actually violates the second law. Faulkner is bright enough to know that he can’t provide any rigorous proof of a contradiction between the second law and evolution.

Faulkner goes on to talk about open systems:

However, merely being an open system does not automatically mean that entropy decreases. Life depends upon a huge number of complex biochemical reactions continually operating. These biochemical reactions operate opposite to the direction that they would naturally proceed. That is, living things synthesize simpler molecules into more complex ones. The inputs are matter (the less complex molecules) and energy (required to bond the more complex molecules), which is why living things are open systems. However, these inputs are insufficient in themselves to circumvent the second law of thermodynamics. The direction of the chemical reactions normally is decay from the more complex to simpler molecules, the opposite of what living things require to exist. How do they do this? Living things have complex machinery in the form of organelles (within cells) and structures such as tissue, organs, and systems (in the case of multi-celled organisms that convert matter and energy into the complex molecules required for life). Ultimately, the construction and operation of these machines is regulated by DNA, also included within cells. Both the physical machinery and the coded instructions represented a tremendous amount of order within living things. Some people call this order information. How could this order or information come about naturally?

MY COMMENT:  Faulkner ought to have qualified that first sentence. It really should have read:

However, merely being an open system does not automatically mean that entropy decreases locally.

This sloppy expression by Faulkner seems to be an outcome of him failing make it clear that entropy is an extensive rather than intensive variable.  An open system interacts with its environment which immediately invalidates the statement of the second law which pertains to isolated systems only.  This means it is then conceivable that a open system could undergo a decrease in entropy local to that system. But as Faulkner has tried to tell us above openness doesn't guarantee a local increase in order, it only makes it possible. However, there are open systems where there is a local increase in order e.g life.

Living structures are open systems. Their processes of growth and replication entail considerable increases in local order. That the processes of growth and replication decrease the entropy locally is not, of course, a violation of the second law, for if one demarks a sufficiently large boundary to isolate the living system and its environment one finds that globally there is an overall increase in entropy; that is, the local increases in order wrought by the activities of life are purchased at the price of increases in disorder elsewhere. Life achieves these natural local entropy decreases, as Faulkner admits, as a product of the natural biological machinery it has on board. But Faulkner has said nothing of the significance of this: Most dualists who are not vitalists would identify the processes of life as natural activities and these natural activities, as Faulkner admits, bring about local increases in order without globally violating the second law. Faulkner has avoided explicitly stating that the local increases in order are achieved by life using what most dualists would refer to as natural means.

Of course, current science tells us that the ability of life to increase local order comes about as a result of the implicit information present in the machinery of life. But that sets up a potential taboo for the Genesis literalists: For if this local order enhancing information can be present in life then it is conceivable that the information needed to generate life in the first place is implicit in our physical regime. i,e, in nature.  But this thought may trigger a "Pagan Green Man" alert in the fundamentalist mind.

Even Genesis literalists must be able to comprehend that a God who is capable of  downloading sufficient upfront information into living structures to enable them to naturally increase local order might go a step back and front load the requisite information, by other means, into the physical regime. If such was present then just as life is able to bring about the local reverse entropy “miracle” of growth and replication, so it is alternatively conceivable that a divinely ordained physical regime might contain the information to bring about the local decreases in entropy needed for emergent life and yet without any violation in the global law of overall entropy increase. This possibility is not acknowledged by Faulkner in spite of his effective admission that life is able to bring about local increases in order by "natural" means; for example, whenever a child is born it is evidence that a “molecules-to-man” miracle has taken place! However, if the cosmos has generated life from non-life it raises an outstanding question: If life has been generated by the cosmic system where is the requisite front loaded information?  More about that later.

Self-organization describes an orderly arrangement that occasionally appears to arise in matter spontaneously. A crystal is the best example of this. For instance, salt dissolved in water can form into crystals, an orderly array of units of sodium chloride. However, there are at least two problems with this analogy to living things. First, the salt + water system is an open system. It can and does exchange energy and matter with its surroundings in order to precipitate salt crystals. That is, salt crystals do not spontaneously form from a salt water solution. Second, crystals are simply ordered sequences which contain very little actual information. Salt crystals lack specified complexity, i.e., their structure is caused by the properties of their constituent parts and not imposed by some outside intelligent process as is the case for living organisms.

MY COMMENT: Faulkner’s first point: If evolution has occurred then it is properly envisaged as an open system which, like crystal formation, exchanges matter and energy with the environment. Therefore if the physical regime of Earth has generated life from non living matter then in this sense it would be analogous to the salt water system, contrary to what Faulkner claims. But the meaning of Faulkner’s use of the term “spontaneous” here is problematic. The growth of crystalline structures entails regions of increasing local order because transcendent physical laws act as envelopes of constraint on the random motions of particles. If the Earth has generated life in analogy to the way crystals form it could only do so if the physical regime supplies the requisite information in the form of constraining envelopes of possibility. According to the way Faulkner is using the word “spontaneously” such a process would not then classify as “spontaneous”.  I can only think that what Faulkner means by “spontaneous” formation is if a system somehow “magically” generates the configurations of life without the requisite up front information being implicit in the physical regime. As William Dembski’s work has shown this is a silly idea. But just who is claiming that evolution is a “spontaneous” process in the sense of Faulkner’s meaning of the term? I don’t think any scientist with their heads screwed on properly would subscribe to this straw man version of evolution whereby life is thought to emerge from a system without some constraining physical regime embodying the requisite information.

Faulkner’s second point is as equally confused; this confusion results because he doesn’t resolve out the different meanings of the term “information”. Let us start by taking its Shannon meaning, i.e.  –log(p) where p is the probability of an event. The conditional probability of salt formation given our physical regime is high and therefore as far as conditional probability is concerned the Shannon information of salt crystallisation is low. But the absolute probability of crystal formation is minute: Given the whole space of possible configurations highly ordered crystalline structures are a tiny class and thus their probability as a class is negligible. This negligible probability means that a high information value is associated with the absolute probability of crystalline structures. However, if we understand “information” in terms of data compressibility then it follows that crystal structures, whose data content is highly compressible, contain little irreducible information. Of course, living things having much more variety of structure are therefore far less compressible and correspondingly carry much more information in this sense. But then using the word “information” in the same sense it follows that truly random sequences, because they are incompressible, hold a lot more information than ordered living structures! With the foregoing in mind we can see that Faulkner completely misses the point. In absolute terms salt crystals have an extremely low probability i.e high information or “surprisal” value. Moreover, they have been manufactured by the algorithms of a relatively complex physical regime that under Faulkner’s own conceptions is likely to fall within the category he calls“specified complexity”.

Faulkner’s last sentence in the above quote is evidence of the dualist mold in which he has (unconsciously?) cast the issue. Implicit in Faulkner’s thought here is an assumed dichotomy between the properties of the physical regime and the action of an eminent intelligence which is envisaged to be imposed on a physical system from without.  As we have seen, in dualist thinking the properties of the "natural" physical regime stand in contra-distinction to the action of intelligence. Dualists like Faulkner habitually and probably unconsciously assume God’s action is analogous to an alien intelligence that arranges a configuration as per, for instance, the 2001 monolith which would otherwise be very unlikely to appear without ancillary intelligent action. Hence Faulkner betrays his conception of God as a kind of alien-of-the-gaps doing stuff that the physical world can't otherwise do. He therefore needs alien-of-the-gaps type activity as evidence of God's existence.  But it appears not to enter Faulkner’s cognizance that the totalising God of Christianity is intimately involved with every action of his creation whether by permission or by choice and that would include all the activities of the physical regime.

As far as humans and aliens are concerned matter has a motive power of its own apart from them. But this perspective should not be imputed to the Christian God who is both immanent and eminent. From a divine point of view matter doesn’t have a power of its own; all its powers are granted by God himself.  Given that the Christian God is so intimately involved with his world, the information required to generate life from non-life could conceivably be ever immanent in the physical regime. But against the backdrop of dualism’s alien-of-the-gaps thinking a cosmic regime which succeeds in generating life without the presence of an ancillary intelligence threatens to render redundant the dualist God who is needed to make good the “gaps”.

However, even crystals that form out of solution, such as salt, cease to produce any more order once they form. If anything, once crystals form, they accumulate defects in their crystal structure, which is less ordered and hence follows the second law of thermodynamics. That is, even open systems generally follow the second law of thermodynamics. To expect that life somehow developed from this is a gross extrapolation.

MY COMMENT: This is mad. As far as I’m aware nobody is suggesting that crystal formation bucks the second law of thermodynamics any more than does life’s routine ability to introduce local order to huge quantities of matter by “natural” means. Neither is anybody suggesting that open systems buck the overall trend of a global increase in entropy. However, I agree that the local order increases seen in crystal formation are a far cry from the increases in local order that would be required of a cosmic system which, through as yet unidentified information resources, generates living structures.

In similar manner, evolutionists propose that once enough order arose to allow for DNA and the machinery of cells, further random changes led to increased order. Again, the appeal is made to the magic of open systems. But merely being an open system in not sufficient to contradict the second law of thermodynamics.

MY COMMENT: There is a straw man here: Just who is suggesting open systems contradict the second law?  I'm fast coming to the opinion that Faulkner really doesn't understand the second law.

In evolution there is no appeal to any open system magic. Living things are open systems which, as I have repeatedly said, bring about huge increases in local order and a "molecules-to-man" miracle without contradicting the second law. Those who propose evolution, as far as I’m aware, are certainly not saying that because evolution is an open system it is either a) allowed to contradict the second law or b) being an open system in and of itself is a guarantee of local increases in order; system openness merely means that local increases in order become logically possible, but not logically necessary. 

All the appeal to open systems means is that the increases in local order demanded by evolution are not a necessary violation of the second law requirement that entropy increases globally. Of course, the question of whether this has actually happened and the whereabouts of the information needed for it is the 64 trillion dollar question. But to attack evolutionists as if they are blatantly contradicting the second law is a straw man. Evolution, as proposed by the academic establishment, contradicts the second law no more than does life when it brings about local increases in order.

The moment after a living thing dies, the machinery and coded instructions still remain. Furthermore, a just-deceased organism is capable of exchanging matter and energy with its surroundings, making it still an open system. However, the indescribable spark of life is absent, and the machinery no longer works. The chemical reactions go in the direction that will re-establish thermodynamic equilibrium, and the molecules become less complex, not more complex. Given this, the appeal to an open system to rescue the day for evolution is not demonstrated and amounts to hand-waving and gross extrapolation.

MY COMMENT: Current ideas of how life manages to annex huge quantities of matter to bring about considerable increases  "natural" biological machinery needed to organise matter – even Faulkner seems to have admitted this as we have seen. So quite what Faulkner means by the  “indescribable spark of life” I don’t know. Is Faulkner suggesting that some kind of dualistic vitalism is involved with the very day to day maintenance of life?  Who knows!

When will this man understand that evolution no more makes appeal to “open systems magic” than does crystallisation or the growth and replication of life? To work, all these systems require a) up front information built into the physical regime and b) open boundaries so that local increases in order are achieved at the expense of global decreases in order.

In particular the living processes of growth and replication are, I guess, what Faulkner would admit to be “natural” systems routinely creating “molecules-to-man” regions of local organisation. But this sets a dangerous precedent for dualists like Faulkner: For it then becomes conceivable that a physical regime presided over by an immanent omnipotent deity could well have the wherewithal to generate life. Faulkner’s underlying God vs natural forces philosophy presents him with a stark choice between God and “nature”; or God and the "Green man" if you like! But we must bear in mind that Faulkner is not addressing scientists who can see through his YEC sales pitch but fundamentalist rank and file who want to hear what they want to hear.

At this point let me give my usual disclaimer. Given that the living process of growth and replication is a “natural” system  capable of creating regions of local order without violating the second law it doesn’t automatically follow that the “natural” physical regime can do the same thing. As I keep saying I have my doubts about the existence of the spongeam which is the underlying mathematical object containing the information needed for conventional evolution.

Unfortunately, not all discussions of the second law of thermodynamics and biological evolution from a creation perspective have been as well thought out and presented as they ought to have been. Hence, both sides have committed some errors. The problem for creationists is that we have yet to generate a rigorously formulated entropy-based hypothesis that clearly shows that life cannot arise through natural undirected processes. However, evolutionists generally have failed to produce a reasonable argument which agrees with observation that the second law of thermodynamics does not prohibit evolution.

MY COMMENT:  Clearly Faulkner is one of those people he criticises: His arguments are badly presented if not poorly thought out. But he’s right on this score: YECs, along with alien-of-the-gaps IDists,  have failed to show that the cosmic generation of life contradicts the second law. What people like Faulkner do not understand is that the second law doesn’t directly address the question. The second law only pertains to global entropy and not to local entropy and therefore it doesn’t bar huge local increases in order if the requisite information is present as we observe on a routine basis as life grows and replicates. Furthermore, what YECs like Faulkner don’t comprehend is that the answer to whether evolution is allowed or disallowed is not addressed by the second law but rather by the information implicit in the envelopes of constraint which could conceivably favour huge increases in local order sufficient for abiogenesis. Confirming the existence or nonexistence of such constraints (whether implicit in current known physics or new physics) from first principles (as opposed to observation) is currently beyond our science, it seems. My opinion, however, is that both YECs and IDists have failed to take account of the activity term in the creation of information; see here for more on this subject.

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