Commentary on The Second Law of Thermodynamics, in response to:

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics in the Context of the Christian Faith”

By Michael S. Shelton

Aerospace Engineer

Stafford, VA

December 1999

(Revised July 07 2005; July 24 2005)

 

 

Dr. Allan H. Harvey of the Physical and Chemical Properties Division (as of September 2000) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado produced the following treatise on the Second Law of Thermodynamics (SLOT).  I first received this in mid-1997 (the 1 August 1996 version) as a result of on-line dialogue with an atheist in several theological and science forums.  His assertion was that SLOT has nothing to do with evolution, in direct contradiction to my ongoing commentary that SLOT has everything to do with the arguments against evolution.  My atheistic debate colleague then chanced upon this document and cheerily pointed out to me that one of my very own “fellow” Christians, with a PhD specializing in molecular thermodynamics, had refuted my claims.

 

I originally posted a response to Dr. Harvey’s treatise in December 1999, graciously hosted by The Errant Skeptics Research Institute (http://www.errantskeptics.org/).  I recently moved my material here at the gracious invitation of JP Holding, host of the Tekton site.  This July 2005 update specifically addresses Dr. Harvey’s substantial revision of September 3, 2000 (http://members.aol.com/steamdoc/writings/thermo.html).  Anyone can download the authentic copy.

 

Dr. Harvey has assembled an extensive document that is “nonrigorous” by his own acknowledgement.  Nonrigorous means that a detailed mathematical approach is not used.  Rather, word-picture and descriptive methods are used to describe the topic at hand, dispensing with all the messy calculus, differential equations and other math.  Likewise, in a nonrigorous manner, I will show that his claims that The Second Law is either misused by Christians / Creationists, or, are non-applicable to the evolution discussion, are erroneous.  His points are trivial to refute.  In fact, I will show that a man who claims to have specialized in “molecular thermodynamics” is incongruent on the subject throughout the document.  Dr. Harvey unabashedly and unashamedly claims to be an evangelical Christian and correctly points to Christ as the Author of Truth and as the correct object of Christianity.  Commendably, this is a refreshing and wonderfully encouraging posture in today’s hostile anti-Christian setting.  In spite of this, Dr. Harvey demonstrates theological confusion in much of his treatise.

 

I do not presume to know Dr. Harvey’s heart – in fact, Scripture compels me not to judge his heart (Luke 6:37 and John 7:24).  I have enough struggles of my own and fall short frequently.  I look forward to that future home in Heaven when I can ask Dr. Harvey to teach me about molecular thermodynamics.  I thank God for Jesus Christ as my Savior, a complete act of Grace that negates my inadequate attempts to achieve a right relationship with God.  Although I cannot judge his heart, I certainly reserve the right to critique his work, and I feel it is necessary to highlight the deficiencies in the argument of Dr. Harvey’s treatise.  Feedback on my rebuttal is welcome (Proverbs 27:17).

 

My background includes a BS and MS in Aerospace Engineering, with an emphasis in avionics design / engineering (radar, electronic warfare, lasers, infrared systems, etc.) in my masters work.  Operationally, I enjoyed a 23-year career in the U.S. Navy in both the enlisted and officer ranks.  I was a Naval Aviator with F-14A Tomcat and TA-4J Skyhawk flight time, with extensive time at sea during four extended carrier deployments.  I currently work as an engineer.  Similarly as Dr. Harvey states, my opinions and conclusions are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any associated organization.  The reader should note, however, that I have found a surprising number of my work peers (many with PhDs and Masters) who are Christians and believe in special creation.  Of course, I also work with similarly-educated peers (both Christians and non-Christians) who believe in evolution.

 

Rigorously, SLOT involves intricate and intimidating mathematics (see my lightly-applied rigorous application at http://www.tektonics.org/guest/slot.htm).  However, the broad concept of SLOT is quite simple – all potential forms of energy normally are convertible to kinetic or thermal energy, sometimes reversible almost to its original state.  “Reversibility” and “irreversibility” are standard word tools in the analysis of The Second Law of Thermodynamics.  For example, a simple coiled spring, when released, is capable of powering a watch or launching a steel ball.  If the steel ball were to fall back to earth and be perfectly captured by the spring again, the ball, depending on the system’s design, may be able to reset the spring closely back to the original position.  This would be an example of a “reversible” process (or nearly so – our real world conditions of friction and other losses don’t allow perfect recovery).  Another potential-to-kinetic energy conversion example is the burning of exactly one gallon of gasoline to power a riding lawn mower (assume perfectly level terrain).  But once the gasoline is depleted, the thermal energy released during combustion has been completely depleted and is 100% unrecoverable – all the energy has been expended into the atmosphere via combustion exhaust and heat or in kinetic, vibration, cutting, and propulsion energy to cut the grass.  The grass residue, practically speaking, cannot be restored to its original state.  All energy from the combustion, vibratory, and friction processes has been radiated away into the local atmosphere and eventually away from the earth into space.  The lawnmower remains at rest until acted upon by an outside force.  In this example, we have attained a state that is now maximally useless in the utilization of the energy that is still there (The First Law of Thermodynamics) but cannot be restored to its original form.  This is an “irreversible” process.  We speak of going from one state of order to a more random state of order, i.e., things have wound down, the battery is dead, the candle is fully burned, the gunpowder has been consumed, the lawnmower is stranded.  All similar to the idea of a grandfather clock that eventually stops when the weights reach the bottom of the case.

 

My basic premise is that SLOT is the Silver Bullet between the eyes of Darwinism, neo-Darwinism, punctuated equilibrium, and any other evolutionary explanations of the descent of life forms from more simple ancestors.  It has been my experience that when SLOT comes up in the debate, Evolutionists often either don’t understand SLOT and entropy, or, they do and enter into absurd explanations or character attacks.  For good reason.  SLOT slays them, and they know it.  Whether the Evolutionists choose to address abiogenesis (the speculative spontaneous birth of life from non-life matter) or not, SLOT is still my answer to them that it just could not have happened by chance.  Before launching into my commentary on Dr. Harvey’s extensive treatise, the observer will note that I first present Dr. Harvey’s work with my in-line commentary sprinkled throughout the document (Appendix I).  Again, please note that this September 2000 Revision is much different than the original August 1996 version that I initially commented on.  Dr. Harvey’s work is then repeated (both the original August 1996 and revised September 2000 versions) as Appendices II and III in their entirety without comment, exactly as I received the first version in mid-July 1997 and as I pulled off the web for his September 2000 update.  This will allow the observer the opportunity to first read the treatise in Appendices II and III without bias (in fact, I encourage the reader to do so), then the reader may come back to Appendix I to study my commentary / counterpoint.  My comments are characterized [by italicized blue font, followed by my initials “MSS,”] located throughout the document in Appendix I.

 

 

Michael S. Shelton, BS/MS Aerospace Engineering

Stafford, VA

 

Suggested reading:

 

Dr. Michael J. Behe, “Darwin’s Black Box:  The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” New York, NY, The Free Press, 1996

 

Mike Behe received a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Drexel University in 1974 and the Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978.  After doing postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health he became assistant professor of Chemistry at the City University of New York/Queens College.  In 1985 he moved to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, where he is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

 

 

The late Dr. A. E Wilder-Smith, “The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution,” (Costa Mesa, CA, 1981, paperback, translated from the original German by Petra Wilder-Smith, 185 pages)

 

{http://www.wildersmith.org/index.htm}, Three PhDs, his first in Physical Organic Chemistry, former full professor at pharmacology and medical schools, he was a strong and dedicated Creationist.  His views of SLOT being problematic for evolution are in line with mine.

 

 

Dr. Jonathan Wells, “Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?” 2000, Regnery Publishing, hardcover, 362 pp (paperback also available)

 

Wells earned two doctorates – one in theology at Yale University and the other in molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley.  Wells is a Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.  Even if you believe evolution to be a working theory, this book addresses many fallacies put forth in modern day classrooms – fallacies that have been proven wrong, inaccurate, or simply inappropriate as proof.  He uses non-Christian, non-religious language, and supports himself with information gleaned from many sources (many from evolutionists themselves refuting the erroneous examples).

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this rebuttal are the opinion of this author alone and should not be taken to necessarily represent the views of any other person or organization.

 

 


Appendix I

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

in the Context of the Christian Faith

 

Allan H. Harvey

aharvey@boulder.nist.gov

 

 

Introduction

 

This essay was written in response to questions that came up on the Science and Christianity mailing list touching on issues of entropy and/or the second law of thermodynamics. I found myself writing the same things repeatedly to straighten out various misconceptions. So, I have written something between a personal essay and a FAQ on the topic. Since this is written from my personal viewpoint, I will start by stating my background and personal convictions which cannot help but influence what I write.

 

I have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering (UC-Berkeley, 1988), specializing in “Molecular Thermodynamics,” which combines classical and statistical thermodynamics to describe the thermophysical properties of fluids. I then did two years of postdoctoral work, more or less in Chemical Physics, followed by four years in private industry. I am now with the Physical and Chemical Properties Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado. [Nothing I say here should be construed as representing NIST or the US Government.] I do not consider myself a specialist specifically in the second law, but my overall expertise in thermodynamics is sufficient to shed light on the relevant issues.  [Dr. Harvey confuses this reviewer by saying in the same paragraph that he specialized in “Molecular Thermodynamics” but does not consider himself a “specialist in the second law.” – MSS]

 

I am an evangelical Christian.  I believe the Bible to be entirely trustworthy in conveying Gods messages.  [I concur (I Timothy 2:14-15 and 3:16-17). – MSS]    Where people get into trouble is when, for example, they take the message of Genesis 1 (that God created everything, including us) and try to read it as something it is not (i.e., a science text).  [I have encountered similar things, including this treatise. – MSS]  I get annoyed at the silly arguments of creation science, but what is more annoying is when non-Christians see those arguments and get the false impression that such issues (rather than Christ) are what Christianity is all about.  I do believe that God created everything, but how and when and to what extent that involved his sovereignty over “natural” processes are secondary questions that should not divide the church.  [This paragraph changed substantially between the August 1996 and the September 2000 versions.  I will restate his original paragraph in red font below, then comment in general on both versions, carefully noting what he had said previously and what he says now. – MSS]

 

 

<Quote>

 

“I am an evangelical Christian.  I believe the Bible to be entirely trustworthy in conveying the messages God wants it to.  Where people get into trouble is when, for example, they take the message of Genesis 1 (that God created everything, including us) and try to read it as something it is not (i.e., an astronomy text).  I believe God’s revelation in his creation (which is consistent with his revelation in Scripture) makes it clear that the Earth and the Universe are billions of years old, and I sometimes get annoyed at the silly arguments of young-Earth creationists.  And even more annoyed when non-Christians see those arguments and get the false impression that the age of the Earth (rather than Christ) is what Christianity is all about.  I do believe that God created everything, but it does not matter to me (nor do I have a strong opinion) whether he did it as a series of separate sudden acts (the old-Earth creationism position) or by guiding mutations and other “natural” mechanisms (the theistic evolution position).” (from the August 1, 1996 version)

 

<Unquote>

 

[In response to his original paragraph, I have read Genesis several times, the first few chapters numerous times.  I do not concur that it is “clear” that the Universe’s age is billions of years old.  It is true that Genesis, combined with God’s natural revelation in His creation and with empirical data, can be powerfully argued to call the Universe very old.  However, lower textual criticism and careful scriptural exegesis can also provide persuasive arguments for a young Universe (less than 10,000 years old).  We were not there “In the Beginning.”  Modern Creation literature has convincing and powerful arguments presented from either of Old and Young Universe Camps.  I have tremendous respect for much of the scholarship from both Camps.  There can be honest disagreements between principled and godly people.

 

In the latter part of his original paragraph, Dr. Harvey appears to eliminate the Young Earth view as non-viable (could be those “silly arguments?”).  He also exhibits theological confusion in reference to theistic evolution.  The history of this view clearly shows attempts by certain Christians to compromise with science.  This means compromise with Secular Humanists who, by definition, leave God out of the picture.  In view of the fact that Dr. Harvey infers throughout this document that Christianity and the Bible and science do not conflict, as is also my position, then his acceptance of theistic evolution as a possible explanation muddies the discussion in the attempt to placate the evolutionists.  I will be specifically clear on this point – Creationists and Evolutionists are on unalterably opposed sides of this discussion, because it centers on the existence of God.  This is the conflict between those who artificially bound science to ONLY the physical, material universe, and those who don’t use such restrictions.  Additionally, because humanists / atheists / evolutionists have actively tried to keep Christians and Creationists and “religion” out of the public school classrooms since the late 1800s, then Bible Believing Christians must always be alert to any peace-pipe overtures by atheists to compromise with them and acknowledge that some deity could have been in the picture.

 

Now, addressing his September 2000 update, the reader should note that it is true the Bible alone is not to be used a science text.  However, in those areas where the physical universe can be observed and data gathered, the Bible does not disagree.  My position is that where we see conflicts, it is either (1) we misunderstand the data / information that has been collected, or (2) we misunderstand the Biblical text and passages, or (3) a combination of both.  For the record, in both versions, Dr. Harvey stated, . . . . . the Bible to be entirely trustworthy in conveying God’s messages.  So we’re both on the same sheet of music.  But then he gets sappy and condescending by referring to the “silly arguments of “creation science” (“silly arguments of young-Earth creationists” in the original version”).  He makes no specific charges, and it’s not very clear in the remainder of the body of his treatise what these “silly arguments” are, except to mis-state alleged positions concerning entropy and the Second Law.  Thus, I am left with the impression that in order to not be evaluated as stupid by his secular peers and comrades (perhaps to save his job?) and to impress the uninformed with his PhD credentials, he must compromise with his secular peers while throwing stones at his fellow Christians who happen to disagree with his stance on Creation.  It’s sad that a fellow brother in Christ has to stoop to such measures publicly in front of non-Believers.  For the record, the Special Creation / Intelligent Design forces are populated with a very large number of Bible-believing Christians with advanced degrees in the physical and organic sciences / engineering, with PhDs and Masters galore.  The Common Descent as posed by Darwin and his followers is met quite well by the Uncommon Dissent of the Creationists side.

 

To read more concerning poor Biblical scholarship and poor addressing of SLOT, see my book review of “Science on Trial” by Futuyma on this Guest Commentary site.  – MSS]

 

 

Finally, I should add that God has given me a passion for truth.  Truth in all things, since all truth is Gods truth.  [I concur. – MSS]  I therefore welcome correction or constructive criticism on this document.  [Well, since you asked . . . . . . . – MSS]

 

 

 

What are the Laws of Thermodynamics?

 

First, we need a few definitions.  In thermodynamics, we must refer to a clearly defined system.  Textbooks commonly consider the system to be the contents of a box-like container.  But we could also define it to be a specific cubic meter of the atmosphere above Phoenix, or the Earth (provided we define the boundary precisely), or my left kidney.  Everything in the universe that is not a part of the system is the surroundings.  Systems are divided into three categories: an isolated system can exchange neither matter nor energy with its surroundings, a closed system can exchange energy but not matter, and an open system can exchange both energy and matter.  The Earth, for example, is an open system, but might be considered closed if one neglected meteors, space probes, etc.  It is not an isolated system because, among other things, it receives radiant energy from the Sun.  [NOTE: this categorization is not universally used; in particular it is not uncommon to hear an isolated system as defined above described as “closed.”]  [I mostly concur.  For all practical purposes, here we should address only Open and Closed Systems, with the Closed System essentially Isolated (with a perfect adiabatic boundary that allows zero heat and mass transfer).  The Earth operates continually in an Open System with the Sun as its main thermal energy source.  Presently, solar system mass flow (solar wind mass and meteors / other space debris) into and out of the Earth is negligible, so that may be disregarded, i.e., the sun’s light and thermal irradiation of the earth is the largest contributor to our system compared to any mass contributions from the solar wind and solid space matter.  If we arbitrarily place a spherical “closed” boundary around our solar system at a two or three light-year radius (two light years is 11.7 trillion miles (11.7 x1012)), then no known power source of sufficient strength, other than our sun, adds significant value to our solar system’s energy resources.  The reader should note that cosmologists on both sides of the evolution issue agree the Universe is a closed system.  Eventually, all the stars will burn out, and the last piece of matter will approach absolute zero, uniformly distributed throughout the then dead and cold Universe. – MSS]

 

The first law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of conservation of energy, states that the total energy of any system remains the same, except to the extent it exchanges energy with its surroundings.  This exchange can be in the form of heat transfer (perhaps by placing a hot body in thermal contact with the system) or work (perhaps by compressing the system via a piston).  This gets modified a little for matter/energy conversion (important if the system is the Sun), but it is basically the simple idea that energy is never created or destroyed.  [“First Law of Thermodynamics (FLOT).”  All Evolutionists and scientists need to correctly understand this last sentence.  Study it closely, for it is crucial to understanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics (SLOT). – MSS]

 

The second law is trickier.  There are many statements of it; perhaps the simplest is that it is impossible for there to exist any process whose only effect is to transfer energy from a system at a low temperature to one at a higher temperature.  In other words, heat flows downhill.  [Well stated, although SLOT is not THAT tricky. – MSS]  The 2nd law is also formulated in terms of entropy, a well-defined quantity in terms of heat flows and temperature.  Another statement of the 2nd law is that, for any isolated system, the entropy remains the same during any reversible process and increases during any irreversible process.  The 2nd law also places bounds on the entropy change in a non-isolated system in relation to the temperatures of the system and the surroundings and the amount of energy leaving or entering it, but it is important to note that a system can experience a decrease in entropy if it is exchanging energy with its surroundings.  The 2nd law is ultimately a statement about heat flows, work, and temperature, and also about the direction of time.  It states that, as time goes forward, the overall effect is for energy to dissipate from hot things to cold things.  [Again, well stated.  Allow me to amplify: statistically, entropy, which is a measure of the randomness of a system, is part of the process of energy conversion.  As Dr. Harvey said, heat flows downhill, because it is more probable for things to go from order to disorder as the heat dissipates.  Heat propagates from a warmer source toward a cooler background.  When an open container of gasoline is lit by a match, it is more probable that it will burn, be consumed, and radiate / conduct / carry heat and combustion by-products into the atmosphere.  The reverse is extremely improbable.  If a person builds a beautiful sand castle with exquisite design, it is more probable that tide, winds and rain will convert the sand castle back to its random collection of sand particles, scattered along the beach.  The opposite process, that tide, winds and rain alone will build a sand castle, is extremely improbable.  Entropy tends toward a maximum.  Unless someone detects a supertanker spaceship enter our Universe from without, and then proceeds to each star for a hydrogen refueling, then total, complete randomness and exhaustive heat death is the final end game of our beloved Universe. – MSS]

 

The third law concerns changes in entropy as the temperature approaches absolute zero, and indirectly can be used to show the impossibility of attaining absolute zero.  It does not come up in the contexts of concern in this essay.

 

For those who want to learn more, I recommend The Second Law, by P.W. Atkins, Scientific American Books, New York, 1994.  This is a well-written popular introduction to the subject.  The reader is cautioned, however, that Atkins has a bias toward metaphysical naturalism which sometimes leads him to extrapolate from the science to unfounded metaphysical conclusions.  If you can ignore the philosophy and stick to the science, you will learn a lot from his book.  [Sounds like a great resource I may have to acquire.  It would be nice here if Dr. Harvey would explain more, and also define “metaphysical naturalism.”  I speculate that Atkins is perhaps a traditional Creationist and there fore deserves the ire of Harvey.  However, Harvey makes a very good point – concentrate on the actual science, something that he strays from in this treatise. – MSS]  A good exposition at a higher technical level is given in the introductory chapters of Entropy, by J.D. Fast, McGraw Hill, 1962.  [Pricy book – a casual internet search revealed a street price of about $140 or so. – MSS]  [NOTE: Fast’s classic work should not be confused with a book of the same title written around 1980 by notorious gadfly Jeremy Rifkin.]  Of course any textbook on thermodynamics will cover these topics.

 

 

A Brief History of the Second Law

 

Some of the following information is adapted from Ira N. Levine, Physical Chemistry, McGraw-Hill, 1978.

 

Something that was roughly the 2nd law was stated by French engineer Sadi Carnot in 1824 with regard to the efficiency of steam engines.  [Carnot may also have been the first to postulate the 1st law, but he never published that and got no credit until long after his death.] Carnot’s work was almost universally ignored, but was rediscovered (and stripped of its tie to the pre-1st-law “caloric” theory of heat) in the 1840’s.  Around 1850 came the first rigorous statements of the 2nd law by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and Rudolph Clausius.  It was Clausius who first defined the quantity entropy and coined the word (from a Greek word meaning “transformation”).  He made the often-quoted brief statement of the first and second laws: “Die Energie der Welt ist Konstant.  Die Entropie der Welt strebt einem Maximum zu.” [rough translation: The energy of the world (more properly, an isolated system) is constant.  The entropy of the world strives toward a maximum.] Maxwell made his contributions a little later, followed by Boltzmann.  Their main contributions here were in tying things to the concept of molecules (including the science of statistical mechanics, which they basically invented though Gibbs brought it to maturity), which was not a part of the thinking of people like Kelvin and Clausius.

 

 

The Second Law and Creation

 

Now we address the context in which the 2nd law arises in creation arguments.  The usual argument goes something like this: “The 2nd law says everything tends toward increasing entropy (randomness and disorder).  But the evolution of life involves the development of great complexity and order.  Therefore, evolution is impossible by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.” While it sounds simple, there are major flaws in this argument that render it worthless.  [This basic premise, as stated, is confusing.  I was not clear enough in my original December 1999 answer, so allow me to expand and clarify.  As stated, “Therefore, evolution is impossible by the 2nd law of thermodynamics” is indeed true.  The argument is worthless?  Hardly.  Unguided, unplanned, and undirected assembly of atoms and molecules into amino acids (the basic building blocks of life) and further into the necessary proteins, enzymes and the all-important DNA double helix has never been observed.  As Francis Schaeffer postulates,

 

 “. . . . the impersonal plus time plus chance” (“He Is There and He Is Not Silent,” Schaeffer, December 1972)

 

and as Dr. Wilder-Smith observes,

 

So we can only conclude that the actual building blocks of life at biogenesis – approximately 20 optically pure amino acids – were not (emphasis in the original) synthesized by means of inorganic, random processes.  Accordingly, Miller’s experiments have little in common with real biogenesis, although text books describe the experiments as if they provided the last link in the chain of evidence for chance biogenesis.  To claim that Miller has provided the first step for spontaneous biogenesis involves a willful misleading of the uninformed general public in the interests of biased materialistic philosophy.  The facts are purposely concealed in order to render plausible a materialistic philosophy of life.  Thus science is manipulated in the interests of popular materialistic philosophies” (Wilder-Smith, page 26)

 

and

 

. . . . . It must be borne in mind that for the synthesis of life to occur, practically 100% optical purity is required in as many as 20 different amino acids.  Never has an optically pure specimen been obtained by any organic random reactions.  For these and other reasons, spontaneous biogenesis has remained an experimental [emphasis in original] impossibility to the present day.  Theoretical considerations also support this negative experimental result.” (Wilder-Smith, page 23)

 

These things alone cannot produce the enormous complexity of just one protein, let alone that of a cell or a living animal.  Yes, indeed, Evolution is impossible by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  I will address the how and the why of intelligent planning later in my response.  In this paper and elsewhere, Creationists are often unfairly lumped into the same bowl as ‘postulating that the growth of a baby into an adult violates SLOT’ because the person becomes more ordered and complex.  No knowledgeable Bible-believing Creationist I have spoken with who has technical / scientific / engineering / mathematics has said this.  I don’t believe that Henry Morris, Hugh Ross, David Berlinski, Michael Behe, William Dembski, Malcolm Cutchins, John Burkhalter, Jonathan Wells, and other creationists of similar tremendous credentials, would be caught dead with their name assigned to, signed by, or corroborating to such a hypothesis (“the growth of a baby into an adult violates SLOT’).  This is a lie promulgated by atheists to convey the thought that all Creationists are rustic hayseed rubes.  By the way, the reader should note that Dr. Harvey never addressed Creation in any coherent manner in the above paragraph, even though he mentioned it in the subtitle. – MSS]

 

 

 

The Earth is Not an Isolated System  [True.  It is an Open System. – MSS]

 

It is only in isolated systems that entropy must increase.  [Yep.  The Universe is just such an example, as stated by me earlier. – MSS]  Systems that can exchange energy with their surroundings have no such restriction.  For example, water can freeze into ice (becoming more ordered and decreasing its entropy) by giving up heat to its surroundings (this increases the entropy of the surroundings, of course).  [I wonder what the point is?  No information or code to obtain complexity is exchanged, merely the natural process of the water falling below freezing temperature. – MSS]  In the case of the Earth, the Sun is a major source of energy, and the Earth also radiates energy into space.  [Hint to the reader – the sun is THE major contributor, virtually all, of energy to the Earth.  None of the radiant heat from the planets or our moon contributes usefully to our thermal input. – MSS]  One consequence of thermodynamics is that, when energy comes from a “hot” source (like the Sun) and is output to a “cold” reservoir (like space), it can be used to do work, which means that “complexity” or “order” can be produced.  [Only with a design, a code, a blueprint, according to specific Laws. – MSS]  The main point is that, for a non-isolated system, an increase in “complexity” (to the extent one can connect that concept with the thermodynamic entropy, which is far from straightforward for living creatures) does not necessarily indicate a violation of the 2nd law.  [This is correct, but Dr. Harvey is not telling the full story.  To gain local decreases in entropy, i.e., specified complexity such as a John Deere factory or a butterfly, a design, code and tools for implementation are needed. – MSS]  A good example is the development of a human fetus into an adult; this is the production of a more thermodynamically complex system but involves no violation of the laws of thermodynamics.  [Correct.  That fetus growing into an adult gets that way because that person’s DNA programmed everything in that body, from eye color to shoe size to height to his taste for pizza.  Overall, this paragraph is true, but Dr. Harvey has not made any coherent point except to state the obvious. – MSS]

 

It is worth mentioning here that the usual reply to creationists that “the second law doesn’t apply to non-isolated systems” is not quite correct.  The second law always applies; in fact, it was originally developed for non-isolated systems (the working fluid of a heat engine).  The key point is that it is only in isolated systems that the second law takes the simplified “entropy must increase” form.  For non-isolated systems, the second law still applies as a statement about heat flows and temperatures, just not in the form used in creationist arguments.  [Another hint – SLOT is ALWAYS at work.  The mumbo jumbo of Isolated and Closed and Open Systems doesn’t matter.  SLOT is always at work.  And the truth is, the overall entropy of a system and its surroundings always increases. – MSS] 

 

 

[Note to the reader: Dr. Harvey’s original treatise next addressed a topic titled “Flaw #2: How do You Measure a Planet’s Entropy?  Thankfully, he dropped the topic for it added nothing to the discussion, except for some blatantly incorrect and easily-dismissed statements about the measurement or calculation of entropy increases. – MSS] 

 

 

An Internal Inconsistency

 

Some creationists assert that advanced (especially human) life represents a decrease in entropy which violates the 2nd law, and they therefore invoke intervention by God, who is outside the laws of thermodynamics.  [Who?  We need names of these “creationists” who assert such.  What are the scientific journals, proceedings, peer-reviewed papers?  What are the sources?  True, God is indeed outside the four dimensions of our Universe and thus does invoke miracles.  – MSS]  They also, however, generally assert that this particular “intervention” stopped with the creation of man, and that (with the exception of the occasional miracle) God has allowed things to develop in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics and other physical laws since then.  [Miracles:  Joshua 10 – sun stood still; Isaiah 38 and II Kings 20 – shadow moves the other way; John 2 – Jesus turns the water to wine. – MSS]

 

These two assertions are, however, mutually inconsistent.  The reason is that the thermodynamic entropy is strictly an additive quantity.  If the 2nd law has not been violated as the number of humans grew from two to 6 billion, it is ridiculous to assert that it was violated in the comparatively minuscule change from zero to two.  If we say that the first two humans represented a violation of the 2nd law, the logical conclusion would be that God must be continually intervening in violation of the 2nd law in order to increase the number of humans on Earth.  While God is certainly capable of this, there is no evidence to suggest that such violations are happening as complex life forms like humans reproduce and increase in number.  [NOTE: All this is not to say that God’s creation of human life was not miraculous.  My only point is that the specific assertion that the existence of human life in and of itself violates the 2nd law is unfounded.]  [Again, I have addressed this earlier.  This particular paragraph is invalid and has no coherent conclusion. – MSS]

 

 

What About the Universe?

 

An occasional creationist response to the first flaw mentioned above is to say that, while the Earth is not an isolated system, the universe as a whole is.  However, this does not help the argument they are trying to make.  Astrophysicists, using data such as the cosmic background radiation, have verified that the universe has obeyed the second law of thermodynamics very well since the time of the big bang.  The 2nd law predicts that something small and hot should become larger and colder, and that is just what has happened.  The existence of some ordered life in a little corner of the universe like ours is a drop in the bucket - when the whole system is considered (which one must always do in thermodynamics), there is no violation of the second law in the development of the universe.  [100% concur. – MSS]

 

So what about “before” the inception of the universe?  Can it be said that bringing into existence the hot, pointlike early universe from nothing was a violation of the 2nd law?  While that argument has a certain appeal, and I believe the creation of the universe to have been miraculous, I think a 2nd-law argument is inappropriate here as well.  The 2nd law is an attribute of the physical universe, describing how systems go with time.  Modern physics tells us that the physical universe is not just space but also contains time as a fundamental dimension.  The process by which all that came to be is not something that can be addressed by the laws (including the laws of thermodynamics) characterizing the resulting universe.

 

 

What About Information Theory?

 

Since their arguments do not work in terms of thermodynamics, some anti-evolutionists turn to information theory, which contains a quantity called “entropy.” While I am no expert in information theory, I can offer some relevant comments.

 

As a preliminary, we must talk about the definition of entropy from statistical physics.  This definition is mostly due to Boltzmann, and is even engraved on his tombstone.  He defined the entropy of a system in terms of the number of different states available to it.  So, for example, the expansion of a gas into double its original volume at constant temperature would represent an increase in entropy, because each molecule would have twice as much volume (and therefore twice as many “states”) accessible to it.  It is this definition that causes entropy to be thought of in terms of “disorder,” because a highly ordered system like a crystal has fewer available states.  Boltzmann’s identification of this quantity with the thermodynamic entropy is now universally accepted.  [OK.  So, what’s the point here?  Are we to assume that a crystal has something to do with information theory? – MSS]

 

More recently, a field has arisen called information theory.  This deals with, among other things, quantifying the “information content” of various systems.  Some of the results of information theory resemble the results of statistical physics, so much so that in certain well-defined conditions a quantity can be defined that is labeled “entropy” and that obeys something analogous to the 2nd law.  While the identification of the information entropy with its thermodynamic counterpart is controversial, it is plausible enough to be taken seriously.  [According to the “Properties” feature of WORD, the reader will note that this paragraph happens to have 82 words with 466 characters (550 including the spaces).  This paragraph is extremely information-rich and could not have been assembled without an intelligent agent (the writer), a sense of project, a plan, tools (alphabet and a word-processor), and a means to convey the information-rich scheme.  On the other end of the conveyance, intelligent agents are meant to read this information-rich paragraph.  Does anyone think for a moment that it could have been randomly typed?  I’m sure that someone with time on his hands could do a statistical permutation computation to show the odds that this paragraph could have been typed with the characters and spaces in this specific order. - MSS ]

 

So some creationists, recognizing that their argument fails for the thermodynamic entropy, assert it in terms of the information entropy, which talks about things related to “complexity” and “disorder.”  It still doesn’t work.  [Hogwash – I have already shown more than enough refutation to Dr. Harvey’s “learned” demonstration of complexity and disorder and SLOT.  He is the one who is disordered. – MSS]  First, there are real problems, without satisfactory solutions thus far, in quantifying the information entropy of living things.  Someday this may be do-able, but right now science is not sufficiently well-developed to make definitive statements with regard to information entropy and life.  [Again, this is absurd, this is pure nonsense.  See below as I wrap up this section. – MSS]  Second, the first flaw mentioned above still applies in that the systems under consideration are not isolated.  This means that, even if one can apply a “second law” to them, it will not be in the simple “entropy must increase” form valid for isolated systems.  Finally, I can mention that, contrary to statements one finds in the creationist literature, cases are known in which genetic “information” (by some reasonable definition of the term) in living creatures can increase via natural processes.  [OK, name at least one of these cases.  Cite the case, the study, and the peer-reviewed conclusions and paper. – MSS]

 

[To summarize this “Information Theory” section: I most vigorously disagree in the strongest possible manner.  Dr. Harvey’s work indicates that he has not read / understood evolutionist Dr. Michael Denton’s thorough work, “Evolution:  A Theory in Crisis” (1986).  Evidently, he also is not familiar with the many, many creationists / intelligent design proponents, such as Dr. Michael Behe’s work of 1996, “Darwin’s Black Box.”  Both of these well-researched and superbly written books address head on the information theory question and thoroughly put the information question to rest.  Unless an intelligently designed mechanism is used, viable complex entities will not exist or build themselves.  Sorry, but hurricanes, ice and snowflakes don’t count.  Furthermore on the Information Theory issue, allow me to quote Dr. Werner Gitt:

 

“The essential quality in all life forms is the information contained in the genes.  The presupposed evolutionary tree of descent (phylogenesis) is not controlled nor guided by information; thus it is an impossibility according to informatics theory (cited: W. Gitt, “Information und Entropie als Blindeglieder diverser Wissenschaftszweige,” PTB-Mitteilungen 91 (1981), pp.16-17).  On the other hand, the development of embryos (ontogenesis) is a process which is controlled and guided by information.  Recent discoveries in molecular biology have shown that very many mechanisms in living cells exist for the purpose of transferring exact information.”

 

Dr. Gitt further cites evolutionary biologist G. Osche:

 

“The set of genes of an organism is a finely tuned team, a balanced ‘genome’ whose harmonious cooperation determines the orderly development of a living being.  This finely balanced genome is extremely important for the organism, and is always transmitted unchanged at every single step of cell division and the division of cell nuclei and chromosomes.  Before every cell division the genetic code must be replicated, in such a way that exactly the same chemically defined configuration is formed.  This identical replication of the genes guarantees the constancy of genetic information.  Roughly speaking, this replication is responsible for the phenomenon that storks always hatch from stork eggs with all the characteristics of this kind of bird. (G. Osche, “Die Motoren der Evolution – Zweckmabigkeit als biologisches Problem,” Biologie in unserer Zeit 1(1971), page 53).”

 

From Dr. Werner Gitt, “Did God Use Evolution?” original German 1988, 2nd English Edition 2001, Copyright of the English Edition 1993, CLV – Christliche Literatur-Verbreitung e.V., page 64.

 

Mutation and random selection are not the sources of new information.  In fact, the very opposite occurs with mutations.  Mutation always results in the loss of information, not the gain.  Five-legged cows or two-faced cats don’t represent the latest advances in animal husbandry. – MSS]

 

 

What about “Energy Conversion Mechanisms”?

 

A few of those invoking the 2nd law to oppose evolution have recognized the isolated system problem, and responded by saying that for work and structure to be produced in a system, it is not enough to have energy flow, one must also have an “energy conversion mechanism.”  This statement is actually correct, but it does not help the anti-evolution cause.  The biochemistry of life is full of such mechanisms (a more standard name is “dissipative structures”).  Photosynthesis is one example, as are other pieces of the biochemistry of the cell.  With these structures in place (in other words, once life exists), there is then no obstacle from the standpoint of thermodynamics to the evolution of more and different life.  [Absurd!  This is so confusing that I hardly know where to start.  Photosynthesis is an information-rich process that is governed by the DNA of the plant.  This required an intelligent design and plan to make it work.  Information theory again (see above). – MSS]

 

One might, of course, ask about the origin of these dissipative structures.  This is a legitimate question, though not really one of “evolution” (which normally refers to the development of life from other life) but instead one of “abiogenesis.”  Whether or not the biochemistry of life could arise “naturally” is one where the evidence is not so clear, and legitimate arguments can be made here.  However, at this level the arguments are primarily about plausibility of chemical mechanisms rather than thermodynamics (and those who use them should not say their position is based on thermodynamics), so they are outside the scope of this essay.  [Dr. Harvey is now showing his true colors.  He claims to be an evangelical Christian, but in essence his talk exudes pure liberal Christianity playing loose with the facts.  As a fellow Christian and Believer in Jesus Christ, I must ask the question – is Dr. Harvey a Christian first who happens to be a scientist, or is he an evolutionary scientist who happens to think Christianity might be a cool thing?  Again, I emphasize that I am not at liberty to judge his heart, but as an inspector of his writings and statements, I detect incongruent psychobabble.  When he states, “Whether or not the biochemistry of life could arise “naturally” is one where the evidence is not so clear,” this is completely in line with theistic evolution.  The reader will note that Dr. Harvey dropped his original reference to theistic evolution in his September 2000 revision – I’m sure he was uncomfortable with combining “Evangelical Christian” with “Theistic Evolution,” for the two go together like oil and water.  On that topic, allow me to quote Dr. Gleason Archer (note the emphasis in red):

 

“Despite the foregoing considerations, however (or perhaps in ignorance of them), there are many committed Christians who are prepared to accept the theory of evolution upon a theistic basis. That is to say, they profess adherence to the mechanistic process of natural selection (according to Darwin’s formulation), or even to the newer emergent theory of evolution; but they nevertheless insist that matter was not eternal (as nontheists must suppose), but that it was created by God ex nihilo. Furthermore, they regard the whole mechanism of the evolutionary process as devised and controlled by God, rather than by some mysterious force which cannot be entirely accounted for by science.

 

“To those who hold this position [theistic blend of Darwinian evolution – MSS] it should be pointed out that historically the whole theory was elaborated in an effort to explain the development of life along purely natural mechanical principles, without the necessity of any divine influence whatever. Darwin and his colleagues made the most determined efforts to overthrow the argument for God’s existence based upon the evidence of design in nature, and exploited every conceivable instance of dysteleology and purposelessness which they could discover. They pointed to the fact that out of the many thousands of eggs laid by a mother fish a very small percentage ever survive to maturity, and that only a very few seeds deposited by fruit-bearing trees ever live to produce new trees. (Thus the food supply afforded to other creatures by this overabundance of roe and fruit was conveniently ignored.) A consistent effort was made to explain the universe without God. For this reason, Darwinian evolution became the official philosophy of the leading atheistic movements of the twentieth century (such as the purest form of Nazism and of Marxist socialism). Darwin’s concession that a higher power may have provided the original raw material and vital impulse which started evolution at the beginning was nevertheless a complete negation of Hebrew-Christian revelation. It inevitably led to the result that moral and religious conceptions discoverable in mankind result from a mere fortuitous combination of molecules and have no counterpart in spiritual reality.

 

Evolution as a philosophy of world view really involves an outright denial of spiritual reality even as it rejects the existence of a personal God. All of its leading exponents have said as much in no uncertain terms. Ernst Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe (1929) employed the evolutionary thesis to disprove supernatural religion and became thereby one of the major influences for atheism in the twentieth century. G. G. Simpson declared that a wholehearted acceptance of evolution is inconsistent with belief in the activity of God in the universe.14-17 Charles Darwin himself, during an interview with a newspaper reporter soon after the publication of the Origin of Species, simply shrugged his shoulders at the whole moral issue. When asked if it was not true that his book had shown every criminal how to justify his ways, he simply dubbed the accusation “a good squib” and let the matter drop.14-18 In view of such factors as these, it seems a very dubious procedure for a convinced Christian who means to be loyal to the authority of Scripture to acknowledge himself an evolutionist, except in a most restricted sense—in fact, in a sense utterly unacceptable to Darwin and all his followers. For a Christian, there is no alternative to identifying natural selection with divine selection, whether in a direct or an indirect sense.  {Dr. Gleason Archer, “A Survey of Old Testament Introduction,” Part Two – Special Introduction, 14. Genesis, ‘Biblical Creationism and Modern Evolution,’ 1964, 1974, 1994, The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, pages 208-209}

 

  Emphasis in red is mine. – MSS]

 

 

Other Abuses of the Second Law

 

A common misuse of the 2nd law occurs in connection with events that are highly improbable.  An example is the hypothetical origin of life from normal chemical processes, which has been compared to unlikely occurrences such as the assembly of a 747 by a tornado passing through a junkyard.  That may or may not be an appropriate analogy, but it is definitely mistaken to assert that, simply because it is ridiculously unlikely, the scenario would represent a violation of the 2nd law.  The important point is that, while violations of the 2nd law are highly improbable (this improbability is the essence of the 2nd law in the statistical-mechanical formulation), not every improbable event is a violation of the 2nd law.  For example, if I flipped a coin 1000 times and came up “heads” each time, it would be highly improbable but would not violate any laws of thermodynamics.  [This is an invalid argument because there is no information in 1000 consecutive heads.  Why 1000?  Why not 1200?  Why not 10,000?  Dr. Harvey likes thought problems, so let’s illustrate using one.  For a moment, pretend that you are playing a game of Hearts.  Let’s further pretend that you have just been dealt the highly improbable hand of ALL hearts.  Not only that, but pretend further they were unbelievably dealt to you consecutively, the Deuce through the Ace.  Further, let’s say your pet dog Fido, pet parrot Pete, and pet hamsters Jake and Martha all were watching and “witnessed” this incredible improbability.  Tell me – does this hand mean something to all these “witnesses?”  Or just to the humans at the game?  You see, Fido and the rest of the animal gang have no inkling or appreciation of what just happened.  1000 consecutive heads or a straight consecutive hand of hearts means nothing to them.  It’s like reading Gulliver’s Travels to a cow.  The blueprints and technical specifications of a bored-and-stroked Chevy small block V-8 engine contain usable information for the mechanically-inclined gear head human, but the blueprints may elicit a urination event by Fido or worse by the parrot.  Information is detectable and usable only with intelligence.  The human brain’s intelligence and its complex speech computer are orders and orders of magnitude above that of our “fellow animals.” – MSS]

 

Finally, there is the use of “entropy” in situations where thermodynamics is simply not relevant.  One hears entropy invoked as an explanation for everything from my messy desk to the decline of society.  That is tolerable and perhaps even useful as a metaphor; certainly there is some similarity between the “decay” and “disorder” in these situations and the thermodynamic consequences of the 2nd law.  But we must not mistake metaphor for real physical law.  To do so can lead to false and even harmful conclusions, such as when “relativity” is invoked to argue against the idea of absolute right and wrong.  [Cute, but I detect little of use in this paragraph.  However, allow me to point out to the reader that it takes an intelligent agent to straighten the messy desk, and it takes a group or society of teamed intelligent agents to combat the decline of society.  Furthermore, the moral issues of right and wrong as applied to the decline of society came from somewhere.  And where is that where? – MSS]

 

 

The Second Law, Evil, and the Fall

 

My final topic is the occasional identification of entropy with “evil” or “death,” an identification often accompanied by the assertion that the 2nd law is a consequence of the Fall.  I believe that this is wrong for several reasons.  [NOTE: I am neutral with regard to the literalness of the Biblical account of the Fall.  I am open to the idea that it is a figurative account of mankind’s collective rejection of God’s authority.  For simplicity, this section uses terminology that presumes the literal interpretation.  But the arguments are not significantly affected if one takes a less literal view.]  [Dr. Harvey finally makes it official, he gives himself away, the mask comes off.  He is ambivalent to the truthfulness of Scripture and God’s account of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.  He is a Liberal Christian, picking and choosing amongst the smorgasbord of salad-bar Scriptural delights.  He stated at the beginning of this treatise, “I believe the Bible to be entirely trustworthy in conveying Gods messages,” but what he really meant was according to the trustworthy messages of Truths as Harvey sees it, not God. – MSS]

 

First, I believe the identification of the 2nd law with “evil” is a consequence of some of the misconceptions mentioned above.  We identify God (and therefore good) with “order,” but mistakenly identify the ungodly “disorder” in the world with the thermodynamic entropy.  Certainly entropy is a factor in some of the world’s “disorder,” such as the degradation of the environment.  But gravity, electromagnetism, and the 1st law are all involved as well, and there are no grounds for assigning any special “evil” role to the 2nd law.  Calling the 2nd law evil because it is involved in, for example, the decay that accompanies physical death is as unfounded as calling gravity evil when somebody falls off a cliff.  [True.  Amazingly, I concur. – MSS]

 

Second, the physical evidence strongly indicates that, like all God’s other physical laws, the 2nd law has been operating since creation.  Entropic processes are involved in the burning of the Sun and other stars (many of which emitted the light we see today longer ago than the 6000-20,000 years ago usually assigned to the Fall), and would have been involved as Adam and Eve walked, ate and digested their food, etc.  Assuming there were flowers in the garden, it is the 2nd law that allowed Adam and Eve to smell them (again speaking against the concept that entropy is inherently evil).  While it is not impossible that God had an entirely different set of physical laws in place before the Fall, such speculation is not supported by any scientific or Biblical evidence.  [True.  I concur again.  We’re on a roll! – MSS]

 

Third, we need to deal with Romans 8.18-23, which talks about (in the context of the final fulfillment of the Kingdom) how “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21, NRSV).  The “bondage to decay” is sometimes taken to refer to the 2nd law.  That interpretation is at best incomplete.  The Bible teaches (cf. Rev. 21) that, when all is said and done, God will throw out the current physical laws and create something that transcends all the limitations we now know.  So while the “repeal” of the 2nd law may be a part of what the passage refers to, it is at most only a small portion of a much greater transformation.  As to when the “bondage to decay” began, the passage says nothing to suggest it began with the Fall.  Some of it, in fact, seems to imply that this bondage has been an aspect of creation from the beginning.  [Don’t know about that last sentence, but with the rest, I concur. – MSS]

 

There may be an additional logical (and theological) fallacy at work in those who attribute the 2nd law to the Fall.  The (faulty) line of reasoning goes something like, “Since the 2nd law will not exist in God’s final Kingdom [that may or may not be the case], it must not have existed before the Fall.”  This simply does not follow.  Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that the final Kingdom will simply be a restoration to pre-Fall conditions.  Instead, it is pictured as something brand new and infinitely more glorious than what Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden.  [True.  Amazingly, I again concur.  Perhaps there’s hope for Dr. Harvey. – MSS]

 

With all that said, I should add that I do believe that the Fall has consequences.  The primary result, of course, is our separation from God and resultant need for salvation.  But Scripture does teach (Gen. 3.17) that there was also some negative consequence for our surroundings.  I do not deny that, in some sense, the ground (and maybe even all of creation) is “cursed” because of our sin (I lean toward viewing that as our relationship to the environment being corrupted by sin).  What I do deny is that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is any more a part of that curse than is gravity or any of the other physical laws God has crafted for His creation.  [I still agree.  Profoundly, Dr. Harvey has touched on a point that has also frustrated me.  I have debated / discussed with at least a half-dozen Bible-believing, traditional-thinking Christians who are convinced that SLOT never came about until the Fall.  Most of these fellow Christians have little or no education or exposure to the physical or engineering sciences, so they have glommed on to Scripture and perhaps a well-meaning but uninformed literalist preacher or teacher who teach that all physical Laws we see today were either suspended or not in existence before the Fall. – MSS]

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

I used to think about entropy childishly.  When I was about 20 and a fairly new Christian, I even wrote a poem called “The Second Law” in which I invoked entropy to explain decay of the human soul, of human society, and of Christ’s church.  [I later saw a “Life in Hell” cartoon listing “Entropy” as a topic about which all bad poets must eventually write.] Since then, I have learned more about thermodynamics and about God.  I know how alluring the simplistic entropy arguments sound.  But God calls us to truth, and that sometimes requires abandoning simplistic concepts.

 

My main purpose here is to dissuade my fellow followers of Christ from pursuing incorrect arguments based on a lack of understanding of the second law.  One might ask whether it is really important for Christians to think about entropy in a mature manner.  For many, it probably isn’t.  But for those who engage in apologetics, and for those who might find themselves defending the faith to those who are scientifically literate, I think it is important for three reasons.

 

The first is that, by abandoning these errors, we can focus more effectively on legitimate arguments for the faith.  While I do not subscribe to the notion that one can arrive at Christianity through pure reason, I do believe that it is reasonable in all respects.  With regard to origins, there are reasonable arguments that the universe and human life did not come about through random Godless chance.  But none of these arguments is based on thermodynamics, and it can only confuse the issues and obscure God’s truth when the 2nd law is inappropriately dragged in.  [True, but needs more clarity.  The reader will note that in Dr. Harvey’s original August 1996 treatise, he mentioned Hugh Ross, founder and president of Reasons to Believe.  Harvey had stated, “(Dr. Hugh Ross’s book The Creator and the Cosmos is a good read on these issues).  Dr. Ross has authored many outstanding books that make a positive, robust defense for the faith and for a Creator God from a scientific and Old Earth viewpoint.  Combined with other Old Earth and Intelligent Design authors, and equally outstanding books and articles from Young Earth Creationists (Henry Morris, John Morris, Duane Gish, D. Russell Humphreys, and many others), there is a vast body of literature that competently address origins, SLOT, and many other scientific avenues of our Universe and its biological life.  (The reader should note that after years of struggling / searching for the best approach, either Old Earth or Young Earth Creation, I have finally concluded that the proper Biblical and Scientific agreement and approach is that of Young Earth Creation.  Because Dr. Harvey thinks the arguments of Young Earth Creationists are silly, then he should know where I stand.)  – MSS, 24 July 2005]

 

The second reason is the special responsibility to truth we have as people of God.  There is no room for falsehood in God’s kingdom, even in the defense of the Gospel.  We should be diligent in our efforts to avoid bearing false witness, whether the victim is our next-door neighbor or Ludwig Boltzmann.  Worldly politicians or marketers may say “I don’t mind using a little falsehood as long as it helps persuade my audience,” but that is unacceptable for a Christian.  We who serve the God of truth should make a special effort to cleanse our words of all falsehood.  [I agree, but Dr. Harvey needs to look in the mirror and to look in Scripture to ensure he is on God’s side of the scientific world.  God is the author of everything – He owns our next breath, our next heartbeat.  The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.  Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1,2) and “And He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities -- all things have been created through Him and for Him.  He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.  He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” (Colossians 1:15-18)  Christians, regardless of how educated or uneducated they are, regardless of how many accolades have been paid them, regardless of how many advanced degrees they have, ultimately must acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior, and Creator of the Universe.  I have been tough and harsh regarding many of Dr. Harvey’s views, but it behooves us as Christians to test one another.  As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  – MSS]

 

 

Finally, there is the Christian witness to the world.  A small but not insignificant segment of the world is scientifically literate.  It is tragic that many think of Christians only as “those people with the crackpot arguments about a young Earth and entropy” and do not even consider the Gospel because they think it requires them to believe things they know to be as silly as a flat Earth.  The myth that Christianity is for stupid people is widespread, and part of the blame must rest on some Christians.  This harm to our witness will only be overcome if Christians refocus their message on central truths (like the fact that God created everything) rather than trivial side issues (like how He did it), and repudiate those arguments (like the misuse of the 2nd law) that are simply incorrect.  Many will still reject and belittle Christ and those who follow Him.  But if the world is going to laugh at us, let it at least be for a central doctrine like the Cross or the Resurrection, or for our insistence on loving everybody, not for mistaken pseudoscientific arguments on peripheral issues.  [Fact of the matter is, the Bible says “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”  (II Timothy 2:15 NIV)  Peter himself, an eyewitness and almost daily companion of Christ validated the Scriptures by saying, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”  (II Peter 1:16)  and  “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (II Peter 2:20-21)  Paul was well-versed in his opponents’ views and philosophies.  During his speech on Mars Hill, he replied to the Stoics and the Epicureans, “. . . . . Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.  Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23,24 NIV)  We see in Titus 1:12, “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”“ (NASB)  Here, Paul quoted from the Cretan poet Epimenides, who exaggerated for effect.  To Cretanize was to lie.  It is not enough to just know Scripture.  Paul knew his opponents cold and formulated his tactics accordingly.  The book of Genesis is foundational for the Christian.  Attack Genesis, weaken Genesis, and you weaken the Christian argument.  Since all Scripture is God-breathed, then Genesis is also to be trusted.  Technically-oriented Christians need to be accurate in their everyday work, and not just make things up or cling to ideas that merely confirm their feelings.  Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists all need to follow proper protocol and follow the scientific method to show their science is true.  It is exactly the obfuscation of facts, demonizing of Creationists, and philosophical slants that make the evolutionists worthy of our suspicions at all times.  This is a battle of worldviews, ideologies, a battle of religions, not science. – MSS]

 

 

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

 

Page last modified September 3, 2000

 

 

 

 


 

 

Appendix II

 

 

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

in the Context of the Christian Faith

 

Allan H. Harvey

aharvey@boulder.nist.gov

 

 

Introduction

 

This essay was written in response to the many questions that come up on the Science and Christianity mailing list that touch on issues of entropy and/or the second law of thermodynamics.  I found myself writing the same things repeatedly to straighten out various misconceptions.  So, with the permission of the moderator, I have written what is intended to be something between a personal essay and a FAQ on the topic.

 

Since this is written from my personal viewpoint, I owe it to the audience to state my background and qualifications and also the personal convictions which cannot help but influence what I write.

 

I have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering (UC-Berkeley, 1988), specializing in “Molecular Thermodynamics,” which combines classical and statistical thermodynamics to describe the thermophysical properties of fluids.  I then did two years of postdoctoral work, more or less in Chemical Physics, followed by four years in private industry.  I am now with the Physical and Chemical Properties Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado.  [By the way, nothing I say here should be construed as representing NIST or the US Government.]  I do not consider myself a specialist in the second law, but my overall expertise in thermodynamics is such that I feel I can shed light on the relevant issues.

 

I am an evangelical Christian.  I believe the Bible to be entirely trustworthy in conveying the messages God wants it to.  Where people get into trouble is when, for example, they take the message of Genesis 1 (that God created everything, including us) and try to read it as something it is not (i.e., an astronomy text).  I believe God’s revelation in his creation (which is consistent with his revelation in Scripture) makes it clear that the Earth and the Universe are billions of years old, and I sometimes get annoyed at the silly arguments of young-Earth creationists.  And even more annoyed when non-Christians see those arguments and get the false impression that the age of the Earth (rather than Christ) is what Christianity is all about.  I do believe that God created everything, but it does not matter to me (nor do I have a strong opinion) whether he did it as a series of separate sudden acts (the old-Earth creationism position) or by guiding mutations and other “natural” mechanisms (the theistic evolution position).

 

Finally, I should add that God seems to have given me a passion for truth.  Truth in all things, since all truth is God’s truth.  With that in mind, I welcome any correction and/or constructive criticism with regard to this document.  Such comments may be sent to aharvey@boulder.nist.gov.

 

 

What are the Laws of Thermodynamics?

 

To begin this nonrigorous exposition, we need a few definitions.  In thermodynamics, we must refer to a clearly defined system.  Textbooks commonly consider the system to be the contents of a box-like container.  But we could also define the system to be a specific cubic meter of the atmosphere above Phoenix, or the Earth (provided we define the boundary precisely), or my left kidney.  Everything in the universe that is not a part of the system is the surroundings.  Systems are divided into three categories: an isolated system can exchange neither matter nor energy with its surroundings, a closed system can exchange energy but not matter, and an open system can exchange both energy and matter.  The Earth, for example, is an open system, but might be considered closed if one neglected meteorites, space probes, etc.  It is not an isolated system because, among other things, it receives radiant energy from the Sun.  [NOTE: this categorization is not universally used; in particular it is not uncommon to hear an isolated system as defined above described as “closed.”]

 

The first law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of conservation of energy, states that the total energy of any system remains the same, except to the extent it exchanges energy with its surroundings.  This exchange can be in the form of heat transfer (perhaps by placing a hot body in thermal contact with a non-isolated system) or work (perhaps by compressing the system via a piston).  This gets modified a little to account for matter/energy conversion (important if the system is the Sun), but it is basically the simple idea that energy is never created or destroyed.

 

The second law is trickier.  There are many statements of it; perhaps the simplest is that it is impossible for there to exist any process whose only effect is to transfer energy from a system at a low temperature to one at a higher temperature.  In other words, heat flows downhill.  The 2nd law is also formulated in terms of entropy, a well-defined quantity in terms of heat flows and temperature.  Another statement of the 2nd law is that, for any isolated system, the entropy remains the same during any reversible process and increases during any irreversible process.  The 2nd law also places bounds on the entropy change in a non-isolated system in relation to the temperatures of the system and the surroundings and the amount of energy leaving or entering it, but it is important to note that a system can experience a decrease in entropy if it is exchanging energy with the surroundings.  There is also a definition of entropy (and therefore a statement of the 2nd law) in the context of statistical physics; that will be dealt with later.  The important thing to remember is that the 2nd law is ultimately a statement about heat flows, work, and temperature, and also about the direction of time.  It states that, as time goes forward, the overall effect is for energy to flow from hot things to cold things, and talks about the amount of work that can be done by such a process.  As a consequence of this change over time, any isolated system will, given infinite time, reach a state where it is completely equilibrated in temperature and no longer has any capacity to perform work.  This is the famous “heat death” predicted by the second law.

 

The third law concerns changes in entropy as the temperature approaches absolute zero, and indirectly can be used to show the impossibility of attaining absolute zero.  It does not come up in the contexts of concern in this essay, so we will not discuss it further.

 

Finally, I want to mention a book for those interested in further study.  For those with a decent technical background (a year of college calculus and a semester each of chemistry and physics should suffice), an excellent exposition is given in the introductory chapters of Entropy, by J.D. Fast, McGraw Hill, 1962.  [NOTE: Fast’s classic work should not be confused with a book of the same title written around 1980 by notorious gadfly Jeremy Rifkin.]  Of course any textbook on thermodynamics (a topic taught in Physics, Chemistry, and Chemical and Mechanical Engineering) will cover these topics.

 

 

A Brief History of the Second Law

 

Some of the following information is adapted from Ira N. Levine, Physical Chemistry, McGraw-Hill, 1978.

 

Something that was roughly the 2nd law was stated by French engineer Sadi Carnot in 1824 with regard to the efficiency of steam engines.  [Carnot may also have been the first to postulate the 1st law, but he never published that and got no credit until long after his death.]  Carnot’s work was almost universally ignored, but was rediscovered (and stripped of its tie to the pre-1st-law “caloric” theory of heat) in the 1840’s.  Around 1850 came the first rigorous statements of the 2nd law by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and Rudolph Clausius.  It was Clausius who first defined the quantity entropy and coined the word (from a Greek word meaning “transformation”).  He made the often-quoted brief statement of the first and second laws: “Die Energie der Welt ist Konstant.  Die Entropie der Welt strebt einem Maximum zu.” [rough translation: The energy of the world (more properly, an isolated system) is constant.  The entropy of the world strives toward a maximum.]  Maxwell made his contributions a little later, followed by Boltzmann.  Their main contributions here were in tying things to the concept of molecules (including the science of statistical mechanics, which they basically invented though Gibbs brought it to maturity), which was not a part of the thinking of people like Kelvin and Clausius.

 

 

The Second Law and Creation

 

Now we address the context in which the 2nd law arises in creation arguments.  The usual argument goes something like this: “The 2nd law says everything tends toward increasing entropy (randomness and disorder).  But the evolution of life involves the development of great complexity and order.  Therefore, evolution is impossible by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.” While it sounds simple, there are major flaws in this argument that render it worthless.

 

 

Flaw #1: The Earth is Not an Isolated System

 

We must remember that it is only in isolated systems that entropy is forced to increase.  Systems that can exchange energy with their surroundings have no such restriction.  For example, water can freeze into ice (becoming more ordered and decreasing its entropy) by giving up heat to its surroundings (this increases the entropy of the surroundings, of course).  In the case of the Earth, the Sun is a major source of energy, and the Earth also radiates energy into space.  One consequence of thermodynamics is that, when energy comes from a “hot” source (like the Sun) and is output to a “cold” reservoir (like space), it can be used to do work, which means that “complexity” or “order” can be produced.  The main point is that, for a non-isolated system, an increase in “complexity” (assuming for the moment that one can connect that concept with entropy - see the next section) does not necessarily indicate a violation of the 2nd law.  Perhaps the best example is the development of a human fetus into an adult; this is the production of a more complex system but involves no violation (as far as we know) of the laws of thermodynamics.

 

 

Flaw #2: How do You Measure a Planet’s Entropy?

 

We have a vague intuition about “disorder” corresponding to entropy and “complexity” corresponding to a decrease in entropy.  But the 2nd law is not about vague intuitions; it is a rigorous statement about quantifiable flows of energy at different temperatures.  And we cannot even begin to compute the thermodynamic quantities that would be required to talk intelligently about the 2nd-law implications of the development of life on Earth.

 

I can think of two (related) reasons why we can’t apply 2nd-law analysis in any meaningful way.  The first is that it is a practical impossibility to quantify the entropy of any living creature.  We can intuitively guess that a human is more thermodynamically “complex” than the equivalent mass of amoebae or prebiotic soup, and that would probably even be correct.  But we are not isolated (or even closed) systems, and humans certainly add to the entropy of our surroundings (more than the amoebae do), for example as we digest complex foods.  How do all these factors balance out?  Nobody knows, and it would take advances of many orders of magnitude in several branches of science (not to mention computing power) to come close to quantifying them sufficiently.  Second is the large number of factors and processes involved.  Considering humans - or even all life on Earth - in isolation is not valid.  Why?  Because life also interacts with the soil, the atmosphere, the oceans, heat from the Sun, and even heat from the Earth’s interior.  If we want to apply 2nd-law analysis to the development of life, we must look at the NET effect of ALL these interactions.  Again, we can’t quantify these factors enough to say how they balance out.

 

While physics does not tell us directly whether the development of life has violated the 2nd law, a simple thought experiment described in the next section suggests that it has not.

 

 

Flaw #3: An Internal Inconsistency

 

Some creationists assert that advanced (especially human) life represents a decrease in entropy which violates the 2nd law, and they therefore invoke intervention by God, who is outside the laws of thermodynamics.  They also, however, generally assert that this particular “intervention” stopped with the creation of man, and that (with the exception of the occasional miracle) God has allowed things to develop in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics and other physical laws since then.

 

These two assertions are, however, mutually inconsistent.  The reason is that entropy is strictly an additive quantity.  If the 2nd law has not been violated as the number of humans grew from two to 5 billion, it is ridiculous to assert that it was violated in the comparatively minuscule change from zero to two.  If we say that the first two humans represented a violation of the 2nd law, the only logical conclusion would be that God must be continually intervening in violation of the 2nd law in order to increase the number of humans on Earth.  While God is certainly capable of this, there is no evidence to suggest that such gross violations of the 2nd law are happening as complex life forms like humans reproduce and increase in number.  [NOTE: All this is not to say that God’s creation of human life was not miraculous.  My only point is that the specific assertion that the existence of human life in and of itself violates the 2nd law is unfounded.]

 

 

What About the Universe?

 

An occasional creationist response to flaw #1 mentioned above is to say that, while the Earth is not an isolated system, the universe as a whole is.  That is, of course, correct in that the universe is the ultimate example of an isolated system.  However, this does not help the argument they are trying to make.  Astrophysicists, using data such as the cosmic background radiation, have verified that the universe has obeyed the second law of thermodynamics very well since the time of the big bang.  The 2nd law predicts that something small and hot should become larger and colder, and that is just what has happened.  The existence of some ordered life in a little corner of the universe like ours is a drop in the bucket - when the whole system is considered (and 2nd-law analysis must always consider the entire system), there is no violation of the 2nd law in the development of the universe.

 

So what about “before” the inception of the universe?  Can it be said that bringing into existence the hot, pointlike early universe from nothing was a violation of the 2nd law?  While that argument has a certain appeal, and I believe the creation of the universe to have been miraculous, I think a 2nd-law argument is inappropriate here as well.  The 2nd law is an attribute of the physical universe, describing how systems go with time.  Modern physics tells us that the physical universe is not just space but also contains time as a fundamental dimension.  The process by which all that came to be is not something that can be addressed by the laws (including the laws of thermodynamics) characterizing the resulting universe.

 

 

What About Information Theory?

 

Flaw #2 above is sometimes attacked by referring to information theory, which contains a quantity called “entropy.” While I am no expert in information theory, I can say enough to deal with that particular argument.

 

As a preliminary, we must talk about the definition of entropy from statistical physics.  This definition is mostly due to Boltzmann, and is even engraved on his tombstone.  Boltzmann defined the entropy of a system in terms of the number of different states available to it.  So, for example, the expansion of a gas into double its original volume at constant temperature would represent an increase in entropy, because each molecule would have twice as much volume (and therefore twice as many “states”) accessible to it.  It is this definition that causes entropy to be thought of in terms of “disorder,” because a highly ordered system like a crystal has fewer available states.  While it is an exaggeration to say that Boltzmann’s identification of this quantity with the thermodynamic entropy has been “proven,” it is universally accepted.

 

More recently, a field has arisen called information theory.  This deals with, among other things, quantifying the “information content” of various systems.  Some of the results of information theory resemble the results of statistical physics, so much so that in certain well-defined conditions a quantity can be defined that is labeled “entropy” and that obeys something analogous to the 2nd law.  While the identification of the information entropy with its thermodynamic counterpart is controversial, it is plausible enough to be taken seriously.

 

So some creationists, recognizing that their argument does not apply to the thermodynamic entropy, assert that it does make sense in terms of the information entropy.  This is because information theory talks about things more directly related to “complexity” and “disorder.” But Flaw #2 above (in addition to Flaws #1 and #3) applies equally to the information entropy.  If the 2nd law is to be applicable at all in this context, we must be able to make the rigorous definitions of information content required by the theory.  But, just as we cannot measure the thermodynamic entropy of a person or of the Earth, we cannot begin to quantify the “information content” either.  Whatever definition of entropy we use, we simply don’t have enough information (no pun intended) to apply 2nd-law analysis in any sensible way to the question of the development of life on Earth.

 

 

Other Abuses of the Second Law

 

A common misuse of the 2nd law occurs in connection with events that are highly improbable.  An example is the hypothetical origin of life from normal chemical processes, which has been compared to unlikely occurrences such as the assembly of a 747 by a tornado passing through a junkyard.  That may or may not be an appropriate analogy, but the misuse comes in when it is asserted that, simply because it is ridiculously unlikely, the scenario would represent a violation of the 2nd law.  The important point is that, while violations of the 2nd law are highly improbable (this improbability is the essence of the 2nd law in the statistical-mechanical formulation), not every improbable event is a violation of the 2nd law.  For example, if I flipped a coin 1000 times and came up “heads” each time, it would be highly improbable but would not violate any laws of thermodynamics.

 

Finally, there is the use of “entropy” in situations where thermodynamics is simply not relevant.  One hears entropy invoked as an explanation for everything from my messy desk to the decline of American society.  And that is tolerable and perhaps even useful as a metaphor; certainly there is some similarity between the “decay” and “disorder” in these situations and the thermodynamic consequences of the 2nd law.  But we must not mistake metaphor for real physical law.  To do so can lead to false and even harmful conclusions, such as when “relativity” is invoked to argue against the idea of absolute right and wrong.

 

 

The Second Law, Evil, and the Fall

 

My final topic is the occasional identification of entropy with “evil” or “death,” an identification often accompanied by the assertion that the 2nd law is a consequence of the Fall.  I believe that this is wrong for several reasons.  [NOTE: I am neutral with regard to the literalness of the Biblical account of the Fall.  I am open to the idea that it is an allegorical account of mankind’s collective rejection of God’s authority.  For simplicity, this section uses terminology that presumes the literal interpretation.  But the arguments are not significantly affected if one takes a less literal view.]

 

First, I believe the identification of the 2nd law with “evil” is a consequence of some of the misconceptions mentioned above.  We identify God (and therefore good) with “order,” but mistakenly identify the ungodly “disorder” in the world with the thermodynamic entropy.  Certainly entropy is a factor in some of the world’s “disorder,” such as the degradation of the environment.  But gravity, electromagnetism, and the 1st law are all involved as well, and there are no grounds for assigning any special “evil” role to the 2nd law.  Calling the 2nd law evil because it is involved in, for example, the decay that accompanies physical death is as unfounded as calling gravity evil when somebody falls off a cliff.

 

Second, the physical evidence strongly indicates that, like all God’s other physical laws, the 2nd law has been operating since creation.  Entropic processes are involved in the burning of the Sun and other stars (many of which emitted the light we see today longer ago than the 6000-20,000 years ago usually assigned to the Fall), and would have been involved as Adam and Eve walked, ate and digested their food, etc.  While it is not impossible that God had an entirely different set of physical laws in place before the Fall, such speculation is not supported by any scientific or Biblical evidence.

 

Third, we need to deal with Romans 8:18-23, which talks about (in the context of the final fulfillment of the Kingdom) how “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21, NRSV).  The “bondage to decay” is sometimes taken to refer to the 2nd law.  While that is not an unreasonable interpretation, I feel it is at best incomplete.  The Bible teaches (cf. Rev. 21) that, when all is said and done, God will throw out the current physical laws and create something that transcends all the limitations we now know.  So while the “repeal” of the 2nd law may be a part of what the passage refers to, it is at most only a small portion of a much greater transformation.  As to when the “bondage to decay” began, the passage says nothing to suggest it began with the Fall.  Some of it, in fact, seems to imply that this bondage has been an aspect of creation from the beginning.

 

There may be an additional logical (and theological) fallacy at work in those who attribute the 2nd law to the Fall.  The (faulty) line of reasoning goes something like, “Since the 2nd law will not exist in God’s final Kingdom, it must not have existed before the Fall.” This simply does not follow.  Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that the final Kingdom will simply be a restoration to pre-Fall conditions.  Instead, it is pictured as something brand new and infinitely more glorious than what Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden.

 

With all that said, I should add that I do believe that the Fall has consequences.  The primary result, of course, is our separation from God and resultant need for salvation.  But Scripture does teach (Gen. 3:17) that there was also some negative consequence for our surroundings.  I do not deny that, in some sense, the ground (and maybe all of Earth or even all of creation) is “cursed” because of our sin.  What I do deny is that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is any more a part of that curse than is gravity or any of the other physical laws God has chosen to impose on His creation.

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

I used to think about entropy childishly.  When I was about 20 and a fairly new Christian, I even wrote a poem called “The Second Law” in which I invoked entropy to explain decay of the human soul, of human society, and of Christ’s church.  [I later saw a “Life in Hell” cartoon listing “Entropy” as a topic about which all bad poets must eventually write.]   Since then, I have learned more about thermodynamics and about God.  I know how alluring the simplistic entropy arguments sound.  But God calls us to truth, and that sometimes requires abandoning simplistic concepts.

 

My main purpose here is to dissuade my fellow followers of Christ from pursuing incorrect arguments based on a lack of understanding of the second law.  One might ask whether it is really important for Christians to think about entropy in a mature manner.  For many, it probably isn’t.  But for those who engage in apologetics, and for those who might find themselves defending the faith to those who are scientifically literate, I think it is important for three reasons.

 

The first is that, by abandoning these mistaken views, we can focus more effectively on the legitimate arguments for the faith.  While I do not subscribe to the notion that one can arrive at Christianity through pure reason, I do believe that it is reasonable in all respects.  With regard to origins, there are reasonable arguments that the universe and human life did not come about through random Godless chance (Dr. Hugh Ross’s book The Creator and the Cosmos is a good read on these issues).  But none of these arguments is based on the second law of thermodynamics, and it can only confuse the issues and obscure God’s truth when the 2nd law is inappropriately dragged in.

 

The second reason is the special responsibility to truth we have as people of God.  There is no room for falsehood in God’s kingdom, even in the defense of the Gospel.  We should be diligent in our efforts to avoid bearing false witness, whether the victim is our next-door neighbor or Ludwig Boltzmann.  Those who argue from a worldly position (like politicians) may be able to say “I don’t mind getting a few facts wrong as long as they help me persuade my audience,” but in my mind that is an unacceptable position for a Christian.  We who serve the God of truth should make a special effort to cleanse our words of all falsehood.

 

Finally, there is the issue of the Christian witness to the world.  A small but not insignificant segment of the world is scientifically literate.  It is tragic that many of these people think of Christians only as “those people with the crackpot arguments about a young Earth and entropy.” I fear that many do not even consider the Gospel because of the mistaken notion that it requires them to believe things they know to be as silly as a flat Earth.  The myth that Christianity is only for stupid people is widespread, and part of the blame must rest on some Christians.  This harm to our witness will only be overcome if Christians refocus their message on central truths (like the fact that God created everything) rather than trivial side issues (like how He did it), and repudiate those arguments (like the misuse of the 2nd law) that are simply incorrect.  We know many will still reject and belittle Christ and those who follow Him.  But if the world is going to laugh at us, let it at least be for a central doctrine like the Resurrection or for our insistence on loving everybody, not for mistaken pseudoscientific arguments on peripheral issues.

 

 

 

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Appendix III

 

 

The Second Law of Thermodynamics
in the Context of the Christian Faith

Allan H. Harvey
steamdoc@aol.com

 

Introduction

 

This essay was written in response to questions that came up on the Science and Christianity mailing list touching on issues of entropy and/or the second law of thermodynamics.  I found myself writing the same things repeatedly to straighten out various misconceptions.  So, I have written something between a personal essay and a FAQ on the topic.  Since this is written from my personal viewpoint, I will start by stating my background and personal convictions which cannot help but influence what I write.

 

I have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering (UC-Berkeley, 1988), specializing in “Molecular Thermodynamics,” which combines classical and statistical thermodynamics to describe the thermophysical properties of fluids.  I then did two years of postdoctoral work, more or less in Chemical Physics, followed by four years in private industry.  I am now with the Physical and Chemical Properties Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado.  [Nothing I say here should be construed as representing NIST or the US Government.] I do not consider myself a specialist specifically in the second law, but my overall expertise in thermodynamics is sufficient to shed light on the relevant issues.

 

I am an evangelical Christian.  I believe the Bible to be entirely trustworthy in conveying God’s messages.  Where people get into trouble is when, for example, they take the message of Genesis 1 (that God created everything, including us) and try to read it as something it is not (i.e., a science text).  I get annoyed at the silly arguments of “creation science,” but what is more annoying is when non-Christians see those arguments and get the false impression that such issues (rather than Christ) are what Christianity is all about.  I do believe that God created everything, but how and when and to what extent that involved his sovereignty over “natural” processes are secondary questions that should not divide the church.

 

Finally, I should add that God has given me a passion for truth.  Truth in all things, since all truth is God’s truth.  I therefore welcome correction or constructive criticism on this document.

 

 

What are the Laws of Thermodynamics?

 

First, we need a few definitions.  In thermodynamics, we must refer to a clearly defined system.  Textbooks commonly consider the system to be the contents of a box-like container.  But we could also define it to be a specific cubic meter of the atmosphere above Phoenix, or the Earth (provided we define the boundary precisely), or my left kidney.  Everything in the universe that is not a part of the system is the surroundings.  Systems are divided into three categories: an isolated system can exchange neither matter nor energy with its surroundings, a closed system can exchange energy but not matter, and an open system can exchange both energy and matter.  The Earth, for example, is an open system, but might be considered closed if one neglected meteors, space probes, etc.  It is not an isolated system because, among other things, it receives radiant energy from the Sun.  [NOTE: this categorization is not universally used; in particular it is not uncommon to hear an isolated system as defined above described as “closed.”]

 

The first law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of conservation of energy, states that the total energy of any system remains the same, except to the extent it exchanges energy with its surroundings.  This exchange can be in the form of heat transfer (perhaps by placing a hot body in thermal contact with the system) or work (perhaps by compressing the system via a piston).  This gets modified a little for matter/energy conversion (important if the system is the Sun), but it is basically the simple idea that energy is never created or destroyed.

 

The second law is trickier.  There are many statements of it; perhaps the simplest is that it is impossible for there to exist any process whose only effect is to transfer energy from a system at a low temperature to one at a higher temperature.  In other words, heat flows downhill.  The 2nd law is also formulated in terms of entropy, a well-defined quantity in terms of heat flows and temperature.  Another statement of the 2nd law is that, for any isolated system, the entropy remains the same during any reversible process and increases during any irreversible process.  The 2nd law also places bounds on the entropy change in a non-isolated system in relation to the temperatures of the system and the surroundings and the amount of energy leaving or entering it, but it is important to note that a system can experience a decrease in entropy if it is exchanging energy with its surroundings.  The 2nd law is ultimately a statement about heat flows, work, and temperature, and also about the direction of time.  It states that, as time goes forward, the overall effect is for energy to dissipate from hot things to cold things.

 

The third law concerns changes in entropy as the temperature approaches absolute zero, and indirectly can be used to show the impossibility of attaining absolute zero.  It does not come up in the contexts of concern in this essay.

 

For those who want to learn more, I recommend The Second Law, by P.W. Atkins, Scientific American Books, New York, 1994.  This is a well-written popular introduction to the subject.  The reader is cautioned, however, that Atkins has a bias toward metaphysical naturalism which sometimes leads him to extrapolate from the science to unfounded metaphysical conclusions.  If you can ignore the philosophy and stick to the science, you will learn a lot from his book.  A good exposition at a higher technical level is given in the introductory chapters of Entropy, by J.D. Fast, McGraw Hill, 1962.  [NOTE: Fast’s classic work should not be confused with a book of the same title written around 1980 by notorious gadfly Jeremy Rifkin.] Of course any college textbook on thermodynamics will cover these topics.

 

A Brief History of the Second Law

 

Some of the following information is adapted from Ira N. Levine, Physical Chemistry, McGraw-Hill, 1978.

 

Something that was roughly the 2nd law was stated by French engineer Sadi Carnot in 1824 with regard to the efficiency of steam engines.  [Carnot may also have been the first to postulate the 1st law, but he never published that and got no credit until long after his death.] Carnot’s work was almost universally ignored, but was rediscovered (and stripped of its tie to the pre-1st-law “caloric” theory of heat) in the 1840’s.  Around 1850 came the first rigorous statements of the 2nd law by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and Rudolph Clausius.  It was Clausius who first defined the quantity entropy and coined the word (from a Greek word meaning “transformation”).  He made the often-quoted brief statement of the first and second laws: “Die Energie der Welt ist Konstant.  Die Entropie der Welt strebt einem Maximum zu.” [rough translation: The energy of the world (more properly, an isolated system) is constant.  The entropy of the world strives toward a maximum.] Maxwell made his contributions a little later, followed by Boltzmann.  Their main contributions here were in tying things to the concept of molecules (including the science of statistical mechanics, which they basically invented though Gibbs brought it to maturity), which was not a part of the thinking of people like Kelvin and Clausius.

 

The Second Law and Creation

 

Now we address the context in which the 2nd law arises in creation arguments.  The usual argument goes something like this: “The 2nd law says everything tends toward increasing entropy (randomness and disorder).  But the evolution of life involves the development of great complexity and order.  Therefore, evolution is impossible by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.” While it sounds simple, there are major flaws in this argument that render it worthless.

 

The Earth is Not an Isolated System

 

It is only in isolated systems that entropy must increase.  Systems that can exchange energy with their surroundings have no such restriction.  For example, water can freeze into ice (becoming more ordered and decreasing its entropy) by giving up heat to its surroundings (this increases the entropy of the surroundings, of course).  In the case of the Earth, the Sun is a major source of energy, and the Earth also radiates energy into space.  One consequence of thermodynamics is that, when energy comes from a “hot” source (like the Sun) and is output to a “cold” reservoir (like space), it can be used to do work, which means that “complexity” or “order” can be produced.  The main point is that, for a non-isolated system, an increase in “complexity” (to the extent one can connect that concept with the thermodynamic entropy, which is far from straightforward for living creatures) does not necessarily indicate a violation of the 2nd law.  A good example is the development of a human fetus into an adult; this is the production of a more thermodynamically complex system but involves no violation of the laws of thermodynamics.

 

It is worth mentioning here that the usual reply to creationists that “the second law doesn’t apply to non-isolated systems” is not quite correct.  The second law always applies; in fact, it was originally developed for non-isolated systems (the working fluid of a heat engine).  The key point is that it is only in isolated systems that the second law takes the simplified “entropy must increase” form.  For non-isolated systems, the second law still applies as a statement about heat flows and temperatures, just not in the form used in creationist arguments.

 

An Internal Inconsistency

 

Some creationists assert that advanced (especially human) life represents a decrease in entropy which violates the 2nd law, and they therefore invoke intervention by God, who is outside the laws of thermodynamics.  They also, however, generally assert that this particular “intervention” stopped with the creation of man, and that (with the exception of the occasional miracle) God has allowed things to develop in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics and other physical laws since then.

 

These two assertions are, however, mutually inconsistent.  The reason is that the thermodynamic entropy is strictly an additive quantity.  If the 2nd law has not been violated as the number of humans grew from two to 6 billion, it is ridiculous to assert that it was violated in the comparatively minuscule change from zero to two.  If we say that the first two humans represented a violation of the 2nd law, the logical conclusion would be that God must be continually intervening in violation of the 2nd law in order to increase the number of humans on Earth.  While God is certainly capable of this, there is no evidence to suggest that such violations are happening as complex life forms like humans reproduce and increase in number.  [NOTE: All this is not to say that God’s creation of human life was not miraculous.  My only point is that the specific assertion that the existence of human life in and of itself violates the 2nd law is unfounded.]

 

What About the Universe?

 

An occasional creationist response to the first flaw mentioned above is to say that, while the Earth is not an isolated system, the universe as a whole is.  However, this does not help the argument they are trying to make.  Astrophysicists, using data such as the cosmic background radiation, have verified that the universe has obeyed the second law of thermodynamics very well since the time of the big bang.  The 2nd law predicts that something small and hot should become larger and colder, and that is just what has happened.  The existence of some ordered life in a little corner of the universe like ours is a drop in the bucket - when the whole system is considered (which one must always do in thermodynamics), there is no violation of the second law in the development of the universe.

 

So what about “before” the inception of the universe?  Can it be said that bringing into existence the hot, pointlike early universe from nothing was a violation of the 2nd law?  While that argument has a certain appeal, and I believe the creation of the universe to have been miraculous, I think a 2nd-law argument is inappropriate here as well.  The 2nd law is an attribute of the physical universe, describing how systems go with time.  Modern physics tells us that the physical universe is not just space but also contains time as a fundamental dimension.  The process by which all that came to be is not something that can be addressed by the laws (including the laws of thermodynamics) characterizing the resulting universe.

 

What About Information Theory?

 

Since their arguments do not work in terms of thermodynamics, some anti-evolutionists turn to information theory, which contains a quantity called “entropy.” While I am no expert in information theory, I can offer some relevant comments.

 

As a preliminary, we must talk about the definition of entropy from statistical physics.  This definition is mostly due to Boltzmann, and is even engraved on his tombstone.  He defined the entropy of a system in terms of the number of different states available to it.  So, for example, the expansion of a gas into double its original volume at constant temperature would represent an increase in entropy, because each molecule would have twice as much volume (and therefore twice as many “states”) accessible to it.  It is this definition that causes entropy to be thought of in terms of “disorder,” because a highly ordered system like a crystal has fewer available states.  Boltzmann’s identification of this quantity with the thermodynamic entropy is now universally accepted.

 

More recently, a field has arisen called information theory.  This deals with, among other things, quantifying the “information content” of various systems.  Some of the results of information theory resemble the results of statistical physics, so much so that in certain well-defined conditions a quantity can be defined that is labeled “entropy” and that obeys something analogous to the 2nd law.  While the identification of the information entropy with its thermodynamic counterpart is controversial, it is plausible enough to be taken seriously.

 

So some creationists, recognizing that their argument fails for the thermodynamic entropy, assert it in terms of the information entropy, which talks about things related to “complexity” and “disorder.” It still doesn’t work.  First, there are real problems, without satisfactory solutions thus far, in quantifying the information entropy of living things.  Someday this may be do-able, but right now science is not sufficiently well-developed to make definitive statements with regard to information entropy and life.  Second, the first flaw mentioned above still applies in that the systems under consideration are not isolated.  This means that, even if one can apply a “second law” to them, it will not be in the simple “entropy must increase” form valid for isolated systems.  Finally, I can mention that, contrary to statements one finds in the creationist literature, cases are known in which genetic “information” (by some reasonable definition of the term) in living creatures can increase via natural processes.

 

What about “Energy Conversion Mechanisms”?

 

A few of those invoking the 2nd law to oppose evolution have recognized the isolated system problem, and responded by saying that for work and structure to be produced in a system, it is not enough to have energy flow, one must also have an “energy conversion mechanism.” This statement is actually correct, but it does not help the anti-evolution cause.  The biochemistry of life is full of such mechanisms (a more standard name is “dissipative structures”).  Photosynthesis is one example, as are other pieces of the biochemistry of the cell.  With these structures in place (in other words, once life exists), there is then no obstacle from the standpoint of thermodynamics to the evolution of more and different life.

 

One might, of course, ask about the origin of these dissipative structures.  This is a legitimate question, though not really one of “evolution” (which normally refers to the development of life from other life) but instead one of “abiogenesis.” Whether or not the biochemistry of life could arise “naturally” is one where the evidence is not so clear, and legitimate arguments can be made here.  However, at this level the arguments are primarily about plausibility of chemical mechanisms rather than thermodynamics (and those who use them should not say their position is based on thermodynamics), so they are outside the scope of this essay.

 

Other Abuses of the Second Law

 

A common misuse of the 2nd law occurs in connection with events that are highly improbable.  An example is the hypothetical origin of life from normal chemical processes, which has been compared to unlikely occurrences such as the assembly of a 747 by a tornado passing through a junkyard.  That may or may not be an appropriate analogy, but it is definitely mistaken to assert that, simply because it is ridiculously unlikely, the scenario would represent a violation of the 2nd law.  The important point is that, while violations of the 2nd law are highly improbable (this improbability is the essence of the 2nd law in the statistical-mechanical formulation), not every improbable event is a violation of the 2nd law.  For example, if I flipped a coin 1000 times and came up “heads” each time, it would be highly improbable but would not violate any laws of thermodynamics.

 

Finally, there is the use of “entropy” in situations where thermodynamics is simply not relevant.  One hears entropy invoked as an explanation for everything from my messy desk to the decline of society.  That is tolerable and perhaps even useful as a metaphor; certainly there is some similarity between the “decay” and “disorder” in these situations and the thermodynamic consequences of the 2nd law.  But we must not mistake metaphor for real physical law.  To do so can lead to false and even harmful conclusions, such as when “relativity” is invoked to argue against the idea of absolute right and wrong.

 

The Second Law, Evil, and the Fall

 

My final topic is the occasional identification of entropy with “evil” or “death,” an identification often accompanied by the assertion that the 2nd law is a consequence of the Fall.  I believe that this is wrong for several reasons.  [NOTE: I am neutral with regard to the literalness of the Biblical account of the Fall.  I am open to the idea that it is a figurative account of mankind’s collective rejection of God’s authority.  For simplicity, this section uses terminology that presumes the literal interpretation.  But the arguments are not significantly affected if one takes a less literal view.]

 

First, I believe the identification of the 2nd law with “evil” is a consequence of some of the misconceptions mentioned above.  We identify God (and therefore good) with “order,” but mistakenly identify the ungodly “disorder” in the world with the thermodynamic entropy.  Certainly entropy is a factor in some of the world’s “disorder,” such as the degradation of the environment.  But gravity, electromagnetism, and the 1st law are all involved as well, and there are no grounds for assigning any special “evil” role to the 2nd law.  Calling the 2nd law evil because it is involved in, for example, the decay that accompanies physical death is as unfounded as calling gravity evil when somebody falls off a cliff.

 

Second, the physical evidence strongly indicates that, like all God’s other physical laws, the 2nd law has been operating since creation.  Entropic processes are involved in the burning of the Sun and other stars (many of which emitted the light we see today longer ago than the 6000-20,000 years ago usually assigned to the Fall), and would have been involved as Adam and Eve walked, ate and digested their food, etc.  Assuming there were flowers in the garden, it is the 2nd law that allowed Adam and Eve to smell them (again speaking against the concept that entropy is inherently evil).  While it is not impossible that God had an entirely different set of physical laws in place before the Fall, such speculation is not supported by any scientific or Biblical evidence.

 

Third, we need to deal with Romans 8.18-23, which talks about (in the context of the final fulfillment of the Kingdom) how “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21, NRSV).  The “bondage to decay” is sometimes taken to refer to the 2nd law.  That interpretation is at best incomplete.  The Bible teaches (cf. Rev. 21) that, when all is said and done, God will throw out the current physical laws and create something that transcends all the limitations we now know.  So while the “repeal” of the 2nd law may be a part of what the passage refers to, it is at most only a small portion of a much greater transformation.  As to when the “bondage to decay” began, the passage says nothing to suggest it began with the Fall.  Some of it, in fact, seems to imply that this bondage has been an aspect of creation from the beginning.

 

There may be an additional logical (and theological) fallacy at work in those who attribute the 2nd law to the Fall.  The (faulty) line of reasoning goes something like, “Since the 2nd law will not exist in God’s final Kingdom [that may or may not be the case], it must not have existed before the Fall.” This simply does not follow.  Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that the final Kingdom will simply be a restoration to pre-Fall conditions.  Instead, it is pictured as something brand new and infinitely more glorious than what Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden.

 

With all that said, I should add that I do believe that the Fall has consequences.  The primary result, of course, is our separation from God and resultant need for salvation.  But Scripture does teach (Gen. 3.17) that there was also some negative consequence for our surroundings.  I do not deny that, in some sense, the ground (and maybe even all of creation) is “cursed” because of our sin (I lean toward viewing that as our relationship to the environment being corrupted by sin).  What I do deny is that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is any more a part of that curse than is gravity or any of the other physical laws God has crafted for His creation.

 

Final Thoughts

 

I used to think about entropy childishly.  When I was about 20 and a fairly new Christian, I even wrote a poem called “The Second Law” in which I invoked entropy to explain decay of the human soul, of human society, and of Christ’s church.  [I later saw a “Life in Hell” cartoon listing “Entropy” as a topic about which all bad poets must eventually write.] Since then, I have learned more about thermodynamics and about God.  I know how alluring the simplistic entropy arguments sound.  But God calls us to truth, and that sometimes requires abandoning simplistic concepts.

 

My main purpose here is to dissuade my fellow followers of Christ from pursuing incorrect arguments based on a lack of understanding of the second law.  One might ask whether it is really important for Christians to think about entropy in a mature manner.  For many, it probably isn’t.  But for those who engage in apologetics, and for those who might find themselves defending the faith to those who are scientifically literate, I think it is important for three reasons.

 

The first is that, by abandoning these errors, we can focus more effectively on legitimate arguments for the faith.  While I do not subscribe to the notion that one can arrive at Christianity through pure reason, I do believe that it is reasonable in all respects.  With regard to origins, there are reasonable arguments that the universe and human life did not come about through random Godless chance.  But none of these arguments is based on thermodynamics, and it can only confuse the issues and obscure God’s truth when the 2nd law is inappropriately dragged in.

 

The second reason is the special responsibility to truth we have as people of God.  There is no room for falsehood in God’s kingdom, even in the defense of the Gospel.  We should be diligent in our efforts to avoid bearing false witness, whether the victim is our next-door neighbor or Ludwig Boltzmann.  Worldly politicians or marketers may say “I don’t mind using a little falsehood as long as it helps persuade my audience,” but that is unacceptable for a Christian.  We who serve the God of truth should make a special effort to cleanse our words of all falsehood.

 

Finally, there is the Christian witness to the world.  A small but not insignificant segment of the world is scientifically literate.  It is tragic that many think of Christians only as “those people with the crackpot arguments about a young Earth and entropy” and do not even consider the Gospel because they think it requires them to believe things they know to be as silly as a flat Earth.  The myth that Christianity is for stupid people is widespread, and part of the blame must rest on some Christians.  This harm to our witness will only be overcome if Christians refocus their message on central truths (like the fact that God created everything) rather than trivial side issues (like how He did it), and repudiate those arguments (like the misuse of the 2nd law) that are simply incorrect.  Many will still reject and belittle Christ and those who follow Him.  But if the world is going to laugh at us, let it at least be for a central doctrine like the Cross or the Resurrection, or for our insistence on loving everybody, not for mistaken pseudoscientific arguments on peripheral issues.

 

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

 

Page last modified September 3, 2000