Creationism and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Science and Anticreationist Misconstruals



Perhaps the most widely misunderstood creationist argument is the second law of thermodynamics (henceforth referred to as the second law for sake of abbreviation). I have very rarely—if ever—seen anyone attack the actual creationist position on this matter. To be fair, creationists have often been vague on their position, and at least part of the blame lies on them for not making their arguments more clearly. I do not think this argument against evolution is a particularly good one, but I do think critics of creationism should at least do their homework in getting the creationist argument right to begin with before attacking it (hence the existence of this article). There is little profit in attacking positions opponents do not hold.

For this article, I will cite What Is Creation Science? from the section written by Morris (who, for those who are unaware, is the major creationist who is the originator of this argument). I will also be citing Del Ratzsch’s excellent book The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate. One of the Battle of Beginnings focus points is about clearing up misunderstandings and mistakes made by both sides of the debate. This sort of thing is not limited to anticreationists or the second law of thermodynamics. Whereas anticreationists have been attacking misunderstood versions of the creationist arguments (not just the second law), creationists have also been attacking misunderstood versions of modern evolution. I strongly encourage anyone interested in the creation-evolution controversy to read the book, as it is one of the best books I have ever read on the subject.

The first law of thermodynamics (which will later be referred to simply as the first law) is simply the conservation of mass-energy. Sometimes it’s stated as, “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.” Incidentally, E = mc2, meaning that every kilogram of mass is equal to about ninety thousand terajoules of energy (the same amount of energy is released from the detonation of a 21-megaton nuclear weapon). Mass can be converted into energy and vice versa. But the total quantity of energy (when mass is taken into account) remains the same.

The Second Law: a brief scientific introduction

Although the second law of thermodynamics can be stated in many ways, in the context of energy it has to do with the “quality” of the energy. In an isolated system (one which exchanges neither matter nor energy with its surroundings) the available energy will decrease (or at best remain the same) with every real process that occurs. The energy is still there, but it is no longer available to do useful work. The measure of the lost available energy is called entropy, or “disorder.” Interestingly, the quality of thermal energy (its ability to do useful work) is dependent upon its temperature. Thus, entropy is not measured in “joules” (a measure of energy) but in “joules per Kelvin.” (Kelvin is a measure of temperature, with 0 Kelvin being absolute zero.) An implication of the second law is the “entropy principle” in which there is a general tendency for entropy to increase. Imagine an isolated system in which the thermal energy remains at a constant level of 100 joules. High-quality, high-temperature energy (e.g. a temperature of 700 Kelvin) tends towards low-quality, low-temperature energy (e.g. 100 Kelvin; thus more joules per Kelvin). Another example of the second law in action is when thermal energy spontaneously transfers itself from a hot object to a cooler one. To see how this idea works, let me take an example from my old college physics textbook:

Example physics problem on the second law:
Problem:

An enormous object with a temperature of 573 K (K = Kelvin) is touching another enormous object with a temperature of 273 K, and 20.0 kJ (kJ = kilojoules) of heat irreversibly flows from the hotter object to the colder one. This process increases the entropy of the universe. If the temperature change of both objects is negligible (because they’re so big), how much of an entropy increase is there?

Abbreviation note:
  • J = joules
  • K = Kelvin
  • J/K = joules per Kelvin

Solution:

In physics, thermal energy going into the object is measured as “positive,” while thermal energy leaving the object is measured as “negative.” The colder object gains 20 thousand joules of heat, whereas the hotter object loses 20 thousand joules of heat. Remembering this and doing the math:

  
+20.0 x 103 J
 
–20.0 x 103 J
Change of entropy   =  
  +  
  
273 K
 
573 K
 
   =  73.26 J/K + (–34.90 J/K)
 
   =  73.26 J/K – 34.90 J/K
 
   =  +38.4 J/K

So we have an increase of entropy in the amount of 38.4 joules per Kelvin. Neat huh?

Energy can be transformed into various forms (e.g. kinetic energy into electrical energy via a generator, or chemical energy into thermal energy via some chemical reactions) and all forms of energy can be measured with the same unit: the joule. Since its original formulation, the laws of thermodynamics have been expanded to include not only thermal energy but all forms of energy. So although entropy is still measured in joules per Kelvin, it goes beyond the original purview of thermal energy to energy in general. Thus, the second law of thermodynamics says that as time goes on in an isolated system, the energy in it becomes increasingly unavailable for further work—regardless of what types of energy the system contains.

In science, another name for entropy is “disorder,” due to some similarities involved. Energy can be considered “disordered” when it is unavailable to do useful work. The second law also applies to chemistry. Note the following:

To use another example from my physics textbook:

Second example physics problem on the second law:
Problem:

By how much does the entropy change when a 10 kilogram block of ice at 0 ˚C is completely melted into water at 0 ˚C?

Solution:

Temperature T remains constant at 0 ˚C (273 ˚K). The amount of energy to melt water at its melting point (an amount called the latent heat of fusion) is 334 kJ per kilogram. So the energy needed to melt this 10 kilogram block of ice is 3,340 kJ, or 3.34 MJ (MJ = 1 million joules). Knowing this:

  
3.34 x 106 J
Change of entropy   =  
  
273 K

Which equals an entropy increase of 12 kJ/K.

The implications of the second law are far reaching. Energy is used in the construction and operation of organized systems (living organisms, automobiles, and so forth), in spite of the disordering of energy that results. The known physical universe as a whole is an isolated system: energy is neither gained nor lost. As the universe gets older, its entropy increases. As a result, the universe is headed towards a state of maximum disorder. You yourself might have noticed a general tendency for things to move from order to disorder. Cars break down, matches burn up, organisms grow old and die. Will the reverse spontaneously happen? Will the burned out match spontaneously transform itself unburned and intact? Will the deleterious effects of aging spontaneously reverse themselves? Unlikely.

The Creationists Attack

Originally, the second law is applied to the overall “evolution model” sense. This model (whether or not anyone adheres to it) says that there is an overall tendency for things to become more ordered and more complex, both in the universe as a whole (what I’ll call cosmological evolution) and on the biological level. Creationists point out that there exists a physical law that contradicts this expectation: the second law of thermodynamics. In modern physics, the universe as a whole is taken to be a thermodynamically isolated system. The second law says that the entropy of an isolated system inevitably increases, and thus creationists argue that the cosmological evolution theory involving the universe as a whole becoming more ordered is therefore false.[1] Very few if any scientists hold to the view that the universe as a whole increases in order, however. To believe otherwise misunderstands the nature of currently accepted theories regarding the cosmological development of the universe, such as the Big Bang theory. The universe goes from something compact and hot (lower entropy) to a widely dispersed and colder arrangement (higher entropy)—all in accord with the second law and an overall increase in entropy despite some localized decreases. It should be remembered that the second law permits local decreases in entropy if there is a resulting greater entropy increase somewhere else.

Another creationist argument involves what happens if we take the first and second laws to be valid throughout the entire existence of the universe, claiming that this implies a finite age for the universe. To give an example of such an argument, I’ll use one that Henry Morris makes in What is Creation Science? Keeping in mind that the first law says that the quantity of energy is constant, if we extrapolate into the past there would be a point where the total energy equals the amount of available energy [2]. Time can go back no further than this and so the universe must have a beginning. Another point that Morris makes [3] is that since the available energy is constantly decreasing, there will be a point in time where all the energy becomes unavailable to do further work, and hence the universe will be “dead.” Since the universe is not dead, it cannot be infinitely old [4]. The first law, recall, says that mass-energy cannot be created or destroyed. Consequently, the universe could not have created itself.[5] Thus, some agency outside the natural universe created it. Because anything outside the natural universe is by definition supernatural, creationists claim that it must have been a supernatural agency that created the universe.

This creationist claim seems to have some merit, given the cosmological implications of thermodynamics. If the laws are to apply throughout the universe’s existence and if the universe were infinitely old, entropy would have claimed the universe and there would indeed be no energy able to perform useful work. The universe thus cannot be infinitely old if the first and second laws have not been violated in the physical universe. Incidentally, there is other evidence suggesting that the known physical universe has a finite age, and most scientists believe it to be 10-20 billion years old. While the theory of a supernatural being creating the universe may not be a genuinely scientific theory, it is the case that most scientists believe the known physical universe to be of a finite age.

Anticreationists have very commonly mistaken the cosmological argument (universe as a whole cannot increase in order) for the biological one.[6] The anticreationists claim that “the earth is an open system, and the second law applies only to isolated systems.” Yet, since creationists have applied the law to an isolated system (the natural universe as a whole), this argument is simply irrelevant.

Now creationists do apply the second law to biological evolution. Although many creationists claim that the second law poses a nasty problem for biological evolution, how the law allegedly poses a problem is often misunderstood, in part because they apply the second law differently from cosmological evolution. First off, creationists (correctly) claim that a corollary of the second law is that systems have a general tendency to go from order to disorder. Creationists claim that certain conditions are needed for order (at least the sort of order that evolution requires) to increase in spite of this general tendency, and that evolution does not meet those conditions.[7]

However, some anticreationists seem to mistakenly confuse “tendency” to mean “invariability.”[8] To “refute” this mistaken position, some point out that babies develop from embryos etc., but of course, this does not attack the actual creationists position. I have very seldom seen a creationist claim that disorder invariably increases in all systems. Rather, I have seen creationists claim a tendency. And creationists openly admit that this tendency can be overcome.[9] The question becomes then, what criteria are needed for any finite system to evolve into higher levels of order with the universe as a whole decreasing in order?[10] Morris claims that the criteria are [11]:

  1. An open system;
  2. Available energy;
  3. A pre-planned program (to “direct” the growth in complexity);
  4. A mechanism to convert and store incoming energy.

One criticism against this is that these criteria are not at all part of the second law, which is correct. The problem with this criticism (like the previous one) is that it does not attack Morris’s actual position. Morris does not actually claim that these criteria are from the second law itself, but rather that we have good empirical basis for accepting them.[12] Another criticism is that there are examples of self-organization in the real world that involve increasing order without the all four criteria, such as the formation of snowflakes (no “program” in that case). Again, this does not attack the actual position. The kind of order being referred to is not geometric regularity (like that of a snowflake) but organized complexity, or functional information.[13] (Examples of things containing organized complexity include automobiles, photocopiers, and single-celled organisms.) A better counterexample to refute the real creationist position would be to point out a case where an increase in organized complexity occurs but without the four criteria. As of yet, I have not seen any anticreationist even attempt this. This is not to say that this creationist claim is correct, only that if one is to criticize it one should attack the position creationists actually hold. So all you anticreationists out there, hear me! Do the homework of getting the creationist views right to begin with before you criticize them. And of course, the same sort of advice goes for those who would criticize evolution.




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Key:

[1] BOB p. 92; WICS p. 192 (describes what he calls the “evolution model”, the entire universe evolving in order), 204 (in which Morris claims the second law directly contradicts the evolution model); SC p. 26 (seems to misunderstand the Big Bang theory, apparently thinking the theory implies that the universe as a whole becomes more ordered); See also “The Tenants of Creationism” Impact #85 (July 1980) page ii. This article refers to the “net present increase in complexity” predicted by the “evolution model.” Fortunately, you can see the published article online at ICR’s website here.

[2] WICS pp. 202-204

[3] WICS p. 201

[4] WICS p. 204

[5] WICS p. 204

[6] BOB p. 91

[7] “The Scientific Case against Evolution: A Summary Part 2 ” Impact #331 (January 2001) pp. iii-iv. You can see the published article online at ICR’s website here.

[8] See for instance this talk.origins web page which says, “Creationists thus misinterpret the 2nd law to say that things invariably progress from order to disorder.”

[9] WICS p. 206

[10] WICS p. 209

[11] WICS pp. 210-211

[12] BOB p. 92

[13] WICS p. 219. See also CSATC page 177 in which Gish claims four criteria (similar to what Morris has listed in WICS) are needed to develop “complex organized systems,” also claiming that evolution does not meet all of these criteria. He uses the phrase in other areas as well on the issue of the second law and evolution. Creationists have often claimed that proposed examples of self-organization are not of the right sort to be relevant in evolution and the origins of life. For instance, in page 188 of CSATC Gish claims that an example of self-organization (the Benard principle, in which hexagonal cells are formed under certain heating conditions of liquid water) are “hardly the type of self-organization [emphasis added]” that could lead to such things as living cells.