Intelligent Design

My Controversial Tautology

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Greetings from beautiful Tucuman, Argentina!

The main point of my withdrawn paper was the tautology:

If an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is isolated, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering (or leaving) which makes it NOT extremely improbable.

When is a tautology controversial? When it contradicts the consensus view of science, which is that anything can happen in an open system as long as something (anything) is happening outside which, if reversed, would be even more improbable! (See my video, starting at about minute 4, if you don’t believe that is what the consensus view is all about.) I looked at the very equations on which this “compensation” argument is based and showed that they actually support my tautology (not sure if tautologies need support?), that when order increases (entropy decreases) in an open system in other applications, it is not because something extremely improbable (in the sense of footnote 4) is happening, but because something is entering the system which makes this increase not extremely improbable.

But, you ask, can’t Darwinists still argue that, thanks to the wonders of natural selection and the influx of solar energy, what has happened on Earth is not really extremely improbable? Of course they can, that is the whole point of my extremely controversial article (which did not mention ID or Darwinism, by the way, and certainly did not appeal to the supernatural). But it is so obvious that what has happened IS extremely improbable, that they would apparently still rather argue with a tautology.

See also: ID-friendly math prof Granville Sewell gets apology and damages from journal

11 Replies to “My Controversial Tautology

  1. 1
    tsmith says:

    I am so glad you won that fight…thank you for standing up for the truth and refusing to be intimidated.

  2. 2
    RodW says:

    I dont think this is a tautology at all. Some systems have the ability to generate complexity with an input of energy, others do not. This is just another way of saying that some systems, because of the nature of the interactions of the compenent parts have emergent properties. An example would be the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction vs. any other chemical reaction of similar complexity that doesnt generate a pattern.
    I think your point is valid in the sense that even a closed system will generate some complexity until it reaches some kind of internal equilibrium…but this isnt relevant for evolution

  3. 3
    Granville Sewell says:

    RodW,
    The only difference between an open system and an isolated system (by definition) is that something is entering or leaving the open system, so if something is extremely improbable when a system is isolated, but not extremely improbable when it becomes open, it must be that the something which is entering or leaving makes this NOT extremely improbable. Of course this is a tautology.

    The point is, you can’t say, as Asimov, Styer, et.al. get away with saying: sure, what has happened on Earth is extremely improbable, but it doesn’t matter, extremely improbable things happen all the time when entropy decreases in an open system. It isn’t true. You have to argue that it isn’t really extremely improbable.

  4. 4
    RodW says:

    Dr Sewell,

    From what I remember a LONG time ago, a closed system forbids the movement of matter or energy across the boundary whereas an open system does not.
    Its seems to me that probability has nothing to do with this- some systems have the intrinsic ability to generate complexity with an input of energy, others do not. It seems to me that your’e correct in that a system that has that ability will generate some complexity as the entropy inceases even if its closed..but only up to a point, then it will reverse. An open system can maintain that complexity.
    .. I hesitate so say this but I think Asimov was completely wrong!

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    Its seems to me that probability has nothing to do with this-

    Then you don’t really understand the second law, do you.

  6. 6
    mike1962 says:

    Don’t we have increasing order (F/CSI) whenever humans build things? And our bodies are powered from the sun’s energy (indirectly.) Granted, humans are intelligent. By why is intelligence necessarily required if that is a retort?

  7. 7
    NeilBJ says:

    Everytime the discussion of the second law comes up, I can’t help but recall Dr. Timothy Berra’s attempt in Evolution and the Myth of Creationism to refute Creationists’ claims that evolution violates the second law.

    These statements conveniently ignore the fact that you can get order out of disorder if you add energy. For example, an unassembled bicycle that arrives at your house in a shipping carton is in a state of disorder. You supply the energy of your muscles (which you get from food that came ultimately from sunlight) to assemble the bike. You have got[ten] order from disorder by supplying energy. The Sun is the source of energy input to the Earth’s living systems and allows them to evolve.

    Uh, Dr. Berra, excuse me, but I have a question. Didn’t the order really come from the intelligence of the person directing his muscles to assemble the bicycle?

  8. 8
    Arthur Hunt says:

    Since we’re all about re-publishing old material, here’s my response to Sewell that was published as a letter to the editor of American Spectator way, way back …

    I am writing regarding Granville Sewell’s recent article entitled “Evolution’s Thermodynamic Failure”. Professor Sewell propagates several incorrect notions, but one in particular is egregious, and has the happy property that the mistake can be seen (and corrected) on one’s own kitchen countertop. Specifically, Sewell states: “It is a well-known prediction of the second law that, in a closed system, every type of order is unstable and must eventually decrease, as everything tends toward more probable (more random) states. Not only will carbon and temperature distributions become more disordered (more uniform), but the performance of all electronic devices will deteriorate, not improve. Natural forces, such as corrosion, erosion, fire and explosions, do not create order, they destroy it.”

    Anyone reading this can put, in a modest cruet, some salad oil and some water. The cruet can be capped and the mixture shaken vigorously. Obviously, what results is a highly disorganized mixture, as the tiny globules of oil are dispersed in the water. Now, if one were to take Sewell seriously, one would expect that the disorganized mess in the capped cruet (an isolated system) would never, ever become anything other than an even more disorganized mess. But, again, anyone reading this knows that, if one were to set the cruet aside, and do absolutely nothing, the oil would spontaneously aggregate and separate from the water, and in fact a highly-ordered, perfectly-separated two-phase system would come about entirely on its own accord.

    By now, many readers must be wondering “is it so easy to defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics that we can do so in our kitchens?” The answer, as a chemist would tell us, is NO. The remarkable ordering that occurs in our cruet is not a defiance of the Second Law, but rather an obedience of the Law. Without going into detail, the reality of this is that the relentless drive to increasing entropy plays out at the microscopic scale to cause oil and water to separate, in effect to produce dramatic and spontaneous macroscopic ordering. Similar processes are at work inside living cells, and are largely responsible for the degree of order and organization that we see in cells. Put another way, this spontaneous assumption of macroscopic order is not a defiance of the Second Law, but an inevitable consequence of the Law.

    When it comes to evolution, similar principles (if based on more extensive chemistries) apply. There is no “thermodynamic failure”. A perspective (such as Sewell’s) that so completely ignores basic chemical principles that it predicts that oil and water will not spontaneously separate will miss this simple truth.

  9. 9
    Gordon Davisson says:

    Professor Sewell,

    I posted a comment on an earlier posting here about some objections I have to the arguments in your paper (although I think I posted after everyone had stopped reading the comment thread). I won’t repeat the thermo issues here, but I’ll reiterate my objections to the tautology section:

    The first is (I think) really just a quibble over wording: I think you need to take all interactions between the system and its surroundings into account, not just things entering the system. Things leaving the system are an obvious example, but I’d also include energy entering and leaving (energy is not really a “thing” in the usual sense, although we often treat it as one), electromagnetic interactions between the system and its surroundings (consider using magnets to manipulate the contents of an otherwise-sealed box; again, the electric and magnetic fields aren’t really “things”), etc.

    My second objection is also at least partly semantic, but I think more serious: I believe you have the logic backward on the connection between second-law violations and improbability. I think we’d all agree that if something significantly violates the second law, that automatically implies that it’s so improbable that it’s effectively impossible. However, you seem to assume the reverse, that if something is extremely improbable it must therefore violate the second law:

    Thus, unless we are willing to argue that the influx of solar energy into the Earth makes the appearance of spaceships, computers and the Internet not extremely improbable, we have to conclude that the second law has in fact been violated here.

    …and this seems clearly incorrect to me. For example, planets are highly unlikely to follow triangular orbits, but this has nothing to do with the second law. Perhaps more relevantly, consider low-temperature fusion of hydrogen to helium: it’s strongly favored by the second law (even more so than at high temperatures), but (at least under normal circumstances) its probability seems to be vanishingly small.

  10. 10
    Granville Sewell says:

    Gordon,

    Regarding your first objection, by “something” I didn’t mean some “thing”; of course I consider energy to be ¨something¨.

    And I don’t believe I ever said anything that is extremely improbable violates the second law, I said the second law predicts that macroscopically describable things which are extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view will not happen. Granted, even that statement may be a bit more general application of the second law than many people would state it.

    You´ll see that at the end of the paper I used the wording ¨violates the underlying principle behind the second law¨ rather than ¨violates the second law¨ and in later versions I similarly changed the wording in the abstract, which you quote. The second law is different from other laws of science in that there are many different statements around, some more general than others. Regardless of how general your preferred statement of the second law is, surely you would agree that the principle that says natural forces won’t rearrange atoms into computers in an isolated system, is the same basic principle that says this won’t happen in an open system if all that is entering the open system is energy.

  11. 11
    Gordon Davisson says:

    Regarding your first objection, by “something” I didn’t mean some “thing”; of course I consider energy to be ¨something¨.

    In that case, I’ll withdraw the objection (although I still think it’s important to consider what’s leaving the system, as well as what’s entering).

    And I don’t believe I ever said anything that is extremely improbable violates the second law, I said the second law predicts that macroscopically describable things which are extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view will not happen.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “improbable from the microscopic point of view”. If you mean something like the Boltzmann probability distribution, that only applies to systems at thermodynamic equilibrium, and trying to apply it to nonequilibrium systems will produce nonsense. For nonequilibrium systems, one can sometimes adapt this distribution (e.g. break the system into small pieces, each very close to equilibrium, and apply Boltzmann separately to the pieces), but this doesn’t always work. Especially far from equilibrium, thermodynamics doesn’t provide any generally-applicable way to tell what’s probable and what’s improbable.

    Granted, even that statement may be a bit more general application of the second law than many people would state it.

    I think the more important question is whether it’s more general than what we have ~150 years of evidence for. (Although if it is more general than what physicists & chemists have been using, that doesn’t mean it’s invalid; it just means we need to provide our own justification for its correctness.)

    Regardless of how general your preferred statement of the second law is, surely you would agree that the principle that says natural forces won’t rearrange atoms into computers in an isolated system, is the same basic principle that says this won’t happen in an open system if all that is entering the open system is energy.

    Actually, I’m not sure I agree that there is any principle — at least, any thermodynamic principle — that says this, in even in a closed system. Let me explain. Certainly, computers can be produced in an isloated system if that system happens to contain fabrication & assembly plants, humans to run them, along with enough food & air for the humans and enough batteries/generators&fuel/whatever for the plants, and suitable raw materials…

    “But”, you say, “that’s artificial, not natural forces at work!” Well, that depends on your position on the whole naturalism debate, which I’m going to try to duck here because I don’t think it’s relevant: whatever your position on naturalism, there’s no reason to think the laws of thermodynamics distinguish between natural & artificial systems.

    Let me consider four categories of objects (/systems/whatever), and ask whether the second law applies any differently to them:
    #1 – natural inanimate objects
    #2 – artificial (designed) inanimate objects
    #3 – living organisms
    #4 – intelligent agents

    The second law of thermo was originally discovered as a limit on the efficiency of things like steam engines (clearly category #2). While many clever people have tried to find ways past its limitations, they’ve never found a way to break the second law (although they’ve found lots of ways to work around it). When they applied the laws to natural objects, they found exactly the same limits. Thermodynamically, the difference between categories #1 and #2 are irrelevant.

    Category #3 is a bit messier. I understand it was thought for a while that living organisms were somehow exempt from the second law. After all, they grow, reproduce, maintain themselves, and generally fail to run down in the way that the second law seems to require. But on closer investigation, it’s turned out that the processes going on inside organisms obey (and are often driven by) the second law. The contradiction here turns out to be a bit like helium’s apparent violation of the law of gravity: they’re actually subject to the same laws as everything else.

    Category #4 is a longstanding controversy in physics. It started in the 1800’s when James Clerk Maxwell proposed that an intelligent being (which became known as Maxwell’s demon) could manually sort the molecules of a gas, thus decreasing entropy. There’s been a lot of argument back & forth ever since, but AIUI the current consensus is that if the demon himself obeys the laws of physics, he must produce enough heat (& entropy) to offset the entropy decrease of the gas. Certainly this is the case with all known intelligent agents (e.g. humans) — our brains produce much much more heat than required by this theory. Again, no special exceptions to the law here.

    (Note: I may be a bit out of date here; I haven’t really looked into this in about a decade, and according to wikipedia, there’s been some relevant experimental work done recently.)

    In any case, I see no basis for the claim that the second law differentiates between the things that clearly can produce computers (humans and their tools) and entirely natural processes. If there is an intrinsic limit here, it doesn’t seem to derive from thermodynamics.

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