Recently on niwrad’s thread we have had a lively discussion about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and its potential application to the question of a materialistic abiogenesis scenario. kairosfocus has followed up with another useful post.
In the present thread I provide a high level view of some of the key issues and misconceptions surrounding the 2nd Law arguments. Please note, I do so not as any kind of official spokesperson for intelligent design, but based on my experience debating this issue and my individual thoughts on the matter. My intelligent-design-inclined colleagues may disagree with my assessment, but hopefully I have provided some food for thought and, perhaps, an avenue for more productive discourse in the future.
Discussions on this topic almost invariably generate more heat than light, but there are a few useful nuggets that have come out of the discussions that deserve to be brought to the forefront. I hope I am not stepping on niwrad’s or kairosfocus’ toes by writing this post, but I wanted to share a few thoughts in a somewhat more formal manner than I can with a comment in another thread.
Specifically, I want to lay out what the 2nd Law argument potentially can, and cannot, bring to the table in the context of the abiogenesis question. The overall goal is to help avoid side roads and irrelevancies in future discussions so that the primary issues can be focused on. As a result, I will approach this by outlining a few myths that abiogenesis proponents need to be cognizant of, as well as a few myths that abiogenesis skeptics need to be aware of.
I would note at the outset that much of the disconnect arises due to a failure to understand, or to charitably attempt to understand, the arguments being put forth by the other side. In the hopes that all of us might benefit from a deep breath and a careful outline of some of the issues, here is my initial attempt at a few myths to be aware of – and to avoid – in future discussions and debates.
Myths for Abiogenesis Proponents to Be Aware Of
Myth #1: Abiogenesis skeptics believe that, in the history of life on Earth, there has actually been a violation of the 2nd Law.
Those who entertain this myth tend to heap copious amounts of ridicule on abiogenesis skeptics, noting how incredibly foolish the skeptics are to think the 2nd Law could be violated. After all, everyone knows this is not possible, so clearly the skeptics have no idea what they are talking about and can be ignored. This might sound good on the surface, but it arises from a complete misunderstanding of the skeptics’ argument. Don’t fall prey to this myth. Don’t claim that abiogenesis skeptics think the 2nd Law has been violated. Don’t lead others astray by insinuating as much.
Myth #2: The 2nd Law does not present a problem for abiogenesis because Earth is an “open” system and receives energy from the Sun.
This myth is likewise based on a misunderstanding of the skeptics’ arguments. If skeptics were wondering where most of the energy on the Earth comes from, then pointing out that Earth is an “open” system and receives energy from the Sun would be relevant. But that is not the focus of the skeptics’ question. Nor is the skeptics’ question about where energy is from generally or whether enough energy is available. Don’t use the common ‘Earth-is-an-open-system’ refrain to try to explain why the skepticism about abiogenesis is silly, or to insinuate that skeptics are foolish because they aren’t aware of energy transfer or energy availability or similar such matters.
Myth #3: Abiogenesis skeptics believe that local decreases in entropy are not possible.
This myth is closely related to #2, and is often implicitly linked to #2, but it deserves its own paragraph. Those who entertain this myth point out – quite rightly so – that the 2nd Law does not necessarily prohibit entropy levels from changing in particular locations or under particular circumstances. They often also point to a generally-held concept that changes in entropy in one location can be “compensated” for by counterbalancing changes elsewhere. Unfortunately, again, these arguments are based on a misunderstanding of the skeptics’ argument in the first place. Abiogenesis skeptics do not question whether entropy can change in specific locations under specific circumstances. And the fact that an entropy change in location A may be “compensated” for by a change in some location B is entirely irrelevant to the question at issue.
Myth #4: The 2nd Law does not pose any practical constraints on abiogenesis because it does not absolutely prohibit abiogenesis.
Those who entertain this myth make much of the fact that living systems exist, ergo, the 2nd Law does not prohibit such systems from existing. They may carry on about how the 2nd Law does not absolutely, as a matter of sheer logic, prohibit the spontaneous formation of far-from-equilibrium systems. This myth is, again, borne of a misunderstanding of the skeptics’ argument, although in this case, as discussed below, it is sometimes due to the skeptics’ poor efforts to make clear their argument. In either case, it simply does not follow that because the 2nd Law does not prohibit such living systems from existing, that it does not prohibit them from initially forming on their own from inanimate matter under natural conditions. Such formation has definitely never been demonstrated. Additionally, it certainly does not follow that because an absolute prohibition against naturalistic abiogenesis does not exist that the 2nd Law does not pose any serious or significant constraints on such an event.
Myth #5: Concerns about the 2nd Law as it relates to abiogenesis are just the musings of ignorant design proponents or “creationists,” are old hat, and have been fully addressed many times over.
Intelligent design proponents and creationists of various stripes did not invent this issue. The fact of significant thermodynamic constraints on abiogenesis is a well-known and ongoing issue among origin of life researchers. It remains a significant hurdle and has most definitely not been solved, despite decades of attempts to do so.
Myth #6: The 2nd Law can only be applied or fruitfully studied in its initial, most basic formulation relating to thermal energy.
Again, abiogenesis skeptics are not the first to raise the idea of applying the 2nd Law – or at the very least the concepts of the 2nd Law as they relate to entropy – to other areas, including informational entropy and organizational entropy. These are intriguing areas that merit careful consideration, not handwaving dismissals by people who are unable to see beyond the initial formulation. These areas are clearly applicable to the problems of creating an information-rich, functionally-organized living system. (Furthermore, as noted above, origin of life researchers also recognize that the 2nd Law, even in its basic formulation relating to thermal energy, raises issues in the origin of life context that must be dealt with.)
Myth #7: Order equals organization.
Those who fall into this trap have a fundamental misunderstanding of the critical difference between mere order and functional organization. They often bring up examples of crystals or snowflakes or other “orderly” configurations in nature as examples of spontaneous (and thermodynamically preferred) configurations. Unfortunately, none of those examples have anything to do with what we are dealing with in living systems or in abiogenesis.
There are no doubt a few additional myths that could be added, but if abiogenesis proponents as an initial step would refrain from falling into the above traps it would go a long way toward making the discussions more fruitful.
As mentioned, there is room for improvement on all sides. So here are the myths abiogenesis skeptics should avoid.
Myths for Abiogenesis Skeptics to Be Aware Of
Myth #1: The entropy of designed things is always lower than the entropy of non-designed things.
This myth rests on the idea that because designed systems typically exhibit some kind of functional state or can perform work, etc., that they are always lower in entropy than more uniformly-distributed states. It is true that living organisms constitute far-from-equilibrium systems and it is true that a necessary condition for work is typically the existence of a gradient or “potential,” rather than a uniformly-distributed state. It might even be true that designed systems often exhibit a lower level of entropy than non-designed things. However, it is not necessarily the case that they always do. Indeed, on the informational side in perhaps the easiest case we have to work with, that of our own language, we recognize that while meaningful language patterns tend to cluster toward a particular end of the entropy spectrum, there are nonsense patterns both lower and higher on the spectrum.
Myth #2: The measure of entropy is a sufficient, or even key, indicator of design.
This myth is related to the prior myth, but deserves its own paragraph. Those who hold to this myth take the trajectory of the constraints of the 2nd Law and apply them a bridge too far. Whether thermal, organizational, or informational, the measure of entropy in a system is not the ultimate arbiter of whether something is designed. The measure of entropy is essentially a statistical measure, similar at some level (if I dare mention another poorly-understood issue) to the statistical measure of the Shannon information metric. As such, the entropy measure can operate as something of a surrogate for the complexity side of the design inference. But it does not, in and of itself, address the specification aspect, nor yield an unambiguous signal of design. It is doubtful that it will ever be possible to prove design through a definite, unassailable calculation of entropy. Thus, while an entropy analysis can be an initial step in assessing the probability of a system arising through natural processes, it is not the only, nor even the most important, characteristic that needs to be considered to infer design.
Myth #3: The 2nd Law prohibits abiogenesis.
This myth is the reciprocal of Myth #4 for the abiogenesis proponents. Just as abiogenesis proponents sometimes mistakenly equate the lack of an absolute prohibition with the lack of significant practical constraints, abiogenesis skeptics sometimes mistakenly equate the existence of significant practical constraints with an absolute prohibition. It is true that origin of life researchers acknowledge the constraints imposed by the 2nd Law and that a resolution is not yet at hand. It is likely even the case that if we look at the specific molecular reactions required to form a simple living organism that pure thermodynamic considerations (setting aside organizational and informational aspects for a moment) will be sufficient to conclude that abiogenesis is effectively impossible. But the fact remains that it is, conceivably, at least logically possible.
Many abiogenesis skeptics will resonate with the following assessment from Robert Gange in Origins and Destiny, as early as 1986:
The likelihood of life having occurred through a chemical accident is, for all intents and purposes, zero. That does not mean that faith in a miraculous accident will not continue. But it does mean that those who believe it do so because they are philosophically committed to the notion that all that exists is matter and its motion. In other words, they do so for reasons of philosophy and not science.
However, even as Gange acknowledges, we are dealing with “likelihood” not absolute logical prohibition.
As I have indicated on previous occasions, I do not view arguments based on the 2nd Law as the best arguments to make against evolution generally, or against abiogenesis specifically.
Let me be clear: the 2nd Law does impose harsh, unforgiving, inescapable parameters on any abiogenesis scenario. The constraints of the 2nd Law are acknowledged by origin of life researchers and should be strongly pointed out where applicable. However, there are reasons to be cautious with the 2nd Law arguments, including:
(a) Arguments based on the 2nd Law tend to quickly become bogged down in definitional battles and general misunderstandings, including the myths outlined above. Often, so much energy is spent trying to correct the myths that little substantive progress results.
(b) The really interesting aspect of designed systems is not, in most cases, their thermal properties, but the organizational and informational aspects. Although there are good reasons to examine these aspects in the context of “entropy,” it is not formally necessary to do so, nor is it perhaps the most helpful and straight-forward way to do so.
(c) Ultimately, 2nd Law arguments eventually collapse to a probability argument. This occurs for two reasons: (1) abiogenesis proponents, despite the lack of any empirical evidence for abiogenesis and strong reasons – including thermodynamic ones – to doubt the abiogenesis story, can always repose faith in a lucky chance, a cosmic accident, a highly-unusual coincidence to explain the origin of far-from-equilibrium living systems; and (2) the design inference itself depends in part on a probability analysis (coupled with a specification). As a result, despite whatever watertight 2nd Law argument an abiogenesis skeptic may put forward, it eventually comes down to a question of the probabilities and whether the abiogenesis story is realistic given the available probabilistic resources.
In summary, the constraints imposed by the 2nd Law should definitely be on the list – the exceedingly long list – of problems with a purely naturalistic origin of life story.
However, I would probably not lead with it.