The Problem of Entropy

I’m fascinated by the whole Creationist thing. Or, more accurately, I’m fascinated by the fact that they’ve latched onto evolution. You see, they really should have latched onto physics instead.

Why do I say that?

Well, let’s have a look…

You see, it’s very hard to square modern physics with any montheistic belief system. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I think it’s impossible. (Or at least, impossible to do so from an intellectually-honest point of view.)

Consider the problem of evil. The argument goes something like this – God is (we assume) benevolent. God made the Universe. God loves us. But, umm, bad things keep happening. Hurricanes flatten towns. Earthquakes devastate Third World countries. Easily-preventable diseases kill millions. And that’s just natural evil – human evil is a whole other, and much vaster, topic. Human evil encompasses enormous horrors such as genocides and pogroms all the way down to trivial offenses such as casual rudeness and late trains.

But the supposed god is benevolent. And what does He/She/It do during these terrible events? Apparently, nothing.

It’s something of a problem. A benevolent deity who never intervenes? Not even to deliver the occasional telling off? Umm … yeah. (Of course, if we assume that God *isn’t* entirely benevolent, then the problem abates … but no modern monotheistic tradition claims their deity to be an unpredictable sadist.)

But what is the modern physics connection, you ask?

Three words: cosmological heat death.

One of our strongest physical laws is the principle of conservation of energy. Energy can be transumted from one form to another, it can be moved from one place to another, under some circumstances it can even be interchanged with matter – but you can never change the total amount present in a closed system. And the ultimate closed system is, by definition, the Universe.

Now, conservation of energy is one of the best-supported physical laws in existence. No macroscopic experiment defies it. The principle implicitly underlies all human technology. Even quantum mechanics follows conservation, after a fashion. The conservation principle is not in doubt – it is as close to ‘proven’ as any scientific hypothesis can ever hope to be.

Now, the Universe came into existence – of that much, no serious person disagrees! And it formed with exactly the same sum total of energy that it possesses today. (Note that there is a potential contradiction here: by implication, the Universe itself is a violation of the conservation principle. However, there are some cosmological models in which net energy equals zero. It depends a bit on what gravity is doing on the largest of scales, and that is far from a closed issue.)

So, the sum total of energy in the Universe is fixed. Okay. That’s not controversial. But there’s more bad news.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has some ominous implications. Basically, stated colloquially, the Second Law implies that no process can ever be 100% efficient. Some energy will always be lost into a useless form. And we live in a Universe with a finite supply of energy, a supply which is continually being eroded by thermodynamic interactions…

We call this erosion ‘entropy’. And the amount of entropy in the Universe can only ever go up, at least at the macroscopic scale. (Quantum mechanics complicates this picture a little, but probably not enough to save us.)

The exact process by which it happens, or the fine details of the evolution, are of no relevance. The end result is the same. Somewhere down the line, we will have a cosmos with an even distribution of energy. There will be no gradients, no local concentrations – no pockets that can be exploited. No motion and no life will be possible. The Universe will have attained what is called ‘heat death’. Everything will have the same temperature, the same composition and the same distribution. It will be a lifeless, near-empty, cold and boring expanse.

Bang. And we’re back to the Problem of Evil.

The inherent structure of the Universe ultimately demands the demise of everything that currently lives in it. Without energy to exploit, life will be impossible. Heat death truly is an end to history. The only thin ray of hope – and it’s one that’s tennous almost beyond words – is that eventually, the dead universe may undergo a spontaneous quantum tunnelling event into a new, lower-entropy configuration. But this will take a long time – a macroscopic tunnelling event is absurdly unlikely. I’ve seen people quote numbers like once in 10^120 years. That’s as good as ‘never’, for human purposes.

So, here’s a question. What kind of ‘benevolent’ deity would design a universe that behaves like this? A deluded entity might, or a psychotic sadist, or an out-and-out dystheistic monster, but it’s hard to picture a benevolent Creator behaving like this. The simplest assumption is to assume that there is no Creator and that the Universe was indeed some bizarre cosmic accident.

At least that way the inescapable trap we live in isn’t a consciously-malicious one! (The alternative is almost too depressing for words.)

So, to recap. I find it odd that Creationists have latched onto evolution in quite the way that they have. Surely the relationship between human beings and apes pales into insignificance next to the eventual fate of the entire Universe?
Now that I’ve depressed you all horribly, a little, somewhat more optimistic, footnote.

Entropy is a real phenomenon and doubtless there will be a heat death at some point. However, it isn’t due for a very long time – for instance, the Milky Way probably has at least 50 billion years of star formation left in it. Heat death is real, but it doesn’t matter on human timescales (don’t stop paying the mortgage – the bank will happen to you sooner than the Second Law!). Also, although globally entropy must always rise, local decreases are possible – in fact, this is the key to the human metabolism. (Gross aside – when you visit the bathroom, physically, what you’re doing is removing a large amount of excess entropy from your system.) So, at least within some limits, progress for the better is certainly possible, and should be pursued. And even if it only lasts a few thousand or a few million years – well, that’s better than nothing, surely?


4 Responses to “The Problem of Entropy”

  1. Radhakrishnamurty Padyala Says:

    ‘Energy can be transumted from one form to another’

    This is not the complete truth if we include heat as a form of energy. All forms of energy except are transmuted from one form to another with 100% efficiency, but not heat.

    ‘Now, the Universe came into existence’
    Did it?

    ‘the Second Law implies that no process can ever be 100% efficient.’

    This isn’t true.

    ‘the Second Law implies that no process that involves heat can ever be 100% efficient. Some energy will always be lost into a useless form.’

    Thermodynamics is misunderstood/misinterpreted.

    ‘And we live in a Universe with a finite supply of energy, a supply which is continually being eroded by thermodynamic interactions…’

    No, Universe has no supply of energy!
    Heat death is a myth! The second law is debatable.

  2. I think it’s because creationists (at least the ones you’re talking about) don’t tend to take extensive courses in physics and, therefore, have no idea what you’re talking about. Evolution is easy to tackle because even white trash understand that “apes then humans” doesn’t quite line up with Adam and Eve.

    However, I don’t quite get where evil being a “problem” comes in. I guess people could take issue with something that’s supposed to be good creating evil, but that’s really up to individual interpretation and good, evil, etc are all really deep philosophical questions, the answer for which is not the same for everyone, so it’s unfair to say that religions don’t work because a different morality (for lack of a better word) doesn’t work within them.

    Also, God, in the Bible, isn’t often depicted as benevolent per se, but it IS possible to be “well meaning” and still make everyone miserable. Usually, the Christian god is considered good but extremely wrathful (seriously, the plagues of Egypt? Smiting towns? Not exactly nice when you boil all that down). And the intervention “issue” also isn’t an issue: first of all, Christians do believe he intervenes, although not on as grand a scale as in the past (unless you’re a fundamentalist who thinks the hurricanes are God’s way of saying that he hates gay marriage or something). Second of all, the general belief among some communities is that God did the whole parenting thing and his involvement in our lives has decreased over time to just the sort of “distant phone call” stage. There’s a whole boat load of philosophy that you kind of just brushed over.

    Anyway, my point in all that isn’t that you’re wrong exactly, but that you just made a bit of a straw man out of several complex beliefs (what is good, evil, and god) and I’m not sure that’s fair. But I AM sure that it doesn’t make a very good argument.

    • The small problem with that is that we’re informed, repeatedly and explicitly, by Christian theology that God IS good. Also, far from being a non-issue as you suggest ,the problem of evil is a recognised difficulty in theology.

      The conflict between the New and Old Testaments is a fascinating issue in of itself. However, I think it’s rather too broad an issue to be drawn upon here, beyond the observation that it really does read like the actions of two separate entities.

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