Currently, I have been visiting over at the Uncommon Descent blog of Prof William Dembski for a time, and as I have been winding down my visit there, I have been discussing on the issue of thermodynamics and the origin of life.
One of the commenters, Pixie, has asked me to continue this discussion there, here. This thread, DV, is designed to accommodate this request.
The core issue posed by Sewell, is on the reasonableness of open systems spontaneously acquiring the complex specified information that is characteristic of the systems of life. Pixie takes the view that open systems are not subject to any particular constraints on the acquiring of such information, and I have held that there is a major probabilistic hurdle connected to the second law of thermodynamics in its statistical form; namely, that what Nash called the predominant configuration, a cluster of microstates in the close neighbourhood of equilibrium.
I have also pointed to the point that from the first example of thermodynamics:
| | (A, at Thot) --> d'Q, heat --> (B, at T cold) | |. . . we can see that the closed systems within it [open only to energy transfer], that injection of raw random energy normally increases entropy. To avert this, we need to instead have a heat engine (or more broadly an energy converter):
| | (A, heat source: Th): d'Qi --> (B', heat engine, Te): -->
d'W [work done on say D] + d'Qo --> (C, sink at Tc) | |So, by exporting enough waste heat and coupling the rest into work, the B now can import energy without necessarily increasing its entropy. indeed, suitably programmed work can decrease its entropy. In some cases such heat engines form naturally [e.g. a hurricane] but in cases where the engines exhibit functionally specific, complex information [I revert to my favoured abbreviation and terminology here: FSCI], where we observe the origin directly, they are always the product of intelligent agents. Thence, the debates on FSCI and its origins, especially in life systems. A vat thought experiment has played a major role inthe last part of the discussion at UD, and will probably resurface here.
As background, I think onlookers will probably need to read:
1] The thread at UD, along with Dr Sewell's linked works [UPDATE, Apr 13: Cf his discussions here, here, and here] Excerpting the first of these, Dr Sewell's essential argument is:
The second law is all about probability, it uses probability at the microscopic level to predict macroscopic change: the reason carbon distributes itself more and more uniformly in an insulated solid is, that is what the laws of probability predict when diffusion alone is operative. The reason natural forces may turn a spaceship, or a TV set, or a computer into a pile of rubble but not vice-versa is also probability: of all the possible arrangements atoms could take, only a very small percentage could fly to the moon and back, or receive pictures and sound from the other side of the Earth, or add, subtract, multiply and divide real numbers with high accuracy. The second law of thermodynamics is the reason that computers will degenerate into scrap metal over time, and, in the absence of intelligence, the reverse process will not occur; and it is also the reason that animals, when they die, decay into simple organic and inorganic compounds, and, in the absence of intelligence, the reverse process will not occur.
The discovery that life on Earth developed through evolutionary "steps," coupled with the observation that mutations and natural selection -- like other natural forces -- can cause (minor) change, is widely accepted in the scientific world as proof that natural selection -- alone among all natural forces -- can create order out of disorder, and even design human brains, with human consciousness. Only the layman seems to see the problem with this logic. In a recent Mathematical Intelligencer article ["A Mathematician's View of Evolution," The Mathematical Intelligencer 22, number 4, 5-7, 2000] I asserted that the idea that the four fundamental forces of physics alone could rearrange the fundamental particles of Nature into spaceships, nuclear power plants, and computers, connected to laser printers, CRTs, keyboards and the Internet, appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics in a spectacular way.1 . . . .
What happens in a closed system depends on the initial conditions; what happens in an open system depends on the boundary conditions as well. As I wrote in "Can ANYTHING Happen in an Open System?", "order can increase in an open system, not because the laws of probability are suspended when the door is open, but simply because order may walk in through the door.... If we found evidence that DNA, auto parts, computer chips, and books entered through the Earth's atmosphere at some time in the past, then perhaps the appearance of humans, cars, computers, and encyclopedias on a previously barren planet could be explained without postulating a violation of the second law here . . . But if all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments, it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here." Evolution is a movie running backward, that is what makes it special.
THE EVOLUTIONIST, therefore, cannot avoid the question of probability by saying that anything can happen in an open system, he is finally forced to argue that it only seems extremely improbable, but really isn't, that atoms would rearrange themselves into spaceships and computers and TV sets . . .
[NB: Emphases added. They show, too, that Dr Sewell has in mind an objection to the evolutionary materialistic concept that chance and natural regularities acting on random initial conditions, will lead to t e spontaneous emergence of functionally specific, complex information-based systems -- more or less, from hydrogen to humans. That objection is based on the issue that a sufficiently rare microstate is probabilistically isolated to searches that are not intelligently directed, on any reasonable scope of probabilistic resources in the gamut of the observed universe. His last phrase reasonable infers to the currently popular assertion of a quasi-infinite array of sub-universes such that the speculative rise in probabilistic resources swamps the configuration states issue. As I discuss in my online note, that is of course both an admission of the cogency of hte probability argument and a resort to speculative metaphysics as opposed to science. Such a resort is open to the reply that on a comparative difficulties basis, on pain of worldviews level question-begging, one is here subject to the stricture of comparative difficulties. On that basis, inference to agency is at least as credible on the face of it as that to an unobserved vastly larger cosmos as a whole. So suppression of such a discussion is questionable.]
2] My online note on Information, Design, Science and Creation, especially the appendix on thermodynamics. [BTW, part of why I am engaging in this dialogue is that I intend to use the result to update this note a bit.]Okay, I trust this will be helpful. END
3] This note has in it a significant number of onward links that will give wider background information that should also be followed up.
4] The three online chapters of Thaxton, Bradley and Olsen's The Mystery of Life's Origin. Bradley's ASA peer-reviewed paper here will be a good follow up, though the scan is in need of a major clean-up.
5] If you can get it, a glance at Robertson's Statistical Thermophysics will also be helpful. [Fair warning: this is an advanced textbook.]
6] The online excerpt from Brillouin here on the "negentropy" link between thermodynamics and information theory will also be nice. I excerpt and discuss it here.
7] Some of course may need to go look up further on basic thermodynamics. Standard textbooks and online resources may help, but take fair warning that sometimes there is an agenda in even the most "neutral" of sources. Keep your worldviews analysis cap on.As a note, commenters should realise that I recently had to impose a moderation policy in this blog due to abusive commentary. So, the pace will be a bit slow -- I have to personally approve comments before they appear. That usually means, when I am on insomnia patrol, maybe 3 - 5 am local time here in Montserrat. But, unless a comment is abusive, I will put it up -- within [generous] reason on length.
ADDENDUM, April 14: Here is the thought experiment being discussed, from comments 42, 43 at the Specified Complexity thread at UD. The experiment responds to the challenge that the isolation of a clumping and a configuring decrement in entropy on making say a protein do not make thermodynamic sense. I have used dSclump to conform to how the onward discussion developed, cf. point j below:
a] Consider the assembly of a Jumbo jet, which plainly requires intelligently designed, physical work in all actual observed cases. That is, orderly motions were impressed by forces on selected, sorted parts, in accordance with a complex specification. (I have already contrasted the case of a tornado in a junkyard that it is logically and physically possible can do the same, but the functional macrostate is so rare relative to non functional ones that random search strategies are maximally unlikely to access it, i.e. we see here 2nd LOT at work.]
b] Now, let us shrink the example, to a nano-jet so small that the parts are susceptible to brownian motion, i.e they are of sub-micron scale and act as large molecules, say a million of them, some the same, some different etc. In-principle possible. Do so also for a car a boat and a submarine, etc.
c] In several vats of a convenient fluid, decant examples of the differing nanotechnologies, so that the particles can then move about at random.
d] In the control vat, we simply leave nature to its course. Will a car, a boat a sub or a jet , etc, or some novel nanotech emerge at random? [Here, we imagine the parts can cling to each other if they get close enough, in some unspecified way, similar to molecular bonding; but that the clinging is not strong enough for them to clump and precipitate.] ANS: Logically and physically possible but the equilibrium state will on stat thermodynamics grounds overwhelmingly dominate — high disorder.
e] Now, pour in a cooperative army of nanobots into one vat, capable of recognising jet parts and clumping them together haphazardly. [This is of course, work, and it replicates bonding at random. We see here dSclump] After a time, will we be likely to get a flyable nano jet?
f] In this vat, call out the random cluster nanobots, and send in the jet assembler nanobots. These recognise the parts, and rearrange them to form a jet, doing configuration work. A flyable jet results — a macrostate with a much smaller statistical weight of microstates, probably of order ones to tens or perhaps hundreds. [We see here separated dSconfig.]
g] In another vat we put in an army of clumping and assembling nanobots, so we go straight to making a jet based on the algorithms that control the nanobots. Since entropy is a state function, we see here that direct assembly is equivalent to clumping and then reassembling from random “macromolecule” to configured functional one.” That is:
dS tot = dSclump + dS config.
h] Now, let us go back to the vat. For a large cluster of vats, we use direct assembly nanobots, but in each case we let the control programs vary at random – say hit them with noise bits generated by a process tied to a zener noise source. We put the resulting products in competition with the original ones,and if there is an improvement, we allow replacement. Iterate. Given the complexity of he relevant software, will we be likely to for instance come up with a hyperspace-capable spacecraft or some other sophisticated and un- anticipated technology? Justify your answer on probabilistic grounds. My prediction: we will have to wait longer than the universe exists to get a change that requires information generation on the scale of 500 – 1000 or more bits. [See the info-generation issue over macroevolution by RM + NS?]
I] Try again, this time to get to the initial assembly program by chance . . .See the abiogenesis issue?
j] In the actual case, we have cells that use sophisticated machinery to assemble the working macromolecules, direct them to where they should go, and put them to work in a self-replicating, self-maintaining automaton. Clumping work [if you prefer that to TBO’s term chemical work, fine], and configuring workl can be identified and applied to the shift in entropy through the s = k ln w equation. This, through Brillouin, TBO link to information, citing as well Yockey-Wicken’s work at the time and their similar definition of information. [As you know I have pointed to Robertson on why this link makes sense — and BTW, it also shows why energy converters that use additional knowledge can couple energy in ways that go beyond the Carnot efficiency limit for heat engines.]
In short, the basic point made by TBO in Chs 7 - 8 is plainly sound. The rest of their argument follows . . .