The entropy fib

The local Christian apologetics blog “Thinking Matters” appears to have made a policy decision to outsource most of the content. Specifically to the subcontinent (where else do New Zealanders outsource to) and a Walter Mitty type of character, Johnson Philip.

Philip claims to be “a physicist, with expertise inter alia in Quantum-nuclear Physics, and has worked extensively on the inner quark-structure of Protons and Neutrons.” However, as he doesn’t appear to have published anything in a scientifc journal I think the more relevant part of his CV is that he “has also specialized in Christian Apologetics, Biblical Archeology, Journalism, Alternative Medicines, and several other fields.” He has written extensively in those areas.

Scientific “cred”

However, Philip seems to have been co-opted to provide some “scientific” cred to the blog. But you know how apologetics treats science. They attempt to use it, to distort it, to quote out of context, etc. (you know the game) to support their religious beliefs. But Philip has come up with a whopper here (see The Second Law of Thermodynamics). He wishes to use the Second law of Thermodynamics to support his religious ideas of creationism! You know – the idea that evolution violates the second law!

It doesn’t, of course, so Philip resorts to completely distorting the science. He claims in summary:

” When matter and energy interact freely, without interference, and blindly, entropy (disorder) always increases irrespective of whether the system is open or closed.”

Well, he is so wrong. But you can see where he is going:

“A carefully contrived system, and a complex mechanism is needed anywhere for creating order out of chaos.”

His complex mechanism is, presumably, his god. In his discussion he gives the example of an air-conditioner. I can’t help thinking of Rev Paley finding a watch on the heath argument for intelligent design. What if he had found an air-conditioner on the heath?? Now that would be something.entropy


So, a very brief outline of what the second law is about – entropy. Simply presented heat cannot spontaneously flow from a material at lower temperature to a material at higher temperature. In the figure on the left heat will flow from A to B – but not in the reverse direction (without help).

Entropy is, simply, the measure of disorder of a system. ( In a hotter body the molecules are more disordered so A has a higher entropy than B. But notice that as heat flows for A to B the entropy of B will increase – but the entropy of A will decrease! Because A and B are not insulated from each other they each represent open systems.

Energy can be transferred from one open system to another – spontaneously, as for A to B, or by a machine. A refrigerator using energy to pump heat form B to A, for example (as on the right). And in the open systems represented by the sun, earth and living objects energy transfer enable the entropy of one part of the system to decrease (eg as life produces more organised structures) while it increases inΒ  another part – such as the sun.

The little trick Philip is trying to pull refers to an isolated or thermodynamically closed system. For example the combined structure of A and B thermodynamically isolated from its surroundings (the red dotted boundary of the closed system in the diagram on the left). The total entropy of that isolated system cannot decrease. In fact the internal processes will cause the total entropy to increase or remain unchanged.

Philip is attempting to treat an open system – like living material in the presence of, and exchanging energy with, the sun and earth – like a closed, isolated, system. One could, in theory, imagine a closed system of the earth and sun, thermodynamically insulated from the rest of the universe. The total entropy of that closed system would never decrease. But the entropy of the separate parts (which are themselves open systems) can decrease. The entropy of living organisms can decrease.

This is a very old, and very naive,Β  distortion of science used by creationists. I am surprised that anyone claiming scientific credentials can promote such ideas (perhaps that is why he could never get anything published in a scientific journal). These concepts are taught in high school science.

God as an air conditioner. the mind boggles.


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11 responses to “The entropy fib

  1. and a Walter Mitty type of character, Johnson Philip

    James Thurber is about my favourite author ever, so its nice to see his characters mentioned πŸ˜‰

    I remember last time Johnson formulated this argument a bunch of people tried to introduce him to the field of Non-equilibrium thermodynamics but it didn’t manage to break through the layers of conformation bias.


  2. He wishes to use the Second law of Thermodynamics to support his religious ideas of creationism! You know – the idea that evolution violates the second law!

    I remember the first time that I encountered this creationist argument.
    It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now.

    I remember thinking that if the SLOT argument was such a slam dunk against the Theory of Evolution, then why didn’t physics professors at universities all around the world refuse to share cafateria space with evolutionary biologists on campus?
    Where’s the declarations of outrage from the other science faculties, showing the biology department to be pseudo-science since it breaks one of the laws of thermodynamics?

    How come only fat, small-town mayors in Alabama or turkey-neck preachers handling snakes or semi-retired refrigerator repairmen seem to understand “True Physics”?

    Then I realised that I was not “thinking” like a true believer.

    It’s not just evolutionary biologists who are part of the conspiracy.
    It’s all the physicists too.
    They’re ALL in on it.
    Poisoning the minds of our children.
    All of the physical sciences are in the service of Satan.
    could it be SATAN?

    Be afraid, be very afraid.


  3. The even more amusing part is that he was trying to use the 2LT to disprove abiogenesis, not evolution. Instead of doing that though he managed to argue that life itself is impossible according to the 2LT. I think most people could refute that one πŸ™‚


  4. Instead of doing that though he managed to argue that life itself is impossible according to the 2LT.

    (Deep breath)
    (Rolls around on floor, clutching sides)

    Ah, the stupid.
    It burns.


  5. Philip is a slippery character. No-one in the science culture would argue the way he does – and he just can’t honestly respond to the criticism he gets on his posts.

    I find it pointless commenting on the Thinking Matters blog because of the way comments get arbitrarily deleted. It makes discussion impossible. That’s why I have dealt with his post here.

    Philip is welcome to respond here – in fact I wish he would. I wont delete his response.

    My site data indicates he has read this post – if he is honest in his opinions, surely he will respond??


  6. I don’t think those that run that blog or contribute articles to be as a whole respond honestly to honest criticism 😦


  7. Heraclides

    For what it’s worth, I can’t post there and Ian notes that apparently some comments are being removed, which is strange given that P.J. invited criticism. Surely if you invited criticism, the criticism should stand…?

    I wrote a brief post to the effect that P.J. reply here, but “of course” my post was refused. Nothing new under the sun, it seems.

    It’s interesting how P.J. uses a logical leap to dismiss abiogenesis out-of-hand; he doesn’t actually present an argument against abiogenesis, but instead sets up some other incorrect but “likely sounding” stuff (likely sounding to a naΓ―ve reader, that is) and then simply declares that abiogenesis can’t be right without showing how.

    All he needs to do realise abiogenesis is possible is to make some simple observation. One is observe that living systems take in energy from outside the organism. In larger organisms, like himself, it’s called food πŸ™‚ Abiogenesis, in part, involves setting up systems that are able to “harvest” energy from outside of the nascent organism in a related manner as to which we used to “food”. Another, to cover formation of order in the very early stages of abiogenesis, he needs to only observe that existing natural non-living systems are quite capable of generation order, e.g. formation of salt crystals, snow flakes, etc. and work from the basics this provides.

    There are others, but a key point is that establish that abiogenesis in general is possible can be seen from existing observations. What research on abiogenesis works on is not that it might occur, that’s fairly trivial, but how specifically it could have arisen given particular chemical environments, temperatures, etc. and lead to the particular living systems we observe today.

    It seems to me that confusing that abiogenesis can occur with specifically how abiogenesis occurred a similar category of error as people confusing that evolution occurs (a fact, it’s readily observed) with the details of specifically how it occurs (a subject of continued study).

    PS: correction to previous post (sorry):- I don’t think those that run that blog or contribute articles, on the whole, to respond honestly to honest criticism.


  8. Heraclides

    Opps, that should be J.P., not P.J.


  9. Heraclides

    People should read Tom’s post at comment (#35) and Johnson’s reply (#37). Taking nothing away from the others’ contributions, Tom’s post and Johnson’s reply to it summarise it all for me. It’s and extraordinary reply, or perhaps very ordinary one coming from an apologist: an out-and-out hand-waving dismissal in response to a clear demonstration that he is wrong. With it, I guess the kindest thing you can say is that Johnson’s strange ideas are what wants to be true, never mind reality.

    FWIW, I wanted to post (but can’t) pointing out that the second law has no particular relevance to abiogenesis, neither for it, nor against. Abiogenesis doesn’t depend on the bulk properties of large homogenous collections of non-interacting molecules (in a liquid or gas), but rather in interactions. A key word here is (molecular) ‘interactions’: without these you couldn’t have life. But with these, you can’t be thinking in terms of the second law. Spot the catch?


  10. In the absence of any communication from those “across the road”, I’ll warble at little all on my lonesome πŸ™‚

    I just had a quick skim of JP’s previous effort (‘Abiogenesis β€” Where is the Evidence?’). He starts by accusing others of not doing their homework… then promptly sets off not doing his! πŸ™‚ While this does provide a convenient excuse for ignoring what is known, “starting over” and musing how he’d develop a theory of abiogenesis, it also means he isn’t in much of a position to dismiss others.

    He ties to set the ‘law of biogenesis’ against abiogenesis. The ‘law of biogenesis’ has nothing to do with abiogenesis. it refers to the presence of life in the present-day timeframe of the observer, not the origin of life (i.e. a historical timeframe). Furthermore, it refers to established life. It’s particular context was that disease organismsβ€””germs”β€”don’t “spring from nowhere” (arise from non-living material), as any high school student should be able to recount. This is a completely different context to abiogenesis. Johnson wants to contrast these unrelated things (abiogenesis and the law of biogenesis) side-by-side, just as he has done with the second law of thermodynamics and abiogenesis (which are also unrelated). The information that shows these are unrelated is widely available. It showsβ€”yet againβ€”that Johnson makes no effort to check what applies to what before charging off to attack science. Look who isn’t doing their homework πŸ˜‰

    I wonder if Johnson will recognise that he is repeatedly comparing unrelated things?

    (PS: thinkpoint has added another spam post.)


  11. Oh my.

    Watching how this “discussion” at TM pans out, I might be tempted to lose my faith in humanity, seeing

    a) the genuine lack of understanding and/or willful distortion regarding scientific concepts and principles by a self-styled “scientist” serving a personal agenda; and

    b) the fact that gullible laypeople apparently swallow his nonsense and come away with a severely distorted understanding of the issue.

    So let’s recap what happened thus far:

    Our “physicist who has worked extensively on the inner-quark structure of protons and neutrons” (for some reason I just can not get over this particular detail of self-aggrandizement) started with the following, boilerplate Creationist assertion (A) against abiogenesis:

    “Here are the things needed if order is to result in the face of the second law:

    1. A carefully contrived mechanism to isolate the system (room) that prevents random external energy (heat) from entering it.

    2. A carefully contrived mechanism to draw heat from inside and transfer it to a body outside, which would then radiate it (through the radiator and the air-cooling or water cooling system).”

    After it was pointed out to him that every snowflake currently forming and falling to Earth (as well as any other open system naturally losing energy) refutes this claim, hectic backpedalling set in and the assertion (A) was amended to (B):

    “Ok, so maybe entropy can decrease locally and order can increase. However, this is only intrinsic order which is already coded into the physics and chemistry of the processes. However, the second law of thermodynamics forbids the formation of new, extrinsic order.”

    Later on we were told that this differentiation between “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” order, which we were never given a proper explanation of, is exclusively used by our β€œnuclear physicist” and unheard of in the rest of the scientific community. And rightly so, since it is utter nonsense and neither part of the physical definition of entropy nor its mathematical formulation.

    In summary:

    Assertion (A) against abiogenesis collapsed.

    Amended Assertion (B) against abiogenesis rests on a two-fold usage of the term β€œorder” which is completely unsubstantiated and not recognized by the scientific community.

    In other words, the argument is defeated. And no surprise there, since it was stillborn; a fact that would take any first-semester chemistry/physics student with a textbook about 10s to realize.


    I will file away your fawning comments about the intellectual merits of your resident “scientist” under β€œface-saving politics”. I also realize that you are a scientific layperson and thus it might be difficult for you to tell when someone is pulling the wool over your eyes.

    However, does it not strike you as odd that your perfectly reasonable request to address the fact that according to a broad scientific consensus an open system, which any precursor to life would have been, can decrease in entropy and increase in order, was met with this:

    ” People who make this statement either do not understand the second law of thermodynamics and its implications, or they are simply being stubborn without being honest.”

    No argument, no engagement, nothing. Naked assertion and hand-waving, and not for the first time. Does this indicate scientific integrity and honesty in your view? Do you seriously have the impression that he has a firm grasp of the issues he is talking about?

    Furthermore, consider this: either your Indian contributor is correct, implying that

    a) the overwhelming majority of biologists, chemists and physicists spending their professional lives studying and working in this field is either too stupid to see what he sees or

    b) is involved in a giant conspiracy to cover up the truth.

    Or he is simply wrong and his “argument” a non-starter.

    Which option sounds more likely?

    At present, you are destroying your credibility with anyone having a decent knowledge of this topic, theist or non-theist.


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