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Richard Carrier Foster7

Bad Science, Worse Philosophy: the Quackery and Logic-Chopping of David Foster’s The Philosophical Scientists (2000)


7. Why Foster Needs to Take a Basic Thermodynamics Course

Richard Carrier


The Second Law of Thermodynamics, or ‘The Law of Entropy,’ is a common feature of creationist arguments. More often than not it is totally misunderstood. Even I misunderstood it in my first run of this review, requiring an addendum on Entropy which you should read now before going on. Foster is no exception. On page 59, he tells his readers that “a specific process is not one with ‘less entropy,’ but it is one without any entropy at all!” But there is no such thing as ‘zero entropy’ in the real world. The lowest logical entropy you can have is 1, which means there is only one possible state for the system being described. In the case of thermal entropy, values less than 1 are possible, but a measure of zero would mean all the thermal energy in a system is available to do work, which cannot happen in any real system today: on this, see Addenda E. No thermal system (no system which can undergo real changes) can be ‘without any thermal entropy at all’ nor can any system of moving bits have ‘no logical entropy at all.’ So Foster is way off base here.

To make matters worse, Foster uses a living animal as an example of a system with zero entropy. Never mind the fact that an animal is normally not a closed system, and so is not subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (as I will note again below). The real problem here is that a living animal does not even have an entropy of 1. For there are many possible states the animal can be in and still be the same animal, and so its logical entropy will be a rather high number (though much lower than a ball of gas). Likewise, the amount of thermal energy in the animal unavailable to do work will vary greatly over time, and is unlikely to ever be 1 unless the cat is dead. At any rate, it will be nowhere near zero. Foster ‘proves’ his point by pointing out that there are only two possible states for an animal: live or dead. If that were so, then a live animal would have an entropy of 1, not zero. But it is not so. For there are many different states that any animal can be in that qualify as ‘live’ or ‘dead’—-there are not just two states. And, of course, thermal entropy has little to do with possible states—-that is only measured by logical entropy. How can Foster not know this? He must not have any idea of what he is talking about. But isn’t he supposed to be a scientist?

There is a more profound way in which this and other laws of physics are abused by polemicists, apologists and quacks alike. For it is typical of those who do not understand how science actually works to claim that this particular law of physics is so inviolate that no future experience can refute it, and Eddington’s famous statement to that effect is well-known: “if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope.” But this is not how science really works at all. Certainly, this law is so well established that it is wisely regarded as a waste of time to toy with theories that require its violation. This is a prime advantage of science: it maximizes the utility of our efforts by allowing us to focus on the more probable theories rather than letting us get mired in the infinitely more numerous possibilities that are false. But this should not be mistaken for actual inviolability. If future, repeatable experience confuted the Second Law, then so much the worse for the Second Law. That is the way science works. And we do indeed observe Laws of Organization, in fact the whole of the laws of physics are just that: unchanging, non-random behaviors which create organization from chaos. But this does not require an intelligence. It is just how the universe behaves, and it behaves that way without change, and without the need for any intelligent interference. Foster argues that there must be a force countering the second law, and this force must be intelligent. But the entire premise is flawed at the core. An entropy-countering force would in no way have to be intelligent. It would only have to work.

But the one way in which the Law of Entropy is most misused is in forgetting the conditions in which it applies: the law is only applicable to closed thermal systems. Consequently, we often meet with the ever-popular misconception among creation scientists that the Earth is a closed system, and Foster makes the same mistake. This may be due to confusion on his part, for he attempts several definitions of the Second Law (pp. 35, 39, 130, etc.), and only one is actually correct in noting the most essential precondition for applying the law: it must be a closed system. But when he applies the law in his arguments, he forgets this detail.

For example, chapter 21 begins his bizarre argument that the sun has programmed DNA on Earth. But what the sun actually does is destroy his preceding argument about entropy. He has claimed that there must be an order-reversing power on Earth for DNA to form, since otherwise the Second Law of Thermodynamics ‘says’ that order must decrease. But the 2nd Law says nothing about order per se, and what it does say is that what it predicts only holds true for closed systems. The Earth is not a closed system, because it is receiving a constant input of energy from the sun, and if the sun were to vanish, then life would not evolve and, yes, disorder would probably increase. This is something Foster seems to know but is unable—-or unwilling—-to properly account for. He persists in this error on page 131, where he asks if life can “wind-up the universe through reduction of entropy?” Certainly not. Life can only reduce thermal entropy by somehow drawing energy in from outside the system. In our case, this means the sun. There is no energy outside of the universe that you can draw in to reverse universal entropy, so nothing can do what Foster wants, not even life. Indeed, not even God, unless he can violate both the Laws of Thermodynamics. But in the case of logical entropy, which is not described by the Second Law, life is not even needed to create order—-the laws of physics already do that.

Indeed, speaking of these laws, Foster also seems ignorant of the First. On page 124 he again misunderstands the nature of entropy and even ignores this First Law of Thermodynamics. He writes that “no conceivable system can continue to create energy for infinite time,” though .”..there may have been almost infinite energy to start with (the Big Bang?), but with the remorseless passage of time the quality or temperature of the energy must run down…” [sic]. So, here he is overtly confusing energy with entropy—-perhaps he means available energy. Otherwise, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, something that, if Foster was paying attention, would negate Foster’s first statement—-since nothing can create energy at all, much less for a finite or infinite time. But statements like these are typical of Foster’s confused and sometimes nonsensical arguments.

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