Volume 10, Number 1

Thermodynamics and the Supernatural:
Some Comments on Walters' and Gordon's Replies in the Last Issue

Dr. John W. Patterson
Materials Science and Engineering
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa

It is sad to witness the confusion that creationism inflicts on its advocates. Truly blatant mistakes result when creationists try to support their scientifically untenable religious beliefs. Some examples from the Fall-Winter '86 issue of Origins Research may help to illustrate this point.

Mistakes Regarding Thermodyynamics

Walters: "...Thermal energy cannot be converted into mechanical energy unless a capable engineer designs a system that includes a boiler, turbine,...etc,..."

Fact: Massive amounts of thermal energy are routinely converted into mechanical energy everyday. Moreover, this has been going on for eons. The convection currents at sea as well as the entire hydrological cycle represent mechanical energy from the sun. The processes involved are not only understandable, but completely natural and do not violate the second law. No boilers, turbines, etc. and no intelligent engineers are involved.

Walters: "...of course, one could also define the second law as: ...mass never diffuses against a concentration gradient..."

Fact: Mass in atomic form is known to spontaneously diffuse against its own concentration gradients in a wide variety of solid state processes and in liquids as well. Indeed this is a fundamental aspect of every alloy system which exhibits the so called "spinodal decomposition" mechanism of phase transformation and there is a fairly extensive literature on the subject. Most of the work in the last 20 to 30 years was pioneered by John Cahn (then at MIT, now at the National Bureau of Standards) but the idea originated with J. Willard Gibbs back in the late 1800's. One need only account for bonding energies in the proper way to see how this apparently "uphill diffusion" process can proceed quite spontaneously and in complete accordance with the second law of thermodynamics.

Walters: "If (JWP) asserts ...that evolution has no problems with thermodynamics, my understanding of thermodynamics forces me to conclude that (he) hasn't looked very far".

Fact: So nonexistant are evolution's problems with thermodynamics, that expert thermodynamicists refer to such creationists' claims as "red herring" issues. When Professor David B. Wilson, editor of Did the Devil Make Darwin Do It?, asked me about contributing a chapter on thermodynamics, he found I had just completed one for Laurie Godfrey'sScientists Confront Creationism (which Tracy Walters reviewed). So he decided to get the views of a physical chemist, Prof. H. F. Franzen, rather than have a rehash of mine. Significantly, Franzen titled it "Thermodynamics: The Red Herring" as if to underscore the way that creationists, in his view, have tried to concoct non-existant contradictions with thermodynamics. I strongly recommend Prof. Franzen's paper to Tracy Walters and to all of his creationist colleagues.

Walters: "...Information in a closed (informational) system always decreases."

Fact: Let ten or so microbes be introduced into a closed but warm aquarium that houses a small population of plant life and other nutrients. Eventually the microbes will multiply to perhaps millions before achieving a dynamic equilibrium with the plant population, which might also have expanded in the process (more microbal waste products for them to feed off). If the information in a single cell is anything like the creationist biochemists claim, the information content of such a closed system will have increased astronomically, and with no outside influences other than the heat sources (like the sun) and/or heat sinks in the surroundings. As with the earth's biosphere, no supernatural intervention of any sort is required to explain this dramatic increase in information. Indeed to entertain such an explanation serves only to confuse our understanding rather than clarify it.

Walters: "While it is generally believed that we accept the laws of thermodynamics because of overwhelming empirical evidence, it has been shown that the laws of classical and statistical thermodynamics can be derived from ...work in information theory. ...it is interesting to realize that the laws ...can be defined in any number of ways, each of which can be shown to be equivalent to the others" (But recall Walters' mistake above equating the second law to the impossibility of diffusion against a composition gradient! JWP)

Fact: The laws of classical thermodynamics are far more general than those of stastistical thermodynamics and therefore cannot be equivalent. The reason is that classical thermo is not committed to any assumptions about the fine structure of its systems, whereas statistical thermo is committed to such assumptions. This generality, which is unique to classical thermodynamics, is what enabled Einstein and Planck to apply classical thermo with complete confidence when embarking on their respective journeys into the uncharted waters of relativity and quantum theory (see chapter four in Segre, 1980). Unlike the laws of classical thermodynamics, the laws governing particle collisions and momentum transfer -- both of which are fundamental to statistical thermodynamics -- do not remain unaltered in the same way. Like the laws of electromagnetism and Newtonian mechanics, they must be corrected for relativistic and quantum effects. Nor can classical and informational thermodynamics be equivalent -- contrary to Walters' suggestion -- because information theory contains still other hypotheses to which classical thermo is not at all committed. The fact is, statistical and informational thermodynamics are actual hybrid theories which are more specialized of limited than classical thermodynamics, precisely because of the other postulates that get added.

To summarize, neither evolution or any other life process constitutes a clear-cut violation of any laws of thermodynamics. By claiming the opposite, the creationists only succeed in documenting their confusion -- not only in regards to entropy but also as regards the second law of thermodynamics itself. If they really wish to shift the debate to information theory or to statistical thermodynamics, or even to irreversible thermodynamics (as developed by Onsager, Prigogine, etc.) then they should state explicitly what it is about these theories that is violated and then develop their case accordingly.

Perhaps Professor J. A. Cramer -- himself a devout creationist who thoroughly rejects evolution -- has said it best (Cramer, 1978):

...I no more concur with the general theory of evolution than any of the proponents of this view (that evolution violates the second law), but it is a mistake to defend oneself with faulty arguments.

Mistaken Protocols and the Philosophy of Science

According to well established protocols, as discussed in the philosophy of science, there is little or no basis for considering what we may or may not attribute to some hypothetical thing until there is some solid evidence that the thing in question really exists. This applies to all hypothetical notions and not just to those we imagine to be of a naturalistic sort. It would be rather silly, after all, to reopen the issue of perpetual motion (or the "luminiferous Aether", or phlogiston, or whatever) simply because certain advocates -- religious or otherwise -- insisted that these were really supernatural notions all along. Nor is it not just the scientist or atheist who should find this to be silly. Any layman or even any theologian being implored to invest time, money, or effort in any such project would also be well-advised to demand existence before investing.

Most of the hypothetical notions conceived by humans (whether these notions be scientific, nonscientific, natural, supernatural or whatever) turn out to be so seriously mistaken in some sense that we can pass them off as mere figments of the imagination. Newton's "luminiferous aether", Stahl's "phlogiston", and the idea of work or heat from nothing (i.e., perpetual motion) were once thought by many people -- scientists and nonscientists alike -- to have a real existence. But to the astonishment of almost everyone at the time, all have since been shown to be mere delusions. Creationism is but another of the once popular delusions that also had widespread acceptance in scientific circles.

The realities of certain other notions from science have been established, but as regards the supernatural, nothing has as yet been shown to exist (outside the imaginary realm of pure delusion). In any case, science has learned from these past experiences to place the highest priority on establishing at least some compelling evidence for existence, before considering an idea to be a possible explanation or cause of observed occurrences.

To summarize, the philosophical situation is this: With no compelling evidence to date for the existence of anything supernatural -- much less a supernatural Creator with intelligence (!) -- science simply rejects creationism. This will not change until the creationists provide some form of compelling scientific evidence for the real existence of their hypothetical Creator. Not only scientists but others, too, are justified in this, because creation theory without a creator would be just as silly as gravitation theory without gravity or quantum theory without quanta and so on. It matters not how fervently the advocates plead for their Creator hypothesis; until they provide solid evidence for His (Its?) existence, the null hypothesis (no creator and no creationism) will continue to prevail. This is the same as saying the alternative hypothesis (creationism) will continue to be rejected.


  1. J. W. Cahn, Trans. Met. Soc. AIME 242 166 (1968).
  2. J. A. Cramer, pg 32 in D. L. Willis, ed. Origins and Changes, American Scientific Affiliation, Elgin, IL (1978).
  3. E. Segre, From X-Rays to Quarks, W. H. Freeman & Co. (1980).


I wish to acknowledge with thanks those who sent me copies of the letters they wrote to the editors of Origins Research. Some of the responses given above were based on those letters, particularly the ones from J. Richard Wakefield of Beaverton, Ontario and Prof. Robert E. Carver of the University of Georgia, Athens. Though I did not use it here, the letter by Frank Arduini was particularly insightful and the most relevant of all to the subject of thermodynamics.

Copyright © 1997 John W. Patterson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 3.13.97