Kerry K. Kuehn

Mind, biology, and the second law of thermodynamics

This morning while teaching a Bible Class on the relationship between Science and Scripture at St. John's Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa, a thoughtful and informed listener asked whether or not the Second Law of Thermodynamics precludes the possibility of modern Big-Bang cosmogony serving as a plausible explanation for the amazing order which we observe in the world today. In other words, he was asking: if the second law states that things left to themselves become more and more disordered over time, then how is it possible that you and I—very complex creatures by all standards—could have possibly arisen purely by unguided chance?

One answer than many modern scientists offer to this argument against Big Bang cosmogony goes something like this: "True, it is unlikely, but given enough time, even the unlikely becomes inevitable". That is: if the world has been around for millions of years, during which time it has been trying out (so to speak) different possibilities and configurations, then it must inevitably come upon the current state of affairs. Hence the existence of complex creatures like you and me is not really that surprising after all. So Big Bang cosmogony is plausible.

If this argument makes you uneasy, you are not alone. I myself find this argument to be unconvincing, primarily because it proves too much. That is: if it is strictly true that "given enough time, even the unlikely becomes inevitable", then everything—yes everything— that is possible must someday happen. To take a silly example to prove my point: Ghengis Khan's corpse—presently buried in a grave—will one day reassemble on Venus and he will play backgammon with Michael Jackson. After all, the atoms that formerly comprised Ghengis' and Michael's bodies have a finite (non-zero) chance of eventually being found anywhere in the universe. So given enough time, this seemingly miraculous event must some day happen. It is inevitable.

If you find this conclusion to be preposterous, then you, too, are judging this argument to be unconvincing.

Another answer that many modern scientists offer in favor of Big Bang cosmogony is that the second law only prescribes what happens in a closed system (a closed system is one which is isolated from any outside influences). Most systems do not satisfy this constraint; they interact with external influences. They are not isolated from other systems. Strictly speaking, only the universe as a whole satisfies the constraint implicit in the second law (since there are no other universes with which they might interact). So we shouldn't be too surprised to find extraordinary order arising in non-isolated systems.

While this is technically correct, one should remember that the second law was derived not by doing measurements on the entire universe (the only truly closed, isolated system). Rather, it was derived by Rudolph Clausius after considering a large number of common everyday systems. In other words, it was a universal law generalized from everyday observations of nature (see the ninth memoir of Clausius' 1867 book Mechanical Theory of Heat with its Application to the Steam Engine and to the Physical Properties of Bodies).

Even today, physics professors do not typically use the example of the entire universe to illustrate the second law. Rather, they use everyday examples such as breaking eggs, mixing cream into coffee, or heat flowing from hot to cold bodies despite the fact that none of them are isolated systems. Yet all of these examples convey the essential feature of the second law: that order tends to decrease in natural processes.

Now if the second law was derived in the context of everyday systems, then one should, at first glance, be very surprised to observe a violation of the second law in everyday systems. And we usually are. If you put a hundred coins in a box and shake it, you would certainly not expect to open it and see all heads and no tails. If you did, then you would probably conclude that there was some trick involved. Perhaps somebody designed the box with magnets or unfairly weighted coins so as to produce this exceedingly surprising event. Remember, this box is not a closed system; you are shaking it with your hands. Nonetheless, our "second law intuition" is once again reliable.

Strictly speaking, the second law does not preclude unlikely events from happening. Rather, it states that, on average, the most likely outcome of any natural process, when left to itself, will be the one that is most disordered. The more complicated a body or system is (the more 'moving parts' it has), the less likely an ordered configuration will arise via natural processes. For example, if you place four coins in a box and shake it vigorously before opening the box, then you would not be very surprised if all four came up heads. On the other hand, if you place one hundred coins in a box, the likelihood of all of them coming up heads is very small indeed. And if you place a thousand coins in the box, the probability becomes so tiny as to be practically impossible. These types of calculations can be done quite easily. (The answer to the latter case is about one in 1 times 10 to the 300th power. To give you a sense of how small this likelihood is: the age of the universe, according to Big Bang cosmogony, is less than 1 times 10 to the 18th seconds old. So even if you shook the box and opened it once every second for 14 billion years, you would have an extraordinarily small chance of seeing all the coins show up heads).

What about in biological systems? These are unique, right? In a sense: yes. They are far more complicated than a box of 1000 coins. And they are typically far from equilibrium: they make use of external resources to order their component parts. They are not closed systems, as stipulated by the second law.

But I would also argue that when a sufficiently complicated system—such as a biological organism— appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics, it almost invariably can be traced to the action of a mind or agency. This, in fact, is what we typically mean by a "biological organism": one which exhibits a self-organizing principle, so to speak. In older times, this self-organizing principle might have been referred to as a mind or a soul. Indeed, the word "animal" comes from the latin word animus, which means mind or soul.

Furthermore, I would argue that materialism—the idea that all of nature (including biological organisms) can be understood in terms of inanimate material components alone—is false. Why? Whenever people have tried to understand a biological organism from a purely mechanical perspective, they have been inevitably led to a deeper level of inexplicable mystery. I think that this provides compelling evidence that materialism is simply false. I am not arguing that it is futile to try to understand the mechanism for, say, human smell or human reproduction. On the contrary, it is very interesting and enlightening. But I am arguing that mind is—from an empirical perspective—an ineradicable feature of nature. We have never been able to get rid of it, no matter how hard we've tried. How people think about what they smell; how they interpret smells; and how they make conscious choices based on the smells they encounter—these all involve the action of a mind. It seems that mind is an irreducible concept—at least from an empirical viewpoint.

The mind or agency of a biological organism may, as in the previous example, be a human mind. This mind allows human beings to build watches and airplanes that would not otherwise occur in inanimate nature. When an engineer assembles a watch or an airplane, he makes use of external resources so as to accomplish a task or goal. The watch or the airplane is a material instance of a blueprint which was conceived in the engineer's mind.

But the concept of mind or agency need not be a human mind. For example, it may consist of a recipe for growth and reproduction written into the cell of a plant (so to speak). When we see a tree growing from a seed, it seems to be violating the second law of thermodynamics. After all, it is much larger than the seed. But in what sense is the tree "more ordered" than the seed? Remember that the recipe for the entire functionality of the tree was at one time contained within the seed itself. Stating that the tree is "more ordered" than the seed is a bit (though not entirely) like stating that a beautiful fractal pattern on your desktop computer screen-saver is "more ordered" than the short computer program that generated it. Or like stating that a long series of numbers is "more ordered" than the mathematical function that can be used to generate this series. In all of these cases, the rich pattern that eventually appears was somehow "encoded" in a shorter format which contained all of the essential information. Certainly a tree takes in resources from outside of it (sunlight, soil, water) and orders these material components so as to build the structure of the tree. For that matter, a computer program requires resources from outside of it (electrical power) to run. But in both these cases, the tree or the computer program can only accomplish their ordering task by making use of information that they already had within themselves. This leads back to my main point: that any apparent violation of the second law of thermodynamics in a living organism is connected to the action of a mind or agency.

Now the question which naturally arises in this context is: "where must mind or agency to be located"? After all, it seems odd to think of a tree as having a "mind". But remember that I am not using this term as a synonym for "brain", as many modern scientists do. Rather, I am using it in a more general (and historical) sense. The question of where the mind is situated led some natural philosophers to accept the theological argument from design. Namely: a tree doesn't have a mind. Rather, God (a mind external to nature) created the tree so as to be able to act in the way that it does. It is, quite literally, a living machine designed by God. The tree is to God like a computer program is to a computer programmer.

Other natural philosophers thought that there was no need for an external mind—such as a God. Rather the mind was situated inside of each natural organism. The tree has a mind. Animals have minds. People have minds. They have different kinds of minds, but they all have minds nonetheless. If this sounds a bit like animism (or entelechy —the idea that some vital force directs organisms toward self-fulfillment) then you are correct. And vitalism is pretty much a non-starter for most modern scientists—who reject it out of hand as un-scientific. It certainly contradicts the modern prescription that all of nature must be understood strictly in terms of material causes.

As a Lutheran, I am very sympathetic to the argument from design, as it coheres with the claims of Scriptural texts (and I accept these texts as reliable for quite other reasons). Nonetheless, accepting the argument from design certainly does not preclude also accepting some type of animism or vitalism. In fact, I believe there are perfectly rational reasons for doing so.

Anyhow, I am getting tired of writing. So for now, I'll simply refer you to a wonderful book published recently by Jessica Riskin entitled The Restless Clock: A history of the centuries-long argument over what makes living things tick. Riskin points out that the rejection of mind is just about as close as one can get to the definition of modern (I'd say profane) science. Also, I'd highly recommend William Dembski's No Free Lunch, and Johannes Kepler's Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, especially Part III of Book 4. All of these texts deal, in one way or another, with the interesting (and, in my view, critical) issue of mind and its relationship to science. These authors all take this question very seriously, and come to rather different conclusions.