Thermodynamics (it’s not what you think)

Question from Anon:

I’m engaged in a discussion with a Christian friend of mine who has presented this syllogism to me:

“1. Simply put, if there is no external cause of the universe, then the universe is either eternal or self-created.

2. But, it is cosmologically ridiculous and anti-scientific (i.e. against laws of thermodynamics) to propose that the universe is either eternal or self-created.

3. Therefore, the premise that there is no external cause of the universe must be false (i.e. there must be an external cause for the universe’s existence, e.g. God)”

I believe he is applying the law where it can’t be applied, but I’ve never extensively studied science in college so I’m not really sure.

My rebuttal was that the universe was not necessarily a closed system and he responded with this:

“I have to remind you that my academic background has required me to not only understand, but apply, thermodynamics. [He has an engineering degree.] I know what the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics means and it clearly eliminates the concept of an eternal universe. If there is any misunderstanding on my part, it is in what you mean by ‘the law of the universe.’ Further, whether the universe is a closed system or not is irrelevant, since the concept of a closed system is theoretical, i.e. we have never actually observed a closed system.”

Thanks and I hope you can sort this out for me.

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, it’s not the usual creationist argument that evolution breaks the 2nd Law simply by producing order, so at least it’s a change.

He’s got one thing right, the universe is unlikely to be self-created. We don’t know of anything that is, or even what that would mean if it were true. For an entity to be the reason for its own existence would require an exception to the idea that an effect follows its cause. Rather than call this ridiculous, however, I’d just say that time would have had to behave non-linearly near the beginning. It’s strange to consider, but it hasn’t been ruled out as far as I know.

To set up the next option a bit, an eternal universe would need to be one where multiple Big Bangs happen in sequence. We have to work from the scientific fact of the Big Bang to achieve a plausible eternal model, especially after Borde, Guth and Vilenkin successfully ruled out the leading eternal models that didn’t involve singularities.

Your friend’s thermodynamic objection to an eternal universe is that any process that’s already been running forever should have run down by now, because no process is perfectly efficient. There are at least two scenarios in which this is averted (possibilities only, mind you):
– The singularity that immediately precedes each Big Bang reclaims all of the matter and energy in the universe by bringing space itself back to a central point. This includes all of the “lost” energy that radiates from decaying systems and is normally declared unusable, so in the end nothing is truly lost and the universe really is perfectly efficient.
– Extending upon your friend’s response, not even the universe itself is a closed system. It receives energy from an outside source, such as other universes. If there is an infinite number of these as some have hypothesised, they can keep a universe such as ours going indefinitely. (If one takes “universe” to mean everything that exists, in other words the whole multiverse, then the idea is available that it may contain infinite matter and energy, and never have to run down for this reason instead. It’s all a matter of perspective, and to some extent semantics.)

As an afterword on eternal universes, it’s worth asking your friend exactly how he exempts his eternal God from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. I hold it to be true that whatever constraints you place on the universe to necessitate a god, you immediately have to break them to allow for the god, usually by way of special pleading.

Moving on to the third option, it’s telling that your friend’s syllogism uses “e.g.” and not “i.e.” to invoke God. God is an example of an external cause, not the only possible one. The alternative suggested by the above is a concurrent or previous universe, which is part of a great many theories out there. I would love to hear your friend’s reasoning that starts from the external cause at the end of the syllogism and arrives at the Christian God, because at a glance it’s far from a logical step. (The following isn’t a scientific argument, but additional universes seem a more plausible thing to posit than a god because at least we know there’s such a thing as a universe. If your 5-acre cabbage patch has been devoured and you find one fat little rabbit in the corner, you don’t suppose that Bigfoot ate the rest; you wonder where all the other rabbits are hiding.)

Finally, there is a fourth option not covered by the syllogism: that the universe simply came into being without being created, that the common straw-man concept of “something from nothing” actually happened. Something like this is put forward in Lawrence Krauss’ new book A Universe from Nothing; specifically, that the precursor to the universe in certain models could be thought of as “nothing”. Even if you don’t accept this as quite the same thing, it at least advances another alternative external cause to compete with God.

Most of the options are essentially still on the table, despite your friend’s attempt at an argument by elimination. Even the option he wants to be left with doesn’t help the case for God very much, if at all.

8 thoughts on “Thermodynamics (it’s not what you think)”

  1. I am a bit partial to the universe from nothing point of view – which means that the universe is self-created in a sense. Since this is a scientific theory, your friend’s points are sort of negated (it’s not unscientific to propose that the universe was created from nothing).

    In the universe from nothing point of view, what is left to be explained is the mechanism for the polarization of energy into positive and negative. I think it can be explained if you allow only one rule to be the over-riding law whether the universe exists or not – the rule that quantum fluctuations of randomly varying magnitudes happen.
    A big enough quantum fluctuation then, with a probability of 10^(-500) if you please, will ultimately happen that would result in a vast enough polarization of energy and an expansion of positive energy and negative gravity/ space. The rest (localization of the positive energy to create matter, the rules of physics that are followed in the created universe-space-time) are then just details.

    The final question then would be why should there be any quantum fluctuations at all? We know that quantum fluctuations are a fact of our current universe-space-time. The above reasoning just extrapolates that to beyond our current universe-space-time and says that quantum fluctuations are a rule, whether or not universes are created. It becomes a bit airy-fairy here – the question remains where do these universe making quantum fluctuations occur and why?
    This is where I have no answer – but I don’t buy the “in the mind of God” variety of reasoning 🙂

  2. As the tags of the article note, I would suggest reading Lawrence Krauss’ : A universe from nothing. It goes a long way into explaining this particular topic. And it is very interesting.

  3. The Christian’s 2ToL reasoning is interesting, but as far as we know, the 2ToL applies only to the matter, energy, etc *within* our current universe.
    If we consider an eternal sequence of Big Bang/Big Crunch events as a perpetual universe-generating mechanism, we should not assume that 2ToL holds for that mechanism; it may only hold for the contents of each universe created. And perhaps only for our own.

  4. “compete with God.”

    Now that’s telling, and just a bit silly.

    Does anyone really hope to “Capture” God in a mechanism? Is anyone going to examine my clock to try and ascertain that I exist next?

    How about we just say Adam was the first bacteria to put itself together and when he asexually reproduced he got “Eve from his Rib”. Sure.

    No matter how many times each side of this debate is poked and prodded, there will never be an answer in this life as it is. There CAN NEVER be an answer in this life. Every logic throughout time and space is going to come into this question one day, and it still won’t be answered. Because God in this life is hidden in the “What if”, the just beyond sight, the memory you’ve never lived but that feels so real.

    He’s not in the religions or philosophies or sciences. He’s in the heart.

    You’re an intelligent fellow, with properly formed ideas and I’m sure you’ve good intentions as well. Keep the competition lighthearted though, because our ideas have a best before date, and expire given time. That goes to the religious as well, you don’t know everything, God does, and don’t you dare claim what’s His.

  5. I’m not the one who put God in competition with the other possible explanations. Anon’s Christian friend is specifically trying to eliminate competing explanations for the universe in order to present God as the only possible explanation, and as shown, he can’t. The i.e./e.g. issue alone shows he’s trying too hard.

    Meanwhile, it’s all very well to say that God is hidden somewhere, but this is not evidence for His existence; it’s an excuse for the apparent lack of evidence. If you don’t need evidence it’s one way to maintain your own beliefs, but it’s no way to convince anyone else.

  6. Read my other reply for my stance on evidence and proof. Also, I disagree, specifically throwing out that concept opens the discussion more fully because it dismisses the false premise of being able to prove or disprove a god through (ultimately flawed) logical analyses. I’d say that you’d have the harder time convincing and swaying others because of your particular dependence on what I’d call the ‘usual forms’, while I still think you’re brilliant, what you say are just simple extensions of what’s been said before countless times in countless ways. The age old debate hasn’t changed in the slightest, it’s just become more sophisticated; more words thrown in. I mean no offense though, I like what you write, whether I agree with it or not.

  7. That’s cool, I know there’s nothing new under the sun.

    What I’d like to know is how you expect believers to honourably bring newcomers into their faith without claiming proof or even evidence. I know some just tell people to pray and hope that they have a “religious experience”, but it seems just as likely that the human brain can create its own such experience through something like a chemical imbalance. If apologists are destroying faith and belief by claiming knowledge, what should they be doing?

  8. Perhaps I don’t expect this at all? Let’s say I Do though for the sake of debate; one does not need to appeal to another through one instrument of the mind alone. We have a variety of faculties for determination of ourselves and surroundings, not just that but we have a variety of overlap when it comes to our human experience and this alone can be sufficient – a relation between one and another of alike life experiences, but differing perspective.

    Telling everyone how to go about their business isn’t my goal, however. My goal is to refute the idea that proof and trickery is an acceptable way to spread the word, and the fact that in this context ‘proof’ and ‘trickery’ are viable descriptors in the same sentence of how people try to ‘save’ others clinches it for me. Not to mention that it just ends up being a time bomb capable of activation by another logic stream that in the end ONLY HURTS THE PERSON at their deepest levels. Nope. Can’t stand it.

    If someone wants to honorably proselytize then I’m afraid I have NO blanket advice on that, it is something that needs to be approached like a writer writes a book – through personal experience and wisdom. Anyone who takes to the task like a salesman is certain to fail in principle if not practice.

    Now that I’ve put on that perspective, allow me to reiterate; I don’t expect it at all. I have no stake in this game. I do not want converts, or to save souls or to sway minds. I don’t care whether others choose to or not, I just care about the methodology and whether it is sound or not. Creating a spiritual crisis in someone due to convoluted and breakable logic is not sound.

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