A Closer Look at the Laws of Thermodynamics
In chapter four of this book, the application of the laws of thermodynamics
to the question of the origin of life was introduced. There are some more subtle
and technical questions which could arise concerning the use of thermodynamics
to investigate whether life could have originated spontaneously. For a person already
anticipating these questions, this appendix is necessary. It is hoped that for
those with less science background who are willing to wade through some admittedly
more technical discussion this appendix will prove helpful as well.
This material has been relegated to an appendix, rather than the body of chapter
four, because the subject is abstract enough that it could actually get in the
way of what is hopefully a simple but compelling argument for most readers.
The arguments in chapter four can stand on their own. However for those with
some scientific background legitimate questions can and have come up which deserve
a more thorough treatment. The author has been asked the questions raised here
a number of times in a variety of settings. This appendix is an effort to answer
some of these questions.
The question of the relationship between the creation of life and the laws of
nature deserves a closer look. Could life have been created by a ?natural process??
In order to take this closer look, the laws of thermodynamics will be discussed
more thoroughly to see how they apply to the specific claims of the atheists for a
natural explanation of the origins of life.
The first law of thermodynamics, simply stated, is as follows: ?In any process,
the total energy of the universe is conserved.? In other words, for any natural
process, energy may change forms or move from one place to another, but the
total energy in the universe is constant. No one scientist is given credit for
discovering this law. However, the brewer and physicist James Prescott Joule,
after whom the metric unit of energy is named, played perhaps the single greatest
role in developing this concept. In the early 1800s, Joule performed experiments
showing the relationship between mechanical energy and heat. By the middle of
the nineteenth century, this law was considered to be more or less proven by
the scientific community.
Examples of application of the ?first law? would be in energy conversions such
as in burning gasoline. When gasoline is burned, chemical energy in the molecules
is converted to heat and light. The amount of heat and light energy produced
will exactly equal the amount of chemical energy used up. If the heat produced
is harnessed in an internal combustion engine, the chemical energy will be turned
into heat (lost out the muffler and the radiator as well as due to friction
with the road and the air), into mechanical energy to move the car, and into
electrical energy to run the lights, the stereo and so forth. In any case, the
total amount of energy produced will exactly equal the total energy consumed.
This law has been extensively confirmed in many independent experiments, to the point
that scientists take it as a given fact in approaching any problem they are
Another conservation law was discovered at about the same time as the law of
conservation of energy. This law, called the law of conservation of mass, was
established through some very elegant experiments done by the chemist Antoine
Lavoissier in the late 18th century. The law can be simply stated as follows: ?In
any natural process, the total mass of the universe is conserved.? In other
words, in any process which can occur matter is neither created nor destroyed.
In the year 1905, Albert Einstein threw a wrench into this neat conservation
law with his theory of special relativity. As part of this theory he proposed
that matter can be converted into energy and energy into matter. This fact is
expressed in the famous equation E = mc2. This law states that the amount of energy
created (or used up) in a process is equal to the amount of mass used up (or
created) in the process times the square of the speed of light. Examples of
applications of this law are nuclear fusion or fission, in which atoms are built
up or split apart releasing huge amounts of energy. In normal chemical reactions,
the amount of energy involved (E) is so small the amount of mass change (m)
is too small to be measured by any standard mass-measuring device, which exp
lains why the law of conservation of mass was accepted for so long. A combined
law may be expressed in a more general first law of thermodynamics as follows:
?In any process, the total of mass and energy of the universe are conserved.?
The first law of thermodynamics amounts to a mathematics of natural processes.
It does not predict whether a particular process can happen; only the result
in terms of energy if it does. This law is extremely limited in its ability
to help one decide whether life was created. As an example of this fact, consider
a rock balanced on the edge of a cliff. If it were to leave the edge of the
cliff, it is easy to predict what would happen?it would fall! Knowledge of the
laws of thermodynamics is not needed to predict this. However, one can apply
the first Law to this event by describing what happens in terms of energy. When
the rock falls, gravitational potential energy is turned into kinetic energy
as the rock accelerates. Some of the energy is lost as heat due to friction with
the air. What happens to the kinetic energy when the rock hits the ground? The
answer is that it is turned into heat (as well as a little bit of sound energy).
If a person quickly went and felt the ground where the rock hit, they would notic
e it got just a little bit warmer.
Here is where the limitations of the first law of thermodynamics become clear.
There is nothing in the first law which precludes all the heat energy in the
ground coming together and spontaneously causing the rock to be thrown off the
ground, up into the air, and back up onto the cliff. One knows intuitively that
this process is impossible, but the first law of thermodynamics cannot explain
why. If a film was seen showing a large rock suddenly rising off the ground
into the air and landing in a delicately balanced position on top of a cliff, the viewer
would be absolutely convinced the film was being run backward. The conclusion
is that some processes in nature are only spontaneous in one direction and not
the reverse. Well, not quite! If a person used intelligence and planning, they
could pick up the boulder and carry it up to the top of the cliff, replacing
it in its original position on top of the cliff. This apparent exception to
the law of spontaneity will be revisited later.
The example above reveals the fact that certain things simply never could happen.
Occasionally, when a large, old building is beyond the point of being renovated,
it is demolished using carefully placed explosives. Most people have seen a
recording of a large building being taken down, producing a huge cloud of dust
and a large pile of rubble. It is obvious that the pile of rubble and cloud
of dust could never spontaneously join themselves together to reform a building
with all the pipes soldered together and all the bricks laid straight, cemented in position,
etc. This would be absolutely impossible. There is a myriad of similar examples
of the principle of processes being irreversible. It is interesting to note
that although a buildi
ng could never spontaneously simply come together, buildings
do exist. They require an intelligent creator, willing to plan carefully and
work hard in order to bring the different components into a carefully ordered
The principle by which scientists explain what processes can occur spontaneously
and which cannot is the second law of thermodynamics. Nothing in the first law
precludes the possibility of the blown up building being recreated spontaneously
out of its dust and rubble. However, the ?second law? of thermodynamics can be
used to predict that this process in not possible.
Unfortunately, the second law of thermodynamics is more abstract than the first.
It is difficult to state in a way easily understood by the uninitiated. One
of the earliest statements of the second law is as follows. ?Heat flows spontaneously
from hot to cold objects, but not from cold objects to hot objects.? In other
words, if you put a hot rock into cold water, the rock would cool off, while
the water would get hotter. It is impossible for the hot rock to suck even more
heat out of the cooler water, causing the cold water to get even colder. It
is tempting to say in response, ?I did not need some scientist to tell me that
one.? This is true. However, using this law in the carefully stated form of
an equation, the French physicist Sadi Carnot was able to predict that it is impossible
to create a perpetual motion machine?one whose sole function is to convert heat
into mechanical energy with 100% efficiency. The work of Carnot and others to
improve the efficiency of steam engines by applying the second law of thermodynamics
to the problem contributed greatly to the industrial revolution in the nineteenth
A later formulation of the second law is that of Claussius. This statement is
of relevance to chemistry, and therefore to the question of the origins of life.
It could be stated as follows: ?For any spontaneous process, the entropy of
the universe increases.? Loosely stated, entropy is a measure of randomness or freedom
of motion. The reader may not want to know the actual definition of entropy
as a physicist would state it, but here it is anyway. ?The entropy of a process
is the heat of that process, done in a reversible way, divided by the absolute
temperature of the process.? If the temperature is not constant while a process
occurs, calculus must be used to define entropy.
In any case, one now has a rule to predict whether any process will occur spontaneously.
A process which creates more ?order? in the universe will not be spontaneous.
Consider a few processes which increase entropy. In doing so, one will see that
the concept of entropy is perhaps a bit more intuitive than expected. For example,
if ice, in which the water molecules are locked into a definite position, is
melted, the molecules are allowed to move about with random motion in the liquid.
This increased freedom of motion implies that the entropy of water is greater than
that of ice. Similarly, when water is boiled, entropy is increased because the
water molecules are no longer attached to one another in steam as they were
in water, allowing for more freedom of motion.
Clearly, blowing up a building dramatically increases entropy. On the other
hand, the creation of a large building with so much ?order,? with all the bricks
lined up just right and all the wires attached at the right places requires
a very large decrease in entropy. It therefore will not happen spontaneously.
What about chemistry? Large molecules such as DNA, proteins, complex lipids
and sugars are in a very low state of entropy. Creating these macromolecules
from smaller ones (a necessary process in order for life to be created spontaneously)
involves a large decrease of entropy. This is true, not only because of the size
of the molecules?involving in some cases hundreds of thousands of atoms?but
also because of the great degree of order in the structure, for example, of
proteins. In order for an enzyme to function, not only do many different amino
acid molecules need to come together spontaneously, the correct number of each
of the twenty naturally occurring amino acids have to be joined in exactly the
right order for the enzyme to work. If the primordial soup from which life is
supposed to have been created contained any besides the twenty correct amino
acids (and it unquestionably would), they would have to be excluded from the
structure. Not only this, but the enzyme molecule must be arranged geometrically in exactly
the right shape to function.
Even if by chance a large, complex, ordered thing such as a DNA molecule or
an enzyme were somehow to come to exist, the second law could be used to predict
that the molecule, if subject to the vagaries of the environment, would soon
fall apart. It would decompose to smaller, more random chunks of molecule, with
more entropy. This is why, as mentioned earlier, Nobel prize-winning chemist
Melvin Calvin said that when looking at very old sediments under bogs, they
do not even look for proteins or polysaccharides (sugars), because it is a matter of common
knowledge that these molecules are not stable. Why atheists theorize that these
molecules slowly built up and evolved into more and more complex structures
in some ancient earth environment seems to be beyond explanation. It is also
beyond the second law of thermodynamics.
Perhaps at this point the reader would say, ?Well, there you go. It is proven.
Obviously life was created.? However, it is not quite that simple. Processes
which decrease entropy do in some cases occur. For example, water can be frozen!
Under the right conditions, ice can be created out of water, even though this
results in a decrease in entropy. What about this? More importantly, living
things clearly do exist and they have very low entropy. Aren?t they violations
of the second law of thermodynamics? In order to approach these questions, an
even closer look is required.
The ice-from-water example will provide a good illustration. It turns out that
the statement of the second law of thermodynamics given above, although correct,
needs to be put more carefully to be useful. This is true, because entropy can
decrease in one place, as long as it increases somewhere else at the same time
by an even greater amount. For example, when water freezes the entropy of the
water decreases. However, when the heat leaves the water to go into the environment
(for example in your freezer), it increases the entropy of the environment even more
than it decreases the entropy of the water. Consider a situation in which as
some water freezes, the change of entropy in the water is S = -10 entropy units.
S is the conventional symbol for entropy. If the environment increases in entropy
because of the heat it absorbs from the water by S = +15 entropy units, then
the total entropy change for the process is S = -10 + 15 = +5 entropy units.
In this case the total change of entropy of the universe is positive, and the
water will freeze spontaneously.
It just so happens that below zero degrees centigrade (32 degrees Fahrenheit)
the total entropy change for water to turn to ice is positive, and water freezes
spontaneously. Above zero degrees centigrade the entropy change for water to
freeze becomes negative and water will not freeze. Therefore a scientist could predict
the freezing point of water to be zero degrees centigrade using the second law
the simple fact that a process has a negative entropy change is not
a sufficient predictor of whether or not it will be spontaneous. In order to
make this concept useful for one trying to predict whether a process will be
spontaneous, one could create four possible scenarios, described in the table below.
??????????????? S system
??????????????????????????????? S surroundings
A process described by the first scenario would definitely have total entropy
change which is positive, so it would definitely be spontaneous. A process described
by the fourth scenario would definitely have a negative total entropy change
and it would therefore definitely not occur spontaneously. Whether a process described
by case #2 or #3 would be spontaneous would depend on the temperature. For example,
water freezing to form ice would fit into scenario #3, so it can occur, but
only at sufficiently low temperatures. An example of scenario #1 would be paper
burning to form carbon dioxide and water. This is a spontaneous process. An
example of scenario #4 would be for carbon dioxide and water to come together
to form paper. This would require absorption of heat from the environment, making the
entropy change of the environment negative. It would also require the formation
of very complex cellulose molecules making the entropy change of the system
negative. The conclusion is that paper will not form spontaneously under any circumstances
no matter how much heat one puts into a mixture of the proper gases. No matter
how long one waits, it will never happen!
The same criterion could be applied to the supposed processes by which Carl
Sagan, Melvin Calvin and other atheists claim life came to be by a spontaneous
process. The processes by which the basic molecules of life (carbohydrates,
lipids, proteins and nucleic acids) are created from simpler building blocks all
absorb heat from the environment; therefore they have a negative entropy change
in the environment. They all result in a decrease in entropy in the molecules
as well. This is scenario #4 described above. Because it is an example of case
#4, it can be predicted that paper spontaneously appearing out of a jar of carbon
dioxide and water is impossible. Similarly one can conclude that molecules such
as enzymes would never appear spontaneously out of a soup of simple molecules
even if one waited indefinitely. And this is just considering the spontaneous
production of one functioning enzyme molecule. It is a great leap from this
point to even begin to consider the production (simultaneously and at the same
?place) of thousands of different molecules of lipids, carbohydrates, proteins
and nucleic acids?all coming together to form a unit which is able to ingest
food, grow, and reproduce.
But there is still one more question to be answered. This is probably the hardest
one to deal with of all. Clearly paper exists. Clearly living things exist.
Even if God created living things, does not the very continued existence of
living things constitute a violation of the second law of thermodynamics? Don?t living
things have to make proteins, nucleic acids and so forth, in apparent violation
of the second law? It is time to answer this intriguing question.
How can life exist with its extreme amount of order; with its unaccountably
low entropy? The answer is that all living things have an energy-fixing mechanism.
In other words, all living things have the ability to derive usable energy from
their environment, and to use that energy to decrease entropy (to synthesize large, ordered
molecules). A living thing has an extremely complex set of metabolic pathways;
a series of chemical steps controlled by enzyme molecules which it uses to turn
food into the raw materials (sugars, fats or amino acids) for metabolism, eventually
converting the energy in food into such energy-storing molecules as ATP (adenosine
triphosphate). The energy stored in these molecules allows the living cell to
synthesize large protein and nucleic acid molecules?those molecules which allow
a living thing to eat, grow, reproduce, think etc.
The bottom line is that if energy is used in a carefully controlled way, it
can be used to reduce entropy locally at the expense of increasing entropy globally.
A simple example of this is in a refrigerator. A refrigerator moves heat from
a cold place to a hot place. At first glance this would be in direct violation
of the original statement of the second law above. However, it happens that
the second law allows for the possibility of energy being used to decrease entropy
locally, if it is incorporated into a system in a carefully controlled way. The
point to be made here is that a refrigerator would never just happen. It takes
a thinking, planning designer to create a device such as a refrigerator. The
same is true, except to an inconceivably greater degree, in the design of a living
One of my favorite subjects to teach is biochemistry. In studying this subject
one gets a glance at the overwhelming chemical complexity of even the simplest
living system. This sort of thing, with its great order (and very low entropy),
is made possible because a very intelligent designer created a chemical system
which can incorporate food energy in such a way which allows the system to synthesize
the very chemicals which allowed it to incorporate the food in the first place.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
This brings the argument to the last stand of the atheist in defending their
natural explanation of the origins of life. They would claim that if sufficient
energy were available (presumably from sunlight, although other energy sources
are possible), given the right building blocks, and sufficient time, entropy could
be reduced enough in some local environment to spontaneously produce a living
thing. Given our description of how a refrigerator works, this almost sounds
In fact, if sufficient energy is input to a system in a non-intelligent way,
thermal entropy may be reduced, but informational entropy cannot. The distinction
between the two types of entropy may be defined by analogy. Consider an explosion
such as the one which occurs in an internal combustion engine. This explosive
energy can be used to compress a gas (decreasing the thermal entropy), which
ultimately moves a piston in the engine, causing a car to move up a hill (a
process normally not spontaneous because it decreases the gross amount of entropy).
Another example of energy being used to decrease thermal entropy is in a refrigerator.
Here either electrical or chemical energy is used up to carry heat from a cold
to a warm place, decreasing entropy.
None of these examples involve a decrease in informational entropy. Consider
a room with a bunch of playing cards randomly distributed on the floor. Now,
backward vacuum cleaner pointed at the cards as a source of energy.
It could be used to push all the cards into the corner, decreasing the ?thermal entr
opy.? However, it could not be used to separate the cards into neatly piled
suits or to build a house of cards. Energy could only be used to build a house
of cards if the energy were directed by design. Simply throwing energy at a
system will never decrease the informational entropy of that system to a significant
Illustration:[AGC1] An example of energy creating disorder, not order. An earthquake
caused a building to collapse in the Marina District, San Francisco, CA.
The refrigerator provides a further example. A refrigerator can be used to reduce
entropy, using up electrical energy to reduce thermal entropy. However throwing
a bunch of energy at the raw materials needed to produce a refrigerator could
never result in the production of a refrigerator. There is no way that one could
take a pile of iron ore and crude petroleum (as well as all the other raw materials
required to build a refrigerator), and then simply add energy and wait long
enough for a refrigerator to result, with the nuts screwed into the holes, the
belt on the motor and so forth. Rather, a designer is required to direct the
flow of energy needed to create the refrigerator. There is no way around this.
G. Nicolas and Nobel Prize winning I. Prigogine have discussed the distinction
between reducing thermal and informational entropy as it relates to the origin
Needless to say, these simple remarks cannot suffice to solve the problem of
prebiological order. One would like not only to establish that the Second Law
(S>0) is compatible with a decrease in the overall (system) entropy (S<0), but
also to indicate the mechanisms responsible for the emergence and maintenance
of coherent states. 
Prigogine and Nicolis point out here that it is not enough to show that overall
system entropy (what I am calling thermal entropy) can be reduced by inputting
energy. The question to be asked is how did ?prebiological order? or ?coherent
states? come to be? Scientists have no answer to this question, or they refer
to ?chemical evolution? and ?sufficient time? as the explanations. Use of these
nice-sounding terms does nothing to change the fact that more and more energy
and more and more time will always yield disorder and an increase in informational
entropy. Information simply does not gradually increase in nature without an
intelligent injection of energy.
Many examples of informational entropy being reduced could be given, but all
require an initial design. Consider a blank cassette tape. It contains magnetic
material which, when the tape is bought, is randomly oriented (high entropy).
When an electric signal proportional to the sound of a musical instrument is run
through the record head, the magnetic field on the tape is unrandomized (low
entropy), producing sufficient order that it is able to cause music to be played
back when the magnetic signal is read. Does anyone believe that the same tape could
be randomly magnetized or demagnetized by some mechanism, and suddenly at a
later time by some amazing accident a piece of music could just spontaneously
just appear on the tape? No! This would require a large reduction in informational
entropy. It could only be done by intelligent design.
Even the simplest living organism is much more complex and has inconceivably
more order than a house of cards or the cassette tape of a musical piece. In
other words, the probability of a backward vacuum cleaner being applied to a
pile of playing cards producing a well-designed house of cards is much greater
than the chances of a prebiological soup producing even one usable gene, never
mind all the thousands of proteins, carbohydrates, nucleic acids and lipids
needed to produce a living thing.
In fact, the probability of a house of cards being built by a backward vacuum
cleaner is not just small, it is zero. Even if by some amazing coincidence all
the cards would just happen to be in the right position to be a house at some
instant in time, the very vacuum which created the house in the first place would
instantaneously destroy it. This is another example of the illogical idea of
proposing unlimited energy to create a large degree of order. The large amount
of energy required to decrease the entropy in a chemical system (or a group of
cards) would very quickly randomize that information, even if it were momentarily
Remember that ?sufficient time? does not change this argument in the slightest.
Very unlikely events will have their probability increased by waiting. However,
impossible events, which grossly decrease informational entropy without the
intervention of a creator will not become more possible with time. As an example,
the probability of a very large asteroid hitting the earth this year is extremely
low. However, it can be predicted that in the time span of a billion years,
this very small probability would accumulate to the point that the event actually
becomes quite likely over that very great time span. Consider the reverse process,
the impossible one. Imagine running an asteroid collision backward. In other
words, imagine billions of dust particles, small rocks, many huge boulders as
well as a great deal of gases spontaneously joining themselves together to become
a giant asteroid, which then lifts itself off the surface of the earth to be
hurtled back into space. This is an impossible event, whose probability will not
grow with time. The exact concept applies to the formation of life without a
Again, a number of examples and analogies could be quoted, but hopefully the
point is made. It is tempting to quote statistics and probabilities, such as
the probability of making a particular chain of protein out of a random sample
of amino acids, or the probability of excluding other extraneous molecules at the
same time and so forth. Throwing out extremely small numbers and multiplying
them to produce even smaller numbers could go on ad infinitum. In the end, the
probability of even a single usable molecule of DNA being produced is zero. The
interested reader will find an excellent reference which covers both the probability
arguments and the informational entropy concept more thoroughly.