Does the concept of informational entropy impact Christian theology and our understanding of free will?
Editor’s note: The following is a series of questions and answers. The tone is more familiar than usual because this discussion is happening with a good friend.
I just read your paper, “A Closer Look at the Laws of Thermodynamics.” It was great. Thanks. I have a comment, though. From Pr 16:33 we learn that anything that appears random is actually controlled by God. When a cell divides or when a Radon or Carbon 14 atom fissions. This is also true of the path of every molecule in a gas, the path and position of every electron and quark. In my view, God is very hands-on, and He can multitask. There are a lot of electrons and quarks in the universe. Heb 1:3, He sustains all things. Even with all the information content in a living cell, to the best of my knowledge, which isn’t great, we don’t actually know how it does what it does. I tend toward believing that God commands and controls cell replication and perhaps more of what a cell does. A further thought: Thermal entropy can decrease in a transfer of heat, with the input of energy. Can information entropy decrease with an input of energy? I am inclined to think that it can’t. I am inclined to think that it takes a transfer of information to decrease information entropy; thought, intellect has to be put in. Am I wrong?
About informational entropy, I agree with you that the creation of information without information input is not possible, at least as far as we know, in nature. You are right (at least as far as scientist have determined) that adding energy to a system does not allow it to decrease informational entropy. In fact, all indications are that increasing temperature causes entropy of all sorts to increase, not decrease. Higher temperatures tend to make molecules with more information (a low informational entropy) fall apart more rapidly, causing an increase in entropy. High temperature is the enemy of information, as any computer person will tell you.
About God controlling everything, my thought on this is that He created and sustains the laws which determine what happens (Hebrews 1:3, Coll 1:17). Atoms move the way they do, molecules act the way they do, cells divide as they do because such behavior is determined by the laws of nature, which were created and are sustained by God. God does not need to willfully intervene for a cell to divide. It does so “naturally” (ie without supernatural intervention).
I believe that God has the (supernatural) power to bypass these natural laws, but I do not believe that Good keeps himself aware of the motion of every single electron, proton, neutron, quark and neutrino and consciously directs the paths of each. I am not saying that God cannot do this, but that it appears that, instead, he created laws which govern these things and he allows those laws to work—only intervening when his sovereign will chooses to do so, and that for a reason. Please be aware that this is just my perspective and I certainly would not insist on it.
Please, as I respond to your last two paragraphs, don’t let me be a burden or a bother to you; I see my thoughts as intellectually interesting rather than spiritually significant. Although it is not a concept that the author of Hebrews 1:3 would have been aware of, I see sustaining in a perspective of Newton’s first law of motion that says that an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Everything is always moving. Most people would look at a mountain and see it as firmly at rest. I look at it and think of all the micro-motions going on within it. When I think of creation, I think of God creating a bunch of electrons, up quarks, and down quarks (I don’t worry about particles that don’t stay around,) and building things out of them. A little bit like building things out of Legos. When I think of God/Christ sustaining things, I don’t just think of Him sustaining the things that He built, I think of Him as sustaining the things that He built things out of, the electrons, up quarks, and down quarks. And these things are always in motion. If He sustains their existence, my thought is that He must also be sustaining their motions. To me, if God has His hands on everything, which He does if He sustains every subatomic particle, then the forces that we see as sustaining particle motion are just the observable effect of God sustaining particle motion. They exhibit, to many decimal places, the consistency of God’s behavior. Maybe that is just a different perspective on Him sustaining the laws that determine what happens. My God is a very big God. If a put a coin on a table, I can focus my attention on that coin. If I put another coin beside it, I can, most of the time, maintain focus on both coins at once. If I put a third coin besice them, I cannot maintain focus on all three at once; my focus shifts among them. To me, God not only maintains focus, but maintains control of many more things than I can even concieve of. Proverbs 16:33 says that God determins the outcome of rolling dice (casting lots.) It says that every decision is from Him. I am sure that it was beyond the author’s conception, but to me, “every decision” means that God determines when cells divide, atoms fision, and atoms fuse, as well as who wins the lottery. My God is a very big God. Thanks again,
I guess that we have a similar but not identical view of these things. Either way, I do not see a big theological difference. Besides, it is entirely likely that my thinking is based on presuppositions I carry in from my scientific training, rather than from experience and biblical statements.
Having said that, at least according to Newton, objects continue in motion unless acted upon by a force. Therefore, no force is required to keep them moving. It is their nature, as created by God, to behave in a certain way and they do not need God to keep track of the particles and keep them moving. He sustains all things by keeping the laws in order and functioning. (of course, this is just my view)
About determining the outcome of all things, I certainly agree with your analogy of the coins and accept that God can juggle a trillion balls at once—that he can maintain awareness of all human souls simultaneously and intervene where and with whom he wants, with the problem of many to look at putting no limitations on God at all. Having said that, I guess I disagree somewhat with your last paragraph as well. I believe that God gives a kind of “free will” to nature, to people and to history. I believe that he intervenes only when his will demands that he do so. I do not believe that God micromanages either the human world or the physical world (although my faith is great enough that I believe he could if that was his nature). I believe that God does on influence the turning of a traffic light from red to green. He does not direct the butterfly to a particular plant to lay its eggs, but allows the laws of nature, working through the butterfly, to determine which flower. He lets nature take its course in the weather, the interactions of molecules and a limitless number of other actions. He does not take money in and out of my bank account or cause little tiny undetectable miracles at every instant. He only intervenes relatively rarely and only for a good reason. Otherwise, he lets his world proceed as it would naturally. Again, this is only my view and is certainly not “gospel.” I believe that free will and action are the rule and intervention by God is the exception in history, in nature and in the lives of individuals. I interpret Proverbs (perhaps dubiously, so judge for yourself) to say that God can and sometimes might intervene to determine the casting of lots, not that he does every single time. However, I believe that for the average person playing dice in a casino somewhere, God lets his laws determine the roll and he does not intervene unless there is a good reason for him to do so. For the third time, this is simply my view and not authoritative.
So, you and I both have faith sufficient to believe that, if God wanted to, he could direct all things at all times by divine intervention, but I disagree with you that he in fact does this.
For what it is worth, and this is a fun discussion.
I thought that I would write separately about a separate topic. I have not read your book or what you say about information entropy there, though I want to and plan to. But, it seems to me that information is not information outside of a particular intellectual setting. To me, a sentence written in Chinese characters is just random marks, they have no meaning. In that context, the information content of DNA is only meaningful to God. In your view, the division of a cell is determined by environmental conditions. To me that can’t be because the information is meaningless to the environment and the environment is meaningless to the information. The environment and the information are only meaningful to God. The words of the Bible cannot replicate themselves, but they have been replicated many millions of times. They are not relevant to the environment and the environment is not relevant to them. But the situation influences how we see the Bible; and influences us to translate the Bible into other languages. I have read that a single cell can be as complex as a city; with food, water, and power distribution, communication lines, and sewers, with factories and warehouses. That is a bit too much for me. When I think of the complexity of a cell, I think of the oil refinery off the 405 in Long Beach. It would take years to build a copy of that oil refinery. God can reproduce a cell in hours. Given the complexity, and the entropy increasing nature of spontaneous events, I cannot see the reproduction of a cell without the hand of God.
This is a philosophical more than a theological discussion. The question of innate knowledge and innate truth is a very important one in philosophy.
To me, if I saw in a signal a list of prime numbers, I would see information, totally independent of all context. A string of Chinese characters has information, even if you cannot understand it. When people saw Egyptian hieroglyphs on ancient tombs, they knew there was information, even if they could not understand that information. Similar to DNA. A random set of nucleotides will be apparent in its randomness in that it will create a protein which has no function. A set of nucleotides which can perform a useful function will appear non-random to anyone who understands the principle, even if they cannot read the code. By this I mean even if they do not know the “purpose” of the protein made by that obviously non-random series of nucleotides. I do not need an intellectual setting to understand that there in information in the DNA in a human being. If the strand of DNA was random, it would not create a thing which would be alive. No intellectual understanding is needed to see beyond all possible doubt that there is information, even in the DNA of the most simple conceivable living thing.
So, based on philosophy and rational thought I definitely do not agree with you that information is not information outside of a particular intellectual setting. I could give you dozens of examples which, I believe, prove your stand there untenable. DNA absolutely has “meaning” outside of God. To be honest with you I do not even understand why you would see it that way, but perhaps you can explain.
Similarly with the letters of the Bible on a page of paper. We do not need God or the environment to know that the letters are not random. It is conceivable that someone could know absolutely nothing of the meaning of the words. He/she could come from another galaxy and not even be human, but this being could see that the arrangement of ink on the page is obviously not random. He/she would understand that there is information on the pages, because some “words” are repeated in patterns which could not possibly be random. This person would be totally unable to understand the information, but he/she/it would know without possible doubt that there is information there.
The fact that cells are self-replicating is not evidence of their simpleness. It is evidence of their complexity. The fact that a cell can divide in just a few minutes is evidence of the fantastic quantity of information contained in the cell. The fact that factories are not self-replicating is not evidence of their greater complexity than a living thing. I believe the person who said a single cell has as much information as an entire city has exaggerated. However, living things are quite complex. One of the beauties of life God created is that it has the components in its structure which allow that life to replicate itself. Of course, if God did not sustain the universe, through Jesus Christ, then life would instantaneously cease to exist. However, it is not at all clear that God has to intervene in the natural process by which living cells divide. Perhaps he does. I cannot prove that he does not. In fact, I have no desire to prove that he does not, but until and unless I am shown an unnatural step in the process of cell division, I will probably continue to believe that most likely the process proceeds according to the physical laws established by God, rather than by direct intervention of God.