Something Wonderful: "Why Does the Universe Look the Way It Does?"

Disorder never gives rise to order, without the intervention of an intelligence outside that disorder.

The only way that an explosion could have given rise to an ordered universe is through the intervention of the Divine.

Posted by Punditarian at November 15, 2009 6:10 PM

"Observable Universe" is the operative phrase. Most of what occurs (even under our very noses) is not (and never will be) apprehendable; our senses are simply too limiting.

Posted by Carolus Martellus at November 15, 2009 8:26 PM

Not so, Punditarian. What the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us is that the amount of disorder in the Universe taken as a whole can never decrease-- it can only remain the same or increase. The Second Law places no restrictions on what may happen locally.

To get a bit technical on you here, thermodynamicists, when studying a process, divide the Universe into two portions: 1) the system, which is the part being studied; and 2) the surroundings, which is everything else. Thermodynamicists study not only what's going on inside the system, but also how it interacts with its surroundings.

There are three kinds of systems: 1) open, which can exchange both matter and energy with their surroundings; 2) closed, which can exchange only energy with their surroundings; and 3) isolated, which can exchange neither matter nor energy with their surroundings.

The idea that the total entropy (or, loosely, disorder) can never decrease applies only to isolated systems. The only truly isolated system that we know of is the Universe as a whole, because-- as far as we know-- there's nothing outside of it for it to exchange matter and energy with. So, it's reasonable to expect that the Universe as a whole will "run down" with time.

Closed systems are a different kettle of fish. Because they can exchange energy with their surroundings, it is possible for their entropy to decrease, and so become (again, loosely speaking) more ordered. One's freezer is a prime example of that: Put a container of water (a very disordered substance) in the freezer, go away for a couple of hours, come back, and-- Voila!-- one relatively ordered block of ice. Where did the entropy go? Out the coils on the back of your freezer, along with the heat the freezer's mechanism sucked out of the water to make it into ice. Which process also increases the total entropy of the Universe-- the very process which drew the entropy out of the freezer compartment adds its little bit of entropy to the removed entropy, and then the combination of the two entropies is spread out into the surroundings (the rest of the Universe) by means of the coils on the back of the freezer.

Something similar happens in the case of the Earth. Plainly, it's a more-ordered place than it was a couple of billion years ago, and that's because Earth is a closed system-- it can and does exchange energy with its surroundings. The building up of order out of disorder is a slow and painful process (as anyone who's had to, say, restore order to a library wrecked by a tornado can tell you). It's even slower when the forces of order, working through chemical and physical processes driven by sunlight, don't have much of an edge over the forces of disorder. Besides, energy can't easily substitute for matter. And so it takes hundreds of millions of years for life to arise and progress to what we see today, but progress it has, merely through the operation of physical law. (Whether or not this progress has some divinely-ordained end is not a question science can answer.)

In open systems, the sky's the limit. Given ready supplies of matter and energy, an open system can become arbitarily large and attain nearly any state. Which is why the Goracle and his fellow travelers are so anxious to shut our Western way of life down: The next step in human civilization is to colonize the Moon, the planets, and the Asteroid Belt. The Solar System is chock-a-block with all the materials needed for a modern industrial society to grow nearly without limit-- at least, no limits that we and our descendants would have to worry about for many generations-- and all of it powered, if necessary, by that vast unshielded fusion reactor called the Sun. Imagine-- every person on Earth wealthier than the Goracle and his crowd, which has to frighten them: What need is there for us to kiss their hands, when we and our descendants can become wealthy enough to tell him and his kind to kiss off?

(Sorry about the polemic-- the "green" movement is so profoundly and criminally stupid as to defy description.)

So, to make a long rant short, it is entirely possible for more-ordered (less entropic) states to occur, either through human device-- the inside of one's freezer is a prime example of that-- or it can occur spontaneously, as in the appearance of life on Earth many millions of years ago. Neither the existence of one's freezer nor the existence of life on Earth is proof of God's existence.

Now, if you want to argue that the fact that the Universe exists, and that it operates according to the Laws of Physics (as near as we can tell) is evidence of God's existence, be my guest. Who knows-- you may even be right.

My two cents' worth.

Hale Adams
Pikesville, People's Democratic Republic of Maryland

Posted by Hale Adams at November 15, 2009 9:03 PM

Hale Adams - on your second point about space industry, HEAR HEAR!

The killer app that might just get us started on the road up is space solar power, and who is working on that right now? Yup, the Japanese. A pilot plant will be up in less than a decade, and there is no reason at all to suppose it won't work. But to do this sort of stuff on a large scale one has to use space resources, and that is the leg up. One also needs people up there to build the satellites, and they have to be fed, watered and aired.

So what's happening in the good old USA? Why, a govenment bureaucracy is choosing the worst alternative at every possible opportunity - worst, that is, if you want to actually promote a human presence in space, but best if your twin goals are to suppress same and buy votes for Congresscritters.

NASA is keeping us from four hundred trillion terawatts of power and enough resources to plate the entire USA a metre deep in steel - or to provide living space for quadrillions in comfort. And because of that, I am increasingly convinced that if humans in space ever have a lingua franca, it won't be English.

In an alternate universe where Gerard O'Neill got his way, by now there are already a few million people in space and the USA is self-sufficient in energy and has told the Arabs where to stick their oil. We are forty years late already. Let us for the sake of all that's holy GET ON WITH IT!

Posted by Fletcher Christian at November 16, 2009 12:16 AM


Thank you for responding for my comment. You note, "Now, if you want to argue that the fact that the Universe exists, and that it operates according to the Laws of Physics (as near as we can tell) is evidence of God's existence, be my guest. Who knows-- you may even be right."

Very gracious comment of yours. So yes, I do. It is. And I am.

But despite what you say about Earth being a closed system, the known Universe is ordered from top to bottom, from systems much larger than Earth down to systems much smaller, and you can not go from disorder to order without the intervention of intelligence or life, hence God.

Congratulations on surviving in the P.R. of Md. There's still a lot of potential there.


Posted by Punditarian at November 16, 2009 2:41 AM

Punditarian - Entropy can be locally reduced at the cost of (almost always larger) increase in entropy somewhere else. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies only to an isolated system, and there is only one of them.

Even a supercluster of galaxies is not an isolated system; certainly a solar system is not. For example, the sun and planets (localised concentrations of matter, apparently more ordered than a diffuse cloud of gas) were condensed with the emission of enormous amounts of highly disordered gas and low-energy heat radiation (highly disordered). In fact, the entropy calculations would indicate that the parent cloud of the Solar System was actually of lower entropy than the current state, counterintuitive though that might be, because gravitational potential is always negative; similar results apply to a galactic supercluster condensing from a cloud of diffuse gas.

The existence of the Universe rather than nothing may well be evidence for God, but life and the structures of the Universe are not. In any case, I have heard it said that faith requiring evidence is not really faith at all; that if anyone could produce really incontrovertible evidence for God it would destroy at least organised religion.

Life in particular is evidence for either God or an Earth of an age incomprehensible by humans. Not both. Random chance, with selection, is enough. Dawkins has put forth this argument better than I can, in several books none of which a dyed-in-the-wool religionist is likely to have read.

Ask yourself which is more elegant, and hence more worthy of your concept of God; a Universe that had to be essentially hand-built, or one set up according to carefully designed, immutable laws and allowed to run, with the certain knowledge that it would eventually lead to life and mind. Of course, the latter makes it less likely that She will break the rules for your particular benefit - which is what most prayer (perhaps not yours) is about.

Posted by Fletcher Christian at November 16, 2009 3:54 AM

Just imagine what this dude would be like if he had studied PPE instead of physics.

Posted by Frank P at November 16, 2009 4:55 AM

"We don't know the answer to the who done it, who is the guilty party, why the universe is like that."

"We know that the existing theories aren't right and we need to move beyond them."

"Nature figures out some way to reconcile these ideas."

Maybe more people should consider that perhaps it is fact that we will never know the ultimate answers to questions and comments like these. That is, without spiritual revelation from the mind that actually created the material.

John Calvin, from his commentary on Genesis, provides a warning and said it even more succinctly;

"To be so occupied in the investigation of the secrets of nature, as never to turn the eyes to its Author, is a most perverted study; and to enjoy everything in nature without acknowledging the Author of the benefit, is the basest ingratitude."

Posted by Denny at November 16, 2009 5:00 AM

Never try to give an atheist proof of God's existence from science; it wastes your time and it annoys the atheist.

Posted by Richard Lund at November 16, 2009 6:31 AM

Now that's a handy maxim.

Posted by vanderleun at November 16, 2009 7:36 AM

In the closed system of my brain - entropy rules.

But before it shuts down - these neurons are processing some fine mystery.

Beyond all the theorizing and polemics, exists the narrow knowable world of beautiful surfaces that gives comfort to this current agglomeration of star stuff.

Posted by Cathy at November 16, 2009 7:37 AM

And creates beautiful comments like "he narrow knowable world of beautiful surfaces that gives comfort to this current agglomeration of star stuff."

Posted by vanderleun at November 16, 2009 7:42 AM

"thermodynamicists, when studying a process, divide the Universe into two portions: 1) the system, which is the part being studied; and 2) the surroundings, which is everything else."

This type of thinking is an example of what Whitehead called the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness -- the reification of human abstractions, so that nature simply mirrors our preconceptions and biases.

Scientists introduce this division into nature in order to think about it, but nature makes no such ontological divisions. In fact, "open" and "closed" is not a duality but a complementarity. Furthermore, of the two, there is every reason to believe that open systems are more general, while closed systems are particular deviations from the general rule -- cf. Robert Rosen's Life Itself.

If the universe were actually an intrinsically closed system, truth would be strictly impossible -- including the truth about open systems -- since truth presupposes the ability to transcend and stand outside the system. Thus, if Mr. Adams is correct that the universe is closed, then he is incorrect.

Posted by Gagdad Bob at November 16, 2009 7:54 AM

Or, imagine saying that Bach was able to produce his body of work because he was an open system, as if that really explains anything. It is not a satisfying explanation to the human intellect because it confuses a necessary cause with a sufficient one.

Posted by Gagdad Bob at November 16, 2009 8:03 AM

One more important point: look at how willing -- eager, even -- physicists are to question their theories and assumptions, even fully acknowledging that they are partial at best, in contrast to biologists, who either cannot or will not look at the flaws in their own paradigm.

Posted by Gagdad Bob at November 16, 2009 8:56 AM

Folks here may enjoy Douglas Hoffstaeder's book "I Am A Strange Loop." It is not one of his well-known ones, but it is a very provocative read about how intelligence can (must?) arise from any sufficiently complex system.

Posted by sherlock at November 16, 2009 11:54 AM

A strong second here for "I Am A Strange Loop."

Posted by vanderleun at November 16, 2009 11:58 AM

hale are you british or canadian? (u spelled organized with an "s").

no big deal.

you sound very authoritative.

but tell me: why are QM and gen rel incompatible?

i say: one or both must be wrong.

the more date we find to more these theories seem wrong. fine: as ts kuhn showed: this is how science proceeds.

i think black matter and black energy are inelegant scaffolding trying to uphold a teetering theory. ditto string theory.

here are a few problems:

the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

the distribution of matter is grossly uneven.

there are objects which appears older than the universe.

black holes seem to be all over the place - and don't just suck in everything which passes by; some spew out energy.

i think the models QM and GR have developed are obsolete and that we need a revolution.

i think garret lisi is on to something.

Posted by reliapundit at November 16, 2009 1:52 PM

Third for "Strange Loop". And one thing further; what is stopping God from creating mind in Her image by setting things up so that mind arrives as an emergent phenomenon? Tres elegant.

To repeat myself somewhat; it appears to me that fundies dislike such ideas because they allow less room for their special pleading to get the right results.

Organised religion is magic whose practitioners won. Which has nothing to do with whether their magic works.

Posted by Fletcher Christian at November 16, 2009 2:37 PM

Science is much harder then religion, because religion doesn't have a lot of really hard math. For some reason, I liked thermodynamics when I took it in school. Most of our studies involved heat engines.

Posted by Duncan Winn at November 16, 2009 7:42 PM

The results of elections last fall
Are now plain to de seen by all
That Lorenz Fitzgerald's
Equations did herald
Economic entropy's crawl

Illegitimi nOn carborundum

Posted by algie at November 16, 2009 9:05 PM

Sean Carroll is to be commended for this. What I have to say is not intended as criticism.

It occurs to me to comment that the original sin is taking knowledge as a surrogate for faith. This is the Fall from Grace. That places objective reality, mediated by our five senses, over what is subjectively real. Can one ever attain ultimate knowledge? You can certainly try. You can dedicate your life to rationalization. But in the end you will only have built approximations. Some of these are exquisite beyond belief. Touching that beauty with your mind is a form of love (worship) of the divine, I submit, but true understanding will have escaped your precision completely.

Sean Carroll may be a spiritual man. I suspect he is, though certainly not in my mold. Objective reality per se is intimately bound up with the subjective. It "awakens" us to inwardness if we do not get overly carried away with sensuous nature. Many scientists, and others too, mistake measurement for understanding. Inwardness has its own rewards. There you see that primordial matter, star dust, if you will, has embedded therein not just life and sentience, but also the concomitants of sentient life too. Beauty, truth, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, liberty, love, all these and more, are real objects, just like a rock, though their "stuff" is more subtle; these exist as a potentiality in the very stuff of the cosmos. There is no rational way to understand this. It just has to be accepted. Do I think we have dominion over the Earth? Definitely. But not just the Earth. Witness the likes of Sean Carroll. I also think that the cosmos is infinitely malleable. This means, in part, that if you believe in nothing the cosmos will accommodate you. In the end you will wind up with exactly that.

God descends into matter to re-emerge as self realized being - the story of the Christ teaches this, and the star of David is an icon of this. I happen to think lately that the symbol for Om is similarly an icon of this. So, to me at least, the body is a mere chrysalis, a temporary home for the incubating spirit. This from Soren Kierkegaard. God stands with his hands outstretched. In one he holds ultimate truth. In the other he holds the unending search for ultimate truth. Which do you choose? God can keep the great mystery for himself. I choose to endlessly seek after that mystery. What else are we going to do for, what? Eternity?

Posted by John at November 17, 2009 8:50 AM

My compliments to all those who provided comments. The latest addition to my calendar (and I suspect more than a few other readers, as well): look for a copy of "I Am A Strange Loop."

John: This means, in part, that if you believe in nothing the cosmos will accommodate you. In the end you will wind up with exactly that. Hmmmmmmm.

Posted by RattlerGator at November 17, 2009 5:06 PM

I am pleased that several people here found my recommendation of "I am a Strange Loop" to be of interest. Could our host perhaps put up a discussion thread on it in the near future?

Posted by sherlock at November 17, 2009 10:21 PM

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