Examining CARM's "Entropy Argument"
By
Dawson Bethrick

 

In his paper Entropy and Causality used as a proof for God's existence, Christian apologist Matt Slick attempts to derive the supposed truth of Christian theism (specifically, the claim that "god" exists) from observable phenomena of the universe. Particularly, he attempts to use the old "entropy argument" to validate the notion that the universe cannot be eternal and thus required a cause outside it. Clearly an argument which takes this route makes the assumption that the notion of something existing "outside the universe" is a valid notion, even though those who make this assumption routinely do not even try to establish its validity. Instead, its validity is simply assumed. Slick's turn at this argument is no different, for he wants to conclude that "there must be a single uncaused cause of the universe."

 

The Aims of the "Entropy Argument"

Of course, in attempting to argue that the universe has a cause beyond itself, as this argument seeks to do, one necessarily treats the universe as if it were an event, when in fact the universe is not an event. What, then, is the universe? Indeed, this is a question which Slick does not even address anywhere in his argument, yet his argument is supposed to draw a conclusion about the nature of the universe. What does Slick consider to be a proper definition of the concept 'universe'? Well, it must be a secret, for he never tells us - this term, which is key to any argument about the "origin" of the universe, is nowhere defined in Slick's paper.

In spite of this negligence, Slick is quick to open his paper with a definition of the second law of thermodynamics. Why is he so eager to present a definition of this law of physics, and yet neglects providing a definition for the most crucial term of his argument, namely the term 'universe'? Could it be that the arguments for the need of a cause of the universe actually depend on such negligence? I would have to surmise that this is the case, for a proper definition of the universe will immediately show why the idea of a cause "beyond" the universe is incoherent.

In rational philosophy, by the term 'universe' we mean the totality of all existence. This definition is supported by Merriam-Webster's, which defines 'universe' as "the whole body of things and phenomena observed or postulated." Thus, to assert the existence of any thing, attribute or relationship, it must be assumed to be part of the universe, it must be assumed to exist within the universe. Clearly on this definition the idea of something existing outside the universe is meaningless, for it has no reference: there is no "outside" the universe, since everything which exists is part of the universe. This alone effectively serves to disarm the "entropy argument" before it even gets off the ground.

Furthermore, we also must take into account the overall aim of the "entropy argument," which wants to argue that some form of consciousness is responsible for the existence of the universe. The theist of course does not contest the need for a starting point, so long as it is conscious in nature - a cosmic will which can command the universe into existence just by wishing it so. Thus, the "entropy argument" is an attempt, whether theists are willing to recognize it or not, to validate the metaphysical primacy of consciousness, which is a false view of reality. This is the view which holds that existence finds its source in consciousness, or is in some way dependent upon a form of consciousness (such as a will or command) or conscious action (such as wishing). This view of reality contradicts the metaphysical primacy of existence, which is the recognition that existence exists independent of consciousness, that the task of consciousness is not to create its objects, but to identify them, that reality does not conform to consciousness, but that consciousness, to be rational, must conform to reality. According to the primacy of consciousness view, reality is plastic, fluid and pliant, amenable to the desires of the ruling consciousness (cf. "God's plan in human history" etc.). According to the primacy of existence, reality is absolute, unchanging, and not subject to the revision of someone's desires (i.e., wishing does not make it so).

Since the aim of the "entropy argument" is to derive a conclusion which is inconsistent with the metaphysical primacy, it cannot be a sound argument; i.e., it can only fail. To assert otherwise is to commit the fallacy of the stolen concept, which occurs when one asserts a concept while ignoring or denying its conceptual roots. Since consciousness is consciousness of existence, existence must exist in order for a consciousness to be conscious. Thus the primacy of consciousness view of reality, in asserting that consciousness precedes or somehow holds priority over existence, commits the fallacy of the stolen concept by asserting consciousness prior to its conceptual and metaphysical root, which is the fact of existence as such (since consciousness is consciousness of existence).

If the stolen concept committed by the primacy of consciousness metaphysics is accepted, then one commits himself, as a consequence, to the fallacy of pure self-reference. This is the fallacy which states that consciousness needs no objects. This is the acceptance of a contradiction, namely the notion of "consciousness conscious only of itself." This is a contradiction because, without an object beyond itself, the consciousness in question could never identify itself as conscious, for it is said to be 'conscious only of itself'. Conscious of what? Blank out. I.e., pure self-reference.

And this is precisely the predicament in which the "uncaused cause" would find itself if that "uncaused cause" were said to be conscious in nature (as Christians assume about their universe-creating deity). Of what would this deity be conscious prior to creating the universe? Well, if nothing else exists, then clearly it could be conscious of nothing. But if it is conceded that other things exist, then there goes the need for an "entropy argument" or any other cosmological apologetic to begin with, since it is conceded that things do not need a creator.

Thus, given these problems which suffocate the very aim and foundation of the "entropy argument," problems which theists themselves seem wholly unaware of, we can rest assured that it cannot fail to fail. I.e., it must fail.

But the problems for the "entropy argument" do not end there. Let's take a quick look at the "problem" which the "entropy argument" is supposed to resolve by its assertion of the existence of an invisible magic being which supposedly "wound up" the universe.

 

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Slick immediately calls attention to the second law of thermodynamics, which "states that the amount of energy in a system that is available to do work is decreasing. Entropy increases as available energy decreases."

While it is clearly the case that Slick's argument depends on his understanding of the second law of thermodynamics, I asked myself as I examined his argument whether or not it takes into account the first law of thermodynamics. Religious apologists routinely demonstrate awareness of the fact that there exists a second law of thermodynamics, but it is not certain whether they are aware of - let alone understand - the first law of thermodynamics. This Law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Clearly then, the notion that the universe was "created" is in explicit violation of this Law. Yet theists seem either unconcerned by this, or completely unaware of it.

This is nothing unique to Slick's presentation of the "entropy argument." For instance, in his comprehensive review of theist David Foster's The Philosophical Scientists which presents a version of this argument, scholar Richard Carrier notes the following:

...speaking of [the laws of thermodynamics], Foster also seems ignorant of the First. On page 124 he again misunderstands the nature of entropy and even ignores this First Law of Thermodynamics. He writes that "no conceivable system can continue to create energy for infinite time," though "...there may have been almost infinite energy to start with (the Big Bang?), but with the remorseless passage of time the quality or temperature of the energy must run down..." [sic]. So, here he is overtly confusing energy with entropy--perhaps he means available energy. Otherwise, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, something that, if Foster was paying attention, would negate Foster's first statement -- since nothing can create energy at all, much less for infinite time. But statements like these are typical of Foster's confused and sometimes nonsensical arguments. (Thou Shalt Not Talk of Entropy When Thou Knowest Not What it Really is)

Slick clearly wants to infer the existence of a god by first proving that the universe cannot be eternal, and therefore it requires a cause beyond itself. But even if one can prove that the universe is not eternal (and on a proper definition of 'universe', one cannot; see CJ Holmes' A Response to Shandon Guthrie's Opening Argument where this case is sealed), it would not follow from this that it

  1. requires a cause beyond itself, or
  2. that the cause of the universe (if established) is either

    1. conscious in nature, or
    2. ii) still exists.

To establish any of these points rationally, Slick would have to argue for them on the basis of a legitimate definition of 'universe', which he nowhere does in his argument.

But the use of the "entropy" problem in such arguments has further flaws. In his book Atheism: The Case Against God, author George H. Smith refutes the so-called "argument from entropy," which Slick has recast in his paper. In his refutation, Smith quotes a succinct statement of the argument by John W. Robbins, which states:

?if the existence of the eternal personal transcendent God is denied, then there is no alternative but to maintain that the material universe has existed infinitely backwards in time, and will exist infinitely forwards? But if the physical universe has existed for an infinite amount of time, there could be no order, no complexity, nothing except evenly distributed atoms in space. Infinite time, coupled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, must yield infinite randomness, i.e., zero organization. There could certainly be no stars and planets, and most certainly no men. (Smith, 254)

In response to this, Smith points out two fallacies right off the bat. In regard to the first, Smith states,

Robbins wishes to make some mysterious creature responsible for a primordial state of minimum entropy, from which he claims the universe is now running down. But even if this were true, how does Robbins arrive at the dubious attributes of eternal, personal and transcendent? At best, the entropy argument is capable only of demonstrating the existence of some primitive energy source, and this source need bear no resemblance to the Christian God. (Ibid.)

Indeed, Robbins attributes the qualities of "eternal, personal and transcendent" to this supposed "energy source" which he claims is responsible for the existence of the "physical universe," because he wants those attributes to apply. Clearly it is the apologist's desires which substitute for reasoned argument, for even in the case of Slick's argument, there is no case made for the supposed necessity that whatever caused the universe to come into existence has these qualities. In the case of Slick's argument, he wants to leap from the conclusion that there must be an "uncaused cause" of the universe, to the conclusion that this "uncaused cause" must be "supernatural," and states, "By supernatural I mean it is completely 'other' than the universe is not natural to it." Not only is this sentence awkward and incoherent, I do not see at all how it is supposed to follow from previously validated premises. While he does say at one point, that an "uncaused cause cannot be a natural part of the universe which is finite," he does not say why the "uncaused cause" must be "supernatural" as opposed to "subnatural" or "natural but not part of the universe." Thus we have a broad leap in reasoning which is nowhere warranted by the premises which Slick does provide. Indeed, Slick even admits that he argues more than reason will support when he confesses, "At this point I admit to making a leap of logic and assert that the supernatural, uncaused cause is the God of the Bible." Thus we have a series of non sequiturs asserted in the place of rational argument.

The second fallacy which Smith points out in Robbins' conception of the "entropy argument" is as follows:

Robbins, like most advocates of the entropy argument, is inconsistent. Is the Second Law of Thermodynamics an inexorable law of nature? Yes, according to Robbins, because it "has never been contradicted." Never? Then what prevented his eternal, personal and transcendent god from suffering a gruesome heat-death? If the Second Law is not applicable to god, it is not inexorable. If this is so, on what grounds can the theist assert that the Second Law applies to the entire universe and cannot, under any circumstances, be contradicted?" (254-255)

Indeed, theists habitually special plead their case for the existence of an invisible magic being which they want to exist, but cannot seem to successfully prove exists. If the theist wants to argue that the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies only to that which is natural, and therefore that the "uncaused cause" which he concludes by prior specious reasoning is exempt from its applicability by virtue of the fact that it is "supernatural" (my, how convenient!), then we're again faced with Slick's non sequitur exposed above.

Smith resolves all these matters by pointing out the following:

Reconciling the Second Law of Thermodynamics with the present state of the universe is not as hopeless as theists like to pretend. To begin with, the Second Law is a statement of statistical probability, and there is nothing inherently contradictory in supposing that a closed system can decrease in entropy or fluctuate between increasing and decreasing entropy states. (255)

In addition to this point of clarification, Smith also points out that, "More importantly, however, the Second Law only pertains to closed systems, which, according to many physicists, renders it inapplicable to the universe as a whole."

Indeed, Smith is not the only thinker to recognize this. Richard Carrier, in his essay Bad Science, Worse Philosophy, notes that

the one way in which the Law of Entropy is most misused is in forgetting the conditions in which it applies: the law is only applicable to closed thermal systems. Consequently, we often meet with the ever-popular misconception among creation scientists that the Earth is a closed system.

Thus an assumption about the scope of applicability of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is made in haste. Smith goes on to quote Dr. Adolf Grünbaum (Philosophical Problems of Space and Time, [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), p. 262], who writes,

An inherent limitation on the applicability of the? entropy concept to the entire universe lies in the fact that it has no applicability at all to a spatially infinite universe. (255)

Next Smith quotes E. A. Milne (Sir James Jeans: A Biography, [Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 165], who states:

Jeans's own studies in the realm of the second law of thermodynamics were all concerned with the kinetic theory of gases, in which the specimen under discussion is supposed walled around in a finite vessel; and to such systems the notion of a heat-death is applicable. But by no means is the same result to be predicted of the whole universe. (255-256)

And lastly, Smith quotes Drs. L. D. Landau and E. M. Lifshitz (Statistical Physics, [London: Pergamon Press Ltd., 1958], p. 29), who state:

? in the general theory of relativity the universe as a whole must not be regarded as a closed system, but as one which is in a variable gravitational field. In this case, the application of the law of increase of entropy does not imply the necessity of statistical equilibrium. (256)

Smith concludes, then, that

Since the concept of entropy can be defined only with reference to closed systems, it cannot legitimately be applied to the universe as a whole. The theist takes a scientific principle derived from a specific context, and attempts to shift this context in order to manufacture a need for god. In the name of science, the theist posits a "god of the gaps," a god who allegedly fills in the gaps of human knowledge. But gaps in knowledge eventually close, leaving god without a home. (256)

 

Deconstructing Slick's Argument

Now look at the first premise of Slick's "entropy argument." He states, "The universe is not infinitely old because it is not in a state of entropy. If the universe were infinitely old, it would have reached a state of entropy long ago. But, we are not in a state of entropy, therefore, the universe is not infinitely old and must have had a beginning." Clearly this is an attempt to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics to bolster the so-called "cosmological argument": prove that the universe cannot be eternal, and because of this, "logically," god therefore exists. But notice that the first premise of the "entropy argument" clearly assumes that the Second Law of Thermodynamics must apply to the universe as a whole. Of course, this assumption is nowhere argued; indeed, the concept 'universe' is never even defined! But as we have seen, a number of scientists in the know have cautioned that the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to the universe as a whole, because, they argue, the Law applies only to closed systems and the universe is not a closed system. This position has not been challenged, let alone refuted, so Slick's first premise can be rejected.

And notice Slick's second premise, which states, "Because the universe has had a beginning it is not infinite in size. It would require an infinite amount of time to become infinite in size. Since the universe had a beginning, it has not had an infinite amount of time to expand, therefore it is finite in size." Notice how the truth of this premise depends on the concept 'time' which is incorporated twice throughout it. But what concept of 'time' is being employed? We can only infer, because it has not been stated explicitly. Judging from the notion "infinite time," it is questionable whether the concept employed here is objective, since time is a measure requiring a standard consisting of a relationship between two objects in order to derive a rate standard, such as the relationship between the earth and the sun. The standard of our measure of time is based on the rotation of the earth (e.g., "day" and "night") and its revolution around the sun (e.g., "1 year," "5 years," etc.).

Consequently, since time is a measure which necessarily assumes the relationship between one object and another, it is obviously incoherent to speak of time applying to the universe as a whole. Since the universe is the totality of all existence, we obviously cannot coherently assert a relationship between the universe and something existing beyond it, because the notion of something existing beyond the universe is itself incoherent. Consequently, since the concept 'time' cannot apply to the universe as a whole, it is incoherent to speak of how "old" the universe is. The universe simply exists because existence exists. Therefore, because of this faulty use of the concept 'time', premise 2 must either be significantly modified, or discarded.

Now let's examine the third premise in the "entropy argument" which Slick presents. This premise, in its entirety, is as follows:

All events have causes. There cannot be an infinite regress of events because that would mean the universe were infinitely old. If it were infinitely old, the universe would be in a state of entropy, which it is not. If it were infinitely old, the universe would be infinitely large, which it is not.

This premise builds on the contents of the second premise, namely the notion that time can apply to the universe as a whole. Of course this assumption, far from being validated by the "entropy argument," has been shown to stem from a misunderstanding of the concept 'time'. Also, it must be emphasized that the universe is not an "event," but objects. On the contrary, events are composed of actions which take place within the universe, since actions are actions of objects which exist. Where do these objects exist? If they exist, they exist as a part of the universe, since 'universe' is the totality of that which exists.

The third premise also relies on the assumption, encountered in the first premise (reviewed above), that the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its principle of entropy applies to the universe as a whole. But of course this could only have a chance of being validated if one could show good reasons why we should consider the universe to be a closed system. Authorities in the science of physics have argued against this assumption, and Slick does not argue for its validity to boot.

If one were to attempt a proof of the non-eternality of the universe by arguing that an eternal universe necessitates "an infinite regress of events," one would have to establish what he means by 'event' and define an objective means of counting events. However, this task would be extremely problematic, and it is difficult to see how it would be immune from the application of arbitrary or subjective standards. Take for instance the rotation of the earth on its axis. When is "one event" accomplished, and what distinguishes this unit from other actions which might be considered also to provide a unit standard of 'event'? Is a full rotation of the earth on its axis "an event" while a quarter of that rotation is only a "sub-event"? If so, why? Why would a full rotation of the earth constitute a "full event," while only a portion of that rotation would have to constitute a "sub-event"?

Since the "entropy argument" wants to argue against the "infinite regress of events," such issues would have to be addressed and resolved to the satisfaction of objective standards, and to my knowledge this has never been done. And certainly Slick does not show awareness of this consideration in his formulation of the argument. Why, for instance, could one not say that the "history" of the universe consists of five primary events, and the finite number of individual actions can be considered to be "sub-events" bracketed within these five primary events? Questions such as these, although seemingly bizarre on the face of it, would of course have to be considered when one attempts to argue against the eternality of the universe by intimating that an eternal universe implies an "infinite regress of events."

Besides, even if one could show that the "infinite regress of events" problem were a legitimate problem, it is uncertain how this problem would be resolved by asserting a beginning of the universe and the existence of a creator which is said to be responsible for that beginning. Were there no events prior to this creative act? If this is argued, how would one know this, and how would one prove this to be the case? Again, we would here encounter the theist's faith interjected to resolve conceptual problems which, he thinks, afflicts the non-theistic conception of the universe. It is as if one could argue that the universe had a beginning and then start making up stories from there to exempt the theistic view from the very problems charged against the non-theistic view. This is not reason, but fantasy, and must be discarded by the rational individual.

From here, the fourth premise of the "entropy argument" wants to build on the conclusions supposedly sealed in the prior three premises. But since these prior premises are shown to have irresolvable problems of their own, and thus any further premise which attempts to build on them cannot be true. Consequently, the fourth premise, namely that "there must be a single uncaused cause of the universe," must be rejected.

The fifth premise of the "entropy argument" has already been shown to be problematic above, and Slick admits the contamination of his own confessional investments in establishing the grand conclusion of his argument, namely that "the God of the Bible is the uncaused cause of the universe. " Since the entire chain of reasoning to this conclusion has been shown to be riddled with unnecessary conceptual problems, misapplications of principle, and overt appeals to "faith" (which is clearly a euphemism for wishing), this conclusion must be rejected.

 

Conclusion

The "entropy argument," therefore, because of its numerous problems and misapplication of concepts, cannot be accepted as evidence for the existence of anything, let alone a god, Christian or otherwise. While purporting itself to conclude that the universe must have had a beginning, it fails to consider any definition of 'universe', and thus does not even identify what it's talking about. Further, it is shown that on a proper definition of 'universe', the notion that it had a beginning is incoherent. Additional problems are shown to afflict the theist's use of the concept 'entropy' and the rash conclusions he wants to draw from it. And lastly, and most importantly, the argument as a whole fails to comply with the principle of objectivity as it clearly commits itself to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. These are not problems from which the theist can recover his argument by simple adjustments. Instead, these problems to varying extents will be present in any attempt to utilize the "entropy argument" as a proof of god.

 

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