Rising Entropy and Evolution

The Cosmic Process According to Science

Because modern minds are strongly influenced by the theory of evolution, traditional accounts of the world’s origin can strike them as simply a result of pre-scientific ignorance. They may therefore suppose that the cosmic process explained here is merely pre-scientific or even anti-scientific, which would be unfortunate, as the truth is very different. It can be shown that the real conflict is not with science itself so much as with certain ideological uses made of it. But before the question of the compatibility between the present subject and evolution can be considered, it will be necessary to put it in a scientific context through its relation to another law which is more universal and more important to science than evolution.

Science contains first principles which are coherent with cyclic law and a serious problem for evolutionary theory. Foremost among these are the two laws of thermodynamics, the First Law being that the total quantity of matter and energy in the world is a fixed quantity which can only be redistributed but not created or destroyed. The second Law of Thermodynamics states that every physical process involves an irreversible net increase of disorder or entropy, no matter whether the process appears to be destructive or not. This law was originally developed by Carnot and Clausius as part of a theory to explain why heat engines were able to do useful work. The direct implication of the second Law, that the fixed quantity of matter and energy is constantly breaking down into smaller and less usable quantities may more briefly be called the Entropy Law. So essential is it to science that it is one part of classical physics which remains valid for both classical physics and for the quantum and relativity physics of the present century. For this reason, what was said about it by Eddington in the nineteen-thirties is as relevant as ever today, making a notable exception in a subject where ideas get out of date more rapidly than in most others. At that time the law in question had already held its position for the greater part of a century:

The law that entropy always increases—the second law of thermodynamics—holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. . . . If your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation. . . . The chain of deductions from this simple law has been almost illimitable.1

The scope of this law is both scientific and metaphysical equally, which adds more to its special nature. It has also been called the law of Morpholysis, from  (morphe), ‘form’, and  (luo), ‘I lose’. All scientific explanations require that apparent exceptions to this law be shown to be in reality instances of it. Until this conception was generally understood, scientific investigation could not even begin, because many natural phenomena were not felt to be in need of explanation. For example, it was supposed that insects were spontaneously generated from mud and decaying matter, until Pasteur proved by his sterilization experiments that this could not happen. Fossils, flint tools and axe-heads were collected and examined for centuries before it was realized that the forms of these things could not have resulted from the mere flow of the elements. To nonscientific minds, things ‘just happened’, whether they manifested order or not. But given the law that natural forces alone can only dissipate order, all ordered structures have to be the result either of intelligent agency or the exposure of some pre-existing form. On the basis of the Entropy Law, therefore, science agrees to a large extent with what has been previously argued from first principles. Consequently, there are no grounds for taking the ancient wisdom to be opposed to science, or for assuming that science must always support materialistic thinking. Its compatibility with what follows from the Principle of Plenitude is undeniable, no doubt because this principle has an essential role in scientific thought as well.

Only Physical Disorder is Probable

The increase in entropy which accompanies all physical changes always develops toward the state which is statistically the most probable, this being the one in which differentiation between its parts is at a minimum. If it is not always clear why order and differentiation between component parts should be relatively improbable while disorder and lack of differentiation should be to the same extent probable, one need only refer to the example of two quantities of a gas separated by a partition, where the gas is at a high temperature on one side and at a low temperature on the other. Once the partition is removed the two quantities of gas will mingle until the whole is at the same temperature mid-way between the two initial temperatures. The typical experience that heat always moves from hotter bodies to cooler ones is likewise a question of probability; the reverse process would be inconceivably improbable, and it illustrates the tendency of everything in the universe to reach a single level of energy, one at which energy can no longer move because it can only do so where energy is at different concentrations. This state is that of maximum entropy, whether in the universe as a whole or in some smaller system. That the rise in entropy is irreversible appears from what would happen if one did try to reverse the above experiment and divide the gas into two halves again, and heat one half by the same amount above the other. The energy necessary for this could only be obtained by the dissipation of more energy from elsewhere, which will inevitably be greater than the amount which one succeeds in imparting to the gas. Because of this ‘one-way’ property of nature implied by rising entropy, which Eddington referred to as ‘time’s arrow,’ nature cannot have existed in its present form over endless time without new order having been somehow imparted to it from outside. In a manner recalling the account given by Plato in chapter 5, Eddington has made this into an argument for the belief that God must at a certain time have caused the world to exist with a maximum amount of ordered matter and concentrated energy:

Traveling backward into the past we find a world with more and more organization. If there is no barrier to stop us earlier we must reach a moment when the energy of the world was wholly organized with none of the random element in it. . . . The organization we are concerned with is exactly definable, and there is a limit at which it becomes perfect.2

The appearance of such a perfectly organized initial state, left at the mercy of random dispersal ever since, indicates a major discontinuity in God’s creation, but that does not make it impossible, and it could be one of an endless series. Steady-state theories of the universe, which offered an alternative to this conception, have turned out to be untenable, because no exception to the Entropy Law has ever been found. This applies despite the fact that there are a great many natural processes which are theoretically reversible. These include all cases where objects can be treated as mere units or point-masses, as with colliding bodies, projectiles, pendulums, and orbiting planets and satellites. But these things are really abstractions which produce exact results only in idealized systems, so that they can only serve as descriptive models within certain limits. There is always the fact that the energy imparted to point-masses is not all converted to momentum, but is dissipated in other ways such as heat or noise.

Where chemistry is concerned, similar considerations apply. Every reaction of chemical substances is more or less reversible, but always at the price of an input of heat energy from combustion, so that the net loss of chemical energy and ordered molecules does not cease to increase. In experiments where it appears that chance alone can produce order in the form of more complex compounds, it is necessary that such things be isolated by human intervention if they are to be preserved, failing which the same forces that produced them will reduce them back to disorder. ‘Time’s arrow’ still moves forward, even when we put physical processes into reverse.

The Entropy Law and Biology

The fact that this law so clearly applies in chemistry and physics has led some to believe that living creatures should be able to form an exception to it. Nevertheless its working is just as certain here, albeit behind a screen of appearances which can deceive casual, but not scientific, observation. Biology is concerned with the growth of plant and animal life and the huge range of forms of emergent order which that entails, but this continual apparent rise of new structures still results from the same breakdown of ordered matter and available energy:

The Entropy Law applies only to completely isolated systems, whereas a living organism, being an open system, exchanges both matter and energy with its environment. There is thus no contradiction to the Entropy Law as long as the increase in the entropy of the environment more than compensates for the decrease in the entropy of the organism.3

The new order which arises in the tissues of growing animals and plants never equals the amount of order which is lost in the substances they feed on. The transition from the nutrient material to the organism is extremely wasteful, but the increased order or lowered entropy of the growing organism is clearly visible, whereas the consequent rise in the entropy of its surroundings, being scattered over time and space, is less obvious. If the growth of a certain organism realizes a kind of order which is of special interest from a human point of view, perhaps because it is like a step in the direction of human life, this does not release it from being part of the universal downgrading process. Since individual growth takes place by lowering one’s entropy by what one takes from the surroundings, so it is conceivable that evolution could also take place through a comparable process of waste and dissipation. But this would mean that the most evolution could achieve would be small and localized instances of low entropy. There is no question of its being able to increase the amount of order in the world as a whole.

Where breeding and heredity are concerned, biology can supply a wealth of material which is supportive of the traditional cosmology, in the realm of species which survive by purely physical means. The main rule of animal breeding is that only the best specimens of each generation should be used to breed the next one, not necessarily to improve the strain, but just to enable it to remain at the same standard. A similar result obtains for creatures in the wild state, either by a high general mortality or by a restriction of breeding to the dominant members of the pack or herd. Here again, the result is not a continual improvement of the species, but just the maintenance of a certain level of health, strength, speed, and so forth. This shows that the causal transmission as it appears in the reproduction of species always involves a certain deterioration, or deviation from the norm, in many or even most cases. Each generation contains a few specimens which are superior to the average of the previous generation, and a larger number which are inferior to it, so that if all bred equally the species as a whole would lose its competitive qualities and die out.

The numerical preponderance of those below a given standard in relation to those above it is itself an illustration of the Platonic idea that matter is never fully mastered by Form, just as it also shows that the entropy of living species constantly rises just as much as in non-living systems. From the evolutionary point of view it is unfortunate that the one form of evolution which can always be observed directly is that of degeneration, as where animals lose their natural instincts in captivity. This point cannot be relativized away by making it purely a matter of definition, from the fact that every evolutionary change will necessarily be degeneration from the point of view of what existed at its beginning, and will be just as necessarily progress from the point of view of what exists at the end of it. Such thinking ignores the objective factor that a species has a set of potentialities which it can realize more or less completely in relation to a given environment. Experience shows that basic changes in heredity can only be deviations from an optimum condition.

The law of Entropy, or Morpholysis, parallels in its action what has been said of the descending cyclic pattern, with its irreversible downgrading of order on the physical level. However, this correspondence does not extend to the relative reversals and restorations which appear in cyclic processes, since the tendency of entropy is uniformly downward. As the imagery of the Four Ages shows, historical time manifests relative golden ages which to some degree recapitulate a much higher state. Since the human state is rooted in the material world, it must in a general way be subject to the laws of matter, but the presence of mind and spirit in man results in deviations from the uniform direction of these laws. Entropy is strictly applicable to physical processes, while the laws of mind are independent of it. Thus mind can intervene in nature both individually and collectively. The rise-and-fall pattern which this superimposes on the entropic descent exists both on the large scale and on the small, according as cycles of widely differing amplitudes develop concurrently. There results from this a very complicated order of descent and relative reascent, as befits a being whose nature embraces the whole range of realities through the material, psychical, and spiritual. Although mind as such is not subject to entropy, its psycho-physical operations can be, and its freedom in this regard varies on the collective scale according to certain time-periods.

The Relation to Evolution

What has been said about the Entropy Law creates the setting in which we can consider the way the traditional theory of time relates to evolution. The main difficulty in generalizing about evolution is that it takes a number of different forms, some of which are more or less compatible with creation. For simplicity’s sake, I will divide it into two categories which could be called ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ evolution respectively. In its weak form, it may include the idea that the different species and their roles in nature embody pre-existent ‘goals’ of evolution, so that evolutionary changes will be teleologically ordered toward them. It also gives an account of the ways in which environmental pressures suppress some hereditary features of species and accentuate others, producing changes in their outward forms with the passage of time, and not necessarily irreversibly. In regard to the human race, it is accepted that both body and soul are involved in the changes which take place. Changes which the human physique may have undergone over millions of years would gradually allow differing degrees of freedom to the soul’s higher faculties and possibly a greater self-awareness.

There is a clear analogy between this idea of evolution and the development of the adult from the child. In either case, it is a question of latent possibilities being worked out according to a universal plan. Evolution of this kind is what one refers to when it is held that religious beliefs are compatible with evolution, and its truth or falsity could not be a serious issue in the present context, although its psychological effects are far from harmless: it can only support the conviction that whatever is latest must be best and truest, no matter whether the facts will support this nor not.

The Entropy Law is the basis of the separation between the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ forms of evolution, because the latter is concerned with changes in the structure of species at certain times which are compatible with entropy. Such modifications to existing forms do not require any greater increase of order than is required by the natural growth of organisms from their conception. In its strong form, however, evolution would require an absolute increase in order and complexity of form, arising spontaneously in a way which could only be called creation without a creator.

This conception of evolution consists in the formation of ever-increasingly complex organic molecules by random changes. At any given time everything in living creatures would be a result of this increasing organic complexity. Whether or not they acquire souls in the process would not be an issue because everything is determined by the physical constitution, including the very state of being alive. Unlike the weak form of evolution, this kind is not one where physical forms develop in conjunction with psychical or spiritual ones. Advantages resulting from random molecular changes would account for what we call our interior life as much as for our bodies.

This theory cannot be passed over, because it asserts that more complex structures continually arise from less complex ones, in a manner exactly opposite to what the Entropy Law and the cyclic cosmology would lead one to expect. Another, less obvious, but no less important reason lies in the implications that evolution must have for theoretical knowledge, whether it be metaphysical or scientific. In either of these realms, one must assume the adequacy of the human mind to the cosmic realities it wishes to explain. This adequacy for all purposes of knowledge, which formed a Scholastic definition of truth as adaequatio rei et intellectus, is all of a piece with the idea of the soul as a microcosm or epitome of all that it relates to in its world. Man the knower and his world could be said to be related like a key to its lock, therefore, which may be expected on the understanding that everything was specially created, whereas it must be extremely improbable if mankind were a product of evolution.

The adequacy in question is not affected by the degree to which its potentialities are currently realized; once it exists, it need only continue to exist in order to be developed to any degree whatever, no further evolution of man as such being necessary for this. The microcosm constitutes a natural perfection beyond which no other could have any purpose, and if it did result from evolution, that evolution must therefore have stopped. The very question of metaphysical knowledge, moreover, implies something of a transcendent nature in man, since knowledge of this kind is not dependent on sense, but comprehends phenomena without belonging among them. Nevertheless, evolution would require us to believe that this could result as an emergent reality from antecedents consisting entirely of natural phenomena, not in the way in which maturation brings a young person’s mind to maturity, but rather in the way that history produces novel events.

The Fundamental Problem of Evolution

Defenders of the theory of evolution claim that to deny it is to deny the possibility of a scientific explanation of mankind’s origin, and that of other species besides. If we had to look to some action outside nature for this purpose, a line would be drawn against any further scientific discovery in that direction, and, worse, the world would be divided into two exclusive categories, the natural and the supernatural. It would be far more elegant and more economical if everything could be accounted for solely in terms of the natural, it is thought, but only because it is mistakenly believed that no more than the natural is involved in the scientific knowledge we possess already. In reality, the division between the natural and the supernatural invariably exists at the heart of scientific knowledge, for reasons which are next to be considered.

Both science and metaphysics have a common interest in a realm of intelligible realities, Forms, or paradigms, as they are named, depending on the context. Objective intelligible realities include whole theories as well as the elements of every theory and formula, and they are inherent in both the universe and in the human mind. For this reason, the discovery of each hitherto unknown paradigm is an acquisition for all minds alike, and is regulative for the mental processes of all minds as well. These conceptions are so inbuilt into human thought that no one knows how to relinquish them, even when they profess theories which logically require them to do so. For this reason, hypotheses which would reduce all knowledge to nothing are accepted and operated on the intellectual basis they negate.

Thus the theory of evolution is commonly believed to be a paradigmatic reality, although this can only be as a result of a confusion when the theory is taken in full rigor. If evolution were the whole truth about man’s origin and formation, there could be no paradigms, not even the most universal, such as truth, goodness, beauty, or meaning. Everything in us, including our ideas as to what the truth consists in, would be solely the result of molecular interactions, and if these chance events had happened differently, we should have assigned truth and moral right and wrong to things quite different from what are actually so treated. Unlike paradigms or Forms, physical processes are non-referential, that is, they cannot be ‘about’ anything. Given that they accounted for our whole being, this would mean that what one person took for a true idea need have no such meaning or relevance for any other person, not least where the idea in question is that of evolution. The biochemistry which caused one person to think this theory to be true could not be in any way ‘more true’ or ‘more real’ than the biochemistry which caused another person to think it to be untrue. Qua physical changes, these biochemical effects could have no more relation to truth than have the movements of wind, sand, or water.

In this case, the belief that evolution was true, in even the most highly-trained mind, would have to be the outcome of the same causal system which had also determined his favorite varieties of music, food, and sport. There could be no difference in kind between the causes of the latter and the causes of his supposedly higher or intellectual activities. Since ‘strong’ evolution negates the common world of objective ideas, the beliefs of other persons could have no relevance for one’s own ideas in this regard, and the rational deductions on which this theory is based for the expert would be in the same category with the physical peculiarities of the person concerned.

This is the typical impasse of materialistic systems. The supposed truth of the theory takes away all rational grounds for believing it to be true. The development and continuation of the theory of evolution clearly depends on reasoning processes whose validity requires that they be unaffected by natural causes, let alone produced by them, and this is something to which ‘strong’ evolution allows no meaning. Every theory, whether it be scientific or metaphysical, presupposes that the human mind can grasp the phenomenal world as a whole from a position which transcends it, and this is why all attempts to make that transcending intelligence a product of the phenomena it encloses are a waste of time. They fall into a self-contradiction from which there is no escape.

Unlike evolution in its ‘strong’ sense, the cyclic concept and the Entropy Law do not dictate any theory of human origins and formation. They involve only relations of phenomena within the field of consciousness, and do not require that consciousness be in itself invalidated or otherwise affected in its essence by the operation of their laws. For that reason, they are true laws. I have prolonged the treatment of evolution to try to make it clear that any conflict between these laws and evolutionary explanations of the world must be to the detriment of evolution. Not only does it demand an excessively improbable defiance of the universal rise in disorder, it deprives us of any coherent knowledge of the world when held in any more than the ‘weak’ sense in which it governs modifications to components of species which already exist. Although the implicit conclusion that our claim to knowledge should be given up is only too obviously self-refuting, theories which radically subvert knowledge are still accepted because the enormity of their consequences is not taken in. Besides, most minds are reluctant to face the hard alternatives of either rejecting fashionable notions or of giving up any right to absolute truth, and so they take refuge in a belief that the issue can be settled by compromise. However, the choice should be made easier by the fact that what needs to be discarded is only pseudo-scientific thinking, and not essential scientific theory. The cyclic cosmology is compatible with the latter, and not with the former.

1. A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, chap. 4.

2. Ibid., chap. 4, p. 84.

3. Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy, A New World View, 1980, Afterword.

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