Snowflakes and the Second Law

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You probably heard this one, but here goes in case not: If the whole world were anarchist, who would enforce the law of gravity? Ka-boom. You may also have heard the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for our theist friends are fond of citing it to prove that the order found in nature is created: "In a closed system, entropy rises."

"Entropy" is a fancy word for "chaos" in the physical sense. Seal off from the outside world a vessel with two chambers, one with hot fluid and the other with cold. Remove the separating insulator wall and presto! All the molecules rush around chaotically and in a short time there is no temperature difference ("order") between the two halves. Heat has been exchanged until the ordered structure was destroyed and all molecules are equal; not even one is more equal than others. Marx triumphs after all.

So prevalent is the Second Law that the whole universe is said to be heading towards uniform equality, with no hot stars or cold planets. One day (except that "day" will have become a meaningless term long beforehand) everything will be just plain cool--though alas, no teenager will be around to approve.

But then, along floats a snowflake; as many billions and billions of them in my yard alone as Carl Sagan said there were stars in the sky. And although I've not actually checked, I hear that the crystalline structure of each is unique; like fingerprints and DNA , no two snowflakes are identical. Should make it easy for the snoops, were ever a flake to commit a crime. But how come? How can it be in a world where everything is tending towards uniformity and chaos, that billions of unique ice crystals are forming every second in the sky over New Hampshire ? I know this is supposed to be the "Live Free or Die" State, but surely they can't just do that, in clear violation of the Second Law? Perhaps we do have a snowflake crime wave, after all.

If so, though, snowflakes are not the only crooks. All around us, there is evidence of an increase in order and a decrease in chaos, entropy; and I'm not referring to the ersatz "order" imposed from above by governments. When they impose that, or try to, as in Iraq , rather often it doesn't stick. They write their laws, and the first result is that most folk sit down to figure out a way around them. No, I refer to the more spontaneous order in both the physical and the social world.

A few billion years ago, somewhere in the warm, rich chemical soup with which the surface of this planet was covered as it cooled, molecules combined--helped along perhaps by the thick CO2 atmosphere and frequent electrical discharges--into replicating strands; so life, in its most primitive form, appeared. From amorphous soup to living organism; a flat violation of the Second Law. History ever since has revealed a line of progress towards increasing order (refinement, adaptation, intelligence . . .) in living species, all despite the Second Law that insists that chaos must increase and therefore, order decrease. Even more: the pinnacle of this process--Hom Sap--has arranged much of the rest of the chaos on Earth so that it is less chaotic, more ordered. Order, order everywhere, in open and massive defiance of law. What gives?

Theists may relish this saga for they say it proves--or at least, supports--their theory that all that exists came about by an act of intelligent creation, just as if that myth could do more than to push the puzzle one stage further back (who created God?) or than to rule the question inadmissible, so frustrating the very core of human curiosity. The Second Law is indeed flouted, they say, by the one entity that has the right to do so: its author. An amazing corruption of logic!

What they overlook is that in science, the word "law" is misapplied. I wish no scientist had ever used it. By the very nature of the scientific method, phenomena are observed and then theories are formed to explain them. Those theories are tested and refined or replaced. At no time--here is the proper humility of the scientist--is there such a thing as final, absolute knowledge and certainty; the word "law" simply does not belong in the scientific arena!

Like gravity, the theory of rising entropy in a closed system is a theory, subject always to revision or replacement. The temptation is, when a theory has stood tall in test after test for a very long time, to carve it in stone as a "law." That's a fundamental error, a denial of rational thought and a betrayal of the scientific method.

So there is absolutely no "need" to allege that only a miracle can override or violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because it's not a law at all but a theory, and if some new observation shows it to be flawed, then out it must go in favor of something that better accounts for the new observation. The question now is, has it in fact been violated as my remarks suggest?

Not actually; I was kidding. See, we have to read the whole theory, not just the bit about chaos tending to increase. Its qualifying clause is "in a closed system." That two-chambered vessel I mentioned would have to be 100% impenetrable by any outside influence, such as thermal or gamma rays, for the Second Theory to be obeyed; and there is no known way to achieve that. We may get close, and my refrigerator isn't far off; but when the power failed last night, it did anyway start to warm up and curdle the milk despite all its thick insulation. A "closed system" is a useful construct for theoretical use, and can be well approximated; but no perfect one has ever been built. The universe, in particular, is no more a closed system than an open French window in a blizzard; we don't even know whether it has boundaries.

Laws have no better place in society than they do in science. Here's an instance of order, created by two humans eager to improve their respective lives: they make an agreement, that A will hand over to B 10 pictures of George Washington, and B will surrender to A 12 gallons of unleaded gasoline, good for a trip of 300 miles. But alas! - C arrives and demands some of those pictures for himself, with the menace that if they are not delivered, he will have his armed agents kill A, B or both. Result: B can afford to surrender enough gas to take A only 100 miles. Order has been destroyed, chaos put in its place. Worse yet: C's ruinous action comes with a sermon, that he is doing it all in the name of Law and Order, the exact opposite of what is really taking place! Isn't it amazing, that so many millions of our otherwise intelligent and literate fellow humans are so fully suckered into believing this absolute inversion of language that they actually vote for more of the same?

On January 13, ABC-TV's John Stossel broadcast a fine appreciation of government schools, a near-perfect example of government control, of laws operating at full steam. He gave abundant evidence that in an environment allegedly designed to promote learning, the frequent result is a shambles; teachers cannot teach and pupils cannot learn, bad teachers cannot be fired, bad students cannot be expelled, and costs are out of orbit. He acknowledged exceptions and attributed them to all parties struggling mightily to spite the system. He proposed a form of market, to fix the anomaly; not nearly enough, but enough to show a visible improvement. Here again, in the name of "law and order" laws are creating chaos--disorder--and the alleged "chaos" of a competitive market was portrayed correctly as the solution, the source of proper order.

As governments multiply their laws, resulting chaos grows in proportion. A mere 20-some years ago, I reached an airport early and asked the check-in clerk if I could change to an earlier flight, due to depart in about 15 minutes. A quick phone call and an invigorating run, and I was on my way. I may have paused at a metal detector, but that was it; no TSA , no opening of carry-on bags, no identity check, no shoe removal, just a ticket. Why the difference? The Feds have had a couple more decades to project their laws into parts of the world where they are profoundly resented, so creating fervent enemies; and to protect us all from resulting retaliation, they create more chaos to replace simple order at the airport.

If you need more examples of how government's order-mandating laws in practice create chaos, open today's newspaper and read the headlines. Government preaches that it is urgently needed to preserve law and order; the plain fact is that the more law, the less order; the result is the inverse of the promise. None of this is happenstance. "Order," in encounters between humans, is what happens when each party delivers on an agreement they have made. That's what a market is; an arena where contracts are formed and carried out. When a third party intervenes to contort the terms of the agreement or entirely prevent them being honored, that orderly arrangement is necessarily, by the intervention itself distorted or destroyed. Such intervention is exactly what government always does, and exactly what its laws always enforce. The resulting disorder is precisely what any rational observer will predict.

"Law" is a word with no more validity in society than in physics, and "order" will be achievable only when laws' authors disappear.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"