My wife is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, so we get the organization's excellent newsletter. On paper, even!
I just got around to reading the August 2015 issue. It had an excellent piece by physicist Sean Carroll -- the address he gave after winning FFRF's "Emperor Has No Clothes Award."
You can read "Physicist Carroll: Atoms and Eve incompatible" on the FFRF web site. Or via this PDF file:
Download Physicist Carroll: Atoms and Eve incompatible - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Only the paper version had two interesting graphics. So I took photos of them to share here.
The first shows how the universe evolves from a state of simple order at the moment of the Big Bang to a state of complex disorder some 1 quadrillion years after the Big Bang (meaning, a really long time from now). That's the blue line.
The red line is emergent complexity in the universe. It shows how complexity -- life forms, star systems, etc. -- increases even as disorder/entropy also increases in the universe as a whole. But eventually emergent complexity declines to the simple order that marked the beginning of the universe.
Carroll has an easy-to-understand explanation of this in his acceptance address.
But complexity, the organization of the stuff that is going on, is a completely different thing from entropy. In the beginning, the universe was a very simple place, just hot and dense and smooth. And the end, a googol years from now, the universe will be a simple place once again. It will be empty space. It is between when the entropy is increasing from low to high that the universe became complex, forming planets and stars and galaxies and living organisms.
That behavior is not an accident. That is a universal way that complexity behaves. Entropy just goes up, but complexity first goes up and then fades away once you approach the final state, which we call thermal equilibrium. So the right answer to the creationists is that not only is it allowed by the second law of thermodynamics — that complex structures like living beings arose here on Earth — but the reason why is because of the second of thermodynamics. We are parasitic upon the increase of entropy of the universe.
We are little surfers riding a wave of entropy until we eventually scuttle up on shore, and it'll just be empty space forever. And again, the universe is not special, you can see this in a cup of coffee. You take a cup of coffee with the cream separate, that's low entropy. Highly organized but also very simple. If you mix them together, it is high entropy, everything mixed together but also very simple.
It's the "in between" when you see the tendrils of the cream reaching into the coffee and swirling in little complex patterns. That's when you get the complexity of the universe. These little swirls, these little ethereal bits of complexity that are caught between the simple beginning and the simple end. That's us. That's what we are, temporary eruptions of structure and organization as the universe goes from simplicity to simplicity.
So that explains how complex structure can (and indeed must) arise in a universe that has a simple beginning and simple end.
Carroll's other image is used to explain why life after death isn't possible. It's a nifty, though incomprehensible to most people, set of equations.
Here's what he says about the impossibility of life after death.
Why is that true? The argument is basically the following: The mind is the brain. That's what the mind is, there is nothing else other than the brain that is going on. And the brain is made of atoms. Here is the controversial part — even some of my friends get annoyed when I say this. But it's the truth so I will lay it on you.
We know how atoms work. They are not a mystery to us. And they work in such a way that when you die there is no way for the information that is "you" to persist after death. There is no way for that stuff, that knowledge, that set of beliefs and feelings that made up you, to leave your body. Because it is stuck there with the atoms that are decaying in your tomb or being cremated or whatever your favorite way to be after death is.
We don't know all of the laws of physics by any stretch of the imagination. But we know something about them, and we know enough to make a very powerful claim: there is no room for new laws of physics that would affect how the atoms in your brain actually work.
That's a very subtle statement. I think that Dan mentioned I have three hours to give this talk, so . . . I would get tired if that happened, but I would give the whole explanation for the laws of physics, how they came to be, why we are confident in them.
Instead I will just intimidate you into submission by showing you an equation. In this one equation are summarized all of the laws of physics necessary to understand the atoms in your brain at the energy mass and length scales relevant to your everyday lives. We have quantum mechanics, we have spacetime, we have gravity, we have the other forces, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces. We have matter, the electrons and the quarks you're made of, and we have of course the Higgs boson.
There are plenty of things physicists don't understand, but we know enough to say that if there are any other forces, particles, fields, phenomena, they can't affect the atoms in your brain. If there are new particles and fields that we haven't yet seen (which there probably are), either they're so weak or short-lived that they would not have any affect on what the atoms are doing, or we would have found them in experiments. Those are the only two options.
No one ever understands me when I say this, so I'm going to say the same thing over again. I'm not saying we understand all of physics. I'm not even saying we know how the fundamental laws come together to make complicated things like frogs and ecosystems and spiral galaxies. There are enormous amounts of work to be done in understanding how science works, including physics.
But we have a basic underlying framework, which we call quantum field theory. This framework is either true or false. All the evidence says that it's true, and if it's true then there is no room for new physics that can in any way affect what goes on in the atoms in your brain. We understand what they do. There is therefore no room for the information that you persist after you die.
Read Sean Carroll's entire piece to get the full impact of his message. You may not agree with him, but you'll take a fascinating ride through basic principles of modern science.