In an earlier article, I showed that information ratchets do not exist in nature. The most that any mechanistic system can do is to reproduce the information already available within the system. Printing presses reproduce the typeset information placed in the mechanism by human operators. ChatGPT simply accesses and rearranges information originated by humans and uploaded on the Internet. No new information is produced in either case.
In a recent article, I introduced the physical concept of the generalized second law of thermodynamics, as a governing principle consistent with the Law of Conservation of Information, which William Dembski formulated with the claim that natural causes cannot increase complex specified information in a closed system over time. Here, I’ll seek to provide an explanation of the physics behind the generalized second law — a rationale for why natural processes destroy information.
A Starting Point
First, let’s consider something that may be more easily visualized than information flow. Imagine a system where heat flows from a hot region to a cold region under the constraint of the traditional second law of thermodynamics. The Clausius statement of the traditional second law of thermodynamics tells us that nature works in such a way that heat never flows the other way around. When I add cold cream to my hot coffee, heat flows from the coffee into the cream, until the mixture comes to an equilibrium temperature. The one-way flow of heat is irreversible by natural causes, and the reason is based in the physics of how nature works.
We say an object is “hot” when the average kinetic energy of its component atoms is high. My hot coffee has molecules with higher kinetic energy, on average, than the molecules of the cold cream. When they are mixed in the cup, collisions between atoms occur. First-year physics students will be familiar with a problem asking for the final velocities of two colliding objects, in terms of their initial velocities. For head-on elastic collisions, using the laws of conservation of energy and momentum, the result is always that the slower object ends up moving faster and the faster object ends up moving slower. Cream added to hot coffee unavoidably gives a mixture in which the coffee has lost heat to the cream.
What about the less physical concept of information? How can we physically explain the relentless loss of information by natural processes? Information seems to be a nonphysical concept, but in our universe, it is stored in specific arrangements of physical states of matter. An intelligent mind can recognize specific arrangements of matter (such as molecules of ink that form letters on a page) that convey a meaningful message. In a different context, biochemists can recognize particular sequences of nucleotide bases in a genome that code for a functional protein.
According to the traditional second law, under the influence of natural processes, the surrounding environment brings about a transfer of heat from hot to cold, or a mixing of constituents, such as the mixing of molecules of perfume throughout the air of the room. Natural processes will also cause a mixing of information-bearing physical objects with the environment. In quantum computing research, this loss of information to the surrounding environment results in what is known as decoherence, meaning that “information has leaked into the environment in an uncontrollable fashion.”1
Linking Information and Observer
All the information that can be known by an observer about a system of any kind is contained within the quantum mechanical wavefunction of the system. My apologies for bringing up quantum mechanics, but its relevance here is that it serves as the link between the information of a system (anything from a single atom to a complex biomolecule to a macroscopic object) and an observer. Unless the wave function of the system is completely isolated from any environmental influence, it will suffer decoherence (loss of information) with the passage of time. In one sense, the wavefunction spreads out into the environment, meaning that the observer will have greater and greater uncertainty as to the state of the system as time goes on. The physical interaction of atoms or photons uncompromisingly causes this effect, with its resulting loss of information.
Some might argue that “luck” could result in an opposite outcome, with interactions causing an increase in information (in biochemistry, this would correlate with increased functional complexity). Why couldn’t this happen? Simply because there are always more ways to go wrong than to go right, when considering whether interactions will result in chaos or increased complex specified information.
An increase in information requires not just one right choice (or lucky draw), but a long sequence of correct choices. Luck might happen once, but any gambler knows that if “lucky outcomes” keep happening against the odds, then the game is rigged. A “rigged game” in nature corresponds to a law of physics — in this case, a law causing information to increase over time by natural causes. Such a law cannot really exist, however, since we already have a law of nature that says the opposite. As I mentioned in a recent article, “Theistic Cosmology and Theistic Evolution — Understanding the Difference”:
In our study of science, we have found that the laws of nature do not contradict one another. We don’t have laws of nature that only apply piecemeal.
Imagination and Freedom
Only by the action of non-physical intelligence can the natural process of decoherence and information loss be overcome. Information is meaningless apart from a rational mind, meaning the creation of new information requires more than knowledge. Increased information requires imagination and the freedom to creatively design complex outcomes that convey meaning or exhibit function. (See, “Intelligence Is Unnatural, and Why That Matters.”)
The non-physical aspect of our intelligent minds can succeed in producing information because an intelligent mind can imagine a meaningful outcome and act to separate the components of a complex system from their natural mixed state into specific arrangements that actualize that outcome. This takes work, meaning it requires energy, but not energy alone, since without the guidance of a non-physical mind, energy cannot succeed in increasing information in a closed system. Intelligent design remains the only explanation consistent with the laws of physics for the increasing information content of living systems throughout life’s history on Earth.
- Michel Le Bellac, A Short Introduction to Quantum Information and Quantum Computation (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 60.