17A023 The Laws of Science by Jim Davies, 7/18/2017    


Anarcho-Libertarians are well aware that government laws (as in "It's the Law!") have no more substance or significance than that they are the opinions of some, backed by guns. Very properly therefore, we have no respect for them whatever; we probably obey them most of the time, but only because we'd like to continue living.

What, though, of scientific laws; don't they possess some august majesty, some eternal significance? Doesn't the Law of Gravity terminate all argument, once it takes effect?

Not exactly. The big problem is that every one of them is grossly mis-named; they are not "laws" at all, with the implication that they are beyond question or defiance; not one of them, despite the unfortunate fact that sometimes, scientists themselves have referred to certain theories by the name "laws." Some - the chemical behavior of the elements, for example - have been observed so often for so long that the temptation to call them "laws" must be strong, but still a principle is at stake. They all have the status of theories that may one day be revised; nothing grander.

The very essence of science is to observe, theorize, and test; and then to repeat the cycle without end. The outcome of useful research is a tested theory. We observe that objects fall towards the ground, and theorize that there is an attraction between it and the objects. Newton famously tested that theory and measured it, for a wide variety of objects including planets, and greatly refined it by adding quantification: that objects attract each other in proportion to the product of their masses and inversely to the square of their distance apart. Until Einstein tinkered with its edges nearly 100 years ago, that theory held good for over two centuries; it was a very well tested theory - and still applies well for ordinary situations.

But it is not a law, and never was. Nor is any other scientific theory. Every one of them is open to refinement or even replacement, if new data is observed while testing them.

So it was very disappointing to read recently in the usually thoughtful "Freeman's Perspective" published by Paul Rosenberg that he regards the Second Theory of Thermodynamics (STT) as some kind of immutable law, just because ignorami call it a Law instead of a theory. Upon this serious misunderstanding he built an argument that Darwinism is a religion!

The STT holds that in a closed system, entropy increases. "Entropy" is a fancy word for disorder or chaos, and sure enough when cold milk is added to hot coffee, that ordered difference in temperature quickly disappears; the whole cup adapts a middle ground of drinkable warmth after molecules of each component have hurried around exchanging therms. And so it has been observed countless times; it's a very well-tested theory.

Paul applied it to the origin of life, ridiculing the notion that something alive emerged spontaneously out of the "primordial soup" a few billion years ago, saying that would be a serious increase in order, and so a serious decrease in entropy (chaos) and so it would violate the "Second Law" - or, as we now know what Paul didn't, the Second Theory. He then spread the ridicule on to Charles Darwin, even though his theory focused on the origin of species, ie how complex ones evolve from simpler sorts, more than it offered speculation about life's origin. That magnificent theory, well tested over a century and a half, was dismissed by Rosenberg as "religion."

Religion is the opposite of science and reason, for it consists of a set of beliefs that have no dependence at all on observed or tested facts; they are just plucked from the air. To allege that Darwin was religious is therefore especially bizarre and ill-informed. It's true that he was raised religious in the sense that one parent was a Unitarian and the other, Anglican - and it's true that he so far adopted theism for himself that he long delayed publication of his Theory of Evolution because he knew that his findings would pull the rug out from under it and so cause great public consternation. But to characterize that Theory itself as religious is as fatuous as it is ignorant.

How did life in fact originate? - nobody yet knows. Molecules constantly move around and combine with others, especially when hot, and some sub-strings of RNA have formed in lab conditions set to emulate those prevailing here 3 to 4 billion years ago, but so far no complete, self-replicating RNA. Research continues, and will eventually bear fruit, but the difficulties are great. It would seem that only two alternatives exist: (a) in the hot and electrically charged environment of the cooling Earth, by sheer chance some molecules happened to combine in such a way as to be able to reproduce, or (b) an unknown, undefined, invisible, intangible, and inaudible Supreme Being intervened and caused that molecular arrangement by magic; that is, by a singular process never elsewhere observed in science.

If Paul Rosenberg wants to choose (b) over (a) I cannot stop him, but will point out that he has no shred of evidence to support his choice and that it certainly is a religious choice, which means he is doing exactly what he (falsely) ridicules in Darwin in the very same breath. In a follow-up to his original article he went further out on a limb by saying that if RNA and DNA developed out of a hot primordial mud some billions of years back, it ought still to be doing it. Yes, no argument; but today there is no large part of the Earth's surface that consists of hot mud being bombarded with lightning for a hundred million years in an atmosphere of methane and CO2 - so that argument too is fatuous.

What matters most is that his abandonment of reason here undermines all his other good work in advancing the libertarian cause; one may fairly ask why one should trust his reasoned opinion in other areas when he tosses it overboard in this one.

Reason, it's true, has not yet produced a detailed theory to account for the origin of life; but the reason-based scientific method has succeeded magnificently in explaining how life developed from that origin to the present day, and I have no problem at all in giving it more time. The Age of Reason is, after all, only a mere few hundred years old, yet has improved mankind's wellbeing out of all recognition from what prevailed in the earlier régime of religious superstition.

Nothing above is meant to disparage the STT; it's very good at describing the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and may well continue to do so into the indefinite future. The error comes in extending it by analogy into other areas, in which even by common observation entropy does not increase at all. Quite the contrary; as one species mutates into another, better fitted to its environment, order increases. As dust accumulates into rocks, planets and stars in the universe, order increases. As mankind (most decidedly a part of Nature) applies his brain to puzzling out how to build better houses and smarter computers and grow more nourishing food, order increases. Paul's error is to reverse the scientific method; he starts with a theory (the STT) and tries to impose it on the observed facts of life, finds it's a poor fit, and then blames the facts instead of trying to form a new theory (called perhaps a "Life Force Theory") to explain the decreasing entropy observed.

As to whether these various systems are "closed" or not, we have a big problem anyway; nobody has yet shown me whether the universe has (or can have!) a border or edge, nor how it was determined, nor what lies beyond it.

Meanwhile there comes the fascinating line of thought, greatly advanced by L K Samuels, that in human relationships just as in the natural world, order (in the sense of peace and harmony) is actually increased not when attempts are made to impose it, but rather when no such attempt is made at all and disorder or chaos is left to its own devices. His remarkable book In Defense of Chaos is much recommended, to Rosenberg and all ZGBloggers.

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