Life in the Context of Thermodynamics

I remember now that I made a wordpress account for voicing out my philosophical inquiries regarding the nature of God. It was an emotionally stressful night that finally led me to write a blog entry. However, I let this account gather dust because I was afraid that the people who raised me as a conservative Catholic would happen upon this page and be extremely disappointed. Perhaps my high school self would be disappointed as well. But in time, I have learned to accept that I am an agnostic. I’ve heard most of the arguments for the existence of a God and I’ve pondered on them (mostly before exams because my brain loves to distract itself with philosophical musings when it’s working on full blast).

One of the arguments I used to hear often was that life is too complex to have arisen on its own. There must be an intelligent designer that engineered the mechanisms of life processes. I found this reasoning disconcerting because it assumes a being that we can neither prove or disprove to exist. We just need to accept the limitations of Science in answering this fundamental question regarding life.Even if I try forgetting this question, it always comes back to haunt me.

How do you reconcile the complexity of life with the Physical laws that govern the universe?

I recall even asking this question when I had the dengue fever. In Chem 16, we were taught the basics of thermochemistry and it was then that I wondered how the 2nd law of thermodynamics seem to contradict life itself. The entropy of the universe is always increasing but why is life incredibly complex? In retrospect, I think this question stems from my failure to completely understand the second law. Organisms are open systems where energy and matter can flow freely; the net entropy of the universe still increases despite a local decrease in entropy.

This is where non-equilibrium thermodynamics come into play. I was introduced partly to this concept while reading Biochemistry by Mary Campbell and was completely enamored by it when I read quanta magazine’s article about Jeremy England’s take on this issue (https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140122-a-new-physics-theory-of-life/). According to him, life is not just consistent with the laws of thermodynamics; they DEMAND life to exist.

In my capacity as a biology student to understand what was going on, I think that when a system is pushed very far away from equilibrium through an input of energy, it can organize itself into something more complex so as to dissipate excess energy more efficiently. To illustrate, think of a mixture of biooligomers in solution. The number of favorable reactions in that system is dwarfed by millions of reactions that happen within a bacteria of comparable mass. Hence, the net entropy in living organisms is far greater than that of biooligomers in solution.

I think it’s humbling to think of life simply as efficient machines to increase the entropy of the universe. A lot of people would not probably agree with me when I say I find this extremely satisfying to think about. Here is a set of fundamental laws that can explain the dynamic complexity of life in a few set of equations. While it doesn’t answer the very important question of why the universe had such low entropy during its inception (was it because of God? :O), it does put life in a different context–an important framework that facilitates scientific inquiry.

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