The above calculations are not necessarily in conflict with each other, since it is possible that they each could represent a complementary aspect of the same physical degrees of freedom. Nevertheless, it seems far from clear as to whether we should think of these degrees of freedom as residing outside of the black hole (e.g., in the thermal atmosphere), on the horizon (e.g., in Chern–Simons states), or inside the black hole (e.g., in degrees of freedom associated with what classically corresponds to the singularity deep within the black hole).

The following puzzle [104] may help bring into focus some of the issues related to the degrees of freedom responsible for black hole entropy and, indeed, the meaning of entropy in quantum gravitational physics. As we have already discussed, one proposal for accounting for black hole entropy is to attribute it to the ordinary entropy of its thermal atmosphere. If one does so, then, as previously mentioned in Section 5 above, one has the major puzzle of explaining why the quantum field degrees of freedom near the horizon contribute enormously to entropy, whereas the similar degrees of freedom that are present throughout the universe – and are locally indistinguishable from the thermal atmosphere – are treated as mere “vacuum fluctuations” which do not contribute to entropy. But perhaps an even greater puzzle arises if we assign a negligible entropy to the thermal atmosphere (as compared with the black hole area, ), as would be necessary if we wished to attribute black hole entropy to other degrees of freedom. Consider a black hole enclosed in a reflecting cavity which has come to equilibrium with its Hawking radiation. Surely, far from the black hole, the thermal atmosphere in the cavity must contribute an entropy given by the usual formula for a thermal gas in (nearly) flat spacetime. However, if the thermal atmosphere is to contribute a negligible total entropy (as compared with ), then at some proper distance from the horizon much greater than the Planck length, the thermal atmosphere must contribute to the entropy an amount that is much less than the usual result () that would be obtained by a naive counting of modes. If that is the case, then consider a box of ordinary thermal matter at infinity whose energy is chosen so that its floating point would be less than this distance from the horizon. Let us now slowly lower the box to its floating point. By the time it reaches its floating point, the contents of the box are indistinguishable from the thermal atmosphere, so the entropy within the box also must be less than what would be obtained by usual mode counting arguments. It follows that the entropy within the box must have decreased during the lowering process, despite the fact that an observer inside the box still sees it filled with thermal radiation and would view the lowering process as having been adiabatic. Furthermore, suppose one lowers (or, more accurately, pushes) an empty box to the same distance from the black hole. The entropy difference between the empty box and the box filled with radiation should still be given by the usual mode counting formulas. Therefore, the empty box would have to be assigned a negative entropy.

I believe that in order to gain a better understanding of the degrees of freedom responsible for black hole entropy, it will be necessary to achieve a deeper understanding of the notion of entropy itself. Even in flat spacetime, there is far from universal agreement as to the meaning of entropy – particularly in quantum theory – and as to the nature of the second law of thermodynamics. The situation in general relativity is considerably murkier [103], as, for example, there is no unique, rigid notion of “time translations” and classical general relativistic dynamics appears to be incompatible with any notion of “ergodicity”. It seems likely that a new conceptual framework will be required in order to have a proper understanding of entropy in quantum gravitational physics.

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