God or Natural Law: A False Dichotomy

A few weeks ago someone showed me a newspaper article entitled “New theory could prove how life began and disprove God”, which was published in the UK newspaper The Independent. Now I have, of course, heard media pronouncements of the nature published in this article frequently, reporters often seem to have a knack for making provocative pronouncements about the theological and philosophical implications of various theories (and one can usually take such prouncemants with a grain of salt), but this one caught my attention because of the unstated premise it contained. This premise is, I think, common in discussions about religion and science, which makes it worth addressing in its own right.

Michelangelo's 'God Creates Adam

The author’s commentary opens as follows:

“A new theory could answer the question of how life began – and throw out the need for God. A writer on the website of Richard Dawkins’ foundation says that the theory has put God “on the ropes” and has “terrified” Christians. It proposes that life did not emerge by accident or luck from a primordial soup and a bolt of lightning. Instead, life itself came about by necessity – it follows from the laws of nature and is as inevitable as rocks rolling downhill. …”

According to the author, the ‘new theory’ proposes that life arose from non-life by “natural necessity”, that is: according to the laws of nature. Interestingly, the author assumes the fairly standard account of ‘laws of nature’ whereby they are more than just regularities, they involve a kind of necessity that explains or grounds regularities.  The author draws the conclusion from the new theory that God does not exist.

Now the author is not exactly clear on why this conclusion follows. One argument he seems to grope towards is that the new theory provides all sorts of problems for belief in God because someone on Richard Dawkins’ website says it does.  I suspect, however, that – apart from simple affirmations of faith in Dawkins blog – the author has something a bit more sensible in mind in his thinking.

The premise is that: life arose from non-life, according to the laws of nature; the conclusion is that: God did not create life. The unstated assumption seems to that: if you can explain something by natural law then it follows that God did not do it.  Implicit in the reasoning is the assumption that appeals to natural law and God are rival and incompatible hypothesises; the truth of one excludes or rules out the other.

I think anyone familiar with the history of theological thought should find this assumption odd. For centuries theologians have postulated the existence of laws of nature because they believe God has decreed that his creation should behave in fixed and regular ways and hence we out expect to find such laws. This picture of the world was entrenched in Christian, Jewish and Islamic thought centuries before the rise of science.

This idea is  reflected in the very language of “laws” of nature and a “law-governed” universe. To say the universe is law-governed invokes a picture of a king or ruler issuing commands to the natural world, which the natural world promptly obeys. Now, of course, both Ancient and medieval people knew that the natural world did not literally obey, in the sense that it heard these commands and chose to act in conformity with them. The point is that God’s relationship to the natural world is very much like that of a king and obedient subject.  Just as a king will command that his subjects refrain from certain types of behaviour and will permit and require other types, God wills that nature will behave in certain types of ways and not in others. Because God is all powerful, what he wills nature to do, nature inevitably, by necessity, does.

Consider the following passage which comes from Chapter 20 of The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians of St. Clement of Rome:

“The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him, in no way hindering each other. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command, within their prescribed limits, and without any deviation. The fruitful earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and beast and all the living beings upon it, never hesitating, nor changing any of the ordinances which He has fixed. The unsearchable places of abysses, and the indescribable arrangements of the lower world, are restrained by the same laws. The vast unmeasurable sea, gathered together by His working into various basins, never passes beyond the bounds placed around it, but does as He has commanded. For He said, “Thus far shall you come, and your waves shall be broken within you.” The ocean, impassible to man, and the worlds beyond it, are regulated by the same enactments of the Lord.” [Emphasis mine]

Clement here observed what ancient people clearly knew, that the world displays important regularities: day and night follow each other in succession, seasons come according to a predictable pattern, when one plants seeds and waters them they grown into plants, the sea flows in regular tides, and so on.  Clement believed this regularity was due to the fact nature is governed by fixed laws. There are laws governing nature dictating that that these regularities must happen. These laws he identifies with enactments, commands, or ordinances, laid down by God.

This kind of position was not a kind of rear-guard action adopted by Theologians in the face of advancing science. Clement’s epistle to the Corinthians was written around 100 AD. His comments about natural laws are part is the oldest recorded Christian homily outside the New Testament. They were written some 1600 years before the rise of modern science.

It is this picture which stands behind modern scientific appeals to natural necessity and laws of nature. When early modern scientists began seeking explanations of various phenomena in terms of laws of nature they were not offering alternative way of conceptualising the world; they were, rather explicitly, appropriating this theological concept.

Two examples will illustrate this. Consider first, Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy informs us as follows: “On a number of occasions Boyle assures us that “God [is] the Author of the universe & free Establisher of the Laws of motion, whose generall Concourse is necessary to the conservation & Efficacy of every particular Physicall Agent”. Or consider, similarly, the preface to Newton, Principia by Newton’s associate Roger Coates:

“Without all doubt this world, so diversified with that variety of forms and motions we find in it, could arise from nothing but the perfect free will of God directing and presiding over it.

From this fountain it is that those laws, which we call the laws of Nature, have flowed, in which there appear many traces of the most wise contrivance, but not the least shadow of necessity. These therefore we must not seek from uncertain conjectures, but learn them from observations and experiments.”

Note the argument Coates makes here, the forms and motions in the world are due to God’s free will directing and guiding them to operate in certain ways. God’s doing of this is the reason there are fixed laws of nature. Given that God was free to will as he chose, one can discover which laws are in existence by looking at how God, in fact, has created the world. The point is that laws of nature were equated with God’s directing and guiding will. Understood in their historical context then, an appeal to a law of nature to explain some regularity or phenomena in nature are just appeals to God’s activities.

Returning now to the article I opened this post with, suppose following people like Clement or Newton and Boyle you think laws of nature are God’s decrees that the natural world will operate in certain ways. You then discover that there is a law of nature that means life emerged from non-life. What follows – that God decreed that life would arise from no- life and therefore it did? This refutes Theism how exactly?

Of course the sceptic on will no doubt rejoin that he does not accept the historical understanding of natural laws, and, given his understanding that laws of nature are not divine decrees and exist entirely distinct from and independent of God, then as he understands appeals to natural law, such appeals are not appeals to Gods activity.

This response does not help, at least not in this context. For starters, all that is needed to refute the assumption implicit in the article is that the Theistic understanding of laws of nature, sketched above, is coherent or logically possible. If it is, then an appeal to a law of nature is not inconsistent with claiming God did it. The fact the sceptic does not think God did it is irrelevant.

But, more importantly, this response, if anything, illustrates the problem. In order for the kind of argument being made in the article above to get off the ground people need to have already assumed that natural laws are not divine decrees imposed upon creation. They must already assume that a law-governed universe exists independently of God. Which means that they must have already rejected as false the dominant theistic conception of the world before they make the argument. To propose the argument, therefore, as showing that God did not create the world, or as a disproof of a theistic conception of the world, is to reason in a circle.

The upshot is that even if life arose from non-life by natural necessity then that does nothing to show that God did not create life on any traditional conception of theism. It simply tells us that God governs creation, such that, according to his will when certain conditions in nature hold, then life arises.

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