Puritan Gems

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Science And Wisdom Part III

Natural Law: Providence Or Brute Fact?
"...he upholds the universe by the word of his power..." (Hebrews 1:3)
The "laws of nature" seem to be so consistent and universal that we tend to take them for granted.  When driving our vehicles, we don't stop and wonder if the laws of fluid dynamics and friction that caused our brakes to slow down and stop our cars in the past will still operate in the same manner the next time we need to stop.  Due to our oblivious approach to nature and our consideration of it's laws as merely brute fact, we seldom reflect upon the basis for such laws, or in the manner in which they are "discovered".  In addition, the idea of a miraculous event in which one of these laws could be changed or suspended goes against the tide of everyday observation.  Consider David Hume's objection to miraculous events.
"A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as could possibly be imagined." (David Hume - An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Of Miracles, Part I, 12)
This is the next point in which there is a considerable metaphysical distinction between the Christian and the Naturalistic worldview.  Naturalism not only tends to view the laws of nature as purely mechanical, but as brute facts that existed before and outside of the created order.
"Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life....with Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 BC– ca. 546 BC) about 2,600 years ago, that began to change. The idea arose that nature follows consistent principles that could be deciphered. And so began the long process of replacing the notion of the reign of gods with the concept of a universe that is governed by laws of nature, and created according to a blueprint we could someday learn to read." (Stephen Hawking - "The Grand Design", pp.86-92)
Hawking never explores the underlying basis for the "consistent principles" that nature follows, nor does he seek to explain how they "could be deciphered" given his view of the nature and origins of the human mind.  For the naturalist, these types of questions don't seem to matter.  Metaphysical discussions are to be avoided in science at all costs.  Yet these are very the points that Albert Einstein, himself no friend of Christianity, referred to as the "weakness of positivists and professional atheists".
"You may find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world to the degree that we may speak of such comprehensibility as a miracle or an eternal mystery. Well, a priori one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be in any way grasped through thought... The kind of order created, for example, by Newton's theory of gravity is of quite a different kind. Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by a human being, the success of such an enterprise presupposes an order in the objective world of a high degree, which one has no a priori right to expect. That is the miracle which grows increasingly persuasive with the increasing development of knowledge." (Albert Einstein, 1956, Lettres a Maurice Solovine).
Oddly enough, it was Hume himself who undermined any sort of inductive reasoning by concluding that "causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason but by experience", since we have no way of proving that the future will be like the past.
“...all the laws of nature, and all the operations of bodies without exception, are known only by experience… The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it… Why then should we give the preference to one [effect], which is no more consistent or conceivable than the rest? All our reasonings a priori will never be able to show us any foundation for this preference.  In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary. And even after it is suggested, the conjunction of it with the cause must appear equally arbitrary; since there are always many other effects, which, to reason, must seem fully as consistent and natural. In vain, therefore, should we pretend to determine any single event, or infer any cause or effect, without the assistance of observation and experience.” (David Hume - An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Sceptical Doubts Concerning the Operations of the Understanding, Part I, 9)
This is an insurmountable obstacle for the naturalist, since induction is an a priori requirement for the establishment of any universal law, and induction assumes nature to be uniform. But on what basis will an atheist make such an assumption?  Empiricism cannot account for inference, since any establishment of a universal law in an empiricist’s worldview would require universal sense experience. Omniscience can only be attributed to God, and our understanding of inference can only be revealed to us by an omniscient and omnipotent God.  Without God’s creative attributes and his providence, natural laws would be impossible, not to mention the ability of the human mind to comprehend such laws. Thus we must conclude that materialism has no basis for proving a natural law to be valid, much less provide a rational argument against miracles.  The fact that scientists use inference without hesitation is proof that they know God and his attributes.
"Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away. Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!" (Psalm 148:3-8).
All to often, Christians tend to view the laws of nature in the same way, as an independent mechanism set up by God in which He occasionally intervenes in order to perform a "miracle".  Such a view establishes a false dualism between the natural and supernatural worlds.  Scripture teaches no such distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds, nor does it allow for any part of the created order to operate outside of God's Providence.  God establishes "ordinances of the heavens" and "rule on the earth" (Job 38:33), and upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:3).  He decrees seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, (Genesis 8:22; Jeremiah 31:35-36; Psalm 74:16-17), makes his sun rise and sends rain (Matthew 5:45).  He makes Himself clearly known by the created order (Romans 1:20).  God sovereignly rules over the visible and invisible realms of creation as "...he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth;" (Daniel 4:35).  "...In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

It is God's creative attributes and Providence that give the laws of nature their law-like character.  The laws of nature are not simply mechanistic forces that operate outside of God's domain, but are an outworking of His sovereign rule.  Thus a miracle is merely an act of God which differs normal human experience, but is no more irrational than the laws of nature themselves.  Physicist and popular science writer Paul Davies offers this observation:
"In the ensuing three hundred years the theological dimension of science faded. People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature – the laws of physics – are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview."
The laws of nature, and thus science itself, are dependent upon the creative attribute and Providence of the Christian God.


Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

Hume himself realized that his philosophy led to the idea you cannot know anything. He then rejected this conclusion because it is impractical. If your philosophy leads to an admittedly impractical conclusion the logical step would be to throw out the whole thing and start over again. But Hume refused to do that.

Puritan Lad said...

True. This is the dead end for all unbelieving worldviews. Without an absolute, infallible standard, we will be left with the problem "infinite regress", totally unable to justify anything as true.

DannyM said...

Nice post, PL.

As you guys have noted, Hume rejected miracles using inductive reasoning, something which he knew (and admitted elsewhere) he had no rational basis to be doing. Such an irrational and self-defeating philosophy apparently did not concern Hume.