What are these "Laws of Nature"?

In a recent series of articles, James Arlandson engaged in a debate with philosopher David Hume and his successors on the question of whether the laws of nature preclude the possibility of miracles.


Being an experimental scientist, who has seen scientific laws and theories come and go, I have chosen to explore a more radical approach: the question of whether a true skeptic can believe that the laws of nature, considered as physical realities, can even exist."

The term 'laws of nature' can be interpreted in at least two conflicting ways [1]. A theist, believing in a supremely purposeful and intelligent God, regards our intelligence and purposefulness as feeble reflections of these same qualities in the God who made us. Therefore, since our best efforts at such qualities tend toward systematic orderliness, the theist can reasonably assume that God would be apt to establish the cosmos so that it acted in a supremely orderly and systematic way. One might even suppose, at least metaphorically, that such a God would establish and consistently abide by 'laws' through which the physical world operates and manifests itself to us.

In contrast, a skeptic who does not believe in such a God can have only one logically consistent position. For him, the 'laws of nature' do not really exist [2]. They are merely a convenient fiction for bookkeeping purposes, like 'net income' or 'balance of trade'-a useful but arbitrary way of describing, classifying and predicting observed physical phenomena.

This is because the skeptic has no justification for expecting that the universe to behave in an orderly and systematic way that can be expressed by laws. The only thing he can say is that, for reasons utterly unknown to him, past experience has shown that physical phenomena have consistently behaved in a way that can be expressed in a set of concise descriptions that have so far been reliable predictors of future events. But the skeptic hasn't a clue why this is so or what force or entity causes it to be so. As someone beautifully put it, "The laws of nature are not agencies but rather records of experience"-and the nature (or even the existence) of the corresponding 'agencies' is as yet undetected and unknown.

For all the skeptic knows, the universe might just as well have behaved in an unpredictable and chaotic way. In fact, it might begin to do so tomorrow. (Jack Vance depicted just such a world in, "The Men Return".) A true skeptic cannot be absolutely sure that the sun will rise tomorrow; he can only (with considerable confidence, based on extensive past experience) bet on it.

In short, contrary to the recent challenge of William Zeranski, the word "belief" is very appropriate for science. We "know", if we are careful and exacting enough, the data that we have observed, but we only "believe" or "hope" that this body of data conforms to the laws of nature as we perceive or imagine them and that future data will continue to do so.

And sometimes we believe wrongly, as when Einstein showed that Newton's 'laws' were not quite right when applied to high relative velocities. In other cases, old discarded concepts, such as phlogiston [3] or continental drift, are revived and, on the basis of new data, believed in once again.

These two conflicting viewpoints about the laws of nature have a far reaching effect on our way of looking at the world [4]. When we apply them to the subject of miracles, we are forced to conclude that Hume's position is untenable.

The theist, to the extent that he thinks he understands God, can imagine cases where God deliberately abrogates one or more of his own laws for a time so as to achieve a specific desired goal. This view is consistent with the observation that nearly all reasonably substantiated cases of miracles tend, often quite obviously, to be benevolent.

On the other hand, the skeptic finds himself deprived of all grounds for denying the possibility of miracles. If he has no way of explaining why there should be any laws of nature, he cannot object to reports of certain events occasionally failing to conform to them.  If he doesn't know the mechanism or agency by which the laws of nature are made to operate, he cannot be sure that the mechanism works perfectly. Perhaps there are defects in the clockwork, so that a gear occasionally catches or a wheel slips, and a 'miracle' results.

The skeptic is instead burdened with the obligation of designating some alternative to God as the source of his precious laws of nature. It is the laws themselves that appear miraculous. What mysterious force prevents the physical world from being capriciously chaotic, as in Vance's story?

What often happens is that, since the skeptic refuses to believe in a law-abiding God, he is at least subconsciously compelled to invent his own god-or rather, almost invariably, goddess.  Chesterton chided the Darwinists for their incessant personification of nature, (or rather Nature):
"The reader is to be impressed and deluded by the vision of a vast stone goddess sitting on a mountain throne, and pointing at a particular frog or rabbit saying, in tones of thunder, that this alone is to survive..."
But I dare to suggest that, deep down in their subconsciouses, some evolutionists really did harbor a half-formed belief in such a goddess, to satisfy their need for a source of their laws of Nature. This extravagant suggestion is weirdly substantiated by the modern cult of Gaia -the planet Earth regarded as a living being or mother goddess - a cult started by a scientist and adhered to, metaphorically or literally, by many scientists.

Confronted by this superstition of the skeptics, we can only hope that Nature, or Gaia, can find it in her heart to bestow an occasional miracle to us poor mortals.    

____________________

NOTES:

[1] There are of course other viewpoints. A Brahmanist or Buddhist considers our physical world to be a mere illusion, governed by no laws except those of dreams. Also, as Bertrand Russelll suggested in The Analysis of Mind, "There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that "remembered" a wholly unreal past." But these viewpoints would make any consideration of miracles vs. the laws of nature irrelevant and meaningless.

[2] In the same sense, "energy" doesn't really exist-as Richard Feynman pointed out in the parable of the child's blocks.

[3] One can legitimately claim that present day thermodynamicists believe in phlogiston, only they now call it "free energy".

[4] I fearfully anticipate that someone may take the arguments presented here and try to apply them to the issue of Intelligent Design. I advise against this. Although there is a superficial resemblance in subject matter, the crucial arguments for and against the theory of Intelligent Design depend upon completely different considerations that are not discussed here.
In a recent series of articles, James Arlandson engaged in a debate with philosopher David Hume and his successors on the question of whether the laws of nature preclude the possibility of miracles.


Being an experimental scientist, who has seen scientific laws and theories come and go, I have chosen to explore a more radical approach: the question of whether a true skeptic can believe that the laws of nature, considered as physical realities, can even exist."

The term 'laws of nature' can be interpreted in at least two conflicting ways [1]. A theist, believing in a supremely purposeful and intelligent God, regards our intelligence and purposefulness as feeble reflections of these same qualities in the God who made us. Therefore, since our best efforts at such qualities tend toward systematic orderliness, the theist can reasonably assume that God would be apt to establish the cosmos so that it acted in a supremely orderly and systematic way. One might even suppose, at least metaphorically, that such a God would establish and consistently abide by 'laws' through which the physical world operates and manifests itself to us.

In contrast, a skeptic who does not believe in such a God can have only one logically consistent position. For him, the 'laws of nature' do not really exist [2]. They are merely a convenient fiction for bookkeeping purposes, like 'net income' or 'balance of trade'-a useful but arbitrary way of describing, classifying and predicting observed physical phenomena.

This is because the skeptic has no justification for expecting that the universe to behave in an orderly and systematic way that can be expressed by laws. The only thing he can say is that, for reasons utterly unknown to him, past experience has shown that physical phenomena have consistently behaved in a way that can be expressed in a set of concise descriptions that have so far been reliable predictors of future events. But the skeptic hasn't a clue why this is so or what force or entity causes it to be so. As someone beautifully put it, "The laws of nature are not agencies but rather records of experience"-and the nature (or even the existence) of the corresponding 'agencies' is as yet undetected and unknown.

For all the skeptic knows, the universe might just as well have behaved in an unpredictable and chaotic way. In fact, it might begin to do so tomorrow. (Jack Vance depicted just such a world in, "The Men Return".) A true skeptic cannot be absolutely sure that the sun will rise tomorrow; he can only (with considerable confidence, based on extensive past experience) bet on it.

In short, contrary to the recent challenge of William Zeranski, the word "belief" is very appropriate for science. We "know", if we are careful and exacting enough, the data that we have observed, but we only "believe" or "hope" that this body of data conforms to the laws of nature as we perceive or imagine them and that future data will continue to do so.

And sometimes we believe wrongly, as when Einstein showed that Newton's 'laws' were not quite right when applied to high relative velocities. In other cases, old discarded concepts, such as phlogiston [3] or continental drift, are revived and, on the basis of new data, believed in once again.

These two conflicting viewpoints about the laws of nature have a far reaching effect on our way of looking at the world [4]. When we apply them to the subject of miracles, we are forced to conclude that Hume's position is untenable.

The theist, to the extent that he thinks he understands God, can imagine cases where God deliberately abrogates one or more of his own laws for a time so as to achieve a specific desired goal. This view is consistent with the observation that nearly all reasonably substantiated cases of miracles tend, often quite obviously, to be benevolent.

On the other hand, the skeptic finds himself deprived of all grounds for denying the possibility of miracles. If he has no way of explaining why there should be any laws of nature, he cannot object to reports of certain events occasionally failing to conform to them.  If he doesn't know the mechanism or agency by which the laws of nature are made to operate, he cannot be sure that the mechanism works perfectly. Perhaps there are defects in the clockwork, so that a gear occasionally catches or a wheel slips, and a 'miracle' results.

The skeptic is instead burdened with the obligation of designating some alternative to God as the source of his precious laws of nature. It is the laws themselves that appear miraculous. What mysterious force prevents the physical world from being capriciously chaotic, as in Vance's story?

What often happens is that, since the skeptic refuses to believe in a law-abiding God, he is at least subconsciously compelled to invent his own god-or rather, almost invariably, goddess.  Chesterton chided the Darwinists for their incessant personification of nature, (or rather Nature):
"The reader is to be impressed and deluded by the vision of a vast stone goddess sitting on a mountain throne, and pointing at a particular frog or rabbit saying, in tones of thunder, that this alone is to survive..."
But I dare to suggest that, deep down in their subconsciouses, some evolutionists really did harbor a half-formed belief in such a goddess, to satisfy their need for a source of their laws of Nature. This extravagant suggestion is weirdly substantiated by the modern cult of Gaia -the planet Earth regarded as a living being or mother goddess - a cult started by a scientist and adhered to, metaphorically or literally, by many scientists.

Confronted by this superstition of the skeptics, we can only hope that Nature, or Gaia, can find it in her heart to bestow an occasional miracle to us poor mortals.    

____________________

NOTES:

[1] There are of course other viewpoints. A Brahmanist or Buddhist considers our physical world to be a mere illusion, governed by no laws except those of dreams. Also, as Bertrand Russelll suggested in The Analysis of Mind, "There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that "remembered" a wholly unreal past." But these viewpoints would make any consideration of miracles vs. the laws of nature irrelevant and meaningless.

[2] In the same sense, "energy" doesn't really exist-as Richard Feynman pointed out in the parable of the child's blocks.

[3] One can legitimately claim that present day thermodynamicists believe in phlogiston, only they now call it "free energy".

[4] I fearfully anticipate that someone may take the arguments presented here and try to apply them to the issue of Intelligent Design. I advise against this. Although there is a superficial resemblance in subject matter, the crucial arguments for and against the theory of Intelligent Design depend upon completely different considerations that are not discussed here.