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Are natural laws in conflict with Judeo-Christian theism?
David H. Bailey
Updated 31 March 2019 (c) 2019
A principal source of contention for many religious believers today is the scientific notion that our world and universe is largely, if not exclusively, governed by natural laws. Many believe that such a notion utterly negates any possibility for a supernatural being, and thus is tantamount to a declaration of atheism. Such concerns are reminiscent of the famous story when French mathematician-scholar Pierre Simon Laplace, who made pivotal contributions in the theory of planetary motion, went to Napoleon to present a copy of his work. Napoleon received it with the remark, "M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace responded, "I had no need of that hypothesis." [RouseBall1960, pg. 417-418].
Are natural laws in conflict with Judeo-Christian theism?
However, numerous theologians, as well as numerous God-believing scientists, see no need for conflict here. For example, noted biologist and Franciscan Priest Francisco Ayala wrote [Ayala2007, pg. 175]:
Similarly, at the personal level of the individual, I can believe that I am God's creature without denying that I developed from a single cell in my mother's womb by natural processes. In theological parlance, God may act through secondary causes. For the believer the providence of God impacts personal life and world events through natural causes.
Such sentiments are hardly new, limited to scientists or limited to "liberal" denominations. In fact, such sentiments were first expressed 1600 years ago by Saint Augustine: "God, the Author and Creator of all natures does nothing contrary to nature; for what is done by Him who appoints all natural order and measure and proportion must be natural in every case." [Augustine1887, pg. 321-322]. LDS theologians Parley P. Pratt and James E. Talmage expressed similar views in the 19th and 20th centuries [Pratt1891, pg. 102; Talmage1961, pg. 220], respectively:
Among the popular errors of modern times, an opinion prevails that miracles are events which transpire contrary to the laws of nature, that they are effects without a cause. If such is the fact, then, there never has been a miracle, and there never will be one. The laws of nature are the laws of truth. Truth is unchangeable, and independent in its own sphere. A law of nature never has been broken. And it is an absolute impossibility that such law ever should be broken.
Miracles are commonly regarded as occurrences in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable. However, as human understanding of these laws is at best but imperfect, events strictly in accordance with natural law may appear contrary thereto. The entire constitution of nature is founded on system and order.
God of the gaps
Theologians also point out that an insistence on seeking scientifically unexplained phenomena, as evidence for a supernatural God, leads directly to a "God of the gaps" theology, wherein God is sought in the gaps that exist in scientific knowledge at a given point in time. Experience has shown that such an approach is tantamount to theological suicide, as science continues to move forward and fills many of the gaps that existed in previous years. As Catholic theologian-philosopher John Haught wrote, "we [should] avoid making room for any insertion of a god-of-the-gaps into the dark regions of human ignorance that naturalistic explanation may eventually illuminate." [Haught1995, pg. 150]. For additional discussion, see
God of the gaps.
Origins of modern science
It is also worth pointing out that the lawful nature of Western monotheism provided a very favorable context for the emergence and flourishing of modern science. As Haught noted, "By grounding the natural order in the rationality of a personal God, theism conditioned the Western mind over the course of centuries for the kind of faith in natural order and cosmic coherence that scientists have to take with them into their work." [Haught1995, pg. 46]. Along this line, British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, "Faith in reason is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery. The faith in the order of nature which made possible the growth of science is a particular example of a deeper faith." [Whitehead1967, pg. 18]. Finally, contemporary British physicist-astronomer John Barrow has noted [Barrow2007, pg. 18]:
Our monotheistic traditions reinforce the assumption that the Universe is at root a unity, that it is not governed by different legislation in different places, neither the residue of some clash of the Titans wrestling to impose their arbitrary wills upon the nature of things, nor the compromise of some cosmic committee. Our Western religious tradition also endows us with the assumption that things are governed by a logic that exists independently of those things, that laws are externally imposed as though they were the decrees of a transcendent divine legislator.
Why are our minds able to discover the laws of nature?
Indeed, such considerations underscore a deep and awe-inspiring mystery. Why are our minds, the product of natural evolution, able to investigate, discover and comprehend the laws of the universe to which we belong? As Barrow writes elsewhere in the same book, "A more interesting problem is the extent to which the brain is qualitatively adapted to understand the Universe. Why should its categories of thought and understanding be able to cope with the scope and nature of the real world? Why should the Theory of Everything be written in a 'language' that our minds can decode? Why has the process of natural selection so over-endowed us with mental faculties that we can understand the whole fabric of the Universe far beyond anything required for our past and present survival?" [Barrow2007, pg. 203].
For additional discussion, see
God of the gaps and