[asa] natural laws and God

From: Ted Davis <tdavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Fri Dec 08 2006 - 10:23:07 EST

Discussions of "natural laws" and divine freedom/sovereignty are
longstanding in Christian history. They are also longstanding in the
history of the ASA. I've been a member for 30 years, and I've seen/heard
this discussed throughout that period. There should be numerous references
to this in the archived issues of PSCF on our website (asa3.org). Janice
and others interested in this will find much helpful scholarship there. JP
Holding and other bloggers are only bringing this very important
conversation to a wider audience--which is a good thing, whether or not I
agree with any specific views they espouse.

Several years ago, with my colleague philosopher Robin Collins, I wrote an
essay on the history and philosophy of "scientific naturalism," in which we
discuss briefly some of this history. Let me quote from that essay, the
current version of which can be found here:


According to ... William of Ockham (ca. 1285-1349), God's absolute power
can do anything short of a logical contradiction, so the laws of nature are
not necessary truths. The order of nature is therefore contingent, with
observed regularities reflecting God's faithfulness in upholding the
creation as expressed through God's ordinary power, rather than any rational
necessity arising from the nature of things.
        This belief in the ongoing supernatural activity of the creator
became even stronger with the spread of Reformation doctrines about God's
absolute sovereignty, encouraging many early modern natural philosophers to
downplay the independence of nature from God and to advocate an
unambiguously empirical approach to scientific knowledge. As tools of the
divine will, matter and its properties had to be understood from the
phenomena, not from metaphysical first principles, giving empiricism a clear
theological foundation. For example, Robert Boyle (1627-1691), the most
influential publicist of mechanistic science, held that the laws by which
God governed matter were freely chosen, ruling out the possibility of an a
priori science of nature.
        Boyle's critique of the very ideas of nature and natural law in A
Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv'd Notion of Nature (1686) underscores
the general historical truth that the concept of natural law is
metaphysically ambivalent: either God or nature can be seen as the ultimate
agent behind the laws we observe in operation. Thus, for supernaturalists
like Boyle, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and Marin Mersenne (1588-1648),
miracles were defined as extraordinary acts of God outside the ordinary
course of nature, but the ordinary course of nature itself was understood to
be nothing other than the ordinary acts of God. Newton's belief that God
occasionally adjusts the motions of the planets is often misunderstood as
involving a "God-of-the-gaps," in which God is conceived to be a
"clockmaker" active only in extraordinary events that are inexplicable by
natural law. Rather, Newton believed that all natural events were divinely
caused, and he never endorsed the clock metaphor with which he is wrongly
associated. If supernaturalists emphasized the miraculous character of the
ordinary, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) took the opposite track, making God a
material being and endowing matter with activity and thought. In another
materialistic step, physicians such as William Harvey (1578-1657) and
Francis Glisson (1597-1677) endowed matter with sensation and treated
diseases as wholly natural disorders, in keeping with the tradition of a
profession that was often thought by contemporary commentators to exude the
faint odor of atheism.


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Received on Fri Dec 8 12:08:22 2006

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