Re: [asa] natural laws and God

From: Don Winterstein <>
Date: Sat Dec 09 2006 - 11:25:12 EST

Ted wrote: "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 is what I call the religious view of nature and natural law; it implies that nothing is supernatural, just that God at times suspends the usual regularity of nature, which usual regularity is contingent on his will from femtosecond to femtosecond. This is perfectly acceptable, of course, for religious people, and I myself accept it with the understanding that evidences such as those of the fossil record suggest that God is reluctant to suspend the usual regularity. That is, he seems unwilling to manipulate nature in such a way as, for example, to make the trajectory of evolution appear other than haphazard. In other places I've referred to God's apparent unwillingness to manipulate things as his granting the world as much independence from himself as possible: He establishes his usual rules and lets the world run more or less freely under them. (This view eliminates most theodicy problems.)

The scientist's version of natural law, then, is simply a codification of the usual regularity. (By "scientist's version" I'm referring to what I perceive to be the consensus of the contemporary scientific community.) As you know, scientists generally do not regard such natural laws as contingent but, instead, fixed in the nature of things. So miracle in the sense I've recently used the word would refer to instances where God has suspended the usual regularity, instances that many if not most scientists would refer to as violating natural law, instances I've recently referred to as evidence of the application of "brute force."

But God could also make frequent changes in the direction of the world's evolution while at the same time avoiding suspending the usual regularity by manipulating quantum probabilities. However, this desire on the part of some Christians with scientific backgrounds to have a world with no instances of such divine brute force stems purely from esthetic considerations IMO; it doesn't make a hill of beans difference to me whether God uses brute force or manipulation of QM probabilities.

Much effort has been expended (wasted?) in attempts to explain how biblical miracles supposedly did not involve God's suspending the usual regularity but were the results of natural events. Miracles associated with the Exodus are treated this way, and Janice's preferred explanation of Lot's wife and salt is another example. They all involve huge doses of speculation, and I've found none convincing. Ultimately the efforts are futile, because you can't possibly explain all the biblical miracles in such ways. It's far more reasonable in many cases to attribute aspects of some accounts to legend, distortion and exaggeration through frequent retelling, or real miracle.


----- Original Message -----
  From: Ted Davis<>
  To:<> ;<> ; Don Winterstein<>
  Cc: asa<>
  Sent: Friday, December 08, 2006 7:23 AM
  Subject: [asa] natural laws and God

  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 ( 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 Sat Dec 9 11:25:25 2006

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