Commenting on an Uncommon Descent thread about chance, I used the example of tossing 1000 heads in a row with a coin as being evidence, without any further information, of design. It was the old argument that strictly, even miracles are likely to be indistinguishable from chance except by their having a specific meaning and greater improbability. The division between miracle and chance, as I said there, is theologically somewhat of a false dichotomy, as is all talk of divine intervention. And that’s because classical theology attributes all actions in the Universe to God as first cause. You can’t intervene in what you’re already doing.
Take that coin example. Let’s suppose that there is no discernible physical cause for the constant run of “heads”. The basic choice would be between “chance”, and divine action of indeterminate type (let’s exclude aliens or ghosts for the sake of argument). Of the first, there’s an interesting quote in R J Russell’s Cosmology from William Pollard, going back to 1958 (though B B Warfield said much the same in the nineteenth century):
Chance as such simply cannot be the cause or reason for anything happening.
Instead, as Russell explains, “it stands for our ignorance of hidden, but real, causes. Thus, since science knows it cannot discover them, it makes sense to posit God as providing the ultimate cause for particular natural events.” Chance, in other words, defaults ultimately to divine action anyway, if classical theism (and biblical Yahwism) is true.
Let’s suppose for a moment, not only that one had a run of 1000 heads, but that every time any coin were tossed, it came up heads, and that, once more, no physical explanation could be found. That would actually take the phenomenon from the category of “chance” or “miracle” to being a law of nature, simply because God did the same thing every time.
Why do we not find laws of this kind, then? Some would say we do, such as Murphy’s Law which, in one iteration, says that buttered toast will always fall face downwards on expensive carpets, but face up on vinyl. But the real reason there is no Law of Heads is that God is both rational and efficient. He limits natural laws to a very few ultimately simple, and useful, principles. Even those are apparently arbitrary, though, which is the background to cosmic fine tuning.
Is that idea of natural law as divine habit foolishly naive? Russell thinks not, to a surprising extent for a science and faith writer. In the first place he casts doubt on the ultimate validity of natural laws anyway:
First of all, most scholars recognize that the actual laws of nature – if there are such laws – are only partially and provisionally represented by the laws contained in particular scientific theories such as quantum mechanics; whether we will ever discover the actual laws is a debatable question.”
Maybe “habit” isn’t such a bad description after all. But he goes on to say that, “assuming there are such actual laws”, some scholars see them as platonic realities which natural processes have to “obey”, but others as “descriptions of what are either simply natural regularities or, perhaps underlying these, the causal efficacy of nature itself.” This latter sounds even more like “habit”, and it is the position Russell himself prefers.
But in both interpretations, he says, the theological perspective would be the same. They…
…are due ultimately to God’s faithful and trustworthy action in creating the world ex nihilo.
So far that sounds like the typical “statistical deist” position so often seen on BioLogos. But he goes on in a way clearly faithful to classical theism:
God’s action as Creator is accomplished both as a whole and at each moment and, through such faithful and trustworthy action, the world is given its natural regularities as described by the laws of nature. In a trinitarian doctrine of God, these natural regularities and the intelligibility of nature are a result of the world being created theough the second Person of the Trinity, the λογος of God (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2).
This is the ultimate hands-on creation, the hands in question being (as I said in the series on Christological Creation) those of our loving King and Saviour.
In Russell’s estimation, as in mine, such a view makes it absolutely legitimate for God, in his active ongoing purpose, to turn up a “tails” from time to time. It’s the exception that proves the rule. But in fact Russell goes on to explain why he doesn’t customarily speak like that, and often talks about laws as principles that nature obeys. His explanation is that he has undertaken to “play the game” [his quotes] of theology and science fairly. To say that “the laws are mere descriptions and cannot apply apodically or normatively in all cases” is best used sparingly, not because it is false but because “it threatens to end the discussion with science.”
Whether I agree with this “non-realist natural lawism” I’m not sure. But it would be good if more people realised the nature of the literal game that’s being played in science-faith dialogue.