The discussion on my recent divine action piece has gone in a direction that is quite detailed. That’s all to the good, as there are not many blogs where serious work along these lines gets discussed. I’m aware, though, that for myself and probably many regular readers we’re operating beyond the limits of our knowledge of Aristotle, Aquinas and so on. Stick with it, though – the more we all get even slightly familiar with these metaphysical issues , which are central to the science-faith debate, the richer the result will be for all. Today, though, I want to revisit a more basic point that is probably still a difficulty for some of us.
That is, the idea that maybe extrinsic “laws of nature” is a bad way of thinking about scientific reality, in comparison with some variation on the older Aristotelian idea that the properties they describe are intrinsic to the natures of material things themselves. That’s what led to the more detailed discussions about powers, forms, essences and so on in the other post.
The basic point is that it’s pretty hard to conceive of what or where a “law of nature” actually is, and infinitely more so in atheistic science. Whereas it makes sense in either case to conceive of properties embodied in the things that actually act or are acted upon. An example, partly analogical (or at least scientifically dubious!) may help explain this to the bewildered.
That example is Moore’s Law, celebrating its fiftieth birthday this month. This is the “law” that says that the density of transistors that it is possible to pack into a circuit board will double approximately very two years. In fact, it was based on the observation of Intel’s Gordon Moore (who originally put the doubling period at a year, but later revised it). In either case, he was describing, and predicting, an exponential rise, which has persisted up until the present time and is illustrated by the difference in size, capacity and speed between a compact computer of the sixties and an Apple Watch.
It’s probably doubtful that anyone actually involved in computer technology has thought of Moore’s law as a true “law of nature”, in the sense of an abstract rule of the universe, like e=mc^2, somewhere “out there”, whose divine policing semiconductor technology has to obey. Or maybe some do, but if so they’re clearly wrong.
For a start, the limiting factors are that the law could only have come into existence when semiconductors were invented – or more significantly, when the commercial need and the industrial base to decrease their size kicked in. And it will, inevitably, cease to be true when the physical constraints of matter are approached, for it would appear that transistors cannot be reduced in size beyond the molecular scale, and they’re not far off that already. So what Moore was really observing was a highly constrained part of the human bit of the cosmos, and any patterns he saw reflected the internal nature of human theoretical ideas of computing, of an increasingly lucrative industry prompted by both the perception of new applications and mass-marketing, and of various more or less fortuitous factors like a stable world economy: a Nuclear War in the early seventies would have instantly falsified the law.
Furthermore, Moore’s Law has become a largely self-fulfilling prophecy, because it soon formed the basis for the R&D targets corporations like Intel set themselves.
But the key point is that within its limitations, any truth of Moore’s Law is entirely dependent on the “internal” nature of human activities. These activities (which in this case, being human, include free choices) impose the observed pattern on reality. They do not “obey” an external law, except to the extent that humans have formulated the pattern as a law and chosen to obey it in their industrial strategies.
Nevertheless, the fact that there is a widespread knowledge of Moore’s Law demonstrates that law-talk can be a helpful way of understanding and abstracting the relationships between the entities involved (ie people, companies, materials etc). But I hope we can agree that in this case, it’s literally a legal fiction – a way of handling reality, and in no way a description of reality itself.
The application to natural science ought to be obvious. If laws are useful but fictional in semiconductor development, they may in principle be so in natural science. They may be a purely human construction. And given the problems in making sense of what such laws might actually be, apart from the direct commands to completely inert matter of an “occasionalist” Deity, there is a very good case for arguing that they are purely human conveniences. It’s a lot more likely that the internal properties of entities, acting in predictable ways, impose patterns on the universe. I’m not sure how practicable it would be to reformulate the whole of mathematical science on such an assumption – those like Aristotle who originated it predate mathematical science. Perhaps it would be possible, but unwieldy. Perhaps it would provide new insights.
But in terms of our conception of the universe, it is a radical reversal of the corpuscular approach of the seventeenth century, in which matter was a mass of inert particles governed by God’s external laws. Instead, matter becomes a rich web of specific properties and powers, which to the Christian both originate from, and may be (without prejudice to their reality) individually governed by, God.
When one comes to think of it, the analogy of “divine laws of nature” with “God’s divine law to man” was never particularly good. In the New Testament, and also in the Old if ones theology is more than superficial, God’s Law was intended to be something written in human hearts, not something imposed externally by God on inert souls. In the Garden, it is conceived that by nature mankind was in congruence with God’s will for him – something we see supremely in the man Jesus, whose freedom consisted of obeying his Father’s will at all times, saying exactly what God told him to say and so on. The work of grace in the New Covenant is to write God’s law on our hearts, creating us anew in Christ’s likeness. Sin is not so much disobedience to an external Law, but bondage to a perverted intrinsic nature.
Material things, lacking freedom of will, will always be true to their natures. And so the old idea of “natures” in science is actually closer to the biblical concept of law than is the idea of “laws of nature” that modern science borrowed from the Bible.
Whether Robert Boyle would be convinced by that argument I don’t know – but if he lived now I guess both his science and his theology would have developed.