Law, natures and freedom (1)

Freedom, in both human free-will terms and in the rather nebulous “free nature” view of modern theistic evolution, has some kind of integral relationship with God’s law. God’s moral law, especially with regard to judgement, seems largely a no-go area in the science-faith field. But “God’s law” in terms of “the laws of nature” is often referenced regarding nature’s freedom, and it’s not immediately clear how they relate. I think the mental picture is of scientific laws providing a regulated environment in which nature can prosper, much as the laws of a civilised nation, written in parliamentary statutes or town hall resolutions, permit a society free to be productive and fruitful.

The idea of scientific laws was a direct import of Christian ideas into early-modern science, perhaps arising from the well-known “two books” theology of Francis Bacon. Just as God had ordered men’s affairs by the Mosaic Law, so he had ordered nature’s by similar statutes. A small number of Bible references (eg Job 38.33, Jer 33.25) paint such a picture, though it should be noted that God pictures his relationship to nature in many other ways too, so we should be careful to treat it more than metaphorically.

Is it, in fact, the best way to envisage the regularity of nature scientifically? Where, other than in God’s mind of course, do scientific laws actually reside? After all, in human terms a law is an abstract rule kept in a book or a government building, which restricts or prescribes how we should behave. If a foreigner moves into town, he’s bound by the same, external, laws as the native. But there’s no library or parliament building in the universe where one can go to look at nature’s laws. What we’re actually describing as “law” might, I suggest, be more helpfully conceived by the Aristotelian idea of the intrinsic natures of each entity in the universe.

Aristotle said that it is the nature of heavy things to fall downwards to earth, whereas we conceive a universal external force acting on all things equally according to a law somewhere in the space-time continuum. Aristotle’s science is obsolete, but we could restate it in terms of all massive particles (or waves, or perhaps “fields”) having within their nature the same property of being attracted to other massive objects according to the gravitational constant set within each one. In one view the same law acts on everything in the universe – in the other, every massive particle is created with the same nature regarding gravity. In the first view, if you removed all the matter of the universe the laws would still be there somehow (Lawrence Krauss seems to have that idea with his quantum vacuum); in the second, there are no laws separable from the different natures of actual entities themselves.

So in that view if a lump of matter from another universe came through a wormhole into our atmosphere, and had a nature with a different gravitational constant, it would fall at a different speed, rather than obey our “law”. That’s a difficult one to test, admittedly. The universality of the laws we find would therefore point not to God imposing one set of rules across the cosmos, but to his making huge populations of the same kinds of things.

The implication of this is that “nature” is not a free entity bounded by the minimum number of necessary external rules, but a collective of entities whose behaviour is entirely dependent on their created natures. So for a stone to rise on its own would not depend on “breaking” the law of gravity, but ceasing to have the nature of a stone (or better, of a collection of massive particles). Its freedom is to be what it is – no more, and no less. Each part of nature gains its significance from how God made it. A boson is not a meson (I don’t think – physics is a complicated business), nor would it want to be. It’s as stupid to ask why it is not free to be something else as it is to complain about being a human rather than an oat. If freedom comes into it at all, it is in terms of that old Anglican phrase about discipleship, “whose service is perfect freedom.” If one is acting according to ones God given nature, then one is truly free. But “freedom” even in that sense is still a rather inappropriate word for a molecule or a cell: nothing in its nature prevents it being acted on by other beings.

There is nothing, of course, in all this to deny the possibility of actual, God-given natures of a higher order than mere matter-energy fields. Classical philosophers talked about the natures of dogs, etc – and if there are “laws” that apply only to dogs, then it implies that their natures are also unique. In Aristotelian terms this constitutes dogs’ “form”, and is the result, literally, of “in-form-ation” – I leave you to reflect on any link to DNA, to Intelligent Design and so on. But nature’s “autonomy” consists in each part of it operating on its own inbuilt principles (ie God-given “laws” for itself), not in being free from anything else, or from God, or bound by some external thing called a law of nature.

Comparing that to the analogous human case reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s famous and wilfully misunderstood quotation, “There is no such thing as society”. Her aim was to show that “society” wasn’t an abstract principle “out there”, but the sum of our interacting individual human natures. Even so, our individual histories are very much affected by the effect of the totality of society: and in the same way, individual particles do interesting things because of their interactions with the totality of the universe.

If God has given, say, organic molecules natures that lead to some kind of evolutionary process, then all well and good. But such natures would have to be very circumscribed and complex, and they are not a necessary extrapolation from some principle of “freedom” owed by God to whatever he has made. If he were to make no such natures, and create each thing de novo, the universe would still be full of creatures acting according to their natures towards God’s ends. In no way would the outworking of any creature’s nature (or autonomy as I have described it above) constitute “co-creation”: God will not give his glory to another. “There is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

That seems a logical place to pause for comment. Depending how that goes, next time I’d like to look at what parallels there are, or are not, with human nature and human freedom, starting from this view of the universe’s regularity centred on “natures” rather than on “laws” as such.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Law, natures and freedom (1)

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    A few thoughts that may be of interest; I apologise in advance for the length of this post, but often short comments leave out a great deal out, leading to many additional posts.

    Scientific law, or laws of nature, includes outcomes to the human senses (and to reason) from nature’s activities, or phenomena – that may be quantified by observation and hypothesis, suggesting an instrumentalist attribute of a human being in a world of objects. I would argue against instrumentalism, but I believe a non-passionate view, or an indifferent response to nature, is reasonable. Observations of nature and hypothesis by scientists are activities and cannot be a “law-of-nature”; a human being measures, weighs, calculates etc., or is ‘active’ in thinking and measuring. Ultimately it is difficult to differentiate between the activities of a human being and of an object; all consist in a dynamic state, and thus considered explicable via the scientific method. It is thus erroneous to believe that we humans are able to bring a law into existence when providing a theory, a hypothesis, or a formulation. However, the subject-object or ‘both are in the world’, arises from a human being, and actualises into language activity, which leads to a differentiation between the world of phenomenon/ dynamics and that of human reality – although it may be reasoned that both are activities and thus explicable in time and space by the scientific method.

    If nature’s laws are known, a person’s actions and anticipated consequences should be explicable, but may not necessarily be changed simply through choice. The dynamics of any natural system would be the same whether these were, or were not, understood – even if one were to think to conform to such dynamics. A ‘law’ as something that may be considered as arising from reason applied to an object is unnecessary. It may appear, however, that ‘mega-knowledge’ is sought to enable a human being to attain to a complete understanding of the phenomena and its objects, and this may provide an intellectual perception, or inference, that objects behave according to some principle; or, objects are required to be as they are by a ‘something in their being-ness’. A scientific law is an articulation, or combination, of words and symbols, to provide meaning of the world of objects to human beings. It is unnecessary to argue that a law is present (or it has been added by the human being to the universe) to ensure the universe is what it is. We may reason that the universe is ‘lawful’ because it continues to be what it is, and also we may conclude that there is finality (but I think this is derived from the teachings of Faith).

    It has been suggested we may see the ‘mind of God’ in the universe, but a discussion on the meaning of the word ‘God’ negates such a view. The impact of the vast universe on the human senses, however, may be overwhelming, as we seek to understand its beginning and end. The universe does ‘talk’ to us of God in its silence. This is shown in Psalms 19:1-14. The writer of this psalm shows us that it is the law of God that he understands, and through the law of God, he hopes to be free from error and those that indulge in error. The universe cannot reveal God. Our senses may be influenced by the silence, and our reason may comprehend the glory of God that the heaven declares; the glory of God proclaimed by the silent beauty may lead us to wish we could share, and be a part of, such splendour.

    It is necessary, however, to consider the scientific view point as serious and believe that scientists are interested in obtaining a good understanding of the Universe. The scientific method requires theory to be tested, e.g. tests are performed using particle accelerators to obtain data on the particles that constitute the Universe. We may understand the limitations of language when considering the meaning ‘God’ and concluded that all godly attributes were singular and human language was insufficient to give full meaning to these. The Universe, however, is accessible to human sense, and it appears reasonable to assume that a language such as mathematics would be sufficient when examining the Universe. Quantum mechanics and quantum physics generally commence with an equation that describes the energy of a system as a wave. Once again, we commence with a system – these comments point to difficulties that human being must of necessity experience when considering such questions, because we are ‘in the world’, and in this case, we cannot be ‘above the world’ and position ourselves in a privileged position to analyse beginnings and ends of the totality of all that can be know. The scientific method does enable us, however, to examine all things in the Universe and dispassionately draw conclusions from our observations – many such results must be considered speculative and scientists are generally quick to acknowledge this – otherwise, we have the situation found repugnant by scientist, in that dogma replaces reason.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    A couple of responses to the idea of the inability of theory to make total sense of the universe, let alone God.

    On the first head, Leonardo da Vinci was an opinionated fellow, but had a shrewd perception of the close relationship between human experience and reason, and science. The mind can find truths about nature’s relationships (both through maths and imagination – a surprising but true apposition). But “there is no doubt that what experience and the world of phenomena actually show us is only a fragment, only a limited segment of the infinitely multifarious realm of rational priciples. Nature conceals within it countless principles which have never come forth as sensible phenomena.”

    On the second (and this touches on the recent BioLogos discussion on the simplicity of God) Aquinas saw the vast complexity and variety of the world as the necessary outworking of the totalilty of simple goodness in God, which could never be perceived by us in its entirety. In other words, each creation is a bite-sized chunk of goodness. And correspondingly, any conclusion we draw about God from however much we know of nature, though rightly enjoyed and praised, cannot do more than point us to God as Chief Good.

    To build theology from nature, then, is doomed to mistake the partial for the total.

    Still, I think although you’re addressing a different aspect for that in my post, we seem to agree that natural reality is a complex “isness” that we can nake some sense of, rather than something governed by a few ultimately simple rules which we can uncover “and be as God.”

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