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 Aristotle’s science is obsolete, but we could restate it in terms of all massive particles (or waves, or perhaps “fields”) having within their nature the same property of being attracted to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.