Water, law and divine action

I want, in this post, to use the properties of water as a proxy for the kind of emergent structural laws for which Michael Denton argues in Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. This is because it is a simple compound that is one of the examples he explores at length in his earlier book, Nature’s Destiny, to argue for the fine tuning of the universe for human life (pp.15-46).

In fact, the nature of water is so unusual (despite its apparent mundaneness) that an entire popular book has recently been written on it, and the unique importance of its strange characteristics to life. Water’s unusual properties arise from self-organising principles that (perhaps unlike those in living things) cannot be denied, but are similarly surprising. Denton returns to water on p.251 of his new book:

No matter how exhaustively its two constituents – hydrogen and oxygen – are analysed, the physical and chemical properties of water cannot be predicted and are strictly emergent; they arise mysteriously out of the self-organisation of matter. [my emphasis]

I will dwell for a while on the meaning of “strictly emergent”, which is of significance, though not ultimately crucial to the case I wish to make in this post. I ask (and maybe some physical scientist like GD can help me out here) whether it is in principle true that water’s properties are not able to be deduced from those of hydrogen and oxygen, and that this is what constitutes “strict emergence”. If so, it would mean that the information about water is not inherent in the lower-order elements and their controlling laws. This would pose quite a mystery about just how this information enters the universe when water is synthesised.

The nature and “situation” of scientific laws generally is actually problematic (somewhat less mysterious if one sees them, in Aristotelian manner, as “properties of substances”!). How much more, then, the nature and situation of laws that cannot be derived from lower-order laws, but emerge de novo each time water appears. Indeed, Aristotelian or even Platonic perspectives make even more sense here – there is an immaterial “form” which is taken on when hydrogen and oxygen become (rather than constitute) the true substance water. This form consists of all kinds of “potencies” unique to that form, which become “actual” only when water interacts with the rest of reality by dissolving it, freezing or whatever. Aquinas would be at home with this, as an ongoing reminder of the world’s constant dependence on God.

Let me contrast this with the classical scientific conception of “law”, which was initially a theological concept and only later a secular one. The idea was that matter is an inert collection of particles, governed by a limited collection of simple, mathematical rules (as mankind is by God’s moral law), established on the first day of creation: a kind of scientific equivalent to the Ten Commandments.

The concept was not intended to mean inordinately complicated, and unpredictable, physical and chemical behaviours that appear only when particular combinations of different atoms occur. That smacks more of God’s ongoing active government of creation, along regular but complex lines; more of general providence or, perhaps, continous creation; more of the eternal logos of God’s wisdom both sustaining and ruling the world.


But perhaps the “laws of water” are not “strictly emergent”, in the sense that the information could, in principle, be derived from the basic laws of physics. The problem then would still, it seems, be that the exercise of extracting that information other than by empirical observation of water is in practice impossible, because it would require near-infinite calculating resources, rather as would Maxwell’s demon, requiring Maxwell to invoke statistical laws as his widest contribution to science.

But Maxwell’s statistics applied, essentially, to entities approximating the “inert atoms” of early modern science. The statistical analysis simplified the complications of individual particle movements. However, such relatively uncomplicated generalisations do not lead to predicting the esoteric properties of water, simple a compound though it is.

Here’s a link to a page that discusses the difficulties of predicting the properties of water. A quote from this shows just how imprecise such models are:

A recent review listed 46 distinct models, so indirectly indicating their lack of success in quantitatively reproducing the properties of real water. They may, however, offer useful insight into water’s behavior.

As I read the article (and once more, I stand to be corrected by those closer to the basic sciences), the implication seems to be that accurate prediction would require more or less infinite processing capability, much as does modelling complex problems in Newtonian orbital astronomy. And whether that means calculating from simple first principles, or simply more sophisticated modelling from observed data, I’m not sure. I suspect that one needs to feed in the sometimes unexpected data from actual observation to keep refining the model… and an anecdote from the “water” page is instructive regarding that:

As a young physicist, Dyson paid a visit to Enrico Fermi (recounted in Ditley, Mayer, and Loew). Dyson wanted to tell Fermi about a set of calculations that he was quite excited about. Fermi asked Dyson how many parameters needed to be tuned in the theory to match experimental data. When Dyson replied there were four, Fermi shared with Dyson a favorite adage of his that he had learned from Von Neumann: “with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.” Dejected, Dyson took the next bus back to Ithaca.

This seems to be how industrial chemistry is done: first principles may give you a ball-park idea of what kind of compounds to check out for any particular role you have in mind, but massive leg-work, and a host of unexpected results, invariably precede a useful application. That’s why drug development costs a king’s ransom. The world is not at all simple – even when that world consists only of water.

As far as I can see, to say that only infinite resources can determine the properties of water (rather than the routine application of the classical idea of simple “laws”) is not very far removed from saying that such information is fully accessible only to God himself – and that because he created it and sustains it whenever water is formed.

So in the end, whether the properties of water are “strictly emergent” – as it were, new laws that exist only where water comes into being – or are derived from the fundamental constants of space-time by complex interactions that are incalculable to man, the shorthand form “God does it” appears to me to be no simplistic Creationist denial of science, but a profound truth which re-unites science and theology, after the manner of  Kepler attempting to “think God’s thoughts after him.”

As Denton points out in his earlier book, the remarkable detailed characteristics of water, these unexpected and inexplicable emergent properties, are absolutely essential to life. If God intended there to be life at all, the specific properties of water had to be designed into nature. In that particular matter, God could not just ordain simple laws and see how things panned out in some “free process”. No special properties of water = no life possible.

And remember, as I have suggested, that is as likely to mean God’s creative order “regularly enacted in the world” as “mysteriously decreed when things began” – God after all creates in eternity according to Christian doctrine, not in time.

Therefore the Leibnizian idea of God “setting the world a-going in a perpetual motion”, the clockmaker analogy against which Denton actually writes in his denial of the functionalism of Paley and Darwin both, and which survives in the thinking of many theistic evolutionists when they see nature in terms of “law and contingency”, bears little relationship to the necessary truths of reality. Even the reality of simple water.

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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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8 Responses to Water, law and divine action

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Another interesting approach, and one that we may discuss for many days. While philosophically we may think emergent as something about a substance that cannot be equated strictly from the analysis of its constituents, we may also view the this as a compound. Thus, instead of arguing that water emerges from hydrogen and oxygen, we can just simply say a compound was formed because 4H + O2 => 2H2O. The compound H2O is a unique substance in its own right, and we would characterise it by measurements and such things, to understand it as that substance. We would however, ask why it is such a unique substance – when we extend our thinking to a vast number of other compounds, our questions become endless.

    But what of our understanding? Just why is water so suited to its ‘place’ in nature? And as for scientists such as me, how well do we understand H2O? For example, hydrogen bonds in water are responsible for many of its properties – yet I can speak of H bonds with great ease, but when I ask myself, what are they, I end up making simplistic statements.

    I am not sure my comments are all that helpful in the context of your series – I would say my own view goes to that of the accessibility of nature to the human intellect and imagination, which is somehow linked to things such as properties and maths, and we end up thinking as we do regarding the creation because of the human spirit and the creation put here for a purpose that involves us in a deep and meaningful way.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Thanks for your humble and frank reply as a scientist. Your use of “substance” nicely encompasses both the modern understanding and its Aristotelian root – a point I was trying to make in the OP.

      What you say about hydrogen bonds (together with whatever explanatory power they confer) resonates with ideas I’ve explored before about the nature of scientific theories – that they are human models based on observation abstracted and simplified from the richness of “what is”.

      The mediaevals had a much better handle on what that implies about knowledge (as described in Barham and C S Lewis’ “The Discarded Image”, which I’m currently, and belatedly, reading on Arthur Jones’s recommendation). They looked for a theory to “save the appearances”, that is, to describe as many observed phenomena as possible, without claiming that they had uncovered the fulness of God’s reality.

      As Lewis points out, the claim to have discovered true knowledge was what really made Galileo a revolutionary, not the theory of heliocentrism. But revolutionaries often lose their lustre with the passage of time, usually by overestimating their own importance.

      That line of thought about science is (providentially) described in the article from which the quote about Fermi above came, which explores the kind of complexity I’m discussing (including water compared to life), and the modelling that arises from it to account for it scientifically.

      Much of it is beyond me mathematically, but I liked the idea of the “sloppiness” that explains why Newton’s and Einstein’s theories are both right, and incomplete, within the spheres where they are useful; why we can recognise a particular human being from a simple charicature; and even why mathematics is “unreasonably effective” in science: in the end it’s because it gives a reasonable “saving of the appearances” to a reality much bigger and deeper than what it describes.

      Certain kinds of reality, though, seem much less likely to allow us simply to treat our abstractions as simple truth – that is, if we’re at all reflective. It’s easy to forget that you have no idea what the H-bonds, or gravity, or substances that you’re manipulating so expertly, actually are. It’s harder to confront the implausible complexities of water (let alone life) without pausing to consider deep things.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        Yes, the notion of a compound is I think derived from alchemists who obtained paradoxical results by combining substances (or elements, although they had no idea of these nor of the periodic table).

        Your reference to models is intriguing – in my work, I use the term ‘simplification’ instead of sloppy. I can illustrate this with a “simple” example of a model I developed back a couple of decades (and yet, I remain surprised to this day at the effective results such a model provided). We know fire for centuries, but the chemistry and related properties is amongst the most complex phenomena for science. The chemical kinetics may require perhaps over 100 equations (depending on the model) – we then need to add mixing, heat release, pressure variations, consumption of reactants and addition (steady state), just to name the main parameters.

        Yet a simple model can (that I built) be used, which has about 100 chemical equations, and simple (inexact) treatments of addition of oxygen, and an imposed temperature-time parameter. The equations were all suited for a mathematical routine (ordinary differential equations to those interested) called Geer’s method – in any event, after some years of effort, the model gave us results that we could compare favourably with laboratory measurements, and ultimately enhanced our intuitions related to industrial processes (e.g. coal combustion).

        This example illustrates how human intellect and intuition may obtain reasonable insights into extremely complex phenomena. I will add however, the accuracy (or sloppiness) that I imposed on the modelling, and the recognition that some areas were educated guesses, had as much to do with useful outcomes, as any laws of chemical kinetics that I “obeyed”, so to speak.

        Back to your discussion on water – I remain fascinated to this day when I consider how I keep going back to the simple hydrogen bond. We should note that in textbooks, H-bonds are considered to be electrostatic attraction between H atoms and other, such as O, due to differing electro-negativities. But there is much more to this ‘simple’ bond.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Really interesting stuff, GD – and very much in keeping with the”sloppiness” piece.

          I guess your experience leads to the conclusion of the “unreasonable ability of humans to approximate reality.” It’s been said before (eg by Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Nagel) that there is no reason why Darwinian evolution should produce rationality that has anything to do with truth, and even less that it should make sense of abstruse matters like chemistry and physics (rather than killing mammoths or avoiding berry-poisoning).

          But on any theory that doesn’t include the purposes of the Creator, it’s astonishing there should be a general human ability not so much to discover reality, but to imitate it usefully via imagination, educated guesses and so on.

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            Both the purposes of the Creator, and that He created everything as good – these are important aspects that seem to have been lost by many Christian denominations. When we adopt the correct theology, we can demolish this, and other error, such as some type of fall in the creation (appearing to annul God’s purpose) or that death is the penalty we all pay for sin, and not only because of poor old Adam – but I am beginning to ramble……. and yet science continues, even biology, without conflict with faith….

  2. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    I agree that emergence is key. I once described biology as an emergent property of chemistry, and consciousness as an emergent property of complex brains. I was told by a fairly ignorant atheist that the idea of emergence is just more theistic woo, and that everything is easily explainable, (whatever that means). I asked him about water, and that ended that conversation.

    I agree that the fact that emergence exists (all over the place, especially in chemistry) means that our universe has some special properties that might not be found in any old possible universe (maybe where molecular orbitals are very different). And as GD said, it aint just water. Look at the difference between ethane and ethanol (just one O added, and we are talking a whole new experience!!). So that’s “just” chemistry. Look at a cell. Look at me. Emergence is the opposite of reductionism, and is probably why we cannot make good models (and therefore useful laws) in biology based on physics or chemistry.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      If consciousness is an emergent property of complex brains, then presumably Hamlet or Sgt Pepper are emergent properties of consciousness. The question is whether that tells us anything much, and if so, what.

      Whether emergence entails genuine innovation (more than the sum of the parts), or the intractably complex interactions of simpler, lower level, laws (I’m still not sure which is the case in, say, the instance of water) we’re still left with something mysterious, in which a word like “natural” doesn’t seem to have much real meaning. Or at least, there comes a point where we stop thinking of emergence as “natural” and consider Sgt Pepper to be artificial.

      If, instead of “law”, one frames it in the Aristotelian manner of “natures”, then as GD said above, water is an entirely new substantia, with a form incomparable with hydrogen or oxygen – a form whose actual origin is as supra-mundane as it was to Plato.

      Are either Platonic or Aristotelian forms “natural”, in a sense that a modern scientist could handle? If not, why are emergent laws considered to be so, since they’re no less obscure?

      Here’s a parallel of sorts. I remember years ago, doing some kind of reading on church history, and perusing the actual text of (if memory serves) Henry VIII’s Statute of Praemunire, about restricting the Pope’s jurisdiction in England. What I remember is that it was something like 4 closely printed pages before the first full-stop. That’s perhaps comparable in complexity to what we see in emergent aspects of nature.

      Yet, as far as the legislators were concerned, they weren’t dreaming up a new complicated idea, but tidying up and remedying what were deemed to be abuses of the common law by “foreign princes” – in other words, Praemunire was an “emergent feature” of what was inherent in the lower-level Tudor Law.

      But that isn’t a particularly useful way of actually understanding it – you just have to wade through early modern legal English and look at it in its own terms – as if it were the complex design of some voluntary agent like the king.

      And then, in most cases, you sum it up, like Wikipedia, in a couple of lines, and make something that’s in truth inordinately complex look simple.

      Maybe that’s what science does regarding emergence?

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    Emergence as a concept is interesting because it forces (or should) scientists to think of a coherent ‘thing’ as something that can be named as a distinct entity. This is where, I think, biologists are in their element, so to speak, as they identify, name and classify the bio-world as distinct species and groups of species.

    As a general concept however, emergence is very difficult to deal with scientifically, and that is one big reason why we construct models of complex systems – these models are attempts to gain an understanding of something that we understand phenomenological in nature, but we need to simplify this to make it tractable.

    As a general concept, we may even argue that chemistry emerges from physics, and everything emerges from fundamental particles and the four forces. Once we make a concept so general, I think scientists tend to avoid it and stick to simplifications and analytical outlooks.

    So I agree with Sy, in that it would be extremely difficult to model biological systems by using insights and methods used in physics and chemistry – things such as cells, enzymes, DNA, etc., strike me as enormously complicated and well beyond current methods and capabilities of scientific models. I was impressed to hear of a molecular model of a ‘simple’ virus by a University group – but I add the method used (molecular mechanics) is the simplest and least useful method for molecular modelling – way below even greatly simplified QM techniques.

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