Laws of Nature and Nature's Lawgiver
by David F. Coppedge *
What is meant by laws of nature? Presumably it is the business of science to uncover them. Yet few people, and few scientists, ever unpack the term. Many would be surprised to know that there are deep controversies among philosophers about the meaning of "laws of nature." Creationists have the high ground in this arena.
Empiricists (those who think science should restrict itself to observable phenomena) describe laws of nature as nothing more than patterns in experience. The weakness in this view is that it provides no answer to "why" the patterns always hold. It also provides no confidence that the patterns will continue into the future. Necessitarians, by contrast, want laws of nature to be normative, not just descriptive: not just that all cannonballs do follow a parabolic trajectory, but that a cannonball must follow a parabolic trajectory. In the words of the T-shirt cartoon, "186,000 miles per second: it's not just a good idea; it's the law."
But that leads to a conundrum. Who, or what, enforces the law? Secular scientists are averse to postulating some agent that "makes" the cannonball follow a parabola. And who gave the law? Most of them threw out the concept of a Divine Lawgiver in the 19th century. Necessitarians still help themselves to the belief that laws are normative, but empiricists ask on what basis they do so. It sounds like a metaphysical belief or argument from analogy. We don't see laws making something happen; we only see what happens. Why should nature be law-like at all?
Some philosophers escape into word games at this point. They portray laws of nature as useful generalizations, whose strength is measured by their explanatory power or predictive potential within our best theories. Scientific realists, however, are reluctant to give up on the epistemic credentials of laws of nature. They want to hold on to the belief that laws of nature are really "out there" in the world, and that science "discovers" them.
The only warrant for laws of nature that are truly "out there" and not just "in our heads" is belief in a personal, rational, consistent, freely-acting, transcendent, powerful God as described in the Bible. We can defend this on two grounds. One, because the laws of nature are contingent--they could be other than what they are. Gravity could decline as the cube of the distance, or by any other rational number. For life to be possible, the laws had to be selected with precision out of an infinite range of possibilities and coordinated with each other.1
Second, our own rationality presupposes a rational source. Why would particles become scientists? Why would matter seek understanding? The human propensity to find laws of nature bespeaks a Lawgiver who created that propensity in us.
The Divine Lawgiver, therefore, is not a metaphor, nor a placeholder for ignorance; He is a logical necessity for science. The Lawgiver described in Scripture has the explanatory resources to resolve the conundrums of philosophy and bring sense to the discussion. "Fear God, and keep his commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13)--it's not just a good idea; it's the law.
- We have seen some materialists imagine a multiverse to escape this obvious conclusion. See my article "There's Only One Universe," published in the December 2006 issue of Acts & Facts.
* David Coppedge works in the Cassini Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The views expressed are his own.
Cite this article: Coppedge, D. 2009. Laws of Nature and Nature's Lawgiver. Acts & Facts. 38 (9): 19.