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 Faith and the Laws of Nature

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PostSubject: Faith and the Laws of Nature   Wed Sep 30, 2009 9:31 pm

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Owen Gingerich "On God": Faith and the Laws of Nature
A few years ago, a group of us heard a remarkable talk on the brain as a machine, where the speaker aggressively argued that our minds are nothing but a loose mechanistic confederation of parts competing against one another. As we were leaving, a friend of mine remarked to him, “In twenty years I have not met such a man of faith.” The speaker, a well-known professor from MIT and a hard-core atheist, recoiled at her remark in some shock. “Yes,” she added, “you are so sure you are right!”

Most of my scientific acquaintances, both theists and atheists, are persons of deep but unexamined faith. Recently, on a radio talk show, I referred to a fellow participant as a man of faith. “I don’t believe in anything!” he protested. “Of course you do,” I countered. “You believe in a rational universe where the laws of nature always work.” Experience teaches us that the laws of nature are pretty dependable, so it is easy to take this on board as a tacit belief.

Perhaps surprisingly, “laws of nature” in the modern sense is a relatively recent concept. The expression did not enter our English vocabulary until the work of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Kepler, for example, didn’t use the expression. What we refer to as Kepler’s laws were not singled out and labeled as such until well into the eighteenth century. His laws, prototypes for laws of nature, are a good demonstration of the fact that such laws are human artifacts, man-made and subject to revision. Kepler’s third law states that the ratio of the cube of a planet’s average distance from the sun to the square of its period of revolution is a constant, but Newton’s work showed that the ratio is not a constant but a quantity dependent on the mass of each planet.

As Einstein said, in a statement that can equally refer to the laws of nature, “The sense experiences are the given subject matter. But the theory that shall interpret them is man-made, never completely final, always subject to question and doubt.”

Laws like Kepler’s, or Newton’s famous laws of motion, can be classed as epistemological statements based on what we have gleaned observationally. Most scientists will, after a little contemplation, agree that these laws are man-made. But they will likely add that such formulations are approaching some deeper, inviolate laws of nature that exist whether or not we fully comprehend them. These might be called ontological statements, referring to the fundamental nature of the universe itself, how it really is. And this is where an implicit leap of faith occurs.

The predecessor of Boyle and Newton in discussing laws of nature was René Descartes. The French philosopher hoped to be his own empirical architect for a complete theory of nature, beginning with cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Nevertheless, as he considered the notion of fundamental laws governing the universe, he gradually realized that he was in a metaphysical arena when he proposed that both matter and motion were conserved from God’s original creation.

For both Boyle and Newton as well, laws of nature as a concept grew from theological roots and the notion of divine law. In delineating the history of the concept, Oxford’s Peter Harrison has concluded that today, science, insofar as it assumes the reality of mathematical laws, operates with a tacitly theistic assumption about the nature of the universe. The mere existence of this underlying rationality of the universe, its deep ontology, points toward a divine creative reality that we can label as God’s agenda.

The physicist John Polkinghorne reasons along the same lines when he writes that we must “face the fact that science is privileged to explore a universe that is both rationally transparent and rationally beautiful in its deep and accessible order. ... Something profound is going on in science’s exploration of our deeply intelligible universe that calls for metascientific illumination.”

What does this view purchase for the religious understanding of the world in which we find ourselves? Some events that seem totally incredulous to those of us who take seriously the world’s stability and dependability, such as the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion and entombment, can be seen not as rare suspensions of the laws of nature, but as the intersection of a more fundamental spiritual universe with the physical universe embedded in it—a physical universe in which the ontological laws of nature always hold, but which is only a subset of the total reality. It is a matter of faith that such a spiritual universe exists, and by the same token, also a matter of faith to deny its existence.

"Enjoy every sandwich" ~ Warren Zevon
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PostSubject: Re: Faith and the Laws of Nature   Thu Oct 01, 2009 12:40 pm

Quote :
Laws like Kepler’s, or Newton’s famous laws of motion, can be classed as epistemological statements based on what we have gleaned observationally.

What we call "laws" of nature are observed regularities, which are assumed to be fixed rules, as if handed-down by a supreme authority. Scientists usually just take them for granted, while Theists take them for grace.

Recently though, astrophysicists and cosmologists have begun to consider what the world would be like if some of those "constants" were different. The result of that investigation has revealed that what we take for granted has an element of contingency. In other words, the "laws" could have been otherwise.

Now we are faced with the question : are these "constant values" arbitrary, or were they set with a goal in mind? The Multiverse theory is based on the arbitrary assumption. But the Creation theory requires an intentional Creator.

So who's right, the accident advocates, or the intentionalists? Most of the evidence falls on the side of lucky accidents; but there is one flaw in that lawlessness. How could a purposeless process result in a purposeful product? How could a random roll of the dice hit the jackpot of meaningful minds?

The key to answering that quiz is another of those taken-for-granted "laws" of nature : Natural Selection. Random accidents alone produce only more freaks of entropy. But in evolution those mutant monsters are run through a selective filter, which then determines which accidents are the lucky winners.

And that raises the original question again : Who decides? Who chooses? Who determines? Who selects the parameters of natural selection? Who mandated the laws of nature? Chaos is indeterminate. So somewhere along the line there must have been a First Chooser : the Ultimate Lawgiver.
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