God and the Laws of Nature
Theologians and philosophers are especially interested in the fundamental nature of law-like regularity in our world. I’ve been thinking lately about how we might best think of God’s relationship to these so-called “laws of nature.”
My work on God and the laws of nature comes from my writing on randomness, evil, and divine providence. This is part of a larger grant funded by the Randomness and Divine Providence project, headed by Jim Bradley. In addition writing a book, I am co-directing a philosophy conference on Randomness and Foreknowledge.
Regularists and Necessitarians
Contemporary philosophers of science ponder the ultimate ground of life’s laws and regularities. They wonder, Do the regularities of life conform to elemental natural laws? Or do we merely call these regularities “laws” based on their repetition?
Some philosophers do not think the regularities of life conform to fundamental laws of nature. Let’s use the name “regularists” to describe them. Regularists admit that regularities of life are genuine. And they acknowledge the mathematical consistency and probabilities of these regularities. But regularists think the consistencies of existence are simply brute facts and not reflections of eternal laws. Regularities merely describe the consistent elements in the relationships and actions of the entities, organisms, creatures, and planets of the universe. There is no ultimate explanation for them, say regularists.
Let’s use the name “necessitarians” for philosophers who think the regularities of life derive from natural laws. The repetition we observe in the world, say necessitarians, are the necessary expressions of the more fundamental laws that govern the universe. In this sense, the laws of nature regulate existence, even though chance (and, perhaps, free will) is real. Necessitarians may think God placed these natural laws in place. Or they may think these natural laws conform to something like Plato’s eternal forms.
Theologians have been particularly interested in how we might best think about the regularities or natural laws in relation to God. On the whole, theologians are more sympathetic to necessitarian arguments, especially those arguments in which God plays an explanatory role. If God created everything, say some, God must have created the laws that govern life’s regularities. The orderliness of the universe points to God as the author of order.
Some theologians, in fact, think the natural laws are merely God’s way of entirely controlling all things. What we call natural laws are simply God’s all-controlling will. Others affirm the force of natural laws, while also reserving a role for chance and creaturely free will. For them, the regularities expressed by natural laws may or may not be expressions of God’s will.
The question of whether God created laws of nature mirrors an ancient question about God’s relation to morality. The morality question is commonly called Euthyphro’s dilemma, in honor of a conversation between Socrates and Euthyphro written by Plato. The question takes many forms, but it is essentially this: Are some deeds good simply because God declares them so? Or does God declare them good because they are fundamentally so?
To many, the answer is obvious that some deeds are good because God declares them so. After all, they say, God created all things. And that would include creating the standards of right and wrong. God must have created the moral laws. So what God declares as good is what God decides is good.
But if some deeds are good simply because God says so, God seems to be deciding the standards of good or evil arbitrarily. God could have decided murder was good instead of evil, for instance. If God arbitrarily decides what is right and wrong, genocide may be evil and forbidden for humans but perfectly acceptable for God. Besides, if God decides what is good, God’s own goodness is simply whatever God decides.
Others responding to Euthyphro’s dilemma say deeds are not good simply because God declares them so. God does not arbitrarily decide what is good or evil, they argue. Some actions are good independent of whether God says so. Even God answers to moral standards God did not decide. God declares something good because it is good independent of what God decides, and God cannot change this.
This answer implies that standards of morality transcend or exist outside God. And this may prompt us to wonder if God is actually creator of everything. It seems difficult to imagine that God is the source of all goodness, and yet good is independent of God.
Did God Create Natural Laws?
When we think about the natural laws, we may ask a question similar to Euthyphro’s dilemma: Do the regularities and laws of nature exist because of an arbitrary decision by God to create them? Or do they exist necessarily and not due to God’s decision?
Some believers think the laws of nature, if they exist, are arbitrarily decided by God. When creating the world from nothingness billions of years ago, God decided which laws of nature to install and subsequently uphold. God could have created a different kind of world with entirely different laws. And God can supersede or negate the natural laws of our world, from time to time, if God decides. In other words, because God created natural laws, God can withdraw, override, or fail to uphold them.
Just as those who say God created morality face problems, those who say God created natural laws face problems. We might wonder why God decided to create these laws instead of others. We may wonder why God doesn’t withdraw, override, or fail to uphold these natural laws, from time to time, to prevent evil. God should do so, at least sometimes, in the name of love, to prevent evil.
Other theologians say God did not create the laws of nature. Instead, these laws simply exist, and they exert influence in the world. God cannot supersede them. The laws and regularities of nature are unbreakable.
This response to the question of God’s relation to the laws of nature also raises problems. According to it, the laws of nature transcend or are independent of God, which means God is not their ultimate creator. We should not blame God for failing to override these laws to prevent evil because even God must obey them. But this seems to mean God didn’t create all things and some standards exist outside God.
We seem caught on the horns of these dilemmas.
My View on God’s Relation to the Laws of Nature
The question of whether God created and upholds the regularities or natural laws is important. It not only reminds us that life requires regularities, it also prompts us to wonder about God’s relationship to them. In particular, we will want to know if God can interrupt life’s regularities to prevent genuine evils or override randomness.
I think we have a third option to both the dilemma of natural law and the dilemma of morality. I plan to explain this third option in a later chapter of my book, but let me offer a teaser here.
My answer to these dilemmas is to say the standards of morality and regularities of existence derive from God’s own nature. God’s nature is eternal. God did not choose the attributes of the divine nature, and God cannot change them. To do so would mean God changing in such a way that God is no longer God. This means, then, that God did not arbitrarily choose the laws of nature and standards of morality, and God cannot supersede them. But it also means no standards of morality or laws of nature transcend God. They reside as aspects of God’s nature.
My answer overcomes the arbitrariness problem of saying God arbitrarily decides right and wrong or what laws of nature obtain. It overcomes the interventionist problem of saying God could interrupt the natural laws to prevent evil. And it overcomes the independence problem of saying morality and the laws of nature are independent of God.
My proposal overcomes all of these by placing morality and the laws of nature in God’s own, eternal nature, which even God cannot suspend. God cannot suspend God’s own nature, because, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “ God cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).