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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.”

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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.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma

            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).

Posted in 2014 under Theology and Science

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Curtis

04.03.2014
11:28am

Very interesting approach Tom.  Once again, your blog has caused me to ponder.  I do wonder, off the top of my head, whether you have actually overcome the arbitrariness problem of if you have simply shifted it back one place. God may not “arbitrarily decides right and wrong or what laws of nature obtain” but God’s nature is arbitrary, yes? To say God did not choose God’s own nature seems to suggest (necessitate?) that it is completely arbitrary.  Aren’t we simply lucky God is love instead of evil?

 

Thomas Jay Oord

04.03.2014
1:13pm

Curtis,

Thanks for the response. Instead of saying God’s nature is arbitrary, I’d say it is necessary, and eternally so. My saying this puts me in the tradition of Aquinas, Arminius, Wesley, and others.

I’d also say we are blessed that God’s necessary nature is love. And we are doubly blessed by God’s contingent decisions about HOW to love. In this, I can retain both the necessary aspect of divine love (eternal nature) and the forms of divine love God freely chooses (relational experience).

 

Curtis

04.03.2014
2:18pm

I understand your wanting to use that terminology and perhaps “arbitrary” is not a good term. But, to say God’s nature is necessary and eternal, I think at least, does not solve the problem of whether it is “good” that God is X. That is, can we say anything about God is “good” if God is the standard of good? Eternally or not? We still have the problem of defining “good” and the problem that we are saying it’s good that God is X when God cannot be anything but X. 

I am not saying your approach is wrong, I just think we’ve yet to really resolve Plato’s dilemma.

 

Thomas Jay Oord

04.03.2014
2:50pm

I think I see what you’re saying now, Curtis. I would say we have access, intuitively, to understand at least in a dim way what is essentially good. So placing goodness in God’s nature is not just saying God didn’t create good. It is also saying our sense of goodness is neither arbitrarily decided by God or arbitrary in itself.

 

Curtis

04.03.2014
4:15pm

Well, I hope my essential nature (critic) helps in you working out this chapter.  grin

 

Eric

04.03.2014
6:38pm

To Curtis: in saying “aren’t we lucky God’s nature happens to be love” (or words to that effect), we basically leave “love” as something outside of God.  Also in line with Aquinas, I would propose something like this: reflecting on what we mean when we call something “good,” we realize that something is said to be good relative to a particular thing when an activity/event enables the flourishing of that thing, and good for humans when the action/event facilitates human flourishing.  This is what good means.  However, this presses the question: how is human nature so determined as to be the basis of what is good for it?  I would suggest this requires a God (I won’t get into the steps here, but it involves the standard Thomist/Aristotelian appeals to pure actuality, first ontological cause, etc.).  Now, since God designates a thing’s nature, He also designates what is good for it.  Therefore, God is the foundation of goodness for all finite things, and is in this sense goodness itself.  The goodness of all things reflects, and participates in, the activity of God, and in this sense participates in God Himself (I would not say this panentheistically as some would, but that is a topic for another time).

I want to address the question of regularities, but I’ll save that for another time.

 

Jim

04.07.2014
8:26am

Tom, I like this approach a lot and I do think it’s the right way to resolve Euthyphro’s dilemma.  But it seems to me that it still leaves a lot of ambiguity about the status of natural laws.  That is, saying that a natural law originates in God’s nature does not make it necessary - surely, if God is infinite, there are infinitely many aspects of God’s nature that he did not instantiate in making our world.  But God chose to instantiate some.  So natural laws could still be conditional and originate in God’s nature.  But some aspects of rhe laws are necessary.  For instance, 7+5=12 is a necessary truth and God could not make a world that violates it.  That doesn’t contradict God’s omnipotence - it simply affirms that God is a God of truth.  Which brings me to my main question.  What about non-determinstic processes in the natural world?  Are these expressions of non-deterministic natural laws?  Does this mean that non-determinism is part of the divine nature?  What do you think?

 

Roger A. Sawtelle

04.19.2014
4:21pm

God Is Who God Is. 

That means that God does whatever God chooses to do and thus God Is Whomever God Chooses to Be.

We need to distinguish between God’s Nature, which is All Mighty and God’s Character which is Love.  God’s character is thus “arbitray” in the sense that God alone determines it. 

However God builds love into the universe and human beings through the Holy Spirit of Love.  God also builts regularity and order into the universe through the LOGOS.  Randomness and chance are built into the universe in that it is created out of matter which is by nature imperfect. 

Nota Bene:  If the universe were perfect it would be identical to God and Absolute.  The universe is Perfect as the realized Kingdom of God after it is perfected by God and is not absolute.

 

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Thomas Jay Oord is a professor, author, and theologian from the Northwest. Read more