The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God: The Theological Foundations of Modern Science
James N. Anderson
Professor of Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
The following is an edited version of the 2018 Tarwater Lecture, delivered at Queen’s University of Charlotte on October 29, 2018. Dr. Anderson wishes to express thanks to Michael and Ann Tarwater for their generous sponsorship of this lecture series designed to explore the intersection between faith and the sciences.
As you may have surmised from the title of this article, I wish to begin by quoting from the United States Declaration of Independence. Recall the famous opening sentence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
One of the many fascinating aspects to the Declaration of Independence is its reference to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” In context, this is a reference to what philosophers and theologians have called “natural law.” The idea is that there are moral laws that are grounded in the natural order of things, including human nature and human societies. Moreover, these laws have a divine author or legislator because nature itself is understood to have such an author. Consequently, there are moral laws or principles—including those we would now recognize as universal human rights—that are grounded not merely in nature but in “nature’s God”: the transcendent creator, sustainer, and governor of the natural world.
In our day, however, the term “laws of nature” tends to give rise to a very different notion. By “laws of nature” we typically mean scientific laws rather than moral laws. We think perhaps of Newton’s laws of motion, Boyle’s gas law, Maxwell’s equations, or the four laws of thermodynamics. We think of laws that govern how events in the natural universe proceed from one moment to the next in regular, orderly, predictable ways.
In this article I proposed to focus upon the laws of nature in that sense. It’s clear that the authors of the Declaration of Independence believed that the laws of nature in the moral sense should be credited to nature’s God. My argument here will be that the laws of nature in the scientific sense should also be credited to nature’s God, and more broadly that modern science has theological foundations (and necessarily so).
I. A Tall Story
Before we get to that main argument, however, some stage-setting is needed. I’m going to begin by telling a story—a story you most likely have heard before.
Once upon a time—around 13.8 billion years ago, to be more precise—a space-time universe came into existence. Within an unimaginably short space of time, the basic laws of physics were established, and the universe rapidly expanded from an extremely high-density, high-temperature state (an event popularly known as the “Big Bang”). As the universe cooled, subatomic particles formed, followed by atoms and molecules of the basic chemical elements (hydrogen, helium, and so on). By the force of gravity, physical matter collected into lumps, eventually resulting in stars, solar systems, and galaxies.
On a “pale blue dot” circling one particular star—blue because of its large water masses—a very remarkable and fortuitous thing happened, some 4 billion years ago. By processes that remain entirely mysterious, chemicals in those water masses produced some basic organic molecules: perhaps amino acids, perhaps even a rudimentary form of RNA. Whatever exactly these molecules were, they supplied the building blocks of organic life, with the power of replication.
Once self-replicating lifeforms had appeared on the stage, Darwinian processes took over and performed their magic. Over thousands of millions of years, by the force of natural selection acting on the physical variations resulting from random genetic mutations, single-celled organisms evolved into multi-celled organisms, asexual organisms evolved into sexually differentiated organisms, water-bound organisms evolved into land-bound organisms, and eventually primitive mammals appeared on the scene, which became the ancestors of primitive apes, which became the ancestors of primitive humans—which is to say, our ancestors.
At some point in this long evolutionary story, consciousness appeared on the scene, which laid the foundations for observation, reasoning, and creativity. This ignited the blue touch-paper of cultural evolution: the development of language, social organization, art, music, rudimentary technology, and religion.
Ah, yes: religion.
Religion—so the story goes—evolved as a psychological coping mechanism. It developed not because of its veracity but because of its survival utility. Religion served to explain the unexplained, and thus to comfort the discomfited.
Religion was, in a sense, the first attempt at science. It was the first attempt to identify causal explanations for natural phenomena. But it was a very bad first attempt, because it wasn’t based on a rigorous methodology of reason and observation. It was essentially a stopgap until the true hero of the story arrived.
Admittedly, some progress toward real scientific knowledge was made by the ancient Greek thinkers, such as Thales, Pythagoras, Archimedes, and Aristotle. They sought to explain things in natural and mathematical terms, without resorting to arbitrary supernatural explanations. However, modern science didn’t really get off the ground until the time of the Renaissance, following the so-called Dark Ages. It was only at this time that intellectuals finally cast off the shackles and blinkers of religion and adopted a rigorous empirical methodology. Natural reason was applied to empirical observations in order to formulate and test genuine scientific hypotheses.
Francis Bacon was one of the pioneers of the modern scientific method. He was followed by trailblazers such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, who uncovered the basic laws of physics and chemistry, allowing us to make reliable predictions and to harness the natural world in the service of technology.
A second scientific revolution occurred in the nineteenth century with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which finally disposed of the idea of final causes in nature, offering instead an explanation of biological design—or rather apparent design—without the need for a divine intelligence.
A fully naturalistic account of the world was finally coming into view.
Some further important pieces of the puzzle were put into place in the twentieth century with Einstein’s relativity theories and the development of quantum mechanics. The last chapters of the story have yet to be written, but it’s only a matter of time before a “Theory of Everything” is developed that provides a unified account of all the natural laws of the universe. At any rate, we can at least say now that science has slipped the chains of superstition that held it back for so long. Science has discredited religion and supplanted it as the favored explanation of what we are and where we came from.
Here endeth the story—at least the latest chapters of it.
Undoubtedly this is a very popular and widely propagated story. It is, as they say, the received wisdom in academic circles. It is the story told by the secular intelligentsia of our day. It is the story told (or at any rate assumed) by Steven Pinker in his recent book Enlightenment Now—a story of the triumph of science and reason over religion and superstition.
It’s such a dominant story that I will henceforth refer to it simply as The Story.
One important theme in The Story is that of a longstanding conflict—an implacable opposition—between science and religion. Science is based on reason, evidence, and openness to correction. Religion is based on revelation, faith, and an incorrigible dogmatism. This conflict is epitomized by the so-called “Galileo controversy.” Galileo was opposed by the Church, we’re told, because his scientific theories collided with religious dogmas. Galileo may have lost that battle, but the spirit of Galileo won the war!
Such is The Story—and it’s certainly a stirring one.
But is it a true story?
In reality, the historical thesis that there has been a long and bitter war between science and religion, and that this conflict was inevitable due to some inherent opposition between science and religion, has been largely discredited. However, my concern here is not to oppose or defend any historical thesis. Instead, I want to explore a strictly philosophical thesis. Leaving aside the issue of the historical relationship between science and religion, I want to consider the question of whether there is any necessary philosophical relationship between the two.
Are science and religion independent agents, so to speak, or is one being bankrolled by the other?
I propose to argue for the second option. I contend that science as we understand it today rests necessarily upon theological foundations. Specifically, I will offer three separate arguments in support of that thesis. In each case, I will identify a philosophical presupposition of modern science, and then argue that we need a theistic account of that presupposition.
II. Argument from Cognitive Reliability
If science is concerned with anything at all, it is concerned with truth. Science aims to uncover the truth about the natural world. Science aims to develop true theories that describe and explain natural phenomena. As Albert Einstein observed, a respectable scientist should be “a real seeker after truth.”
In order to discover the truth, however, we have to employ our cognitive faculties. We have to use our sensory faculties, our reasoning faculties, our memories, and our imaginations. But in so doing we’re taking for granted that our cognitive faculties are reliably truth-directed. In other words, we have to assume that our cognitive faculties generally lead us toward truth and away from falsehood. We have to assume that our cognitive faculties produce mostly true beliefs.
But let’s return to The Story summarized in the previous section. According to The Story, human beings—including our minds, our cognitive faculties—are the product of undirected, naturalistic, evolutionary processes. We are the product of millions of years of natural selection, driven by the need to survive and reproduce.
At first glance, perhaps, this suggests a promising explanation. Wouldn’t evolution tend to hone our intellectual faculties over time? Wouldn’t nature select for more reliable rather than less reliable faculties? On closer examination, however, this isn’t so obvious at all. There are several serious obstacles faced by a naturalistic evolutionary account of human cognitive faculties.
In the first place, truth is a property of thoughts or beliefs, not physical states. A conscious mind is needed in order to entertain thoughts or beliefs. According to The Story, mind emerged over time out of matter. Our minds are a product of underlying lower-level material states and processes. Consciousness is an emergent feature of the material brain. If that’s the case, then everything that takes place in the mind is wholly explained by the underlying material structures and processes of the brain.
Now, leave aside the fact that we have nothing close to a serious explanation for how this is possible. The problem is that this account only supports one-way causation from the physical to the mental. Physical events can be the causes of mental events, but mental events can’t be the causes of physical events. On this account, there can be “bottom up” causation from the material to the mental, but not “top down” causation from the mental to the material, simply because mind and consciousness are nothing more than a higher-level feature of material structures and processes. Mental phenomena would be like the foam that forms on river rapids: the churning of the water generates the foam, but the foam does nothing to determine the movement of the water. It’s just along for the ride!
If that is so, the content of our beliefs and thoughts cannot make any causal contribution to evolutionary development. Our beliefs and thoughts can’t contribute to any causal explanation of our physical behavior. Yet natural selection acts solely upon the basis of physical fitness. What this means is that if The Story were true, our minds and their contents would be strictly invisible to natural evolutionary processes. Evolution must be blind with respect to our beliefs, including whether those beliefs are true or false. And if that’s the case, natural evolutionary processes cannot explain why our cognitive faculties would be reliably directed toward truth.
But let’s just wave away this problem for a moment. Let’s grant that somehow consciousness could exert a causal influence over the physical realm, that somehow the beliefs of an organism could make a causal contribution the physical behavior of that organism. It still wouldn’t follow that evolution would select for true beliefs. The reason for this is that natural selection itself doesn’t care about truth. It cares only about the fitness of the organism for survival and reproduction, and false beliefs can promote survival and reproduction just as effectively as true beliefs.
This problem could be illustrated in various ways, but to make the point let’s return once again to The Story. According to The Story, religious beliefs have an evolutionary explanation. Religion developed as a kind of psychological coping mechanism and thereby promoted the survival of the species. But of course, The Story also says that religious beliefs are predominantly false. So according to The Story, evolution was quite content to foist a whole host of false beliefs on the human race because they had biological benefits. Just consider for a moment where the highest birth rates are found today. Which societies are reproducing most effectively: the religious or the non-religious?
The Darwinian philosopher Stephen Stich puts the matter bluntly: “[N]atural selection does not care about truth; it cares only about reproductive success.” That being so, there’s no reason to think evolution would tend to select for true beliefs over false beliefs, and thus no reason to think evolution would furnish us with cognitive faculties that are reliably truth-directed.
But let’s wave away this second problem as well. Suppose we grant that evolutionary processes would tend to favor true beliefs. We can’t assume that would apply to just any kind of beliefs. At best, evolution would be sensitive to low-level beliefs immediately connected to survival: securing food, finding a fertile mate, fighting off predators, and the like. Why on earth would evolution be sensitive to the sort of high-level, complex, abstract truths that scientists regularly trade in?
Suppose we grant that evolution would furnish us with cognitive faculties that are reliable when it comes to everyday tasks involving our immediately observable environment. Even then, it’s not the least bit plausible to think that the same evolutionary processes would furnish us with cognitive faculties that are reliable when it comes to advanced calculus, trigonometry, relativity theory, or quantum mechanics. Not to put too fine a point on it: proficiency in particle physics doesn’t confer the slightest reproductive advantage. (If anything, it’s more likely to be a hindrance to reproductive success.)
In sum, The Story cannot provide a plausible account of why our cognitive faculties are reliably truth-directed, particularly with respect to the highly complex and abstract truths that modern scientific theories depend upon.
We should note that the general problem I’ve outlined here isn’t one that arises from the idea of evolution as such, but from the idea of undirected or unguided evolution. It appears that the only way one can justifiably assume that human cognitive faculties are reliably truth-directed is by presupposing that whatever or whoever produced or shaped those faculties is concerned about truth or is somehow truth-oriented. Mere physical causes won’t be sufficient. There need to be mental or rational causes. There has to be a prior, higher intelligence of some kind.
But the moment we suggest that our ability to discover scientific truths depends on a prior, higher intelligence, we’ve stepped decisively into the realm of theology.
III. Argument from the Uniformity of Nature
One of the most important types of reasoning in science is inductive reasoning (or simply induction). Induction is the process by which we draw a general conclusion—typically in the form of a universal law or principle—from a sample of particular observations.
Induction is usually the means by which we discover laws of nature. For example, take Newton’s second law of motion: F = m × a. How do we know that such a law holds in nature? Put simply, we do a series of experiments by applying different forces to objects of various masses and we measure the resulting accelerations. We end up with a sample of experimental observations and we draw an inductive conclusion by extrapolating from those particular observations. So the inductive argument looks something like this:
1. In the first instance, the force was equal to the product of the mass and the acceleration.
2. In the second instance, the force was equal to the product of the mass and the acceleration.
3. In the third instance, the force was equal to the product of the mass and the acceleration.
4. And so on and so on, for a large number of instances…
5. Therefore, the following general law holds: Force = mass × acceleration
Inductive reasoning isn’t only used in science. We apply it all the time in our everyday experience. How do you know that the kettle will boil water when you switch it on? Simply because you’ve observed it (and probably other kettles) doing so in the past under similar circumstances.
Now, it has long been noted that inductive reasoning will be reliable only if a certain assumption holds, namely, that nature is generally uniform in space and time. In other words, induction assumes that the way nature operates tomorrow will be much the same as the way it operated yesterday. Similarly, induction assumes that the way nature operates here, at this location in the universe, is the way it operates in other locations. If we’re going to extrapolate from past events to future events, and from local events to non-local events, we have to presuppose the uniformity of nature.
This raises a tricky question, however: What justifies that assumption? How do we know that nature is uniform across space and time? After all, none of us has observed all of space and time. We’ve observed only a miniscule fraction of it, which is precisely why we have to rely on induction! The challenge of justifying this crucial assumption has been called “the problem of induction,” and it remains one of the major conundrums in the philosophy of science. For if inductive reasoning isn’t reliable, then our conclusions about the laws of nature are unwarranted. They’re no better than leaps of blind faith.
Those unfamiliar with the history of this problem tend to think it has a really easy solution, which runs like this:
We know that inductive reasoning is reliable because it works! Its reliability has been confirmed over and over again. The conclusions we’ve drawn by induction in the past have turned out to be correct; they’ve been confirmed by subsequent observations. So we know that nature is uniform because when we’ve made predictions based on that assumption, those predictions always—or nearly always—turn out to be right.
Unfortunately, as David Hume famously pointed out, that’s circular reasoning: it’s using inductive reasoning to justify inductive reasoning. It’s saying in effect that induction will be reliable in the future because it’s been reliable in the past—but that reasoning itself assumes the uniformity of nature. Hence, it begs the question.
More generally, it turns out that one cannot justify the assumption of the uniformity of nature on an empirical basis. What that means is that the scientific method relies on a form of reasoning that the scientific method itself cannot prove. Science depends on a philosophical presupposition beyond the reach of science.
Of course, if any one of us were a transcendent omniscient being enjoying a direct knowledge of every point in time and space, there would be no problem here. But human beings are neither transcendent nor omniscient. So it seems that a transcendent omniscient being would be a very useful ally to lean on when it comes to inductive conclusions about the laws of nature. Once again, however, that puts us firmly in the realm of theology.
One further comment before moving on. It might be pointed out that we all believe that nature is uniform, and perhaps we can’t help but believe it. It’s just a built-in assumption, we might say. True though that may be, it’s important to recognize that’s not the issue here. The issue is not whether we can avoid the assumption, but what would make it a rationally well-grounded assumption. If it’s a built-in assumption, it matters a great deal who or what built it in!
Naturalistic evolution is blind and stupid. It has neither consciousness nor intelligence. It has no knowledge at all, never mind knowledge of the entire universe. In contrast, as the creator of the natural universe and the architect of the human mind, God has (1) knowledge of the uniformity of nature and (2) the means to implant that knowledge in human cognitive faculties, specifically, the faculty by which we reason inductively about the laws of nature. On this view, our inductive knowledge of nature’s laws has to be underwritten by a higher, non-inductive knowledge.
IV. Argument from Mathematics
Modern science depends on mathematics. Modern science couldn’t exist without mathematics. The laws of nature are typically formulated in mathematical terms, as mathematical relationships or equations. This is undoubtedly true of physics and chemistry, and it’s largely true of modern biology as well. Computer science, medicine, astronomy, psychology—whichever scientific field you care to name, it has to deal with the quantification of natural phenomena and mathematical relationships between those quantities.
But mathematics itself is a very odd thing when you think about it. Consider this statement about two physical objects: “The tree is taller than the house.” What’s that statement about? What does it refer to? It’s about two concrete, material, visible things: a tree and a house.
Now consider this mathematical statement: “7 is greater than 6.” That’s a meaningful statement; indeed, it’s a true statement. But what’s it about? What does it refer to? It’s about something, but it’s not about any physical things. It’s about two numbers—what are technically known as mathematical objects.
Numbers, however, are not concrete, material, visible things. We can’t observe them with the senses. They’re abstract rather than concrete objects. Even so, we can make objectively true statements about them, which indicate that they are real in some sense.
In fact, mathematical truths are typically quite different than material truths. Not only are they abstract, they are necessary truths. They couldn’t be otherwise. The first statement I made (about the tree and the house) didn’t have to be true. The tree could have been shorter than the house. But 7 couldn’t have been less than 6. Furthermore, mathematical truths aren’t known empirically, by observation. They’re known by a combination of a priori intuition and deduction.
So here’s the truly remarkable thing. On the one hand, there is a realm of material, concrete things: stars, planets, rocks, trees, and so on. On the other hand, there is a realm of non-material, abstract things: numbers and other mathematical objects. Somehow there is a deep connection between these two realms, insofar as things in the first realm are conformed to and governed by things in the second realm.
If there were no numbers there would be no mathematics, and thus no scientific understanding of the material world. But numbers themselves are not objects in the material world. They are, in a real sense, other-worldly.
Eugene Paul Wigner, the Hungarian-American physicist and mathematician who received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963, published an article in 1960 with the title “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” In that paper he observed that mathematics has proven incredibly productive as a tool for the natural sciences, and yet its effectiveness is utterly mysterious. Indeed, the word he used was ‘unreasonable’. It’s unreasonable in the sense that there’s no natural explanation for it. There’s no a priori reason why the material world would be so amenable to mathematical analysis. We take it for granted, but it’s quite astonishing on reflection.
What’s more, it’s not merely that the physical universe is mathematically structured. It’s that its mathematical structure is very orderly and relatively simple. The mathematical structure of the world has a striking elegance and beauty to it.
Perhaps like me you’re a fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. One of my favorite Far Side cartoons depicts Albert Einstein in his office. He’s been scribbling equations on the blackboard:
E = mc³ — crossed out!
E = mc4 ?
E = mc5 — crossed out again!
E = mc7?
As Einstein leans against the blackboard in desperation, he stares back at a cleaning lady in the foreground, who’s been dusting his desk. “Now that desk looks better,” she’s saying to herself. “Everything’s squared away, yessir, squaaaaared away!”
E = mc squared of course!
That number 2 — c to the power of 2 — is pretty important. But why? There’s no apparent reason why it had to be that way. Why not c to the power of 2.179635, to take just one possibility? That wouldn’t be very neat, to be sure. But why did nature have to be neat? Why should it have the mathematical order and elegance that it does have?
Here’s the point. If we follow The Story, there’s no explanation for it. It’s unreasonable. It’s inexplicable. It’s a brute fact—albeit a very convenient one!
But that’s not what the pioneers of modern science believed at all. They believed that the mathematical order of nature had a theological basis. Galileo famously declared that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.” That certainly appears to be the case. Mathematics is a kind of language; the orderliness of the natural world is expressed in that language, and scientists are in the business of reading the book of nature using that language. The better we know the language, the better we’re able to read the book. But if nature really is like a book written in a kind of language, that book must have an author who is fluent in that language.
In short, the applicability of mathematics to nature is unexplainable only if one refuses to countenance the most obvious explanation.
V. Kicking Away the Ladder
I began by quoting the Declaration of Independence and its famous reference to the “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” That document was a political document, but those who wrote and signed it understood their political arguments to have theological foundations. They appealed to the idea of natural laws, in the sense of natural rights, but they understood that such laws need a lawmaker or lawgiver.
The same basic idea of natural rights persists today in the form of universal human rights, but any theological foundations for such rights have been largely abandoned. The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by the United Nations in 1948, speaks of the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” but provides no account of where these rights come from or why they exist. It is by design a thoroughly secular document, even though its ideals are historically rooted in a theological worldview. Every time we appeal to human rights, we’re resting on theological foundations, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we like it or not.
I want to suggest, no doubt provocatively, that the same goes for modern science. Every time we appeal to modern science—to the scientific method and to the fruits of scientific investigation—we’re resting on theological foundations, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we like it or not.
To claim as some do that these theological foundations are dispensable—worse still, that they’re now a hindrance to science—is an exercise in denial. Repudiating the theological foundations of science is like using a ladder to climb onto the roof of your house, then kicking away the ladder and only reluctantly admitting that you relied on it, insisting instead that it you never needed it anyway because you could have just jumped straight up onto the roof.
- Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin Books, 2018). ↑
- For one recent debunking, see Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2019). ↑
- I do not mean to imply that one must be a Christian, or even a theist, in order to do good scientific work. Clearly that’s not the case. I do contend, however, that one cannot account for good scientific work apart from a biblical theistic understanding of the universe and our place in it. ↑
- Letter to Robert A. Thornton, December 7, 1944 (Albert Einstein Archives, 61-574). ↑
- The seemingly intractable problem of explaining how the distinctively subjective, experiential aspect of consciousness could arise from a purely physical substratum has been dubbed “the hard problem of consciousness” by the philosopher David Chalmers. ↑
- For recent projections of religious and non-religious populations: “The Changing Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, April 5, 2017. http://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/ ↑
- Stephen P. Stich, The Fragmentation of Reason: Preface to a Pragmatic Theory of Cognitive Evaluation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 62. ↑
- Leah Henderson, “The Problem of Induction,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/induction-problem/ ↑
- Eugene Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics 13 (1960): 1–14. ↑
- http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html ↑