Where Do the Laws of Nature Come From?
Why should matter behave in any particular way? Where are these laws written?
There are lots of arguments for and against the existence of God. Of these, design arguments are perennial. Old-fashioned versions go something like this:
Organisms are intricate things. Just for one example: the eye is as intricate as any telescope. Telescopes are designed by intelligence, and how much more so then, the eye. The eye and other features of organisms must be the products of intelligent design.
On the opposite side is the theory of evolution and all the evidence for it. Evolution makes religious people nervous since it’s at odds with biblical literalism. But biblical literalism isn’t of use where the existence of God is in question. After all, it would be an unusual character who is more confident that Genesis is the literal word of God than that God so much as exists.
God takes away with one hand but gives with another. Even as scientists uncover the fundamentals of biology, they discover the fundamentals of the cosmos. New versions of the design argument go something like this:
The laws of nature have to be just right for the universe to be hospitable to evolution or to organismic life at all. For example, if gravity were slightly stronger or weaker, stars and planets could never have formed. The gravitational constant and other constants must have been fine-tuned by supernatural design.
Just how narrow the life-permitting ranges are is mind-boggling. If you haven’t yet read anything on this, you have no clue what mind-boggling even means. In contrast to the theory of evolution, alternative theories about fine-tuning are desperate. So far, the best skeptics can do is propose trillions upon trillions of universes, each differing in physical constants—so that a life-permitting universe is bound to turn up eventually. God or trillions of universes—take your pick.
But I’ll sketch a less familiar and more abstract design argument. The argument goes something like this:
Even putting aside fine-tuning, natural laws are curious things. There are two popular ways of understanding what they are, and each has big problems unless a supernatural being brings about the laws.
This is no god-of-the-gaps; the argument does not depend on scientific ignorance and won’t succumb to the discoveries of a future Darwin. Sure, we can explain Kepler’s Laws in terms of Newton’s Laws, and Newton’s Laws in terms of Einstein’s Laws, and so on. But that there are any laws at all is not something we can make sense of in terms of yet more laws.
Either we cannot make sense of why there are any natural laws at all, or we must appeal to something beyond laws. Why not take laws to be brute features of the universe with no deeper explanation? Because of the kind of thing natural laws are.
Here is one popular picture of what laws of nature are:
The universe is a patchwork of loosely connected events: Here is a flash. There is a bang. Here an apple falls. There, an apple falls. Sometimes these events occur in patterns, and when those patterns are universal enough—they’re laws.
There is, then, nothing more to the law of universal gravitation than a universal pattern of all bodies behaving gravitationally: all the apples falling, and so on. This is the view of the great enlightenment skeptic, David Hume. Mosaic has little to do with Moses.
Sometimes these events occur in patterns, and when those patterns are universal enough—they’re laws.
The picture leaves us with a big question: Why do the patterns exist? A dice landing six a thousand times cries out for explanation: it must be loaded. How much more so does the fact that it lands each time at all, as opposed to the infinity of other possibilities: floating, evaporating, turning into a flamingo, and so on. After all, In the mosaic picture, there’s nothing deeper in the patterns that guarantee their persistence or universality.
There are options. For one: in trillions of random universes, patterns will eventually appear. Maybe Einstein was an imbecile who didn’t understand a word he said, but in a trillion universes, there’s bound to pop up an imbecile with a lucky guess. Another option: the patterns are imposed on the universe by a supernatural being.
There are big problems with the mosaic view besides. Just for one: some patterns don’t count as laws. For example, all kangaroos are born on earth. Even if this remains forever true, it hardly counts as a law of nature. Sending a pregnant Kangaroo into space would be no miracle. To be sure, some philosophers have a lot to say in answer to such problems, and we wish them the best of luck.
After all, In the mosaic picture, there’s nothing deeper in the patterns that guarantee their persistence or universality.
Alternatively, here is a second popular picture of what laws of nature are:
The universe is a patchwork of events. The universe is a patchwork of events. Some patterns don’t have much of a grip on reality: that all people have been born on earth is an accident of history. Other patterns are tightly glued. All bodies have to behave gravitationally. There’s a law of nature when a pattern couldn’t have happened otherwise.
This is the view of the great Australian materialist David Armstrong. The superglue picture avoids the big question and the big problems of the mosaic picture: natural laws are no coincidences and are distinct from accidental patterns.
But there are significant problems with the superglue picture. For one, what does “have to” mean when we say that bodies have to behave gravitationally? A triangle has to have three angles, and the alternative is absolutely impossible. But some apples not behaving gravitationally does not look absolutely impossible, and we can easily imagine it. So why do apples have to behave gravitationally? Don’t dare say: Because of natural laws.
There are options. For one, propose that bodies have to behave gravitationally just like triangles have to have three angles. Mind you, denying that some body behaves gravitationally would not land you in any contradiction, like denying that a triangle has three sides would. While we’re swallowing brute necessities, maybe we can propose that the universe just had to have as many particles as it does. Another option: bodies have to behave gravitationally because a supernatural being makes them so behave—except when he doesn’t and performs a miracle instead.
There are yet further pictures of natural laws, and most end up being variants on the mosaic and superglue pictures. My impression is that any remotely plausible pictures have philosophical gaps, not scientific ones, that a supernatural being helps close. Then there are objections we haven’t considered: Why think that the supernatural being behind the natural laws is anything like God is supposed to be: one, omnipotent, omniscient, and so on? And what is it for a supernatural being to bring about natural laws anyhow?
If your interest in the questions about natural laws and God has been piqued, I recommend starting with the following online articles: this by John Caroll, this by Alvin Plantinga, and this by Richard Swinburne.