God, forces and the laws of nature

You are stranded alone on a desert island. The perfect stereotype: sand, a few rocks, palm tree in the middle. Absolutely nothing to eat or drink. No sign of human presence.

You go to sleep, and in the morning you wake up hungry. You open your eyes and see, on a rock next to you, a plate with a fried egg, bacon, sausage and baked beans. Next to it is a glass of fruit juice and a mug of coffee. There is absolutely no sign of how it got there; no footprints, no sound of a helicopter, nothing. Hungry as you are, you scoff the whole lot.

Next morning exactly the same thing happens. And the morning after. Day after day this food keeps turning up, and there is still no sign of who is putting it there.

After a few weeks you start taking the food for granted. You assume that tomorrow’s will arrive in the normal manner. One day the sausages are a little over-cooked and instead of your original amazement that there is anything there at all, you feel a bit disappointed. In other words the regular arrival of the food has become something to take for granted. It is the way things are on this island. It has become what scientists call a ‘law of nature’.

But, you may think, it isn’t a scientific law because we haven’t explained who has put it there. Here’s the problem. Scientific laws of nature never do describe the forces that make things happen. They only describe the regularities with which they happen.

This is what Isaac Newton’s great achievement was in his Principia. He showed the connection between apples falling off trees and planets circling the sun: the mathematics work out the same. The law of nature he discovered is an observed regularity, expressed as an equation. Equations are not forces. Equations do not push planets round the sun, they just describe. As far as Newton was concerned the force making these things happen was God.

50 years later David Hume puzzled about this. All science presumes causation. One event causes another. Yet we never see causation. All we ever see is one thing following another, with the regularity that makes us assume cause and effect.

Today physicists still use causal language, like force and momentum, to describe what we see happening. This is fair enough in itself; after all, there must be real forces making things happen the way they do. But the laws of nature are not those forces; they only describe what the forces do.

So when you call your daily plate of unexplained breakfast a law of nature, you are using the term in exactly the way scientists use it. The regularity of its appearance, when sufficiently established, makes it a law of nature; but being a law of nature does not explain what makes it happen at all.

In modern secular society we often confuse the two. We imagine that once a process has been described as a law of nature we have explained what is making it happen. This mistake lies at the heart of modern atheism: by treating the laws of nature as though they were forces we assume that no more explanation is needed. When we realise that they are only descriptions, not forces, we then have to face the fact that, however good science is at describing how things happen, it does not describe what makes them happen. That question needs a different kind of answer.

When the study of anthropology began in the nineteenth century it was dominated by atheists who mistook the laws of nature for forces. They soon found their biggest puzzle: given that belief in gods was an error, with absolutely no empirical evidence in its favour, why did different societies, all over the world, with no communication with each other, all make exactly the same mistake?

It was they who were mistaken. The people they were studying, whom they often despised as ‘primitives’ or ‘savages’, knew that their breakfast was indeed turning up every day, provided by forces beyond their understanding. They were not so foolish as to think this provision could be caused by the fact that it was regular. Over and above its regularity, somebody or something must be putting it there.

Somebody? Or something? Go back to your desert island and imagine your third or fourth morning, opening your eyes to see that plateful yet again. It’s too good to be an accident. If you have an ounce of humanity in you, you will want to know who is putting it there because you would like to say thank you.

Posted by Jonathan Clatworthy 30 November 2013

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