Saturday, 29 March 2014

The laws of nature

This article puts together several ideas that I have been pondering over the years but have not written much about or with such clarity. Doyle covers important issues such as:
  • The limited relationship between physical laws and judicial law
  • The moral nature of judicial law
  • The descriptive but non-prescriptive nature of physical law
  • How physical law represents God's general upholding of the universe
  • How miracles represent God's special activity in the universe
  • That miracles are impossible is a specious argument
  • That the term "methodological naturalism" is polemical, and unhelpful
Concerning methodological naturalism and science, Doyle not only notes that the term "methodological naturalism" invokes philosophical naturalism ("naturalism" being the shortened form) because they sound similar, methodological naturalism is not even accurate because naturalism does not imply regularity—why should we expect an ordered universe? I think a more useful term for science is empirical induction. Such a term would make scientific fields much narrower though increase clarity. Much of cosmology, palaeontology, archaeology and many other disciplines would come under the umbrella of inferred history.

I would like to add a thought on law. It is not clear than the physical laws are informational rather than just geometrical. The descriptions of such laws are informational, but the laws themselves may not be. I think that they are but that they have low information content. High information content occurs in designed objects such as flowers and people. And morality, while containing information, is more than information. That is, we have matter (and related qualities such as space and time) and the physical laws that describe how they behave; we have message which represents complex objects; and we have morals which specify how conscious objects are to behave.

An excellent article that I wish I had written.

Defining arguments away—the distorted language of secularism

by Shaun Doyle


One of the means that secularists have used to achieve dominance in the culture over the last 250 years has been the manipulation of language. Key terms have been modified, and new terms coined, which slant the ‘rules of engagement’ between Christianity and secularism against Christianity. Three terms in particular: ‘natural law’, ‘miracle’, and ‘methodological naturalism’ have been affected. If we do not expose and correct this sophistry, an honest debate is not possible. At root, these issues reflect the clash between worldviews that must ultimately be accepted for reasons outside of science.

‘The laws of nature’—confusion and caution

One of the most common ways to talk about well-established scientific ideas is to refer to them as ‘the laws of nature’, ‘natural law/s’, or ‘scientific law/s’. These phrases conjure up notions of an orderly universe, and convey the idea that science can teach us much about the universe. The notion of ‘law’ can be a helpful metaphor for understanding the regularity we see in how the universe works, but it is just a metaphor.

One thing true of all metaphors is that they are only helpful to a point before they break down. They do so because, from the point of view of formal logic, all metaphors break the law of non-contradiction. When they are pushed too far, different things end up equated in ways that amount to false statements. For example, saying “Mark is a teddy bear” with reference to Mark’s gentleness equates the physical softness of the teddy bear with the gentle character of Mark, which amounts to saying that Mark has a gentle character. However, saying that “Mark is a teddy bear” with reference to Mark’s physical makeup does not work because Mark, a human, is clearly not made of stuffing! Not all the attributes of teddy bears can be attributed to Mark, and vice versa. This doesn’t invalidate the use of metaphors because everyone intuitively knows this, and we don’t use a metaphor to say that two different things are logically identical—only that they are identical in some significant and relevant property in a particular sense.
‘Natural law’ is itself a metaphor for the regularities of the physical world drawn from the concept of human law. Moreover, it’s a natural metaphor to draw, given a sovereign moral Lawgiver who also upholds His creation in an orderly way (figure 1). The regularities of nature are so regular that they seem to reflect some principle that the matter itself cannot transgress, like how people cannot transgress a human law. However, the notions of obedience and transgression are themselves concepts that most properly apply to the behaviour of moral agents—a concept which does not apply to inanimate matter and energy. That is one of many ways that human laws are not identical to ‘natural laws’, and presents an area where the metaphor breaks down.
Are ‘natural laws’ prescriptive?

However, as people jettisoned the Bible and its doctrine of providence and came to accept a ‘fuzzy positivism’ in its place from the 19th century onwards, many people seemed to forget that the notion of ‘natural law’ is just a metaphor. Because of this, and that the metaphor is so fitting, we have forgotten to pay attention to those areas where the regularities of nature do not correspond to human laws. Failure to recognize the metaphorical nature of ‘natural law’ has brought undue confusion over how the world actually works. The problem is that people often conceive of ‘the laws of nature’ as materially equivalent to human laws. If someone does what human law forbids, it is described as ‘breaking’ or ‘violating’ the law. People then apply this same notion of law to ‘the laws of nature’, and consider a miracle in the same way they consider an illegal act—as if some precept has been ‘broken’ or ‘violated’. The biggest mistake people make when they equate ‘natural law’ and human law is that they make natural law prescriptive. However, there are two major errors with understanding the concept of ‘natural law’ like this.

First, when people think of ‘natural laws’ as prescriptive, there is in fact a subtle but significant difference in what ‘prescriptive’ connotes in comparison to human laws. Human laws are prescriptive messages—they are coded information. Human laws are not inextricably bound to any given physical form—one can communicate the law “you shall not murder” in any human language, and in numerous different physical formats (e.g. writing on a piece of paper, Morse code, speech, etc.). Moreover, a human law cannot render the act of murder physically impossible. Herein lies the difference—when ‘natural law’ is seen as prescriptive, it is not conceived of as merely coded information, but is something materially able to make certain states of affairs physically impossible. However, ascribing ‘natural law’ a tangible existence like this commits the fallacy of reification, which treats abstract concepts as concrete objects. ‘Natural law’ is an abstract concept—it is coded information, like human laws, which formally describes regular patterns observed in nature. As such, ‘natural laws’ have no more power to cause the regularities of nature than a redraw of a map of New Zealand can change the physical coastline.

Second, although human laws and ‘natural laws’ are both coded information, they are different types of messages. Human laws prescribe what people should and should not do, e.g. the law forbidding murder. The law itself says nothing about how people actually act—it is a command, not a statement of fact. ‘The laws of nature’ are different: they are formal descriptions of regular patterns observed in nature—i.e. they are statements of fact. They either correspond with reality or they do not. However, it is meaningless to apply the notion of correspondence with reality to a human law such as forbidding murder, because it is an imperative command, not a statement of fact. Conversely, the statement: “murder is ethically wrong” is a statement of (ethical) fact, and is generally implied to form the basis for the law forbidding murder. This means ‘the laws of nature’ are not formally prescriptive, and are more accurately seen as descriptive concepts.

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