The Laws of Nature
What are “laws of nature?” In the conventional sense of the word law, we see a meaning akin to “a rule that people must abide by.” In the governmental sense, laws do not absolutely restrict; they can be broken, even if there are penalties for doing so. When discussing natural laws, this is not the case. Natural laws cannot be broken. This tells us that we are dealing with a very different sort of idea when we use this version of “law.”
I fear I may have just set the stage for a massive deception, however. If you conceive of natural laws as similar to those of the legal sphere (only unbreakable), you’re going at it entirely wrong. The laws of nature are not some combination of metaphysical sliding scales that determine the speed of light, logical progression, mass, energy, or the deliciousness of cheesecake. The laws of nature are deceptively mislabeled—they do not decide the parameters of reality; they merely describe the things we’ve identified as consistent in the observations we’ve made about our universe. These “laws” have been rewritten several times as new information has been discovered. Newtonian physics led to relativistic physics. Observations made under a microscope do not apply to forces acting at the Planck scale or in quantum physics.
In the same way that we might describe a tune played in a minor scale as somber or one in major as uplifting, the laws of nature describe the observable cosmos. As we discover new things, we are forced to refine or reevaluate what we had previously taken to be “law.”
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Let’s look at one particular instance of nature’s laws in the real world. The fastest thing in the observable universe is light. Light travels at c—that is 299,792,458 meters per second. Try as hard as you like, you can’t go faster than light.
Except for when you can. Light can be slowed down. The law of nature that says you cannot travel faster than light is situational; it can be violated either by slowing light down (and then challenging it to a race on your moped, presumably) or conceivably through quantum teleportation (you may not be able to go through physical space faster than unimpeded light, but that doesn’t mean you can’t beat it in a race by cheating!).
Can I say it enough times? The laws of nature function only to describe the natural world. Furthermore, they do so only conditionally. For each natural law you come across, you should mentally append the phrase “Under normal operating conditions…” to the beginning. The laws of nature describe the cosmos like the clock speed on your new CPU describes how fast it computes (oh, sure, that’s a 4 GHz processor—until I overclock it!). Have I repeated myself enough yet? Good, let’s move on.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see how misunderstanding physical laws can lead to ever-increasing confusion. If you believe, for example, that because the second law of thermodynamics “dictates” that systems can move only from states of order into states of disorder (never the other way around), you are mistaken. If you further believe that this same law disproves evolution, you are even more wrong. Indeed, order can and does occur even in systems where the net entropy level is rising—just like “global warming” results in a net gain in average global temperatures, certain areas of the planet grow cooler (see the blue areas on the image here), even if only temporarily.
Evidence for Gods?
Creationists like to cite natural laws as evidence against evolution or for their deity, but this is precisely as convincing as citing the Chinese Lunar calendar to prove the existence of dragons. Is it possible that these laws “could have been” different? Possibly, but possibly not. We don’t know.
There is no evidence for gods.* We may have situations where our explanations are inadequate (or perhaps even entirely nonexistent), but a lack of materialistic explanation for a phenomenon is no more evidence for godly intervention than it is for space aliens. “How did the pyramids get there? You can’t explain it, so it must have been God!” This argument works exactly as well to prove a god as it proves that Martians built the pyramids—in the event that any of my readers wish to read this paragraph verbatim to someone who is terribly dim, that means the argument proves neither God nor space aliens. There is only one conclusion we can draw from a situation where we do not have an answer: I don’t know. If I don’t know, that means I don’t know. It does not mean goddidit.
Let’s look at one particularly egregious Christian argument: “God is revealed through the laws of nature. These unchanging laws are proof of God. Without God, there would be no way to understand the world.” These are very definitely clear English words, but they seem to be presented in a dialect that I do not speak. These sentences are entirely without meaning. As best as I can tell, the English equivalents of these arguments are as follows:
- By quantifying natural laws, we are learning about God.
- The world has laws, and those laws can only be explained by God.
- Knowledge requires God, so learning about the universe requires God.
Of course, the collective font of human knowledge dispels these claims. By studying the universe, we are learning about the universe; you can call the mathematics of the universe “God,” but this does not make the idea of “the Christian concept of deity” actually exist—it’s just an equivocation. (Although it’s an equivocation that pantheists would probably enjoy having Christians make.) The rest of it is no more than a glorified argument from ignorance, and it’s not even particularly compelling at that. As I’ve said, the universe does not have laws in any sort of legal/prescriptive sense; it does have patterns, and we call those patterns laws. We can and do identify these in purely naturalistic terms. We know that the requirement for knowledge is a functioning brain—the fact that someone can have a stroke (or other brain damage) and forever lose large portions of their memory demonstrates that knowledge is stored in the body, not in a god. Animals know things; trees do not. Christians do not become scientists at the higher rate you would expect if God and the laws of nature were linked. This argument further suggests that the natural laws (again, meaning the observed patterns) would not exist without God, but there is simply no way to support this claim. Either a god exists, or it does not. If it does, then you cannot remove that god from the universe and “try again” just to see if the universe would function in its absence. If it does not exist, the notion is even more evidently vacuous. Since the very premise of a god is yet unproven, this argument cannot answer the question “Why does the cosmos exist?”
So what is the answer to this question? I don’t know. Cosmologists have several plausible explanations for the origins of our universe. Like a child exploring its thirst for knowledge (and for frustrating its parents), we too could ask a never-ending series of questions. Why is there a universe? The big bang. Why was there a big bang? Quantum vacuums are unstable, so something popped into existence from the nothing. Or maybe because two branes collided, sparking the creation of a new universe: ours. In either case, why did it happen? Because of complicated mathematics. Why do those formulas result in this state? Why? Why? Why? We will, at some point, reach a question to which the only answer is “I don’t know.” And when we get there, that’s the right answer. We don’t know. That doesn’t mean the question is unanswerable (although it might be in the case of a meaningless or malformed question), but an unanswered question is not proof of Martians.
That’s what we’re talking about, right? Martians? Because I hear the pyramids prove that they exist.
* That I know of. Maybe someone somewhere has some? If so, send it to me ASAP. (If you want me to buy your book, though, chances are that you're full of it.)