Law Overruled?

What Christianity says is merely this. That this repetition in nature has its origin not in a thing resembling a law but a thing resembling a will… G.K.Chesterton – The Blatchford Controversies.

Having glanced once more at our roadmap, we confirm that we have now set our sights on a discussion of atheism vs theism. Let’s be under no illusion about our goal. We are not trying to determine which worldview is more “useful” or “beneficial.” This might strike us as odd, but we have left the world of so-called “pragmatism” when we abandoned agnosticism, relativism and indifferentism. We are looking for the “bedrock”… the truth of the matter. We might fully expect that acting in accord with the correct view of reality should cause the important things to fall into place for us, but beginning with “utility” would only restrict the search to our own limited view and purposes.

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” Matthew 6:33

I’d first like to, without any hesitation, heap some praise on our archetypal sincere and strident atheist (not to be confused with the “practical” atheist.) This individual is under no delusions that the truth is relative, unimportant or of no avail. On the contrary, there is, in my estimation, a compulsion (though a misguided one) for truth that is refreshing. They don’t shrug their shoulders and utter a lukewarm “whatever” in response to religious claims. Both sides of the debate being conscious that worldview not only matters, but is foundational, allows us to dive without delay into the much anticipated logical sparring.

“The Christian and the Materialist hold different beliefs about the universe. They can’t both be right. The one who is wrong will act in a way which simply doesn’t fit the real universe. Consequently, with the best will in the world, he will be helping his fellow creatures to their destruction.” C.S. Lewis – Man or rabbit

The first fact we encounter is the order that we perceive in the universe… i.e. the patterns that are discernible to us. What is well known is that materialists and theists account differently for the order. What is easy to overlook is the seemingly innocuous point that they do not quibble over the admission of order itself. It is obvious and not contested in the least between the two sides. It is to this point that I would like to draw attention. It is really a strange notion for the order of a system to be perceptible to a contingent entity within it (e.g. human beings.) Some may argue that such patterns are in the mind only, and not “out there,” in the world we experience (as nominalism does.) But if that were true then applied science and technology wouldn’t in point of fact “work,” (i.e. produce material results from elements of the system itself.) You have to rely on the order truly being “out there” for insights and innovations in science and technology to build upon one another and be as fruitful as they have evidently been. In other words, the phased acquisition of knowledge about the universe is “rewarded” (so to speak) by yielding benefits/outcomes that would not be available without it… so any flat insistence on the supposed illusory nature of this effect without an account of why it would be so is simply avoiding the issue. Of course it is obvious that phenomena can be illusory, but the point here is that the burden of proof should be on the claimant to expose the illusion. It may be proffered that it is really the will, effort and material utilized that brings out the observed effect. But while it is true that it requires will, effort and materials to bring about the effect, having the wrong “insight” or “design” would necessarily be an obstacle.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” John 1:1-2

This human capacity for abstract knowledge is further demonstrated by examining specific cases of how the human mind relates to the material environment. Let’s consider the set of numbers as a particular example of these abstractions: we often observe created instantiations of three trees, or three cars, but we do not see the number three itself in nature… (that squiggly line we use in writing just represents it, as evidenced by the Roman numeral III indicating the same concept as the arabic numeral, while looking much different.) In light of this, to say that math is “made up” by humans in the face of all the evidence of how well it describes natural phenomena and makes possible new discoveries would be a truly breathtaking claim! Such a “dodge” can often be motivated by an aversion to the consequence of admitting the reality of abstraction… it would point to a non-material component in human nature required to account for this ability. Much like the need to have the necessary electrical energy to power appliances, or the physical strength to lift weights… each capacity is aligned in kind to the effect produced.

Yet another example of this immaterial capacity is something even the modern world admits is a key factor for economic growth. Here I’m referring to “intellectual property,” something clearly abstract and non-material (hence the name.) Many studies suggest it has been core to boosting economic development wherever it is fostered. You would think this would be denied in favor of arguing that development is really due to adding material inputs (like a new source of oil reserves, growth in the workforce, etc.) In the end it may be the subtlety of the point being made that allows its apparently innocuous concession. The concept lacks a sensationalistic “wow factor,” and as a result, this little “miracle” tends generally speaking not to register on our radars.

This subtlety may be one of the reasons why we have this apparently unsettled question about the source of these recognizable patterns and repetitions… yes this order that we have been speaking of. Is the ground of this order, “law in the abstract”? Or is it personal (i.e. “willed?”) Upon the bedrock of this question all of the individual points of the theism / atheism debate rests.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” Matthew 7:24-25

Some may admit that concepts like “intellectual property” are in fact evidence for the intelligibility of the universe, but would ask, “Need I go any further than the principle itself? Isn’t that where the ontology of non-material things terminate… i.e. in inert laws?” There the theist would say
that the presence of any “laws” in the universe implicitly cries out for a Lawgiver. On the other hand an atheist may object that the presence of a will (which comes with a lawgiver,) undermines the law, making it seem subject to whim. Such a response though only attempts to extrapolate based on the experience of our own whims. We basically have more anthropomorphism going on here as we have an unwarranted ascription of humanity’s fickle and arbitrary fallen nature to God. The theist might respond that laws as laws without a lawgiver are not really “laws” at all. There is no reason to expect their enduring and no reason to hold them in any regard. So ultimately, upholding the Lawmaker (rightly construed) actually puts laws on a firmer footing. The latter point is important for the “character” of the scientific discipline: is the
external world and its limitations a challenge to man’s freedom, or a training ground for it? If the latter, the project is self-sustaining, as it treats inquiry and development in humble service to Creator and creation. If the former, the project would be self-defeating as it sets up the
incentive to undermine the very ground to which it owes its existence. As we look around today this is no theoretical speculation, we see many in the name of “science” sawing off the branches on which they sit.

“The nations have sunk in the pit which they made; in the net which they hid has theirown foot been caught.” Psalm 9:15

An additional help in considering the Lawgiver over “laws in a vacuum” is that it can actually be examined empirically… (I know that may be shocking to those who have imbibed the pop culture canard of faith/reason incompatibility.) If we were for the moment only to focus on the laws for which we do observe a source (i.e instructions for assembly, juridical laws, etcetera,) we would have to acknowledge that order does issue from persons (with intellect and will.) So, if in the specific set of laws for which a source is observable, we see the order issuing from persons, why should we make an exception when it comes to the universe and its laws? A couple objections may arise here. One would probably involve balking at the bracketing of the source of the laws of physics as “not observable.” It may appear that we are tossing out observations that don’t fit the premise due to bias, but the real reason is that we truly were not around to directly observe the origin of these laws. Strictly speaking then, we would have to make no conclusion about them. Notice I am not favoring one view over the other with regard to the source of the laws of physics when it comes to this particular argument. The point is focused on building credibility based on what we do observe and reasoning to a general principle based on those cases (i.e. what is most plausible based on the observations we can make.) The other objection would target the link between the intelligent agent and the law/order itself. Specifically, an atheist may ask: “What if man is only operating as animals do, in that they are ‘slaves’ to a higher degree of order and not issuers of them?” In other words, they issue order because a “meta-order” drives them to do so. This kind of determinism is very popular among atheists. It is also “can kicking” as it rejects the plain experience/observation as illusory and appeals to a further mechanistic order (without demonstration) compelling the person to act without volition or real decision making capacity. For this assertion to be tenable, we’d have to see humanity settling into some repeating pattern across all activities as non-rational animals do. But the fact that birds do not have “impressionist” periods when building nests could be enough to shake one out of such notions. Birds invariably follow the same instinctual approach. Further examination of this fact is illustrative. Humanity’s changing styles and fashions imply a certain restlessness relative to other species. This restlessness of humanity, despite its dominance over the phyla of species, never quite reaches an equilibrium point in its striving… a striving that has brought technological progress and increased material comfort. I don’t necessarily denigrate this progress nor do I inordinately laud it… I bring this up simply to observe that, while I am grateful for this gain, the empirically verifiable insufficiency of this type of progress, even in incrementally satisfying / pacifying human nature, points to that same nature’s spiritual dimension. We don’t have to look at standard of living indices to know that we are just as frustrated today when it takes 3 seconds for a web page to load as when that equivalent task took a whole afternoon (at the library) 30+ years ago. Yup, we humans are an odd lot, we just don’t fit completely into the material universe as other species do…

“That is the simplest lesson… it is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey, and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of a division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.” GK Chesterton – The Everlasting Man.

The talk of apes and humans now brings us to the so-called “war of science and religion.” This is usually the theater in which most of the battles happen, though admittedly not all atheists (especially some of those sympathetic to postmodernism) would take this tack. But once science began explaining the world around us by secondary causes alone, many joined LaPlace in asserting that we are “…no longer in need of that hypothesis” in reaction to Napoleon’s attempt to locate God in LaPlace’s model of the universe. Let’s examine this a little more in depth… starting with the root meaning of the word “hypothesis.” It is literally a “standing under.” It’s presupposing causal dependency with a starting point… a hypothesis that undergirds it. There is a kind of sleight of hand going on here (not always intentional) that obscures the problem and seeks to cut short the true consequence of such a series of dependencies. To see this more easily we just need to recast the famous story using an everyday situation:

Napoleon: “Thank you for joining me for dinner LaPlace, can you tell me a little about your recent work while we wait for the coach conductor to give us a ride?”

LaPlace: “I’d be happy to… but first I must correct one thing. The coach is actually pulled by horses, which start the wheels of the coach spinning, pushing against the road and voila, the coach moves! I have no need of the coach conductor hypothesis!”

This example is meant to be silly, but it illustrates the problem. This happens very often, whether we talk about multiverses, bouncing universe cosmologies, or any other theories intended to push back against the evidence we now have in science for a beginning of the universe. Secondly, the point that LaPlace misses is one that is so often overlooked today… that our insights into the intelligibility of the material is itself a tacit admission of implied design. He expects order. Every attempt to find other, material causes for the last cause found meets with ever deepening complexity… organs become cells, become molecules, become atoms, etc… This attempt at probing is not in itself problematic, but if the motivation is to dispense with the Creator, then know that you are doubling down on a bad bet on each step, with odds progressively stacking against you. Seems like we might want to rummage through Laplace’s study to recover that “unneeded” hypothesis.

“Yet, as it turned out, the rise of science needed the broad and persistent sharing by the whole population, that is, an entire culture, of a very specific body of doctrines relating the universe to a universal and absolute intelligibility embodied in the tenet about a personal God, the Creator of all” Father Stanley Jáki (Phd in physics from Fordham University) – The Road of Science and the Ways to God

All of the fruitfulness of the scientific method and enterprise that has “unlocked” the potential of the material world only keeps upping the ante with regard to the intelligibility of the world. The universe does not explain itself. Scientists assume this when going about their work in discovering more and more that is not a priori evident to us. There is a provisional kind of faith required, period… full stop. We must now ask, in light of the mountain of evidence that the universe is intelligible to us… what is the appropriate object of this faith?

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” Robert Jastrow – God and the Astronomers.

The argument here is that it can’t be “laws” and laws by themselves do nothing… they point to order in the material. They themselves depend on the physical objects they govern. The law of the conservation of mass is incoherent without the presence of mass. It needs an intelligent Creator as well. Materialism itself fails when cross examined. Looking at ourselves as human
beings is illustrative in seeing this. Human beings, while certainly having physical bodies, also have a rational capacity that allows participation in the non-physical… i.e. we can think and know… and this somehow fills a need. The material itself is not sufficient to satisfy and we can see this empirically when we observe that increased production and consumption individually and collectively over time has not led to a commensurate increase in peace and contentment. Quite the contrary, it seems that the inverse tends to happen too often. One could argue that we just haven’t gotten to that optimal point yet, but that still doesn’t explain why some with less
are happier than enough of those with more. As previously mentioned, it is very strange that humans alone among all species have not settled into an equilibrium within creation, but keeps forging on, aiming restlessly at something it cannot seem to grasp. Man acts like a stranger, not only on the earth, but in the universe. It is clear that something (actually Someone) non-material is missing.

“But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” Matthew 4:4

Other objections to theism typically involve miracles… specifically their “inadmissibility” in the discourse, presumably because a lawful universe precludes miracles. This conclusion however tends to be made because of the way miracles are understood, or rather misunderstood. The materialist’s notion that the theist argues for an “undermining” of laws with the proposal of miracles is completely mistaken. Miracles cannot “break” the laws of nature, they go beyond them… in fact they (the laws of nature) must be presupposed for miracles to even be perceived as miracles at all. We would never say a juggler breaks the law of gravity when applying a counterforce to the objects he’s throwing around. Miracles highlight and refer to the backdrop of laws the same way a musical instrument solos over the rhythm section in a piece of music. The supposed opposition is a false dichotomy that attempts to obscure the sublime compatibility.

“For, obviously, the mere fact that a thing happens seldom, under odd circumstances and with no explanation within our knowledge, is no proof that it is against natural law.” GK Chesterton – The Blatchford controversies

Often there is a misconception that there is no documented proof of miracles, but that usually means that there is no “repeatable experiment” humans can conduct. This is truly laughable, as any truly repeatable experiment would just result in the classification of the phenomenon as another facet of the natural law! If we can unchain ourselves from this false dogma against miracles, we could consult many documented miracles. Some of the strongest have come from respected, peer reviewed scientific journals that catalogued near death experiences with witnesses attesting to hearing conversations happening in other parts of the hospital and even a doctor’s placement of the patient’s dentures in a specific drawer… all while under anesthesia on an operating table! We also have the unexplained image on the Shroud of Turin, which could only recently be reproduced with the most advanced lasers… and the miracle of the sun in Fatima Portugal in 1917, which had even secular newspapers reporting the strange phenomenon, because… well because they had to… too many people witnessed it.

While such evidence should certainly be admissible, it ought to be complemented by a rational / philosophical approach. As mentioned above, the evidence for a beginning of the universe (including not just matter & energy, but time and space also,) has convinced many about the truth of theism. It implies that the universe is not infinite into the past and, given this premise, would have to have a Cause that was not material or time bound. This Cause would also have to have infinite power and intelligence to bring something from nothing…. Starting to sound familiar? But before we “drop the mike”, it is important to acknowledge that science is a progressive discipline, and is subject to “gaps” that could be filled in at some point. This fact makes an “era independent” rational/philosophical argument even more necessary, since an erroneous impression might be given that there weren’t any “modes of credibility” until modern science showed up. There are in fact multiple formulations of such arguments, including the 5 ways proposed by St Thomas Aquinas.

For our purposes we might profit from examining one for now. Rather than examine things from a cosmological scale, we can start with what is more “local,” if you will. This side steps the need to determine whether or not the universe is past time infinite. While a past time finite universe is certainly a “smoking gun” for the existence of a Creator, a past time infinite universe is not necessarily a “lock” for the atheist or (as we may see later) the pantheist. This approach describes the necessity of non-contingent (necessary) Being, a shorthand for what is meant in classical theism by God. By definition, all the things we observe with our senses are physical, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. They are, as we observe down to the last one, contingent (i.e. dependent on that which is external to itself, and thus could be or not be.) There was a time when they were not around, and thus a time they could no longer be around.

Because of this, all contingent things had to begin to exist at some point in time, and put into existence, at that, by another. The case of only having contingent entities in a past time infinite universe may seem tenable at first blush, but breaks down upon further reflection… as any collection of contingent entities, regardless of number or perdurance over time, is itself contingent, and thus in need of a source (this is what it means to be contingent.) Whether this collection lasts 1 hour, 100 millennia or for an infinite duration, its nature is contingent. Any attempt to posit another infinite series of contingent entities to explain the one we experience only pushes the question back as the causal progression now is simply played out in a higher order. The question to ponder as you let that sink in is this: “Why is there anything now and why am I here?” The explanatory buck has to terminate somewhere… the evidence points to Necessary Being, even in a past time infinite universe. If we pivot to a universe with a beginning time point to avoid this conclusion, we end up with our original conclusion about the supernatural implication of a beginning, writ large.

A typical preoccupation can arise at this point that in such demonstrations, no account is given for many specific characteristics that are associated with the Christian God (i.e. the Incarnation, Trinitarian Nature, merciful disposition, etc.) or for many other conceptions of the divine. Here it seems there is a rush to change the subject which can actually point to a possible reticence to concede the force of the demonstration… one that provides another concrete step forward in the journey. The objection is similar to walking into an obvious crime scene and denying the crime took place because we didn’t get the eye color of the perpetrator.

“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Romans 1:20a

At this point, the weight of evidence seems to point to theism, but it would certainly be an obvious dodge to avoid discussing a problem that tends to leave us all dissatisfied with any treatment of the issues discussed thus far. Here I mean what most term the “problem of evil.” One of the most robust formulations of it is taken from Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

No matter what one’s position is in this debate, we must be honest and feel the force of this “problem.” Regardless of whether we have reasons to move forward on our journey or not, this remains a problem, and it wouldn’t be sincere in the least to entertain any glib or facile response. In other words, we can’t explain how a theist might approach the problem of evil by explaining it away… that proves too much and in the process gives the impression that the apologist “has no clothes.” We can’t just “wave away” the evil… that option is not open to us. A possible starting point is to start with describing what we mean by “evil.” There is a kind of trap in considering evil as a parallel opposite to good. We can see the trap in considering specific instances of evil; murder, theft, injury, lying and the like. What these acts show in each case is that the goal is a reduction, removal or “privation” of something good; life, property, health, and truth, respectively. So evil can only be possible if the good is a prerequisite. So the more anyone rails against evil, the more they are presupposing the standard of good that points to God. Ultimately, while not satisfying in any kind of visceral way, we can demonstrate that the invoking of this problem is really a tacit admission of the objective good. After all, it isn’t a peculiar stance of a few people, but a unanimous consensus of humanity that the world is off kilter. As if we were in a shipwreck with enough good things left over from that wreck to know that something did really go wrong. That inchoate knowledge should give us pause enough to wonder how this could have happened and lead us deeper into the mystery that this was in fact permitted.

And the latter is really the key question in the end. Even if one agrees that a standard of good is required to contextualize what is meant by evil, it’s permitted-ness leads to a number of questions. It might be erroneously inferred that there is some kind of power struggle which undermines the omnipotence of God. But such a scenario could, and is argued here does, indicate omnipotence in a greater way than if it was not permitted. In other words, if God can bring good out of evil, that doesn’t undermine His purview, but only indicates it’s complete, total and unambiguous unassailability. It does take an infinite amount of power to bring something good out of nothing, but it also requires as much in doing so out of opposition to the Ultimate
Good. The former is what we call “creation” and the latter, “salvation.” This leads us to wonder about the criticality and high regard given to free will, in light of what is permitted to preserve it in rational agents…

“His brothers also came and fell down before him, and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he reassured them and comforted them.” Genesis 50:18-21

It really is here that the journey gets interesting. We have only scratched the surface of this problem, and the plan is to return to it later, though I cannot (and would not) dare promise an exhaustive treatment. It is enough to say for now that, once someone admits of evil, it really has opened the door to the necessary corollary. Historically, the supermajority of humanity has, provoked by the mystery that by now is clearly palpable, sought to enter into the “why.” As useful as science is, it cannot (by virtue of its telos) answer that question. If you are still inclined to continue, the next stop beckons where we consider the question of monotheism vs polytheism in its various forms. It’s time to head to our next stop… “Idol Tales.”

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