randombio.com | commentary
Saturday, February 10, 2018

Do Natural Laws Exist?

What are natural laws? For that matter, what is a deity? Maybe they are the same.

A s we all know, Western religions hypothesize that a conscious being who transcends space and time pays attention to humans and acts as a source of moral authority. But does this deity correspond to anything real?

Many scientists would say religion is a cultural phenomenon, outside of their purview, and thus the question is unanswerable. They would also argue that anything outside the natural world cannot be studied scientifically.

I don't see it that way. I suspect any set of natural laws about societies and our relationship with the universe gives the appearance of a conscious being. One might ask: is there any practical difference between these two concepts? What is a set of natural laws? For that matter, what is a conscious being? I am beginning to suspect they're the same.

Now, don't worry, I'm not going to start quoting the Bible. I'm asking a dry and boring scientific question, hopefully with lots of mathematical formulas. We need to be, as Daniel 1:4 says, “skilful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science.” Or as it says in 1 Timothy 6:20, “avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.” Oh, whoops. (Speaking of profane and vain babblings, how did they know about the Internet so long ago?)

How could a set of laws appear to our mind to be an intelligent being? It's because, just as when interacting with a person, things happen in a law-driven universe that we don't expect, but which lead to well defined and understandable outcomes. This is indistinguishable from what happens when we interact with a conscious being.

Leibniz (and others) defined the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which says if two things are indistinguishable, which is to say if every predicate possessed by one is also possessed by the other, they are the same. Another term for it is Identity of Indiscernibles. Einstein used this reasoning in his Principle of Equivalence to show that gravity and acceleration are the same.

I should mention that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is somewhat controversial, and some authors dispute the connection between Leibniz and Einstein.

But questions immediately arise: Is existence is a predicate? Do natural laws actually exist, or are they mere mental constructs? If they don't exist, then does it make sense to claim they are identical to something else? I'm going to have to punt on that baby.

The same question could be asked about a deity. If he doesn't actually exist, then his attributes could be anything. We could get away with saying he's infinite, or the “ground of being,” or innate, and no one could contradict us.

Be that as it may, natural laws, insofar as they relate to societies in general, remain largely uninvestigated by science. We don't have the intellectual scaffolding to know how to study them effectively. It should be possible, at least in principle, to identify laws of nature that govern how our actions toward one another determine the health of a civilization. Sociology tried, but has gotten bogged down in minutiae and ideology.

Now, some people get all uppity when people say things like that, and accuse us of scientism, which is the idea that the scientific method is the only way to obtain knowledge. For instance, Edward Feser in Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction writes:

[S]cientism faces a dilemma: it is either self-refuting or trivial. . . . The claim that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything” is not itself a scientific claim . . . . Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically.

By ‘trivial’ Feser means that claiming all rational inquiry is scientific inquiry arbitrarily redefines science to include everything. By ‘self-refuting’ he means that the scientific method presupposes an objective world, and only by breaking out of this limitation (which, he says, is impossible) could science justify its assumptions.

I don't find that argument particularly compelling, since no field of inquiry can justify its assumptions—that's why they have them. Also, how do we be so sure that studying things that don't exist is impossible? We have only to look at string theory to see how trivial an obstacle like non-existence can be. And philosophers talk about things that don't exist all the time.

I submit that it's impossible to say anything about nonexistent things that's true. In fact, it's practically the definition of a true statement that it must correspond to something real.

But societies are real, and so science can in principle be used to study them. The rewards would be great: if we can learn the underlying rules that govern civilizations, it might be possible to save our own.

We tend to think of the Roman Empire as the malevolent, corrupt civilization they became at the end, but at its height they had created an immensely dignified, sophisticated, and civilized world. Just as importantly, they left behind a large literary and historical record that may help us understand what went wrong.

Edward Gibbons famously blamed the weakening of the Empire on Christianity. The timeline seems compelling: the Empire split into two in AD 286. In 392 the emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths under Alaric only 18 years later.

Many competing theories exist, such as Joseph Tainter's economic theory, which says that taxation became so high that people came to believe that anything would be preferable. But there's at least a suggestion that natural psychological laws determine whether a civilization binds together or dissolves. For instance, the Romans with their gladiators and the Aztecs with their religious rituals both engaged in human sacrifice. Some civilizations engaged in cannibalism. Other societies took great care to purge themselves of the negative effects of what they had to do to survive.

Maybe there's something to the idea that harmful practices contaminate the way people interact. Call it contaminating a soul with sin if you want. By the principle of equivalence, they're the same. Sociology and religion ought to merge: they're studying the same stuff.

feb 10 2018, 5:57 am

Related Articles

Civilizational Collapse and Regeneration
Civilizations are living ideas, not just economic constructs.

Hell and Damnation
We should interpret religious concepts as hard-earned wisdom about what civilizations need to survive.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

book reviews