In a comment to my last post Dr. Torley notes that many scientists take the laws of nature as brute facts that “are ‘just there’ and cannot be changed.” According to Dr. Torley, “Scientists who take this view of Nature tend to fall into the intellectual trap of regarding the laws of Nature as necessary. In fact, they are nothing of the sort: they are totally contingent.”
What does Dr. Torley mean that the laws of nature are “contingent”? To answer this question let us consider what we mean by the phrase “law of nature” (synonyms: “natural law,” “physical law,” and “mechanical necessity”). Wikipedia has a pretty good discussion of what the term means here. The Wiki article makes clear that the phrase “law of nature” can be boiled down to the following definition: “An observed regularity.”
Consider this observation in the context of a particular law of nature, say the general law of gravitation. That law states that the gravitational force between two objects is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. That’s a lot of fancy talk for a fairly simple concept: Objects exert a gravitational attraction over other objects in proportion to their mass. Therefore, relatively massive objects (e.g., the moon, the earth, the sun) exert a lot of gravitational force compared to relatively less massive objects. That’s why when I let go of a hammer it falls toward the earth instead of the earth moving toward the hammer. However, the force is weakened by distance. The further away an object is, the less gravitational attraction it will exert. The key to the law (the reason it is called a “law” in the first place) is that objects conform precisely to the formula. We can count on the law like the rising of the sun. Indeed, the rising of the sun is an example of the law in operation.
Just as they have with many other physical laws, scientists have used their understanding of the general law of gravitation to achieve spectacular successes. Astronomers use the law to map the movements of stars and planets with astounding precision; astrophysicists use the law to put spacecraft on the moon, etc.. What, however, does the general law of gravitation (or any other physical law) tell us about the underlying nature of reality? Just here is where materialists go off the rails, because they seem to believe that by merely describing an “observed regularity” they have somehow explained it. But have they?
Why do massive objects attract instead of repel? Why shouldn’t the force become greater as distance increases? Why is gravitational attraction a function of mass and distance at all? I can imagine a universe where objects exert an attractive force based on, say, their color, with blue objects exerting more attractive force than red ones.
Saying “this is the way it always happens” is not the same thing as saying “this is why it happens this way.” I have always loved the way Chesterton described this issue in The Ethics of Elfland chapter of Orthodoxy.
When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a ‘law,’ for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, ‘law,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘order,’ ‘tendency,’ and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.
The materialist says that water runs downhill because it is obeying the general law of gravitation — every molecule of water falls toward the center of the earth’s mass in proportion to the relative mass between the molecule and the earth and the inverse square of the distance between them. True enough. But what does that really explain? Why does the water molecule obey the general law of gravitation with such slavish devotion? Have we really explained the phenomenon when we merely say, “the phenomenon conforms with a previously observed regularity”? Do we have any warrant to believe that the previously observed regularity is necessary? Are there not possible worlds in which water would behave slightly (or even vastly) differently? In other words, isn’t the observed regularity contingent instead of necessary? These are questions materialists never seem to ask themselves, and as a consequence they are blind to much of the beauty and wonder of the universe.