Monday, January 14, 2019

Natural Laws And Divine Benevolence

     Long, long ago, on a Thanksgiving weekend far behind us, I wrote a brief piece for the old Palace of Reason in which I gave thanks for natural law. Unfortunately, I can’t find it any longer. However, the point I made way back then remains: invariant natural law is what permits us to learn, and thus to improve our situation. Learning is about cause and effect:

  • Given context C,
  • If I apply stimulus S,
  • Then response R will reliably occur within time interval T.

     ...where C, S, R, and T are all defined to within the limits of measurement and experimental error. Such laws make it possible for us to get particular results, including such trivia as food, clothing, shelter, and energy. Indeed, were there no natural laws, such that the behavior of matter and energy is disobedient to any rule of cause and effect, it would be impossible for life to exist.

     But there is a downside. That’s my subject for today.

     The recent movie God’s Not Dead, starring Kevin Sorbo and Shane Harper, is notable and worthy for several reasons. Not the least of these is its treatment of the anti-theists’ major weapon against Christian belief: the existence of pain and loss, whether brought about by persons acting on evil impulses or by impersonal forces that are merely obeying natural law. Principal antagonist Professor Jeffery Radisson (played by Sorbo) introduces this motif in a scene in which he confronts Christian student Josh Wheaton (played by Harper) with his reasons for having abandoned faith for a savagely militant atheism:

     “When a twelve-year-old watches his mother dying of cancer, it’s only natural to beg God for her life. He’ll promise anything to his make-believe Grandfather in the sky, including to love and worship Him forever...if only He will spare her....She died believing a lie. She died believing that Someone out there loved her even while He was strangling her to death. A God who would allow that is not worth believing in. That is why, Wheaton, you will find that the most committed atheists were once Christians. But we took the blinders off – we saw the world for what it truly is. You see, Shakespeare had it right. Life is really a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing!”

     A Christian determined to retain his faith regardless of all assaults must be familiar with this potent attack. For best results, he must know how to set it at naught.

     A system of natural laws in which life is possible leads to niches: pockets of conditions that favor certain organisms over others, according to those organisms’ needs and natures. Competition over time will then lead to dominance of the niche by the life-form its conditions best favor. Such dominance is often at the expense of other organisms, less well suited to the conditions there, which seek to share the niche. The phenomenon we call the food chain is one result.

     In the nonliving realm, natural laws will also give rise to dynamic interactions among the various forms of matter and energy. These things will interact in fashions insusceptible to precise foreknowledge or accurate control. Some of the changes that result will be inimical to nearby living things and systems. There will be warm, sunny days; there will also be flash floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. There will be beautiful meadows and forested mountains; there will also be volcanoes and earthquakes.

     The mere existence of matter, energy, and natural laws that govern their behavior guarantees all the above. The invisible element, which must not go unmentioned and uncontemplated, is time: the medium in which natural laws exert their force.

     Mind you, I can’t prove any of the above. But I can tell you, from my knowledge of simulation and its consequences, that so far no one has defined and simulated a dynamic system in which inviolable natural laws prevail but no undesirable consequences ever occur.

     We live in time. We benefit from its possibilities, most especially from learning how to use the natural laws for our benefit, but we must also deal with the downside.

     The critical consideration here is the question of divine benevolence, which is the central tenet of every variety of Christianity. The militant atheist’s thrust is that a benevolent God would not permit human suffering, whether through intended action by the evilly minded or through “natural” means such as virulent diseases and catastrophes. The riposte is as above: once God had created time and the laws that would operate within its scope, it was no longer possible to prevent all suffering. Indeed, the best that He could do was to make possible enough learning that over time, men would acquire knowledge enough, techniques enough, and wealth enough to steadily reduce the amount of suffering occasioned by evil, diseases, and disasters. And it is so! As Mankind has advanced, we have learned ever better how to protect ourselves against these things. We’ve also grown ever richer, and thus better able to afford the protective measures. I’m sure I needn’t go into great detail.

     Time is like that. So is the very possibility of invariant natural laws that operate in time.

     A real-life Christian college freshman in Josh Wheaton’s place probably wouldn’t have known how to frame the argument I’ve made here when confronted by an atheist professor. It’s a difficult argument to grasp, and much more so to formulate ab initio. It also requires an understanding of progress: that it takes time, that it is not monotonically increasing, and that it has enemies. Indeed, some of progress’s enemies style themselves “progressives.” So bookmark this column.

     And may God bless and keep you all.


Manu said...

I take a very different tact on this matter.

I have long believed that suffering is a necessary consequence of choice, of free will. Bear with me a bit, because I am, quite frankly, not as good at framing these matters as you are.

To have free will, one must be able to choose good or evil, right or wrong, better from worse. This implies that better and worse must exist, for us to have a choice between them. If God wanted beings who never suffered to exist, He never would have given us a will of our own.

Then Christ came, and demonstrated to us that God was not without heart for our burden. Through Christ, He suffered our pain, too.

Militant atheists have long implied that life without suffering is better than life with suffering. They apply only the yardstick of pain to this. All pain is bad, a world without pain is good. No mention is made of why pain might not be as bad as they assume.

It's overly simplistic. Pain is a teacher - often a necessary one, or else we would not spank our children, or take away their favorite toys when they do wrong. Is the teaching wrong because it hurts?

Ah, but what teaching is there if somebody has cancer and dies suffering? How does the randomness of creation work with that? From this we learn of the natural world, we learn how to cope with loss, we suffer - as Christ also did.

Stephen Lawhead's book Byzantium was instructive to me in this. A monk had long been trying to convert a band of Vikings to Christian faith. They did not like the 'dying' god very much, as they perceived him, because death and suffering were weaknesses to them.

Then the Vikings were captured by Arabs and enslaved, whipped, tortured... And they converted to Christianity after. Why? One Viking said that he thought he would suffer and die, but that it was okay, for Christ, too, suffered and died. Christ knew how it was with him, and if he should die, Christ would welcome him home. He was so unlike the pagan gods in this respect.

Everything you say of the natural world is true, Francis. But beyond that, we cannot have choice if better or worse do not exist. We cannot have free will without suffering. We cannot be made in the image of God if we cannot suffer - for, through Christ, He could also.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Well, Dys, yes: free will is required to explain human evil...but I hope you're sitting comfortably, because I'm about to throw you a screwball:

Can you imagine a species that possesses individual self-awareness, needs, and desires but that doesn't possess free will?

It's my contention that natural law makes free will inevitable in such a species, which is why I didn't cover it as a separate explanation. Granted, my contention is challengeable...but would anyone out there care to challenge it?


Manu said...

Yes. I can imagine that. Though I don't know if it is possible. I've often thought AIs, should we ever succeed in creating them, would be something like that. Some level of self-awareness, needs, and desires, but also completely constrained choice such that it did not possess free will.

IMHO - and again, I'm not as good at this as you are, so feel free to point out if I'm totally off my metaphysical rocker - is that humans are one part natural being and another part soul, which is immaterial and not necessarily bound by natural law (though perhaps by others laws we don't understand?). It may possible to create something that could have all of our natural components, without the immaterial component. Then it would be as you describe.