Tag Archives: god of the gaps

Why Russell was Wrong III: Along Came Science

Carina-Nebula-250x230After making the (false) insinuation that theism is based on intellectual laziness, Russell moves on to discuss the Natural Law argument from a scientific perspective, in spite of the fact that this is a category error:

Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion.

Einstein’s contributions to physics are, to put it mildly, immense. What they are not, however, is an answer to the question of natural law. They do not explain why the universe, contrary to what most people expected, follows natural patterns. Rather, they describe one such pattern to a very high degree of accuracy.

Russell seems here to suffer from a misconception I mentioned in my previous post, which is to envision God as essentially a proto-scientific theory of the natural world which competes with modern scientific theories. Given this assumption, I’d completely agree that God is a silly proposal.

However, the abrahamic God has never been such a concept. The transcendent God proposed by western monotheism is not a scientific, but a metaphysical, claim. It is simply not a scientific hypothesis, and should not be treated as a competitor to General Relativity (or any other scientific theory).

The advance of science, therefore, is not a reason to reject the natural law argument. Rather, it is the success of science that is the primary support for the argument. As the original metaphysical grounding for modern science, God may well be the best explanation for why science works at all.

It was David Hume who, as a non-Christian, famously pointed out that modern people can offer no logical reason why science should work – even though it clearly does. The argument from Natural Law, then, is the position that Hume would have done well to look back to the original thing that made people think science would be worth investing their lives in (before it had proved itself): belief in a rational creator of the universe.

Russell then turns to the area of science which, on the surface, offers the strongest support for his position:

On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance;

This really seems to simply have replaced “laws of science” with “laws of chance”. Not only is quantum mechanics much less random than this implies, but this is completely beside the point in any case. The natural law argument does not preclude the idea that natural laws are statistical averages based on the properties of fundamental particles.

It’s fairly easy to see, actually, that the fact that we get a particular average for rolling double-sixes out of a pair of dice is precisely due to the structure of the dice. What is not so easy to see is that all of nature must have had a structure that makes it either consistent or intelligible, which is what Russell should be trying to prove.

This mistake, one suspects, is due to a failure on Russell’s part to realize that he’s not arguing against the God Christian theists actually believe in. The “God” he refutes is, again, basically a physical theory – a law of nature that explains gravity in the way that General Relativity does – rather than a metaphysical explanation as to why nature is consistent enough to have laws in the first place. The God he dismisses is actually a contradiction the God of the abrahamic faiths.

The fact that it was western monotheists who developed science goes completely overlooked by his reasoning here. If God were simply an answer to avoid real inquiry, science would never have been developed by believers in God. The natural law argument, in one sense, simply points out the importance of God to the foundations of scientific thinking.

And this is one thing, among many, that bothers me about the New Atheist project. After centuries of development of natural science by monotheists, committed to the idea that God would have created an ordered universe, a group of atheists seize on science as if it had been their idea all along. Slogans declare that, somehow, the view that helped to inspire science is somehow less scientific than the view that did nothing of the sort.

None of this means that atheists cannot be great scientists, but it should be clear by now that, in attacking the infamous “God of the gaps”, Russell is refuting a god that isn’t anything like the God that thoughtful Christians actually believe in.

Nor is he addressing the challenge leveled by the argument from Natural Law and acknowledged by Hume: secular views of reality give us no reason to think that science should work, whereas monotheism does.

Why Russell was Wrong II: Natural Law

bigstockphoto_Theory_Of_Relativity1Given the unfamiliarity of the natural law argument to most modern people, and the length of Russell’s discussion of it, I’ll be breaking my response into a few parts.

Briefly, the Natural Law argument proposes God as an explanation for the fact that nature behaves according to regular patterns (as opposed to the essentially chaotic universe most everyone thought we were living in before the rise of monotheism).

It shows something of the change in culture that Russell feels the need to deal with this, while contemporary atheists do not. In fact, most of them seem to think that order in nature, traditionally and correctly understood as a point in favor of the monotheist, lends itself to arguments against God’s existence.
Russell states:

People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for explanations of the law of gravitation.

The ease with which Russell, and many others, accuse theists of intellectual laziness has always astounded me. While there are many lay-people who tend to seize on a simple answer to complex questions, this is hardly limited to believers in God. Many atheists, for instance, insist that we should halt inquiry into the cause of the universe (simply acquiescing to ignorance) when considering the matter starts to point to God’s existence.

There are intellectually lazy, as well as thoughtful, people on both sides of the argument. To imply that one position is simply the result of laziness is completely out of touch with the facts.

As this keeps coming up, both in Russell’s statements and contemporary discussion, the point is worth some attention:

The Natural Law argument is, most emphatically, not the use of the phrase “God did it” to explain some gap in our current knowledge. Rather, it is attempting to explain why we can have scientific knowledge about the universe in the first place. It is not obvious that the universe should have particular patterns of phenomena, and a rational God is a good explanation as to why that might be.

As such, it is what we know about nature (how well science works) that is the basis of this argument, rather than anything that we do not know. Whether you are convinced by it or not, this is important to keep in mind as we consider Russell’s remaining objections to it.

This is even more important in our current cultural moment, in that so many of the opponents of theism understand God almost completely in terms of the “God of the gaps”, rather than the way God has traditionally been understood.