The uniformity of natural law

Published: 6 October 2013 (GMT+10)
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Neville C. wrote to CMI’s Dr Carl Wieland asking for his response to a statement on a blog. The writer was challenging the ‘Next Generation’ US science teaching standards where these said that “Science assumes natural events happen today as they happened in the past.”

Now this was no creationist attacking that statement. Rather, the writer was saying, in effect, ‘We can’t know that things always happened in the past the same as they do now’. His example? That just because we observe today that it always takes intelligence to produce complex specified information, we can’t assume that this was always so in the past.

Neville wrote: “This is applying to Intelligent Design the oft-quoted dictum in creation circles that the present is not the key to the past, because no scientist was there in the past to observe what was happening! Logical! But how do we answer this?

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Carl responds:

Neville, the statement (on the blog) highlights the philosophically biased nature of this whole debate. Let me digress for a moment. When it suits people to exclude the idea of a past miraculous divine creation (regardless how it fits the present-day evidence), they will point to the definitions and assumptions of science which include the uniformity of natural law. Which is what these standards were asserting.

Which means that the laws that apply on Earth also apply to the rest of the universe. And that the same laws applied in the unobservable past. And thus, they often say, science excludes creation by definition. Which means that even if it were the truth, it would be ‘unscientific’. See The rules of the game.

In doing so, of course, they fail to acknowledge that these assumptions (which work in practice) that have given us the explosion of science and technology following the Reformation are firmly based on biblical assumptions. See The biblical roots of modern science. Thus it is no coincidence (and not the result of any alleged racial superiority) that science arose in Western Europe.

Nor is it happenstance that the fathers of the branches of science were virtually all Bible-believing Christians. They were of course fully cognizant of and insistent upon the uniformity of natural law, but saw no contradiction between this as a general principle applying in a created world that was itself the product of supernatural creation. Laws demanded a lawgiver, and the laws commenced at the beginning at His decree, i.e. at creation. Also, given His revealed nature, He is capable of adding to His natural laws via miracles, and the Bible reveals that He demonstrated this in His incarnation as Jesus Christ.  But these are overall rare, not ‘abracadabra’ things that happen all over the place at any time, thus making science impossible. And they are for His special and significant purposes, not the arbitrary whims of a capricious deity.

These basic assumptions about science, including the uniformity of natural law, are normally unchallenged, and are universally adopted (while mostly ignoring their biblical origins) because they work in practice.

On the other hand, it seems, as for this article, when the uniformity of natural law works against naturalistic prejudices by pointing to the need for creation by an all-intelligent God, they say, ‘How do we know that things were always like that? Yes, we know that today, all observation points to the fact that it takes intelligence to produce information, but maybe it wasn’t always like that…”.

So in short, they are prepared to lay aside the uniformity of natural law when it suits, trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.

To avoid the chance of any further confusion, including by creationists reading this; when creationists challenge the uniformitarian dictum in geology that ‘the present is the key to the past’, they are not actually denying the uniformity of natural law. Rather it has to do with the rates of processes.  The father of uniformitarian geology, the lawyer Lyell, insisted that present-day ‘slow and gradual’ processes were sufficient to explain all geology, which of course is squarely aimed at denying that there was a global catastrophic Flood. He admitted in his correspondence that his purpose in this was to attack the Bible, in particular Genesis, see Charles Lyell’s hidden agenda—to free science “from Moses”.

Note that when creationists study the rocks, showing how they are consistent with catastrophism on huge scales, they do not deny that natural laws were operating uniformly during the Flood, rather they use observation and deduction based on those same assumptions. In short, Lyell’s uniformitarianism is not to be confused with methodological uniformitarianism, i.e. the uniformity of natural law, which is basic to science and which creationists also hold to as an important basic principle.

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And it is from this that one can construct a very powerful argument about the inadequacy of natural law to generate the sort of information that permeates biology. Namely that it speaks of a creating intelligence needed to write the original programs of life. Because programmed information of the sort found in DNA, for example, cannot be observed today to arise without intelligence, and concluding from this that life had to be intelligently designed was something which the author of the post (a geologist, interestingly) was keen to challenge.

Importantly, natural selection and mutation (which are all about passing one’s characters on to offspring) are no help in explaining the origin of the information required for the first living organisms in the evolutionary scenario—because you have to have reproduction first before you can have selection/mutation. However, a biological machine that can make copies of itself is now known to have to be horrendously complex. We are not talking about soap bubbles dividing, but about programmed machinery, incredibly complex nanotechnology, in even the simplest conceivable reproducing life. Thus the famous evolutionist Paul Davies has correctly observed that the origin-of-life problem for evolutionists is not about the raw materials (hardware) so much as it is about the information or programs.

Or in his words, “How did stupid molecules write their own software?” He answers correctly that “nobody knows”, and the reason is clear from another Davies comment in the same article (New Scientist, 163 (2204):27–30, 18 September 1999), namely that “There is no known law of physics able to create information from nothing”.

So as far as reasoning from natural law goes, the evidence points strongly to an intelligent Creator. The fact that (as in this case) people are prepared to depart from the uniformity of natural law (by implying that maybe in the past, information could arise from nothing, even though that would be a breach of natural law today) actually strengthens the point, if anything, of how powerful such an argument really is when one needs to use such means to try to evade it, to walk away from something as foundational to science itself as the uniformity of natural law.


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