The Will and Natural Law

A will is the property of an entity that it may, in some sense, choose to take certain actions and not others. Here we differentiate actions occurring as result of obedience to natural laws, which may fully determine the behaviors and properties of some entity or object, actions that were not completely determined by such laws.

By natural law, we mean any pattern of observed behavior undertaken by certain entities under a general set of circumstances or conditions. This pattern can be used at least partially to predict those entities’ behavior. Natural law as we use it here doesn’t only refer to scientific or mathematical laws, like Einstein’s physical laws of relativity, or the Price equation of population genetics. It might also refer to laws of economics or political science can also be considered natural laws, or general observations such as, “The trouble with a liar is he can’t remember what he said.” See fn. 1.

So, if a person jumps out of an airplane, the fact that they will fall toward the ground is fully determined by the physical law of gravitation. Their speed and direction are partially but not completely determined by the laws associated with air resistance and drag. A skydiver can move his body in such a way that he can speed up, slow down, and change direction, within certain limits. He can’t fall faster than terminal velocity or slower than the force of gravity offset by the maximum possible drag would allow. But within those limits, his speed and direction are a choice that is the product of his will.

A will can be influenced by plenty of things, but it is only when natural laws, or the actions resulting from other the operation of other wills, fully determine behavior that we say that an action was against the actor’s will. The classic example is of a robber putting a gun to a victim’s head and demanding money. The victim in theory could choose to keep their money and be killed. However, natural laws relating to human self-preservation essentially guarantee that a person will never choose this, except in the unusual case that they valued something else more than self-preservation. See fn. 2. So, the natural laws of physics, as they relate to bullets and human anatomy, together with the willed actions of the robber, generally determine the victim’s choice completely.

A person chooses to become a doctor instead of a musician because a career in medicine pays far better, or because they were subject to significant social pressure, e.g., from their parents. However, except in the most extreme cases of financial destitution or social coercion, we do not say that these influences, though they may be quite strong, fully determine the person’s choice. There are some people who love music far more than money, aren’t interested in years of expensive postgraduate school, or don’t care what their parents think.

Proposition 1

There exists a unique metaphysical entity that enforces natural law, purely as an expression of its own will. This entity is God.

As far as we can prove logically, natural laws, are not really “laws” in the sense that they must be logically obeyed. For every natural law there are conditions where they may not apply. For example, it is not known what if any of the currently accepted laws of physics apply inside black holes. A liar can’t remember what he said, except in the cases where the liar is a person of unusually strong mental faculties, or the liar has done an unusual amount of planning and preparation. And so on.

Natural laws are merely a set of stereotyped observations that tend to appear under certain conditions; they are just the rules and principles of the world that tell us what we can expect to happen, always based on what has been observed before. In this sense, we think of such principles as laws based on an implicit kind of inductive reasoning – that is, that what has happened before, under certain conditions, will happen in the future, when those same conditions obtain.

But there is no logical or metaphysical guarantee of this. All natural laws may be premised on hidden or unknown conditions without which the law will not apply. It may be that we are convinced of the generality of the conditions only because we lack the capacity to discern the conditions under which the law would not apply. Perhaps lack of intellectual or technological tools, as often occurs in the natural sciences, or perhaps because we simply haven’t encountered other conditions yet, as may happen in the social sciences.

All scientific experiments are based on a comparison between the statistical likelihood of an experimental result if the hypothesis were true and if it were false. This process is applied repeatedly to eliminate or refine the remaining hypotheses. However, this still relies on certain statistical and probabilistic results, such as the Central Limit Theorem. Without the Central Limit Theorem, quantitative scientific inquiry as we understand it simply wouldn’t exist. The Central Limit Theorem is not merely mathematical abstraction when used ubiquitously to make claims about causation. It is a claim that real world systems and objects of any kind will follow certain abstract mathematical laws. It is only on the strength of this mathematical abstraction that we can make the claim that what we have seen in the past will also be true in the future and say that a system of hypotheses now deserves to be called a proven theory. Yet there is no clear logical reason why the Central Limit Theorem, or any other mathematical or scientific result, should stop working in the real world tomorrow. See fn. 3.

Obviously, there is some metaphysical connection between mathematical abstractions and real-world physical systems, or, one might say, there is something metaphysical that links the behavior of all physically observable systems to each other in a consistent way. See fn. 4. It might not be immediately clear why this matters. We could admit that all we really have done with all scientific observations and other natural laws is demonstrate a very strong probability of expected results, and then ask, so what? It has worked very well up to this point.

The problem is that probabilistic and statistical certainty results from nothing but a comparison between the proportion of times an expected event occurred under certain conditions to the number of times it did not. Since we can never know all the hidden conditions of any natural law, we do not know how many times the expected event will fail to occur in the future, nor whether future observations will change our conclusions or even cause us to reject that natural law. Or it is possible that what we perceived to be a result following a natural law was actually just random. To conclude that a natural law really is a law that must be obeyed in general, one must also be assuming that something is generally eliminating the possibility of hidden conditions changing results in the future and that any randomness, which may result from a combination of hidden influences, will itself obey predetermined mathematically abstract rules. Without something metaphysical enforcing natural law, this assumption is unjustified.

If natural laws really tell us what will happen, rather than only what happened before, there must be some metaphysical influence that is forcing the expected result when the given conditions apply. This is the same metaphysical motivation for assuming that, even though we cannot possibly eliminate all hidden conditions that might affect a natural law’s applicability, we nevertheless feel certain that the natural law does generally apply. Without this natural law enforcer, we could not be confident in any apparent rule or principle of general applicability.

One might ask whether we think a metaphysical entity that enforces natural law is a logical necessity for our universe to exist and operate as it does. We do not. Instead, we are asking the reader to consider what our universe would be like without such an entity. We could not be confident that any laws of physics, chemistry, mathematics, or any other science would find general application across time or space. See fn. 5. We could expect that any rule or principle that is true here and today may be false tomorrow or 100 miles from here. We admit we don’t know what that would be like. A universe that fundamentally different than ours may be literally unimaginable. However, to the extent we can imagine such a universe, we strongly suspect that it would be a highly chaotic and disordered one in which complex systems, if any ever formed, would be extremely unstable and not last long. There would be no human beings, or any life at all, nor any planets for life forms to live on, or molecules to form them.

Since this natural law enforcement entity is what is behind the apparent truth of natural law, its behavior cannot be governed by natural law in any way. Natural law is true because this entity acts as it does. If any natural law in some way governed this entity’s behavior, then there would need to be something enforcing that natural law, which would mean that this entity was not enforcing it.

Whatever entity is enforcing natural law probably cannot share this property with another entity. Since their actions are not governed by any natural law, their actions to enforce natural law might conflict. Nothing would prevent contradictory natural laws under the same set of general conditions from existing, nor would there be any pattern to know when a conflict arose, most likely. Thus, if there were more than one such entity, we would not observe the existence of natural law – again, we would live in a highly disordered and chaotic universe. See fn. 6. Yet our universe is at least well-ordered enough to allow complex life forms such as ourselves to exist. Apparently, whatever entity is enforcing natural law is unique.

Earlier we said that a being has a will to the extent that its actions are not governed by natural law. So any entity whose actions are in no way determined by natural law is one whose actions result solely from its will. But then the unique metaphysical entity enforcing natural law must be doing so purely out of its own will. Such an entity deserves no name other than God.

To be continued.

  1. All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy, p. 240.
  2. Natural laws apply in general but not necessarily universal conditions.
  3. For an interesting fictional account of how people might react when the laws of physics suddenly appear to stop working due to manipulation of forces that are beyond their current understanding, read The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. For a fictional account of a society undergoing a mysterious change to a hidden fundamental physical condition causing them to believe that time is slowing down, read Exhalation by Ted Chiang.
  4. Another Christian apologist, Neil Shenvi, makes a similar point: “[T]he success of mathematics in the physical sciences is extremely surprising. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner wrote an article over fifty years ago in which he repeatedly used the words ‘miracle’ and ‘miraculous’ to describe two phenomena: 1) the fact that nature is so uniformly described by mathematics and 2) the fact that human beings can comprehend this mathematical uniformity. After all, why do the same, beautiful mathematical equations seem to apply uniformly across all time and space? We could easily imagine a universe that was haphazard and chaotic, in which the laws of nature varied from time to time and from place to place. And why are human beings alone able to discern, comprehend, and marvel at these deep physical laws? … Both of these phenomena remain puzzling if God does not exist. But if God exists and created man and woman in His image, then these facts are not puzzling at all. The beauty and rationality of the Creation is merely a reflection of the beauty and rationality of the Creator. Man himself was uniquely made in the divine image with the capacity to comprehend and marvel at all that He had made.” From “Why Should We Believe that Christianity is True? Part 3 – God and Revelation.”
  5. One might ask whether this chaotic and unstable state describes quantum systems. Perhaps the metaphysical entity that enforces natural law does not see fit to be as strict about order and causation at the quantum scale, and enforces order more strictly only for larger systems. So, perhaps the quantum world does give us useful insight into what the world would be like if there were no natural law enforcer – particles popping into and out of existence at random, non-local interactions between systems, a hard limit on information that can be measured, and all other quantum weirdness, multiplied by infinity. On the other hand, some physicists believe that quantum systems really are deterministic, but the theory for how quantum systems evolve has not yet been fully developed. For that matter, one might also ask whether quantum systems, since they may not be governed by deterministic laws, have wills in the sense we described earlier. We do not believe the answer to this question will be relevant for our purposes.
  6. And again, we do not really know for certain this is true, because we are talking about if the universe were fundamentally different. However, we strongly suspect this would be true.