The Discovery of the Laws of Nature

A divine miracle, for a believer in God, is an expression of the presence and power and purpose of God in an extraordinarily impressive event. Or, for non-theistic traditions like Buddhism, a miracle is an expression of the amazing power of a liberated soul that has transcended the physical limitations of ordinary human beings.

Miracles in this sense, extraordinary expressions of spiritual power, are a problem for science because events in the world are no longer thought to be directly caused by supernatural spirits. The birth of modern science in the sixteenth century occurred partly because of the exclusion of such spiritual causes from the natural world. Francis Bacon (15611626) aimed to separate "metaphysics" (the investigation of the ultimate nature of reality, aided by Aristotle's formal and final causes) sharply from "physics," which was to be concerned only with efficient and material causes. Final causes, he said, were like the vestal virgins of ancient Rome, dedicated to God but barren. Empirical science must have nothing to do with them. The alleged purposes of finite objects, or of angels and demons, were not parts of science proper, which must only study the physical antecedents that bring about their effects in accordance with general, measurable, repeatable, and predictable laws.

Rene Descartes, in 1637, at around the same time or soon after, characterized rational method in thought as that of seeking evidence for your beliefs, dividing each problem up into its constituent parts, beginning with the simple and ascending little by little to the complex, and seeking an exhaustive enumeration of the topic under review. This method, in fact, owed something to the work of Robert Grosseteste (1186—1253), chancellor of Oxford University, who stressed the importance of analysis and measurement in observation and who saw mathematics as the hidden language of nature. This thinking was to open up a fruitful way forward for the scientific method, which seeks to understand complex things in terms of the laws that govern the behavior of their simple parts, laws that are to be discovered by close, repeated, and publicly verifiable observation and that are to be formulated in precise mathematical terms.

The triumph of the laws of nature was completed in the work of Isaac Newton, who constructed a few simple laws of mechanics that seemed to apply to all phenomena when they were considered in relative abstraction from the very complex real-world situations in which they were perceived by common sense. Projectiles seem to common sense to fall to earth after a while, and so Aristotle had thought they need a positive force or impetus to keep them moving. Newton demonstrated that the common-sense view is mistaken, since it is factors like air resistance and gravity that cause projectiles to fall to earth. Abstractly considered, in isolation from such real-world factors, objects will continue moving in a straight line without any special impetus, unless something stops them.

By using mathematical abstraction and postulating a set of universal principles that govern the behavior of the simple parts of physical objects, Newton, who published his great work Principia Mathematica in 1687, completed the revolution in physics that had begun with the criticism of Aristotelian principles by Copernicus and Galileo. The natural world could no longer be seen as the playground of supernatural spirits. It was the outcome of the application of a few universal rules of action to simple physical particles. Spirits had been driven from the universe. Henceforth, the universe could be seen as a machine.

This was a huge revolution in human thinking, but it was not prompted by opposition to religion. It rather recast religion in a new mode. The writers I have mentioned all saw mathematics as the language of God and humans as able to understand the universe mathematically because they were made in the image of God and so could understand God's language. Angels and demons were relegated, with gnomes and fairies, to a lower level of religion, and attention was concentrated on just one supreme and perfectly rational Spirit, who had designed the universe as a perfect machine.

Isaac Newton had no trouble with miracles and wrote a number of extremely boring books about the biblical miracles, pointing out that God could break his own laws if he wanted to. But he did not realize that this made miracles much odder than they had previously been. Miracles had been extraordinary spiritual acts but still acts of the same general (spirit-caused) sort that occur throughout the universe anyway. Now, however, miracles have to be transgressions of universal laws of nature. That is how David Hume defined them, and Hume used the word transgression advisedly, to point up the absurdity, as he thought, of miraculous intervention. Why should God make a set of beautiful and elegant laws, only to break them when the Divine Being felt like it? Does this not make God some sort of mathematical criminal?

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