Monday, June 29, 2009

Some Interesting Stuff over the Weekend

If you haven't already, take a look at Tim O'Neill's detailed review of Charles Freeman's Closing of the Western Mind over at Armarium Magnum. Tim largely agrees with my own assessment of a couple of years ago which also gave rise to some correspondence with Charles Freeman himself. Freeman has a book out from Yale in September called A New History of Early Christianity which they have kindly promised to send me a review copy of. Perhaps this book will plug some of the gaps that Tim identifies in Closing of the Western Mind.

Some of the papers are noting that Richard Dawkins is subsidising a summer camp for atheists' kids. That's fine by me and I hope they have a good time. My only query is, why is it OK for Dawkins to give money to this while attacking the Templeton Foundation for using its resources to spread its own message? Can you imagine the fuss if Templeton started running camps for kids instead of journalists? As always, a foolish religious person was on hand to criticise Dawkins but I can't imagine many people will have any objections.

Finally, I am pleased to announce that God's Philosophers has gone to print. The team at Icon have been working extremely hard and the resulting book looks great. I only hope that the writing lives up to the quality of the production. Publication is on schedule for early August.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Lawrence Krauss and Stalin

Lawrence Krauss has written an article on the accommodation controversy for the Wall Street Journal which is almost sweet in its naïveté. He takes J.B.S. Haldane (1892 – 1964) as his example of a man of reason whose science led him to accept atheism in everyday life. Krauss notes,
J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science. Faced with the remarkable success of science to explain the workings of the physical world, many, indeed probably most, scientists understandably react as Haldane did. Namely, they extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.

But there is a problem. Krauss appears to be ignorant of where reason led Haldane. Because Haldane didn’t just become an atheist, he became a lifelong supporter of one of the greatest monsters of history – Josef Stalin. Right at the moment that Haldane was founding population genetics, his hero was depopulating the Ukraine. And when Stalin put the geneticist Nikolai Vavilov on trial for challenging the notorious Trofim Lysenko, Haldane refused to utter a word of condemnation.

I very much doubt that Lawrence Krauss approves of this behaviour. But I have to ask why he thinks holding up Haldane as a paragon of rationality is going to advance his argument that scientists ought to behave like atheists. Haldane was a very great scientist. He was also an apologist for mass-murder and an ardent follower of one of the most inhumane doctrines ever to come from the mind of man. If that is where reason gets you, I don’t think we need worry about scientists being a bit irrational in their spare time.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Accommodating Coyne

What should we say to Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers and others who claim evolution and Christianity are incompatible? Coyne has been arguing that organisations that promote evolution, like the National Centre for Science Education (“NCSE”) should be neutral on the issue and say nothing to promote accommodationism. This reminds me of the pleas of creationists that schools should be neutral on the issue whether Darwinism or intelligent design are true.

By the way, ‘accommodationism’ is the term now used for the argument that there is no reason why a Christian cannot be a Darwinist. Christian Darwinists, like me and Ken Miller, obviously believe that this is the case. So do some atheists like Michael Ruse. Jerry Coyne disagrees, as he is entitled to do. But he goes further and says that educational and scientific organisations should stop using accommodationist arguments in their campaign to promote Darwinism on the grounds that he and some other atheists disagree with the philosophical foundations of accommodationism.

There are two issues here. The first is whether or not Coyne is correct to say that evolution and Christianity are irreconcilable. The second is whether we should stop using accommodationist arguments to promote Darwinism and combat creationism. I’ll deal with the second issue in this post.

It would be a poor reason for abandoning accommodationist arguments because Jerry Coyne says we ought to. And abandoning them because P.Z. Myers says we should is a downright bad idea. They have whinged that the NCSE does not reflect their dissenting views. Again, they sound just like the Discovery Institute complaining that Intelligent Design is never given a fair crack of the whip. If accommodationism appears to be a useful tactic for promoting Darwinism, we should use it. We should not fail to use it because extremist atheists or fundamentalist creationists think that we should not.

When a dispute comes down to whether something is permissible because it is useful or forbidden because it is doctrinally impure, it is the fanatic who refuses to compromise on the grounds of utility. I think accommodationism is true. But even if I didn’t, I’d recognise that my own views were unhelpful for the campaign against creationism. I’d also note that some Christians are very good scientists and so if there is an incompatibility, it probably doesn’t matter much in practice. So I’d respect the opinion of those who disagree with me and help promote Darwinism in some other way. Only if I was more interested in campaigning for atheism than evolution would I take the line of Coyne and Myers that accommodationism should be removed from the anti-creationist arsenal.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Some Reflections on Comment is Free

Following on from below, as commentators here have kindly pointed out, I’ve been given a kicking by Jerry Coyne, Ophelia Benson and PZ Myers. But I’m grateful for the discovery of Butterflies and Wheels which looks among the best of the neo atheist blogs, both in terms of articles and commentators.

One thing I’ve learnt is never descend to PZ Myers’s level. It will only get you into trouble. Another thing is that replying to some comments annoys the people to whom you don’t reply. But since its impossible to respond to everyone, I suppose that is unavoidable.

Finally, it is nice to see my name on the Guardian website’s front page and nice that over six hundred and fifty comments have accrued to my article (so don't click on that link unless you have a broadband connection). I’m very grateful to the editors for using my piece and hopefully I’ll be able to contribute another one soon.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Science Writer in Trouble

Simon Singh is an author of popular science books. I remember I enjoyed Fermat’s Last Theorem over a decade ago and he has had success with various other books in the meantime. Recently, however, he has landed in hot water.

It started with an article in the Guardian to promote a book of his called Trick or Treatment. This is one of the attempts by well-meaning journalists to debunk alternative medicine – efforts which have no effect on its popularity whatsoever. In the Guardian article, Singh described as ‘bogus’ some of the claims made for a treatment called chiropracy. ‘Bogus’ is a label I would attach to almost all forms of alternative medicine, although I’m generally quite tolerant of people who choose to use it. I won’t bore you with what chiropractors do or what they think they can cure. The point is that Singh was sued for libel by an organisation called the British Chiropractic Association (“BCA”). The Guardian offered to settle out of court but Singh does not want to see science dictated to by the libel laws.

Singh and I probably don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. But his case is important for all of us who want to see science based on the free investigation of nature and not decided by judges. You’d hope that the BCA would be laughed out of court, but alas they have already won the first round. Mr Justice Eady (who last year decided the Mosley case against the News of the World) has ruled that the word ‘bogus’ suggests that chiropractors are deliberately dishonest rather than just wrong. This makes Singh’s case much harder to win.

I think this matters because if the BCA succeed, it would restrict valid criticism of people whom you think are wrong if they are acting in good faith. So, Singh deserves support and the fact that the neo atheists are on his side does not detract from that. My microscopic show of solidarity was to include the word ‘bogus’ in my own Guardian article. Perhaps if that became a meme then it might even help (while ruining a perfectly good word).

There is much more on Singh’s website and here’s a good article on the background from Nick Cohen.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Me on Comment is Free

The Guardian's Comment is Free has plumbed new depths with an article by some bloke called James Hannam on the conflict between science and religion. Apparently, Hannam thinks the conflict is a myth, but luckily plenty of better-informed commentators are on hand to set him straight.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sumption on the Hundred Years war

A small treat for medievalists: an interview with Jonathan Sumption QC. Sumption is an extremely expensive barrister much favoured by the UK Government. He represented them at the Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly after the Iraq War. He also successfully fought of a small army of private investors who were trying to sue the Government over the collapse of Railtrack.

However, even if he’s taken on some questionable cases in his legal career, he is an excellent narrative historian. The Albigensian Crusade is a masterpiece of prose and research. I have not read any of the massive volumes of his history of the Hundred Years War, but I am looking forward to having the leisure time to do so. The release of the latest volume, Divided Houses, is the occasion for the interview linked above. One story from Sumption’s research was completely charming:
I once read in the Public Record Office the records of an enquiry into the alleged treachery of an English garrison commander accused of taking a bribe to surrender his castle. The case ended in his acquittal. Some weeks later I found in the French archives the actual receipt he had given for the bribe.

There is nothing like handling the primary sources and no way to get closer to history.

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Science Vs Religion - The Battle of Human Origins

"The Caucasian Race is characterized by a naturally fair skin, susceptible of every tint; hair fine, long and curling, and of various colors. The skull is large and oval, and its anterior portion full and elevated. The face is small in proportion to the head, of an oval form, with well-proportioned features. . . . This race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments. . . . The spontaneous fertility of [the Caucasus] has rendered it the hive of many nations, which extending their migrations in every direction, have peopled the finest portions of the earth, and given birth to its fairest inhabitants. . . ."

The Negroes are proverbially fond of their amusements, in which they engage with great exuberance of spirit; and a day of toil is with them no bar to a night of revelry. Like most other barbarous nations their institutions are not infrequently characterized by superstition and cruelty. They appear to be fond of warlike enterprises, and are not deficient in personal courage; but, once overcome, they yield to their destiny, and accommodate themselves with amazing facility to every change of circumstance.

Samuel George Morton

In the early nineteenth century science, not religion was becoming the highest authority on matters of racial origins. Edinburgh University became the centre of a new science which aimed to clearly define the races of the world and establish which ones were inferior. This new discipline was based on phrenology, the ‘science’ of determining the character of people by looking at the shape of their skulls. The phrenologists claimed that the brain was the organ of the mind and consisted of individual faculties which controlled personality, thought and moral action. The strength of these different features could be gathered by feeling the protuberances on the skill and each race manifested its particular traits through the shape of the cranium.

Followers of this technique quickly assembled a large collection of skulls from around the world and began making pronouncements such as that the ‘Hindoos’ had been conquered by Britain because of their ‘small organs of destructiveness and combativeness’. Scientific racism was born and quickly spawned a number of societies including the Anthropological Society of London which brought meetings to order with a mace topped by a ‘negro’s head gnawing a human thigh bone’ and preached that the white man’s duty was to enslave, control and denigrate inferior races.

A debate had been raging in the early decades of the 19th century between the monogenists, those who argued for one single origin for racial descent, and the polygenists, those who believed that whites and blacks were separate biological species. The polygenist thesis was taken up by slave traders and owners to argue that blacks were an intermediate species somewhere between apes and humans. This argument was also conducted between theologians, those who pointed to a common descent from Adam and Eve, and those who pointed to biblical passages arguing that humans had multiple origins. Of the two theories, the monogenist theory had the most support from the Bible due to the Genesis narrative, although some would still argue that despite the common origin, the darker races had fallen into sin, degenerated and lost civilisation. With the rise in the authority of science, the monogenist position became increasingly embattled as influential biologists began to argue for separate origins. In the earlier view derived from the work of Buffon each plant and animal represented a different species (each could be seen as having been created by a separate act of God). The species constituted archetypes from which variation would be permitted, therefore the various races of man were variations of the same species. This view began to crumble because of the introduction of the concept of ‘type’ which categorised human races according to mental and physical traits and arranged them hierarchically (from inferior to superior) with established differences between them. It followed from this that they had been created separately.

In the antebellum period the US became home to a flourishing, southern planter-friendly anthropology which emphasised a scientifically grounded pluralist view of human origins. One of the chief proponents was the Swiss-American Louis Agassiz who argued that different races had been created for specific climactic zones. Agassiz had found blacks disgusting on his encounters with them in the U.S. In 1850, in the slave city of Charleston, he affirmed that the human races were different species - which, like all other species, did not adapt or evolve. When his position came into conflict with his fellow Christians who insisted on descent from Adam and Eve, Agassiz argued for the independence between science and religion.

Another famous contributor was the Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton, who managed to assemble the largest collection of crania in the United States. Raised a Quaker, Morton retained his religious faith and viewed God as having fitted the peoples of the world to their circumstances of climate and locality. In doing so the dark races had been ‘retarded’ and therefore the deity’s wise purposes included giving the white race an unquestionable superiority over all the nations. As Morton wrote, demonstrating a heady mixture of divine intent, racial superiority and nationalism:

‘Was it not for this same mental superiority, these happy climes which we now inhabit would yet be possessed by the wild and untutored Indian, and that soil which now rejoices the hearts of millions of freeman would yet be overrun by lawless tribe of contending barbarians'.

Yet Morton was all too aware that the less enlightened religious faithful would not be so enamoured with this. In a letter to he wrote that:

‘I avow my belief in a plurality of origins for the human species..when I took this ground four years ago, (and with some misgivings, not because I doubted the truth of my opinions, but because they would lead to some controversy with the clergy)’

Armed with an impressive array of data, Morton and the other polygenists proclaimed that the monogensits were deluding themselves. It seemed improbable that all races could have changed their skin colour and their mental and physical characteristics through environmental factors of degeneration from the time of the deluge to the rise of Egyptian civilisation. With polygenism established those who sought to justify the suppression of non-whites eagerly embraced the new science.

In 1839 Morton published the infamous ‘Crania Americana’ which divided humanity neatly into four separate races, Europeans, Asians, Native Americans and Africans. While the Caucasian race was ‘distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments’ and had ‘peopled the finest portions of the earth, and given birth to its fairest inhabitants’, the Africans were ‘joyous, flexible, and indolent’ and ‘not infrequently characterized by superstition and cruelty’; they had ‘little invention’ but ‘a great talent for music’. The Native Americans fared little better, being classified by Morton as:

averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war.... crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children may be traced to purely selfish motives... their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood’.

He did have some good things to say about the Asian race but considered them to be best ‘compared to the monkey race, whose attention is perpetually changing from one object to another’

Another key figure was a man trained by Morton, Josiah Nott a physician from Alabama. Nott desperately believed that Negroes and White were separate species and promulgated this theory in leaflets, publications and letters in an attempt to fend off the abolitionist movement. He began earnestly producing treatises on anthropology, a subject he referred to as ‘niggerology’. One of these included ‘Types of Mankind’, a book which argued through ‘qualitative data’ and tables that the Negroes were like children who needed direction and better off enslaved. He wrote:

'Dr Morton, quoted in another chapter, has proven that the Negro races possess about nine cubic inches less of brain that the Teuton; and, unless there were really some facts in history, something beyond bare hypothesis, to teach us how these deficient inches could be artificially added, it would seem that the Negroes in Africa must remain substantially in that same benighted state wherein Nature has placed them'

The religious rhetoric of the abolitionists which was marshalled against these 'scientific' observations irritated Nott. In a letter to Morton he said:

‘You have not gone far blow up all the chronologies although it may not be very politic to say so in these days of Christian intolerance. The Bible, if of divine origin, was clearly not intended to include in it’s code of beautiful morals, the whole range of natural science, for it knows no knowledge beyond human knowledge of the day and its great ends did not require any other – even the septeaguit account is far too short to take in the events of Egypt, to say nothing of geological formations which are now placed before the beginning of Moses’.

Neither Morton, Agassiz or Nott were atheists and they all maintained their belief in a divine creation. Their writings reveal them to be free-thinking Christians seeking to put dogma aside in the search for scientific ‘truth’. However their theory of origins increasingly came into bitter conflict with the views of theologians who were stating that all people were descended from Adam and Eve. Yet the biblical view of monogenist origins appeared antiquated next to the ‘American School’ of anthropologists. As Nott wrote:

‘My main to cut loose the natural history of mankind from the Bible and place it upon it’s own foundation where it may remain without collision or molestation....The scientific facts...cannot be explained in my humble opinion, without doing violence to the mosaic account’.

Some years later he became more direct in his approach, stating that:

‘The unity of races...can only be deduced from forced construction of the Old and New Testaments...where is the evidence of the descent of black and red races from Adam, so clear as to upset the whole physical history of man?’

In response to this, Monogenesists such as M. M. Noah reminded their readers that:

‘God that made man in his own image gave to the Indians an origin and parentage like unto the rest of the great family of mankind, the work of his own almighty hand’

His contemporary Dr Forry concluded his review of natural history stating that:

‘On the one hand he has the conclusions of Dr Morton...and, on the other, he has the authoritative declaration of Moses that all human kind has descended from a single pair’

Another monogenesist, James Southall wrote that ‘there must be a trial of strength between the Bible and science’

And yet the pluralist view of origins would be dealt a fatal blow, not by scripture, but by a new theory from the British naturalist Charles Darwin. This was not fatal to scientific racism which became stronger than ever in the late 19th century and reformulated in Darwinian terms (Ernst Haeckel for example argued that the human genus had evolved into nine separate species). The common ancestry of mankind had been given greater plausibility but the battle would rage on.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

All's Fair in Love and Politics

The talk is of assassins, coups, bloodbaths and extinction. Surprisingly though, no one has been hurt. But political reporters do so love their hyperbole and there is no doubt that the crisis shaking the British Government is severe and will probably proof terminal at the general election due within a year. We are assured that the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, will cling to power with all his might. But actually this is not true. Within a year, the British people can throw him out of 10 Downing Street and there is not a thing he can do about it. That’s the wonder of democratic politics. Unlike a dictator, Brown is toast (there goes another colourful metaphor) but no one will have to kill him. That’s not something we should take for granted, even as voter turnout continues to decline.

I clearly remember in 1992 watching the most powerful man in the world, a victor in war, being turfed out on the say-so of American voters. But the older President Bush spoke then, if I recall, of “the great mystery of democracy.” No one had to shoot him to force him out of office.

So, as we watch the histrionics of Westminster, we can rest assured that compared to the method of removing leaders followed through most of human history, it’s all a bit of fun (as Peter Snow would say).

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Islam's influence

My blogging may be spotty for the next few weeks, as I'll be traveling to the States because of a family emergency. In the meantime, here's an essay by physicist Frank Tipler arguing that Islam's contributions to science, mathematics, etc. have been greatly exaggerated:

If one reads history of science textbooks prior to about 1980, one will find very little mention of Muslim “contributions” to physics and astronomy. This is reasonable, because there weren’t any. In the past generation, however, political correctness has dictated that Muslims be given credit for discoveries they did not make.
During the Cold War, it was commonplace for leftist academics to attribute many discoveries to scientists in Communist countries, discoveries that had actually been made in the West. So now leftist academics attribute to Muslims discoveries that had actually been made by others.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Laws of Nature

Where do the laws of physics come from? And why those laws rather than some other set?. Most especially, why a set of laws that drives the searing featureless gases coughed out of the Big Bang towards life and consciousness and intelligence and cultural activities such as religion, art, mathematics and science.

You might be tempted to suppose that any old rag-bag of laws would produce a complex universe of some sort, with attendant inhabitants convinced of their own specialness.
Not so. It turns out that randomly selected laws almost invariably lead to unrelieved chaos or boring and uneventful simplicity. Our own universe is poised exquisitely between these un-palatable alternatives, offering a potent mix of freedom and discipline, a sort of restrained creativity. Instead they encourage matter and energy to develop along pathways of evolution that lead to novel variety...I can’t prove to you that it is design, but whatever it is, it is certainly very clever’

Paul Davies

To my mind, the most remarkable feature of the universe is that it appears to conform to mathematical laws. That no-one these days seems particularly phased by this astonishing fact is testimony to the human capacity to take things for granted. In most accounts, the laws of nature capture a kind of natural necessity; in other words, they are not mere descriptions but depict the way things must be. Furthermore they appear to be presuppositions of science rather than simply the product of investigation. Not only that but the incredible precision of our particular set of ‘laws of nature’ has been capable of persuading something unimaginably smaller than a subatomic particle to evolve into an unimaginably large universe with 100 billion galaxies, lay down the chemistry for the emergence of carbon based life and channel a process of evolution into conscious beings that are capable of pondering their circumstances. In recognition of this we are entitled to ask the questions, why are there laws?, what makes them mathematical?, what makes them exceptionless and why do they take the special form they do?.

From the very beginning the idea of ‘laws of nature’ was theological in character. When Aristotle’s work was re-introduced to the Latin West in the 11th century, the orderliness of nature was held to be derived from the immanent properties of natural objects; or ‘the order that God has implanted in nature’ as Aquinas described it. Mathematical reasoning was sidelined because of the division of labour in Aristotelian sciences and because Aristotle had thought, going against the mathematical realism of Plato, that mathematics dealt with human constructions. Thus it was that natural philosophy focused on the causes of the motions of the planets and mathematical astronomy considered mathematical descriptions which would be ‘saving the phenomena’, making predictions, but not really giving a causal explanation of the motions. During the Middle Ages, a vocabulary of ‘natural laws’ arose, but these were all confined to the area of morality and the participation of rational creatures in the eternal law of ‘God the ruler of the universe’.

Two movements would combine to challenge these perspectives. The first was a growing emphasis on the omnipotence of God and the divine Will which proved incompatible with the autonomy of the Aristotelian world. The second was a Christian Platonism which promoted mathematical realism in natural philosophy. As the Protestant Reformation gathered force questions were raised about how appropriate it was to adopt the thought of the unchristian Aristotle. Two Greek movements contained ideas that seemed promising for his overthrow, the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus; and the thought of the ancient sceptics.

Atomism suggested that matter was inert and not autonomous as it had been in the Aristotelian view of nature where natural objects contained causal efficacy. God had created the world and ruled it directly; and so, it was argued, he must have issued physical laws similar to the moral edicts in the bible and the ‘natural laws’ discussed in the Middle Ages. And what of mathematics, could it not be that this was the product of the divine mind and therefore manifested in the created order?. If the world is a product of the divine, isn’t the distinction between natural and artificial irrelevant?.

It was this radical re-conception which led to the discovery of the laws of the so called ‘scientific revolution; Descartes Laws of Motion, Hooke’s Law, Pascal’s Law, Boyle’s Law, Galileo’s laws of fall and inertia and Kepler’s Planetary Laws. Kepler referred to the divine Will and the creator as the foundation for his realist mathematical astronomy when he wrote:

'I shall have the physicists against me in these chapters because I have deduced the natural properties of the planets from immaterial things and mathematical figures...I wish to respond briefly as follows: that God the creator, since he is a mind, and does what he wants, is not prohibited, in attributing powers and appointing circles, from having regard to things which are wither immaterial or based on imagination. And since he wills nothing except with absolute reason, and nothing exists except by his will, then let my adversaries say what other reasons God had for attributing powers, etc. Since there was nothing except for qualities’.

Kepler then criticised Aristotle’s inability to conceptualise a world founded on mathematical principles. He had been unable to do so, Kepler said, because he had not believed the world had been created. By contrast Kepler and many of his contemporaries believed that mathematical relations in the universe is assured because God has manifested these in the created order; hence mathematical laws can describe the real relations between physical objects. Keplar wrote that this:

‘is acceptable to me and to all Christians since our faith holds that the World, which had no previous existence, was created by God in weight, measure and number, that is in accordance with ideas co-eternal with him’

Galileo, who took the un-Aristotelian step of introducing mathematics into physics, insisted that mathematical relations are real and God relied upon them when designing the cosmos:

‘the human intellect does understand some of them [mathematical truths] perfectly, and thus in these it has as much absolute certainty as nature has itself. Of such as the mathematical sciences alone, that is, geometry and arithmetic, in which the divine intellect indeed knows infinitely more proposition, since it knows all. But with regard to those few which the human intellect does understand, I believe that it’s knowledge equals the divine in objective certainty, for here it succeeds in understanding necessity, beyond which there can be no greater certainty’.

In both these claims, Kepler and Galileo show the influence of renaissance Platonism. Kepler also conceived of the cosmos as a divinely created machine on the model of a clock. Hence the findings of the mechanical sciences could now be applied to nature.

Following this view, Descartes wrote ‘the laws of mechanics are identical to the laws of nature’ and should be regarded as eternal and immutable features of the natural world rather than human constructs. According to Descartes, these laws originate in the divine will and are underwritten by the immutability of God; something he emphasised most famously in his principle of conservation of motion.

According to Dennis Des Chene:

‘The Aristotelian philosophy takes natural change to be the work of active powers in nature itself, in which God concurs. The Cartesian interprets it as the work of God alone, subject to natural laws, appeal to which will help demonstrate the observed regularities which by the Aristotelian are referred to the intrinsic powers of material things and to the ends toward which they act.

This is demonstrated in a letter Descartes wrote to his friend Mersenne in which he said:

‘the mathematical truths which you call eternal were established by God and totally depend on him just like all the other creatures’

Malebranche echoed this sentiment, maintaining that God directly imposed his will on brute matter in systematic ways that could be described as ‘laws’.

In contrast to Descartes who believed that the laws could be derived from the divine nature by intuition, Newton believed that the laws must be discovered by experimentation in order to reach a high level of certainty, yet here also he spoke of ‘ an infinite and omnipresent spirit in which matter is moved according to mathematical laws’; although in the Principia he more modestly said that:

‘gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the consideration of my readers’.

The early modern idea of laws of nature was grounded in a particular conception of divine activity, one specific to the west; although there are hints of it in Islamic theology. Lawfulness is not something which was a self-evident feature of the universe but was an implication of specific conceptions of God. Later the laws would become simply laws intrinsic to nature and become reflections of human ingenuity rather than reflections of the divine. Shorn of its theological underpinnings, we are now left with a system that ‘just happens’ to be the way it is.

As John Barrow concludes:

We see now how it is possible for a Universe that displays unending complexity and exquisite structure to be governed by a few simple laws - perhaps just one law - that are symmetrical and intelligible, laws that govern the most remarkable things in our Universe - populations of elementary "particles" that are everywhere perfectly identical. There are some who say that because we use our minds to appreciate the order and complexity of the Universe around us, there is nothing more to that order than what is imposed by the human mind. That is a serious misjudgment.

Were it true, then we would expect to find our greatest and most reliable understanding of the world in the everyday events for which millions of years of natural selection have sharpened our wits and prepared our senses. And when we look towards the outer space of galaxies and black holes, or into the inner space of quarks and electrons, we should expect to find few resonances between our minds and the ways of these worlds. Natural selection requires no understanding of quarks and black holes for our survival and multiplication.

And yet, we find these expectations turned upon their heads. The most precise and reliable knowledge we have about anything in the Universe is of events in a binary star system more than 3,000 light years from our planet and in the sub-atomic world of electrons and light rays, where we are accurate to better than nine decimal places. And curiously, our greatest uncertainties all relate to the local problems of understanding ourselves - human societies, human behaviour, and human minds - all the things that really matter for human survival. … . Our first attempts to grasp the laws of nature are often incomplete. So, in our religious conceptions of the Universe, we also use approximations and analogies to have some grasp of ultimate things. They are not the whole truth but this does not stop them being a part of the truth: a shadow that is cast in a limiting situation of some simplicity.

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