Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Conflict Zone: The Laws of Nature as Part of Religious Belief
From now I'll approach the issue from a religious point of view. There is a certain tension between the choice for the best solution to which even God finds Himself bound, and God's Omnipotence. Is it thinkable, that even the best solution is only a choice for the Creator? We have growing knowledge of what the earth must have looked like several millions of years ago, we acknowledge change in species of plants and animals, and change in layers of stone and relief. Continents have shifted and weather conditions have changed. Remote stars have exploded millions of light years ago, and perhaps only two weeks ago space agencies have witnessed their supernovas. Therefore, on the longer term we see the universe change, usually gradually; sometimes dramatically immediate. On the short term, however, we see a stable, well-structured natural and human environment. Each individual has its characteristics, and variations within the species do exist. However, within the species very little difference and change occurs. Species feed from each other and need certain conditions in weather, soil, water presence and temperature. Whoever observes nature, notices a delicate balance between the many different living creatures; the elements they need for survival -- water, air, fire, earth and each other; and in the bigger environment -- the celestial bodies, light and darkness. As far as we know, these elementary basics behind nature have not changed. Celestial bodies move in the universe, and certain forces we now know to be magnetic and electrical fields, keep them apart and bind others to their orbit. These forces prevent those on their surface from being thrown off. Some of the celestial bodies cast light and others don't, but they enjoy the benefits of this light.
Natural phenomena and the apparent rules they listen to, may be a stimulant to religious beliefs among people and sometimes most emphatically not. However, the rules and systematic order in empirical nature perhaps belong to the main issues of conflict between believers and non-believers of religion, but also between religious believers. To some believers, laws of nature are a profane effort to belittle God's Omnipotence. To others, these laws are part of God's delicate and immense creative genius. Atheists have a big problem with this first group; the idea of an omnipotent creator not bound to the laws of nature, is to them a sign of ignorant popular belief meant to frustrate or smother any empirical research. Research and development may be skipped as unnecessary, in this approach. The idea that God alone creates when, how, whatever He wishes, indeed answers the how to-questions with an easy skipping of the how-to's.
How contradictory is trying to answer questions about a creator within the framework of natural possibilities and the law of nature? When we think about God being omnipotent within the absolutely possible, it is not so contradictory. It is obvious that going back in time is not possible, division by zero neither so, and that God exists within the existing. God cannot be in the non-existent. It is also obvious that the balance of nature is a consequence of practical possibility. Animals need to protect themselves from natural enemies and possess therefore certain colors, qualities or capabilities. The bigger question behind this is: Why does the animal have an enemy, why is there a universe at all? This is a question that religious scriptures like to answer. For this reason, as said above, it is very appealing to combine the easier answer to the how to-question of how God's might works in the universe -- God creates whatever, when, and why He wishes -- with a traditional prophetic scripture explaining why we all were created. It is a very easy way out and never wrong to use these answers. It's why religious scholars traditionally used them both in popular works for ordinary followers and in elaborate studies among their peers. But the answer is a shallow one and not satisfactory to more inquisitive minds, as the concept of unlimited divine omnipotence clashes with absolute impossibilities, such as those mentioned above. Besides and last but not least, traditional scriptures differ not only between main religions, but also between schools of thought within religions. How do we come to terms with that, if at all.
Especially in modern days, with empirical scientific knowledge having grown so extensive, it is necessary to now and then consider natural boundaries to divine omnipotence. However, ancient and medieval philosophers as Aristoteles and Ibn Rushd considered the laws of nature -- not yet with this name -- as an essential part of the universe. They believed in intermediary forces by which God works in His creation according the rules of the truly possible. I think, therefore, that if it's impossible that God works and resides in the non-existing, God must reside in the existing, and that He can't create the existent from the non-existent and vice versa. If God is eternal, so must be the universe: An ever changing, yet well-structured, fully obedient creation by the eternal God, without first beginning. Like God Himself, matter and moving forces were always there.