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Intelligent Design and the Regularity of Natural Law

Photo: “...a magnificent world of mountains and rivers, jungles and waterfalls...” (Rio Carrao, Venezuela), by Granville Sewell.

In a series of posts, I am considering the problem of pain, but also indirectly, the “silence” of God. See my earlier post here.

The laws of nature work together to create a magnificent world of mountains and rivers, jungles and waterfalls, oceans and forests, animals and plants. The basic laws of physics are cleverly designed to create conditions on Earth suitable for human life and human development. Gravity prevents us and our belongings from floating off into space; water makes our crops grow; the fact that certain materials are combustible makes it possible to cook our food and stay warm in winter. Yet gravity, water, and fire are responsible for many tragedies, such as airplane crashes, drownings, and chemical plant explosions. Tragedies such as floods and automobile accidents are the results of laws of physics which, viewed as a whole, are magnificently designed and normally work for our benefit. Nearly everything in Nature which is harmful to man has also a benevolent side, or is the result of a good thing gone bad. Even pain and fear themselves sometimes have useful purposes: pain may warn us that something in our body needs attention, and without fear, we would all die young doing foolish and dangerous things, or kill ourselves the first time life disappoints us. 

Why Not Overrule Nature?

But why won’t God protect us from the bad side effects of Nature? Why doesn’t He overrule the laws of Nature when they work against us? Why is He so “silent” during our most difficult and heart-breaking moments? First of all, if we assume He has complete control over nature, we are assuming much more than we have a right to assume. It does not necessarily follow that, because something is designed, it can never break down. We design cars, and yet they don’t always function as designed. When our car breaks down, we don’t conclude that the designer planned for it to break down, nor do we conclude that it had no designer; when the human body breaks down, we should not jump to the conclusion that God planned the illness, nor should we conclude that the body had no designer. 

That we were designed by a fantastically intelligent super intellect is a conclusion which is easily drawn from the evidence all around us. To jump from this to the conclusion that this creator can control everything is quite a leap. In fact, I find it easy to draw the opposite conclusion from the evidence, that this creator cannot, or at least does not, control everything. Nearly everyone seems to assume that if you attribute anything to God, you have to attribute everything to God. And even if we assume He has complete control over nature it is hard to see how He could satisfy everyone. Your crops are dry so you pray for rain — but I am planning a picnic. It seems fairer to let nature take its course and hope we learn to adapt. Controlling the motions of all the atoms in the world so that nothing terrible ever happens to us, so that we always get what we most need, is probably not as easy as it sounds! 

If Natural Laws Were Unreliable

In any case, what would life be like if the laws of nature were not reliable? What if God could and did stand by to intervene on our behalf every time we needed Him? We would then be spared all of life’s disappointments and failures, and life would certainly be less dangerous, but let us think about what life would be like in a world where nothing could ever go wrong. 

I enjoy climbing mountains — small ones. I recently climbed an 8,700-foot peak in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and was hot and exhausted, but elated, when I finished the climb. Later I heard a rumor that the Park Service was considering building a cable car line to the top, and I was horrified. Why was I horrified — that would make it much easier for me to reach the peak? Because, of course, the pleasure I derived from climbing that peak did not come simply from reaching the top — it came from knowing that I had faced a challenge and overcome it. Since riding in a cable car requires no effort, it is impossible to fail to reach the top, and thus taking a cable car to the peak brings no sense of accomplishment. Even if I went up the hard way again, just knowing that I could have ridden the cable car would cheapen my accomplishment.

When we think about it, we see in other situations that achieving a goal brings satisfaction only if effort is required, and only if the danger of failure is real. And if the danger of failure is real, sometimes we will fail.

An Athletic Contest

When we prepare for an athletic contest, we know what the rules are and we plan our strategy accordingly. We work hard, physically and mentally, to get ready for the game. If we win, we are happy knowing that we played fairly, followed the rules, and achieved our goal. Of course we may lose, but what satisfaction would we derive from winning a game whose rules are constantly being modified to make sure we win? It is impossible to experience the thrill of victory without risking the agony of defeat. How many fans would attend a football game whose participants are just actors, acting out a script which calls for the home team to win? We would all rather go to a real game and risk defeat.

Life is a real game, not a rigged one. We know what the rules are, and we plan accordingly. We know that the laws of nature and of life do not bend at our every wish, and it is precisely this knowledge which makes our achievements meaningful. If the rules of nature were constantly modified to make sure we achieved our goals — whether they involve proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, getting a book published, finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, earning a college degree, or making a small business work — we would derive no satisfaction from reaching those goals. If the rules were even occasionally bent, we would soon realize that the game was rigged, and just knowing that the rules were flexible would cheapen all our accomplishments. Perhaps I should say, “If we were aware that the rules were being bent,” because I do believe that God has at times intervened in human and natural history, and I would like to believe He still does so on occasions, but in our experience, at least, the rules are inflexible.

If great works of art, music, literature, or science could be realized without great effort, and if success in such endeavors were guaranteed, the works of Michelangelo, Mozart, Shakespeare, and Newton would not earn much admiration.

A Book from the Sky

If it were possible to realize great engineering projects without careful study, clever planning and hard work, or without running any risk of failure, mankind would feel no satisfaction in having built the Panama Canal or having sent a man to the moon. And if the dangers Columbus faced in sailing into uncharted waters were not real, we would not honor him as a brave explorer. Scientific and technological progress are only made through great effort and careful study, and not every scientist or inventor is fortunate enough to leave his mark. But anyone who thinks God would be doing us a favor by dropping a book from the sky with all the answers in it does not understand human nature very well — that would take all the fun out of discovery. If the laws of nature were more easily circumvented, life would certainly be less frustrating and less dangerous, but also less challenging and less interesting.

Many of the tragedies, failures, and disappointments which afflict mankind are inevitable consequences of laws of nature and of life which, viewed as a whole, are magnificently designed and normally work for our benefit. And it is because we know these laws are reliable, and do not bend to satisfy our needs, that our greatest achievements have meaning.

Next, “Intelligent Design and Man’s Free Will.”

This series is adapted from Dr. Sewell’s book In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design.