Wreaking Havoc on Scientific Materialism: C.S. Lewis on Natural Law and Divine Action in Nature

This is a cross post of my new piece at HBU’s School of Christian Thought blog.

There are two rather standard responses from materialist scientists and philosophers to the suggestion that a creator God guides the development and sustains the order of nature:

1) Our current scientific theories on the evolution of all things are sufficient to explain all natural phenomena. The idea of a creator has been rendered superfluous.

2) Science doesn’t have it all figured out, and truth be told, it may never give us comprehensive knowledge of natural history or a full explanation for the stability and regularities of the cosmos, but plugging God into these knowledge gaps is no better than the ancient Greek practice of attributing thunderstorms to Zeus.

Standard practice for an apologist faced with such statements is to describe the evidence for cosmic and biological design or the shortcomings of naturalistic theories when it comes to explaining the indications of rationality in nature. The apologist uses science to argue for a God-designed, God-guided natural world. This is a solid technique and one that I often use. However, it isn’t the only angle from which to approach such a discussion, which is great news for faith-defenders lacking scientific expertise.

god in the dockIn the C.S. Lewis collection God in the Dock, there are two essays that are incredibly insightful and instructive. Lewis was not a scientist, though he knew a great deal about the reigning theories of his era and commented upon them in many of his writings. But he was wise to the fact that, more often than not, the core issue is philosophical, though the materialist scientist rarely recognizes this. Lewis’s tactic for dealing with materialist claims such as those above was quite powerful, as we see in “Religion and Science” and “The Laws of Nature.”

In the first essay, Lewis addresses the question of divine intervention in nature. He sets up a Socratic dialogue between himself and a materialist who insists that “modern science” has proven that there’s no transcendent cause for the workings of nature.

 “But, don’t you see,” said I, “that science never could show anything of the sort?”

“Why on earth not?”

“Because science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists—anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”

This is a key point that is all too often missed by those claiming that science has ruled out the existence of God. But Lewis’s interlocutor persists in his objections:

“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them.”

In other words, because there are “laws of nature,” it is impossible for anything to disrupt the regular course of nature. Such a thing would, he says, result in absurdity, just as breaking the laws of mathematics would.

But Lewis demonstrates, in his typically charming yet utterly logical fashion, that natural laws only tell you what will happen as long as there is no interference in the system from the outside. Furthermore, those laws can’t tell you if such interference is going to occur.

Science, it turns out, studies the material universe and can say quite a lot about how it operates under normal conditions. What it cannot rule out is the existence of something independent of the universe with the power to intervene in natural affairs. This supernatural activity would entail a cosmos that is an open system rather than a system closed to “outside” immaterial causation. Again, the limitations of science preclude it from ruling out such a state. Says Lewis, “…it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.” It is, it turns out, a philosophical question.

In the second essay, “Laws of Nature,” Lewis examines the question of God’s guidance of the natural world and whether or not the prayers of mankind have any bearing on the course of events.

Lewis walks us through his own thought process in dealing with the assertion that nature is deterministic, functioning according to a set of laws, like balls on a billiards table.  But look, declares Lewis, no matter how far back you go in the causal chain of natural events, you’ll never reach a law that set the whole chain in motion. He says, “..in the whole history of the universe the laws of Nature have never produced a single event. They are the pattern to which every event must conform, provided only that it can be induced to happen. But how do you get it to do that? How do you get a move on?”

Natural laws, then, are completely impotent when it comes to event causation; they only tell what happens after ignition, so long as free-willed agents (God included) do not interfere. About the laws Lewis says, “They explain everything except what we should ordinarily call ‘everything.’” Indeed.

“Science, when it becomes perfect,” he explains, “will have explained the connection between each link in the chain and the link before it. But the actual existence of the chain will remain wholly unaccountable.”

There is, then, no contradiction between natural law and the acts of God, for he supplies every event for natural law to govern. Everything in nature is providential! In other words, we don’t need gaps in scientific explanation to have a place for postulating divine activity. But, nota bene, this is not to say that there aren’t real gaps in the explanatory framework that materialist science, by nature, cannot fill.

What does all this mean about the effectuality of human prayers? If a causal chain is already in motion, what difference could prayer possibly make? To answer this, we must be mindful of God’s timelessness and omniscience:

“He, from His vantage point above Time, can, if He pleases, take all prayers into account in ordaining that vast complex event which is the history of the universe. For what we call ‘future’ prayers have always been present to Him.”

And, it’s out of the park, ladies and gentlemen.