Regularities, which we associate with laws of nature, require an explanation.
- The nomological argument for the existence of God comes from the Greek nomos or "law," because it's based on the laws of nature.
- There are pragmatic, aesthetic, and moral reasons for regularities to exist in nature.
- The best explanation may be the existence of a personal God rather than mindless laws or chance.
Here's a new version of an old argument for the existence of God. It's called the "nomological argument," after the Greek nomos or "law," because it's based on laws of nature.
Suppose that you receive five consecutive royal flushes in a game of poker. What explains this? You could have received them by chance, but that seems unlikely. A better explanation is that someone has arranged the decks in your favor.
Similarly, we can ask for an explanation of why nature is full of regularities, such as that planets have elliptical orbits and that oppositely charged particles attract. As with your sequence of hands, these regularities could be the result of chance, but that seems unlikely. A better explanation is that something is responsible for them. But what?
To clarify, we're not asking why we have the specific regularities that we do in fact have. Thus, we're not asking why the laws of nature appear to be fine-tuned to support life: for example, that gravity is the correct strength to permit the formation of stars. We think that's an interesting question but not our present topic. (See our "Further Reading" section below if you want to learn more.) Similarly, we're not talking about "intelligent design"; we're not asking why well-adapted species exist today. We think that can be adequately explained by citing regularities of natural selection and genetics. Our question is more general: Why are there any regularities at all, as opposed to irregularities?
Regularities: The nomological argument for the existence of God
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute
According to the nomological argument, the best explanation of regularities involves a supernatural personal being, God. It's not necessary for God to have all the attributes of a theistic or Biblical god — namely, omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection — but only that God is an intelligent being with the power to control whether nature exhibits regularities. In other words, this argument holds that regularities in nature are analogous to your winning poker hands.
To begin, why does the best explanation of your sequence of royal flushes involve a person? Well, we can think of pragmatic, aesthetic, and even moral reasons why a person might want to impose order on decks of cards. A pragmatic reason is about self-interest: someone might impose order on the deck of cards because they want you to win some money. An aesthetic reason is about elegance or beauty: royal flushes might just look nice. And maybe a moral reason could be that you deserve to win.
Similarly, we can think of pragmatic, aesthetic, and even moral reasons why God might want to impose regularities on nature: notably, most of the valuable things we know of (such as happiness, love, rationality, knowledge, or meaningfully free choices) cannot be realized in worlds without regularities. And since God is a person, we have reason to think that God might have moral and aesthetic preferences. Indeed, this would be so even if God were evil or had poor taste, since almost any moral and aesthetic states of affairs require some degree of regularity. As a result, if you knew that a personal being was about to create a world, you wouldn't be unreasonable in anticipating regularities, even if you knew nothing else about that being.
Objections and further development
At this point, someone might object as follows: Do we really need to invoke God? Doesn't Occam's Razor say we should prefer a simpler explanation or not posit this extra, unnecessary thing? Well, positing God doesn't really commit us to much more than other explanations of regularity would; they too would posit additional entities.
For example, suppose we try to posit laws of nature to explain regularities instead of God. We all have some idea of what a law of nature is supposed to be: Newton's laws of motion, the law that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, or the ideal gas laws. Scientists posit laws such as these to explain things all the time. However, scientists typically assume that there are regularities, and they try to determine which ones are the most significant, important, or fundamental. When they've found one, they call it a "law of nature." In their role as scientists, they don't try to explain why there are fundamental laws of nature in the first place. So if we want to explain why there are regularities as opposed to irregularities — indeed, if we want to explain why science is possible at all — we have to do some philosophy. If we were going to explain regularities by positing laws, we'd first have to say what a law is.
This appeal to God has some important explanatory virtues and that, as a result, it deserves serious consideration as an explanation of why there are regularities.
There are philosophical accounts of laws that do not involve God, but those that attempt to explain regularities all do so by positing extra entities, too. These involve exotic things such as Platonic universals, Aristotelian natural kind essences, or other sorts of primitive necessities. As far as Occam's Razor is concerned, that's no better than positing God.
Moreover, these competing theories face a different problem. Positing mindless laws of nature with no ultimate explanation just seems to push the problem back. Now we have yet another interesting phenomenon to explain. Why did the laws that just randomly happened to exist generate regularities, which are only a relatively tiny portion of the possible set of events? To return to our analogy, it wouldn't be satisfying to say that you got five royal flushes in a row because some mindless law just happened to guarantee that result. (Why wasn't there a different law, one that generated any one of the octillions of other possible sequences instead? Just a huge coincidence?) In any case, we say a lot more in our journal article about why other explanations, such as alternative philosophical accounts of the nature of laws, don't do a great job of explaining regularities.
One might worry that positing God pushes the problem back in exactly the same way: What explains the existence of God? Well, everyone has to posit something, and we can always ask for an explanation of those things. Because positing God is relatively modest, we think it's more or less on the same footing as positing anything else — maybe no philosophical theory can really explain its fundamental entities. However, positing God answers a difficult question that other accounts don't: namely, why are there regularities as opposed to irregularities? To posit nothing, or pure, random chance, is modest but doesn't do a good job of explaining: random chance doesn't explain the five royal flushes. To posit some mindless explanation that just happened, coincidentally, to give us something as complex and consistent as a regularity does a good job of explaining but isn't really modest: your poker opponent would be very skeptical if you posited something as complex and coincidental as that as an explanation of your five royal flushes. (For those familiar with Bayesian reasoning, we're arguing that "God" strikes the best balance between prior probability of the explanation and likelihood of the phenomenon to be explained.) As a result, it doesn't merely push back the specific problem that concerns us.
Another objection might be that we've just posited a "God of the gaps" — simply positing God ad hoc when there's some gap in our knowledge. However, we haven't argued, "We don't know why laws of nature exist, and therefore, God did it." Instead, we've argued as follows: We know why God would create regularities, but we don't know why random chance or some mindless law would. And recall, the version of God we've described — simply a person with the power to control whether there are regularities — is relatively modest. Therefore, God provides a pretty good explanation of these regularities.
We'll mention one last objection. Proponents of a multiverse might say that regularity isn't surprising, because the probability that at least one universe exhibits regularity is high. Some proponents of a multiverse are motivated by scientific considerations. However, since the relevant scientific theories (inflation, string theory, many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics) posit underlying regularities that generate and maintain the multiverse, we can simply ask what explains those regularities. Other proponents of a multiverse are motivated by philosophical considerations — for example, that we should posit a plurality of possible worlds to make sense of our concepts of possibility and necessity. This might be a good reason to posit possible worlds, but it doesn't really explain regularities in our world. After all, you wouldn't find your sequence of royal flushes any less surprising upon learning that poker is a very popular game.
Philosophy is hard
One last disclaimer: Philosophy can be really hard. We don't claim to provide a proof, or even an especially strong argument, for the existence of God. Instead, we merely claim that this appeal to God has some important explanatory virtues and that, as a result, it deserves serious consideration as an explanation of why there are regularities.
Though modest, this conclusion is noteworthy. As we alluded to above, scientific practice requires regularities. By providing a philosophical explanation of regularities, we are trying to explain why science is possible in the first place. Relatedly, many Early Modern philosophers thought that scientific investigation of the natural world allowed us insight into the mind of God. If God's relation to the laws of nature might be as we've suggested, theists should have a very positive attitude towards the sciences. Likewise, those who prefer naturalistic or atheistic accounts should at least be open-minded about the relationship between science and religion. This is not a new lesson, but it provides a further illustration of the fact that, while there may be no role for God or other supernatural entities in scientific explanations, this does not mean that science itself is necessarily at odds with religious belief.
Suggestions for further reading
The journal article on which this essay is based is:
Tyler Hildebrand and Thomas Metcalf, "The Nomological Argument for the Existence of God." Noûs. DOI 10.1111/nous.12364 (available on EarlyView)
For a book length defense of a divine explanation of regularities, see:
John Foster, The Divine Lawmaker. Oxford University Press, 2004
For an introduction to the metaphysics of laws of nature, see:
Tyler Hildebrand, "Non-Humean Theories of Natural Necessity." Philosophy Compass 15, 2020
For more on multiverse-style objections to design arguments, see:
Thomas Metcalf, "On Friederich's New Fine-Tuning Argument," Foundations of Physics 51, 2021
Thomas Metcalf, "Fine-Tuning the Multiverse," Faith and Philosophy 35, 2018
For readers interested in the role of God philosophical accounts of laws in the Early Modern period, see:
Ott & Patton's Laws of Nature (Oxford University Press, 2018)
Ott's Causation and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2009)
For introductory essays aimed at relative beginners, see:
Thomas Metcalf, "Design Arguments for the Existence of God," in 1000-Word Philosophy: https://1000wordphilosophy.com/2018/02/28/design-a...
Thomas Metcalf, "Philosophy and its Contrast with Science," in 1000-Word Philosophy: https://1000wordphilosophy.com/2018/02/13/philosop...
Michael Zerella, "Laws of Nature," in 1000-Word Philosophy: https://1000wordphilosophy.com/2014/02/17/laws-of-...
Here's what Einstein meant when he spoke of cosmic dice and the "secrets of the Ancient One".
- To celebrate Einstein's birthday this past Sunday, we examine his take on religion and spirituality.
- Einstein's disapproval of quantum physics revealed his discontent with a world without causal harmony at its deepest levels: The famous "God does not play dice."
- He embraced a "Spinozan God," a deity that was one with nature, within all that is, from cosmic dust to humans. Science, to Einstein, was a conduit to reveal at least part of this mysterious connection, whose deeper secrets were to remain elusive.
Given that March 14th is Einstein's birthday and, in an uncanny coincidence, also Pi Day, I think it's appropriate that we celebrate it here at 13.8 by revisiting his relationship with religion and spirituality. Much has been written about Einstein and God. Was the great scientist religious? What did he believe in? What was God to Einstein? In what is perhaps his most famous remark involving God, Einstein expressed his dissatisfaction with the randomness in quantum physics: his "God doesn't play dice" quote. The actual phrasing, from a letter Einstein wrote to his friend and colleague Max Born, dated December 4, 1926, is very revealing of his worldview:
Quantum mechanics is very worthy of regard. But an inner voice tells me that this is not the true Jacob. The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the secrets of the Ancient One. In any case, I am convinced that He does not play dice.
Einstein clearly had no qualms with the effectiveness of quantum mechanics as a tool to describe the results of laboratory experiments concerned with the world of the very small— the world of molecules, atoms, and particles. But his intuition (his "inner voice") would not gel with quantum physics as formulated then, that is, as a probabilistic theory: "The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the secrets of the Ancient One." What could Einstein mean by the "secrets of the Ancient One"?
Taken at face value, this reads like the remarks of a mystic. The secrets of the Ancient One could well be the title of a documentary series on revelations from God. But to consider Einstein's quote literally would be misleading. Of course, no one knows what Einstein really thought (or anyone, for that matter); we are bound by his written and recorded words, and he could easily have kept his own "secrets of the Wise One" close to his heart. The more direct interpretation is that the 'Ancient One' was a symbolic representation of Einstein's own beliefs, which, in a telegram to a Jewish newspaper composed three years after the letter to Max Born, he related to a kind of all-pervading Spinozan God: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings."
To Einstein, science's goal was to dig ever deeper into the causal machinery of the cosmos, unveiling its mechanisms one by one.
This "harmony of all that exists" represents Einstein's profound and unchanging position that there is a fundamental and all-encompassing causal order in nature that affects all that is:
Everything is determined… by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust—we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.
Einstein's worldview reveals a strange interplay between an over-arching causality that affects all that exists in nature (human beings, cosmic dust, vegetables, stars…) but whose deepest inner workings remain unreachable and mysterious to us and to science. The tune intoned in the distance by an invisible piper is barely audible by human ears. This reminds me of another quote, this one much older, from Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher from the 4th century BCE who came up with the notion of "atoms" as the building blocks of everything (with his mentor Leucippus.) Democritus wrote: "In reality, Truth is in the depths."
To Einstein, science's goal was to dig ever deeper into the causal machinery of the cosmos, unveiling its mechanisms one by one. In true Platonic fashion, to Einstein, every scientific discovery revealed a little more of this inner harmony of all things. No wonder he rejected the probabilistic nature of quantum physics! It went precisely in opposition to his worldview that nature was "rational," causal, and thus understandable as such by the human mind, even if imperfectly. If quantum physics worked as a probabilistic explanation, it was because there was a deeper one, underlying this randomness, that made sense from a causal perspective. Otherwise, nature wouldn't be harmonious, and the causal chain would be disrupted, deafening the tune from the invisible piper. To Einstein, an acausal world would be a senseless world, without harmony, without divine beauty. An acausal world would be lawless and godless.
Almost 100 years have passed since Einstein expressed his worldview, and we remain confused about the nature and interpretation of quantum physics. We have learned a lot since then, of course, and current knowledge indicates quite strongly that nature really is probabilistic at the fundamental level. It may be that the invisible piper is still there, but that, instead of one of Mozart's harmonious tunes that Einstein loved so much, the musical spirit of nature is keener on improvising, creating an unexpected harmony born out of dissonance.
Research shows that bone fragments of Jesus's (possible) brother belong to someone else.
- New research in Rome has found that bones purported to be from St. James the Less are impossible.
- The femoral bone fragments date to somewhere between 214 and 340 CE—a few centuries off the mark.
- The analysis was conducted on bone fragments, oil, and mummy remains in the Basilica dei Santa Apostoli.
The most psychologically riveting undiscovered archaeology in the Western world remains "proof" of Jesus and his disciples. Dan Brown's alternative religious history, "The Da Vinci Code," was denounced by the Church (even though it was admittedly fictional). Yet his book revealed something about human psychology, with this revival of the Holy Grail legend and Mary Magdalene selling 80 million copies sold worldwide.
Speaking of Mary, that was the name of James the Less's mother, making him the potential brother of Jesus. While he hasn't received the same veneration as James the Great (the patron saint of Spain), James the Less (aka the Younger) earned fame as one of Jesus's dozen disciples. His bones have been stored in Rome's Basilica dei Santi Apostoli for over 1,500 years—well, so people thought. According to a new research article, published in the journal Heritage Science, the femur is a few centuries younger than advertised.
Researchers used a variety of dating techniques, including mass spectrometric detection, X-Ray diffraction, and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry to analyze bone fragments and mummy remains in the Basilica dei Santa Apostoli. Investigating the supposed remains of St James and St Philip, they discovered that James's femoral bone dates to somewhere between 214 and 340 CE. This skeleton certainly did not walk with Jesus.
The team also discovered rapeseed oil and a ceramic shard dating to roughly the same era, give or take a century. All samples, in fact, dated to at least two centuries after the time of Christianity's savior.
The 6th-century church dedicated to James and Philip has gone through numerous renovations, including a 16th-century facelift that shielded it from recurring floods. In 1700, the church was basically rebuilt. In the late 19th century, relics were discovered in the catacombs and shuffled around. Keeping track of so many changes on paper has proved challenging; it shouldn't be surprising that the fragments were caught in the mix. Superstition trumps reality—but not technology.
a) Tibia of St Philip KLR-11036/C90 (femur of St James KLR-11030/C81); b & c) foot of St Philip KLR-12288/C18 and KLR-11029/C80
Credit: Rasmussen et. al
The contention that St James the Less is Jesus's brother is also contested. As the researchers note, the Lord's brother, Iakob, is not mentioned in any list of the 12 disciples. Pivotal to the Church of Jerusalem, with 11 mentions in the New Testament, James was part of the council that decided whether gentiles should be circumcised. His influence remains part of us—well, deciding what remains part of us.
The team notes that the potential conflation of Jesus's brother with St James is a red flag. Calling a divine sibling "Lesser" doesn't make sense considering his outsized influence on the Church of Jerusalem. Jesus's brother is textually referred to as "Lord's brother" or "the Just." Some even consider St James the Less to be a cousin of Jesus, not a brother.
As mentioned, we love a good mystery.
Regardless, the bones in the Basilica are not of any James we know of. Lead author Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an archaeometry professor at the University of Southern Denmark, says,
"Our dates, although disproving it was St. James, fall in a dark period, between the time when the apostles died and Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire."
In a statement released after the publication of the study, Rasmussen continues,
"We consider it very likely, that whoever moved this femur to the Santi Apostoli church, believed it belonged to St. James. They must have taken it from a Christian grave, so it belonged to one of the early Christians, apostle or not."
The mystery continues. While we might never discover actual bones or grails, there's always a novel waiting around for Netflix to option.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Is death the final frontier? We ask scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders about life after death.
- Death is inevitable for all known living things. However on the question of what, if anything, comes after life, the most honest answer is that no one knows.
- So far, there is no scientific evidence to prove or disprove what happens after we die. In this video, astronomer Michelle Thaller, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, science educator Bill Nye, and others consider what an afterlife would look like, what the biblical concepts of 'eternal life' and 'hell' really mean, why so many people around the world choose to believe that death is not the end, and whether or not that belief is ultimately detrimental or beneficial to one's life.
- Life after death is also not relegated to discussions of religion. "Digital and genetic immortality are within reach," says theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. Kaku shares how, in the future, we may be able to physically talk to the dead thanks to hologram technology and the digitization of our online lives, memories, and connectome.
Christians and Muslims that pick out unconscious patterns are more likely to believe in a god.
- Georgetown researchers found strong implicit pattern learning implies belief in a god.
- The study included American Christians and Afghani Muslims, representing two different religious and cultural backgrounds.
- Further research on polytheistic religious believers could provide insights into a cognitive basis of religion.
In Genesis 1:27, one of the writers of the Bible claims that "God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created them." The reverse is most likely true: man created a god with his attributes. Physical features are not the only qualities gods share with humans. Pattern recognition appears to be another.
A god that can make sense out of patterns in nature is certainly a powerful being. According to a new study from Georgetown University, it appears that humans endowed with this skill are more likely to believe in a god.
The team, led by Adam Green, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, writes that religious variability is common. Universal themes might be extracted from disparate regions, but each of the hundreds of religious practices that came be known broadly as Hinduism espouse different ideas.
The same holds true for every religion: Buddhism has a "great vehicle" and a lesser one; Shia practices are wildly different than Sufis; Japanese Buddhists practice quite different rituals than California Buddhists; what's divine in one Christian sect is blasphemy in another. While the more fervent religious believe their views to be correct, open-minded believers are likely to see the possibility of communication.
To combat the problem of relativism, Green's team chose volunteers from American Christians and Afghani Muslims, two varied religious and cultural samples. They wanted to know if implicit pattern learning—"perceptual mechanisms evolved for predictive processing of environmental information"—is a predictor of belief in a god.
Why religion is literally false and metaphorically true | Bret Weinstein | Big Think
The answer, according to their research, is yes. As Green notes,
"This is not a study about whether God exists, this is a study about why and how brains come to believe in gods. Our hypothesis is that people whose brains are good at subconsciously discerning patterns in their environment may ascribe those patterns to the hand of a higher power."
Consciousness only provides a sliver of data that our brains pay attention to. Bottom-up processes operate below the conscious threshold, such as the biological operations that maintain our body's homeostasis. Threat detection and other forms of perception are also processed from the bottom-up, although, as the authors write, top-down processing is not an entirely separate domain. The two inform one another.
Intuition is another example of bottom-up processing that appears in consciousness. We pick up signals from our environment and process it unconsciously all the time.
"Because individuals are not aware of such bottom-up influences, intuitions drawn from unconscious processing may instead be consciously interpreted via explicit belief narratives that provide a rationalized context for beliefs and behaviors."
A general view of the beach and a surfer as photographed on March 20, 2014 in Marina del Rey, California.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Face processing, implicit racial bias, and pathogen avoidance provide further context. In fact, cleansing rituals likely evolved from an unconscious fear of disease. Our ancestors applied a spiritual dimension to their bathing rituals to make sense out of unconscious drives.
For this study, 199 (mostly) Christian volunteers in Washington, D.C. and 149 Muslims in Kabul watched a sequence of dots on a computer screen. They were tasked to press a corresponding button every time a dot appeared. Participants with strong implicit learning abilities began to unconsciously recognize patterns in the appearance of the dots, preemptively hitting the corresponding button before they appeared. None of the volunteers claimed to have seen a pattern, suggesting their guesses were unconscious.
The team observed a link between the strongest implicit learners and religious belief. Recognizing patterns before they appear is correlated with belief in a god. The team was surprised to discover such a strong correlation between two disparate religious and cultural groups, suggesting the potential of a universal theme. As Green notes,
"A brain that is more predisposed to implicit pattern learning may be more inclined to believe in a god no matter where in the world that brain happens to find itself, or in which religious context."
An interesting next step could be studying polytheistic groups, where pattern recognition is likely stronger. It's one thing to give credit to one god for everything, but quite another to assign a variety of divine figures for the relationships between natural phenomena.
The authors conclude that they cannot write off top-down processing as part of religious belief. Indeed, faith likes has multivariate influences. Still, this research details another cognitive basis of belief, highlighting common ground we all share regardless of the form of our deities.