Stealing from God: Causality, Part 2

The second main point Turek makes in his chapter on causality is that without God, there would be no laws of nature — and therefore no cause and effect:
“Have you ever asked yourself, why are there laws at all?… Why is reality governed by cause and effect? Why are the laws of nature so uniform, precise, and predictable?”

He says that “Either they arose from a preexisting supernatural intelligence or they did not.” (And he adds that “even Lawrence Krauss recognizes this” — which shouldn’t be surprising, given that those are the only two logical possibilities!) And of the two, the first of course appears to him far more likely: “After all, experience tells us that laws always come from lawgivers.”

But of course, experience doesn’t teach any such thing. Experience tells us that legal codes come from lawgivers; it does not tell us that laws of nature do. If we had a different word for natural laws — if they were always called, say, natural principles instead — Turek wouldn’t be making this all-too-common mistake.

He also asks why, given that “all physical things change,” natural laws don’t change — the implication being that materialism cannot explain unchanging laws. But first of all, it’s not necessarily the case that all physical things change. Turek is either counting on the fact that most of his readers will just accept that without really thinking about it, or he himself has not thought about it. The fact that complex entities do change over time does not imply that every one of their components does so as well. Do photons change? Do electrons? Second, and more importantly, laws of nature aren’t “things.” They aren’t physical entities. So even if all physical things did change, that wouldn’t mean the laws would as well.

Turek, like many theists, believes that atheists have a problem on their hands in that they cannot account for the origin of natural laws. Such laws cannot be explained scientifically because that would necessarily mean appealing to further natural laws, which would also have to be explained, thus leading to an infinite regress. The only possibility, therefore, is that God explains them.

However, as with so many other theistic arguments, this is just an example of passing the buck. When God says, “let there be light,” light is created — which means there are laws that apply to God’s actions. But if the existence of natural laws requires an explanation, why doesn’t the existence of divine laws do so as well?

Most theists who become aware of this problem will of course attempt to avoid it by claiming that God is an exception, a necessary being who requires no explanation, and so on. But all they are really doing is introducing the concept of a necessary being (whatever that means) along with baseless claims regarding that being (that it is omnipotent, that it is loving, and so on). The fact is that when it comes to ultimate questions, theists and atheists are in exactly the same boat. Things exist, and they have certain properties. Whether the fundamental nature of things is physical or mental makes no difference: Either way there is something that must be accepted as brute fact. Some theists admit as much. Richard Swinburne, for example, says that “Not everything will have an explanation. But… if we can explain the many bits of the universe by one simple being which keeps them in existence, we should do so — even if inevitably we cannot explain the existence of that simple being.” (Is There a God?, p. 49.)

We don’t have evidence that God exists. Nor do we have evidence that there is some simple being (even without all of God’s traditional properties) that is the cause of the rest of existence. What we do have clear evidence of is that the physical universe exists — and that it has certain properties rather than others. If there is nothing “deeper” that underlies that fact, then there is no explanation for it. If there is something deeper, we don’t know it yet. And if we do eventually find the “deepest level,” then that will have no explanation.

Swinburne is wrong, but at least he recognizes we’re all in the same boat. Turek and most theists don't even realize that. They are out at sea, yet believe they’re on solid ground.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.