Scientific Laws, The Unity of Nature, and God
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
William Stager notes that the “laws of nature” encompass two interdependent meanings: the physical regularities, processes, and structures in nature as (1) we know and understand them and (2) as they actually function in reality—provided one assumes some form of Ian Barbour’s “critical realism.” “Natural laws” reveal the underlying unity of nature because natural laws testify to nature as a universally embedded rationality evidenced by the power of mathematics to describe these processes. Which means as Einstein said, the greatest mystery of the universe is that we, through reason, can comprehend it. Which doesn’t mean that we can comprehend everything about the universe. It’s the “how questions” that reveal the universe’s exquisite rationality. The “why questions” meaning questions of ethical and aesthetic value, reveal the universe’s fundamental mystery. Both the “how” and “why” questions may very well be evidence for the reasonableness of belief in God.
The “how questions” focus on the realm of the very small (i.e., subatomic particles) to the very large (the cosmos as such). The extraordinary applicability of mathematical descriptions of the structures, entities, and physical processes of nature enforces the conclusion that there is indeed an underlying unity to all things and events in the universe at every moment of space-time since the first nanosecond of the Big Bang. But the “how questions” of scientific concern hemorrhage into the “why questions” of other disciplines, especially theology and philosophy. It is at the intersection of these “how” and “why” questions that the rationality embedded in the universe, and the mystery that human beings seem to be able to understand the physical processes of nature, that make belief in God reasonable, even though the universe’s rationality and the mystery of why it should exist in the first place—along with we who ask such questions—do not constitute proof of God’s existence.
Evolutionary biology adds another hiccup. According to Ursula Goodenough, evolution is fundamentally a process of “emergence,” which she defines as “something more” from “nothing but.” This, she concludes with every biologist I have studied or met, is the sole “purpose” of evolution, an idea that is obviously not a reductionist approach that reduces everything to subatomic particles because biological process involves interdependent processes of top-down causation (the environment’s impact on lower level interrelationships). Which means that life is a process of getting something to happen against all physical odds while remembering how to do it. The “something” that happens, according to Goodenough, is biochemistry and biophysics, and the odds are “beat” by an incredibly complicated process of sorting out shape fits and shape changes at the molecular level along with the “memory” that is “encoded in the strings of DNA in the genes of living organisms. This is “bottom-up causation.” “Evolution” refers to the frequencies of different sets of instructions for making organisms. But to understand evolution, it’s necessary to understand how the instructions become different (mutation) and how the frequencies of those instructions are changed over time, which is the process of “natural selection.
“Natural selection” is the answer to two questions: (1) does a new protein work better or worse or the same as the old one, and (2) how is the difference important to an organism? So, evolution is a process whereby: (1) mutations change the quality of genes as (2) natural selection changes the frequency of the genes in a process that is (3) totally dependent on the environmental circumstances in which it is occurring (top-down causation interdependent with bottom-up causation.)
God is not needed to explain these processes. Yet these processes do not in principle exclude the existence of God as creator. My own sneaking hunch is that God creates continually through these processes everywhere they occur in the universe. But we should not refer to God as an element in the scientific explanation of evolutionary process because God cannot be an explanatory category in any scientific description of physical realities. Such a “God of the gaps” will always entail bad science and bad theology. If, however, “why” questions are the center of attention, it is not unreasonable to conclude that evolutionary processes are the means by which God is creatively active in the universe wherever life may exist.
 “The Mind-Brain Problem,” Neuroscience and the Person, ed. Robert John Russell et al (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory Foundation, 2002), 130.
 The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 29