Revaluing Laws of Nature in Secularized Science

In Yemima Ben-Menahem (ed.), Rethinking the Concept of Law of Nature: Natural Order in the Light of Contemporary Science. Springer. pp. 347-377 (2022)
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Abstract

Discovering laws of nature was a way to worship a law-giving God, during the Scientific Revolution. So why should we consider it worthwhile now, in our own more secularized science? For historical perspective, I examine two competing early modern theological traditions that related laws of nature to different divine attributes, and their secular legacy in views ranging from Kant and Nietzsche to Humean and ‘governing’ accounts in recent analytic metaphysics. Tracing these branching offshoots of ethically charged God-concepts sheds light on how our ethical ideals and ideas of natural order can still be valuably integrated. Early modern intellectualists valued the law-governed order of nature as a sign of divine Reason. In turn, Reason traditionally ascribed to God has now been partly reclaimed for humans, reframing the value of natural order anthropocentrically, in terms of the value of our own intelligence. Alternatively, Reason may be reclaimed for nature itself, as in an ‘objective’ idealism or metaphysical rationalism. However, beyond divine Reason, an influential voluntarist tradition in theology stressed a connection between laws of nature and God’s Power or free Will. Tracking how divine Power has been reinvested in human beings provides a broader context for instrumentalism and related lineages of empiricism. But secularization can also transfer Power from God to the impersonal natural world. In this light, current scientific interest in lawlike order may also reflect the inherent value of brute necessity or inhuman causal power in nature: this is a deeper way to reject anthropocentrism and to show our respect for the environment.

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Eli I. Lichtenstein
University of Edinburgh

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