Lawless Events and the Existence of God
September 1, 2011 — 20:29

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Providence Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 6

Christine Overall famously argued that miracles, conceived as violations of the laws of nature, would be evidence against the existence of the traditional God. A lengthy debate with Robert Larmer ensued, in which Larmer argued that only slight modifications to the law-breaking account of miracles are necessary in order for miracles to serve as evidence for, rather than against, the existence of God. Larmer tries to argue that miracles do not violate the laws of nature, but nevertheless holds that they are different from ordinary events in that they don’t follow from the laws of nature. (I don’t have Larmer’s book handy to remember the exact details of his account.)
The Overall-Larmer debate in some respects replays one dialectical thread from the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence: Clarke defends the view that any sufficiently widespread natural regularity should be regarded as a law, and any event that violates such a regularity should be regarded as a miracle. Furthermore, Clarke argues, miracles of this sort occur from time to time. Leibniz argues that God, as traditionally conceived, would not create a world of the sort Clarke envisions and, furthermore, that Clarke’s weak conception of laws does not allow a theologically adequate distinction between miracles and ordinary events.
I think Overall pretty decisively won the debate with Larmer, and Leibniz pretty decisively won the debate with Clarke on this and most other points. (One point where Leibniz clearly loses: his insistence that if there were not a unique best possible world God would be unable to create a world is clearly false.) However, there are a lot of people who seem to disagree, who continue to hold that miracles are best understood as somehow in tension with laws, and that such events can serve as evidence for the existence of the traditional God. I in fact think that miracles should not be conceived as in any sort of tension with laws, so, instead of speaking of miracles, I’ll speak of ‘lawless events’. Lawless events are those which don’t follow, either probabilistically or deterministically, from the laws of nature. (interpret ‘follow from’ in whatever sense your favorite theory of laws requires.) In this post I am concerned with arguments from the traditional divine attributes against the occurrence of lawless events. These arguments will of course work backward to show that lawless events would be evidence against the existence of a being with those attributes.

The intuition behind this general line of argumentation is best stated by Leibniz:

Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the works of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time; otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion. Nay, the machine of God’s making is so imperfect according to these gentlemen that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even to mend it as a clockmaker mends his work, who must consequently be so much the more unskilful a workman, as he is oftener obliged to mend his work and to set it right. (First Paper to Clarke, sect. 4)
I do not say the material world is a machine or watch that goes without God’s interposition … But I maintain it to be a watch that goes without wanting to be mended by him; otherwise we must say that God bethinks himself again. No, God has foreseen everything. He has provided a remedy for everything beforehand. There is in his works a harmony, a beauty, already pre-established.
This opinion does not exclude God’s providence or his government of the world; on the contrary, it makes it perfect. A true providence of God requires a perfect foresight. But then it requires, moreover, not only that he should have foreseen everything but also that he should have provided for everything beforehand with proper remedies; otherwise he must want either wisdom to foresee things or power to provide against them … According to this doctrine, God must want either power or good will. (Second Letter to Clarke, sects. 8-9)

Here, as in much of philosophy, the difficult question is to turn this vague intuition into a fully articulated argument. Here are two versions of the argument, one deductive and one inductive.
Deductive Version

  1. A perfectly rational being who could create a world would choose a world which was optimally simple relative to the class of worlds which (a) are among his options, and (b) achieve all of his ends. A world is optimally simple relative to a class of worlds iff it achieves the best balance of (i) having few laws, (ii) having simple laws, and (iii) having few lawless events. (There may be more than one optimally simple world relative to a class, if there is a tie.)
  2. An omnipotent being’s class of options for worlds to create would include every possible world.
  3. For any set E of rationally permissible ends, and world w in which those ends are achieved, there is a possible world w’ in which all members of E are achieved at least as well as in w, and whose laws are as few and simple as those of w, and in which there are no lawless events.
  4. Therefore,

  5. A being who was perfectly rational and omnipotent would create a world in which all of his ends were achieved without lawless events.

All 3 of the premises here are controversial, but I find them all plausible. Something like (1) is going to have to be true if predictability or consistency is partly constitutive of rationality, and it is. Furthermore, we could probably get the argument off the ground with some sort of doctrine of divine constancy. Nevertheless, (1) as stated might be strictly false, if the being’s ends compete with each other in some way. (2) has been much debated in the literature, so I won’t discuss it here. I’m not sure I endorse it. (I do believe that if God should will to create any world, he would create that world, but (2) doesn’t follow from that claim.) It should be possible to weaken (2) and strengthen (3) to compensate, so that the argument still goes through. (3) seems to me to be on the shakiest ground. I think a defense could be mounted by a combination of modal intuitions about plenitude of worlds and the view that any end that, necessarily, could only be achieved through disorder would not be rationally permissible. However, I think modal intuitions tend to be shaky, so we perhaps shouldn’t be too confident in (3). Anyway, we can mount an inductive version of the argument with much less controversial premises:
Inductive Version

  1. A perfectly rational being who could create a world would, ceteris paribus, create a world in which there was as little disorder as possible.
  2. Lawless events would be instances of disorder.
  3. It is (subjectively) highly probable that, among all the worlds an omnipotent being could create, there are some which are just as good as the actual world in other respects and have no lawless events.
  4. Therefore,

  5. On the hypothesis that the world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly rational being, it is highly probable that there are no lawless events.

Here (1) and (2) seem unassailable. (3) is perhaps somewhat controversial, but it at least matches my intuitive evaluation of the situation, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
A skeptical theist response to this argument might be tempting. However, using this strategy to prevent miracles from being evidence against the existence of God will likewise prevent it from being evidence for the existence of God, since the result will be that the probability of lawless events on the hypothesis of theism is inscrutable. So it seems that lawless events are at least not evidence for the existence of the traditional God, and may even be evidence against.
Now, I don’t think lawlessness is part of the ordinary religious believer’s conception of a miracle in the first place. But even if it is, a rational reconstruction is in order. If the concept of a miracle is taken to include lawlessness, then miracles just can’t play the roles religious thought takes them to.
[cross-posted at]

  • Here’s an argument against (3) in the deductive argument. Among rationally permissible ends, there are ends that de re include particular individuals, such as “saving Peter” or “creating Mary”. Typical humans have ends that de re include particular individuals (if only themselves, but bracket that case), and these ends are not vicious for that reason.
    But now it becomes very difficult to make claims like (3). For it may well be that there is only a relatively narrow range of worlds in which a particular individual exists. For instance, suppose essentiality of origins holds and the conception of Isaac was a lawless event. Then rationally permissible ends such as “create Jacob” or “create Solomon” logically require that lawless event. Moreover, even if essentiality of origins does not hold, it seems pretty plausible that enmattered individuals like us may be significantly law-bound: it would be logically impossible for us to exist in a world where there are significantly different laws. (Argument: It would be logically impossible for me to exist without ever having had an electron in my body. But, plausibly, electrons are significantly law-bound.) So if one of the permissible ends is “save Peter”, that’s an end that requires laws sufficiently similar to those of our world. And now it is far from clear that there is a world with such laws that does the job, because the range of laws available in which Peter exists is pretty narrow–maybe only the actual laws qualify, in fact.
    But I also want to challenge your Leibnizian intuition. First, as a historical point, Leibniz did think it was OK that there were some miracles. What he objected to in Newton was the idea of a universe that in the ordinary course of its operations required miracles.
    Leibniz’s thinking here is essentially aesthetic. And I think it is quite reasonable to say that a beautiful work of art may call for an element of asymmetry. Think of the rule of thirds in photography. It is my understanding that if we take a photo of a face and reflect one half to make the face fully symmetric, we will find the result not quite right. Or: “The young Princess Bolkonskaya had brought some work in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, on which a delicate dark down was just perceptible, was too short for her teeth, but it lifted all the more sweetly, and was especially charming when she occasionally drew it down to meet the lower lip. As is always the case with a thoroughly attractive woman, her defect—the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth—seemed to be her own special and peculiar form of beauty.” (War and Peace, I.2) Or see the example in Figures 4 and 5 of Section 7 here.
    There is something artistically striking about a background of great lawlike order–and then against that background there comes out an ecstatic element of something singular. The order reflects divine unity; the singularity reflects divine otherness. There are other aesthetic interpretations possible.
    Notice that to refute (3) from your first argument all I need is to show that some end that requires this kind of imbalance is rationally permissible. And that is surely true. There are permissible artistic ends that are served by a breaking of order that cannot be served without it (if only because artistic ends have a significant particularity to them, just like individual-involving ends do).
    And I think these points apply in regard to (3) in your inductive argument, too. You’re quantifying over respects. Well, particular kinds of aesthetic goods provide respects that need to be included in the quantification.

    September 1, 2011 — 23:04
  • Kenny Pearce

    While Leibniz did believe (and I agree with him) that there are some miracles, I don’t think he believed that miracles were lawless in my sense (again, I agree). For instance, at Theodicy 207, Leibniz explicitly insists that miracles are lawful, though he says that the reasons for them are “of an order superior to that of Nature,” and he later glosses this as claiming that “they cannot be accounted for by the natures of created things.” So miracles, according to Leibniz, are in some sense lawful, though perhaps they don’t follow the laws of nature. (I’m not convinced that the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ laws is particularly important.) Theod 355 also argues that an event may be a miracle despite being lawful, though here Leibniz is charging his opponents with having miracles where they shouldn’t. (This is a common tactic he employs in a number of other places.) So Leibniz is clearly committed to the claim that lawlessness is not a necessary condition for miraculousness.
    The intuition is not purely aesthetic. Leibniz’s analogy is not to an artist but to an engineer. Elegance in engineering design is an aesthetic feature, but the central premise is not divine artistry but divine wisdom/rationality. Your criticisms are, however, nevertheless relevant, because the promotion of aesthetic value is indeed a rationally permissible end, as you say.
    Still, I think there is a response to be made: Leibniz says that God “departs from one law only for another law more applicable” (Theod. 207). I know very little about the theory of aesthetics, but I would suggest that in the best cases the apparent irregularity is an expression of a deeper order which might not be noticed had the superficial or expected order been perfect. Jazz, for instance, works in large part by breaking established conventions in order to construct a new order, internal to the piece. I don’t deny that violations of the laws we know can contribute to aesthetic value and other worthy ends in ways not otherwise achievable. What I do deny is that an event which was fundamentally lawless might contribute to worthy ends in ways that couldn’t be achieved without fundamental lawlessness.
    Upon reflection, however, I do believe that I left out one important qualification, or maybe two. One event we know about which was lawless in my sense and which achieved great goods not otherwise achievable was the Incarnation. Another event which might be necessarily lawless, depending on how we work out the details of laws and following from them, is the origination of the universe. (If there is no first moment, or at least there didn’t have to be a first moment, then perhaps there is no necessary lawlessness here. Leibniz also thinks that these two occurrences are the only miracles “of the highest kind” – Theod. 249.) So the deductive version does require weakening. But note that, since the miracle that makes the exception is not actually an observable event, this isn’t a case where a lawless event serves as evidence in favor of the existence of God. By recognizing the higher purposes we can excuse the lawlessness, because it is necessary to greater ends not otherwise achievable, but we can’t get the lawlessness to somehow figure into an argument for God.

    September 2, 2011 — 0:26
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Kenny: just to be clear, why couldn’t the origin of the universe and the Incarnation follow laws unique to those event types?
    (BTW: I really like this post and exchange.)

    September 2, 2011 — 5:15
  • Kenny Pearce

    Here’s the reason the Incarnation is a (more or less) clear case: laws are regularities God somehow imposes on finite things, secondary causes, or whatever. But the Incarnation essentially involves the direct interaction of a divine Person with the physical world. So something is going to be happening where the only explanation is God. God, of course, will still be following some sort of regularity – he won’t be acting erratically – but that regularity, it seems, won’t be a (natural or supernatural) efficient causal law imposed on the created world. Something like that, at least, is what I have in mind. (Leibniz doesn’t say what he has in mind in any of the famous texts, but this is my best guess. The interpretive issue might be clarified by looking back at the treatment of the Incarnation in the Catholic Demonstrations, which I haven’t read, but that work is so many decades earlier than Theodicy that it would have to be used with care.)
    Now, the Incarnation won’t require constant lawlessness. It won’t be that the entire life of Jesus is one big lawless event. This is because, if I understand the Chalcedonian Definition correctly (that’s a big ‘if’), the view is supposed to be that, in the life of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity interacted with the world in just the way you and I do. (I take it this is the point of attributing a human soul, will, etc. to him.) That needn’t involve lawlessness. However, the union of the divine and human natures doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing that could fall under laws. (On the other hand: suppose someone claimed that it was a law that under such and such circumstances a human nature unites itself to the divine. Then, I suppose, the Incarnation could follow lawfully. But it would be extremely theologically problematic, since it would picture the human nature elevating itself to be joined to God, rather than God lowering himself to be joined to the human nature.)
    I think whether the creation has to be lawless depends on one’s theory of laws. I noted in the post that the phrase ‘follows from’ will have to be interpreted differently on different theories. Suppose, for instance, that you endorse Maudlin’s theory of laws. According to this theory, the laws (which are taken as primitive) are understood as Laws of Temporal Evolution (LOTEs). To a first approximation LOTEs can be understood as telling us, if we start from a selected time slice of the universe, how to ‘roll it forward’ to see what comes (or might come, in the case of indeterministic laws) later. (Further complications are required to deal with relativity, since the notion of a time slice doesn’t work quite right in relativity.) So on this view the ‘follows from’ is going to imply following temporally – things are going to follow from the laws in combination with earlier conditions. Now, consider a temporally extended event which takes place in a period of time which is an initial segment of the universe (regardless of whether there is a first moment). On the Maudlin theory, this event can’t follow from anything, so it will be lawless. But other theories might give different results, I suppose.
    Now, if there’s a way to get these events to be lawful, I would love to hear it. The more lawfulness the better, as far as I’m concerned. Leibniz says that God’s works should show not just his power but also his wisdom; rigging the initial conditions so that the Red Sea parts at the exact moment Moses raises his staff, and at no other moment, is in this respect more impressive than a lawless intervention. Similarly, if there was a way to bring about the origination of the universe and the Incarnation lawfully, this would certainly be worthy of God. But there is at least some reason to doubt whether this is logically possible.

    September 2, 2011 — 11:01
  • Kenny:
    1. Are they laws you’re talking about merely Mill-Ramsey-Lewis laws (basically, propositions that enter into the account of the universe that optimizes brevity and informativeness), or beefier laws that move particles about, etc.? If they’re MRL laws, then even the Incarnation could be lawful, because it might be an MRL law that prophecies are fulfilled, and the Incarnation was prophesied (albeit darkly). If they’re MRL laws, then I think your claim has some plausibility.
    But if they are beefier laws, then I think the claim is less plausible. Consider, for instance, conversations with God. While it’s possible that God set up natural causes to make the human hear God, there is something odd about this scenario. In fact, it seems to violate something that is otherwise a law about conversations. 🙂
    2. Suppose we’re talking about MRL laws. Then we have a way of using miracles in arguments for Christianity, even if they are lawlike. For they may be lawlike in respect of laws like: Whenever E is prophesied unconditionally, E happens. And while one might think (erroneously) that no explanation of the fundamental law G = 8 pi T of general relativity is needed, a law like this one calls out for explanation. Likewise, for the more subtle non-mathematical laws like the ones governing jazz. If the universe is filled with jazz–not just a perfectly regular sine wave and not white noise, but jazz–then surely someone is jazzing.
    3. If Molinism and theological compatibilism are false, rigging things to coordinate with people’s free actions is going to be tricky. The initial conditions of the universe will have to be explanatorily posterior to Moses’ choice when to raise his arm (assuming that was non-derivatively free). But Moses’ choice when to raise his arm is explanatorily posterior to the initial conditions of the universe. Maybe one can these conditions apart: maybe Moses’ choice is explanatorily posterior only to fact I1 about the initial conditions, while being explanatorily prior only to fact I2 about the initial conditions. But given how entangled everything in the world is, I am not sure such separation of aspects of the initial conditions is likely to be workable without miracles somewhere along the way.

    September 2, 2011 — 12:40
  • Kenny Pearce

    Alex: I think we are very close to agreement now. I do think that miracles are lawful, and that they can be used in arguments in support of Christianity. Typical arguments from miracles focus on the claim that the events somehow violate the laws of nature, and this is somehow supposed to help with their evidential role, but I think it does more harm than good. In fact, I can’t see that it does any good at all. I think all the evidential work is done by extraordinariness + apparent purposiveness.
    I’m trying not to assume a particular theory of laws but, of course, on the MRL theory lawfulness is cheap, and on a more naive descriptivist theory, it’s free. (Every possible world conforms to some description.) So that makes things easy, provided we can come up with an analysis of miracles that doesn’t require lawlessness, which I think we can. As you say, on a stronger view of laws things will get trickier, though I’m not too worried about your conversation case. Miracles are clearly going to violate law-like generalizations such as ‘women who don’t have sex don’t become pregnant.’ But this clearly isn’t a fundamental law. Likewise in the conversation case.
    As far as point 3, I have a strong intuition in favor of divine knowledge of counterfactuals of freedom. Only Molinism and theological compatibilism secure this, so I think one of them must be true. (Aside: it may well be that our theory of omnipotence requires such knowledge, for the same reason it requires knowledge of future contingents. If God doesn’t know what would happen if he took a different course, doesn’t this compromise his ability to choose the course he really wants, in much the same way lack of knowledge of the outcome which is going to result from his actual course would?) Nevertheless, I think there are two ways of getting around this. First, if God is atemporal, things might be ok, though it’s notoriously difficult to spell out how atemporal choices work. Second, since the laws we know are indeterministic, and the indeterminism doesn’t appear to be epistemic in origin, the fundamental laws are also likely indeterministic. Depending on one’s theory of laws and the sense in which events ‘follow from’ them, God’s choosing the outcome of indeterministic processes might be compatible with the events following from the laws. (If this was how things happened all the time, then we would get metaphysical determinism with physical indeterminism.) This would allow adjustments to be made. Now, intuitively, this seems pretty ugly, but physical indeterminism seems intuitively ugly. (Maybe not everyone has my intuitions, though.) However, if you reject both compatibilism and Molinism, then this might be the only way to prevent creaturely freedom from mucking things up without having lawless events. I suppose that if this can be worked out, and no better explanation of why God made an indeterministic world is forthcoming, this might be construed as an argument that God doesn’t know counterfactuals of freedom, but I hope we can do better than that.
    As far as the explanatory priority issue, it might depend on what kind of explanation we are doing. The explanatory order in terms of natural causes might be different from, and in some cases the reverse of, the explanatory order in terms of divine choice. This actually wouldn’t be surprising at all: if you think about human choices, the final causal explanatory order is often just the reverse of the efficient causal order. The cause is brought about for the sake of the effect.

    September 2, 2011 — 13:58