Of rocks that skip, bullets that fly; the power behind the laws of nature

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Free will and human action affect ordinary events — and the course of history; so do gravity, the rule of numbers and natural laws. How to account for them?

By David Tulis

One of the dirty secrets of modern life is that everyone espouses a doctrine of predestination, though a few people deny it. When one hears that word, one immediately looks with a furrowed brow at Presbyterians and Baptists such as Rev. Andrew Huffman, whose interview is nearby.

It’s not just the reformed faith that accounts for this idea. It puts the authority of predestination in the hand of an almighty God.

Among the most ardent believers in predestination are people caught up in ideological worship of the state, or in an intellectual haphazardness that makes statism their default doctrine of predestination. For these neighbors and workplace colleagues, predestination belongs to the state. The modern welfare and caretaker state is the proper entity to care for the people and secure them.

Statism’s weariness is in growing evidence. The padding on its jacket elbows is worn, and his pant cuffs are fraying, if one looks closely enough.

Of trajectory and the laws of nature

The question of predestination is one I frequently encounter. Is that odd? It’s partly because my convictions about the sovereignty of God bring me to confront questions of liberty and compulsion. A man who believes in the absolute sovereignty of God sees in human events an ordaining hand. Adam Smith wrote about the invisible hand of the marketplace; with the laissez faire writers, he was bringing the doctrine of providence down to the human realm in part of a long process that removed God from the affairs of men. Man had had enough of providence, and so market forces replaced it.

The question of God’s control of history and His claim to being the first cause in creation came alive in a dinner conversation the other day with a son, 18, a computer engineering student. With an onslaught of secular perspectives at UTC, he is entertaining doubts about the creation narrative of Genesis he’s heard all his life to be true.

I bring up over hamburger and chicken strips a story about a woman who declares that she had prayed for her son, overseas in Europe during World War II, and that because God has heard her prayers he has survived the battle of Arnhem. C.S. Lewis recounts the woman’s words, as told him by a scoffing fellow professor at Oxford. Lewis’ fellow don says he didn’t have the heart to tell the woman that it was the laws of nature on the trajectories of bullets and pieces of shrapnel that saved her son, not prayer. Lewis toddles off to a committee meeting, his mind set into motion.

Consider the projectile fired by a German in the heat of battle. Grit in the rifling makes the bullet veer slightly to one side. Wind tugs the slug. An explosion nearby hurls dirt in the bullet’s path. All affect its flight somehow. The soldier who pulls the trigger gives an involuntary jerk, also affecting the course. The course of the bullet is affected by two sources. The human actors, presumably free in their wills to do as a moment’s necessity dictates. The laws of nature, of gravity, thermodynamics, trajectory also affect the soldier’s survival.

Events bump ahead, creating new events

In his 1945 essay, “The Laws of Nature,” Lewis sets out to explore the elements of nature. He wonders if the bullet’s flight is caused by the laws of nature. He supposes a billiard ball on a table in a salon of an ocean liner tapped by a wave. The ship lurches, the ball rolls into another. “And that wave, though it certainly moved according to the laws of physics, was not moved by them. It was shoved by other waves, and by winds, and so forth. And however far you traced the story back you would never find the laws of nature causing anything.”

In an epiphany, a conclusion arises. “[I]n the whole history of the universe the laws of nature have never produced a single event. They are the pattern to which every event must conform, provided only that it can be induced to happen. But how do you get it to do that? How do you get a move on? The laws of nature can give you no help there.” He goes on to say that the laws of arithmetic cannot create any new coins in your pocket, no matter how many sums you do. “The laws are the pattern to which events conform: the source of the events must be sought elsewhere.”

He asks where events come from. Each event comes from a previous one. But how does the story begin? he wonders. Science, once it becomes perfect, will be able to explain connections between links of causation. “But the actual existence of the chain will remain wholly unaccountable. We learn more and more about the pattern. We learn nothing about that which ‘feeds’ real events into the pattern. If it is not God, we must at the very least call it Destiny — the immaterial, ultimate, one-way pressure which keeps the universe on the move.”

A first cause?

Here then in my conversation with the college student comes to the nub. What is the first cause? Could random events have produced creation and all its irreducible complexity? The sequence of events “leads us back to a mystery which lies outside natural science. It is certainly a possible supposition that behind this mystery some mighty Will and Life is at work. If so, any contrast between His acts and the laws of Nature is out of the question. It is His act alone that gives the laws any events to apply to. The laws are an empty frame; it is He who fills that frame — a not now and then on specially ‘providential’ occasions, but at every moment.”

And here Lewis takes into account the mother’s prayer. “And He *** can *** take all prayers into account in ordaining that vast complex event which is the history of the universe. For what we call ‘future’ prayers have always been present to Him.”

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of sin and thankful acknowledgement of His mercies. Believing in the efficacy of prayer is not to deny predestination by God nor His sovereignty, but to work within the providence of God as a lubricant, as it were.

Source: C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, Essays on Theology (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1971, Walter Hooper, ed), 108 pp

Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 98

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