The debates between religious and secular, between “believers” in some god and “non-believers” – are as old as human imagination. In the ancient world where scientific knowledge was much inferior to nowadays, most of these debates tended to favor the religious side. Yet, even then there were quite a few people who opposed the simple belief, and were more inclined towards scientific thinking in the spirit of today. These included some of the philosophers of ancient Greece, but also “rationalists” born into Jewish culture – such as Spinoza or Hiwi al-Balkhi, the Muslim culture – such as Ibn al-Haytham, and other cultures.
Reviewing this discussion, it seems that it can be summarized in one simple question:
Does nature always work according to fixed laws?
As a side note, for the purpose of the discussion, we will also allow a “law of nature” to include coincidences (“randomness”), as long as this randomness itself follows the laws of statistics, that is, distributed according to a clear formula. A universe where all the laws that govern its operation do not include any element of randomness is actually a universe where everything is predictable, and is called “deterministic” – but that is a different and fascinating discussion altogether.
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So let’s see: We know that things move exactly according to Newton’s and Einstein’s laws. We never observed anything that moved otherwise. We know that the world insists on strictly following the laws of thermodynamics. And the same goes with all the other laws of nature we have discovered.
In fact, a nature that does not work according to laws – represents a chaotic and very confusing world, in which we don’t have too much to explore. What the hell are all these scientists wasting their time on, if there are no rules anyway and anything can happen? Or as it is sometimes said (in a Christian environment): Who needs science where one can walk on water? What is the point of bothering to research anything at all, if we assume in advance that there are never clear rules and anything can happen at any time?
“Aha!” You may say, “If so, then nature does probably work according to laws.” – But notice what this statement implies:
There are no “miracles”. That is, there may be phenomena that we do not understand, but in a world of laws – this simply means that we are missing some data – either about the phenomenon or about certain laws related to it. And the same laws will always work in exactly the same way, when the right moment comes.
“Prayers” have no meaning. That is, a prayer may have an indirect effect on those who perform it or hear it – due to the very fact that they associate certain importance with it. This is similar to having an effect as a result of affection shown to someone. But surely a prayer asking to change the direction of an object’s motion (whether an airplane or a virus) – will change nothing in the laws of nature that govern its motion.
Our brain is also a part of “nature” and therefore works exactly according to the same laws. This means that all our actions and all our thoughts are nothing more than a product of the laws of nature. One common approach to clarify this issue is that we may feel “as if” we are deciding on things, but this is only an illusion, and these decisions are strictly determined by how our mind works. We only feel that we have decided freely (see “Epiphenomenalism“).
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Somewhat surprisingly, a large portion of the Jewish-religious thinking – especially Talmudic thinking – follows the mindset that nature is governed by its own clear laws. Talmudic thinking defines many “laws of nature” (even if completely absurd and incorrect), and often strives to “pinpoint” them to high levels.
For example: There are two different pregnancy routes for a woman – a pregnancy that lasts seven months, and a pregnancy that lasts nine months, where the latter is accurate to the level of one day (Rosh Hashanah 11a); Crossing under a bridge that has not seen water for 40 days – causes difficulties in studying (Horayos 13b); A person becomes mature after two hairs have grown in his body, even if they are growing out of the same follicle (Nidah 52a); And so on and so forth – hundreds and thousands of different and strange “laws of nature” – but very precise and fixed.