The first instinct of many would be to answer “Yes” to this question. For God to “act in the world,” they suppose, would be for God to “intervene” in the natural course of events. Such divine intervention would be an external supernatural cause that interrupts natural cause-and-effect relations and therefore contravenes the laws that govern such relations. But should we characterize God’s acts in the world as breaking laws of nature? I will offer three reasons why we should answer “No.”
Before we get to those reasons, however, we need to consider what we mean by “laws of nature” and how such laws are to be understood. Sadly, there’s no simple or straightforward answer to this preliminary question; indeed, this is one of the most hotly debated issues among metaphysicians and philosophers of science. There’s no consensus about the nature of the laws of nature—or indeed, whether there really are any such things. (If there are no laws of nature, as the “anti-realists” contend, it follows trivially that no one—including God—can break them.)
For the sake of making some progress on the question, I will adopt a relatively minimalist definition: laws of nature are true (or approximately true) generalized descriptions of the uniformities and regularities of the natural world, where “natural world” refers to the domain of the so-called natural sciences (primarily physics and chemistry). A paradigmatic example would be Newton’s law of universal gravitation, according to which—roughly stated—two bodies in space attract each another by a force proportional to their masses and inversely propositional to the square of the distance between them (F=Gm1m2/d2). Other laws of nature would include Boyle’s gas law, Maxwell’s equations, and the laws of thermodynamics.
No Real Conflict
Assuming there are laws of nature, so defined, should we think that God’s acts in the world would break such laws? Here is the first reason to think not: On a classical theistic view, God’s acts are the foundation for such laws and thus there can be no real conflict between divine acts and laws of nature. According to classical theism—the dominant view of God in Judeo-Christian theological traditions—God is not only the Creator of the natural world but also its continual governor and sustainer. The doctrine of divine creation is coupled with the doctrine of divine providence. God is not a deistic first cause who brings an orderly world into existence but thereafter leaves it to operate entirely independent of him in a self-contained, self-sustained fashion. Rather, God is the eternally active sustaining cause of every aspect of his creation, whether animate or inanimate.We shouldn’t think that when God “acts in the world,” those acts are occasional, exceptional, and at odds with the laws of nature. The elements of the natural world continue to exist and exercise their causal powers only because of God’s ongoing sustenance. Likewise, natural events—planets orbiting the sun, rain falling from clouds, trees bursting into blossom, and so on—proceed in an orderly, regular, predictable manner only because God actively wills it to be so. In sum, the classical theist will insist that the laws of nature are not autonomous principles but dependent upon the comprehensive providential activity of God.
The upshot is this: We shouldn’t think that when God “acts in the world,” those acts are occasional, exceptional, and at odds with the laws of nature. God is constantly and necessarily acting in the world, at every time and at every place. Were that not so, there would be no laws of nature in the first place. It’s a tragic underestimation of God’s role to suppose that God breaks the laws of nature by acting in the world.
Nevertheless, there remains a concern about what we might call God’s extraordinary acts in the world, as opposed to his ordinary acts that establish the laws of nature. We might think here of God’s parting the Red Sea for the Israelites, bringing about a virginal conception in Mary, and resurrecting the crucified Jesus after three days in a tomb. Wouldn’t these “miraculous” acts require God to break the very laws of nature he has established?
Other Things Being Equal
This brings me to my second reason for a negative answer: The laws of nature when properly qualified cannot be “broken” even by extraordinary divine acts. That’s because the laws of nature contain ceteris paribus (“other things being equal”) conditions, at least implicitly. As Alvin Plantinga observes in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, the laws of nature describe only how the world proceeds in causally closed or causally isolated systems, that is, in systems where only physical causes are operative. As such, every law of nature carries the implicit qualification, “In a closed physical system . . . ” or “Absent any non-physical causes . . . ” In short, these laws describe how nature ordinarily proceeds; as Plantinga puts it, they describe “how things go when God is not acting specially in the world.” They don’t purport to describe circumstances that involve extraordinary divine acts.The laws of nature describe only how the world proceeds in causally closed or causally isolated systems. It follows that extraordinary divine acts cannot in principle break or violate the laws of nature, because they fall outside the descriptive scope of those laws. Indeed, given the causal-closure condition, the laws of nature remain true even when God causes extraordinary events in the natural world, such as transforming water into wine, precisely because the causal-closure condition does not apply in those cases.
Some readers might worry that including this ceteris paribus condition in every law of nature smacks of special pleading. Not so: it’s part and parcel of a classical theistic conception of the laws of nature. In fact, to deliberately exclude such a condition would be sheer philosophical and theological prejudice against Judeo-Christian monotheism, for then the laws of nature would rule out a priori extraordinary divine actions in the world.
Action, Human and Divine
The recognition that laws of nature are conditioned on the assumption of physical causal closure leads to my third reason for a negative answer to the original question: If we don’t think that human acts in the world break laws of nature, then we shouldn’t think that divine acts in the world do so. Few of us believe that our routine actions in the world break laws of nature. But there are very good reasons for thinking that our actions involve non-physical causation.
There are some pretty impressive philosophical arguments against a physicalist view of the mind, according to which mental entities and events (such as perceptions, beliefs, and decisions) can be explained entirely in terms of physical structures and events (such as brain cells and neuron firings). Moreover, common sense tells us that we really do have minds that exercise causal influence over our bodies. Try this little exercise. Pause for a moment to think of a number between one and ten. (I’ll wait.) If you thought of an odd number, raise your left hand; if an even number, raise your right hand. Go ahead—no one’s looking!
What happened just now? It certainly seems as though a series of physical events (the preceding paragraph appearing on your electronic device) brought about a series of mental events (your mind interpreting and following my directions) which in turn brought about a series of physical events (one of your hands being raised). But in that case the raising of your hand wasn’t the result of a closed series of physical causes, where every physical event is immediately caused by some preceding physical event. That’s to say, we have good reason to think that your bodily movements weren’t logically entailed by the physical state of the world two minutes ago conjoined with the laws of nature (as we earlier defined them). You—and your thoughtful, willful interactions with the world around you—are not a closed system of physical cause-and-effect.
But do you believe that our little exercise broke any laws of nature, such as Newton’s laws of motion? I doubt it. If you don’t think that any laws of nature were broken in the last two minutes, that’s because you’re implicitly assuming that the laws of nature have something like (physical) causal-closure conditions. But then, if you wouldn’t say that we break laws of nature when we act in the world, neither should you say that God would do so. I therefore invite you to join me in answering “No” to the question at hand.