John W. Draper on Natural Law and Providence

Descartes viewed nature as created by a wise Creator, who had created the universe from nothing and let it run, like a machine, by itself. That is, there was no need for God to constantly intervene. By contrast, Gassendi believed that the laws we discover in nature are our laws, not God’s, and therefore he is not constrained by them. Likewise, for Boyle, God’s laws were palpable and plain for anyone to see; but God could tinker with them if he so chose. Newton shared Gassendi’s and Boyle’s view of divine freedom. He opposed Descarte’s mechanical philosophy and argued that the universe in fact could not sustain itself without God’s continual supervision.

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the conception of God as a “law-giver” or “law-maker” became extremely popular. Babbage and Powell placed great emphasis on the idea of God as law-maker. Indeed, the most incontrovertible evidence of God’s existence and wisdom is found in uninterrupted law. Lyell believed that natural history is fixed by invariable laws. Herschel argued that experiment demonstrated principles of law, and told Lyell that God operated thought a series of intermediate causes. Whewell too believed that “final causes” are unnecessary. For Whewell, though, they were enough to prove God’s existence. Law was uniform but no absolute. Natural laws were not independent of Providence. Thus the very practice of science is an exercise in proving his existence.

But as we all know, later practitioners of science would eschew all this God-talk. Some have argued that John W. Draper is partly to blame. His progressive narratives of the history of science took God out of the story. But that view is entirely mistaken. Behind his “law of development” and his understanding of the nature of science was not “inconsistent with the admission of a Providential guidance of the world.” His concern was that man was not always the most reliable interpreter of the ways of God. Draper, in short, seems to be returning to the older idea of rational religion, that God was indeed behind creation, but not constantly supervising it. Towards the close of his Intellectual Development of Europe, for example, Draper argued that

It might be consistent with the weakness and ignorance of man to be reduced to the necessity of personal intervention for the accomplishment of his plans, but would not that be the very result of ignorance? Does not absolute knowledge actually imply procedure by preconceived and unvarying law? Is not momentary intervention altogether derogatory to the thorough and absolute sovereignty of God? The astronomical calculation of ancient events, as well as the prediction of those to come, is essentially founded on the principle that there has not in the times under consideration, and that there will never be in the future, any exercise of an arbitrary or overriding will. The corner-stone of astronomy is this, that the solar system—nay, even the universe, is ruled by necessity. To operate by expedients is for the creature, to operate by law for the Creator; and so far from the doctrine that creations and extinctions are carried on by a foreseen and predestined ordinance—a system which works itself without need of any intermeddling—being an unworthy, an ignoble conception, it is completely in unison with the resistless movements of the mechanism of the universe, with whatever is orderly, symmetrical, and beautiful upon earth, and with all the dread the magnificence of the heavens.