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God and the Laws of Nature


A Discourse on the Studies of the University, 1833

A study of the laws of nature for many years has been, and I hope ever will be, held up to honour in this venerable seat of the discoveries of Newton. But in this, as in every other field of labour, no man can put aside the curse pronounced on him - that by the sweat of his brow he shall reap his harvest. Before he can reach that elevation from whence he may look down upon and comprehend the mysteries of the natural world, his way is steep and toilsome, and he must read the records of creation in a strange, and to many minds, a repulsive language, which, rejecting both the sense and the imagination, speaks only to the understanding. But when this language is once learnt, it becomes a mighty instrument of thought, teaching us to link together the phenomena of past and future times ; and gives the mind a domination over many parts of the material world, by teaching it to comprehend the laws by which the actions of material things are governed. To follow in this track, first trodden by the immortal Newton - to study this language of pure unmixed truth, is to be regarded not only as your duty, but your high privilege. It is no servile task, no ungenerous labour.

The laws by which God has thought good to govern the universe are surely subjects of lofty contemplation; and the study of that symbolical language by which alone these laws can be fully deciphered, is well deserving of your noblest efforts. Studies of this kind not merely contain their own intellectual reward, but give the mind a habit of abstraction, most difficult to acquire by ordinary means, and a power of concentration of inestimable value in the business of life. Were there any doubt of this, I would appeal to modern examples, and point out a long list of illustrious men, who, after being strengthened by our severe studies and trained in our discipline, have borne off the prize in the intellectual conflicts of their country. But I need not attempt to prove what no one is prepared to deny. Are there, however, no other consequences of these studies beyond those I have pointed to? The moral capacities of man must not be left out of account in any part of intellectual discipline. Now these severe studies are on the whole favourable to self-control: for, without fastening on the mind through the passions and the senses, they give it not merely a power of concentration, but save it from the languor and misery arising from vacuity of thought-the origin of perhaps half the vices of our nature. Again, the study of the higher sciences is well suited to keep down a spirit of arrogance and intellectual pride: for, in disentangling the phenomena of the material world, we encounter things which hourly tell us of the feebleness of our powers, and material combinations so infinitely beyond the reach of any intellectual analysis as to convince us at once of the narrow limitation of our faculties. In the power of grasping abstract truth, and in the power of linking together remote truths by chains of abstract reasoning, we may be distinguished from the lower orders of the beings placed around us; but, in the exercise of these powers, we bear perhaps no resemblance whatsoever to the supreme intellect. Applied to an Almighty Being with the attribute of ubiquity, in whose mind all things past and to come co-exist in eternal presence, time and space have no meaning, at least in that sense in which they are conditions of our own thoughts and actions. To him all truth is as by intuition; by us truth is only apprehended through the slow and toilsome process of comparison. So that the powers and capacities, forming the very implements of our strength, are also the indications of our weakness. In some of our capacities, we may perhaps exhibit a faint shadow of a portion of our Maker's image ; but in the reasoning power, of which we sometimes vainly boast, we bear to him, I believe, no resemblance whatsoever.

Simplicity of character, humility, and love of truth, ought therefore to be (and I believe generally have been) among the attributes of minds well trained in Philosophy. After all that has been done since the thoughts of man were first turned to the phenomena of the material world-after all the boasted discoveries of science, from the first records of civilization, down to our own days - those glorious passages of the Old Testament, contrasting the power and wisdom of God in the wonders of his creation, with man's impotence and ignorance, have still, and ever will continue to have, not merely a figurative or poetical, but a literal application. Gird up now thy loins like a man : for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me [Job, chap. XXXVIII]. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding ... Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner-stone thereof; when the morning-stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb ? When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddling band for it ... and said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed? ... Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof ... Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born ? or because the number of thy days is great? Before such an interrogator, we can only bow in humble adoration. The study of the laws of nature may strengthen and exalt the intellectual powers: but strange must be our condition of self government and tortuous our habits of thought, if such studies be allowed to co-exist with self-love and arrogance and intellectual pride. A study of' the Newtonian philosophy, as affecting our moral powers and capacities (the subject I am now pressing on your thoughts), does not terminate in mere negations. It teaches us to see the finger of God in all things animate and inanimate, and gives us an exalted conception of his attributes, placing before us the clearest proof of their reality; and so prepares, or ought to prepare, the mind for the reception of that higher illumination, which brings the rebellious faculties into obedience to the divine will.

We learn, by experiment, the different actions and relations of' the material things around us, and we find them bound together by a law of mutual attraction. Following our master of philosophy in the loftiest generalization recorded in the history of mankind, we attribute this property, found in the matter on the surface of our planet, to every other mass of matter within the limits of the visible universe. We bring our generalization to the test of observations of a new and certain kind, and we find that it is true. We find that no parts of the visible universe are insulated from the rest; but that all are knit together by the operation of a common law. We follow this law into its remotest consequences, and we find it terminating in beauty, and harmony, and order. Again, if we commence our examination of the natural world with the small portions of matter which surround us, and following our induction in a new direction, resolve them into their elements, and unravel the laws of their combination; we see at every step new cause for wonder-new objects for admiration. Every portion of the matter we tread beneath our feet (however insignificant as an object of sense) propagates its influence through all space, and is felt in the remotest regions of the universe. However small the particle of dust we trample on, it may present traces of a mechanism subservient to the complicated functions of a living being ; or it may be a compound inorganic body, possessing properties of indefinite complexity: and though it be what we call a simple substance, still it is held together by its own laws of cohesion; it is composed of elements not brought together fortuitously, but in obedience to a fixed law, by which they are congregated in definite proportions, and grouped in symmetry and order. Not only is every portion of matter governed by its own laws, but its powers of action on other material things are governed also by laws subordinate to thoseby which its parts are held together. So that in the countless changes of material things and their countless actions on each other, we find no effect which jars with the mechanism of nature; but all are the harmonious results of dominant laws.

Again, if we pass from the consideration of things visible and tangible to the subtile and imponderable agents of the material world, we not only witness the manifestation of their powers in every physical change and every combination; but we know that some of them, and we may perhaps suppose that all of them, are diffused uninterruptedly through every portion of the universe. We are certain that the material of light is at least as far extended as the force of gravitation. It places us at once in physical contact with the remotest bodies of our created system, and by its vibrations they become manifest to us through our visual sense. There is, therefore, no portion of space, however small or however distant, which is not filled at all times with subtile matter-which does not every moment transmit material influences, in number, complexity and rapidity beyond the grasp of thought, yet never anomalous or fortuitous, but governed by fixed laws, and subservient to ends most important in the economy of nature, and essential to the very existence of sentient beings.In speaking of the laws of nature and of the harmonious changes resulting from their actio, in spite of ourselves we fall into language in which we describe the operations of intelligence: and language, let me observe, was never formed by a convention of learned men, or constructed on the scheme of an hypothesis. It is the true offspring of our intellectual nature, and bears the image of such ideas as rise up of necessity in the mind, from our relation to the things around us. If we forget him in our thoughts, with our lips at least we must do homage to the God of nature. What are the laws of nature but the manifestations of his wisdom ? What are material actions but manifestations of his power? Indications of his wisdom and his power co-exist with every portion of the universe. They are seen in the great luminaries of heaven - they are seen in the dead matter whereon we trample - they are found in all parts of space, remote as well as near, which we in our ignorance sometimes regard as mere vacuities - they are unceasing - they are uncheangeable.

Contemplations such as these lift the soul to a perception of some of the attributes of God; imperfect it may be, but still situeted to the condition of our being. But are thoughts like these to pass through the mind and produce only a cold acquiescence? Are we to dwell in the perpetual presence of God and yet dishonour him by the worship of ourselves, and refuse to him the homage of our humble praise? Such were not the feelings of the holy Psalmist, when, contrasting his own feebleness with the al-pervading wisdom and power of God, he was kindled as by fire from heaven, and burst out into rapturous expression of adoration. Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee: but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee [Psalm CXXXIX. 7-12].

How any believer can deny the reality of a natural religion when he reads those passagges in the Bible where its power is so emphatically acknowledged, is more than I can under stand. We are told by St. Paul, that even the Gentiles are without excuse, for the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, even his eternal power and Godhead [Rom. I. 23]. Yet I have myself heard it asserted within these very walls, that there is no religion of nature, and that we have no knowledge of the attributes of God or even of his existence, independently of revelation. The assertion is, I think, michievous, because I believe it untrue: and by truth only can a God of truth be honoured, and the cause of true religion be served.

But there is another class of objectors, who not only adopt this cold and unnatural conclusion, but rejecting revelation along with it, banish utterly of God from the world. It is indeed true, as these objectors state, that all material changes are governed by fixed laws, and that the present condition of all material things is but a natural consequence of these laws operating on that condition of matter which preceded the phenomena we contemplate. They rest their strenght, as far as I understand their meaning, in this immutability of the laws of nature: and having, with much labour, decyphered a portion of these laws, and having traced the ordine movements of the material world without ever thinking of the Being by whom these movements were directed, they come at lenght to deify the elements themselves, and to thrust the God of nature from his throne. But where is the reasonableness of this conclusion? The unchangeableness of the laws of nature is not only essential to the well being, but to the very existence of creatures like ourselves. The works of our hands are liable to perpetual change, from caprice, from violence, or from natural decay: but in the material laws ordined by God, there are no such indications, because they partake of the perfections of his attributes, and are therefore unchangeable.

A. Segdwick, A Discourse on the Studies of the University, (1833),  (New York: Humanities Press - Leicester University Press, 1969), pp. 9-16