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Scientific Laws - What Are Scientific Laws?


It's common to see religious apologists preaching about allegedly scientific "laws" as if they were absolute, definitive truths. This sort of argument is very appealing to religious apologists because the existence of scientific laws implies the existence of a lawgiver. It also seems to make it easier for them to construct arguments that appear to undermine genuine science, but the reason why these arguments don't work is the fact that they don't represent real science.

There can be a lot of confusion about the concepts of laws and facts within scientific research, and one result has been erroneous impressions not just about what these categories are, but also about how science itself works. Such confusions not only give religious believers an incorrect understanding of science, but also provide religious apologists with false foundations for ultimately inaccurate arguments. That is why it is necessary to take some time to clear up what should be basic terminology.


Origins of Scientific Laws

The concept "law of science" or "scientific law" is an inheritance from the earliest days of science when it was believed that the universe operated in the way it did because God established certain natural laws which dictated how things should and should not behave. Of course, everything but humans followed these laws, and so the movement of objects could be accurately predicted simply by coming to better understand the laws created by God. In this way, science in its infancy was very close to theology. It's not a coincidence that when religious apologists quote scientists on behalf of a theological viewpoint, they most frequently quote the earliest scientific figures.

Over time, though, the premise of a "lawgiver" who established the workings of nature was abandoned in favor of a naturalistic position. The terminology "laws of science" and "natural laws" remained - this concept had become a standard means of expression which stuck like a bad habit. We can still see it today used in textbooks to refer to basic principles of how nature works. Sadly, this makes it easier for religious apologists to misrepresent science in their arguments because they can keep pointing to examples of scientific books continuing to use problematic terminology.


Scientific Laws Today

One common means of explaining the continued use of concepts like "scientific law" is to say that a scientific law refers to broad and general regularities in the behavior of matter and/or energy which occur over a wide ranges of space and time and which have been observed so many times that future changes to how we explain these regularities are no longer given much consideration. This is plausible in theory, but problematic in practice.

If we look through, say, a physics textbook to examine how the terms "law" and "theory" are actually used, we won't find that the above criteria are the deciding factor. Instead, we find that "law" is used with regularities which were discovered a long time ago while "theory" is applied to regularities discovered much more recently. That's why we have "Newton's first law of motion" rather than "Newton's first theory of motion" and "Einstein's special theory of relativity" rather than "Einstein's special law of relativity."

This is a serious problem when discussing science with some religious apologists because of how often it's alleged that something like evolution is "just a theory" that is substantively different from "scientific laws." The truth which too many religious apologists cannot or will not recognize is that evolution as a theory is no less secure than atomic theory and that scientific theories have the same status in science as scientific laws. Because of the terminology, though, clearing up misunderstandings and misrepresentations is difficult at best.

Perhaps it would be preferable if the term "law" were abandoned entirely — it certainly aids and abets those who are under the mistaken impression that science continues to operate under the premise of a lawgiver directing the events in nature. Unfortunately, such a change is unlikely. There is simply too much momentum from tradition and history preventing it. As a consequence, secular atheists and scientists may be doomed to constantly explaining and re-explaining what a "scientific theory" and "scientific law" really are.

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