Are natural laws in conflict with Judeo-Christian theism?

Are natural laws in conflict with Judeo-Christian theism?

Updated 17 April 2023 (c) (2023)


In the past few decades, modern science has uncovered a world that is far vaster and more awe-inspiring than ever imagined before, and has uncovered a set of elegant natural laws that govern the universe, deeply resonating with the notion of a cosmic lawgiver in Judeo-Christian religion. It not just devout believers who find these results inspiring. For example, 46% of Americans (including 54% of atheists, 55% of agnostics and 43% of nones) say that they experience a “deep sense of wonder about the universe” on at least a weekly basis [Masci2016].

In spite of these exhilarating developments, some writers prefer instead a highly combative approach to modern science. Creationists relentlessly pursue their decades-old attacks on old-earth geology and evolution (in spite of the extremely strong evidence supporting these theories), asserting that scientists pursuing these research fields are not just theologically in error, but technically mistaken as well — see Creationism for details. Intelligent design writers are more accepting of scientific results, and vary considerably in their specific views, but are still firm in declaring that scientists are fundamentally mistaken in their overall approach, and that creation exhibits clear evidence of “design” by some Intelligent Being — see Intelligent design for details.

Other groups battling and dismissing science include the postmodern science studies community, the anti-climate-change movement and the anti-vaccination movement — see Postmodern.

A principal source of contention for many in these communities is the scientific notion that the Earth and the Universe in which we reside are largely, if not exclusively, governed by natural laws than can be explored by human research. Many of these writers hold instead that the natural world was created, designed and operated by a Supreme Being, by means that are far beyond human understanding, and the scientific worldview of natural laws diminishes the existence of such a Being. Such concerns are reminiscent of the famous story when French mathematician-scholar Pierre Simon Laplace, who made pivotal contributions in the theory of planetary motion, went to Napoleon to present a copy of his work. Napoleon received it with the remark, “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace responded, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” [RouseBall1960, pg. 417-418].

Are natural laws in conflict with Judeo-Christian theism?

However, numerous writers, including both theologians as well as religious-minded scientists, see no need for conflict here. To begin with, upon careful examination it is clear that the real issue here is whether a Supreme Being acts acts in accord with natural law, or by setting aside natural law; and whether the principles and means behind the creation and operation of the natural world can be explored by humans, or whether they are locked in the inaccessible reaches of an inscrutable Being’s Mind. The consensus of theologians and scientists alike is that it is pointless to insist that a Supreme Being is a cosmic lawbreaker, or to place artificial boundaries on human explorations of the natural world.

As noted biologist and Franciscan Priest Francisco Ayala wrote [Ayala2007, pg. 175]:

[A]t the personal level of the individual, I can believe that I am God’s creature without denying that I developed from a single cell in my mother’s womb by natural processes. In theological parlance, God may act through secondary causes. For the believer the providence of God impacts personal life and world events through natural causes.

Such sentiments are hardly new, limited to scientists or limited to “liberal” denominations. In fact, a similar view was expressed 1600 years ago by Augustine of Hippo [Augustine1887, pg. 321-322]:

God, the Author and Creator of all natures does nothing contrary to nature; for what is done by Him who appoints all natural order and measure and proportion must be natural in every case.

LDS theologians Parley P. Pratt and James E. Talmage expressed similar views in the 19th and 20th centuries [Pratt1891, pg. 102; Talmage1966, pg. 220], respectively:

Among the popular errors of modern times, an opinion prevails that miracles are events which transpire contrary to the laws of nature, that they are effects without a cause. If such is the fact, then, there never has been a miracle, and there never will be one. The laws of nature are the laws of truth. Truth is unchangeable, and independent in its own sphere. A law of nature never has been broken. And it is an absolute impossibility that such law ever should be broken.

Miracles are commonly regarded as occurrences in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable. However, as human understanding of these laws is at best but imperfect, events strictly in accordance with natural law may appear contrary thereto. The entire constitution of nature is founded on system and order.

God of the gaps

Theologians also point out that a focus on scientifically unexplained phenomena as evidence for a Supreme Being leads directly to the dubious “God of the gaps” theology, wherein God is sought in the gaps that exist in scientific knowledge at a given point in time. Experience has shown that such an approach is tantamount to theological suicide, as science continues its relentless advance, filling many of the gaps that existed in previous years. As Catholic theologian-philosopher John Haught wrote, “we [should] avoid making room for any insertion of a god-of-the-gaps into the dark regions of human ignorance that naturalistic explanation may eventually illuminate.” [Haught1995, pg. 150].

Origins of modern science

It is also worth pointing out that the lawful nature of Western monotheism provided a very favorable context for the emergence and flourishing of modern science. As Haught noted, “By grounding the natural order in the rationality of a personal God, theism conditioned the Western mind over the course of centuries for the kind of faith in natural order and cosmic coherence that scientists have to take with them into their work.” [Haught1995, pg. 46]. Along this line, British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, “Faith in reason is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery. The faith in the order of nature which made possible the growth of science is a particular example of a deeper faith.” [Whitehead1967, pg. 18]. Finally, contemporary British physicist-astronomer John Barrow has noted [Barrow2007, pg. 18]:

Our monotheistic traditions reinforce the assumption that the Universe is at root a unity, that it is not governed by different legislation in different places, neither the residue of some clash of the Titans wrestling to impose their arbitrary wills upon the nature of things, nor the compromise of some cosmic committee. Our Western religious tradition also endows us with the assumption that things are governed by a logic that exists independently of those things, that laws are externally imposed as though they were the decrees of a transcendent divine legislator.

Why are our minds able to discover the laws of nature?

Indeed, such considerations underscore a deep and awe-inspiring mystery. Why are our minds, the product of natural evolution, able to investigate, discover and comprehend the laws of the Universe to which we belong? As Barrow writes elsewhere in the same book [Barrow2007, pg. 203]:

A more interesting problem is the extent to which the brain is qualitatively adapted to understand the Universe. Why should its categories of thought and understanding be able to cope with the scope and nature of the real world? Why should the Theory of Everything be written in a ‘language’ that our minds can decode? Why has the process of natural selection so over-endowed us with mental faculties that we can understand the whole fabric of the Universe far beyond anything required for our past and present survival?

A thought experiment

One overriding difficulty with the creationist and intelligent design movements’ focus on finding proof of a Supreme Being in the form of violations of natural laws, and, more generally, their reluctance to accept the scientific framework of natural laws, can be seen in the following “thought experiment”:

Let us suppose for a moment that the ultimate prize that these movements have been seeking were in fact realized: Suppose that astronauts discovered an artifact placed on the Moon (as in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”), or that astronomers detected a microwave signal with a repeating pattern of prime numbers (as in the movie “Contact”), or, say, that biologists found a long string of the binary digits of pi in human DNA — all providing clear evidence of an extraterrestrial super-intelligent Entity.

Suppose further that connected with this discovery was a digitized message, which, when decoded, established that this Entity had designed or otherwise initiated the creation of Earth (or the Milky Way Galaxy or even the entire Universe). Suppose also that major scientific societies worldwide unanimously concluded that this signal or message could only have come from a super-intelligent extraterrestrial source, say because it included the solution to some mathematical or computational problem far beyond current human capabilities.

If this were to occur, would not this be the ultimate dream of these movements, particularly for the creationist and intelligent design communities? And would this not establish, once and for all, that modern science is hopelessly inferior and misguided, a product of outmoded Western power structures, as many postmodern critics have asserted?

After a moment’s reflection, it is clear that on the next day after such a discovery, inquisitive minds worldwide would ask a host of questions:

  1. What mathematical principles underlie this design or creation?
  2. What are the ultimate forces and constituents of matter in this design or creation?
  3. What physical laws and processes govern this design or creation?
  4. Why do the constants of nature in our Universe (e.g., the ratio between the proton mass and the electron mass) have the specific values they do?
  5. Why are so many features of the Earth (or the Milky Way or the Universe) in a favorable range to foster the rise of living organisms?
  6. What steps have been taken in this design or creation process? Over what period of time?
  7. Which features of the Earth (or the Milky Way or the Universe) are essential for life in general, and for intelligent, technological life in particular?
  8. How and where did the first self-replicating biomolecules form on the early Earth (or in the Milky Way or in the Universe)?
  9. What forces, principles and processes have governed the evolution of life on Earth?
  10. What caused the Cambrian explosion 538 million years ago?
  11. What caused the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 66 million years ago?
  12. What led to the rise of Homo sapiens over the past million years?
  13. What features and processes have maintained a stable bio-friendly environment on the Earth (or in the Milky Way or in the larger Universe) over billions of years?
  14. How rare is the Earth (or the Milky Way or the Universe) in harboring life in general and intelligent, technological life in particular?
  15. Do other planets around other stars (or in other galaxies or universes) harbor living organisms? Which ones?
  16. Do other planets around other stars (or in other galaxies or universes) harbor intelligent societies capable of mathematics, science and technology? Which ones?
  17. Are the physical laws governing these other planets (or galaxies or universes) the same as in our world, or do they differ?
  18. Are the organisms and creatures inhabiting these other planets (or galaxies or universes) based on DNA, or on some other molecules or principles?
  19. What is the physical and biological structure of these other organisms and creatures? How do they breathe, eat and think?
  20. Can we communicate with these societies? How?

It is clear that literally millions of questions, large and small, could be posed — virtually every question that has intrigued scientists, theologians and scholars, from millennia in the past to the present day. And it is also clear that the most appropriate and effective approach to pursue the vast majority of these questions is the well-trod scientific program of posing hypotheses, designing empirical tests, performing tests using the most powerful available technology, analyzing results using rigorous statistical tools, cautiously inferring conclusions and revising theories as required.


In short, while the discovery of evidence for an extraterrestrial super-intelligent Entity would certainly be a momentous occasion, certainly among the most significant discoveries of all time, it is not clear that this discovery by itself would be helpful to advance the vast majority of scientific investigations. Such questions, particularly those about the natural world we reside in, should be pursued by employing the worldwide resources of the scientific enterprise.

This is not to say that scientific research has all the answers. Certainly religion, along with philosophy, literature, art and music, have been enormously influential in understanding and guiding human society throughout history. Science by itself can say little about ethics, personal morality, atonement for misdeeds, esthetic values, the over-arching purpose of human existence, or, for that matter, the existence or nature of a Supreme Being. But for questions about the natural world, such as those listed above, where the scientific method can be applied, it is clearly the most effective approach.

In this light, the creationist and intelligent design communities’ reluctance to recognize natural laws, holding that it is unnecessary if not inappropriate to investigate more deeply, can be seen for what it is: a “thinking stopper” — reveling in ignorance rather than thirsting for knowledge [Boghossian2006; Brown2009]. Surely there is a more fruitful and intellectually honest approach to harmonize modern science, philosophy and religion!

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