Our universe is rational and coherent, governed by consistent principles we describe in scientific laws. Like many other words, the word “law” can mean several different things. In science, however, a law is:
“a statement of an order or relation of phenomena that so far as is known is invariable under the given conditions”1
Scientific laws, then, are an attempt to precisely state a regularity in nature. They are carefully composed descriptions of a specific way that some aspect of the universe works. Thus, scientific laws are human approximations of absolute laws of nature. They are our best attempts to lay out fundamental ways that the world always works. As such, scientific laws are only possible in a certain kind of universe, one that is strictly governed by some set of absolute regulating principles. When we look closely at the nature of the real, objective principles that scientific laws describe, we find that they are best explained by the existence of God.
A regular universe is a governed universe
On the most basic level, those who have thought about the universe even since ancient times have seen its abundant regularity and its precisely fine-tuned, predictable patterns. Such thinkers rightly recognized that this demands explaining. It is not enough to say, “well, that’s just the way the universe is.” It need not be this way. When we step back and really consider it, it is shocking how mathematical and, in some ways, mechanical the universe really is, like a breathtakingly elaborate work of engineering. I am not just talking about this or that particular facet of the universe, but the entirety of the universe itself. Indeed, this is the very reason that scientific methodology is such an effective way to discover and explain the details of our world!
Thoughtful people throughout history have never been content to simply take for granted such a wonderfully peculiar reality. They have seen the regularity, the governing principles of nature, and they asked the obvious question: why? And Christians are not the only ones who have concluded that a supreme mind behind the workings of nature is the only plausible explanation. For example, the famed pagan intellectual and orator, Cicero, said “What can be so obvious and clear, as we gaze up at the heavenly bodies, as that there is some divine power of surpassing intelligence by which they are ordered…an attentive and supremely powerful God?”2 He likewise said of some of the scholars in his day words that might well have been written about secular scientists in ours:
“If the first sight of the universe happened to throw [the scholars] into confusion, once they observed its measured, steady movements, and noted that all its parts were governed by established order and unchangeable regularity, they ought to have realized that in this divine dwelling in the heavens was one who was not merely a resident but a ruler, controller, and so to say the architect of this great structural project. But as things stand, they seem to harbor not even a suspicion of the immense marvels of sky and earth” – Cicero (The nature of the gods, book 2, section 90)
As a Roman pagan polytheist, Cicero would certainly disagree with me and other Christians on many, many things. Yet, when he looked at the outworking of the natural world around him, with all of its elaborate yet wonderfully predictable systems, he could not help but conclude the obvious: behind it all was one ultimate, all-surpassing God. It is as Romans 1 says:
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20).
The simplest of human observers can see in the movement of the stars, the cycle of seasons, patterns in weather, or the predictable arc of an arrow or a thrown stone that we live in an astonishingly rational cosmos. And the more one learns, the more complex organization and patterns there are to wonder at! And to attribute this order simply to “nature” is to sidestep the question. As Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Hayim H. Donin astutely pointed out:
“To ascribe the precise functioning of the universe and all the amazing wonders of life to ‘Nature’ is only to resort to a synonym for natural laws that beg for explanation. The mystery remains. I do not hesitate to call atheism a form of faith too, not very different from the many idolatries that men have worshipped. In our time, atheism seems ‘sophisticated’ and timely. So did the worship of Baal in its time.”3
Once again, Rabbi Donin would no doubt take issue with Christians like myself on numerous matters of theology, but Romans 1 nevertheless holds true. As we have seen: pagan, Jew, and Christian alike can look around and see the evidence of a creator in the visible order of creation. This doesn’t mean that paganism, Orthodox Judaism, and Christianity are equally right or true. It simply shows that the testimony of God in creation really is clearly seen all around us, whoever and wherever you are. We really are “without excuse”. Scientific laws exist because we live in a rational, systematic world of astonishing regularity and mathematical consistency. Such a world points to a divine Creator and Sustainer, a brilliant and rational mind behind nature and all that is in it.
The properties of scientific laws of nature
But this broad observation is merely the beginning. When we consider some of the properties of these governing principles or “laws” of nature that we discover all around us, still more clarity begins to emerge. Consider what attributes these laws, by definition, must possess.4
Universal in both time and space: Scientific laws, by definition, describe principles that apply everywhere in the universe. They likewise must consistently be true throughout time. If you describe something that is happening now but, even under the same conditions, will not be repeatable tomorrow, that description, however precise, cannot be a scientific law. Some might object that parts of the universe (or vastly distant periods in the history of the universe) might have very different conditions where these laws would not apply, but that misses a part of the laws. Scientific laws describe what happens under a given set of conditions. Radically different conditions where different things happen are not exceptions to these laws, they are just wholly different circumstances that these laws aren’t describing. A scientific law, if accurate, describes a binding natural principle that under a given set of circumstances, a specific effect will occur. Such statements, rightly stated, have always and will always be true at every time and in every place in the universe. Thus, at least within the confines of the created universe, the principles described in such laws are, for all practical purposes, omnipresent and eternal.
Unchangeable: Closely related to the last point, such laws cannot be changed. Sure, we can alter present conditions so as to get one effect instead of another, but that is not changing the laws. Indeed, our ability to anticipate what new effect we will get by making such changes is rooted in the fact that the laws themselves don’t change. Any set of natural conditions, when all the variables are known and considered, will have a predictable result. We are not changing the laws, we are abiding by them. The governing principles of the created world do not change. They are (again, within the confines of the existing natural world and for all practical purposes) analogous to what theologians call “immutable”.
Infallible: What follows from all of this is that these governing principles or laws of nature are infallible. They never fail; they are always true and always follow through in unwavering consistency. The scientific laws in our textbooks might occasionally turn out to be flawed and need improvement, but only because they turn out to have missed something in their approximation of the actual natural law they were meant to describe. The true law, the governing principle in nature which our scientific law is meant to convey, never fails. It is, as it were, ever faithful and ever true.
Incredibly powerful: Scientific descriptions of the universe are possible only because nature is bound and compelled to conform to some higher regulative principle that men merely discover and formulate in our scientific laws. By definition, such a principle can only be described as unimaginably powerful. While divine superlatives like “omnipotent” or “almighty” are not exactly necessary, they certainly come to mind when pondering the kind of transcendent, universal, and reality-making power we are speaking of when we describe the unbreakable order involved in the laws of nature that make science possible.
Knowable yet incomprehensible: Many attributes of the universal cosmic order described by scientific laws are obviously both discoverable and describable, or else science and its written laws would not be possible. Yet, behind these formulas, we discern an essence our finite minds cannot touch. Every discovery is pregnant with a newly felt sense of the vastness of the mystery. The more we learn, the more questions we have. The depth appears to be inexhaustible, for while we are perpetually gaining real knowledge, we are with equal speed discovering in even greater magnitiudes just how much there is that we do not know. Every discovery, while profound and true, at the same time makes it even clearer that we are groping around the edges of something far beyond us.
Just in what we have looked at so far, as we try to describe the higher order behind the universe that is reflected in the body of our scientific laws, it already becomes clear that we are talking about properties traditionally associated with deity. We are either talking about the guiding hand of a sovereign God governing His creation or else some impersonal, ever-active ordering principle that is nevertheless best described in essentially divine terms. Modern, secular minds (if compelled to think about the question at all) often gravitate toward the latter option. In doing so (though they would never call it this), they deify the ordered universe itself. Indeed, many people, when describing the vast, marvelous, mathematically systematic order of the cosmos, often speak of “nature” and “science” in language that borders on religious worship. This, ironically, is also what the first chapter of Romans would lead us to expect:
“For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 1:25)
But the biased presuppositions that push the modern mind toward the assumption of an impersonal and mindlessly mechanical universe fail to fully account for what we see. The explanation falls short. When we fully consider the law-like administration of the universe, it points instead to a personal God.
The personal foundation of the laws of nature
Let’s remind ourselves again what we are talking about here. Scientific laws are human descriptions of actual, concrete systems and patterns of order in the physical world. The real, actual patterns that these scientific laws describe are what we call “laws of nature.” Science and its descriptive laws are possible only because there are real, rational, mathematically sophisticated governing principles behind the behavior of physical objects in the world around us. So, do these actual, physical laws of nature point to something personal? The simple answer is, yes.
First of all, “natural laws” or “sophisticated governing principles” are simply ways of saying that the physical world of inanimate objects behaves in a way that is rational. It’s not simply that humans are rational and so can organize and explain the data. The data is itself rational and therefore organizable and explainable. When we discovered the law of gravitation, it was a discovery of a consistent regulatory principle in nature that was really there to be discovered. It is not a mere convention that might vary from culture to culture. We didn’t invent the law of gravitation. We discovered it. The rational order was already there. All we had to do was find and describe it. And that is just one example. This is true of what we find again and again in every aspect of physics. Matter and energy behave in rational, logical, mathematically precise ways, complex yet predictable because they are sensible. There is reason to it all.
This rational order must be explained in one of three ways: either by chance, necessity, or intention. Chance just doesn’t work. One might perhaps find some one or two aspects of the world that happen randomly to appear complexly reasonable, but for every detail of physics to be consistently rational defies chance a serious possibility.
What about necessity? Could it be that the world just has to be this way? That it couldn’t have been any other? This, too, falls short when we probe just what we mean by necessity. In what sense does it have to be so? The order of our world is not logically necessary. Leaving aside for the moment the important question of where laws of logic themselves come from, the fact is that a world that is not ordered for science and rationality could logically exist. We can meaningfully imagine a universe that works quite differently without running into contradictions or mental incoherence. In the absolute logical sense, our world’s sensible, sophisticated, mathematical order is not necessary.
So then what we mean by “necessary” is only that there might be some even higher and more fundamental law of nature or governing principle that compels the universe to behave in this rational way and in no other. But that isn’t an answer to our question. Such a higher law would be a part of the exact thing we are trying to explain about the universe! “Principles of higher order exist in the universe because principles of higher order in the universe make it so” is not an answer. And if there is this higher law that requires all of our physical laws to be just as they are, and if that law is itself mindless and impersonal, how and why is it that that law is so sensibly and complexly ordered? At best, you still only push the question back.
That leaves us with intention. The world works this way because it is thought out. There is a will behind it. And intentionality, thought, and will are all personal. Indeed, we know from experience that, when a new rational system is developed in the world around us, such a system always comes from a personal mind. What but bias against the idea of a divine creator would lead us to expect the brilliantly rational system of the actual physics of the universe to come from something less than a mind?
What’s more, the natural order lends itself to meaningful expression in scientific laws in a manner that is almost linguistic in its very nature. As mathematician and philosopher Vern Poythress points out:
“Scientific law is clearly like human utterance in its ability to be grammatically articulated, paraphrased, translated, and illustrated. Law is utterance-like, language-like. And the complexity of utterances that we find among scientists, as well as among human beings in general, is not duplicated in the animal world. Language is one of the defining characteristics that separates man from animals. Language, like rationality, belongs to persons. It follows that scientific law is in essence personal.”5
For some readers, the idea that physical laws point to a personal source might strike you as strange. Though the evidence is there, we moderns have been trained to inaccurately assume that the “cold repetition” of natural forces is something lifelessly rote. Yet, as G.K. Chesterton astutely observed:
“All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire.”6
He goes on to point out how it is generally fatigue and weariness rather than lively reason and rationality that cause us to stop doing something, and how children (the most energetic and alive of us all) are renowned for always wanting to “do it again!” Thus, the consistent, unchanging repetition of natural forces need not mean that what lies behind them is lifeless, mechanical, or impersonal. Indeed, all things taken together, it seems more likely that superintending it all is a personal being more vital and alive than anything in the physical universe He governs!
Prominent 20th-century physicist Fred Hoyle, himself an atheist, famously admitted that:
“A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”7
Of course, as an atheist, Hoyle could not allow common sense to win out, and so he tried to get around this most obvious interpretation of the facts. The assumptions we bring to the table affect the conclusions we are willing to accept. Yet, as we have seen, pagan intellectuals, Jewish rabbis, Roman Catholics like Chesterton, and even atheist physicists like Hoyle, all of whom would take serious issue with a biblical, evangelical Protestant Christian like myself on any number of vitally important subjects, yet (as Romans 1 predicts) each sees that the order in the world around us points back to a divine Creator and Sustainer of all things, a “superintellect” that establishes what we call the laws of physics. “His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
2↑ Cicero (The nature of the gods, book 2, section)
3↑ Rabbi Hayim H. Donin, To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life (Basic Books, 2019) Chapter 1, Kindle Locations 355-357
5↑ Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science (Crossway, 2006) 50
6↑ G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Project Gutenberg Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 824-828)
7↑ Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Some Past and Present Reflections,” as cited in Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (IVP Academic, 2006) Kindle Locations 1756-1758