Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?

Week 3: Is the Creator Infinitely Lazy?

February 12, 1999

Loren and Deborah Haarsma

Natural Laws:

As pictured within two different worldviews:
"These laws may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it."
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
"... the continuing existence of our world is not something to be taken for granted. Rather it hangs moment by moment on the continuance of the upholding word of power of its creator."
Donald MacKay, The Open Mind

Scientific usage (compatible with multiple worldviews):
Natural Laws are descriptions and mathematical models of how the universe typically behaves.

Christian worldview:
Natural Laws are descriptions of God's ordinary way of governing creation.

God created the whole universe and its laws in the first place.
God sustains the whole created order moment by moment.
God is sovereign; nothing happens without his consent.

The moon marks off the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.
Then man goes out to his work,
to his labor until evening.
How many are your works, O Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Psalm 104:19-24 (NIV)

Note the parallel descriptions: The sun goes down; God brings the darkness. The lions hunt for food; they seek their food from God.

Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
Isaiah 40:25-29 (NIV)

Natural laws do not make God "unnecessary."
Not only is the Creator not lazy; he is not even bored.


Common uses of the term:
1) An ordinary event with extraordinary meaning. (e.g. birth of a baby)
2) An ordinary event with extraordinary timing.
3) An extra-ordinary event. (exceedingly improbable or impossible by known natural laws)
If natural laws are God's ordinary way of doing things,
Miracles are where God does something unusual, for a particular reason.

When science investigates a puzzling event (either an event billions of years ago, or a recent event), science cannot determine whether or not that event was supernatural. It can try to determine, to the best of its abilities:

1) what the conditions were before the event,
2) what the conditions were after the event, and
3) what effect known natural mechanisms could have had during the event.

Possible conclusions of science:

1) Sound empirical models predict that known natural mechanisms can account for the event.
2) We do not have sound (or sufficiently thorough) quantitative empirical models, but we believe that known natural mechanisms can account for the event, and future improvements in empirical knowledge, elegant models, and computing power will eventually allow us to prove this.
3) No known natural mechanisms or physical laws could account for this event. There are empirically sound reasons for ruling out all known natural mechanisms.

Possible meta-scientific interpretations of "no known natural mechanisms":

1) Supernatural event.
2) Super-human technology.
3) Unknown natural mechanism.
4) Improbable natural event.
5) Improbable event in one of many parallel universes.
Although these five are very different in principle, they play virtually identical roles in empirical studies. Science itself cannot distinguish between these possibilities. Historical, philosophical, and religious arguments are the decisive factors in each scientist's personal choice.


"It is already evident that all the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic ... factors. ... Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."
George G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution

The "god" Chance:
The event is purposeless, lacks meaning, and is undirected and uncaring.

Scientific usage of chance:
The final outcome cannot be completely predicted in terms of initial conditions and natural laws. (e.g. the weather, rolling dice, genetic mutations, quantum measurements)

The Bible on chance:
"The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." Proverbs 16:33

God can use chance for his purposes:

He could select the outcome of a system which we could only describe with probabilities.
He can give his creation freedom to explore a range of possibilities.


The "god" Determinism:
The event is completely determined by natural laws; and thus, there is no role for human free will or divine action.

Modern physics may have already killed the "god" Determinism. (Chaos theory, quantum mechanics)

Self-awareness and the ability to make decisions are part of our everyday experience. It is too soon to tell, scientifically, how our experience of free will arises out of our exceedingly complex brains.

It is God the Creator who constrains natural laws, not the other way around.

Further reading on God's interaction with the world through "chance" events:

Science and Providence: God's interaction with the world John C. Polkinghorne, 1989 (Boston: Shambhala Publications)
Science, Chance, and Providence Donald M. MacKay, 1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
The Open Mind and other essays: A scientist in God's world Donald M. MacKay, 1988 (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press)
Unfortunately these are all out of print. And the Tri-Co library catalog doesn't carry them either (it has several other books by Polkinghorne, and one book by MacKay on neuroscience & human nature). Check a used book dealer.

Questions you'd like to see addressed in coming weeks? Send us email:, lhaarsma@retina.anatomy.upenn .edu

Copyright 1999 Loren and Deborah Haarsma

Return to outline of the series: "Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?", Last updated February 12, 1999