Does Science Need God?

Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was a brilliantly talented scientist, mathematician, and astronomer. So talented, in fact, that he earned himself a nickname: The French Newton.

Just like the ‘original’ Newton a century earlier, Laplace put together an entirely mathematical model of the solar system. Newton’s hadn’t worked perfectly, and he knew it. But he had a clever solution: direct intervention by God. Every now and then, Newton suggested, the divine hand would lean over and nudge the planets back on course.

What about Laplace’s attempt? Did it need heavenly fudging too? Napoleon, the great military leader of France, wondered exactly that. He asked Laplace what God’s role was in this shiny new version. ‘I have no need of that hypothesis’, Laplace replied confidently.

It’s a great line, and one that is quoted triumphantly by many an atheist or sceptic. In truth, however, Laplace probably didn’t actually say it. Even if he did, he didn’t mean to dismiss God’s existence entirely. The point Laplace was really trying to make was that his system was self-contained. It didn’t need any nudging – from God, or from anyone else.[1]

Regardless of precisely what was said or even what was meant, this story leads us to a very interesting question: does a Universe that ‘runs itself’ need God?

Oddly, the answer to this question is ‘No’.

And ‘Yes’.

Why Science Doesn’t Need God

In a previous article, I explained that modern science needs to be understood as existing inside a box. The questions we want to address scientifically are placed into it, and are dealt with using the scientific method. Provided we put the right type of question in, science works incredibly well – even if there are some wrong turns occasionally.

Asking how the solar system runs turns out to be exactly the right type of question for the science box; we can find ourselves an answer that works. The mathematical law of gravity (when Einstein’s General Relativity is included) is actually enough to do it. God is not needed as a fiddle factor to make sure the numbers add up – there is no ‘God’ term in the equations. The same is true for many other questions as well.

As far as it would appear, there is simply no need for God

In fact, it is entirely possible that we will eventually be able to find science-type rules for the behaviour of everything physical. Mathematics has proved astonishingly useful as the language of our surroundings.[2] Its words, sentences, and stories can describe the tiniest of individual objects and even creation as a whole. And, as far as it would appear, there is simply no need for God in any of these writings. When it comes to the physical universe, it would seem that we ‘have no need of that hypothesis’.

Gods of Egypt (and Greece and Rome)

Except it is really is not quite that simple. Yes, it is true that we can climb out of the science box and show that there are numerous non-science questions still to be answered – such as why there is even a universe there to be described. Yes, it is true that we can appeal to Philosophy, History, Theology, and more to bring God back to the table. Indeed, these observations are incredibly important and lead to many strong arguments for Christianity. But even from within the science box, we can still make a case for God – by thinking about why the box actually works in the first place.

A few weeks ago, I found myself with two hours to kill and not many options with which to kill them. Even so, my decision was probably a bad one: I started watching the 2016 movie Gods of Egypt. The various assorted ‘gods’ came in all shapes and sizes, boasted differing powers and abilities, could be tricked, injured, or intimidated, and suffered from most of the flaws and weaknesses of their human subjects. Even the greatest of them, Ra, was portrayed as being in an eternal battle with Chaos.

Egyptians believed in separate gods of the sun, the stars, the River Nile, fire, truth and even baboons. These gods interacted with each other, often violently, and certainly dramatically. This might all be mildly interesting, but what on earth has it got to do with our subject? The answer is vitally important: if the Egyptians were right – if we are indeed presided over by callous, limited, warring gods – then science would be utterly impossible.

Imagine trying to get even the most basic experiment to work – perhaps heating water to determine its boiling point. To produce any kind of meaningful result, the gods of fire, truth, and water all need to play along nicely. We also need to bank on no other god interfering with them. And then, even if we do get a good result, it tells us nothing at all about what would happen the next time. Goodbye, consistency. Farewell, laws of nature. See you later, science.

The same could be said of the Greek and Roman gods – and for any polytheistic faith. More than that, even, entire philosophies of life fail to give us the science box that we have found so fruitful. Eastern mindsets of life being subject to equal and opposite forces or to unbridled chaos cannot produce any science of value. Which is precisely why they haven’t – and it is also why Christianity has.

Why Science Does Need God

Only if God exists would we expect to see the kind of science that we do

If there is only one God, with no worthy competition; if he is perfect, not sharing our weaknesses; if he is stable, reliable, and trustworthy; if he has made us in his image, so our minds are like his; if this same mind created our surroundings; if these surroundings are created to be a suitable and accessible home for us – only then would we expect to see the kind of science that we do. The fact that the science box exists and works is precisely what we would expect if the God of the Bible were Lord of the universe.

To see this, consider the words of the historian Joseph Needham, commenting on the lack of the scientific method in China:

There was no confidence that the codes of nature’s laws could ever be unveiled and read, because there was no assurance that a divine being, even more rational than ourselves, had ever formulated such a code capable of being read.[3]

By comparison, thinker C.S. Lewis wrote the following about why the first ‘modern’ scientists were nearly all Christians:

Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator[4]

So, did Laplace need God for his model of the Solar System? ‘No’ – the equations could run themselves.

And yet, on a far deeper level, a resounding ‘Yes’ – for without God, we couldn’t expect them to.


[1] Pierre-Simon Laplace. Wikipedia.

[2] See the wonderful paper by Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner for examples of this

[3] The Grand Titration by Joseph Needham, Toronto University Press: 1969 (p.327)

[4] Lewis, C.S., Miracles: a preliminary study, Collins, London, p. 110, 1947.

© 2017 David Hutchings