Report from the Science & Religion Forum Conference 2014

As I write this, I am at Leeds Trinity University, where I am attending the annual conference of the Science-Religion Forum. The subject of the conference is “Laws of nature, laws of God?” The question mark in the title is critical, as one of the things that several of the presentations have focused on is the question of whether such things as ‘laws of nature’ exist and, if they do, what do we mean when we refer to them as laws. Other questions which naturally arise from considering the subject are, ‘did God make the laws of nature?’, ‘is God constrained by the laws of nature?’ and, ‘are the laws of nature evidence for a creator?’ I’m not going to try and tackle of these questions here. After all, I couldn’t possibly do justice to several hours’ worth of presentations in a few paragraphs. But it is worth pointing out that these questions also raise questions about the ways in which we think about faith: how is our understanding of God shaped by our understanding of how the world works?


One of the fascinating points discussed in both formal presentations and informal conversations was what exactly is meant by ‘laws’ of nature. Are they laws because they are prescriptive, that is do they, like laws in our justice system, decree what is permissible (in effect, laying the boundaries for what can and cannot happen in the universe)? And, if so, does this necessarily suggest the existence of a law-giver? Or are the laws of nature merely descriptive – formal definitions that codify what is observed in the universe? Or are they ‘laws’ because they are predictive – we can use them to predict with a high degree of accuracy what will be observed?


However one wants to think of the laws of nature, as Prof. Eric Priest, one of the speakers at the conference, pointed out in his talk, the universe is underpinned by mathematical equations that can be used to describe how things are and how things work. These equations are elegant, some describe them as ‘beautiful’, and they demonstrate that there is a rational structure to the universe. This doesn’t prove that God exists, but it does fit rather well with what the Christian tradition teaches about God.


The idea of an orderly universe underpinned by precise mathematical equations has been used both for and against in the argument over the existence of God. From Isaac Newton onwards, many scientists have seen the precision and the predictability of the universe, the fact that it conforms to what we call ‘laws’ as evidence of God. They also understood the laws of nature as a perfectly reasonable mechanism through which God’s will for the universe should be expressed.  As far back as the 18th and 19th centuries, however, atheists have also seen in the laws of nature evidence for their argument - that the laws of nature are self-sustaining and need to external creator to support them. This continues to make up a part of the science-religion debate that exists in our culture now.


Prof. Tom McLeish spoke to the conference about the need to move from discussions of theology and science to a theology of science. Formal science began as a theological endeavour - the quest to comprehend something of the mind of God through the exploration of God’s world. The Church would do well to re-embrace science, to remember that our human curiosity and intellect and capacity to question and to discover are God-given gifts, and that when we employ these gifts with a desire to deepen our understanding of the world and improve the lives of both humanity and all of God’s creatures, the we are acting in our role as co-creators with God.


If we are open to the possibility that those things we call the laws of nature are somehow reflections of God’s nature, then science need not be a threat to faith, but instead becomes another avenue for experiencing his grace.

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