There are only three reasonable answers answers to the question of how we and the universe got here. They are as follows:
- The laws of nature have always existed. The laws of physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc., were always in place. And the universe we know developed from them.
- The laws of nature popped into being out of ontological nothingness. That is, when there were no mathematical or scientific laws, they all just spontaneously came to be.
- A being who is independent of space and time and who can’t not exist—God—brought all of space-time existence into being by means of the natural laws he devised.
The first two answers ask a lot of us since nothing in our experience suggests that such laws have always existed or just popped into being out of nothing. However, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and other popularizers of scientism—the belief that science will yet prove that nothing exists outside the realm of science—claim that one of these answers must be right. Dawkins even argues that belief in God’s existence is incompatible with science.
But Dawkins misleads us here. American physician-geneticist Francis Collins, elected to the National Academy of Science for leading the Human Genome Project, is a Christian who tells us many leading scientists believe in God. Collins is the founder of Biologos, an organization founded to demonstrate that we don’t have to choose between modern science and biblical faith. Ard Louis, director of graduate studies in theoretical physics at Oxford, is another example of a brilliant scientist who accepts the third answer and also says many of his colleagues do. Science is not the enemy of religious faith it’s often made out to be.
As Louis says, all three of these answers are odd in the sense that they all appeal to a premise outside the system to explain the system, respectively
- Eternal laws of nature
- Self-generating laws of nature
- An eternal lawgiver
Questions about ultimate meaning aren’t really about science at all. They’re about philosophy or theology: we must all accept either a philosophical or a theological explanation to the question of how the universe came into existence. And no amount of scientific obfuscation can change that fact. For example, the multiverse theory—that there are billions of more universes besides ours—still requires philosophy or theology to explain how all those universes came into being.
“The colossal success of modern natural science,” says philosopher Charles Taylor, “and the associated technology can lead us to feel that it unlocks all mysteries, that it will ultimately explain everything.” But as atheist and Nobel Prize laureate Sir Peter Medawar wrote:
That there is indeed a limit on science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer. These are the questions that children ask. I have in mind such questions as: How did everything begin? What are we all here for? What is the point of living? It is not to science, therefore, but to metaphysics, imaginative literature, or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.
Medawar goes on to say,
Science is a great and glorious enterprise—the most successful, I argue, that human beings have ever engaged in. To reproach it for its inability to answer all the questions we should like to put to it is no more sensible than to reproach a railway locomotive for not flying, or… not performing any other operation for which it was not designed.
In fact, science’s great success comes from its having imposed limits on itself.
Contrary to popular thinking, Western science is deeply rooted in Christianity. Copernicus was a Catholic canon, and the Church didn’t view his theory that the earth revolved around the sun as problematic until decades after his death. Despite the Church’s opposition to some of his ideas, Galileo also remained a devout Catholic all his life. Likewise, many British scientific luminaries were Christian. Sir Isaac Newton said, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent being.” Newton was motivated in his scientific research by his Christian faith. Likewise, Sir Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, authored The Wisdom of God Manifested in Works of Creation.
Christianity was important to the birth of modern science because belief in God led to other beliefs that science is built on. For example, that creation is
- Intelligible—indeed, that it’s something we should seek to understand
- Uniform in the sense that it has laws that apply across the board no matter where you are
Without realizing it, nearly all of us now take these things for granted precisely because we live in a world dominated by these Christian presuppositions.
Like the first two answers, the third asks a lot of us, but in a very different sort of way. In one sense, the answer that there’s a lawgiver behind the laws of nature is perfectly reasonable because that’s what all our experience tells us: every creation we know—from a can opener and the Golden Gate Bridge to the Mona Lisa—points to an inventor, architect, artist, etc. So from that perspective, belief in a creator is relatively easy to accept. What’s hard to accept for many is the fact that the creator makes moral demands of us. In fact, avoiding the moral obligations that go with this explanation—or being unable to accept that one has broken those moral standards—is what drives most people to choose the other explanations.
Many think God makes those demands because he’s determined to control us or cramp our style. But the Bible says nothing could be further from the truth. God gives us full freedom to walk away from him if we choose, and he asks us to hold to his moral standards simply because he knows how he made us and he longs for us to live in a love relationship with him.
But it’s not just the need to obey a moral code they didn’t ask for that repels many unbelievers. It’s also the picture they have of
- What the Bible is about
- The kind of life God asks us to live
- The community God calls us to join
But once again, most people have picked up their highly distorted picture of these things from either the churches they’ve attended or from society at large:
- They don’t see God as passionately in love with them.
- They don’t know that he longs only for their good, which he knows best because—as their creator—he knows them better than they know themselves.
- They can’t imagine themselves finding true freedom, fulfillment, and joy in serving him.
- They don’t see that, though parts of it are hard to understand, the Bible’s key points—who God is, who we are, why we’re here, and what God asks of us—are all plain enough to grasp.
- They don’t know that what makes the churches they’ve been to repellant is that, amidst the many challenges facing them, they’ve lost the plot.
There are, then, only three answers to the question of how we got here: either the laws of nature have always existed, they spontaneously popped into existence, or a creator, brought them into existence.
Many people who accept one of the first two answers are committed to scientism, the belief that science will one day answer all our biggest questions. What’s ironic is that scientism’s fundamental belief that it will answer all our questions is itself a non-scientific (philosophical) claim. Thus, scientism is self-referentially incoherent in that it must step outside the realm of science to assert that science is all-sufficient.
One thing that makes the third answer seem reasonable is that the laws of nature and of mathematics behind the universe are unseen realities. Virtually all the great mathematicians and physicists, for example, have a very strong sense that they didn’t invent anything. Rather, that they merely discovered aspects of the unseen realities built into the universe, laws that were true before they discovered them. If realities so basic to everything we see in the universe are unseen, it seems plausible that there may also be unseen moral realities that are true whether or not we know or accept them—for example, that compassion is a virtue. And if that’s true, there could also be spiritual realities, which is what Christianity teaches.
Note: This article was based on Ard Louis’ lecture “Meaning, Evidence & Truth.” And that lecture essentially summarized the four-part documentary film produced by Louis and his atheist friend David Malone, entitled Why Are We Here?
 Sir Peter Medawar, The Limits of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); quoted by Ard Louis in “Meaning, Evidence & Truth,” lecture given at the University of Birmingham, March 7, 2019.
 Steph Solis, “Copernicus and the Church: What the History Books Don’t Say,” Christian Science Monitor, February 19, 2013. https://www.csmonitor.com/Technology/2013/0219/Copernicus-and-the-Church-What-the-history-books-don-t-say Accessed August 5, 2023.