By Marcel van der Veer
January 2024

Published in Education

More on Education, Philosophy, Science

About a year ago I wrote a post about the tendency in advanced physics to talk about unproven formalisms and ideas as if they were real, taking on a life of their own. Examples are the multiverse conjecture, string theory, supersymmetry etcetera. Here I want to address a discussion that I every now and then have with fellow scientists - can a modern scientist believe in God? This problem can be viewed in different ways, of which I will consider the following possibilities - whether there is a conflict between practicing science and believing in God, and whether we must choose between science and religion.

Is there a conflict for a scientist to be a person of faith?

A Christian for example may explain that this is a harmonious combination. In several places in Genesis, one reads that creation is for mankind to care for and to subdue. We can go about science as Newton, Leibniz and many other scientific forebearers did - proceeding from the belief that God laid out the laws of nature, for us to discover to elevate mankind. From this perspective, if God granted you the capacity to practice science, pursuing a career in science can be a worthy way to serve God.

Also scientists need a compass to steer by, or a sanctuary to find hope or comfort. We all seek answers to the important questions in life. Why are we here, what is the purpose of our existence? How must we reason? What can we know, and how can we learn? Why do we perceive the universe the way we do? How must we act? What constitutes art? This is a in a nutshell what philosophy is about. Science helps with above fourth question, but not sufficiently with answering the other ones. However, a so-called new atheist may suggest that science could eventually develop even ethics, a debated and criticized vision.

Should we choose between science and religion?

Or, as Oxford mathematician John Lennox paraphrased it, should you choose between studying either engineering or the life of Henry Ford, to understand the evolution of the motor vehicle? Again, this is a question that can be approached in several ways.

One focal point in this discussion is the beginning of time. The clergy knew before physicists that the universe must have had a beginning. The idea of an expanding universe originating from an initial state - Fiat Lux - what would become the Big Bang theory, originated from priest-scientist Georges Lemaître, a contemporary of Hubble and Einstein. Where Newton thought his law of gravity suggested the existence of God, several modern physicists argue that Einstein's law of gravity suggests the opposite since it allows the conjecture that the universe created itself from nothing. However, to avoid an obvious contradiction nothing has to be defined as some sort of proto-physical state. You can imagine that this reasoning is challenged by many scholars. Not only does this proposal defer the question about the beginning of the universe, the idea is also untestable and therefore unscientific.

On the other hand, scientist-apologists see elements in science that would point towards the existence of God. An important argument is the fine-tuning of physical constants. Various physical constants need to attain precisely the value they have, for us to be here to contemplate the universe in the first place. Since physics cannot explain (yet) why these constants have these exact values, some see in this a master plan for the universe. A metaphysical explanation is the multiverse conjecture - if an infinite number of universes would exist, in at least one universe physical constants would have the precise values allowing our existence - a fantastic coincidence. Needless to say, the multiverse conjecture is an idea that cannot be falsified, hence outside science.


Literature is rife with arguments on the matter of the existence of God, both pro and contra. Oftentimes the discussion is elegant, academic and respectful, sometimes arguments are naive, fallacious, or even abrasive. Science to date offers no testable idea to decide on either pro or contra, and perhaps never will. This apparently leaves moot the discussion whether an almighty God could transcend logic, rendering science an unfit tool in the discussion to begin with. All of the non-trivial or non-fallacious arguments however share inconclusiveness, being open to debate. We will therefore never see the end of it. The existence of God remains a mystery as it has always been, and believing either in God or in scientism essentially is a leap of faith.

Although the discussion will continue indefinitely, I would like to bring this post to a conclusion. I set out to elaborate on the question whether a scientist could be a person of faith. You will have noticed my position - it is a natural, harmonious and potentially fulfilling combination. One that gives hope and meaning to an otherwise purposeless universe, I might add. While some may believe that the heavens are empty, personally I find it difficult to accept such view. Whatever standpoint you take, is up to you - please do your own thinking.

All blog posts