Science and design: A physicist’s perspective

Science does an excellent job of describing and explaining natural phenomena in the world around us. Scientists, however, are not content with merely describing phenomena. They strive to understand the underlying structure, the fundamental laws of nature that determine these phenomena. It is at this deeper level of explanation that conflict may arise between science and theology because science, as generally practiced, attempts to use exclusively naturalistic language in its explanations.

As science develops more complete naturalistic explanations to describe the universe, it may appear that there is less room for God in the picture. And if science ever discovers a “complete” theory, it could be presumed that it would describe a universe without God. I am confident, however, that this conclusion is neither necessary nor valid. Drawing upon examples from physics, my purpose is to show that in developing a more complete picture of the universe, scientists are led to greater evidences for God and His design.

Increasingly over the past few decades, tremendous effort and resources have been expended to find an ultimate theory of physics. These attempts have names such as the “Grand Unified Theory,” or the “Theory of Everything,” and include such proposals as Quantum Loop Gravity, String Theory, and M-Theory. This quest is sufficiently profound that many of its practitioners cannot help but use theological language in its description. Some have called it the quest for the Holy Grail of science. Stephen Hawking talks about this as a search to know “the mind of God.”1 Although the “God” Hawking refers to is merely one small facet of the God we know from the Bible, this does acknowledge that a complete theory would not preclude theistic belief.

Extensive summaries of the current state of the quest for a complete theory have been written.2 Rather than attempt another summary, I will examine just one piece of the puzzle and consider its theological implications.

Elemental abundances

Physicists have long wondered why Earth has just the right proportions of carbon, oxygen, and other elements necessary for life. Sixty years ago, they understood how the sun and other stars fuse hydrogen into helium, but there seemed to be no mechanism for making heavier elements. When two helium atoms collide, they form an extremely unstable form of beryllium, which immediately3 separates back into two helium atoms. Three helium atoms need to bond to create carbon, but the chance of a third helium atom colliding with the beryllium before it separates was shown to be far too small to allow formation of the carbon we observe.

At that time, this was seen by some as convincing evidence for “scientific creation.” Science could not explain the carbon and oxygen on Earth. Thus it was argued that these elements could only be here in the correct proportions because that was the way God created them. However, the story doesn’t stop here.

In 1953, the astronomer Fred Hoyle hypothesized that carbon must have an excited state at a resonant energy related to the sum of energies of the unstable beryllium and helium. This resonance would enhance the creation of carbon in stars. Physicists were skeptical of Hoyle’s idea, since he was not a nuclear physicist. Nonetheless, they looked for, and discovered, the excited state at exactly the energy Hoyle predicted. This discovery of the “carbon resonance” provided an explanation for how carbon is formed.

Shortly thereafter, an “oxygen resonance” was discovered. Without this resonance, no oxygen could form. But if the resonance was too close, collisions of helium with carbon would quickly transform virtually all of the carbon into oxygen, leaving no carbon. Thus, not only must there be an “oxygen resonance,” but it must also be detuned by the correct amount to provide the appropriate ratio of carbon to oxygen.

By 1960, the mechanistic details of stellar nucleosynthesis had been clearly demonstrated. Nuclear physics could now account for the existence and abundances of the elements, including the carbon and oxygen essential for life. Since physics had filled this gap, it would seem that any argument for “design” in the elemental composition of the universe had been refuted. However, Hoyle, who had considered himself an atheist, reacted otherwise: “From 1953 onward, Willy Fowler and I have always been intrigued by the remarkable relation of the 7.65 Mev energy level in the nucleus of 12C to the 7.12 Mev level in 16O. If you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these are the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just where these levels are actually found to be. Another put-up job? Following the above argument, I am inclined to think so. A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”4

Clearly, Hoyle was not looking at the mechanistic details when he called the universe a “put-up job.” Rather, he was looking at the fundamental laws of physics that had to be fine-tuned to create the resonances necessary for the mechanism to work.

We now know that if the Strong Nuclear Force was 0.5 per cent stronger than its actual value, there would be virtually no carbon in the universe. And if the Strong Nuclear Force was 0.5 per cent weaker, there would be virtually no oxygen.5 The necessity of the carbon and oxygen resonances similarly constrains the strength of the Electro-Magnetic force, the Strong Nuclear Force interaction distance, the masses of the protons and neutrons, and the Planck constant.6 As Hoyle discovered, the question of why the fundamental constants and laws are tuned exactly right is much more difficult to answer without recourse to a Designer than was the original question of why the universe has exactly the right abundances of the elements necessary for life.

Many in the Intelligent Design movement look for things that science cannot explain. That is, they examine places where the scientific explanation breaks down. If those anomalies are not readily explainable by the scientific theories, then this may provide evidence that there was a designer at work. These design arguments were developed by William Paley in the 19th century. In his watch analogy, Paley imagined crossing a heath, finding a watch laying on the ground, and inquiring how it got to be there: “The inference [is] that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.”7 Paley saw the structure of the universe as being far more complex than a watch, concluding that the universe must have been designed.

Arguments from design may provide strong support for the existence of a Creator-Designer. However, as science advances and more previously unexplained phenomena are explained by science, gaps are closed, and God seemingly has fewer places to act in the world. This leads to a perception that God is invoked merely as a “stop-gap” measure to explain what science has not as yet explained. This is the argument given by Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker.8 But the fallacy of this argument can be seen in the carbon resonance problem. The answer that closed the “gap” needs itself to be explained. Basically, Dawkins tells Paley to just continue walking, and he will come to an entire automated watch-making factory blindly producing watches. This, according to Dawkins, fully explains how the watch came to be there. What Dawkins fails to realize is that the existence of an automated watch-making factory is far more difficult to explain without recourse to a Designer than was the watch in the first place.9

There are many more recent examples that could be given. Physicists commonly find that when they discover a mechanism to explain a previously-unexplained phenomenon, they do so by invoking laws or principles of physics that are more fundamental, that are themselves in need of further explanation. As physicist Stephen Barr states: “In every case where science explains order, it does so, in the final analysis, by appealing to a greater, more impressive, and more comprehensive underlying orderliness. And that is why, ultimately, scientific explanations do not allow us to escape from the Design Argument: for when the scientist has done his job there is not less order to explain but more. The universe looks far more orderly to us now than it did to the ancients who appealed to that order as proof of God’s existence.”10

Thus, the closer we get to discovering a complete theory of physics, the more clearly we can see the underlying design of the universe. Astrophysicist Paul Davies came to a similar conclusion: “The temptation to believe that the Universe is the product of some sort of design, a manifestation of subtle aesthetic and mathematical judgment, is overwhelming. The belief that there is ‘something behind it all’ is one that I personally share with, I suspect, a majority of physicists.”11

Physics has had tremendous success in understanding the mechanistic details of how all the elements are formed. But when it comes to the question of understanding why the laws of physics are set just right to allow these mechanisms to work, many physicists acknowledge that there is an appearance of overt design in the universe.


Frank Hasel makes the point that “in science as well as in theology, humility is one of the rarest, yet most important, characteristics and presuppositions of those engaged in the study of both.”12 Physics provides powerful tools to understand the intricate details of God’s creation. However, as physicists push the edges of their discipline to search for a more complete picture of the universe, they realize their limitations, recognizing that even their explanations reveal an underlying order that is still inexplicable. Thus, the physicist is constrained by his discipline to be humble.

Theologians are similarly constrained by their discipline to be humble. The Bible provides a reliable and trustworthy account of how God has interacted with humankind throughout history and provides all that is needful for salvation. But that does not mean all questions regarding the nature of God are answered. There is always something more for the theologian to learn about God. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8, 9, ESV).

The theologian’s striving for a complete picture of the unapproachable and transcendent God also requires humility. Thus, both physicist and theologian “see through a glass, darkly.” We both see enough to have certain knowledge regarding what God has revealed about Himself and His creation. However, the picture is still but a shadow of the reality. We look forward to the time when we will clearly see a more complete picture and join our disciplinary perspectives, for to learn about God’s creation is also to learn about God. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV).

Gary W. Burdick (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin) is professor of physics and assistant dean for graduate programs, College of Arts and Sciences, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

His research interests relate to theoretical and experimental optical spectroscopy. His e-mail address is and Web page is

*English Standard Version


  1. Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam, 1988).
  2. See, for examples Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (New York: Knopf, 2005), or Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (New York: Knopf, 2004).
  3. To be specific, the lifetime of 8Be is about a tenth of a femtosecond (10-16 s).
  4. Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Vol. 20 (1982), pp. 1-35.
  5. H. Oberhummer, A. Canto, and H. Schiotti, “Stellar Production Rates of Carbon and Its Abundance in the Universe,” Science 289 (July 7, 2000), pp. 88-90.
  6. B. L. Cohen, “Understanding the Fine Tuning in Our Universe, The Physics Teacher 46, 285-289 (May 2008), pp. 285-289.
  7. William Paley, Paley’s Natural Theology, F. Le Gros Clark, ed. (SPCK, 1890), p. 11, quoted in Phil Dowe, Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking: The Interplay of Science, Reason, and Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 110.
  8. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).
  9. I am indebted to Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002) for this illustration.
  10. Ibid., p. 79.
  11. Paul C. W. Davies, “The Christian Perspective of a Scientist,” review of John Polkinghorne, “The Way the World Is,” New Scientist, 98:1354 (June 2, 1983), pp. 638-639.
  12. Frank M. Hasel, “How to Deal With Open Questions: Facing the Challenges Between Faith and Science,” Ministry, (July 2007), pp. 21-23.