Do Science and God Mix?
Oxford University Professor of Mathematics John Lennox responds to some key questions about science and faith. These articles are transcribed from Professor Lennox’s online video resources.
Does Nature Point to a Creator?
Can one see evidence of a Creator in nature? I believe that one can. Nature is not neutral. It’s not as Stephen J Gould, the famous palaeontologist, put it, that whatever we think of God, there’s no evidence of Him in nature. I think there very much is. But I would start, actually, with the fact that one of the Biblical claims is that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God and the earth shows His handiwork’. I always remember – because I studied in Cambridge – that the brilliant scientist James Clerk Maxwell, who gave us electro-magnetic theory, had inscribed over the door of the Cavendish Laboratory, where many of the epoch making experiments in physics were done, ‘great are the works of the Lord sought out by those [or studied by those] who take delight in them’.
James Clerk Maxwell, along with many of the great pioneers of science – indeed, practically all of the early ones, like Galileo, Kepler and Newton – saw evidence of God in nature and in fact they devoted their science to explicating that evidence in, as Galileo put it, the language in which God had written it – the language of mathematics.
So my first response to [this question] is this, that the Christian cradle gave birth to modern science, in the sense that the contemporary scientific set of investigations arose because of the conviction that there is a designer, an intelligence, a God who created and upheld nature. That set people free and encouraged them actually to do science. And one of the greatest evidences to me that that is the case is the fact that we can do science and mathematics at all. We find the mathematics that we do in our heads in here corresponds to what we find in the universe out there. It reflects what Einstein said ‘the only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible’. He saw there was a problem. How is it that the human mind can develop formulae equations (mathematical descriptions) that reflect what’s going on out there?
Atheism, which is one worldview that’s very dominant in the academy today, tells us that the human mind is simply the accidental by-product of a mindless, purpose-less process. Well, one begins to wonder how such an apparatus could begin to deliver any kind of truth at all. Indeed many noted philosophers like Alvin Plantinga are bearing down on this – that this atheistic explanation of the universe undermines the very rationality which all scientists must believe in to do their science.
Whereas Christianity tells us, or theism more generally tells us, that the reason we can do science is that the same God that created the universe out there ultimately is responsible for the creation of the human mind in here, and that makes perfect sense. So I would start with the very doing of science. To quote Professor Richard Swinburne of Oxford: ‘I postulate God to explain why science explains’. In other words the very order that we discover through science is a pointer towards something deep and intelligent underlying that order.
But then of course I would come to the actual science itself. We discover that we live in a fine tuned universe, i.e. the fundamental constants of nature have to be very precise within very small tolerances, if you are to have a universe in which carbon based life is possible. And I’m interested in what some of the physicists who are not necessarily theists are saying about it. That it is an overwhelming indicator of intelligence.
So those kinds of things seem to me to mount up and one tends to agree with Fred Hoyle who, when he found the carbon resonances that are necessary for carbon to be created, said something like ‘a super intellect has monkeyed with physics and chemistry’. So that would be my start – indicating that science points towards the existence of God. One of the most eminent cosmologists, Allan Sandage (‘the father of modern astronomy’), points out that the very existence of this order is something that points him in the direction of believing in God. For him that’s the only explanation of the order that makes any sense.
Faith and Reason
This question of the relationship of faith to reason is one that one comes up against all the time. And the question is often put as if faith and reason were opposed. That to my mind is nonsense. It’s coupled with an impression that faith is something that occurs only in religious situations and therefore isn’t worth talking about. Richard Dawkins talks about ‘faith-heads’(or roughly put, the ‘cloth heads’ I suppose), and that reason is associated with science and, therefore, we take it seriously. Well, that is to make an error in both directions.
Firstly, faith and reason walk hand in hand in both science and theology. So we need to unpack this just a little bit. Our English word [for faith] comes from the Latin word fides which means trust. In its normal usage faith, reason and evidence are words that belong very much together.
If I go into my bank manager with a project for making money, the issue for the bank manager is, can he place his faith in me? Can he trust me? Of course in these days of financial crises the problem might be the other way around. Can I trust the bank manager? But leaving that aside, can he trust me?
Now he will want reasons to trust me. He’ll want evidence on which to base his faith in me. And he will ask me a whole series of very penetrating questions in order to see whether his faith is justified. And that applies right across the board. When we say we have faith in something, we trust it, we believe in it. The next logical question is what reasons have you got, what evidence have you got for believing in it? So if I say ‘God is the Creator of the universe’, you are perfectly justified in saying ‘what reasons have you got?’
So we need to distinguish faith from blind faith. What makes this discussion very complex is that many of the New Atheists regard all faith as blind faith, but that is absolute nonsense. A man’s faith in his wife is not blind. I even discussed this with Richard Dawkins and, although he did not like using that particular word, he conceded that he did have faith in his wife. We immediately see that that kind of faith can have reasons – it is evidence-based faith, but it is nonetheless faith.
So to say that all faith is blind faith is simply wrong, when using faith in its general context. It is also wrong using faith in its specifically religious context. The early scientists and many contemporary scientists weren’t fools for putting their faith in God, because they believed there was evidence for it. And it’s interesting that in the part of the New Testament that is devoted to explaining what faith is (in one of the major books we call the Gospel by the Apostle John, who collected together all this evidence) it says: ‘these things are written that you might believe [that is have faith in] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that by believing you might have life in his name’.
In other words John is not asking us to put blind faith in Jesus. It’s the exact opposite. He said here’s the evidence I’ve collected as an eye witness and this evidence forms the basis on which you can rest your faith. That is, he is appealing for evidence-based faith.
Of course there is such a thing as blind faith and it’s very dangerous, particularly when it’s coupled with unscrupulous religious authority – as we see in 9/11, the blind faith of those that drove the airliners into the Twin Towers in New York. That is blind faith and it is to be roundly condemned. I agree entirely with the New Atheists in condemning it, but I will not agree with them that that is the only kind of faith there is. Because after all, some of them are scientists, like Dawkins and Dennett, for instance, so they have faith in common with every other scientist who ever lived in the rational intelligibility of the universe. Their science doesn’t give them that. As Sir John Polkinghorne, my teacher of quantum physics at Cambridge, points out in many of his books: ‘physics is powerless to explain its faith in the intelligibility of the universe’. Why is that? Because in order to do any physics you must believe in the rational intelligibility of the universe.
Now here comes the major irony. The atheists claim they don’t have faith, but they do, in the rational intelligibility of the universe. But half a minute – where’s the evidence that that faith is justified in their worldview? It doesn’t exist because their worldview is that human intelligence is simply the product of a mindless, unguided process. But if that’s the case why on earth would you give it any credence whatsoever? Why would you believe anything that it produced?
As John Gray pointed out not so long ago, the interesting thing about the evolutionary doctrines that these New Atheists base so much of their worldview on, is that they are geared to survivability not towards truth. So why would you believe anything produced by an apparatus that is thrown up by such a mindless, unguided process?
What am I saying? I’m saying firstly, there is such a thing as blind faith. It is very dangerous in the religious sphere. But it seems to me that the atheists are coming very near to being guilty of blind faith, when they trust the human mind, even though they haven’t a shred of evidence on their own hypotheses (in their own worldview) that it should be considered as reliable. In other words scientists have to have faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe. The rational justification of that faith came originally from Christianity – atheism simply doesn’t have any. So this matter of faith, evidence and reason is something we need to think about very carefully.
There is a final point to be made here actually, and that is to bring in the word ‘revelation’. Sometimes faith and revelation are put as opposites, as diametrically opposite. But let’s think of revelation, firstly, at the simple human level. Here’s Aunt Matilda and she’s baked a cake. Scientific analysis cannot tell you why she made the cake. You’ll never find out unless she reveals it to you. But if she reveals it to you that doesn’t mean you shut off your reason. Indeed, you will have to use your reason to understand the content of her revelation. That’s absolutely obvious. And you can check, using your reason, whether what she revealed to you made sense. If she says she made it for her son, Jim, and you know she has a son called Jim, then that makes perfect sense.
At the higher level it’s exactly the same as this. The Bible claims to be revelation. I believe that that is the case, but an atheist reading it doesn’t have to start by believing that. They simply read it as data, and any data requires reason to even understand it. I have never yet met anybody, Christian or not, who can read the Bible without using their reason. So to say that reason and revelation are opposed is to make a fundamental category mistake. The issue is simply this: we get data from nature and we use our reason on that. The Bible claims to be a revelation of God – it claims to be God speaking. We use our reason on that. What is being claimed, though, is that there is certain information in scripture that unaided human reason could not, on its own, gain. But what we are certainly not saying is that revelation is against reason. Of course that is nonsense, it proceeds from the source of all reason, God himself.
Copyright of John Lennox and reproduced by permission. For more resources from John Lennox, see johnlennox.org
John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford, Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford. He has written a number of books on the interface between science, philosophy and theology. These include God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (2009) and God and Stephen Hawking, a response to The Grand Design (2011). Prof Lennox has lectured extensively in North America, Eastern and Western Europe and Australasia on mathematics, the philosophy of science and the intellectual defence of Christianity. He has debated Richard Dawkins on ‘The God Delusion’ (2007) and on ‘Has Science buried God?’ (2008). He has also debated Christopher Hitchens on the New Atheism (Edinburgh Festival, 2008) and the question of ‘Is God Great?’ (2010), as well as Peter Singer on the topic of ‘Is there a God?’ (Melbourne, 2011).
Professor Lennox was in Adelaide to speak at the South Australian Prayer Breakfast and the City Bible Forum Event ‘Cosmic Chemistry: Do Science and God Mix?’