Would you risk your life on God? Reflections on Professor John Lennox’s ‘Can Science Explain Everything?’

Prompted by Professor John Lennox's new book, Jack Sagar grapples with questions about science, God, and the faith that binds us all together.

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Professor John Lennox speaks at 'An Interview with John Lennox'

People often think that science and religion are at odds, that a scientist’s ability to rationally comprehend the world averts their gaze from the heavens. But the truth is, the inverse is often the case. Newton was a Christian, his faith in God grounded by the mathematical physics he did understand — not in what he couldn’t. As much as the Principia Mathematicais the bedrock for Newton’s faith, Professor John Lennox career as a mathematician here in Oxford has led him to the same conclusion. 

Lennox has set himself the challenge of undermining the false narrative of science and religion waging a war. One of the important ways in which he does this is by clarifying the nature of faith –showing that the scientific worldview, as well as the Christian worldview, both rely on faith. Faith, whether faith in God or evolutionary theory, is about evidence, according to Lennox. When we ride airplanes, or marry the people we love, there is no mathematical proof that either won’t end in disaster – but we still have faith that our descents into the air or spousal life are safe, sensical things to do because we have evidence. Lennox cannot prove his wife loves him, but as he was keen to note, he would risk his life on it. 

And there is a keen point here to be made. When we step onto the plane, Lennox’s phrasing does not go amiss – there is real sense in which we are risking our lives on our faith that the plane won’t crash. With evidence, this is rational: the risk is small. But the same can be said of a marriage. What if you spend years on something that does not work? What if your partner is actually trying to steal your money or only marrying you in order to control you? The better you know your partner, the safer you are – but there is a sense in which you are risking wasting or negatively affecting a large portion of your life by marrying the wrong person. So, we have faith. The scientist has faith – with evidence they pursue certain theories, they believe in their methods, they have faith that the world is to be made sense of despite the absence of any proof, evidence or philosophical argument that makes us certain that the world, does, in fact, make sense. We see that faith in Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice with the universe.” His faith was in that quantum systems qua deterministic, in a hidden variable missing from the mechanics. But certain faith, even in science, might be mistaken. Physicists might spend their entire lives chasing a theory of everything that they will not obtain – they risk their lives on it, in the sense that they might be chasing horizons.

The faith of the scientist bears on Lennox’s title question: can science explain everything? There is certainly a faith in scientism: the idea that science can explain everything. The evidence might be how wonderful and successful and far-reaching science has been. We have medicine and astronomy and neurology and they have all changed the world for the better. I cannot represent all of Lennox’s rich reflections on scientism here, but I will relay one of his major points – what I imagine is the most important point. There are kindsof explanation – what philosophers might call a reasons-explanation and a causal-explanation. The example he gives is, how do we explain the boiling of the kettle? We can give a story about how the excitation of the molecules in the kettle leads to evaporation and so on. But when asked why is the kettle boiling? most of us will react by giving some story like ‘I’m parched’ or ‘Stressful day, just fancied a brew’ – not with reference to state changes or thermodynamics; a reasons-explanation. As Lennox reminds, we have been drinking tea for a lot longer than we have understood how changes of state work. 

And I might concur that science cannot speak on that level of explanation. I might concur with Lennox as well as that, there is a real sense in which we cannot go without these explanations. It is not how our world works, nor our sense of meaning. For Lennox, this space of meaning is for religion — and in particular, for reasons we won’t go into, Christianity. I want to press on this for a moment. 

Challenging scientism is not solely the task of the interdisciplinary theist community (and Lennox referred to biologists and mathematicians and historians and theologians over the course of the evening). It is the challenge of the atheist too. In his interview Lennox called atheism a ‘worldview’, which I object to. If atheism even amounts to a worldview, and not solely the rejection of a family of worlds of the class theism, it is a misrepresented one. Dostoevsky thought the logical consequence of suicide was atheism and yet, post the 20th Century where philosophers both in Cambridge and the cafés of Paris agreed that value was a projection and God was dead, there was still a point to living. So the first thing to say, there is a point to living with atheism. But even amongst this family of atheists were complex and nuanced views. Like theism, I think atheism should be considered a class of views: amongst this class, one thing that we might dispute is the nature of value. And the reason this new picture might helpful is, it is not clear that there is enough evidence to risk one’s life on theism. 

Theism is not a simple view — rightly it often amounts to a family of worldviews. Your commitment to God is going to bear on your ethics, it is going to bear on your politics (liberal or not) and it might even bear on how you spend every one of your Sunday’s for the rest of your life. The risks are different for everyone: for the gay people, for women, for minority ethnicities or disabled people, getting into bed with theism is no casual and non-committal thing. So what if you do not want to risk your life on God? What if your open to the idea that after some progressive theology and deep soul-searching, all these tensions of yours come out in the wash? You need not deny all that without asking for some good reason – if I am going to worry about the ethical status of my love with another man, I am going to want some good reason to risk my life by taking it down that path. 

It is possible we can cash out the richness of our lives in non-theistic terms – atheism has not been given its chance. In fact, here in Oxford’s faculty there are philosophers arguing against the idea that a world in which God exists is necessarily a preferable one. I won’t give such an argument here, but I will say this. As Wittgenstein said, explanation ends somewhere. I believe that such a limit holds for science, but I think such a thing holds for value: the crux of it might just be, value is just a brute fact. It is there and we have to deal with it. We have to deal with the good and the beautiful, as well as the evil and ugly. The strange, austere universe is one we must deal with, theist or not. As one philosopher has argued, if there is a hole, it is not necessarily God-shaped. 

The sentiment I want to at least consider is, we might not need God if we learn to have each other. I think to the great writer James Baldwin and this beautiful passage he wrote: 

“The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

This is true for the theist – I would think. For Augustine, proper love of God demands proper love of neighbour; Dostoevsky’s portrayal of an atheist in his Writer’s Diarysees the atheist saved by Christ’s love but only by his inability to abandon sentiment when approached by a beggar child. We need each other. But it is true without God. Our fundamental sociality and dependence might not flesh out in a theological story, but flesh it out we should nonetheless. New atheisms — richer atheisms — are not being given their voice.

This all said, I am for the spirit of the discussion: Lennox is fighting the good fight in questioning scientism, in opening room for new and open attitudes to what a pursuit of truth includes. During the course of the evening he adeptly and gracefully grappled with questions about evolution, miracles and even, the atrocities that we ourselves have committed as a species. Most poignantly Lennox touched on the history of his own Northern Ireland and the terror that ensured there. So for him, I am happy that he has found his faith. He is rationally entitled to it. But ultimately, what I will say is that for the agnostic questioning and for those with faith that seeks understanding, his book promises to offer much to mull over; for the atheist, it is an opportunity to participate in an important conversation and to consider what their atheism can amount towards being. Can science explain everything?Would you risk your life on science? I have faith that if you want to answer these questions, Lennox’s new book is a great place to start.

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