A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
September 27, 2011 1

An interview with John Lennox

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Photo: Roland Ashby, Anglican Media

Chris Mulherin: John Lennox, you’re an Oxford mathematician but perhaps better known to the public as one of those who does public battle with Richard Dawkins and the new atheists. Recently you debated atheist philosopher Peter Singer in Melbourne. Why do you divide your time in such disparate pursuits?

John Lennox: I don’t think they’re entirely disparate pursuits, I’ve always been interested in the broader implications of science and the issue here is that people like Richard Dawkins are arguing that if you are a scientist, the only logical position you can take intellectually is atheism. And I dispute that and I quite honestly don’t like seeing science abused in that way. So I want to put across a counter-argument to the public and let the people judge.

Chris Mulherin: Let me ask you about attitudes to science in the public space. As we listen to science, as it’s portrayed in the public eye, I wonder if there’s a tension between two attitudes to science? What we might almost call absolute and relative views of science. One view perhaps represented by the so-called new atheists is very confident that science is the only grounding for truth and knowledge. Another view seen, for example, in scepticism about global warming, shows a lack of confidence and a disenchantment with science. What do you make of these two attitudes to science?

John Lennox: Well I’d call the first attitude scientism. Because it is an attitude to science that science is the only vehicle to truth. And I suppose the easy way to put it is the way Bertrand Russell formulated it: That ‘what science cannot tell us mankind cannot know.’ I’m interested in logic and Russell was a great logician but his logic failed him there. Because his statement ‘what science cannot tell us mankind cannot know’ is not a statement of science. So if it’s true, it’s false.

In other words I think we’re having an over-reach here. And really great scientists like Sir Peter Medawar were very clear — as are most scientists — on the limits of science. That’s the reason science is successful. Medawar puts it this way: that it’s very easy to check that science doesn’t tell us everything. It can’t even answer the simple questions of a child: Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? And so on.

And Einstein once said you can speak of the ethical foundations of science but you cannot speak of the scientific foundations of ethics. In other words you cannot get ethical values from science. So science is there, it’s wonderful, but we do it a disservice, as Medawar also pointed out, if we make it the sole criteria of the truth. And that’s absurd of course because science is not coextensive with rationality. If science were the only way to truth, you’d have to shut half your university departments in Sydney.

Chris Mulherin: Now that leads on… Well actually you’ve half answered my next question, but I will ask it anyway. You have criticised scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins for going beyond their scientific expertise into areas of incompetence shall we say. Could you explain that a little and also tell us why you can’t be accused of doing the same?

John Lennox: Oh I can be accused of doing the same. I do it. But my point is not that we go into other areas. We all do that. But it’s: when we go into other areas we should check the best arguments from those areas. And my problem with Hawking and Dawkins and so on is that for instance, when it comes to something like the sheer existence of Jesus Christ, they don’t even check with the ancient historians.

So don’t misunderstand me, I’m going beyond my own professional competence as a mathematician, but I therefore have to rigorously face the arguments in these different disciplines and ask myself the question: have I been fair to those arguments? And my problem with Stephen Hawking for instance, in his recent book, he doesn’t even seem to have checked what he’s written in the book with somebody who has done even a minimal course in philosophy. That’s the problem.

Chris Mulherin: I wonder if we could turn to the topic of awe and beauty. And in particular to beauty in mathematics. You mention Bertrand Russell. Let me quote from Bertrand Russell, the famous atheist and philosopher. He said,

‘Mathematics possesses not only truth but supreme beauty without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music yet sublimely pure. The true spirit of delight. The exaltation. The sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.’

John Lennox, what makes mathematics beautiful?

John Lennox: Describing beauty is almost impossible because we perceive it, rather than describe it. If you look at a Rembrandt painting and start to try and describe what the beauty is you see, your words sound absolutely pathetic. And I think that’s true. I think it is a matter of perception that when you come across an interesting theorem or you even think of Newton’s famous laws — that wonderful compression of many observations, of Kepler of the motions of the planets, and you see it in one simple equation from which you can deduce everything else — there is a magic about that. The fact that the universe can be described in that way. And I would say that it is perception. It’s an ‘ah ha’ effect. It’s exactly the same effect as you get when you look at your first nebula through a telescope or look over the edge of the Grand Canyon. You can’t put that into words but you can see the beauty. Beauty is a thing we see.

Chris Mulherin: If it’s a thing we see, is it part of the nature of the universe? Or is it merely a subjective thing? Can it be reduced to brain science and neuronal firings? Or is it something more?

John Lennox: Well of course I don’t accept that those latter two are the same at all. Of course it’s subjective. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. And the notion that it can be reduced to neuronal firings is I think myself, rather silly because that kind of extreme reductionism we get with some of the new atheists — they reduce all thought actually, to neuronal firings — well if that were the case we’d never know it. Because it turns everything into irrationality and undermines the very foundations of cognition. So I don’t think there’s any mileage that way.

Clearly, thought involves the firing of neurones. Just as a Rembrandt painting, involves paint. It involves physical stuff and canvas. But it is more than that. The whole is more than the sum of the parts and we perceive a beauty in it that cannot be found in analysing the pigments and the chemistry and the physics of the ink and the canvas.

Chris Mulherin: You say the whole is more than the sum of the parts. I think that possibly leads into some work you’ve been doing more recently in information theory. Could you tell us briefly about your interest there?

John Lennox: Well my interest there is a very simple one in a way. What I’m interested in is whether or not there is any scientific evidence for the existence of an intelligent God who’s a Creator and upholder of the universe. And of course I see that initially as Kepler and Newton and all the rest of them saw it; in the fact that the universe is mathematically intelligible. In the sheer beauty and elegance of the mathematics that does that. That seems to me to be part of the evidence for it.

But there’s another thing as well. That — and I find this somewhat ironic — that there’s this physicalism, this attempt to reduce everything to physics and chemistry and yet in physics itself, we’ve come to the conclusion — I say we, it seems to me to be a general consensus — that information — this is after all the information age — information is a fundamental quantity. And some physicists at least are beginning to recognise that you can’t reduce information to mass energy. It seems to be independent and so on.

So I find that rather amusing in a way, because in a world that Dawkins and Co. argue is solely mass energy, it’s materialistic in terms of its explanation, we’ve got this quantity information which is immaterial. So now it turns out that one of the most important aspects of the universe is not material at all. We’re in the computer age and computer language is used, quite rightly I think to describe the biology of for example the human cell with its DNA database, which is a great computer program if you like, 3.7 billion letters long.

And the odd thing and slightly amusing thing to me is that any of us as a human being, if we see the letters of our own names say, written in the sand, we immediately postulate an intelligence behind it, whatever mechanism might have been involved in putting it there in the sand. And yet we can look at the 3.5 billion letters of the human genome in perfect order, not one out of place so to speak, and ascribe it simply to chance and necessity. To chance and the laws of nature. And that doesn’t make sense to me at all. It seems to me that the perception of seeing our name written in the sand… why shouldn’t the perception be any different? Well of course the argument comes back: ‘Evolution explains it’, which is nonsense. Because of course, evolution depends on the existence of a mutating replica. It cannot explain the existence of that. As I’m glad to say, Richard Dawkins, having denied it for many years in books like The Blind Watchmaker, in his most recent book has recognised that evolution does not account for the origin of life. So it seems to me there are pointers there to divine intelligence in every one of our cells.

Chris Mulherin: Do you think that the aesthetic sense is part of the created universe and evidence of God?

John Lennox: Well I do yes. After all, one of the interesting things about the early chapters of Genesis is that it says that God made the trees good to look upon which is a recognition of the aesthetic sense. And from where I sit, human beings are special, they’re made in the image of God. And one of the parts of that image of God… God is a God of glory and beauty. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ And he’s given the aesthetic sense, the capacity to perceive it. So it’s not proof that there is a God but it’s certainly consistent with the notion that there is a God.

Chris Mulherin: John as you know we have a website and a Facebook page too and we’ve asked people online to send us in questions for this interview. One of our Facebook followers has asked me to talk with you about proof, and the possibility of proving your beliefs. How do you respond to the notion of proof? Maybe in mathematics and in religious beliefs?

John Lennox: Proof is a word which in English has several different meanings. And in its most rigorous sense you only get it in pure mathematics. Starting with a set of axioms, using an agreed system of logic coming to a conclusion. But you do not get that anywhere else outside of pure mathematics. Not even in the natural sciences. Because there we can talk about evidence, pointers and so on. Unfortunately people sometimes use the word proof there and get it confused with the rigorous definition, so that when they talk about proof of the existence of God, they’re never going to be satisfied because with half their mind they’re thinking of the mathematical sense of proof and of course in that sense you cannot prove God. So I like to cut through that and say what we can do is give evidence for the existence of God and argue the case. We can give pointers and I believe we can give very powerful evidence and it is enough to base faith on.

And the important thing here to stress is that faith is evidence based. It’s not a leap in the dark. And it should only be proportioned to the evidence. And Christianity, I can’t speak for other faiths, but my own faith Christianity, emphasises very strongly that evidence base. And in particular it emphasises the centrality of the historic fact of the resurrection from which everything sprang. And we can approach that on the same way that we approach any event in history and ask what is the historical evidence that this happened.

Chris Mulherin: Let me move on to the idea of naturalised religion. You don’t have a lot of time for disenchanted or naturalised religion. Does transcendence have to have supernatural foundations?

John Lennox: Well. Something is better than nothing so to speak. I’ve got a very good friend who’s a very good science journalist and he says the bottom line for him is that there’s got to be more than this…And I think this is very good. The perception of transcendence. So I don’t poo-poo that at all. And I think perhaps you misunderstood me in the implication behind the question, but it doesn’t take you very far.

There’s something more; what is the something more? What is this transcendence? We perceive it, we sense it. Well let’s talk about it. Now one of the claim is the Christian claim that there is a God who’s responsible. He is the transcendent God. So we can ask now more specific questions as to whether there’s any evidence in history and so on that God might have revealed himself. So tying down the transcendence is very important but I don’t write off people at all, who come to me and have said, ‘Oh there’s a lot more to it than this material stuff.’ That’s a very good start.

Chris Mulherin: Let me ask you about that ‘more’, especially when it gets to what we might call ‘mystery’; those questions that simply don’t seem to have an answer. Some people would say that mystery is a hocus-pocus word for things we don’t yet understand. I’m thinking of the vigorous critiques of religion and what they called metaphysics by the positivist philosophers almost 100 years ago, and also as well the current critiques by the so-called new atheists. Do you think that using the word mystery is a cop out?

John Lennox: I think it’s risky. Because of these kinds of misinterpretations. The thing is, I would rather talk about humility. In a sense that we don’t know everything and like old Socrates, the more he grew the more he realised how little he knew. And I think that kind of attitude is so… But to say everything’s a mystery can be a cop-out for people who don’t want to investigate any further. That’s certainly true.

So I would want to say yes, there are mysterious things in that we don’t completely understand them and they can evoke awe in us and we don’t really realise that happens or what the process is, but we can keep investigating. And one of the interesting things is the word ‘mystery’ in Greek ‘mysterion’ is used in the New Testament but it’s used in a very specialised sense. It’s an idea for a secret that God has revealed. Something that God has opened to our understanding, that wasn’t opened hitherto. I like those kind of mysteries.

Chris Mulherin: So do you think a sense of awe is a pointer that ought to provoke us to more investigation? Is that the implication of what you’re saying?

John Lennox: Well yes. That’s right. I think we’ve got all kinds, in a generalised sense, of appetites and CS Lewis made the point that it would be strange if we all felt hungry and we lived in a universe in which there was no such thing as food. And this sense of transcendence, of awe, a God space… It would be very strange if there was nothing to fill it. And I believe there is of course. And that He has revealed himself in Jesus Christ above all.

Chris Mulherin: When do you feel most or when have you felt most awe inspired?

John Lennox: Well I’ve got a telescope in my garden and one of the things I love to do is go out and let the sky, the night sky, the galaxies, the Orion nebula, have an impact on my mind. I find that awe inspiring. And just to contemplate on what the astronomers have revealed to us about the immense size and so on of the universe. I find that very healthy. And it’s a good thing to do.

Chris Mulherin: Thankyou ….

COMMENT on this post

One Response to “An interview with John Lennox”

  1. Cathy Cameron says:

    Thinking of awe, I am reminded firstly of the first time I walked into the room in Yirrkala North East Arnhemland where the “Church Panels” are displayed. These are the panels created by the elders showing their creation story and were originally made to be displayed on either side of the altar in the newly built church. On walking into the room and seeing these, totally unexpectedly, I was quite overcome and dissolved into tears, feeling in the presence of something inexplicable and intensely sacred. How does science explain this? I have never before done this in front of a piece of art and have visited many of the worlds great galleries. Also I had no previous knowledge whatsoever of these panels.

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