Mathematics And The Intelligibility Of The Universe:
An Interview with John Lennox, Part One

Regent Interface has recently interviewed Professor John Lennox, a Mathematician at Oxford University (emeritus) and an internationally renowned speaker and author on science and religion. The first part of the interview focuses on Prof. Lennox’s work as a Mathematician and on his approach to the science-and-religion debate.

The interview was conducted by David Raimundo, the Regent Interface project assistant and a current student in Regent College’s Master of Arts in Theological Studies. David holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Lisbon and his theological interests includeepistemology and the interplay of science and theology.

David Raimundo: We have in common a background in the field of Mathematics and this interview provides a unique opportunity to satisfy my curiosity concerning your work as a Mathematician and its relation to your faith.

You mention often in your books that you were raised in a Christian home and that your parents were pivotal in instilling in you an inquiring mindset. What led you to become a Mathematician in the first place and how did your Christian upbringing inform your academic path?

John Lennox: At school I loved arithmetic and I was pretty good at it. As I went on in school, I developed an interest in languages as well as Mathematics. I loved Latin and French, and eventually German, and I initially wanted to be a classicist and do Latin and Greek. But then I became a radio amateur and I got interested in Electrical Engineering and Physics, so I wanted to do Electrical Engineering at University. Eventually, in my final year of school, my Headmaster said “Look, would you like to try and get into Cambridge? We think you might, but only if you do Mathematics because we can’t teach any other subject to a high enough level.” So I followed that advice and that’s how I became a Mathematician, but I have always retained the interest in languages.

At home, my parents were very unusual people as I discovered later on; they were very committed Christians but they were not sectarian. I come from Northern Ireland, a country which is, sadly, rather famous for sectarian violence. I saw that violence in my hometown. For instance, my father ran a small-time store with a maximum of 30 employees. He employed people from both sides of the religious community, both Protestant and Catholic, and the store was bombed for it. My brother was nearly killed by a bomb. I once asked my father why he did this and he said: “Look, in Scripture we read that all men and women, irrespective of whether they believe in God or not, are made in the image of God and are therefore of infinite value and I am going to treat them like that.” That value of human beings, that respect for others who might not share my worldview, that was very important to me.

Additionally, my parents loved me a great deal and they didn’t shove Christianity down my throat. They loved me enough to give me space and they encouraged me to think by myself. My father, though he had no advanced education, was a thinking man. He read a great deal and he encouraged me to read a great deal—not just Christian things, but other worldviews as well—so I grew up with a very deeply inquiring mind even as a boy, an inquiring mind stimulated by my parents. I got nothing but encouragement from them and they didn’t try to direct my area of study. Therefore, I grew up believing (correctly!) that Christianity was mind expanding, not mind contracting. The idea that a Christian would be narrow-minded would never have occurred to me. This background was extremely important. Then I left school at 18, I went to Cambridge and I never went back to live in Northern Ireland.

That “deeply inquiring mind” that was nurtured by your parents led you to study advanced Mathematics. I would like to ask you a few questions about  Mathematics, beginning with its role in the science-and-faith debate. But I know that you have an a priori remark to make concerning the expression “science-and-faith debate”…

Yes, in order to explain the importance of Mathematics in that regard, I really need to say something about the formulation of the question, because the expression “science and faith” comes up. Unfortunately, in English and in many other languages faith has two primary meanings: first, it has to do with religion (for example of the Christian faith or the Jewish faith); secondly, it is used to speak of one’s personal faith, one’s belief. Both of these meanings seem to appear in the expression “science and faith” and they are very easily confused.

Let me put it this way: too many atheists think that faith is a religious word that means believing when there is no evidence. But this is not true at all! If it stands for the Jewish or Christian religion, faith is an objective collection of things to be believed and evidence can be sought for such belief. If, on the other hand, we are talking about personal, subjective faith in something, then such faith is part of every aspect of life, not only religion, but everything else including science. No less a person than Einstein pointed out that you cannot do science with having faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe.

That is a fair point, a point that you have also stressed in your 2019 book Does Science Explain Everything? where you state that science without some sort of belief is actually a myth. I shall refer to the “science-and-religion” debate from now on. Now, what I intended to ask you in this instance is how do you see the role of Mathematics in this debate, since apologetics often seems to be more concerned with issues pertaining to Cosmology, Biology, Genetics, etc. On the surface of it, Mathematics seems to play a secondary role.

Well, the rational intelligibility of the universe entails, for most of the sciences, the mathematical intelligibility of the universe. Therefore I think that Mathematics is absolutely primary. In order to do any science at all, I must start by believing—every scientist must!— by exercising faith, that I can get a mathematical representation of what’s going on at least in part of the universe out there. It seems to me that this is a very powerful argument for the existence of an intelligent mind, the mind of God behind the universe. Because how are we going to justify that basic faith that all scientists must have before they start? My professor of Quantum Mechanics in Cambridge was John Polkinghorne, who constantly pointed out that Physics cannot explain the mathematical intelligibility of the universe because you have to believe that intelligibility before you start doing any Physics.

Now, why should I believe, as a scientist, that the universe is mathematically intelligible? Well, if I take an atheistic view, it gives me no grounds for believing it. C. S. Lewis made the point a long time ago that any theory that undermines or invalidates thought cannot be true because you have to use thinking to get to it. The point is: if we think with our minds or our brains (I believe the two are not quite the same) then how are we going to account for our trust in our minds and brains with which we do the thinking?

I’ve asked many scientists this question, I say “Look, give me a brief history of your brain,” and they usually say something like: “Well, my brain is the end product of a mindless, unguided process.” I look at them, I smile and I say: “And do you trust it? How can you possibly trust it? If you knew that your computer was the end product of a mindless unguided process, would you trust it?” I always push for an answer and I’ve always gotten the same answer, “No.” And then I say “You have a huge problem, you are trusting your brain or mind to do science, but the argument that you have given me as to the origin of the brain itself undermines rationality.”

This reasoning has been developed brilliantly by Alvin Plantinga, one of the world’s top philosophers who happens to be a Christian, but also by Thomas Nagel, who is an atheist philosopher. Nagel has seen the problem that if you pursue this naturalistic, evolutionary view of the origin of the brain as a result of an unguided natural process, then you undermine all rationality. He has seen the problem and he has no answer to it. By contrast, it seems to me that the Christian worldview gives a perfectly sensible understanding of why we can trust our minds to a certain extent to do science and this goes back to one of the most important things I believe that we have to tell people: if you look at the rise of modern science, to its main proponents—Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Clerk Maxwell, Faraday, and so on—they were all believers in God. I think that C. S. Lewis was right when he said that people became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a legislator. You see, the God hypothesis gives a rationale behind science whereas atheism does not. So let me conclude by putting it this way: one of the most powerful reasons I have for believing in God is not because I am a Christian, but because I am a scientist. I cannot accept a theory that undermines the very rationality that I trust to do science, so I think, therefore, that Mathematics must come very high up on the list.

Moreover, Mathematics is a language and it is a language through which we understand the universe. In other words, it is a word-based universe and that is a hugely important idea because we have discovered in other fields, particularly biology, with the deciphering of the DNA, that biology is also word-based. And of course this all resonates with that brilliant statement of the beginning of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the word, … all things came to be through him.” So I do not regard Mathematics as the least or secondary to this whole question. I think it is primary, it is very important.

My final question about Mathematics has to do with your area of specialization, an area called Group Theory. How would you informally describe this area to someone possessing only an elementary knowledge of Mathematics? This is a challenging question but it is the kind of question that Mathematicians are often asked by someone from outside the field over a cup of coffee or on a plane trip.

The truth is that it is like trying to explain Mandarin to someone who only speaks Portuguese. That’s just the inherent difficulty of this question, because pure Mathematics is a language in itself as I was saying before. But informally speaking, one can say that a group is a system consisting of a set of elements (for example, the set of integers, with the positive integers, the negative integers and zero) and a binary operation that can be applied to two elements satisfying certain axioms, certain basic rules. For example, if you combine two elements with a binary operation, then you must get another element still belonging to the same set (in the set of integers we can think of addition as a binary operation: if you add two integers, you still get an integer). Secondly, the operation must obey the associative law and the group must contain an identity element, which combined with any other element leaves the latter unchanged (in our example, the identity element is 0, since n+0 is equal to n for any integer n). Also each element in a group has an inverse which combines with the element to produce the identity (in the integers, -n adds to n to produce 0). So with the binary operation of addition, the positive and negative integers and zero form a simple example of this mathematical structure that is called a group.

Groups are absolutely vital to modern Algebra and they can be found in the study of symmetry in Geometry where they are used to represent certain types of transformations. This becomes very interesting, in part, because for many binary operations a×b is not the same as b×a (i.e. the operation is not commutative). There are all kinds of applications in Crystallography, in Elementary Particle Physics, etc. Also, the different transformations and configurations of the Rubik’s Cube form a permutation group generated by the different horizontal and vertical rotations of the puzzle. Rubik’s Cube can be represented using Group Theory and it’s amazing the number of theoretically possible configurations, something like 519×1018, that is 519 quintillion configurations, though not all of them are realized.

I am certainly biased, but that is a fascinating area that encompasses very simple and common arithmetic operations (such as the addition of integers) but also possesses extremely complex ramifications of which you have provided a glimpse!

To wrap-up the first part of this interview we return to the science-and-religion debate. You have debated about science and religion with atheist thinkers such as Professors Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer, arguing against the so-called conflict model and claiming that common slogans such as “religious faith is blind” or that “science explains everything” are secular myths. You have modelled a way of debating these issues that combines a public and confident affirmation of the Christian faith with a readiness to affirm the viewpoint of your interlocutor whenever agreement is possible. I appreciate this combination as it creates conditions for meaningful dialogue. But there appears to be an increasing polarisation spreading across the public arena, including in academia itself, and I wonder if this polarisation has hindered the science-and-religion conversation. Is this the case or is the conversation still very much alive in a constructive way?

My experience, of course, is limited but what I have noticed is that the idea of a debate in the narrow sense, like the debates I had with Dawkins and Singer, is not appealing to people anymore in the Western context. Not even the atheists like them nowadays. The reasons for that are very simple: they take an enormous amount of preparation and, secondly, there is a risk, a serious risk, of people simply trying to score points by emotional arguments rather than by reason. That format of initial presentation, rebuttal, and final remarks does not seem to work anymore and, in my case, it took months of preparation for those early debates.

What I think is much more productive is a very well moderated discussion, where you have a moderator who knows how to moderate and does not try to participate. A moderator who talks to each participant and then get them talking together, moving it along with very well-chosen questions. This is something that can help the public. Because what I believe we need in the public arena is informing people, letting them hear both sides, believing that they can make up their own minds, rather than trying to turn the debate into an emotional battle.

There is yet another difference since I did those debates 12 to 15 years ago. Academia in many parts of the world is now facing the challenge of political correctness which, in my view, makes many academics afraid of being involved in any kind of public discourse. But the kind of discussions that I suggest are still occurring even if in alternative, informal settings. In my case, and particularly during the lockdown, I have tried to explore the tremendous potential of Zoom and other virtual means—podcasts, videos, streaming—and I think this is one of the ways to move the discussion forward. Getting to the core of your question, my impression is that the interest of the public in the science-and-religion debate has actually increased and the conversation is very much alive.

As a contribution to the science-and-religion discussion, Prof. Lennox has recently made a 2-part documentary called Against the Tide. The film deals with questions about God and science as well as with Biblical history.

In the second part of this interview, Prof. Lennox speaks about his recent work on Artificial Intelligence and on how church leaders and church congregations might carry on meaningful conversations about science. 

John Lennox
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