If there might be other realities outside the purely physical world, then is a belief in God really so irrational?
Ard: So what is the value of a human being?
AR: If you’re using the word ‘value’ to mean some ultimate, intrinsic value, then the answer is there’s no such thing as ultimate, intrinsic value. And so either the question is ill-posed or the answer is none.
Ard: So I think where Alex and I agree, and we probably disagree with you, is that we both think that if the world is made of nothing but atoms and molecules, then such conclusions are inevitable. I, on the other hand, believe that there is a transcendent reality, a god, and that these kinds of values, like the intrinsic value of a human being, come from outside the natural world. But I believe that if you don’t believe that’s true, I think Alex’s logic is impeccable.
AR: Now, I think that if you use the standards of reasoning which you are accustomed to employing in the sciences, that you cannot come reasonably to the conclusions that you just identified. Unless you can provide a good reason why you should cease to employ the principles of logic and the standards of evidence and reasoning that you employ in doing empirical science, when you raise these questions about the nature of value, you’re engaging either in sophistry or self-delusion. And I don’t think that appealing, for example, to the existence of a supreme being, even if there were one, would help us in any way understand the nature of value. And that’s something that’s been recognised in philosophy since the earliest and simplest of Plato’s Dialogues, The Euthyphro, in which he specifically argued against this view.
David: Got a self-delusion, mate.
Ard: Self-delusion, yeah. So basically what you’re saying is, if I use my logic, I should let go of the idea of God. And even if I have a god, the idea that somehow that…
AR: It doesn’t help.
Ard: It doesn’t help me explain why human beings…
Ard: So even though I would believe that God created human beings, and therefore their value comes from that, you’re saying that doesn’t actually help?
AR: I don’t see how, even if that Sunday school were correct, it would help us ground moral value.
Ard: Okay, okay, I disagree.
David: I thought you might.
AR: So give us an argument.
Ard: The argument would be that the morals that we have, or the value that we have… I think the idea that we’re created by God gives us value. And that value is partially linked to the goals that God has for us, which are good goals. So all the moral things that we have are linked to…
AR: Wow! This is like… It’s… I don't know where to start to deal with true theism. You know, I can deal with deism because it’s not a serious competitor to the scientific world view, but theism is actually logically incompatible…
Ard: With science?
AR: With a lot of science.
David: And by theism you mean…?
AR: I mean that God… that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and benevolent agency who is responsible for our presence here in the universe.
Ard: So he says classic theism is incompatible with science.
David: Obviously it’s not, in some sense, because you’ve got both.
AR: No, you can keep both ideas in your head. But that’s because we all keep contradictory ideas in our heads, we’re not logically omniscient, and these two happen to be particularly obvious examples of incompatible ideas...
Ard: So do you think it’s dangerous?
AR: ...that many people keep in their heads. And how do they deal with it? Cognitive dissonance! Being a bit schizoid in their personality.
David: But maybe that’s a good thing then. I mean, maybe, if that’s what we do, and maybe that’s the way we’re evolved, then maybe it’s a very good thing that it’s like that.
AR: It might be adaptive, but that doesn’t make it true, any more than so many other beliefs that we have, that are adaptive, are not true.
David: Do you see yourself as a religious person, Greg?
GC: No, but I’ve been sort of driven to it by the mathematics I’ve been trying to do. I don’t see myself as a religious person, but I’m very interested in mysteries and deep questions. And I also have a very… I’m very responsive to a feeling of transcendence. I love going to the tops of mountains in the snow and seeing the view, feeling closer to God, or closer to the fundamental nature of reality. It’s an illusion, perhaps, but one gets to the top of a mountain in the winter with the snow, and you have this beautiful view…
David: Is it the feeling of the sublime? You know, people talk about there’s the beautiful, in the sense of pretty, and then there’s a beauty connected with some kind of a truth.
GC: Something so beautiful that it’s sublime…
David: Do you feel the same sense of transcendence when you see certain things in mathematics? Does that give you the same sense as being on top of a mountain?
GC: Absolutely, but if you’re reading a piece of work that was already done by someone else, it’s sort of like seeing a photograph of a mountain. That’s no fun. Or take going in a helicopter to the top of a mountain, which is unworthy. But if you struggle up the mountain yourself, then you see every inch of the mountain. You see all the views. You pay for it, and then at the top you’re worthy. And in the case of mathematics, if you’ve been struggling with questions that seem mysterious and incomprehensible, and all of a sudden you discover a viewpoint that makes it clear, that’s like an illumination all of a sudden.
I remember once I was going up a mountain. We made summit, and to make summit we had just broke through the cloud level. The summit was in – I wouldn’t say blinding sunlight, but beautiful sunlight. There was this white plain of the clouds, and sticking through it were these little toy mountains, because they were just the peaks, and that was just fantastic. It had only happened to me once in that extreme from, and that was just a wonderful moment.
That’s like the moment when I had struggled ten years with a bad mathematically formulated definition of randomness. The basic idea was right, but the way I dealt with it mathematically – the techniques – were wrong. It was very clumsy. And all of a sudden everything fell into place. It was as if I had been wearing glasses that distorted everything, and all of a sudden I put on a pair of glasses and everything’s sharp. It’s fantastic.
If you reduce everything to the shopping mall and what you see on television, then what’s the point of doing anything? So you have to see the Himalayan mountains out in the distance and think maybe Shiva is there. Or that there is a transcendent god who created everything and this is really a beautiful work of art that we have to understand.
David: You [to Ard] feel that very strongly, don’t you? That there should be a transcendent set of truths, or a god, out there and that somehow that is important?
Ard: That’s important. It’s inspiring.
David: As soon as you said that, I thought, that’s Ard.
GC: People need to be inspired. You have to get the energy to get creation from somewhere. You can have sexual energy; it can be from thinking about transcendental, spiritual things – whatever it is. It can be just because you’re crazy, I don't know. William Blake created this whole world in his poetry and his wife said his feet never touched the ground. He was always somewhere else. If all that exists is what you see in front of you, it’s too damn boring. The whole thing is pointless.
So I’m not sure that there’s a transcendent reality that is sublimely beautiful if we could know it, but I think it’s better to think that and look for it, than to give up and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a big, incomprehensible mess, and who cares?’
David: Let’s go shopping instead.
GC: Yeah, let’s be consumers, right, sure. You know, what is… What are we here for? Just to go to shopping malls and buy stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have?
David: Thank you.
Ard: That was great. Thank you. It was fantastic.
GC: It’s a pleasure.
David: Scientism, then… Taking your three: truth, good and beauty, it’s saying… it’s just basically… truth is just saying, ‘Look, the other two… Don’t listen to the other two, they don’t even exist’. And then, it’s even taking truth and saying… and reducing what we mean by truth down to just stuff that we can measure with a ruler.
JC: Okay, yes, to the quantifiable.
Ard: You’re contrasting that a little bit with truths that you have to be open to, where a spectator view doesn’t work. And you’re saying things like beauty and moral truths fall into that category. So to understand them better, more clearly, you need a certain openness or receptivity. There would be a positive spiral where you understand it better and therefore more is revealed. Do you think that is also true of religious knowledge: that there’s an aspect to that which is only accessible to you from a non-spectator point of view?
JC: In the religious case it’s clear that a lot of religions set great store by spiritual praxis.
JC: Praxis, that’s to say practices, like singing psalms, meditation, prayer. You don’t necessarily have to believe in God to believe in the value of praxis. I mean, a lot of Buddhists are atheists, but they set great store by meditation, by the right kind of practice. And the purpose of these practices, spiritual practices, is to change the person. It’s not to change the reality: it’s to change the person. But it doesn’t mean it’s subjective. The change is in order that that person becomes more receptive to realities that were there all along – it’s just that they didn’t see them.
I think that’s the meaning of the famous saying in the gospels: ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear, or eyes to see, let him see.’ There are truths that are not just there waiting on the table.|
Ard: You need to do work to get access to them.
Ard: It would be strange if everything in the world was accessible to you only by scientific method, which, for it, you need to be relatively wealthy and born in the right place to have access to. But it would be strange if some of the deepest realities, like spiritual realities, were not accessible by a set of other things.
David: It’s funny, though, you turned it so that here’s, sort of, the stuff that science can reveal, but there’s a deeper reality, you’re saying – these deeper realities that are there, one of them being spiritual, for instance. But isn’t it the classic way that science always depicts it? There’s all this stuff that you might believe about beauty and morality and goodness, it’s all on the surface and you blunder around on the surface, but as scientists, we peel that back and we look down, and underneath there are rules. And you know what? The rules don’t mean anything.
So you’ve taken that scientific principle and turned it upside down and said, ‘Actually, the deep stuff is…’ So, you’re fighting over what’s deep and what’s not!
Ard: But I think if you are a religious scientist, like I am – a Christian who’s a scientist – you don’t think about science as this little thing over here and your religion as a little thing over there. You think of your religious way of looking at the world of being the totality which, within it, has science as part of that totality. So I think that my Christian faith helps me explain why science works.
Ard: Yeah, I think it helps me. I think if I start from the idea that there is a god, it’s much more natural to find something like the intelligibility of the world and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics as not so surprising.
Ard: And so I can explain that within this bigger picture, of which science is part of the picture, but it’s not outside the picture. It’s not like God is here and science is there – it’s that my idea about God and the world is much bigger than the science. But it doesn’t make the science not very powerful or very beautiful: it just makes me realise that box is not the whole story.
JC: So, it’s not a competition for which is more real. The issue is whether reality’s more extensive, more…
Ard: I think what I’m saying is that what is real or true maybe bigger than what the methods of science can reveal to me, no matter how powerful those methods are. And I think it’s actually incoherent to think that the methods of science are the only way of obtaining truth. Mathematics is effectively something outside of science. We use it to do science, but it isn’t itself science, but it’s manifestly true.
David: And it’s in the universe.
Ard: And it’s in the universe, yeah, I don’t want to use a location analogy, but it exists.
David: Can I just ask… I want to make sure I haven’t understood. I get the sense being religious for you is not a matter of a belief about God, but more about a belief in the nature of the world.
JC: Well, again, I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about what religious people believe. Thomas Aquinas, who’s one of the most definitive theologians, actually didn’t claim to know a great deal about God. He thought there was an ultimate goal and purpose, ultimate principle, which, he says, ‘All men call God’. So, it’s almost as if it’s an unknown X to which people apply the label, God. But which, through scientific or philosophical reasoning, not a very great deal can be said.
So we were talking earlier about practice: spiritual praxis or practice, and about change – the need for change in order to open oneself so that one is receptive to richer forms of reality. So I see being religious more in those terms, of the adoption of forms of practice which will open oneself to goodness and to beauty, and change one’s life to orient it progressively towards those things, rather than necessarily signing on the dotted line of any particular sect or group of believers.
Having said that, I think we need a vehicle for our spirituality, just as if you’re going from A to B, you need to choose some car or some vehicle. So, it’s no surprise that people invariably do choose a certain religious vehicle in order to pursue this quest. You’re looking sceptical.
David: No, no, that’s my thoughtful look.
JC: So the motivations for being religious, I think, are the sense of transcendence: the sense that there are these transfiguring experiences of love, of beauty, of truth, and that our lives ought to be more richly informed by those. To think that there is some ultimate reality in the cosmos which supports the beauties we find in the world — that things aren’t just there. They’re not just meaningless, ‘brute’ contingent collections of configurations of things they have a rhythm, a harmony, a meaning, a beauty, which is not of our making and which we are made to respond to.
And goodness, again, rightness, justice: these are not just arbitrary creations of our own, values we’ve come up with, or just matters of our personal taste or preference, but they are somehow rooted, grounded in the way things are.
So there’s a kind of coherence, I think, in the religious view of reality. It sees rationality, meaning, value, purpose in things at some deep level. It’s not very theoretical. It corresponds to a way in which all of us, perhaps in principle, are capable of feeling: that we respond to a world which isn’t meaningless, which isn’t just what we put into it plus some janglings of particles or some explosions of atoms or whatever. It’s a world which is already imbued with meaning and value.
Ard: Did you ever see chimpanzees doing some kind of, maybe, religious-type behaviour or dances or…?
JG: Let’s say pre-religious.
Ard: Pre-religious, okay.
JG: We have this amazing waterfall at Gombe, and sometimes when, usually the males… You can hear it roaring. It falls down 80 feet and through hundreds and hundreds of years it’s worn itself a groove in the solid rock. So when you go near, there’s always breeze as the air is displaced by the falling water, and there’s a thundering noise as this rather narrow stream lands in the rocks below. And the chimpanzees sometimes do these amazing 20-minute displays. I call it a waterfall dance.
JG: More scientific to call it a display, but they are upright and they are swaying from foot to foot. They pick up big rocks in the stream and hurl them, and sometimes they… They used to climb up the vines growing down and push off into the spray.
The vines aren’t there anymore. Anyway, the time I remember vividly was when I actually was able to see the eyes of this male, and he’d finished his display, his dance, and he was sitting on a rock and I was watching his eyes, and he was watching the water falling, and he was watching the water flowing away, and I thought to myself, this pinpoints the biggest difference them and us: that we, ‘What is this? What is this stuff that’s always coming and always going and it’s always here?’ Might that not lead to some primitive, early religion, worship of the elements? You know, early man’s curiosity as to what these things are and what they meant. But we can discuss it, therefore we could turn it into that early primitive religion. The chimpanzee has the same, perhaps, feelings, although we don’t know.
David: Not quite able?
JG: But that he can’t discuss.
Ard: That’s fascinating.
JG: So although their brain, cognitively, is capable of learning: they can learn sign language – they can learn up to 600 signs or more; they can use a computer; they can paint; they can tell you what they’ve painted; they have a sense of humour – but, as far as we know, they can’t discuss something.
David: It’s almost as if they’re on the cusp of that. They might have intimations of something, but it’s just out of reach for them.
JG: Yes. And these guys, like Bertje, they become different, because they’re with us. Because they’re in a different type of society where we do use language all the time, and they can understand what we’re saying.
Ard: Some scientists say that one day we’ll explain everything in terms of, kind of, mechanical properties of the atoms and molecules in your head, and that seems to take away any sense of purpose or spirituality or the soul. What’s your response to that kind of approach?
JG: I sincerely hope it’s not true, because, for me, it’s the unknown out there. It’s the fact that we’re always being surprised; that we’ll never know it all. I don’t believe it’s possible for us ever to mechanise the whole of the life force, and that’s just my belief. I feel a very strong sense of spirituality out in the forest where everything is interconnected. It’s as though there’s this life force that is so powerful, and there’s little specks of this life force in everything and in us, we call it a soul.
JG: At least, unless we believe that we only have a mechanised body. I don’t believe it. I certainly don’t want to believe it.
Ard: Do you believe in God?
JG: I believe in a great spiritual power. What it is, I don't know. We call it God, other people call it Brahman or Allah or Jehovah, whatever it is. But it’s so universal: it’s just everywhere, every people. And, of course, it’s especially strong in people living closest to the land, like the Pygmies and the Native Americans and the Australian Aboriginals. They have this sense of connectedness.
Ard: Do you think we’ve lost that sense?
JG: I think it’s still there, but we’re rapidly making it very difficult, in the Western world, for our children to ever feel it. We’re denying them the opportunity to grow up in nature like you did, like I did. I don't know, did you also?
David: No, no, I didn’t.
Ard: Maybe this explains why you don’t believe in God and I do.
David: Because I didn’t spend enough time in nature.
Ard: Maybe, yeah.
JG: See, I don't know if I call it God, but that’s the name we have. But there’s certainly something. There’s something out there. There’s something, even a guiding force. I mean, I used to spend hours as a child, I think many children do, thinking what was before space? What was before time? How could there be no time? How could there be no space?’ There couldn’t.
David: Does there have to be a God for you to justify the spiritual feeling or those feelings that there’s something outside of us? Because I think I share some of those feelings, but for me, I don’t feel that there’s a God. So, for me, they’re not… One doesn’t need the other.
Ard: They’re just feelings?
David: Well, it’s trite to say it, but I’ve always felt that the spiritual was far too important to leave to God.
JG: I think you have a different concept of this spiritual power from mine.
David: Very probably. But for you two, does it depend on there being a God or not?
JG: Well, as I say, I don’t think of it as a God. It’s just the spiritual power – and I don't know what it is – but embedded in nature.
Ard: I think it has to be something that is somehow different from nature, and that’s what these things are pointing to – something transcendent. Just like when you ask yourself, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ You’re asking yourself, ‘What was it that made time and space in the first place?’ And there has to be something outside of time and space.
David: Are you saying something supernatural, though?
Ard: Yeah, if you want to use that word.
Ard: Something supernatural. I think that’s…
David: That’s weird for a scientist, a physicist as well.
Ard: For a physicist, a theoretical physicist to say? No, I don’t think it’s weird at all. I think the great power of science is its ability to ask very specific questions about constrained things. But the minute you think about it for a little while, there are many really important questions that science can’t answer and no conceivable advance of science could answer. Like, what’s the value of a human being? And if you think that science answers all questions, then you’ve evacuated hugely important parts of life.
JG: I agree completely. You know, science should be a tool, and for many, it’s become a god.
Ard: Exactly, that’s right.
Ard: Here’s an interesting question: do you think that some of the resistance you’ve faced from the reductionists has been that kind of fear of religion? That they’re worried you are going to sneak God back in?
DN: Yes, and not only that. I found in a Novartis Foundation symposium – organised by one of the great reductionists at UCL in about 1997, Lewis Wolpert – I was one of the few to argue against the reductionist case, and I expected two others to help me. One did, another didn’t, and he came up to me in the coffee break and said, ‘Denis, I would support you if I didn’t think that that brings God back in.’
David: That’s so weird.
DN: And I looked at him and I could not begin to understand what he was saying. Though I do, now, understand the fear. Of course, in the neo-Darwinist context it’s the fear of all those creationists. Somehow or other, if you let this structure collapse, and I think it is collapsing, incidentally: it’s a house of cards built on some very bad concepts and some very poor science: poor because of the insistence that it is the only truth. If you let that crumble, what then happens? The creationists will have a field day saying you are all wrong.
David: Do you think that is a major objection to accepting a challenge to reductionism and talking about emergence?
DN: I believe that’s part of the problem. It is as though you have to be reductionist in order to counter those ideas.
David: Where do I fit in then? Because I don’t believe in God, and I’m not a reductionist either.
DN: Well, of course, there are many who do believe in God who don’t think that it’s necessary to be a creationist, who don’t think it’s necessary to suppose that some very strange events have happened. When the Archbishop of Canterbury debates with Richard Dawkins, they don’t disagree about that kind of question at all.
Ard: The metaphysics?
DN: It’s the metaphysics, and, of course, there will be many metaphysics depending on what people’s views and feelings are about the deepest questions of the nature of life. So I think we should be a bit more tolerant of each other. There are many different views.
To, as it were, stop the process or interfere with the natural development of science on the grounds that this will lead to particular religious beliefs, is, I think, just a misunderstanding of what the process of science is about.
David: Isn’t it also just the inverse of what the Church did at the time? ‘You can’t believe in science because it will lead to not believing in God.’
DN: But even there you’ve got to be careful.
David: Now science is doing the same thing but the other way around.
DN: I think you have to be careful even there. There were some very major theologians who would agree with what many atheists say. Now, there’s a problem: atheism or anti-theism? They are not the same. And I think part of the problem is that people have been throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They have been throwing out concepts like spirituality, which I think is a form of creative novelty of the ability to give meaning to things. That is spirituality: to be able to give meaning to things. And they have been throwing that out as though it has been necessary to throw that out in order to resolve an issue which I don’t think science can resolve anyway. At least that’s my belief. If it can, I’ll be amazed.
Ard: I think it’s much better for science if it could disconnect itself…
DN: From those kind of metaphysical questions…
Ard: Because it does make people afraid, and they start battening down the hatches. Thomas Nagel talks about the fear of religion in his critiques of reductionism, and I think science can’t answer those kind of questions, and the minute you realise that, then it actually frees science rather than restricts it.
David: I agree with you that it is better for science, but it’s also better for us. I like your point which is there’s this big thing, ‘We’ve got to get rid of God’, they say, and they throw out spirituality with it.
DN: Yes, exactly so.
David: I don’t believe in God, but I do think the spiritual is a part of us. I think it’s a part of being a human animal. I just don’t think it’s got anything to do with God.
DN: Absolutely. That is why I like the quotation from Waddington in 1957 in The Strategy of the Genes where he points out that it – and he means Neo-Darwinism – has been damaging to man’s spirituality. Now that’s a very, very strong statement, but remember he was not religious.
David: You as a biologist… You would expect a biologist to bridle at that, but you don’t.
DN: Well, I don’t because I think it’s obvious that there is a spirituality to man. I know the word spirituality produces all kinds of notions of there being strange stuff out here. But you don’t have to suppose that at all. If you are dealing with the relationships and the processes, that’s spiritual only in the sense it’s not material, but that’s what spiritual means. If you go back to it, it comes from spiritus, which is breath and all the rest of it. It’s a natural process. You don’t even have to worry about whether the word has got some strange connotations that you’re not happy with. Just bring it back and let it be a natural word in science. So I am with Waddington on that.
Ard: Now, one of the things in this film is I believe in God – I’m a scientist – but David is an atheist. So, do you think David is irrational?
MN: I think it is a more rational position to actually believe in God than not to believe in God. I find not believing in God slightly irrational.
MN: Because it’s a very… it is a very intolerant position, because in some sense you would have to say I know that in all reality there is no God. How can you possibly know that? I find that very difficult.
David: Hmm, no, I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I would just say, I don’t believe in Him because He hasn’t spoken to me. I feel no reason, no need to. I don’t say I know He doesn’t exist, because I don’t.
MN: Yeah, then you’re not really an atheist.
David: Okay, well, what am I then?
MN: An athe… hmm, something like on the edge of agnostic. You know, something on… I also believe that agnostic is, sort of, you’re either on one side or the other side, but a real atheist sort of knows that God doesn’t exist.
David: No, I don’t know that. How could I?
Ard: But there are people who say, in fact scientists who say, that if you are a scientist, you have to be an atheist.
MN: Yeah, I don’t think that that is not at all necessary. So I think the…
Ard: Do you think it’s a rational thing to say?
MN: No, it’s totally irrational to actually say this. So science is not making an argument for atheism at all, you know. In my opinion that would be a misinterpretation of science. Science is neutral with respect to theism or atheism, and it is only the interpretation of science. Scientific atheism is, for me, a kind of religion. It’s a metaphysical choice that has actually nothing to do with science.
Ard: But do you think, the average person in the public, in the street… what do they think? How do they think about science and…?
MN: I think it is unfortunately presented to the public, also in the US, as if you have to make a choice. But there is no need for such a choice. Well-formulated theology is fully compatible with any scientific investigation and no scientific result that has ever been produced, that could ever be produced, would actually be at variance with well-formulated theology.
Ard: And so if you… but a lot of people think these things are in competition with each other. Do you think that’s a dangerous thing or…?
MN: I think it is sad, because it is both… Religion, if used properly, is for me very similar to philosophy: philosophy is something very beautiful. There is no need to make a choice between philosophy and science. There is no need to make a choice between religion and science, if that religion is properly formulated, if that science is properly formulated.
Ard: But you think it’s actually more rational to believe there is a god than there isn’t?
MN: You have to say, for me, the reason to believe in God is really very philosophical and also mathematical, if you like. So you have to ask yourself the primary question for Christians: why is there something? Why is there something? So I was sitting in the pub with my good Hungarian friend Dieper Antell [?] and then he looks up at me, and he says, ‘It is very strange that there is something.’ He’s a physicist. ‘It would be more normal if there was nothing.’
Ard: No, I agree.
MN: And I like that. It’s a beautiful statement coming from a physicist. So I said to him, ’So do you believe in God?’ And he said, ‘Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not.’ He’s like too pessimistic. But it was… This is a very interesting way to put it: why is there something? And so, then, I believe in a universe that makes sense. I find this idea of logos very attractive, you know, going back to Plato. Things make sense out there. There’s the wisdom to study that which makes sense. There’s the language to talk about it. Where does this sense come from, you know?
David: But, see, I would agree with that. I wouldn’t say that if you don’t believe in God then you also say, then things don’t make sense. I think the universe makes sense. My particular small world makes sense, and when I look at the universe, I say this is a universe full of meaning. And my interest is, is the universe a meaningful place – a place that makes sense?
David: And then the difference is, I don’t feel the personal need to say, well that must be underwritten by God, and I think Ard does.
Ard: But that’s because I think we both agree on what the universe is like, but then I would ask you, but why is the universe that way?
BO: Ard, you're a scientist that has a feeling for the numinous, for some idea of God, how is this reconciled?
Ard: I think that believing in God is both… it's intellectually satisfying, so I think there intellectual reasons why we ought to believe in God. It's also existentially satisfying. It touches something deep inside of me.
BO: Tell me about the intellectual satisfaction.
Ard: So I think, for example, there are questions like, why is there something rather than nothing? Which I think is a very profound question.
BO: It is. I've always felt that to be one of the greatest questions. How can something come out of nothing?
Ard: And the classic answer to that is our physical world, the world that we see, must have come from something outside of the physical world: something beyond itself; something which is totally other. So that’s one thing it's very hard to imagine: how you would have a kind of materialist account of that, because you need the material to account for it, and so where did the material come from?
BO: Yes, you have an infinite regress. It's the most terrifying infinite regress. I'm surprised scientists don't have a nervous breakdown.
Ard: Well, interestingly, there are a lot of scientists who are believers in my department in Oxford. Physics is probably the department that has the most Christians in it who are serious about their faith. And I think physics and being religious are somewhat connected. Even my atheist colleagues, I think, have a religious sense. They're looking for something beyond themselves. Maybe you were that way when you were a fourteen-year-old when you wanted to study physics because you were interested in the big questions?
BO: Yeah, it's a wonder. I think there's been too much of a misunderstanding about how the religious sense is conveyed. I don't think it has to follow a creed or a belief in a trinity or anything specific like that. It could actually be just this sense of wonder, the sense of the inexplicability of the vastness of it all. Just that sense, I think, already is a religious sense, already is a spiritual sense, because it's a sense of something that we cannot entirely account for. I think, for me, that's where it starts: that we cannot totally account for how all of this came from none of this.
Can I ask you now David, what is the absolute rock-bottom of your atheism?
David: Simply because the idea of God, it's never taken root in me.
BO: But how do you define God?
David: The supernatural. I find myself in the weird position… Ard berates me for this all the time, that....
BO: But why does he have to be supernatural?
David: Well I don't know, but....
BO: I mean, why does the idea of God have to be supernatural?
David: I suppose because all the people I've talked to about God have painted God as a supernatural thing: something that stands outside of the material world and outside of its rules. There's the stuff, and then there's the supernatural one. It's just never worked for me.
But when you speak about that that spiritual feeling, or a religious feeling, I think those things are not only true, but very important to the kind of creatures we are. And so what I would like is a science which gets past trying to trying to explain them away, and instead says these are real parts of being human. And that sense of yearning, which John Cottingham talked about, this is real. Let's not try and say, ‘Oh, it's a misfiring of your neurons. Oh it's something that natural selection tricked.’ Or that language which claims to explain, but actually just demeans and sort of poo-poos it… I hate that.
BO: It is an avoidance.
David: I would say all these things are definitely true: they're part of being human. And I also think that notion that people have, which Ard and other people we've talked to have, that you come across an idea and you realise that a) it was there before you got there, and b), it’s immense.
Greg Chaitin talked about it being like climbing to the top of a mountain – that's your idea – but from there you see a mountain range which you suddenly realised is there. And these ideas were there before you. They're all true. There are truths out there, you just haven't got to them. And somehow they're older than you, and some of them are wiser than you. And I think all of that is true, and that's why I get on with Ard, I think. But it's just the supernatural business, that's the only thing.
BO: Let me let me address the supernatural. I think one impulse religion has come from almost the same place that science comes from. It's just that we have lost the truth behind the symbol. Let me explain what I'm trying to say. We have this sense, at some point our very distant ancestors looked up into the sky at the moon and the sun and at the great passing of time and at the stars, and had this sense of something vast beyond them, includes them, inexplicable to them. And being human, and being human to the degree that we cannot be totally comfortable with that which we cannot grasp, we proceeded to try and give it a form. We gave a symbol to each aspect of reality that we divined, that we perceived.
That's where the idea of the gods came from. That's where the idea of a god with a beard came from. It's just that the form took over. We then taught these forms. We told stories about these forms, and then people now think the form is the thing.
A lot of atheists I speak to say, ‘Oh, I don't believe in a god up there with a beard.’ That was just a symbol expressing something that if it did not have a form, we would not know how to pass it on. So it actually comes from the same materialistic belief that only by embodying something can we begin to experience it, or actually have an idea of it. Remove the anthropomorphic and all we can talk about is wonder.
David: You wrote about your worries concerning people who are very, very certain. I wonder if you can tell us about that because it's something I share?
FdW: Yeah, in my book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, I talk about dogmatism, and so I felt that the neo-atheists were dogmatic. Now I'm saying that being from a country – I'm from the Netherlands – where more than 50% of the people are atheist, or say they are atheist. And so if you say you are atheist, it's no big deal. No one blinks an eye if you say that. And so I grew up in an environment where whether you're religious or not religious really doesn't matter that much. It's completely up to you.
Then I come here in the US, and all of a sudden I'm surrounded by fanatical atheists who are certain that either God doesn't exist, or God doesn't matter, or we don't need religion, or religion is entirely bad and responsible for everything that's bad in the world. And I can't get used to that kind of atheism, and so I wonder where does their certainty come from that religion is so bad?
For me the question, as a biologist, is if all humans in the world have religions – which is true, there are no exceptions – if all of them believe in the supernatural or have some sort of grand-scale ritual religion, there must be a reason for that. It must be doing something for the human species, and I don't know what that is exactly. I don't think it is the source of human morality. I think religion may play a role and add to it, and that's all possible, but I don't think religion invented morality, so to speak.
But I'm more puzzled by religion, like why do we have it and what is it good for? Because it must be good for something than that I'm so certain that God doesn't exit. Now I'm personally not religious: I don't find the question of God's existence particularly interesting because it's an unanswerable question. But I do think that religion is an interesting phenomenon, and I meet so many religious people who are not dogmatic about it. They believe this, but they don't believe that, and they have a disagreement with other people in their own religion about this or that. And so a lot of people are not fundamentalist Protestant or fundamentalist Catholic or Islam, necessarily. There are a lot of moderates in the world, and that's actually the more typical religious person that I meet. And for the atheist also, I would prefer them to be a little bit less dogmatic and be more open too.
David: Well we've encountered people who have said you cannot be a scientist and believe in science but also be religious and believe in God and...
FdW: Why would that be?
David: I don't know.
Ard: Well, I don't know.
David: But they're very certain about it.
FdW: It's true if you use God to explain certain phenomena, then you're in trouble as a scientist. Let's say I see my chimpanzees do something, and I said, ‘Well, I really don't know what, it must be God who's doing it.’ And then people would, of course, say, ‘Well you're giving up on the problem,’ which is true. I'm giving up on the problem, and that's something as a scientist we should never do: we should never give up on a problem. And so if we want to explain certain things, we don't want to involve God as an explanation.
But I think religion is much broader than just an explanatory system. That's part of what religion does for some people who read the Bible literally and take that as the explanation of the world. But a lot of people don't look at religion, necessarily, that way as an explanation of phenomena. They look at religion more as a guideline: how should I lead my life? Now, science has nothing to tell you about that. Science doesn't give you much guidance in your life. What is a good life? What is a bad life? How should I live my life? That's not an answer that you will get from science.