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John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything?, 2019

There are two kinds of books. Books that do not invite any intellectual participation, and books that are thoughts provoking. John Lennox’s Can Science Explain Everything? certainly belongs to the latter group. This Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford is a prominent figure in the theism/atheism debate. Can Science Explain Everything? presents some of his arguments in defense of the theistic position. The language is very clear, and the book has a well-organized structure; this makes it perfectly accessible to the large public.

As I said, this book inspired me to reflect upon some of its points. I start with the title, which is a rhetorical question; the answer that it presupposes is “No: science does not explain everything”. What this answer implies in its turn is the following thought: “Religion makes sense precisely in explaining what science cannot explain”. This is the centre of Lennox’s book: clarifying that religion and science are not competitors; they can and should not only coexist, but even work together, as different modalities of investigation, equally rational operations of the human mind. To consider religion irrational – as scientism is keen to do – is tantamount to neglecting the rationality that characterizes religion, and that science cannot address. This rationality concerns the “why” question, the question about the reason why something is as it is. This question cannot be addressed by science, which can and does provide an answer only about “what” and the “how” something exists. In Lennox’s example: science can explain what constitutes a cake, but it says nothing about why this cake was made (pp. 27-28; 35-36). This “why” question deals with a human being, with the meaning of things and the relationship between the meaning of things and the meaning of human life (pp. 104-105). That is, religious rationality revolves around the meaningfulness of life, connecting this meaningfulness with everything life is in contact with, such as the wholeness of the universe.

Those points raised many questions in my mind. I limit here to three. First, it seems to me that science itself would agree that it does not explain everything. After all, the task of science is to explain what is not yet explained. The fact that a model is not enough to explain a phenomenon means that there is more research to do, that reality is more complex than what was imagined. For the curious minds of scientists this is pure gold, pure intellectual pleasure. So, I wonder what is the need to remind science of its limits, since those limits are already acknowledged by science itself?

The second point concerns how Lennox follows his distinction between the two forms of rationality (the “why” question and the “what/how” question). As mentioned, Lennox’s target is actually not science itself, but scientism, the intellectual attitude consisting in considering science the sole source of explanation and the sole means to carry out a rational investigation (pp. 26 and 34). Lennox rejects scientism because it neglects the religious distinctive type of rationality (the “why” question) in the name of the supremacy of the scientific type of rationality (the “what/how” question). It follows that, on the other hand, a religion or theology that aims to answer “what/how” questions should be rejected as incoherent or methodologically unsound – after all, the same argument applies for the exclusion of scientism from the set of sound scientific attitudes. In other words, to preserve and defend the distinction between “why” questions and “what/how” questions should imply that reli-gious answers to “what/how” questions are considered only as metaphors: these answers do not say anything about the universe, they are just interpretations of the meaningfulness of the universe in relation to human life’s meaningfulness (p. 107).[1] However, it seems to me that Lennox is not always clear enough in explicitly acknowledging that religious claims are not scientific, that is, are not answers to “what/how” questions. For instance, he interprets God’s questioning Job on the complexity of nature as an image of the scientific attitude towards natural investigation (pp. 56-57); he qualifies God as the initiator of the Big Bang (p. 71); he considers Christian answers to be “something much bigger and more fundamental [than science]” (p. 107); he argues that the religious way of investigating the universe is able to explain things, while science does not explain but only describes things (pp. 34-36). It is hard for me not to read within these claims a competition between scientific and religious spheres, or even a tendency to rate the scientific sphere less worthy than the religious sphere – precisely in the light of science’s limit, a limit that, as stated, science (at least a mature scientific attitude) is nevertheless keen to autonomously admit. In sum, I wonder whether Lennox does not fall into a sort of “religionism” analogous to the “scientism” he attacks.[2]

This opens up the final question: the methodology at the basis of religious rationality. Lennox speaks about the “sheer weight of evidence” (p. 79) that supports the Christian theistic position. Now, testing models via the study of empirical evidence (that is, falsifiability) is a fundamental aspect of scientific method. Thus, Lennox seems to argue that the religious rationality satisfies this aspect of scientific method. However, the forms of evidence Lennox considers are problematic to me. Evidence 1: We have more documents attesting Jesus’s resurrection than documents attesting other historical events (e.g. writings by Livy or Tacitus; pp. 84-85), and there are only a few steps (that is, copies) between us and the original manuscripts attesting that event (pp. 86-87). Lennox acknowledges that these two pieces of evidence (assuming they are correct) “do not ‘prove’ that what the documents say is true” (p. 88). But then he adds: “But they [these evidences] do establish the credentials of these narratives about Jesus as authentic historical documents”. This is incoherent, since the second statement implies the first: a document is an “authentic historical document” if it is proven to say something true, that is, to report correctly an event that occurred. Moreover, contrary to historians Livy and Tacitus, there is no ultimate agreement about the authorship of the Gospels. Evidence 2: Jesus’s resurrection was a historical event because all other possible explanations for the disappearance of his body must be ruled out (the “Sherlock Holmes” argument; p. 97). In fact, according to Lennox, nobody could have taken Jesus’ corpse from the tomb: neither the followers of Jesus (it was morally, psychologically and practically impossible for them to do so; p. 97); nor some tomb-robbers (why leave the valuable linen and spices behind? p. 96). But these alternatives are excluded only because Lennox wants to exclude them. It is indeed possible that some of Jesus’s followers took the body (Lennox states that they were not expecting resurrection; but Jesus prophesized his resurrection: Mark 8:31-32a, or, indirectly, Matt 27:62-63), after having bribed the guards. Other less plausible explanations can be imagined: the body was taken by strange robbers interested only in corpses, or by Roman or Jewish authorities for some unknown reasons. No matter how implausible these alternative explanations are, they are still far more plausible than resurrection, because resurrection is a unique event unrepeated in human history, with no other empirical or historical cases attested or wit-nessed. We are keen to reject the claims that the war of Troy was initiated and decided by some rivalries between gods, or that the Strait of Messina hosted the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, because there are better explanations for the events these claims describe. I see no difference with the claim that resurrection was an historical event.

The three questions I outlined were raised by Lennox’s effort of arguing for a “scientificity” of the Christian position against (scientifically driven) unbelief and skepticism. I must underline that these questions did not take the side of science: they were religious questions, they were raised out of a concern towards religion. In 1987 Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini inaugurated in Milan the famous “Chairs of Nonbelievers” (in Italian: “Cattedre dei non credenti”), a series of public dialogues between the Cardinal and prominent figures of European intelligentsia, some of whom were nonbelievers. Here were Martini’s inaugural words: “I think that we all have within us a nonbeliever and a believer, who speak to one another from within, who mutually interrogate, who constantly address sharp and disquieting questions to the other. The non-believer within me constantly upsets and disquiets the believer in me, and vice-versa”. It is hard for me not to see in some apologetic writings the attempt to carefully rule out or suffocate any disquiet, any dialogue with the nonbeliever from within. Martini’s words present another, more profound attitude; a lesson of faith’s maturity. Faith is mature not only when it works hard to explain and clarify to others the reasons for believing, but foremost when it works hard to understand and clarify to itself the reason for not believing. Neither the believer is wiser than the nonbeliever, nor the nonbeliever is cleverer than the believer, because the measure of such wisdom and cleverness is the dialogue between these two attitudes within the same person, and between different persons with different beliefs, educations, traditions, and hopes.

[1]About the metaphorical language of the Bible, Lennox underlines that what is stated in a metaphoric statement is the metaphorical description of something real (p. 69). The problem is the meaning of this “real”. What does it mean, attributing reality to the metaphor of Jesus as the door to God? I can imagine two answers: 1. It is the same as to attribute reality to a thought, or an opinion; 2.The reality that we are talking about is a transcendent, metaphysical one. In neither option it is the case of a reality that is an object of scientific investigation.

 [2] A similar case of incoherence between practice and preaching is Lennox’s use of the argument of authority. For him, science and religion are compatible because some scientists were or are believers (pp. 17, 19, 21, 25, 31, 36, 46…). But then, at p. 26 he writes: “The problem is, many people give to all statements by scientists the authority rightly due to scientists, simply because they are stated by a scientist”. It would be enough to substitute “scientists” with “scientists who are also believers” to see that Lennox indirectly acknowledges the fallacy of his own argument.

Andrea Vestrucci
University of California, Berkley
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 29:3 (September 2019), pp. 23-27.