So, there is no God?

So, there is no God. Is that so?

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Lecture date: Sun, 8th Feb, 2015
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Estimated 13 min read

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.. John 1.1

So begins my PhD thesis, written in 1983. It is a quote from the beginning of John’s Gospel, one of 4 accounts of Jesus and of 60 or more books that together comprise the Christian Bible. My PhD thesis concerned how rubies look red and emeralds look green – in particular the theory of transition metal impurities in semiconductors. But it didn’t explain why emeralds and rubies have such beauty, such an impact on us – after all, they are materials with defects…

It was the year before completing my PhD, in 1982, when I took my first shaky steps on a journey of faith, believing in Jesus and a personal relationship with the living God. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, one of many Christian flavours. It did nothing for me and all I could see was religion. So when I went to university I left all that behind. For distraction and as an intellectual exercise, I took pleasure in discussing with people of faith, and no faith, about life, the universe and everything. The discussions were interesting of course and could make me feel very pleased with myself about how clever I must be.

But during the second year of my PhD, I probably had something of an existential crisis – what was my life all about? Was there any meaning, purpose, or value? I was engaged to be married. I was seeking something to guide me in life’s journey. Those intellectual discussions were not going to be enough to guide me because they only confronted a part of me — my rational part. I needed something to guide all of me to make life choices. So I chose to embrace faith in Jesus Christ. To believe that God in the person of Jesus lived on Earth and was killed an innocent man. I see in that Jesus taking the punishment for the things I do wrong. I believe that by going through death and being alive now there is hope and forgiveness for where I so often fall short of the mark.

So I am set free from some of life’s baggage and can start afresh – every day if necessary. But there is responsibility too. So this is like the freedom to drive on our roads that comes with the responsibility of following the highway code. When you feel loved, valued and accepted as you are it can be contagious. You can be more likely to want to share your joy and you see the good in others and are more willing to accept their weaknesses. So my response to God is to strive to be the best person I can be, the person He intends me to be. What I want is for my life to bear the fruit of the spirit of God that has forgiven me and lives in me: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. I see this fruit in many Christians – not all the time and not all of these things, but I see it and it is more than just them, more of a symbiosis. But I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.. Together these two statements are a paradox that most of us face. They are both in fact a quote from Paul, of St Paul’s Cathedral fame, and I know just what he means. That is why you need the sense of God’s forgiveness so you can start again.

Acting in Faith

Faith is an expression of hope for something better. More than a wish, it is closer to a belief, but not quite. A belief is rooted in the mind. Faith is based in the heart. We act in faith when there is no guarantee, no certainty. No one knows what kind of life an infant will have, yet people continue to have children. No one can know how life with our partner will turn out, yet we continue to have faith our relationships will last a lifetime. Faith speaks the language of the heart. It is an expression of hope that goes beyond the conscious mind. Most that we hold precious rests upon a faith in others, their potential not yet fulfilled. When we betray such trust, as I know I have done, it does untold damage. When I am betrayed, I feel crushed. I can lose faith in people because they are all flawed. If God is not flawed then faith is well placed. But we have to manage expectations too – not to have faith in things that can’t or won’t happen. It is really important to recognise that some things are unknowable. And of course this makes me very vulnerable as I try to step out in faith. It goes against my ego’s desire to be in control. There needs to be an act of will that takes me out of my comfort zone in many situations – I am not always successful in this needless to say.. Beyond all that, faith in something beyond human endeavour gives rise to humility and that is a necessary check against human arrogance.

A common objection to Christianity is that faith and belief constrains critical thinking. I don’t think that it needs to do this any more than a humanist worldview. For example, today some Christians argue that same-sex relationships are right while others think they are wrong; few doubt that men and women are equal before god but some argue that only men should hold positions of leadership. In the secular world some believe in global warming while others are accused of being climate change deniers; few doubt that men and women are equal but some argue that only men should fight in our armed forces. So what does this tell us?

Embedded in this are underlying principles by which we reach our beliefs. Most of us have a gut feeling (call it intuition, divine revelation?) and then use rational arguments to justify the position. We do it all the time. The expression ‘passionate debate’ implies (irrational) passion plays a part in decision making. Worthy research seldom gets funded, while adventurous research is supported – think graphene…   Very few decisions are purely rational, only justifications are rational. Science can also be seen as constraining free thinking. This is because it builds on what others have done: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” wrote Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke in 1676. Science also typically requires some axioms or assumptions on which you then build.

So if you assume (or believe) that the speed of light is constant you can build the Theory of Special Relativity, which predicts how things behave when they move at speeds close to the velocity of light.* You can measure the speed of light locally, but can you measure it everywhere in the universe? Electrons are not visible but we infer their existence and properties. And the combined properties make them impossible to imagine from the perspective of what we see. How can you draw a picture of an electron? We use pictures or metaphors helpful to describe the nature of quantum particles too small to see. Science also uses metaphor: what is an electron spin? What is an electron’s effective mass in a solid? Not all scientists agree on the nature of physical reality – climate change being a topical example. The arguments are not all rational, as revealed when phrases like ‘climate change denier’ are used.

Someone who tells me that science has proved this or that but is unable to show me the proof is merely describing an article of faith. This is not wrong, but it is not science either. Some people want to ‘believe’ in Science, as a ‘greater authority’ rather like a religion. But, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” (G.K. Chesterton). For some people, science is driven by a majestic clockwork: Newton laid down the mechanistic ideas of classical mechanics and apples could rest easy, now knowing how they long it would take to fall from a tree to the ground below. In the 20th century there came quantum mechanics, where the causal world was replaced by wave-functions and the probability of something happening.

The advent of computers meant the rise of numerical analysis, where previously impenetrable equations could be solved by Monte Carlo techniques: here random numbers are used to generate solutions based on the probability of certain events happening. Something with a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analysed statistically but may not be predicted precisely is called stochastic, and this is the way things are often understood in science. Here is a simple example. Imagine throwing two dice: you can work out that there is more chance of throwing a total of 7 (1+6; 2+5; 3+4) than 12 (only 6+6). Alternatively, if you throw the dice enough times, although each throw is random (free), you build up a known statistical distribution and you can show that the most likely throw is 7. Both methods arrive at the same answer, but the second is more experiential than clockwork-like determinism. This seems close to the free thinking of our modern age and is the reason why opinion polls or market surveys work. We may not choose to think like clockwork machines, rather we use critical thinking and discussion to arrive at answers. The uncertainty resulting from ‘honest doubt’ or long-held assumptions just adds noise to the rational argument signal.

But science does not answer why the dice are rolled… For me this resonates with Leibniz’s great question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ I think that if we come together as a community, engaging just the rational dimension leads to a single scientific world view: the ideas are ‘true’, evidence based and the result of critical thinking; this must ultimately be inflexible because rational deduction is objective not subjective. So any free-thinking, a hallmark of Humanism, must rely on the existence of ‘hidden factors’ or assumptions that then allow different untrue outcomes and so is not fully rational.

On the other hand collectively applying just the spiritual dimension can lead to flaky religion. I know people who have a different religion every few months. They are seeking but have no discipline to guide them. It is irrational and so it is necessarily more subjective, leading to a multiplicity of world views. World religions such as Christianity have rational, emotional and spiritual dimensions. Some people choose to leave their rationality behind, believing everything they are told. This can lead to a lack of integrity. Others wrestle with accepted Christian doctrine and examine how well it measures up to lived experience. They also rely on things like prayer, meditation, acts of goodness and relationships to enhance both their spiritual and rational journey.

The Triune God of Christianity

The God of Christianity is described as a trinity. This is said to be three persons, but I find it easier to think of three dimensions or sides of the same God. The first of these, the father, is sometimes depicted as some old guy with a beard who sits on a cloud, enjoys listening to church music or harps and smites people. Needless to say this is not a god that I could believe in either. I believe that God is unknowable, an otherness. Anything else would be a God of my invention. But Christianity speaks of God being creator and “that which sustains”. Next is the human dimension. Gentle Jesus meek and mild he was not, but a free thinking person who had a low opinion of religious people. This speaks of God’s desire to cut through the crap and really communicate. His teachings, actions, death and resurrection save us.

The third part is the spirit of God that lives in us, usually drowned out by our busy noisy selves. This speaks of God being (the) good in us. There is more to me than the rational part — there is an emotional part that gives me a sense of beauty, happiness and so on. Then beyond both of these I have a sense of meaning, conscience, which here I am calling a spiritual dimension. The rational, emotional and spiritual dimensions must act together to address aspects of the same reality – the rational addresses ‘how’ the physical world is what it is, while spirituality addresses ‘why’ things are what they are.

Avoid the God of the Gaps

So here’s the thing: if you assume that there is a God then rational thinking will take you a long way but you cannot disprove it. If you assume there is no God then rational thinking will take you a long way in a different direction but you cannot disprove it. It seems to me that there is no proof one way or the other. The God of the gaps is problematic and must be avoided. God as an emotional crutch is less of a problem unless you do not believe in any personal relationships serving this purpose. I believe that personal relationships are at the core of our being and so Christianity, which uniquely among world religions claims a personal relationship with God, was and is the way for me.

But what else matters? What else gives life meaning? What else makes for happiness? What do you value? Is there a rational answer to these questions? Is there a single answer that works for everyone? God may not be causing catastrophe but rather he is alongside. There is an old story about footprints in the sand. In a dream there are two sets of footprints in good times but one set in hard times; “Why did God abandon me during the hard times?” Jesus says “I am always alongside you and don’t abandon you but carry you through bad times.” Perhaps the universe is stochastic rather than causal. Christianity offers hope in a life beyond this existence and a belief that life has meaning, although we may not understand it. Would we be capable of understanding such an answer? Well, is a rat is capable of understanding why the scientist is doing this experiment? Can you understand the internet by looking inside your computer?

The question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality. John Polkinghorne, professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979, resigned his Chair to study for the priesthood, becoming an ordained Anglican priest in 1982. He served as the President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. He speaks about the idea of whether mathematics is invented or discovered; there is mathematics to describe everything physical. The Brothers Karamazov is a great book and I would encourage all of you to read just the chapter called the Grand Inquisitor, which speaks about freedom. Jesus returns to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. He is arrested and killed by the Grand Inquisitor, using as his excuse that people don’t want freedom and give it back in return for bread; they will worship anything and want ‘the grown-ups’ to take responsibility.

So why did I include that quote from John’s gospel in my PhD thesis? It is difficult to explain, but it had something to do with my wanting to put my work, the product of my rational dimension, into a greater context. It was not rational: you either get it or you don’t at another level. But then we are all more than rational beings and it is important to hold on to all the dimensions of our reality for us to be fully integrated beings, and so to act with integrity.

* Effects of these equations appear at very low speeds, too, e.g. they would slightly reduce (by 1 part in 10,000,000000,000000,000000!) the normal repulsion between two electrons moving at only 3mm per second – however, this tiny effect is responsible for the phenomenon of magnetism. {Ed.}

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Atheism & Secularism, Thinking on Sunday

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Not a professor, not a doctor, not an author. Not in politics, not in the media, not in banking. Neither a philosopher but likes to gaze at life “through the looking glass” of philosophy. So maybe the soul of a poet. After 30 years in teaching and for the last three years caring for…

Anthony O'Neill

Anthony O’Neill is Siemens Professor at Newcastle University. In 1994 he was Visiting Scientist at MIT where he pioneered research on a new generation of silicon chip devices. In 2002 he became a Royal Society Industry Fellow with Atmel.  He was visiting professor at EPFL (Switzerland) in 2009. He is…