Roger Trigg is the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick and a member of the faculties of Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University. Nigel Bovey talks to him about science and philosophy, faith and reason, and how it takes more faith to believe in a multiverse than in God.
Professor Trigg, why philosophy?
I started reading Plato at school, where we were taught Classics. As a student at Oxford, I read what was called ‘Greats’ – a mixture of classical literature and ancient and modern philosophy. One of my teachers was AJ Ayer, one of the leading humanists of the time. He was very strident in his criticism of Christianity. He maintained that science sets the standard of what defines evidence. His view was that only those things that can be verified have meaning.
I used to admire his philosophical expertise and I was sure that he was dead wrong. One of my motivations for going into philosophy was that I wanted to show why this view was wrong and why philosophy didn’t rule out religious faith in general and Christianity in particular. Over the years, my approach has been to make room for Christianity – to say that it is something that can contribute to a debate about what is true.
There has been a lot of debate this year about Christianity’s place in society and whether Britain is or is not a Christian country. Can a nation be defined by faith in general and Christianity in particular?
It depends what we mean by ‘a Christian country’. Sociologically, that no longer applies. Most people in Britain are not in church on Sundays. However, many people in the UK would be very insulted not to be considered as ‘Christian’ because they vaguely think Christianity is to do with behaving decently. So, there is still a sense of allegiance to Christianity.
This country is absolutely founded on Christianity. From the earliest days of Saxon England, Christianity has influenced the law – Common Law is steeped in the principles of Christianity. People take for granted ideas of justice and mercy. We hear a lot about the British values of tolerance and fair play. People talk endlessly about human rights. But where do these values all come from? Well, very often they are rooted in deep Christian principles and the Christian concept of human dignity.
What worries me is that people think they can carry on with the principles without their foundation. If we attack our national Christian heritage, we have got to think about what we would put in its place. The lack of moral principles causes a vacuum and a vacuum results in religious extremism.
You have been researching the relationship between metaphysical beliefs and science. Where are the moral values within science?
Science and values are absolutely entwined. I was very disturbed to learn how many scientists falsify their results. Some scientists are producing results that then can’t be replicated and some are either deliberately exaggerating their significance or falsifying them. This, of course, goes to the heart of what science is not. It also shows that the kind of integrity you’d expect from scientists is built into science – they are to pursue what is true, not what they want to be true. So the pursuit of truth is a value.
Science investigates reality and tells us what is true, but it is not the only thing that does.
New atheism says that the scientific narrative is the only acceptable narrative, which is itself a philosophical position that needs argument because it is not at all obvious that science does have all the answers. Once new atheists admit that they’re stepping outside science to argue their position, then, in a way, they are denying their own position.
Is the problem, then, that new atheism won’t step outside science?
No, but new atheists are being incoherent. They are making inferences from within science that are outside the realm of science. They are taking metaphysical, rather than purely scientific, positions. Their view is as much beyond science as talking about God is. I find it intriguing, for instance, that some people find it simpler to talk about the existence of many universes rather than about a God who created one universe.
People are using the multiverse idea – where every possible kind of universe actually exists – as an argument against design. But it is nonsense to say that every conceivable possibility is the same as the reality. Possibilities and actualities are very different things. The idea of a multiverse is mind-boggling. It’s hard enough to envisage what God is like, so to talk about a multiverse doesn’t seem to help as an alternative explanation to God at all.
Does it take more faith to believe in a multiverse than it does in God?
I think so. How can we verify its existence? And if we can’t, isn’t it meaningless to talk about it? This is exactly what the atheist AJ Ayer was saying.
Is there a place for religious faith within science?
Yes, because all scientists have faith in something, even if it’s just that their theory is right. Science is more than simply looking at results and deducing theories. There are two big issues. The first is: Is there one world independent of us, which is intelligible and rationally based? Why shouldn’t it be that we are living on an island of order in a sea of disorder?
Science assumes that the world is intelligible, and therefore that we can extrapolate – go from here to there. Very often atheist philosophers have found they can’t do that. Hume, for instance, didn’t accept that we can generalise beyond our experiences.
Science is based upon repeatability. That’s why scientists who falsify results that can’t be repeated are denying the practice of science. But repeatability is an assumption. We assume that the reality of a rational structure in China is the same in the UK and the same as the other side of the Universe. That is a big thing for physics. We also assume that we have minds that can understand the world – that not only is the world intelligible, but that it is also intelligible to us.
So, it is these concepts of order and repeatability within the universe that allow us to trust it and investigate it?
Yes, because it was made by an intelligible, rational, loving God.
One of the big challenges to science comes from postmodernism. Postmodernism is a reaction against the modernist view that reason is universal. It says that reason depends on who and where you are. Reason is defined by the likes of perspective and tradition. In postmodernism, ‘science’ is ‘Western science’. It challenges the idea that science deals in universal truth.
Postmodernism also challenges claims made by Jesus that he is the only way to God. Are such claims universally true or are they open to personal interpretation?
Postmodernism keys into relativism, which says that truth is defined by what one community agrees is the truth. That community could be scientists, atheists, Christians or anyone. One of the problems with relativism is how you define the community. One of its attractions is that it suggests that because there’s no such thing as truth, then other people can’t impose their will on you – they can’t tell you what is true and what you ought to believe. Everyone’s free to believe what they want.
But freedom is a slippery notion. Because, according to relativism, there’s no reason why we should bother about another person’s freedom. If, therefore, my group wants to impose its will on others, then that’s right for us.
How and when did you become a Christian?
It is difficult to say, in that because my father was a Methodist minister I was brought up in the church. It wasn’t a question of not being a Christian and suddenly becoming one. I grew up in the faith and became more firmly established in it. I’m certainly not a Christian just because my father was. I made a deliberate choice to stay with the faith of my childhood.
What convinces you that Jesus is who he says he is?
I’m firmly convinced that without a belief in God, there is no possibility of reason. In other words, reason doesn’t stand against God; it is rooted in there being some intelligibility in the order of things. From that point of view, I agree with Nietzsche – if there is no God, everything is meaningless.
Christianity is more than helping people and feeding the hungry. I firmly believe that Christianity points to the truth about human beings. It takes human sins seriously. It provides an answer to human sin and it can change lives. I firmly believe that we’ve got to look at this life in the wider context of an eternal life beyond.
My favourite verse from the New Testament is the one where Paul writes that if the resurrection is not true then our faith is in vain. The veracity of the Christian faith depends on the resurrection of Jesus.
What convinces you that the resurrection is not a metaphor, but is an historical fact?
The resurrection is an historical fact. It is the heart of Christianity. I wouldn’t want to place everything on an experience of the divine. Some people don’t have that experience, but many people do, and if they do have a moment, perhaps it is only once in their lifetime. But when they do, like John Wesley feeling ‘strangely warm’ in his heart, they suddenly feel: Yes, I know that God is with me and God cares for me.
It is the resurrection, though, which underlies everything that follows and points to a life beyond this one. This should really be the message of Christianity. It’s not that Christians don’t care about this life because there’s another one, but rather that we do care about this life because it is part of a wider whole that matters eternally.
The Bible speaks about humankind being made in the image of God. What do you understand that to mean?
It’s not a particular Christian view, but following Aristotle’s idea, it is that we have reason. With reason goes freedom, and with freedom goes moral responsibility. I suppose it’s the ability to judge good and bad, and the fact we have to take responsibility for our decisions and actions. We have the ability to reason and to understand. Through science, we have the ability to understand God’s creation.
Some new atheists regard believing in an unseen God as akin to believing in the tooth fairy. Where is the rationality in Christianity? How is it that Christianity makes sense?
Rationality is built into the heart of Christianity. The Gospel of John starts: ‘In the beginning was the word.’ The Greek word for ‘word’ is logos, from which we get ‘logic’, but it really means ‘reason’. Another way to put it would be to say: ‘In the beginning was reason.’
Reason was a very important notion for early Greek philosophers. They were trying to find the underlying logos in everything – the rationale of everything. So to say that Jesus is the logos is to say more than he is God’s Son. It says that Jesus is the underlying rationale of the whole of creation.
Faith always needs reason. Although it is rational, faith shouldn’t necessarily be a cold and overtly intellectual assent; it should involve one’s whole being.
This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission
Photo by Nigel Bovey