The hopeful option of belief in God

Does reality make sense if God does not exist? Professor of Philosophy Hans Halvorson thinks not and explains why he is drawn to ‘the hopeful option’ of belief in God in this interview with Nigel Bovey.

Professor, what areas of research are you currently working in?

I have always been interested in the relationship between philosophy and science – particularly how we can do philosophy, either in a scientific manner or in a manner that’s contiguous with what’s happening in the sciences. In recent years, I have been looking at questions such as: ‘What is science?’ and ‘Are there limits to science?’

I also specialise in mathematical logic and am studying category theory, which attempts to systematise the relations between different branches of mathematics. Because maths is the language of science, it is a helpful tool for working out how biology fits with physics, or how physics fits with chemistry.

Going back to figures such as Pythagoras, there has always been a close relation between philosophy and mathematics, hasn’t there?

We often forget that mathematical ideas spring out of philosophical ideas. There is no hard-and-fast seam, for instance, between philosophical speculation and mathematical theorem proving. The use of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ to describe types of numbers is a philosophical concept.

For early Greek philosophers, the idea of irrational numbers – where a number can’t be expressed as x divided by y – caused a mental block, because they thought everything was a ratio. They also called an irrational number a ‘surd’, from which we get ‘absurd’, which is a philosophical concept. It is fascinating that the deeper you go in mathematics, the more philosophical it gets.

Pythagoras described the universe in terms of the ratios between the planets and the sun. He spoke about the music of the spheres. Today’s scientists talk in terms of the universe’s fine-tuning.

Is the universe here by accident or by design?

By design. This religious perspective has been an enormous impetus to scientific curiosity. It is the religious motivation to discover some intelligibility behind the universe that has resulted in the West being as scientific as it is.

From the idea that life is possible on Earth only because the universe is finely tuned in terms of gravitational and nuclear forces, dark energy and suchlike, some people infer the existence of God. How satisfying do you find such reasoning?

There’s a fine line and there’s truth on both sides. On the personal side, the idea of seeing something in nature – reading the ‘book of nature’ – and then concluding ‘I think I’m starting to get a sense of why things were done this way,’ is a good way to think.

It’s a good way because God is behind the universe and we have no other way to reach him, unless we take what God has given to us – creation – or unless he reaches out to us personally in some way. By itself, the human mind is not powerful enough to think the thoughts of God. So we have to wait for him to hand us this information and he does so through the natural world, which we discover through empirical investigation.

The inference of a designer through apparent design, though, is trickier. The intricacies that lead to the narrative of our individual lives are mind-boggling. If I get talking to a passing stranger at an airport and learn something amazing, it is good to see that in terms of God meaning for me to meet that person.

If as a scientist I say, ‘Wow, just think if the cosmological constants had been only a little bit different, we wouldn’t have existed at all,’ it’s OK to follow that with, ‘Thank you, God, for designing the universe in this way that has led to the existence of beings who can be in relationship with each other.’

But when people say, ‘The way the constants of nature are aligned must mean that God exists’ – or that, therefore, the chances of God existing are high – I start to become a little suspicious, because that’s like me saying: ‘I have scientific evidence that God caused me to meet that person at the airport.’ That is an interpretation; not a scientific explanation.

Greek mathematicians, notably Euclid, were very keen on proof. Is it possible to prove that God exists?

Any proof requires first a number of givens, or axioms. The problem with trying to say you can prove that God exists is deciding which axioms you think are appropriate for such a proof.

Historically, some people thought that reason itself supplied enough axioms. The problem with this argument is that what people thought reason was telling them 500 years ago is different from what people think reason is saying today.

Personally, I didn’t just wake up one morning thinking God exists. An awareness of God came to me from my parents and my teachers. There were reasons for my believing initially, but they are not the reasons why today I believe God exists.

CS Lewis said that he believed in God just as he believed that the sun existed, not just because he could see it but also because that by it he could see everything else. For me, God’s existence is proven through his effectiveness and the intelligibility he gives to reality.

What evidence can you offer for the existence of God?

I don’t think there is one definitively compelling argument, but the existence of objective morality, which is something most people will agree with, is suggestive of an ultimate moral lawgiver. Some people, though, argue that there are no moral absolutes. I would want them to untangle the implications of what they are saying, because I think there are many people who in some sense are implicitly committed to believing that God exists, but they don’t, or they’re unwilling to, admit it.

Secondly, I don’t think reality ultimately makes sense if God doesn’t exist. I don’t take this claim (that reality without God is meaningless) as proving that God exists. It just shows that if God doesn’t exist, then things are ultimately hopeless. There is a hopeless option and a hopeful option. I feel morally drawn to the hopeful option.

Thirdly, the most convincing argument is that I feel there’s a call inside us telling us that there’s something morally more fundamental to reality.

One of the themes of new atheism is that belief in God is irrational, akin to believing in the tooth fairy. Why is that an inaccurate view of faith?

New atheists use ‘irrational’ to label people of faith as inferior. It is little more than social bullying. One of the weaknesses of new atheism is that it assumes we all agree on what is and isn’t rational. New atheists don’t define, as philosophy demands, what they mean by ‘irrational’. In reality, most of the religious believers I know are not violating the rules of logic any more than anyone else.

So how is Christianity rational? How does it make sense?

It is much harder to argue for Christianity specifically as opposed to some form of generic theism. The thing that pulls against rationality for Christianity is the amount of contingency involved in it. Christianity involves so many questions: ‘Why Jesus? Why did he live then and there? Why did he say what he did? Why did God do it this way?’

The idea of a rational universe is a Greek idea. In a perfect world, there would be no need for the cross. But it is this very contingency – the crucifixion and resurrection – that is the surprise, the wow factor of Christianity. The surprise does not contradict or conflict with logic. It is a surprise because by logic alone we could not have predicted that outcome.

There’s only one answer to ‘why?’ – it is that God chose it to be so.

The resurrection is the defining concept of Christianity. The apostle Paul says that if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is futile. Is there a logic in the resurrection?

As a young guy, I used to think that the resurrection was in conflict with science. I have since come to realise that the resurrection is not a scientific question. Science talks in terms of quarks and electrons, not people.

Many people take the view that Jesus was a very good example of moral life but nothing more. That’s not hard for a rational person to admit. But to say, ‘I believe Jesus rose from the dead’ is radical. It is not something someone usually says unless it is central to their lives.

It is sad when people feel that to be reconciled with science they have to rationalise the resurrection in terms such as ‘Maybe the Bible doesn’t mean that Jesus was literally dead and then he was alive’ – the idea that Jesus lives on in our hearts.

A Christian can boldly attest to the resurrection because it is not a scientific issue. We’re not talking about the physics of the process but the power of God, who is not bound by the laws of nature. If God needs to break those laws to catch humankind’s attention as part of his mysterious way of bringing us back to him, he’ll do that.

When you say the resurrection was not literal, you are describing another god. The logic of the resurrection is not something we can derive by haggling over principles of reason. But the resurrection sheds light on what it means to be human.

The Dutch thinker Abraham Kuyper said that the fall darkened reason. So, we think we know what it means to be logical, but actually we engage in bad logic. Once you see things in terms of the resurrection, you can overcome that tendency. It sounds paradoxical, but the resurrection, which appears contrary to reason, actually renews reason. It is only through Christ’s redeeming work – the fact that he did actually rise from the dead – that we will see reality, including scientific realities, in the right way.

How and when did you become a Christian?

I grew up in the Reformed tradition. My mother was an Anglican and my father was Lutheran. So throughout my childhood I could say the words, ‘God exists. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus died for my sins,’ and so on.

But when I was around 17, something fundamentally changed. I understood what the words meant. I remember thinking: ‘Oh, really? That’s what I’m called to do? That’s who I’m called to be?’ Ever since, I have not been able to shake off the sense that there are two courses down which I could go – the pleasant way the majority takes or the way that requires me not to be selfish.

What convinces you that what Jesus did and said is true?

His moral standards. They are daunting. We are in desperate need of somebody who can enable us to become better than we are, and who also can allow us to live with ourselves for what we have been. That’s why, to put it simply, I need Jesus not just to be a moral example but also to be my redeemer.

The Christian message is peculiar, particularly its emphasis on love. The central aspiration for all of us is to love God and to love one another. Who witnessed to that the most of all? Jesus. He sets that example of, ‘What do I do when my mission is threatened? Do I lash out? Do I come up with a really great strategy for dominance? No, I accept – I’ll be killed at the hands of others.’

Jesus is success via failure, which is an immense paradox that I don’t see anywhere else. These pieces of Christianity add up for me. This is the track I want to be on.

Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University Hans Halvorson is a specialist in the philosophy of science and the relationship between science and religion. Nigel Bovey interviewed him in Cambridge, where he was giving a lecture at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion on ‘Does the Universe Need God?’ The interview first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission.

Photo by Jose Roberto V Moraes