Contemplating the Big Questions through Tiny Matter22 May 2017
Oxford nanophysicist and theologian Andrew Briggs explains how science and faith work together and alternate taking the lead, to further explore man’s penultimate curiosity.
STI President Carlos Cavallé opens the first series of Holy Land Dialogues in Jerusalem by introducing its moderator and first speaker. What follows is an excerpted version of the speech by Professor Andrew Briggs, and his dialogue with moderator Daniel Johnson.
Carlos Cavallé: I have the honor of welcoming our speakers, our moderator, and our speaker tonight. The Social Trends Institute has collaborated with the Saxum Foundation to bring you these lectures as part of our own goal to shine a scholarly light on important issues that shape individuals and society. The moderator of these dialogues is Daniel Johnson, founder and editor of Standpoint - a cultural and political journal that celebrates Western Civilization, which is what we have come to discuss.
You know the great thinkers of the past century define the pillars of our civilization as Greek thought, Roman law, and Judeo-Christian tradition. That’s what we are here to talk about, in the perfect place to do so. Professor Andrew Briggs will share his thoughts in his presentation today about the contribution of Judeo-Christian tradition to art, to the sciences, and to culture in general. Next, Dr. Eric Cohen will reflect upon the transformative power of Jerusalem
History is divided into BC and AD; before and after Christ, because Jesus was a Jew with an enormous impact on the world’s history. The holy sites where he lived belong not to a single group; they are the heritage of the entire world. Broadly considered, Judeo-Christian tradition transformed the world, and personal reflection on it can transform individuals who live in this world.
In our pluralistic modern world, we must foment responsible study and respectful dialogue based on both reason and faith. This is what the Social Trends Institute wants to continue to do with the Saxum Foundation. We are particularly interested in putting together a group of scientists from around the world who will try to understand ‘cultural engagement.’ That is to say, why and how cultures, when they interact, sometimes develop synergies and sometimes develop conflict. What makes the difference?
We have gathered a group of fine minds to reflect on questions around cultural diversity, and will publish their work so all may benefit from it.
I want to thank you for being here, and ask Daniel Johnson to introduce our distinguished guest Andrew Briggs. Thank you.
Daniel Johnson: It is a pleasure and an honor to be invited to chair the first of the Holy Land Dialogues under the auspices of Saxum and the Social Trends Institute. I know you are here, all of you, above all to experience firsthand the unique power of this place, the hallowed ground where—what Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Swiss Catholic theologian, called the “theo-dram”—the biblical encounter between man and God was played out. This is where it all happened.
A year ago, from the roof of Notre Dame, one of the highest points in Jerusalem, a priest showed me one night the whole panorama of the sacred city and its hinterland. Almost everything you read about in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, happened within sight of this place, he told me. I still feel, as no doubt do you all, Jews and Christians alike, that numinous quality, that holy quality, of what we still call the Holy Land.
Tonight we are delighted to have with us Andrew Briggs, one of the leading quantum physicists and interdisciplinary scientists of our time. After studying at Oxford and Cambridge, Professor Briggs was appointed in 2002 to be the first holder of the newly-created chair in Nanomaterials at the University of Oxford. His work is devoted to the smallest particles in creation, but his own output is astonishingly large. He has published no fewer than 575 scholarly papers and articles. Among Professor Brigg’s many claims to fame, I shall single out just two—both relevant to our discussion this evening about science and religion.
When in the 1970s the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge moved into new buildings, a “devout research student” proposed that a text from Psalm 111 that had been inscribed in Latin on the doors of the old building—should also be inscribed above the entrance of the new laboratory, this time in English. The text, originally chosen by the great scientist James Clerk Maxwell, reads: “Magna opera Domini exquisita in omnes voluntates eius.” In Coverdale’s 16th Century translation: “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all of them that have pleasure therein.” The devout research student was the young Andrew Briggs, and this inscription prominently displayed on the world’s most famous scientific laboratory, is a monument of which he can be justly proud.
Professor Briggs is unusual, if not unique, among his scientific peers in that he holds not only a PhD in physics, but also a degree in theology from Cambridge. This ability to inhabit two worlds simultaneously—those of religion and science, of faith and reason—has borne fruit in the magnificent work that he has written in collaboration with the equally distinguished artist, Roger Wagner. It is called The Penultimate Curiosity, subtitled, How Science Swims in the Slipstream of Ultimate Questions. This book explores the still-contested relationship between the penultimate problems that science seems to solve, and the ultimate questions that theologians and philosophers continue to pose, while knowing that they may be unanswerable at least by empirical methods. It is this field of enquiry that will form the basis of our discussion tonight, although I must urge anybody here who is not yet familiar with The Penultimate Curiosity to buy and read it, if only for the sheer joy of this clearly written and gorgeously illustrated tour de raison that demonstrates the crucial role of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western Civilization.
Now we have come together tonight in this splendid Christian edifice in the heart of the capital of the Jewish state to reflect on and renew our faith. We are privileged to be able to listen to and interrogate a great scientist and theologian who can help us to see more clearly how precisely not only the heavens and the earth proclaim the glory of the Lord, but also how humanity’s quest to understand nature is inspired by the spiritual yearning that only God can satisfy. Man has been a curious being since the Garden of Eden, and it is that curiosity that raises us above the rest of the animal kingdom and makes us distinctively human. But though we are unified human beings, not ghosts inhabiting biological machines, our curiosity does have two dimensions—physical and metaphysical—which correspond to the duality of our nature—human and divine. Here in Jerusalem, close to the inner sanctum of our faith, our eyes are opened to its physical and historical reality, but our souls are also filled with intimations of the heavenly Jerusalem, our ultimate destination, which gives meaning to our lives here on earth.. Professor Briggs, the floor is yours.
Andrew Briggs: It’s a great joy to be with you here in Jerusalem this evening. The first time I visited Eretz Israel was when I was a theology student at Cambridge. I found myself thinking in a completely new way about how the stories and writings that I loved in the Bible, that had always been on rice paper and between leather-bound covers, related to this land of Israel where they actually took place in space and time. And for me, that day, thinking about those things on the top of Mount Tabor changed my whole faith and made me realize that the Christian faith which is sent forth into being, and following Christ, takes place in the context of being here in this material world of time and space.
The book is the result of a twenty year or more dialogue with this very distinguished painter, Roger Wagner. One of Roger’s paintings, called “Out of the Whirlwind” illustrates how God answered Job out of the whirlwind. In the book of Job, you have these big, big questions—these ultimate questions—like “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Questions like, “Why should someone who has known God as his best friend now find that God is remote and inaccessible?” These big questions… And in the context of trying to wrestle with those big questions, God, out of the whirlwind, asks Job all sorts of detailed questions about the material world, the animal world, the world of meteorology and geography and earth sciences. And Job’s response is one of being overwhelmed by this new encounter with God, which of course is what he had been seeking since chapter two of the story of the book of Job.
So I’d like to start now with a little clip. Roger and I have made a film, a documentary. And I’ll just start where Roger is introducing the topic and explaining how he and I came to be talking about these things.
From the video:
“I’m standing at the junction of two roads in the center of Oxford. Down there are the spires and towers of the historic buildings of the heart of the university. To my right and behind me, many of the streets are lined with new laboratories. Laboratories are being built in universities all over the world, but it’s easy to forget what a recent phenomenon this is.”
“When I was an undergraduate myself, about to leave the academic world and go off to art school, I became fascinated by this building. I was intrigued by the way it brought so many things together. As an artist, I have been interested in the collision between ancient stories and contemporary realities. This building, the Oxford University museum, was full of such collisions.”
“This museum had interested me for all kinds of artistic reasons, but when I came back to Oxford after art school and started work, I began to be interested in the scientific history of this place, and what had prompted that interest was getting to know a scientist. Today Andrew Briggs is the first professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford University. He investigates the strange world of quantum effects that lie at the root of matter. When I first met him, he had recently returned to science after taking a theology degree. We began a conversation about science that later turned into a book. For Andrew, as for me, a starting point had been an interest in a particular building.”
Andrew Briggs: Well, this is the old Cavendish laboratory, and there the doors which have this Latin inscription carved on them that Daniel was telling you about. And one way of thinking about this relationship between these ultimate questions—questions of meaning and purpose, prayer and love, and how God can be known—and the questions about the material world that I study in my laboratory is to think of a slipstream…
You see birds flying in a V-formation. And the bird in front has to work harder than the birds behind, because the birds behind benefit from the slipstream created by the birds in front. They’re very clever. They not only find the best space in the vortex, but they even adjust the phase of the flapping of their wings, so as to maximize the energetic advantage. And for me this is a sort of metaphor of how these ultimate questions are out in the front, creating a slipstream in which these questions about the material world have time and again followed. That’s a sort of metaphor for the way that the time you’ve had a culture that is interested in these big questions… It’s been conducive to studies of the material world in a way that we now call science.
Where would you go if you wanted to find the first recorded evidence of curiosity? Where would you think of?
Roger and I chose a cave in the south of France. In this cave are these remarkable paintings that were discovered in 1994. And the chief scientist who led the team that investigated them is convinced that there is a religious motivation in the slipstream of which followed this extraordinary curiosity that they had about the anatomical details of the animals that enabled them to paint them so accurately.
The next place that you might pick for an origin of curiosity is in the west of what is now Turkey: Miletus. In the 6th century BC it was a coastal town, and it was a terrific center of intellectual foment amongst Greeks living there. It was a colony. And a translation in thinking about causes happened when Thales introduced the idea of a First Cause—what he called arche. And then there was a terrific debate about what was the nature of this arche. Thales thought it was water, Pythagoras thought it was number, and others had different ideas. But what this did was as follows: the idea of a Divine First Cause enabled people to stop thinking about earthquakes as Poseidon shaking the ground, and the sun as Helios riding his chariot, and gave them the freedom to be curious about those phenomena in their own right.
Fast forward 1,200 years to Alexandria in Egypt, and ten years ago, a remarkable discovery was made by archaeologists who dug up a whole school of philosophy. We would now call it a university: twenty lecture theatres in Alexandria. They date back to the 4th century AD. And in the 6th century AD, two students went down. One was a pagan student called Simplicius. He studied there. He wanted an academic life. He didn’t get tenure and he ended up in Babylon. The other one was John Philoponus. He was a Christian, but he went to this pagan school of philosophy as the best place to study philosophy, and he continued to work there all his life teaching and writing in a lecture theatre like this one. Philoponus had the courage to challenge Aristotle. That was an amazing thing to do then. It’d be a bit like me standing up and saying I think Einstein was wrong about almost everything. He challenged Aristotle about things like a cause of motion. He said that perhaps the laws of motion of the planets were the same as the laws of motion for a javelin. He had a real sense of humor, this Philoponus, because Aristotle had said that a javelin would stop moving unless something kept it moving. Aristotle had said that what happened was the air from the front of the javelin would rush around to the back and push the javelin forward. And he also solved a problem that Aristotle had with vacuum. Aristotle said that nature caused a vacuum, and again Philoponus disagreed with that on the empirical evidence of winemakers sucking up wine through straws. Anyway, going back to these javelins. Philoponus said, “Look, if Aristotle was right, then the army wouldn’t need to throw javelins at the enemy. All they would need to do is line them up on a parapet, they’d get a thousand men moving their hands and they’d whisk toward the enemy, and hit them. And you see, that doesn’t happen, so Aristotle’s wrong.” And he was not only challenging Aristotle’s views, he was also challenging the church’s views about the Bible, these certain members. There was a monk called Iñigo who was rather rude to Philoponus and criticized him for not saying that angels moved the planets. Philoponus replied that the Bible doesn’t say anything about the angels moving the planets. Do they pull, or push? And in particular he said this. He said, “Look. The Bible teaches us the fact of God’s creation, but not how it came about.” Think about how farsighted that was, and how much we can learn from Philoponus. Now, Galileo read Philoponus and described himas a man driven by the power of truth to recognize the falsity of Aristotle’s views…
If we go now from Alexandria to the place where I study and work: Oxford. In the Middle Ages, the first chancellor of the university was Robert Grosseteste (Robert Greathead). He was a man who was driven by his Christian faith - later bishop of Lincoln. He was well-versed in Aristotle. He wrote a Latin commentary on Aristotle’s works, but he said don’t try needlessly to make a Christian out of Aristotle, but do learn from his methods of arriving at the truth. Learn from his way of thinking, but don’t feel you have to accept all his conclusions. Robert Grosseteste made contributions to light. He did very important work on color, as well, which was taken up by Roger Bacon, who was a student of his at Oxford and followed on. And then some years later in Oxford, we had Francis Bacon… In the first edition of his first big book, which was printed in Oxford, you can see two spheres. One sphere is the scientific world, and the other is the world of intellect. It shows them shaking hands, which is another sort of way of showing how science and these big questions of religion can be friends and can be entangled in a rather fruitful way.
So moving on from Francis Bacon is John Wilkins, warden of Wadham College at Oxford in the 17th century before becoming bishop of Chester John Wilkins was brilliant at gathering people together to what we would now call a weekly seminar. His included names that schoolchildren now recognize: Robert Boyle, they recognize Boyle’s law. Robert Hooke, they learn Hooke’s law. Edmund Haley, they learn about Haley’s comet. That’s how we know William the Conqueror invaded in 1066. They learn about Christopher Wren, they learn about his later architecture, but at the time when he was at Wadham College, in this experimental club, he was doing experiments on how blood circulates in a dog’s brain. One of the members of that experimental club was Robert Boyle, the Honorable Robert Boyle, the son of an Irish aristocratic family. He tested the hypothesis that we now know as Boyle’s Law, and there’s no cheating, so the numbers aren’t quite the same. He discusses experimental error, something that’s now part of the training of every research scientist. And as well as his book on Boyle’s Law, , he wrote a book called A Christian Virtuoso. He said, “The Christian virtuoso, showing that by being addicted to experimental philosophy”—what we would now call science—“a man is rather assisted than indisposed to be a good Christian.” So here’s another person for whom his curiosity, his penultimate curiosity about the material world was in the slipstream of his strong Christian faith.
Forward to the 19th century, and the museum that Roger was talking about in the film, the Museum of Natural History. This is James O’Shea, one of the sculptors working on the building, carving these beautiful flora and fauna at the explicit instigation of the man who more than anyone else was responsible for the Museum of Natural History at Oxford: Henry Acland. Acland was himself a professor of medicine, and he wanted the Museum of Natural History to bring together religion and art and science in a single building. And it is a very, very remarkable building, which does just that. It brings these together. And you get these beautiful carvings, and you get the science—the science of geology and the science of natural history—which are brought together in the museum. A few years ago there was a debate in the museum between a prominent public atheist in Oxford, Richard Dawkins, and a prominent public Christian, a mathematician called John Lennox. And at one point John Lennox turned to Richard Dawkins and asked him if there had not been a religious motivation for the foundation of the building, and Dawkins replied that there had not, and they moved on. But they were both wrong. If they had looked up above their heads when they walked into the museum, they would have seen a sculpture, carved over the entrance. It’s a picture of an angel—it’s got wings—in one hand holding some biological cells, to represent science, and the other hand holding a Bible, to represent the Christian faith. Now this metaphor of the slipstream, of birds flying in the slipstream of one another, is quite a rich metaphor because the birds take it in turns. Because the birds in front work harder, they take it in turns to do the harder work in the front. And this entanglement between science and religion may be one that changes over time. It may be that at the moment we are in an era where more energy, more resources, are being poured into science than into theology. So maybe we’re entering an era in which actually what’s happening is that people who look at the discoveries of science, like the discovery of the gravitational waves earlier this year, or the discovery of the Higgs boson two or three years ago, begin to think: is that creating a slipstream, in which I’ll start to ask these other bigger questions, these other bigger questions about the nature of reality?
Rolf Heuer, the Director General of CERN convened three conferences to discuss the relationship between the discoveries of what is the world’s largest experimental facility, and other topics—language, truth, logic. And these were meetings to bring together scientists and philosophers and theologians. Two years ago, for the sixtieth anniversary of CERN, Heuer was invited to be guest editor of a special edition of the leading French language newspaper in Switzerland, Le Temps. He says, instead of opposing science and religion, it would be better to ask if science and religion are capable of respecting and accepting each other’s point of view. In my eyes it’s completely possible, and in my experience it’s even enriching.
Someone who would have loved what Rolf Heuer was saying is the person who was responsible for that inscription carved originally on the doors of that first Cavendish laboratory in Latin: James Clerk Maxwell. He was a child prodigy. A piece of work that he did as a schoolboy, on multiple oval curves, was read out at the Royal Society of Edinburgh while he was still in his teens. Maxwell’s realized that you could write down four equations, and brought together the whole of electricity and magnetism. The last two equations lead to a wave equation, which made him wonder if that wave equation might predict waves at the same speed as light. He put the numbers in, and indeed it was the case that these predicted waves at the speed of light. And henceforth, it’s hard to imagine that light is anything other than electromagnetic waves.
“The works of the Lord are great, sought out all of them that have pleasure therein” says that what scientists are doing, is finding out how God makes the world work. There’s a great joy in that, because as well as the increasing pleasure that any scientist can have learning something new about the way the world works, for the person who knows God, the knowledge comes in the context of the relationship. You’re studying the creation of a Creator whom you know.
After his speech, Briggs was questioned by Johnson on reconciling science and faith:
Daniel Johnson: How did you come to reconcile your own Christian faith with your scientific vocation, when so many of your colleagues not only reject that faith but positively denounce it? For example, in your book, you quote Francis Crick, pioneer of the double helix, declaring that his whole career had been directed against religion, in particular the fact of life itself and the existence of human consciousness. Now Crick denied not only the soul, but free will and moral responsibility. Do you agree with that? And if not, why not?
Andrew Briggs: It’s hard to think where to start at the point of disagreement, so let’s start at the end of denying responsibility. For me, responsibility is what in philosophy is technically called a basic, that is to say, something that’s just there, and you live with it. And the only way I know how to live my life, to make sense of it, is in terms of choices that I make, choices that I am responsible for. And actually, in the discussion of free will, I know what people mean by free will, and I can see that free will might be a necessary albeit not sufficient condition for responsibility. But I find responsibility a more sharply-defined concept. But to go back, for me it was never really a matter of reconciling. I mean, it’s a bit like saying how do you reconcile riding a bicycle with 2 and 2 makes 4. I mean what is there to reconcile about, that? I don’t know what the issue is. I grew up in a family with strong Christian faith, and I grew up in a family with a strong love of science. At least, my father was a classicist, and my mother was a mathematician, but with a love of science. And so, for example, we grew up with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, from the earliest times I can remember talking about anything scientific in the family. And they were so well-integrated, as indeed I think they are so well-integrated, that there wasn’t really anything to reconcile. I could add a little footnote to that, which is this, that there are many words that have changed their meaning over time, or have only now got the meaning that is now attributed to them, and science and religion are two such words. And it’s now quite common to talk about science as one thing, and religion as another thing—and I understand why people say that. If you try to read that back into earlier times, you’re attributing territories that didn’t exist intellectually in those days, and therefore you’re liable to make very big mistakes. There’s a lot more I could say, but that is a start.
Daniel Johnson: Yeah, I think so. In your work with Dr. Robert Wagner, you’ve tried to bring together the different testaments of science and the arts to make the case for the […] dimension as the driving force behind civilization. Now this view of man as homoreligiosis is unfashionable today in the West, not only among scientists, but also in the arts and humanities. Yet there’s plenty of evidence, as you show, that religion is actually hard-wired into our consciousness. So the great American historian, for example, and anthropologist Robert Bell, shows that right at the beginning of human evolution, religious art and ritual manifest themselves. You gave us a brilliant example of that. Robert Putnam, the American sociologist, has shown how religion creates and sustains communities, though it can of course sometimes divide them. So if we can observe its declining in some Western countries, its flourishing in the much more populous nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. So God, in other words, is not only “not dead,” as Nietzsche claimed, but alive and well—and indeed as ubiquitous as ever. So how can we begin to restore an understanding of culture that is not purely secular, but gives a new respect to the place of religion in our history, in our identity, and in our very nature, as you share? How can we put religion back where it belongs? You’re doing your bit, but how about the rest of us?
Andrew Briggs: It’s mainly a matter of opening your eyes and looking, isn’t it? The evidence is there before you, if you choose to look at it… We want so much in our quest. We want so much looking at science and trying to think what brought it about, though I could do that—it’s a perfectly valid way of thinking about it. We would rather take it the other way around, and say: if you have a culture that asks the really important questions, the questions that really matter, the questions about human destiny and eternity and how God can be known. Those really important questions, time and again, are where science flourishes, that’s what we find; those are the facts. There was a prize just given recently to Bob Dylan, wasn’t there? It was a literary prize given to him. And one of his songs some years back was “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody,” is the way that he pronounced it. I don’t know how many people here remember that song. And something that’s brought this home with a fresh point…is what to me is the fastest-moving field of computer science now, which is machine learning. And some of you may have seen the case from the computer called AlphaGo beating Lee Sedol in the game of Go in Seoul. And there are self-driving cars in California, so there are more and more things that machines can do. And whenever you program machine learning, the key thing is called the utility function. And that is the thing that you’re asking the computer to maximize or to optimize, or because these computer scientists are not very good at public relations, they sometimes call it the loss function, which can sound rather negative. And that’s truly a way of saying, of articulating, of specifying what the hierarchy of goals is. So a modern way of paraphrasing Bob Dylan’s song is “You’ve Gotta Have a Utility Function.” Everybody’s got a utility function. Everybody’s got something that they’re trying to maximize, they’re trying to optimize, and our privilege as humans is to choose our utility function. To choose what it is in life that’s most important to us, that we get to try and maximize. And we can each choose that. And so if you like, that can be the 21st century big question, one of the big questions that people might ask you: “What’s your utility function? What is it that’s most important to you, that you’re really trying to optimize in your life?”
Daniel Johnson: In the past, it’s often a cliché, that church was seen as the opponent of science and progress, and you quote right back in the period of Alexandria, that you were talking about, a great church father Tertullian would say, “What can there be in common between Athens and Jerusalem, between the academy and the church?” And his answer was, “We have no need of curiosity since Jesus Christ, and no need of inquiry since the Evangelists.” So that, in a sense, represents one point of view, when the church tended to argue that perhaps we have no need of people like you, naturally. Although you pointed out that your hero, John Philoponus, was, of course, himself a devout Christian. In fact, a man of the cloth. But the point is that right after Galileo, you have this tension between scientists and the church, though of course many scientists were actually priests. But today, it seems to me, this is completely out-of-date. The church is all for science. I remember meeting a great astronomer who was in charge of the Vatican’s own observatory, and the church is extremely curious about science. And most religious people have no problem with science, but many scientists are extremely incurious about faith. You know, the boot is on the other foot now, and I’m wondering how we can remind people that what we’re here for in Jerusalem has something to offer everyone, that as you say, the ultimate questions are not optional. We need the ultimate questions as well as the penultimate ones.
I want to tell one very brief anecdote. It was just your description of the dispute between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox, the Christian mathematician. I was once six years ago in Westminster Hall to hear Pope Benedict XVI addressing the assembled politicians of Great Britain—all the members of Parliament, the prime ministers, the former prime ministers, Mrs. Thatcher, Tony Blair. They were all there to hear this little old German professor, Joseph Ratzinger, now pope, come and talk to them. And it was an extremely learned and actually very brilliant analysis of how politics and religion can come apart, and what needs to be done to give a Christian call to our political debates. Anyway, this is not the sort of thing that practical politicians normally have to listen to, and so you could see that some of them were getting a bit bored, and anyway, they were sort of chatting to one another, and sort of behaving in a rather disrespectful way, and suddenly, this is where there parallel with the Dawkins things comes in, Benedict looked up in this ancient, medieval hall—the huge, magnificent, medieval hall—and he said, “Look at those angels up there!” There were these vast, carved, wooden angels looking down. And he said, “God is listening to what we are doing here today; he is watching us!” There was an absolute silence. You could have heard a pin drop. Suddenly, all these irreligious, atheistic politicians suddenly thought, “Maybe he’s right! Maybe we’d better be more careful.” And…from then on they listened very carefully to what Benedict had to say to them. And then the great, west doors swung open, and the pope and his entourage processed out—this must have been the first time, by the way, since the Reformation, that a whole lot of Catholic prelates had set foot in that room—and out they went out to a vast crowd, immeasurable, tens of thousands of people, cheering and roaring and applauding as he went out. And I watched all of these politicians watching him go. They were all giving him a standing ovation, and I could see the sort of thought bubble above their heads, “Why aren’t we as popular as that? What did we get wrong?” Anyway, that’s a slightly separate thing—politics and religion, and science and religion—but we live in a very secular society now where Christians, in particular, have to fight to have their voices heard, and to remind people why we are still relevant, and why what we have to offer is still relevant. And you have done a wonderful thing, I think, with this book, in explaining exactly how the discoveries of science and of art are infused with the quest for the divine, for our immortal souls, as well as our mortal ones.
Daniel Johnson: Now a question from the audience:
Question 1: You as a quantum physicist, would you agree that what quantum physics has brought to science…that will help to renew an understanding of what faith is to religion?
Andrew Briggs: …So the question was, would my studies of quantum science help us understand what faith is to religion? Was that right, yes? And the answer is yes, in a way that you might not expect. That in quantum theory—it’s an exquisitely-tested theory, it’s been tested to a higher accuracy perhaps than any other theory ever devised, about 16 decimal places—so it’s been fantastically and accurately tested, and yet there are still some foundational questions about which there is no agreement amongst the experts. For example, there is no agreement amongst quantum scientists about what happens when you make a measurement. Now you’d think that one of the most basic things you can do in a laboratories is to measure something, and yet if we when we have a quantum state in my lab, and we measure it…there’s no agreement about how to interpret that process of having made a measurement. And you might say to me, “Well, look, Professor Briggs, how can you carry on with integrity building these quantum technologies, when you can’t even answer a simple question like what happens when you make a measurement?” And I think the answer is that quantum theory is too robust, and too important, to stop doing the quantum technologies just because there’s that question that we can’t answer, without losing an interest in trying to understand it better. And the way that helps me in faith is this, that within the life of faith, following Jesus Christ, there are some really hard questions, to which in many cases there is no agreed answer. How does God act in the world? What happens when we pray? These are hard questions. We don’t dodge them. We don’t pretend that they’re not questions. We recognized that they’re hard, but the life of faith is too robust and it’s too important to stop living the life of faith until you’ve got an answer to those questions. And so in that sort of way, I find that I can learn from my scientific work and scientific thinking, in a way that helps me in my life of faith, not to lose interest in tackling these deeper questions, but not to suspend the life of faith while I’m still thinking about them.
Daniel Johnson: Thank you. I wanted to interject there a story from Andrew’s book about another very great scientist, who was also a great religious thinker: Blasé Pascal, a great French mathematician. Pascal was like Maxwell, you told us about a boy prodigy, an extraordinary phenomenon, who invented the first calculating machine when he was still a child, to help his father who was a tax collector, and therefore had need of a calculating machine, even in those days. And Pascal was one of these prodigious geniuses, anticipating many things. He worked out the whole of Euclid while still a child, without benefit of the book. But at one point in his life, suddenly his life changed because of a religious experience. He’s certainly not the only great scientist to have had that kind of experience.
Let’s have another question.
Question 2: My wife and I were very fortunate to be undergraduates at a very prestigious Ivy League university, and we found that the vast majority of professors on our campus who were Christians, were scientists. It wasn’t even close; the vast majority of them were. My question to you, Dr. Briggs, was, have you had a discovery or a moment in your scientific career that particularly impacted your faith? That spoke particularly to the glory of God, or his power, or his wisdom, or something? Because our experience had been that with a lot of these scientists, they had something in their discoveries that overwhelmed them in their faith.
Andrew Briggs: What a lovely question. You’ll have to tell me which was this very prestigious university you’re talking about. [“It was Princeton.”] Oh, a very good university, yes. Very prestigious. It happens that my next book will be written jointly with a professor at Princeton. He’s probably the top Christian philosopher of physics in the world. His name is Hans Halvorson, so we’re going to finish that manuscript by September of next year. It’s hard to single any out; actually, there have been many moments. I’ll just pick one as illustrative. And it was on Boxing Day in the third year of my PhD, and I drew a whole lot of data about the surface physics […] and I was trying to make sense of it, trying to make sense of it, and there was one quantity which was absolutely crucial which didn’t seem to make any different to the measurements I had been making, and on Boxing Day while watching on television the opera, I suddenly saw why that was. Because this quantity would appear on the top and the bottom of a fraction that would account for the whole phenomenon, and therefore cancelled out. And that’s why I didn’t see it make any difference. So that was a really exciting moment. It’s hard to communicate to you, but it was very exciting. And it’s an instance of sort of God got there first. This is how he created the world. This is how he created this particular phenomenon. It’s almost as if he put it there for me to study for my PhD, to work it out. And I think there is this pleasure in science, that someone who didn’t know God could have had a similar kind of a pleasure, but it wouldn’t have had this extra dimension of intensity that comes from knowing the Creator. I suppose you could think there’s a bit of a metaphor in my friendship with Roger Wagner. You see that he does these great paintings. And other people can see his paintings, and experience the beauty and joy of them, and appreciate them and get great pleasure from them. All of those things. And I can have that, but to me and to those who know him, there’s this extra dimension that’s in the context of friendship with the artist, with the creator. And that just adds something extra, which is what the scientist who knows God has as this extra dimension and joy.
Daniel Johnson: We shouldn’t forget, since you mentioned universities, that the very concept of a university is a Christian concept. It was in the medieval height of the Middle Ages that the church began to gather together scholars in places like Oxford and Paris. And from those, these great universities we have today emerged. I wanted to make the point that we often live with myths about great scientists. We’ve had for so long the idea that all scientists are basically opposed to religion, that we often believe myths… There’s one story that you tell in the book about Pierre-Simon Laplace, a great French scientist, who showed that Isaac Newton had been mistaken to suggest that only periodic divine intervention could prevent the solar system from collapse. And then of course, the Emperor Napoleon summoned him in, and asked him why he had not mentioned God in his treatise on the system of the universe. Laplace replied, and this is a very famous saying, “Son, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Now, everyone assumed that…Laplace meant God, but he didn’t. You point out that Laplace was actually no atheist; he received sacraments on his deathbed, and insisted that these words referred not to God but to Newton’s hypothesis. And he begged for this anecdote to be removed from his biography to no avail; it’s still the main reason why he’s remembered, poor man. But doesn’t that tell us something about how we always want to believe, or some of us want to believe, that science and religion are opposites, whereas what you show is that they’re actually complementary. They work best together.
Going back to Pascal, he said even mathematics has an infinity of infinities to expound. There is no end, there is no end to it. And that is true even more of other sciences. And as Andrew comments, the elaborate arguments of both natural theology and scientific atheism were quite precarious, built on sand. Pascal says, “We burn with desire to find a firm foundation, an unchanging solid base on which to build a tower rising to infinity, but in the event the foundation splits, the earth opens up to its depths, and what we are left with is an immense wall, the eternal silence of the infinite spaces.” Now that is a rather terrifying vision of a great scientist, but Pascal had his faith. He wasn’t reliant solely on science. I think science alone can’t do it all; we need faith, too. They are really complementary. It’s absolutely crucial for our peace of mind, for our existence, even, that we don’t exclude either of these realms. Religion without science becomes bigoted and narrow, but science without religion can also become very limited, very blind to the ultimate questions. And this is what Andrew has been talking about tonight. Do you want to say a few final words, because I think we’re coming to the end of our time?
Andrew Briggs: Yes, Einstein said something very much like what you’ve just said just now, that religion without science is blind and science without religion is pointless. Max Planck, who introduced the concept of the quantization of light, said that for anyone who wants to do science over the door of the laboratory is written “He must have faith.” And science has been so spectacularly successful in part because it’s given itself very limited objectives, it’s restricted itself to those questions which are amenable to its methods. And there are other questions that are not amenable to scientific methods of measuring and calculating and so on, that are just as important, or I would say in many cases, more important. And it’s marvelous to see how, when you’re interested in those bigger questions, the sort of questions that some of you may be asking all this week, while you’re in Israel, that’s conducive to thinking about material things. I suppose I should tell you about the time that I brought my family here on holiday in Israel, and they used to tease me, and say that the only thing I was interested in was the waterworks of Jerusalem. And I suppose one of the reasons why I love the waterworks of Jerusalem is that pipes don’t move. You know, the pipes that brought the water here from the surrounding countryside probably are the ones that were actually laid down by the Romans. The tunnel under Mount Zion is almost certainly the one that was created in the time of Hezekiah the king in 701 BC. So I love looking at these facts without restricting myself to them. So I hope for you this week in Israel, you’ll be inspired by these bits of the geography and archaeology that we can be rather sure of, but your awe and wonder and faith won’t be restricted to that, but will soar above it.
Daniel Johnson: Thank you very much.