The Rational Intelligibility of the Universe

James Fodor / 02 September 2014


Here I continue my critique of the major arguments raised by John Lennox at the recent “Cosmic Chemistry?” public lecture and the “Faith has its Reasons” conference. In this third part of the series, I will discuss the claim made by Lennox that naturalistic science is unable to provide an explanation for why the universe itself is intelligible to humans. The insinuation I believe that Lennox was making was that science was limited because it was unable to give an account of its own efficacy consistent with its internal standards. I argue that Lennox’s contention rests on a conceptual confusion about the difference between unquestioned belief and an inductively-supported working hypothesis, and also exhibits a double standard in the criteria he applies to faith compared to science.

What Lennox Said

“Physics is powerless to explain its faith in the intelligibility of the universe, because you have to accept this before you even do any physics”
“You’ve got to believe that science can be done before you can do it. You have to believe in the rational intelligibility of the universe”

Intelligibility as a Working Hypothesis

I find Lennox’s claims on this matter to be rather puzzling. His assertion seems to be equivalent to claiming that one needs to firmly and axiomatically believe that a particular cake recipe will taste good, and that one will be able to follow all the steps of the recipe successfully, before one can even begin to bake the cake. This is clearly false: all I need to believe is that these things might be true, and that it is worth my while to give the recipe a try. In my view, this is precisely what happens in science. We cannot say ex ante that a given theory or technique will work, or whether some phenomena will even be rationally intelligible – but nor do we need to. We try a bunch of different approaches and see if any of them work. If not, we try something else. Perhaps there will come a time when we are forced to conclude ‘we have tried every conceivable scientific approach to answer this question and all have failed, so it’s time to give up and admit defeat’. But I do not see compelling evidence that we are in that position with respect to any scientific question of significance at present.

Double Standards

Indeed, Lennox’s use of the word ‘faith’ in this context is rather inconsistent with other remarks he made defending the concept of ‘faith’ when used in a religious context. Lennox argued that faith does not mean ‘blind belief without evidence’; rather it refers to a trust and confidence grounded in good evidence and reason, but exercised in the absence of complete certainty. Though I doubt many scientists would take to word, understood in this way I think this is precisely the attitude science takes with respect to answering questions about the natural world. We don’t know for certain that scientific methods or rational inquiry will work for any particular problem, but we have a lot of good inductive evidence from the past which supports the idea, and so we adopt a pragmatic ‘faith’ that the continued use of the method will prove fruitful.

Lennox seems to be inconsistent in demanding some kind of rock-solid foundational underpinning of certainty upon which science can justifiably rest all its claims to knowledge, while on the other hand religious claims (which needless to say have far less evidentiary support than almost all scientific claims) need only meet the much less stringent criteria of being grounded in ‘faith based on reason’. If Lennox wishes to be so hyper-skeptical about scientific claims of truth, in demanding a fully rigorous grounding for everything, why does he not also apply this same criteria to his religious and philosophical beliefs?

A Category Error

There is also the further question of why Lennox should suppose that physics is the appropriate discipline to provide an answer to the question of how/why the universe (or parts of it) is ‘rationally intelligible’ to humans. Surely this question lies more within the realm of psychology and evolutionary biology, and perhaps also philosophy, rather than physics. Since the question concerns the nature of human minds, and how they interact with each other and with the world, it is mysterious as to why Lennox should think it necessary for physics to provide an explanation for this type of question. Criticising physics for failing to ‘explain its faith’ in the intelligibility of the universe would be like criticising biologists for their ‘faith’ in the conservation of matter and energy in biological systems. Lennox seems to be making an elementary mistake concerning the subject matter and scope of different scientific disciplines.


I do not think Lennox presented a very compelling case that science is limited because of its inability to explain the ‘rational intelligibility’ of the universe. His argument depended on attacking a strawman depiction of science which claims for itself dogmatic certainty and full and complete grounding for all its beliefs, rather than the pragmatic, incremental, probabilistic attitude towards truth which characterises genuine scientific inquiry. Lennox also seemed to establish a double-standard, whereby religious claims could be justified by a degree of trust or faith in the absence of total certainty, whereas anything of this sort was somehow unacceptable for science. Finally, Lennox made an elementary category error in criticising physics for failing to provide an explanation for the rational intelligibility of the cosmos, a task for which disciplines such as psychology and evolutionary biology are far more suited.

James Fodor is President of the University of Melbourne Secular Society. He is studying for a Bachelor of Science and has a particular interest in science communication, skeptical activism, interfaith dialogue, and effective altruism.

For more, see James's blog here.
John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.

He is also a philosopher of science and Christian apologist, considered to be a leading figure of the evangelical intelligentsia.

All the more reason.