Reflecting on Faith and Reason

Sir John Houghton

Sir John Houghton

Sir John Houghton was widely recognized as one of the world’s preeminent climatologists. An author of several non-fiction books, including GLOBAL WARMING: THE COMPLETE BRIEFING. Houghton was well-known for his theories on the compatibility of science and religious faith. He was awarded numerous prizes over the course of his career. Most recently, he received the Albert Einstein World Award of Science in 2009. Houghton passed away in April 2020 from coronavirus at the age of 88.

ANNOUNCER: From the Bill Moyers Archive, Faith and Reason filmed at World Pen Voices Festival in 2006 now adapted for audio.

 JOHN HOUGHTON—Why is it that we actually can comprehend so much? Because it was Einstein who said the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it appears to be comprehensible.

ANNOUNCER: Sir John Houghton reveals the mind of a scientist at peace with doubt and belief.

That’s in this episode of Faith and Reason.

BILL MOYERS: Hello, I’m Bill Moyers, and I’m pleased you’ve joined us. In this conversation, we will hear from John Houghton, an acclaimed man of science who was in New York recently to attend the PEN Writers’ Festival on Faith and Reason.

BILL MOYERS:  Born of Baptist parents in Wales, he’s one of the world’s leading experts on climate change. He impressed a U.S. Senate hearing on global warming with his credentials as a scientist and his convictions as a Christian.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: People often say to me, I’m wasting my time talking about global warming. The world, they say, will never agree to take the necessary action. I reply, I am optimistic for three reasons. First, I’ve experienced the commitment of the world’s scientific community. Secondly, I believe the necessary technology is available for achieving satisfactory solutions. Thirdly, I believe, as a Christian, that God is committed to his creation and that we have a God-Given task of being good stewards of creation.

BILL MOYERS: Fascinated by the sun’s radiation, the young John Houghton studied physics and then taught at Oxford University. By the 1970s, he was designing instruments for NASA satellites.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: The whole science of meteorology and oceanography was being transformed by two things — one was space observations. And the second was the possibility of modeling, on computers, the circulation of the atmosphere. So I was very fortunate to be in on the beginning of both of those things.

BILL MOYERS: In 1983, the British meteorological office, one of the world’s best, named him its Director General.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: I was particularly interested in the stratosphere, the ozone layer. And I thought, well, if we could really make measurements of that part of the atmosphere, that would transform the whole subject.

BILL MOYERS: And it did. In the late 1980s, scientists working with John Houghton on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reached a consensus that global warming was real and getting worse, as human beings released more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: I knew that if you added extra carbon dioxide, that acted as a blanket over the Earth’s surface, and the Earth would get warmer. There was no doubt the Earth would get warmer.

BILL MOYERS: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was said to be mesmerized when he briefed the British Cabinet. The panel’s first report became the basis for the historic Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. World leaders, including the first president Bush, agreed to act on global warming. But the earth keeps getting warmer.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: We believe that it is likely that the 1990s have been the warmest decade during the last 1,000 years.

BILL MOYERS: For his work, John Houghton has been knighted by the Queen, presented the prestigious Japan prize for Outstanding Original Science, and he was awarded a rare honorary degree from his alma mater, Oxford. His books include DOES GOD PLAY DICE?, THE SEARCH FOR GOD: CAN SCIENCE HELP?, and GLOBAL WARMING: THE COMPLETE BRIEFING.

BILL MOYERS: Are you as certain of the existence of God as you are certain of the reality of global warming?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: They are two different sorts of certainty, in a way. I mean, one is a scientific question. The other is a much bigger question but, if you say am I certain about the existence of God, I ask myself that question quite often and say, “Am I kidding myself? Is this all a great construct of my mind or something in imagination that is unreal?” But then, you know, you reflect on that. I say, “I cannot escape, no way can I escape from believing God is there because He’s very real to me in many ways.” And — I believe He comes into my life and my thoughts and my prayers. It’s not simple the way this occurs. It’s hard to describe very often in ways that are not too personal to describe. But — it’s a very, very strong feature of my life. I could not imagine being without that.

BILL MOYERS: Your fellow countrymen Colin McGinn, the philosopher —


BILL MOYERS:  said, “Let’s don’t spend a lot of time on this. Because the existence of God cannot be proved, nor can it be disproved. Let’s move on to other subjects.” What do you think about that?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Well I agree it can’t be proved, and it cannot be disproved. But if that sort of statement implies that it’s not important, it is the most important question you have to get to grips with. Because if we really can get to know the creator of the universe, the one who’s responsible for this magnificent creation about which we know so little really as scientists. We know a lot, but it’s really very little compared with what we could know. And if you really can have some conversation, have some knowledge of that being, then there’s no bigger thing you could conceivably get to grips with. Even making scientific instruments for spacecraft or even getting to grips with global warming. But —

BILL MOYERS: Here’s the questions I wrestle with: if God is the creator who created a universe which is, in so many ways, incomprehensible, even as you and I are sitting here, the galaxies that we can measure by telescopes have expanded another couple of million miles, right?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Sure. Sure. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: That’s so incomprehensible to me. Why did God keep so much of it secret? Why did he make it so hard to find out? Why did he not reveal what is to us incomprehensible?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: I would just turn that around and say: Why is it that we actually can comprehend so much? Because it was Einstein who said, you know, the most incomprehensible thing about the universe it that it appears to be comprehensible. And when you think of the fact that we can, as human beings, we have the ability to understand, to some degree, the basic equations and mathematical structure and all those things which are the basis of the universe and its cosmology and the Big Bang and all those things, the very little particles and the enormous galaxies and we can get to grips with some of it. And that’s very remarkable. Because why should we have that propensity and that capability? We’re just very small creatures on a minute ball in the middle of this very vast universe. And yet we have that propensity. Why do we have that? It’s very hard to see that evolving in any way, although we may find scientific reasons why we’ve, you know, the way God makes things make themselves.

BILL MOYERS: Made things make themselves?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Well, God has made things that make themselves. And that’s very clever. If you make something — you know, a gadget — I was involved in the early days of space instrumentation, making space devices. And, of course, you had to throw them into space, and then you couldn’t touch them at all afterwards. So you had to make sure that they lived on, whatever happened.

BILL MOYERS: Was this the notion that you came about of God the watchmaker? God makes the watch and then lets it run on its own?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Well, that’s part of that story. But it’s cleverer than that. Because, you see, watches don’t make watches. They don’t make actual watches. But God is actually — God’s creation, you find things that or — the ways in which the whole basic structure of science operates in astronomy. I was more interested in astronomy than biology because I was a physicist. And when you look at stars and you realize that stars are made by — the very small parts of the atoms and — and the nuclei within stars — stars collapse in the first instance to create higher densities. And then the higher densities get very hot. And then those very hot interiors, elements are made. You make helium. And then you make carbon. And then you make uranium. You make all these elements within the stars. Then the stars blow up into supernova. And they condense together again to make new stars. Our sun is one of those new stars. And out of that great mess of elements came the Earth. And you think, well, there is God going through a very long process, taking billions of years, in order to create something like the Earth. He doesn’t do it overnight. But he built into the very structure of the universe absolute basic particles and the elements for things that make the particles work. God is a story of things that are making themselves.

BILL MOYERS: So is God the name of what we don’t know?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: You say we don’t know — I — but I would say God is the name of a person we can know. It’s this knowledge of God which, if we just put the name of God on everything we don’t know, that’s a very big mistake. That’s a mistake the people who talk about intelligent design make, in a way. They say, “We don’t know about things which are going on in the natural world. We don’t understand various things and the process in which life has come into being or other creatures have come into being. Or we’ll put God as the name, or intelligent design as the name on some of those little bits.” And that’s making God far too small. Because God is the great intelligent designer. The whole thing is intelligent design.

BILL MOYERS: When you say “God,” what are you saying?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: I am saying the intelligence behind the universe, the one who’s created it all, the one who’s responsible for it all, the one who’s put it all together. And you see, I suppose, later on as I began to try to write about science and faith, I began to think, well, God isn’t just the mathematician behind it all. He’s not just the engineer behind it all. If God is going to be the greatest being we can ever know, the old definition of Anselm years ago saying God is the greatest conceivable being, well, then God has to be a person, too. Because we have this personality, which we don’t all — altogether understand. We have this consciousness. We have this ability to relate to other people. We have this ability to be aware of ourselves. And if we are like that and God is the greatest possible being, then God must be like that, too.

BILL MOYERS: But isn’t that the old term “anthropomorphic”? Are we not reading into this intelligence you described, which no one has ever seen, our own description of a person?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Of course. And that’s because that’s the only thing we can do. We have to come from the bottom up, in a sense, because we can’t come from the top down because that’s impossible. If you accept that God is the great creator, the one who’s made it all, then I can learn about him from the creation. In other words I can also learn about him from the way he’s made me. And if God has made me or God has created the means to make me which involves consciousness, self-awareness, and personality, and all those things, then God must have those attributes, too.

BILL MOYERS: You’re saying that you believe the story of a figure who was crucified, buried, and resurrected is a literal story?


BILL MOYERS: It actually happened?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: I believe that actually happened.

BILL MOYERS: But if, in all of recorded history, there’s only one example of someone being born, dying, and resurrected, then that’s obviously abnormal, out of the normal —


BILL MOYERS: — out of the natural pattern. And are you saying that, as a scientist, you can accept that kind of abnormality as part of the normal creation of God’s intelligent design?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Well, part of God’s creation, I don’t understand the resurrection, of course, because it’s a most unusual event. And Jesus had a body which is described in the New Testament which is the same but different. And that’s very interesting, very exciting actually.

BILL MOYERS: You mean different after the resurrection —

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Different after the resurrection. Sure.

BILL MOYERS: What is it that Paul says in one of his verses that he is the revelation of the invisible.


BILL MOYERS: Yes, yes.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Now can I just go back to the — you know, the way science operates? Because the great discoveries in science have often been made by people who’ve seen something unusual which they couldn’t describe scientifically. This Henri Becalel and his discovery of radioactivity. He had some photographic plates lying around in the lab, you see? And these were fogged plates. Well, now a normal scientist would just take those fogged plates and dump them in the wastepaper, saying they just got fogged up, I better get some more. He said, “Why are those plates got fogged?” And so he discovered radioactivity. Now, if you see something like the resurrection, you say, “Is there some reason why I should take that seriously?” If it’s just an event that’s happened or not happened and it makes no difference, you say scientifically I remain agnostic and it doesn’t matter. But it really impacts on your life as a whole and your thought as a whole, your belief and emotions as a whole and the way that that does, then that’s something which you’ve got to take seriously. And the more you take it seriously, the more you realize that this is part of God’s big story.

BILL MOYERS: Well, help me to get to that, because I’m talking to a man whose life has been devoted to science, to observation and experimentation of the natural world, the world —


BILL MOYERS: — that we can see and feel and discover through reality, material reality. Talking about something that has to be ascribed to the supernatural world, right?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: The supernatural and the natural are very closely connected.


SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: The illustration I’ve used in some of my books, or the metaphor I’ve used, is you know that God is in another dimension. And I found that a very useful analogy.

BILL MOYERS: Yes. As you told your students for years that God was the fifth dimension. Help me to understand what you mean by that.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Well, we live in this world, which is — three dimensions of space, one dimension of time. The remarkable thing that Albert Einstein did in his theory of relativity was to say, “Let’s call time the fourth dimension. And let’s make time look like space.” Which you do by multiplying by, you know, the velocity of light and the square root of minus one. And that sounds magic, but it makes the equations fit together in a remarkable way. And calling time the fourth dimension, revolutionized physics.


SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Made a tremendous difference the — the way we look at the concept of the whole universe, right from the very little to the very big. And that was a remarkable jump in ideas and in conception. And there’s a metaphor there, you see? You were using dimensions. And we often ask the question — I’ve often tried to ask the question, Where is God? You see? We live in this word of three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, the four dimensional space/time, as we call it. And somehow we imagine that’s all there is. You know? We live in a very materialistic world, a very materialistic environment, very materialistic ideas. And we imagine and some people actually say that is all there is. But let’s suppose that there is another dimension, a fifth dimension, if you like, where God is. How can we think of God in that way? I find it a very helpful analogy of how to think of God. God’s outside the universe, but he can come within it any time he wishes. In fact, he can make himself present anywhere. And he does that. He keeps it all going.

BILL MOYERS: The fifth dimension is the spiritual dimension.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: The spiritual dimension. That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: It is essentially unknowable by scientific criteria, right?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: That’s too strong a statement. Because science can address all our thinking and can address what goes on in my brain and what goes on in my thoughts. And there’s another — I’ve been thinking recently about, well, how do we think of our consciousness and that sort of thing. You know, there is a mental dimension as well, which is out there. Which describes our mental processes, our thoughts, the way we create thoughts, the way we imagine things and so on. Which are not material in the sense of being space and time. They’re outside the material, and yet they are very real.

BILL MOYERS: So that would be the way that within our material corporeal being, there is another dimension.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: There’s another dimension within our being which you call the mental dimension.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, the mind is a part of that —

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Which everybody knows about. I mean, it’s our thoughts, our ideas —

BILL MOYERS: Our dreams.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Our dreams. The laws of nature, which we find, a part of that mental construct. God is the one who puts all that together. And they are connected. I believe that very strongly.

BILL MOYERS: I know you do. And I know you also accept what your fellow scientists have told us about the Earth being billions of years old.


BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that there are a lot of Christians who believe that it’s only 7,500 years old? And that it was created in six days? How do you wrestle with that?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: I’m very sad about that, because it seems to me they’re missing so much. And they’re tying themselves to a particular, literal account which we find of creation in the first chapter of the Bible. And that chapter is not a scientific description of how the universe came into being. It’s not a scientific textbook. It was never meant as a scientific textbook. Augustine recognized that it wasn’t a scientific textbook. John Calvin said, “If you want to learn about astronomy, go to the astronomers. Don’t go to the Bible.” It’s not a scientific textbook. They understood that. It’s a very recent phenomenon of people who feel that the Genesis One in English is literally true in some sense that doesn’t really make sense from the reading of it. Because there are things in the first chapter of the Bible which show that it’s poetry rather than science. You have evening and morning on Day One. And yet the sun didn’t appear until Day Four. So there are things that are metaphorical, analogical and so on in Genesis One and poetic. And you have to read it that way. It teaches many things about creation. It teaches that God created and all those things, and the order of creation is all there. But it’s not a scientific textbook.

BILL MOYERS: But here’s what people wrestle with. You just said that you must read the Book of Genesis as poetry, as symbolic. And yet for millions of people, I mean, multi millions of people, the resurrection of Jesus cannot be the dynamic in their life unless it is literally true, not poetically true. Even you say that it happened.


BILL MOYERS: So you take one part of the Bible and interpret it literally and take the other part of the Bible and put it over there for poetical transcription. And that’s the conflict that people experience. If you don’t believe that Jesus was literally resurrected, it’s okay to believe that Genesis was just figuratively speaking. But if you believe that Genesis was figuratively speaking, isn’t the story of Jesus symbolic and figurative?

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: You can’t make those generalizations, you see? Because the way we use language is very varied. And in our ordinary lives, we use metaphors and we use poetry and we say many things which are not literally true because they’re just metaphors or pictures. And we say other things which are literally true, which are accepted as literally true. And language is like that. So you can’t say we have to believe in — I mean, we talk about the sun going over the sky — that doesn’t mean that we believe the Earth isn’t actually going around on its axis. It means that we just have that appearance of the sun moving over the sky. So you have to be very careful about how you interpret different parts of the Bible. And — I think the resurrection is something which is very different from Genesis One, because the resurrection was written, looks like a historical story. Genesis One, even on very simple reflections on it, doesn’t read like a literal story.

BILL MOYERS: And so in your life, there has not really been then a deep conflict between faith and reason.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Not a deep conflict. No. I’ve recognized the potential for conflict. I’ve recognized those areas which I can’t resolve. But then I also think, one of the most important statements you can make as a scientist are: I don’t know. One of the most important statements you should be prepared to make as a believer is: I don’t know. And too many people don’t want to say: I don’t know. Because, you know, we’re just human beings. Knowledge is very limited. And to say you don’t know is a very proper scientific statement. You may know sometime. But I don’t know now. And — and the same is true in the area of your faith. There are lots of things I don’t know. And I have to remain ignorant. Or, agnostic, whatever it may be, because I don’t know. And there are too many theologians and too many people out there who say, “I know,” when they have no right to say that.

BILL MOYERS: Well, as I’ve said before, what my favorite verse in the New Testament is: “I believe. Help thou, my unbelief.”

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Yeah, that’s a very good verse. That describes a lot of my experience, too.

BILL MOYERS: Sir John Houghton, thank you very much for being with me.

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: Thank you very much for asking me.

ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening, visit Bill to learn more about the Faith and Reason series.