I remember once hearing a young father tell me that he would not influence his children to believe or to not believe that God exists. When the children reached adolescence or at least the age of rational choice based on rational argument they could make the decision for themselves. Since they had no experience of church or Sunday School it turned out they had no decision to make; they just refrained from doing anything different from what they had always done

The father was not a philosopher but no doubt he would have agreed with the nineteenth century liberal and utilitarian J.S. Mill:

The most important quality of an opinion on any momentous subject is its truth or falsity, which to us resolves itself into the sufficiency of the evidence on which it rests. It is indispensable that the subject of religion should from time to time be reviewed as a strictly scientific question and that its evidences should be tested by the same scientific methods, and on the same principles as those of any of the speculative conclusions drawn by physical science.

J.S.Mill “Theism”

Science may be useful or helpful when considering religious beliefs. Consideration of the world and what it tells us of God has been part of natural theology at least since Aquinas. One-time atheist philosopher Antony Flew has written an interesting work There Is A God (HarperCollins 2007) in which he explains why he changed his mind on God on the basis of recent scientific research. But in what way can science focused on religion make a judgement challenging the truth of God one way or the other? Mill points to “scientific methods” presumably referring to the empirical idea of the detached observer considering evidence impartially. But what evidence? Can God be known by the detached observer?

As Ian Robinson explains:

“Existence” as Mill uses it at once transfers the discussion to the wrong science, and to the kind of evidence we would demand for the existence of the planets or the elements. If the existence of God is the same kind of question as the existence of uranium or Uranos it can be investigated by physics. Scientists do occasionally discover new celestial objects but God has never been spied through a telescope. Therefore, thinks Mill, with what I had to call startling naivety, the existence of God is at best not proven. No, all that follows is God is not a celestial object. The methods of physical science apply to physical things, but we are told that God is spirit.

Ian Robinson The English Prophets Edgeways 2001

Religion does not start from the Mill’s rational viewpoint. As Robinson argues the Creed does not begin “I believe that God exists therefore….” ; it starts from an inside commitment. “I believe in God …”

So that the fact Mill in his essay thinks on balance the existence of God as first cause is more likely than not does not mean he commits to God as the “light of the world or saviour”. He questions whether Mill is speaking about religion at all. For what is religion?

Religion has to do with things like certain practices called sacramental, associated with the divine, with absolutes in morality, with credal belief in revelation, with prayer. It also gives us a picture of human life though not a picture to be contemplated in an art gallery. The central Christian image derived from the Old Testament, is walking in a way. That is how Christians prove the existence of God. “If ye love me keep my commandments”. I do not go as far as Wittgenstein that it makes no difference whether the crucifixion actually happened. What concerns religion is the attitude of the soul to the event, and the consequences for living.

Ian Robinson ibid

Conversion, repentance, a changed life, may have physical effects but strictly the measurement of such is not something science can yield; only a sense, within and perhaps in community, of a changed life. Curiously Mill as he describes in his Autobiography goes through a kind of conversion from the kind of desiccated education he has been subject to as a child by reading Wordsworth’s poetry -but this does not leads him to prioritise the inner life in his philosophy. Nor does he ask in what way Science proves the existence of poetry-though clearly, for him, poetry creates a “momentous” change.

So the young father was as deluded in his idea as he would have been in denying his children the practice of reading poetry, until they were of an age when such a choice could be made rationally. And while natural theology may make interesting reading religion is closer to poetry than it is to science.


As though the scientific edifice of the modern world were not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful collective work of the mind of man.

C.P. Snow The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Rede Lecture 1959

It is pleasant to think of Snow contemplating, daily perhaps, the intellectual depth, complexity and articulation in all their beauty. But there is a prior human achievement of collaborative creation, a more basic work of the mind of man (and more than the mind), one without which the triumphant erection of the scientific would not have been possible; that is, the creation of a human world, including language. It is one we cannot rest on as something done in the past. It lives in the living creative response to change in the present.

F.R.Leavis .Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow Richmond Lecture 1962

But the religious virtue of knowledge was become a flunkey to the god of material success.

D. H. Lawrence The Rainbow

I was at school in Northern Ireland when the furore over Leavis’ radical dismantling of C.P.Snow’s Rede Lecture (known as the Two Cultures lecture) took place. Not that as a schoolboy I knew much about it. Nevertheless the time was coming when one had to choose between specialising in Science subjects or the Arts. There was no doubt which of the two was considered superior. Science was given an intellectual weight beside which the arts were made to seem to be rather light and flimsy; my interest, however, was in the arts and I concentrated at school and then university on English Literature and History.

This dispute might seem long gone, an academic affair that has become outdated, of interest only to academics. Not so! It is still very much with us.

Ostensibly Snow’s argument seemed attractive. There was a gap and the gap should be narrowed between education in the sciences and education in the arts. It was begun at school and went on into life, making for two groups of educated people who could not share intellectual and cultural interests. If it had been left at that fair enough.

But the thrust was plain. Scientific education should be backed at the expense of the arts because it was the sciences rather than the arts that contributed to the good of society. “Scientists had the future in their bones” whereas the literary representatives of what Snow called “traditional culture” are “natural luddites“. The arts were fine but only as something ornamental, an attractive display that added grace to life. Real knowledge, real progress belonged to Science and to adjusting our education so that more science got taught, there was greater specialisation in science. Ultimately this would lead to greater prosperity and the material improvement of life for all and this is what was primarily needed.

Well the argument is still with us. The other day Sir Patrick Valance involved in the health response against Covid pleaded for more iintegration of science and politics. Government responds by launching a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy declaring its aim to make Britain “a science super-power”.

Leavis’ argument however was concerned less with the need for more Science( which he did not dispute) more for the importance for society to develop critical intelligence rooted in culture. For only a rooted culture could provide us with a centre which materialism could never provide -though it might dissipate such- and Snow’s educational remedies were externalist ( note the image of the “edifice” in the quotation) directed towards science and technology creating the jobs that would give the population sufficient “jam” (yes, that was his term!) to live on.

I won’t go into the “nitty-gritty” of the argument here though I plan to discuss it further in future posts. For me however, as a young man seeking his way in life when I eventually studied the matter in more depth on reading the two sides it was Leavis who stood not only for humanitas but for the human spirit. Snow’s focus was purely materialist. For him it was a question as to what the country needed materially for its advancement and only that,. Leavis’ challenge was :

” what we need and shall continue to need not less, is something with the livingness of the deepest vital instinct for the sake of our humanity, for the sake of a human future … to maintain the full life in the present -and life is growth- of our transmitted culture”

It might be said he understood, as Snow did not show any sign of doing, that Science and material welfare could not provide a country with a centre. He understood, that is, what Yeats meant, when he wrote:

 "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. 
W.B. Yeats The Second Coming.

It was this awareness that drove me as it had done many others influenced by Leavis, perhaps the greatest teacher of English, as well as the greatest critic we have known in the last century, to become a teacher of English, because in English we saw a meeting ground with pupils and students wherever they were at; for the value of absorbing literature is perennial not because of its external benefits but because it develops us in our sympathies and understanding in the common pursuit of true judgement. And without that pursuit strongly pursued society wilts.

It was Snow of course who succeeded Endorsed by Harold Wilson who offered him a place in his government and spoke of the “white heat of the technological revolution” as something the country must embrace. Polytechnics, admirable institutions designed to provide a technical education, became universities. Universities packed with specialisms became multiversities designed to give their paying career savvy- students the vocational preparation they needed. Arts students were poor relations.

University once meant a centre for the gathering of knowledge in an attempt to integrate knowledge: a collocation of specialisms cannot offer that. In the meantime religious faith has dwindled and cultural choice is more and more directed by market values. Political debate is concentrated on economic matters and “culture wars” are responses to bitter divisions over questions of rights- divisions stirred by social media.

The question of restoring the centre is one of urgency; but it cannot be done without faith and rooted intelligence.


THis is how the powerful critic F.R. Leavis described the possibility back in 1970 in his essay “Literarism” versus “scientism”“.

I was, I confess, a little amused when, sitting at a formal lunch next to the director of a City Art Gallery, I was told by him, in the tone of saying something very impressive: ” A computer can write a poem”. I replied, very naturally, that I couldn’t accept that, adding that it was one of the things I knew to be impossible. When he responded by being angry , fierce and authoritative, I reflected he was a German, if an emigre, and that in any case his business was Kunst and he hadn’t said a computer could paint a work of art. The other occasion on which I was confronted, point-blank, with the preposterous and ominous claim, which by then I had discovered to be pretty current, it made a profound impression on me. The testifier was a philosopher, a lady and cultivated; her place and conditions of residence gave her access to a friendly computer laboratory. She had taken advantage of the opportunity, I gathered, to develop an intense experimental interest: “It’s incredible” she said, ” what a computer can do; it’s awfully fascinating; you know a poem can write a poem.” I couldn’t let that pass; with the appropriate urbanity I said: ” Well, “poem” means different things” there was no Teutonic anger this time. There was a sudden descent, a heightened nuance of pink, a concessive philosophic laugh, and then “O well, yes; but it’s great fun”.

Leavis is a very fine writer. As criticism this works in a novelistic way. The two characters encountered are made vividly alive (we are perhaps less happy with asserting national cultural characteristics so boldly, as Leavis does with the art director, but in 1970 our kind of political correctness in these matters was less common ) and the types of contrasting ways of defending the idea are very effectively presented. On the one hand, there is what one might call dogmatic materialist fundamentalism that does not brook dissent; on the other, a kind of philosophical playfulness, subject to embarrassment when it senses opposition, while resting on a self- indulgent sense of fun. Both kinds of response , one might add, remain characteristic of our modern Britisn intelligentsia.

You might read the passage and say however, “Well this was fifty years ago, in a different world in which people had not adjusted to the new reality computers were to bring”. Leavis, however, goes on to ask the fundamental question and to demonstrate the danger of letting go the meanings of our most important words.

That any cultivated person should want to believe that a computer can write a poem!-the significance of the episode, it seemed to me, lay there. For the intention had been naive and unqualified. It could be that because of the confusion of different forces of the word “poem”. And yet the difference is an essential one; the computerial force of “poem” eliminates the essentially human- eliminates human creativity.

We can , of course, choose to “want” to believe a computer can write a poem. The technology is far advanced from its rudimentary 1970 stage and computer addicts can develop programmes in which an Emily Dickenson poem, say, is broken up into individual words which when fed into a programme can be so managed as to produce a combination of words and phrases put together in short lines which can give it the look of a quizzical Emily Dickenson style composition-until, that is, you begin to read it. Or you can organise rhythmic and rhyme pattern that present a ballad-form. You can even-for I have checked You Tube- organise events in which you get people to choose between two “poems”- one written by a human the other by a computer, and find the audiences, by immediate reaction with a show of hands can mistake one for the other. “Great fun!” as the philosopher in the story said.

Or is it? The value we put on the word ” poem” and the creativity it manifests is made a mockery of if it can also mean it is “created” by a computer programme being designed to follow the human brain’s linguistic patterning. Because poems are not cerebral constructs, they are not merely or mainly brain-work but creations of the whole person, body, mind and spirit working together.

To pretend a computer can write a poem is to reduce the significance of the word and the wondrous power of the creative imagination as it expresses itself in language.

But in an era, dazzled by technology, in which science and technology are made the central agents of progress it is vitally important to insist what it is science within its limitations can do and what it cannot and what computers can do and what they cannot.

So let us be grateful for well-designed and programmed computers; but for the sake of what is precious in our humanity don’t become over-impressed.