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Obituary: J. R. Lucas

by
29 May 2020

The Rt Revd Professor N. T. Wright writes:

JOHN LUCAS, who died on 5 April, aged 90, was one of the leading philosophers of his day. He was a lifelong Anglican, cheerfully orthodox in his beliefs, who served the Church of England in various capacities, notably on the Doctrine Commission in the 1970s and then on the Commission on Marriage and Divorce. His father was a priest with six ordained generations behind him; a brother who predeceased him was also ordained. His widow, Morar, mother of his four children, is first cousin to the mother of the present Archbishop of Canterbury.

John saw himself as a typical Englishman, and was a kind of anima naturaliter Anglicana. He relished the old hymns and liturgies, and the seasons of the Church’s year. Ferociously intelligent, alarmingly polymathic, unfailingly friendly and good-humoured, he was loved, admired, and respected by pupils and colleagues, even when his views did not fit the creeping liberalism of the time.

He relished his characteristic combination of celebrating the past — he owned only one car, a 1929 model left him by his father — and the fresh possibilities, for instance, in the world of computing, which were continually opening up before him. Rooted in tradition, he was free to be an iconoclast whenever he thought it necessary — which was quite often.

His professional interests were remarkably wide-ranging. He wrote books and articles on epistemology, quantum physics, economics, political theory, theology, the philosophy of time, mathematics, the philosophy of science, and much besides, as well as the subject for which he is best known, his defence of the freedom of the will against all suggestions of determinism.

But his mind ranged at speed over many practical and local issues. He would talk of writing an autobiography, which he was going to call I Told You So: his sharp insight pinpointed all kinds of risks and problems on the international, national, and local scale, ranging from Eastern Europe to college politics; and he was frequently proved right.

In place of that autobiography, his website, with the same title, is a mine of information as well as relaxed good humour.

John Randolph Lucas was born in London in 1929, the son of Joan (née Randolph) and Egbert, who became Archdeacon of Durham (1939-53), where the family were neighbours, for most of that period, of the young Professor Michael Ramsey. John was sent at a young age to the Dragon School in Oxford, followed by Winchester.

His Balliol scholarship was in fact to read chemistry; he switched to mathematics, in which he retained a lifelong fascination, before changing again to Greats, to read the Classics, particularly the philosophers. Armed with a first, and in the days before a doctorate was thought necessary, he progressed through a senior scholarship and a junior research fellowship, both at Merton College, Oxford, and then a three-year appointment in Cambridge, a visiting fellowship at Princeton, and a one-year job in Leeds.

He returned to Merton in 1960 as Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy, a post that he held until his retirement in 1996. It was widely, and credibly, rumoured that he had turned down many offers of professorial chairs in Britain and abroad. He preferred his calling as an “ordinary” don, teaching the young to think clearly and reason wisely in whatever sphere of work they chose.

His staying in one place might also have had something to do with the congenial atmosphere of Merton itself. John gave himself unstintingly to Merton: he was a college man through and through. One way or another, generations of Mertonians — students, colleagues, and not least those who attended the college chapel — will remain grateful for his benign and encouraging presence.

As a philosopher, he had a robust defence of Free Will over against various proposed forms of Determinism. Here, he was able to pull together his mathematician’s understanding of Gödel’s theorem with his philosophical expertise. It was a deeply serious question with all kinds of moral and theological overtones (are humans just very complicated machines?); but it also had a playful side.

In the various philosophical debates, the issues with which he was most concerned were closely entwined with his lifelong interest in the paradoxes of Christian theology, focused on the twin notions of freedom and grace. A book of essays, Freedom and Grace, eventually appeared in 1976, during John’s time on the Doctrine Commission, revealing on every page that John saw the world, and its key and often puzzling questions, very much as a Christian for whom prayer, vocation, holiness, and hope were all central.

The book was also notable for a short closing paper, “Non Credo”, which John presented to the Doctrine Commission after various members had explained all the things that they themselves did not believe. John could see that the then fashionable liberalism had philosophical roots that needed to be challenged.

Despite deep disagreements, John appeared to relish his work on the Doctrine Commission, under Maurice Wiles’s chairmanship. He was wryly amused by the irony that many of the clerical members did not believe the doctrines that they were paid to teach, whereas he, a layman, believed them all. He remained on good terms with them, especially Professor Wiles, whom he would often meet walking round Christ Church Meadow (and whose dog once attacked the Lucas dog, occasioning an exchange of quasi-theological poems, ostensibly between the two dogs). John contributed to various theological collections, including one on the eucharist and another on atonement.

John was deeply interested in the workings of democratic society, as evidenced not only by his book Democracy and Participation (1976) but also by his own participation in public life and debates. He would throw himself into chosen causes, whether campaigning (successfully) to block the proposed Meadow Road in Oxford or (unsuccessfully) against the admission of women undergraduates in a small college such as Merton. He was equally at home campaigning on Cold War issues (when opportunity arose, he helped to take illegal Bibles and philosophy texts into Czechoslovakia, and he lectured to groups of dissidents) and on local Oxford issues (a stream of sharp little articles in the Oxford Magazine). He was energetic in raising money for good causes.

John was particularly interested both in science itself, in the philosophy of science (he was in 1993 President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science) and, not least, in the history of the science-and-religion debate. He studied carefully the aftermath of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and believed that the famous 1860 debate between Bishop Wilberforce, T. H. Huxley, and others had been wrongly written up to show Wilberforce in a bad light. As part of the rehabilitation, he helped to recreate the debate in November 2003, wrepresenting Wilberforce while Professor Janet Browne stood in for Huxley.

John and his family retired to Somerset, and his intellectual interests continued to sparkle until quite near the end. His mathematical mind had relished the advent of computers, and he was able to keep up with correspondence and other writing. Less than a month before his death, he had become interested in the strange properties of the number 16, and was planning to write an article about it.

A measure of his approachability and genial outlook on life can be seen from his response to an Australian schoolgirl who had been assigned him as a subject of study in her mathematics course. In his reply, John pointed out that he was himself one quarter Australian, via his father’s mother, who, like many Australians, was descended from a deported convict. (John had not been able to discover what crime his ancestor had committed back in 1808.)

He congratulated his correspondent on Australia’s voting to keep the monarchy, saying that he would have hated to be one quarter foreigner. “I had to keep quiet during the campaign,” he said, “as you would not have liked being told how to vote by a three-quarters Pommie, but now I can express my feelings freely.” That, of course, is what he always did best.

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