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John Polkinghorne on Natural Theology, Part 1

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November 27, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's video features John Polkinghorne. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

As part of the H. Orton Wiley Lecture series in Theology on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne inspired students and faculty alike in thinking about the interaction between science and the Christian faith. The first lecture, entitled, Natural Theology, was delivered on November 15th, 2010. The entire MP3 is available for download here.

Below, we provide a transcript of the portion that extends from 10:06 to 16:10. This portion describes a very interesting and, we think, extremely helpful way of thinking about intelligent design. Many think that the Intelligent Design Movement is largely an attempt to revive the two hundred year old arguments of William Paley. Polkinghorne however, describes a new natural theology, one quite different than that of Paley. He points us to a deeper approach to the interface of science and the Christian faith than that associated with the intelligent design movement.

We provide a written transcript of the talk to make it easier to mull over Dr. Polkinghorne’s ideas while you listen.

“William Paley… wrote a book, a famous book, called Natural Theology. Paley’s form of natural theology was an uninhibited appeal to the inspection of the world. He produced the argument from design in a familiar form pointing to the atlas of living beings, surviving and functioning in their environment, pointing to such things as the amazingly complex optical system of the mammalian eye and so on. The existence of these things were manifest demonstrations of the existence of the divine designer who brought them into being. It must have seemed a very persuasive argument.

Indeed many people perceived it that way but of course the rug was pulled from beneath that argument in 1859 when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in which Darwin was able to show how the patient shifting and accumulation of small differences between one generation and the next over very long periods of time could bring into existence the appearance of design without requiring the direct intervention of a divine designer. The key thing that enabled Darwin to have that insight was the realization of deep time and that living things had existed on the earth over vast periods of time and that there was the possibility of slow change in the characteristics of living beings. And that perfused Darwin’s demolition of Paley, essentially producing a disillusionment with natural theology in many theological circles. But we are living in a time when there has been a revival of natural theology. It is not only a revived natural theology …but it is also a revised natural theology. It is revised in two very important ways.

First of all it is more modest in the claims that it makes. It does not claim to talk in terms of proofs of God’s existence, but it talks about insight which suggests the existence of a divine creator…The claim is that theism enables one to understand more than atheism. So the new natural theology doesn’t appeal to truth, but it appeals to what you might call best explanation; that to see the world as a divine creation makes it more intelligible than the opposite deduction: that the world is just a brute fact with no further explanation.

It is also revised because it is not trying to rival science on its own ground. With hindsight we can see that the old-style-natural-theologians like William Paley were actually making a mistake about the relationship between science and religion. They were trying to use religion to answer scientific questions…

Science doesn’t require augmentation from theology or any other discipline in its own proper domain. So the new natural theology doesn’t set itself up as a rival to scientific explanation as the best explanation, but as a complement, as a complementary relationship to scientific explanation —to place that understanding in a broader and deeper context of intelligibility…

So the new natural theology is not part of a war between science and religion, but is a part of a peaceful co-existence of mutual help and exchange of gifts between science and religion.

So if the new natural theology isn’t answering scientific questions what sorts of questions is it answering?.... In particular it is answering what you might call meta-questions. Meta-questions arise in a particular context, and their very character takes you beyond the context of their origin. So the questions that natural theology addresses today are questions that arise out of our experience of doing science but which are not in themselves scientific questions. Science essentially only answers questions of how… They are not scientific questions but they arise out of scientific experience. They are meaningful and necessary to ask and we seek to find answers to them, but if we are do so we will have to look elsewhere—beyond the science. The claim of natural theology is that a theistic belief affords the most natural persuasive explanation of our state of affairs.”

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.


Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne, a British physicist and theologian, is widely regarded as one of the most important scholars in the science/religion discussion today. He worked in theoretical elementary particle physics at Cambridge University for 25 years before becoming an Anglican priest in the early 1980’s. Polkinghorne has written many books on issues in science and theology, including Science and Christian Belief, Belief in God in an Age of Science, and Questions of Truth (with co-author Nicholas Beale). Among his numerous honors, Polkinghorne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2002.

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Martin Rizley - #42706

December 6th 2010

For example, if God genetically restructured cells from an animal to create the body of the first man, the man’s cells might have functionless genes for making tails, but that would not prove any unbroken, “reproductive” lineage linking men to animals.  The physical data could not be used as proof against the Bible’s teaching that God brought into being the first man by an act of special divine creation.


Martin Rizley - #42710

December 6th 2010

beaglelady,    I agree with you that ‘ideological assumptions’ have everything to do with the ideas we find ‘plausible’ or ‘absurd.’  Those who are disciples of Richard Dawkins tend to equate the ‘supernatural’ with the ‘superstitious.’  If these concepts are equated, then any proposed explanation of physical data that involves a power outside the system of nature ‘intervening’ in the natural realm is automatically rejected as ‘superstitious.’  If a plausible explanation of the data based on naturalism can be found to explain the data, it is not merely preferred, but seen as the only explanation that accords with ‘common sense.’  However, it is one’s ideological assumptions that make a particular paradigm seem ‘incontrovertible,’ when in fact there may be other paradigms that explain the physical data equally well.  I freely admit that my most basic assumption is the existence of the God of Israel, whose character, attributes, will, and purposes have been revegaled authoritatively in Jesus Christ and the holy Scriptures. That assumption governs my thinking, just as deistic or atheistic assumption might govern the thinking of others.


John - #42719

December 6th 2010

Martin wrote:
“John,  I didn’t say ‘natural selection’ was random; I said that the changes that take place over time are random, to the degree that such changes depend on random mutations.”

You said that the PROCESS was COMPLETELY random. That’s false.

“Random mutations are selected by nature based on the advantage they give an organism for survival, according to evolutionary theory.”

You’re denying the existence of a well-known, non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanism.

“So to the degree that mutations are random, the process of unguided evolution is random.”

Martin, you said that the PROCESS was COMPLETELY random. That’s false.

“By ‘random’ I mean that there is no purpose, no end in view, and no design in the scheme of naturalistic evolution.”

That’s not what “random” means.


John - #42720

December 6th 2010

Martin:
“Can you give me an example of the differences that you say have no functional relevance?”

The vast majority of sequence differences that IDCreationists deceptively claim represent nothing more than vague similarity.

Have you ever examined the sequence evidence for yourself? I mean with no reference to what anyone says about it?

“Keep in mind that certain organs once thought to have no functional relevance are now known to have a function.”

Huh? I was talking about DIFFERENCES that have no functional relevance, not organs.

“If God by direct intervention structurally redesigned cells of previously existing organism to create a new organism, He could do so without eliminating all previous genetic history from that cell, which would give the appearance of an ‘ancestral’ history for the new organism, which in reality was brought into being by an act of special creation.  (continued)”

Why would He do that?


John - #42721

December 6th 2010

Martin:
“For example, if God genetically restructured cells from an animal to create the body of the first man, the man’s cells might have functionless genes for making tails, but that would not prove any unbroken, “reproductive” lineage linking men to animals.”

Martin, you are obviously ignorant of basic developmental genetics.

You have simply assumed that development has been designed in the way that humans intelligently design mechanisms. Your design hypothesis predicts that there would be particular “genes for making tails.” This prediction of your unstated hypothesis is completely false, as there are no special genes for making tails. Tails are made using the same genes that are used to make other structures. This is indisputable in humans, since we all have tails as embryos, and some of us still have them at birth.

“The physical data could not be used as proof against the Bible’s teaching that God brought into being the first man by an act of special divine creation.”

You aren’t familiar with the most basic physical data, yet you make sweeping claims that depend on your assumptions. Is that what modest, honest Christians do?


Martin Rizley - #42728

December 6th 2010

John,  We simply disagree on the meaning of ‘random.’  I believe that any event that takes place without direction, goal or purpose would be a random event, even if it was in a sense ‘predetermined’ by the physical properties that govern matter.  The fact is, where there is no mind involved, there can be no purpose or end in view—so whatever takes place through the undirected movements of a matter is, to my way of thinking, a random event.  We’ll just have to disagree on that.  I already mentioned a couple reasons why God might choose to specially create new life forms from the ‘restructured’ cells of existing life forms—perhaps as a testimony to the interdependence of all life forms on each other, or as an illustration of the principle that ‘out of death comes life.’  Scientific paradigms do not have to ask the ‘why’ question, however, because science is not concerned with the ‘why’ of things.  It simply asks, does this paradigm makes sense of the physical data?  If so, then it is a legitimate paradigm, though it may seem improbable or even preposterous to someone who has already equated the supernatural with the superstitious.


John - #42736

December 6th 2010

Beaglelady:
Larry, where is Rich’s comment #42459 ?”

42459: “But those similarities might just as well spring from the use of a common genetic toolkit to achieve common purposes, much as several different cars from the same company might use the same type of brakes, steering, fuel injection, etc., even though they have different instrument panel designs or trunk space.”

Never mind the insanity of Rich’s analogy, since a single company will build a single car with different components and multiple companies build different cars with the same components, completely unlike biology, with which Rich seems to have no subtantial familarity.

42508: “I didn’t hypothesize common design.”

Sophistry is rarely more blatant than that, but Martin’s with “random” comes close.


Rich - #42748

December 6th 2010

Since Larry’s point has caused some confusion among alleged Ph.D.s in biology who have no apparent teaching or research or faculty duties which prevent them from frequently posting on the internet during office hours, I can clarify:

To say:  “those similarities might just as well spring from the use of a common genetic toolkit” is to make a logical point.

To say:  “those similarities in my opinion sprang from the the use of a common genetic toolkit” is to offer a hypothesis.

I did not offer a hypothesis.  I made a logical point.  My goal was to show that historical relationship does not follow by pure logical implication from genomic similarity.  My alternative was posed merely as an example of an alternate explanation.  I did not say that this alternate explanation was what actually happened.

People trained in philosophy can follow such distinctions easily; some people trained in biology seem to have trouble with them.  But then, those same people can’t distinguish between correcting a misrepresentation of ID and actually advocating ID, between ID and creationism, between design and supernatural causes, etc.  It would appear that biology is pretty poor training for the general intellect.


Martin Rizley - #42767

December 7th 2010

Beagelady,
One definition of ‘random’ is “by chance; with no plan or purpose.”  Now, I ask you, how can naturalistic evolution have a plan or purpose if there is no Planner or Purposeful Agent directing it?  By definition, therefore, undirected, unplanned evolution involves the operation of ‘random’ events (genetic mutations, for example), which are then preserved or weeded out, not according to some purposeful plan, but according to the advantage they just “happen” (by chance) to give an organism in the struggle for life.  I ask again, how can a process that is not directed, not purposeful, not planned, be described as anything other than random?


Martin Rizley - #42768

December 7th 2010

Sorry, Beaglelady, my comments were directed to John in response to #42736


John - #42776

December 7th 2010

Rich wrote:
“Since Larry’s point has caused some confusion among alleged Ph.D.s in biology who have no apparent teaching or research or faculty duties which prevent them from frequently posting on the internet during office hours, I can clarify:”

You’re just engaging in additional sophistry, Rich. And trying to claim that others shouldn’t be responding to you at certain times of day is a clear sign of desperation. Hint: research isn’t limited to “office hours.” I’m on sabbatical, so I don’t even have an office. I only have a desk next to my bench.

“To say:  “those similarities might just as well spring from the use of a common genetic toolkit” is to make a logical point.”

There’s nothing logical about it.

“To say:  “those similarities in my opinion sprang from the the use of a common genetic toolkit” is to offer a hypothesis.”

“I did not offer a hypothesis.”

You did.

“I made a logical point.”

Your hypothesis made no logical sense.


John - #42777

December 7th 2010

Rich:
“People trained in philosophy… It would appear that biology is pretty poor training for the general intellect.”

It would appear, given your obsession with training and lack of interest in accomplishments, that your training has not enabled you to achieve anything academically beyond the awarding of a PhD.

I *do* biology, Rich. What, if anything, do you do?


glsi - #63650

August 4th 2011

In his introduction Dr. Falk says we should pay close attention to Polkinghorne’s words.  Okay, let’s try it:

”...Darwin was able to show how the patient shifting and accumulation of small differences between one generation and the next over very long periods of time could bring into existence the appearance of design…”

Excuse me, but Darwin “showed” this?  I don’t think so, by any stretch.  He proposed it.  I think that’s a pretty sloppy start to the essay.

And by “patient shifting and accumulation of small differences” is he referring to natural selection and mutation?  Trouble is Darwin himself said years later that his original theory was insufficient enough to leave  “a multitude of facts which are at present left disconnected by any efficient cause”.  So that’s when Darwin tried to “show” how gemmules could solve the problem of his “disconnect”.   Or did he just tell it?  Either way it seems like the writer here ought to know the difference between show and tell.


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