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 - #42502

December 4th 2010

The genetic restructuring would not involve the complete elimination of past genetic history from the ‘restructured’ cell, so that one could interpret the data as implying a purely naturalistic, ‘reproductive’  linkage between the various kinds of creatures, when in fact each kind of creature had been speciallly created by God through a direct creative act of ‘genetic engineering.’  I don’t see how anyone could prove or disprove this scenario by an appeal to the scientific data; one can only scoff at it and attack it using theological, not scientific arguments, like “Why would God do such a thing?  If God did that, He would be a deceiver!, etc.”  But whenever a person begins talking about what God would or would not do, they are no longer making a strictly scientific argument, but an ideological—indeed, a theological—argument, which goes to prove my point that there is no such thing as ‘non-ideological’ science.  The same data can be reasonably interpreted according to different paradigms, depending on what one regards as ‘reasonable’—and an atheist’s idea of what is reasonable is very different from that of a believer who knows God as the almighty Sovereign of the universe.


Rich - #42508

December 4th 2010

Larry:

I didn’t say “no amount of evidence or data could ever indicate common ancestry as we simply couldn’t know God wouldn’t have created it that way ‘de novo’.”  You’re confusing me with Cornelius Hunter.

What I said was that mere genetic closeness does not logically imply historical relationship.  I did not say there was no evidence for historical relationship.

However, ten thousand journal articles which merely compare genomes, and then draw the rote conclusion of common ancestry, do not strengthen the argument any more than if there was only one such article.  One invalid inference repeated 10,000 times is not 10,000 times as strong.

I didn’t hypothesize common design.  But the notion of common design isn’t in itself anti-evolutionary; one can imagine an evolutionary process designed so that later creatures can use earlier genes in new contexts.

As a Christian, do you deny that God designed living systems, and in particular man?
(And note that “design” does not mean “create out of nothing” or “make by divine intervention”; it means simply “conceive the parts and their interrelationships in advance of producing the thing in question.”)


Rich - #42509

December 4th 2010

Greg:

“Evolution” is not the same thing as “Darwinian mechanisms.”  If you think so, you haven’t read widely in evolutionary theory.  Ask Lynn Margulis and MIchael Denton if they consider themselves Darwinians. 

I didn’t say that it takes a prior commitment to atheism to accept evolution.  I said that those who *are* atheists are not open to the possibility that God is behind evolution.  I would think that should be obvious. 

I didn’t say evolution involved divine intervention.  (It might have, but I didn’t insist on that.)

ID does not say that “God did it.”  ID says that certain features of living systems are not likely to have arisen by chance, and bear all the hallmarks of things that in other contexts we unmistakably recognize as designed, so that design rather than chance is the best explanation.  (Though there might be elements of chance and necessity in an evolutionary process which is overall designed.)  There is little point arguing about ID if you aren’t going to take the time to read the half-dozen central works of ID straight through, instead of listening to Pennock, Forrest, Myers, etc.  Would you expect an objective account of George Bush’s motives from the faculty in Sociology at Cornell?


Greg Myers - #42524

December 4th 2010

Rich, though evolution has developed over time, Darwinian mechanisms are still part of evolution.

The fact that ID was the brainchild of creationists trying to get around a Supreme Court ruling, and that both Behe and Dembski have publicly admitted that they believe the designer is the Christian god, and that Jonathan Wells is a member of the Unification church and dedicated to destroying Darwinism does not speak well of the movements claim to be non-biased.

It is amazing to me that you characterize ID as lacking prior commitments.  Time and again, creationists of various stripes (literalists, TEs, ID-ers) make clear their prior commitments to supernaturalism in general and to their personal religion in general.  This is explicitly true of Behe, Dembski and Wells, and true in general of the movement.

And it is inaccurate to argue that science is unwilling to consider the evidence.  Most scientists, atheists included, are open to looking at evidence of design or supernatural agency (an atheist might suspect an advanced civilization, but would still look at the facts).  It is just that so far, there isn’t any.  The reason we know so much about the natural world is precisely because scientists are willing to follow the evidence.


Rich - #42527

December 4th 2010

Greg:

Like most here, you confuse the private views of individual ID proponents with ID as a theory.  When I said that ID was not burdened with prior commitments, I was speaking of ID as a theory, which I outlined above:  ID says that certain features of living systems are not likely to have arisen by chance, and that they bear all the hallmarks of things that in other contexts we unmistakably recognize as designed, so that design rather than chance is the best explanation for them (though there might be elements of chance and necessity in an evolutionary process which is overall designed).  And ID has no fixed view about how design finds its way into nature; it allows for both natural and interventionist explanations.  From this you can see that ID is open regarding common descent, open regarding the age of the earth, open regarding the possibility of non-natural factors, open regarding design detectability, non-committal regarding the Bible, and empirical rather than doctrinaire regarding the success of Darwinian explanation.  No other view in the field (atheism, YEC, TE) is as flexible or empirical.  All the others lay down the law on two or more of the above items, and thus are more rigid than ID.


Gregory - #42528

December 4th 2010

“though evolution has developed over time, Darwinian mechanisms are still part of evolution.” - G. Myers

Would you please distinguish between ‘evolution’ & ‘develop(ment)’? It is unclear at this point what you are proposing as you appear to present the two as synonyms.

I normally do not defend the IDM, but you are simply wrong, Greg Myers, if you are suggesting that most Discovery Institute Fellows are ‘creationists’. Is this what you were suggesting? We have discussed this here at BioLogos. There are fewer than 10%, more likely less than 5% of DI Fellows who are (Young Earth) ‘creationists’.

Everyone who believes in Allah, God, Yahweh accepts there is/was a Creation; this does *not* mean that all monotheists are ‘creationists’.

“The reason we know so much about the natural world is precisely because scientists are willing to follow the evidence.” - Myers

What about what we know of the Human world, not *just* the ‘Natural’ world? I won’t allow ‘naturalism’ to dominate BioLogos ideologically, Greg. Many of the questions you seek answers for are in the anthropic realm. Asking natural scientists is a dead end.

Personally, I don’t accept ‘design’ vs. ‘supernatural’ as legit.


Rich - #42529

December 4th 2010

Greg:

You misuse words and thus distort the discussion.

The word “creationist” has come to have a special meaning in American discussions regarding evolution.  It refers to those who take the Biblical account of creation (interpreted more or less flexibly, depending on whether they are YEC or OEC) as the basis for their scientific thinking about origins, and who reject macroevolution, understood as the common descent of all life forms from a few simple original forms.  As explained earlier, ID as such is not built on revelation and is not creationist.  Some ID people *as individuals* are creationists (e.g. Nelson), but not all of them (e.g., Behe is an evolutionist).  And no TE is a creationist in the common usage specified.

Of course, if by “creationist” you mean anyone who believes in a creator God, then all TEs and most ID people would be creationists, but then, so would all Christians, Jews and Muslims, by definition.  But then your rhetoric pits science against *all* monotheistic religion, and that’s just silly.  So you’d better stick with the normal meaning of the word, and stop calling ID and TE creationism, if you hope to be taken seriously by people who know this subject well.


Larry - #42535

December 4th 2010

Rich,

Until you show some attempt to actually interact with the scientific data that has been explained and presented here then I will not discuss this any further with you, as it is one of the most unedifying experiences I can recall having. You refuse to look at the data, misrepresent the case for common descent, and the motives behind those who accept it,  ignore any and all questions asked of you, present bogus alternatives that you are ultimately too cowardly to then defend, and then finally claim that you didn’t put forward those arguments in the first place.

Any latecomers who are reading this and doubt my last point should see Rich’s comment #42459 where he clearly attempts to explain away evidence for common descent by resorting to some design alternative, and then scroll down to #42508 where he denies advancing such a view.

I simply refuse to continue arguing in circles with such a sophist, and I am annoyed with myself for having done so to the extent that I have already.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #42542

December 4th 2010

Greg:

“But you seem to agree that minds are the crucial component.  Ideas do not live in books, they are at best encoded in books (in your words, dead).  When they are accessed by a comprehending brain, they can live in the reader’s brain.  This is not mysterious, it is simply communication - it is what language does.”

Response:

Minds are a crucial component, because minds are able to think.  Evolution is the great idea of Darwin who developed it in his books.  But Darwin’s mind is dead, so we learn of his idea of evolution from his words.  His words are not dead, because something that is dead has no power, while Darwin’s ideas and words have the power to make us think creatively. 

Thinking is not memorization.  Thinking is learning and making ideas one’s own creatively.  This is another evidence that ideas are not things, but non-material relationships which do not fit into the physicalist scheme of reality.  Ideas are not memes and human beings are intellectual beings, not programed robots. 

Language is a mystery, which only humans have solved, although not fully.
As Einstein wrote, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility….. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”


Papalinton - #42549

December 4th 2010

@ Roger Sawtelle

You are kidding yourself, “Ideas are not memes”?

What’s the name of the book or course you’ve undertaken to arrive at this definitional proposition?


Gregory - #42552

December 5th 2010

Yet there is no such thing as a ‘meme’ (as Plummer to Crowe in 2003 - ‘There’s nobody there’). It is a fantasy, a dream, a made-up word by a biologist/ethologist admitted to rhyme with ‘gene.’ This is a purely propaganda, ‘natural scientific’ theory of ‘cultural replication’ (!?) that most sensible people have now accepted as bunk. It’s usage is on the decline. Better off to leave it and catch a better wave.

Saying one believes in ‘memes’ is akin to saying they’ve closed off their mind from further knowledge *IN* the fields of human-social sciences (HSS), i.e. with which R. Dawkins is obviously quite unfamiliar, yet in which ‘memes’ are supposed to ‘exist.’ They don’t exist. It is fairy tales & make believe, just-so-stories galore; not science. Tarde did it much better than Dawkins & so did Sorokin.

Ideas are ideas. If we’re talking about culture, let’s not let a biologist ruin it or reductionise it. If we are talking about ‘creativity’ and ‘creation,’ it’s best not to talk to a mimetics theorist.

‘Memes’ are not such a popular topic at BioLogos. Again, might want to try somewhere else on this theme, Papalinton.


Rich - #42557

December 5th 2010

Larry:

I notice you didn’t answer my question about how God connects with evolution.  I had taken you to be a TE, but your ducking of the question suggests to me that, like so many others who post here, you are an atheist who comes here merely to scrap with ID people, and have not the slightest interest in the mission of Biologos, i.e., to integrate Christianity with science.  Thus, it is I who wasted my time, not you.

I have no need to interact with what you are calling “the data,” since 99% of “the data” you refer to is absolutely irrelevant to the point I am making, which is a logical and epistemological one.  But like 99% of the atheists who post here, and like your mentors Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, etc., you are philosophically illiterate and can’t follow such points, which is another reason why I’ve been wasting my time.


John - #42625

December 5th 2010

Rich wrote:
“However, ten thousand journal articles which merely compare genomes, and then draw the rote conclusion of common ancestry, do not strengthen the argument any more than if there was only one such article.  One invalid inference repeated 10,000 times is not 10,000 times as strong.”

Rich, you are invoking the straw man fallacy. No one is citing the conclusions of journal articles. We are talking about the actual sequence data, which are freely available online and which you can’t explain.

Your deception about the sequence data simply showing vague similarity is a creationist canard. Your claim that 10000 journal articles merely compare genomes and draw a simple conclusion of common ancestry demonstrates that you haven’t examined any data for yourself, and you haven’t read any of the primary literature in comparative genomics, our poster’s field of study.


John - #42626

December 5th 2010

Rich:
“ID does not say that “God did it.””

ID doesn’t say anything. People say things. Most of the leaders of the ID movement do, indeed, say that God is the designer—then they clam up when asked about any events that must follow design.

“Like most here, you confuse the private views of individual ID proponents with ID as a theory.”

There is no ID theory. ID is at best a notion.

“And ID has no fixed view about how design finds its way into nature; …”

People have views. ID does not.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #42629

December 5th 2010

Papalinton wrote:

@ Roger Sawtelle

‘You are kidding yourself, “Ideas are not memes”?

What’s the name of the book or course you’ve undertaken to arrive at this definitional proposition?’

Response:  Welcome to the conversation, Papa.  I do not take this as a definition, however if ideas = memes then it does not make sense for Dawkins to make up a new name for an ancient concept.  There is only one expert on memes and that is their inventor, Prof Dawkins, and I have read many of his books. 

Ideas are the product of the minds and thinking, which is what Greg and I were discussing.  As best I can determine memes are patterns of behavior controlled by the DNA according to Dawkins, and since DNA is fixed, that is, one’s DNA does not change, memes would seem to be fixed. 

If you have expertise in this field, please share your considered opinion.


beaglelady - #42630

December 5th 2010

Any latecomers who are reading this and doubt my last point should see Rich’s comment #42459 where he clearly attempts to explain away evidence for common descent by resorting to some design alternative, and then scroll down to #42508 where he denies advancing such a view.

Larry, where is Rich’s comment #42459 ?


Martin Rizley - #42672

December 6th 2010

In defense of Rich’s thesis that ‘genetic relationship’ does not imply ‘historical relationship,’ I think what he is saying is that it does not imply only ONE historical relationship—that of a purely naturalistic, ‘reproductive’ relationship linking all organisms, with one organism giving birth to another, and that to another, so that changes take place over time by a completely random, unguided process.  That paradigm may explain much of the data, but on what grounds can people say it is the only paradigm that can do so?  I mentioned the ‘genetic engineer’ paradigm above, that can also be used to explain the same data.  A genetic engineer could make a series of organisms from pre-existing organisms by taking a few cells from their bodies and re-structuring them in such a way that past genetic history in the cell is not erased.  Such direct intervention would produce results that ‘mimic’ evolution.  Why would a designer do that?  Perhaps as a testimony to the interdependence of all creatures on each other or the principle of life emerging from death.  Who knows?  The point is that all historical reconstructions rest on ideological assumptions.


beaglelady - #42689

December 6th 2010

A genetic engineer could make a series of organisms from pre-existing organisms by taking a few cells from their bodies and re-structuring them in such a way that past genetic history in the cell is not erased.  Such direct intervention would produce results that ‘mimic’ evolution.  Why would a designer do that?  Perhaps as a testimony to the interdependence of all creatures on each other or the principle of life emerging from death.  Who knows?  The point is that all historical reconstructions rest on ideological assumptions.

Some believed that an incubus could impregnate a woman with the sperm collected from a human male.  Others believed that the sperm of the incubus itself could do the trick.  It was a good explanation for surprise pregnancies. Of course, an evolutionist would never buy into that due to his ideological assumptions.


John - #42691

December 6th 2010

Martin wrote:
“...changes take place over time by a completely random, unguided process.”

Creationist straw man. Natural selection is not random.

“... I mentioned the ‘genetic engineer’ paradigm above, that can also be used to explain the same data.  A genetic engineer could make a series of organisms from pre-existing organisms by taking a few cells from their bodies and re-structuring them in such a way that past genetic history in the cell is not erased.  Such direct intervention would produce results that ‘mimic’ evolution.”

No, it would not, as it doesn’t explain any of the differences that have no functional relevance. Perhaps you should examine the data—not what anyone says about the data—before making such a claim?


Martin Rizley - #42705

December 6th 2010

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.  Random mutations are selected by nature based on the advantage they give an organism for survival, according to evolutionary theory.  So to the degree that mutations are random, the process of unguided evolution is random.  By ‘random’ I mean that there is no purpose, no end in view, and no design in the scheme of naturalistic evolution.  Can you give me an example of the differences that you say have no functional relevance?  Keep in mind that certain organs once thought to have no functional relevance are now known to have a function.  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)


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