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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 BioLogos. 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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Paul - #42312

December 2nd 2010

But let’s just take the vitellogenin gene as one example. This gene is used by creatures that lay eggs (birds, monotremes, etc.) but placental mammals have a mutated version. EVEN IF, it can be established that this gene is somehow doing something, that does nothing to undermine that powerful evidence it provides for mammals being descended from egg-laying ancestors.

Argon - #42325

December 2nd 2010

Martin, regarding ‘faint praise: What does it mean to receive glowing praise from people who subsequently ignore one’s hypothesis and accept something that is completely the opposite? What does it say when Batten praises the book for its anti-evolutionary aspect but thinks the Message hypothesis is bunk? We find this pattern of praise for the parts the reviewer agrees with while ignoring the fundamental incompatabilitiy with other, preferred hypotheses a lot, and I’ll admit this practice of ‘speaking no ill’ of one’s comrades is not confined to reviews by fellow creationists.

Point blank: If Behe thinks the Biotic Message is such as great idea, why does he find common descent likely? As I’ve said: It’s because the hypothesis has no traction, even among fellow creation-orientated scientists. Instead of a few lines of cover burb, why don’t we see a discussion between Mike and Walter ReMine of the points where they must *fundamentally* disagree?  (See no evil?)

Argon - #42326

December 2nd 2010

Well Paul, it’s clear that humans and chimps are part of the same ‘Baramin’ (a reinvention of ‘Kind’). Unless one wishes to split the living world into many, many Kinds, it’s very hard to establish consistent, biological criteria for the human/ape split. One should ask, if one is sufficiently incredulous/curious, why are Kinds/Baramins so hard to perceive if the Message hypothesis is true? There are better ways for demarcation, and if as ReMine claims, the creator employed the best system then his hypothesis has severe problems.

In any case, this discussion is moving far from Polkinghorne’s point and I’ll stop hijacking the thread. (Aside: I’d suggest that ReMine’s is an example of trying to stuff one’s “Natural Theology “*into* science. That tends not to work out so well. Scientific discoveries more often inform Natural Theology.)

Martin, the last work is yours as you choose. But while reading ReMine’s book, I’d only beg you employ a similar degree of critical evaluation that you otherwise use for evolutionary theory.

Paul - #42329

December 2nd 2010

That is just one of the many seemingly insurmountable scientific problems the YEC model faces. It was discussed by Todd Wood in his paper. In order to make sure that there is suffcient room on the Ark for all the animals, they need to be divided up into larger taxonomic groups than, say, species. But if you group together for example all felids as one ‘kind’ or ‘baramin’, then to be consistent chimps and humans would also have to be in the same ‘baramin’, as there is much less genetic diversity between them than between different felids. Or alternatively, if you take the difference between humans and chimps as being the standard by which ‘baramins’ are defined, then very few organisms on earth are ancestrily related, and you have overloaded the Ark. A similar comparison could be made when analysing the genomes of fruit flies. Most people would not even question that different fruit fly species were related, yet again they show greater differences between one another than do humans and chimps.
This is without even mentioning that modern organisms display no genomic signs at all of having experienced recent genetic bottlenecks.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #42332

December 2nd 2010

Getting back to John Polkinghome,

I would like to see his Mind of God tied to the Logos as it should be in Christian theology.  This would make for a true Theory of Everything, as Papalinton suggested, although probably not seriously.  When are people going to stop making the claim that science and Christianity are not in conflict and begin to doing the heavy thinking as to why this is true? 

No one else has seriously tackled the question, Why does math work? which would provide a serious clue in how reality works.  Check out my book, DARWIN’S MYTH.

R Hampton - #42338

December 2nd 2010

The problem with kinds:
Foxes, Wolves, Dogs - how many kinds (animals that were uniquely created) do they represent? What is the determination?

Martin Rizley - #42370

December 2nd 2010

Paul,  Thanks for the reference to the article by Todd Wood. I’m glad that you acknowledge him to be an ‘accomplished biologist,’ for he certainly does know a lot about biology, but he does not accept universal common ancestry (by that I mean molecule to man evolution) as the explanation for shared pseudogenes. My argument against the ‘certainty’ of universal common ancestry is more philosophical than scientific; I have simply pointed to the limitations of our current knowledge of genetics, and have argued that it is premature to say that a naturalistic, evolutionary origin of mankind is proven based on what we find in the cell.  In other words, I am pointing to the limitations of science (in particular, methodological naturalism) for reconstructing the past. There is always the possibility that an alternative explanation involving the supernatural can make as much sense of the physical data as the ’natural’ explanation, so scientists need to avoid a triumphalistic ‘gotcha’ attitude toward creationists when they use genetics to disprove the special creation of human beings.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #42371

December 2nd 2010

Let’s say, for example, that God, after making all the lower creatures, decided to make the first man in His own image by special creation and to use the ’dust of the ground’ to form the body of that first man. Let’s say that the term ’dust of the ground’ is broad enough to include the decaying carcass of a primate that has recently expired and is returning to the earth from which it was made (Genesis 1:24). Couldn’t God take a few cells from that animal and genetically ’engineer’ those cells to create the body of the first man—then subsequently ‘breathe life‘ into that body? In that case, the man’s cells might share a great deal of genetic material with the cells of the animal from whose body his own body was made—yet the man would not have ’descended’ from that animal by any naturalistic process at all; in fact, the man would have no biological ancestors at all. The impression of biological ancestry would be an illusion based on the fact that the man’s body was specially created by God using the cells of an animal that was made from dust and was returning to dust. (continued)

Martin Rizley - #42372

December 2nd 2010

Now, I’m not saying that’s what happened; I’m using this illustration simply to point out the limitations of science, and to emphasize the role that presuppositions play on how the data found in the natural world is interpreted. There is no such thing as ‘non-ideological’ science.  The deist or atheist is ’forced’ by his assumptions to interpret what he sees differently than someone who believes in the existence of an all-powerful, almighty Creator.  As I said, supernaturalism opens doors of possibilities that are forever closed to the person who is ideologically handicapped by deistic or atheistic assumptions.

R Hampton - #42377

December 2nd 2010

On the flip side of Martin Rizley’s take on evolution and Christian theology, is a new series of teleseminars featuring conversations “thirty of today’s most inspiring Christian leaders and esteemed scientists for a groundbreaking dialogue on how an evolutionary worldview can enrich your life, deepen your faith, and bless our world.”

The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity

Gregory - #42379

December 2nd 2010

“The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity” - That’s one of the most absurd (forgot about the elephant in the room) names I’ve read in a long time. A shame too, for it is a fine collection of people involved there.

Greg Myers - #42384

December 3rd 2010

“Greg, if our ideas live in our brains, that means that they must be in some sense independent of our brains.”

I suspect you are not just kidding me, but really?  Are the words of a book separate from the pages they are printed on?  Does it make any sense to suggest that the letters could survive independent of the page?  If the letters “survived the death” of the book, would they still be intelligible?

We communicate, brain-to-brain, via our sensory apparatus- in this case, by reading what one another writes.  The ideas don’t go flying about on their own, and they do not exist independently of our minds.  Perhaps, in some sense, books and writing are an extension of our brain (as can be other people) - but this “extended brain” can only be accessed when we can sense it (listen or read), or when we have committed (at least the general ideas) to memory.  In a real sense, we are having conversations with ourself (as is clear from how little communication seems to be occurring).  So no, ideas do not live in books - though they can be stored there.  It takes a person to keep an idea alive.

None of this requires that intellect be independent of the brain - and there is no evidence, as far as I know, that it is.

Greg Myers - #42385

December 3rd 2010

Martin Rizley - #42372
Have you ever heard of Last Thursday-ism?  It is the belief that the world and everything in it was created last Thursday, in just such a way as to make it seem as if the world were older.  It is as impossible to disprove scientifically as the scenario you describe.

I would suggest, however, that your scenario is incompatible with the claims of Christian theology.  It makes god some sort of cosmic trickster, arranging the universe to appear old and evolved, when it was “poofed” into existence.  Still, it is possible.  Just not very likely, and in no sense a scientific conclusion.

Science does not eliminate the possibility that any of 10,000 gods created the world, nor that any of the 1,000s of creation stories are not true.  What is does, is make a compelling argument that the world is a certain way.  Sometimes, this is not controversial, so for example most folks accept the photon and wave models that explain light.  When the results of science seem to be at odds with particular religions claims, you can either deny the science, deny that the religions claims any such thing, or simply deny that the religious claim is accurate.  Folks here at this site seem to encompass the gamut of possible responses.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #42403

December 3rd 2010


“So no, ideas do not live in books - though they can be stored there.  It takes a person to keep an idea alive.”

Are ideas that are stored in books dead or alive?  If they are dead, how can they be raised again?  If they are not dead. they are alive.  Ideas are encoded into words by minds.  Other minds can understand these words and transform them back into ideas.  Nonetheless these ideas exist in the form of code in books and other media. 

DNA contains another form of code, which can be transformed into plants and animals.  We also have codes which can be stored and transformed into sound and images.  Computers work on the basis of non physical codes. 

Codes are not physical, they are intellectual.  Math is a code or language which can be used to store information and solve problems.  Science works because it uses intellectual codes which are not physical, but can be used to understand the physical.

Larry - #42407

December 3rd 2010

As mentioned by others, the ridiculous scenario made up by Martin Rizley is one of the most desperate attempts to resort to any explanation other than the one that is obvious from the data; common ancestry. He says it’s not a scenario he would claim actually happened, but then why even bring up such a fantastically ad hoc alternative to the perfectly plausible scientific view? There is nothing strange about the idea of two organisms being related through common descent, it is not hard to understand such a concept, nor to imagine what could have occurred. Contrast this with the fantasy Martin concocted, not only does it invoke unknown and unparallelled forces, but the event occurs in such a convulted manner as to deceive all future investigators. Not only this, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the Bible he thinks he is defending. The Bible makes no such claims. “Dust of the ground?” Yes. Made from reconstituted monkey corpse? No.

Have you even heard of Occam’s Razor? I’d suggest you apply it just occasionally.

Larry - #42409

December 3rd 2010

“supernaturalism opens doors of possibilities that are forever closed to the person who is ideologically handicapped by deistic or atheistic assumptions”

This is even more preposterous. What advance in scientific knowledge is gained by positing the absurd scenario you described? Such a view destroys science and renders it impotent. Every time your pet theory is in trouble down comes the divine hand from the sky to rescue it; deus ex machina. It is why real science has advanced our understanding at an astonishing, and continually growing, rate, while ‘supernatural’ science hasn’t advanced at all in centuries. While modern physicists have constructed a highly coherent, mathematically-sound, picture of the cosmos, ‘supernaturalist’ science has led to such ingenious notions as light being created in transit throughout the universe. A risible notion which creates a charade of a universe, full of events that appear to have occurred but never did, and which is unamenable to scientific inquiry.

How far would you expect to get in other walks of life with such ‘explanations’? How would a man on trial fare if he resorted to the type of fantastic scenarios you did to explain why the evidence is so strongly against him?

Argon - #42425

December 3rd 2010

Martin, you might want to read what Todd Wood says about the strength of the arguments for common descent & evolution and why he is a Creationist. Otherwise, one really doesn’t understand the whole story. Essentially, he is a biologist who, excepting for the possiblity of reconsidering his doctrinal religious interpretations in the future, will likely never accept common descent, regardless of data. He is akin to Paul Nelson who also finds evidence for an ancient Earth strong but will not accept it because he has issues with the timing of when ‘death’ and ‘suffering’ entered the world and how it fits with his understanding of the Bible.


Polkinghorne obviouosly has a very different view about apologetics and necessary dogma.

Martin Rizley - #42454

December 3rd 2010

Gene and Larry,
The reason both of you find the scenario I proposed ‘unthinkable’ is because you both approach the study of the cosmos with the deeply rooted assumption of naturalism, which does not allow for the possibility of supernatural divine intervention at any point in the creative process. A committed naturalist finds any consideration of supernatural forces at work in the past contrary to reason and “common sense,” because he places all beliefs in the supernatural on the level of superstition. He sees no difference between belief in the God of Israel and belief in the tooth fairy; therefore, all ‘supernatural’ explanations are off the table to begin with; only naturalistic explanations are allowed. Let me assure you, however, that if you had different assumptions in your thinking about the existence of God, you would not find the scenario I proposed so absurd. For the Christian mind, the only truly absurd scenario is one which leaves God out of the picture, either by denying His existence, or by denying the relevance of His existence to the study of the cosmos, or by denying the supreme authority of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. (continued)

Martin Rizley - #42455

December 3rd 2010

Any proposed scenario of cosmic history built on these denials is bound to err. Why so? Because well-ordered, accurate thinking about the world always moves from what is known to what is unknown. We must hold fast to what we know to be true and build upon that, in order to arrive at an accurate picture of reality. Now, if it is known with certainty that God created the world and that He created the first human couple uniquely in His own image in a way that involved miraculous divine intervention (and we know that from what the Bible teaches about the creation of Eve), then the only ‘unknown’ is the precise manner in which God made Adam’s body. It seems possible that term ‘dust’ may be broad enough to include the carcass of animal that is made from dust and is returning to dust.  That may not like an unlikely possibility, but if it makes the best sense of what we find in both the Bible and in the natural world, it may well be the true explanation of things, for as Sherlock Holmes put it, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” (continued)

Martin Rizley - #42456

December 3rd 2010

This scenario does not involve ‘last Thursdayism,’ because the ‘illusion’ of genetic ancestry found in Adam’s cells, in this case, would not involve the fabrication of a past history that never occurred; that past history would have occurred, but not in the man’s OWN ancestral past, since the man would be without any biological ancestors. This violates no principle of Christian theology, as Greg suggests, for the Bible contains at least one indisputable case of God intervening supernaturally in the creation of a man’s body that left no ‘footprints’ detectable by science. I am speaking of the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. Had one studied Jesus’ DNA, there would have been no scientific evidence at all of the supernatural character of His conception—any ’break’ in the ordinary pattern of human reproduction would be undetectable by the instruments and methods of science. Genetically, Jesus’ body would have been indistinguishable from that of all other human beings who are conceived in the natural way;

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