t f p g+ YouTube icon

John Polkinghorne on Natural Theology, Part 2

Bookmark and Share

November 29, 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.

In Part I of this series, Dr. Polkinghorne laid the foundations for what he believes to be a new natural theology. This new natural theology, he says, 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, Polkinghorne says 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.

In today’s talk, he goes on to look at the first of two meta-questions that arise from science. Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that meta-question #1, which emerges from the inherent success and beauty of mathematics, points to a capital M Mind—the Creator of the universe.

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

The Transcript

So here are two meta-questions which illustrate what I’m trying to say. The first question is a question that is so simple that most of us would not even stop to think about it or to ask it, but which I am going to suggest to you is a very significant question that we should think about, that we should ask. It is simply this: Why is science possible at all?

Why can we understand the world in which we live in the deep way that science has made possible for us? Well you might say evolutionary biology would explain that: We’ve got to survive in the world. If we didn’t understand the world, we couldn’t figure out that it is a bad idea to step off of a high cliff and we might not stay around for very long. So the evolutionary process must have so shaped the human brain that we’re able to understand the world. And of course that must be true up to a point. It’s obviously true of our understanding of the everyday world in which we have to survive: Beware of the high cliff. But when someone like Isaac Newton came along and who, in an astonishingly high leap of the imagination, saw that the same force that makes the high cliff dangerous is also the force that holds the moon in its orbit around the earth, the earth in its orbit around the sun and discovers a mathematically beautiful law of universal inverse square law of gravity and in terms of that explains the whole solar system—now that is a human achievement that is going far beyond anything that we need for everyday survival.

Yesterday I quoted from that great and wise man Sherlock Holmes. He was pulling Watson’s leg from the start and he pretended not to know whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun goes round the earth. And of course the good Dr. Watson is horrified at the apparent ignorance on the part of the great detective. And Holmes simply says, “What does it matter? My daily work is that of a detective.” And of course it doesn’t matter at all.

So we all know things that we don’t need to know for everyday life or everyday survival. Human powers to understand the world, to penetrate the secrets of the physical world have proved to be amazingly powerful. Or putting it the other way round, the universe has proved to be amazingly intellectually transparent to our inquiry.

I worked in quantum physics. The quantum world is completely different than the world of everyday and you have to think about it in completely different and counter-intuitive ways. In the quantum world, if you know where something is, you don’t know what it is doing. If you know what it is doing, you don’t know where it is. That’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in a nutshell. That world is cloudy and fitful. It has all sorts of strange properties. In that world, some things sometimes behave like waves, sometimes, like particles, little bullets. Electrons can be in a state where they are both here and there at the same time and so on, and so on.

This is a very weird, very counterintuitive, very strange world. Nevertheless we can understand it; we can penetrate its secrets. The world is amazingly rationally transparent. And the mystery is even more surprising than that because it turns out that the key to unlocking the secrets of the physical world is actually mathematics—mathematics, the most abstract of subjects. It is an actual technique of fundamental physics, a technique that has proved its worth over three centuries of work in the area—to look for theories within their mathematical expression, in terms of beautiful equations. Now some of you will know about mathematical beauty, probably not all of you. It is a rather austere form of the esthetic pleasure, but it is a real form of esthetic pleasure. Those of us who speak that wonderful language can recognize a theme about mathematical beauty. It involves things like being economic and elegant, and being what the mathematicians call deep, which means that if you take a very simple definition, it turns out to have very wide and proliferating consequences. And we have found time and again that the only theories, which by their long term success in explaining what is going on—persuade us that they really are describing aspects of the physical world—are always endowed with this character of mathematical beauty.

The great theoretical physicist, Paul Dirac one of the founding physicists of quantum theory, the greatest British theoretical physicist of the 20th century once said, “it is more important to have beauty in your equations than to have a fit experiment.” Now he didn’t mean by that that it didn’t matter if your equations fit your experiment; no physicist could possibly believe that. But he meant: okay you have your new theory and it doesn’t seem to fit the experiment. That’s a set back for sure, but there is some possibility that you might be able to save the day. Probably you solved the equation with an approximation and maybe you’ve made the wrong approximation. Or maybe your experiments are wrong—that’s happened more than once in physics. So at least there is some sort of residual hope. If your equations are ugly then in Dirac’s opinion, there is no hope; they couldn’t possibly be right.

Now Dirac’s brother-in-law, Eugene Wigner, who also won a Nobel prize in physics, once said, “Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective?” Why is this abstract subject the key to unlocking the secrets to the physical universe? What brings together the reason within the mathematicians’ thoughts in their minds with the reason without—the structure of the world around us? Why are some of the most useful patterns that the mathematicians can dream up in their studies found actually to occur and to be substantiated in the physical world around them?”

So why is science possible in the deep way it is? Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective? I think it would be intolerably lazy to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well gee that’s the way it happens to be, and it’s very good luck to you chaps who are good at math.” This is a highly significant, highly remarkable fact about the world and we should seek to understand it if we possibly can.

Now when you ask a meta-question like that, there won’t be a knock-down answer. But to me the most intellectually persuasive and coherent answer is simply this: that the reason within and the reason without is because they have a common origin in the mind of the Creator who is the ground of both our mental existence and of the physical world of which we are apart.

We can summarize what I’ve just been saying that as science studies the physical world it sees a world shot through with signs of mind. And I am suggesting to you that you should consider seriously the proposition that it is a capital M Mind, the Creator that lies behind that wonderful order which gives the physicist the order of wonder for the weary labor of their research.

So I think that science is possible actually because the world is a creation and to use an ancient powerful phrase: We are creatures made in the image of our Creator.

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.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
BioLogos - #42033

November 30th 2010

The initial commenters on this posting were atheists who have missed the point of Dr. Polkinghorne’s talk.  This post is not an attempt to convince atheists of the existence of God.  We are a community of individuals who, for very good logical reasons, have come to believe that the universe is created.  Furthermore, we believe there are equally logical reasons for accepting that creation is a manifestation not just of some mysterious intelligence but, more specifically, it has been lovingly created and is continuously upheld by the God of Christian theology. 

Although we wish that our atheist readers would come to see that belief in this God is rational and our prayer is that they might come to know this God, too, this series is not intended for them.  It is for those of us who have come to accept the reality of Jesus Christ and all the ramifications that this has for how we live our lives.  In this series we are exploring the ramifications of our shared belief.  To our atheist readers, I would say, please know that you are in our prayers, but please also know that we won’t allow you to use this space to belittle our values.  If you are genuinely searching with a spirit of humility feel free to post your questions. 

Darrel Falk

P.S.  Please note that we will post, from time-to-time, essays which address the question of God’s existence.  Atheists are especially welcome to join in the conversation at that time.  I reiterate that is not the purpose of this series.  Indeed, one of Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne’s points is that it is likely not possible to investigate the existence of God in the sense that one tests a scientific theory.  Science enriches our understanding of the God we come to know through means other than science.  Science provides “signposts” that can lead to God.  However, it is not a tool that can be used to test God’s existence. 

So we’re talking here about the nature of the signposts. Those who can’t even begin to see the signposts and are quite sure they don’t exist, either need to “chomp at the bits” a while longer or, with all due respect, go elsewhere.




Roger A. Sawtelle - #42061

November 30th 2010

I agree that the role of the rationality is basic to our understanding of Nature, and this should be the basis of our discussion, not God. 

This question was raised in the book by the mathematician, Mario Livio, Is God a Mathematician?  Although Livio did not specifically answer that question he pointed to Roger Penrose’s concept of Three Worlds, which he took from Plato, and suggested that it is similar to the Three in One view of the Trinity. 

I have tried to develop this train of thought in my new book, DARWIN’S MYTH.  It appears to be the antidote to the endless conflict between modernist and postmodernist thought found not just in Christianity, but in all segments of our cultural life.

Rev. Scott Mapes - #42082

November 30th 2010

Who would have thought that mathematics would survive the scathing vivisections of a deconstructive postmodernism?  An excellent post as always, Dr. Polkinghorne.

HornSpiel - #42084

November 30th 2010

I just learned about an interesting hymn in the The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada (1971 edition) called God of Concrete, God of Steel. It is about science and engineering and I think speaks to the subject at head.

The third verse goes [my suggested alteration]:

Lord of science, Lord of art,
Lord of map and graph and chart,
Lord of physics and research,
Word of Bible, Faith of church,
Lord of sequence [or evolution] and design:
all the world of truth is thine.

Papalinton - #42100

November 30th 2010

To clarify Dr Polkinghorne’s notion of a ‘meta-question’;  is it a question that can be substantively responded to from the perspective of the natural world, or is it a question that appeals and resides firmly within the ambit of the supernatural, and by its content, is solely theo-logical?

I ask this question in the interests of finding some common ground in which I can contribute to the debate in order to provide reasoned balance to what seems is a uni-dimensional argument.

Dr Falk, surely my question is fair and reasonable?  I do not wish to ‘belittle your values’  but I do wish to understand and question the basis of your values because your values have inordinate power of influence that affect my life, in terms of public policy.  And of course the application of science within our society, which is front and centre in public policy, is enormously guided by a held perspective,  a frame of reference, that is, apparently, arbitrarily shut away from me, and indeed others, about which I am unable to engage as a member of that community, on a public forum.

There is no value in suppression.


Papalinton - #42113

November 30th 2010

Dr Falk
Permit me to ask one more question.

Is Dr Polkinghorne proposing, by reference of his meta-question, for ‘Ultimate Agency’  [the capital M mind] as the ‘Theory of Everything’ that mathematicians, physicists and cosmologists have been searching for and do BioLogos contributors in general view this as a possible productive field for scientific research? 


Gregory - #42114

November 30th 2010

Polkinghorne rarely disappoints in ‘NPS &/vs. religion’ discourse in the West, though he’s likely not at the forefront of HPSS anymore. The focus on meta-questions & even meta-science opens up new possibilities these days, given that meta-physics is often uninvitable for friendly conversations in ‘modern western science’ settings. The suggestion is: more reason in the west & less/little mystery than the east.

Thanks for that, Hornspiel! It adds to the character of the signposts.

Just curious @ this:
“Lord of sequence [or evolution] and design:
all the world of truth is thine.

Do you mean to suggest ‘evolution’ & (*gasp*) ‘design’ together?!

‘Sequence’ is often a related word for ‘evolution.’ Thus, with an ‘arrow of time’ (e.g. ‘change-over-time’) all chronological sequence becomes an example of ‘evolution’ for some people. Whether or not the sequence is a result of intentional design &/or [add adjective] evolution is irrelevant b/c the sequence is obviously ‘real’ & ‘present’ in natural, cultural, social, political, economic, religious, linguistic, etc. histories. We sense sequence.

The argument to/from ‘design’ in cosmology is suitable for: “Why is science possible at all?”

Gregory - #42116

November 30th 2010

Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne has *not* proposed a mathematical, physical or cosmological ‘theory of everything’ as far as I know and it wouldn’t any make sense for him to do so.

Reading Polkinghorne’s “Beyond Science: The wider human context” might help address your question about the limits of science (e.g. GUT), Papalinton.

Polkinghorne is not an *evangelical*, if that’s what disquiets you. But he certainly is one of the leading proponents of a worldview in which natural-physical sciences & religion (in this case, Christianity) are/can be ‘reconciled’ towards cooperation rather than alienated towards conflict & warfare.

Darrel Falk - #42117

November 30th 2010

Papalinton (42100),

It is not clear how my beliefs as a Christian—who fully embraces mainstream science and who is working hard to help other Christians see that there is no conflict between science and the Christian faith—“has inordinate power of influence” on your life, especially as it relates to public policy.  Your statement is especially puzzling in your case since you are located in a country where (according to a 2007 Christianity Today survey) less than one in ten of your fellow citizens attend church each week. 

This is a post that celebrates the thrilling majesty of creation. If you want to view this majesty through another set of lenses that is your prerogative.  We are fully aware those lenses exist.  There is a time to examine the quality of the lenses through which you look.  This, as I see it, is not one of them.

Papalinton - #42145

December 1st 2010

Darrel, be it said that I absolutely support the ideal of BioLogos demonstrating there is no conflict between science and the christian faith [as I have done so on many occasions].  I therefore graciously withdraw from any further comment that may compromise that goal.  For me, the BioLogos ideal of quietly encouraging those of belief into the acceptance of science, that which can be fully enjoyed, without discrediting one’s faith ideal, is the greater good.

Yes, I do live in another country, although we share a common heritage in language, and kid yourself not that the US does not influence public policy in my country.  The flow-on effect of US domestic and international policy is unavoidable.  And I am not sure the US is always mindful of that.

I share your celebration of the thrilling majesty of the universe and the gift given to me as part of it,  and I do exercise the prerogative of viewing through a different set of lens.

I will continue to comment from time to time, but only in the context of questioning the particular truth-claim that is made from time to time, that is patently silly.

I wish BioLogos well for the future.


merv - #42232

December 1st 2010

Dr. Polkinghorne’s use of Sherlock Holmes to show how someone could apparently dismiss much of the theoretical or abstract things in the interest of focusing on locally relevant reminds me of the same thing taking place (at a lower level) in my own high school geometry class.  My students (and myself when I was their age as well) have trouble getting excited about the world of proofs because they don’t (at first) see any relevance towards helping them find an answer to a problem.  I.e.  they want (like the engineer) to just find an answer to a problem using formulas that have already been established by others.  But some students quickly grasp the value of logic, reasoning, & how this can very much apply, indeed enable, problem solving in general. 

While I am also intrigued by the thought that the universe seems unreasonably mathematical, why is it that most do not express this same fascination with simpler math?  With the exception of a Calvin & Hobbes strip I remember where Calvin describes math as being like magic & declares himself a math atheist who ought to be excused, most of us aren’t amazed that 2+2=4.  We just see that it does & go on.  Is this qualitatively different than physicists & their wonder?

Trevor K. - #42278

December 2nd 2010

I don’t know much about the esteemed doctor and admit to being to lazy to search up on him. What is clear is that he wouldn’t be on this show if he didn’t support evolution [ defined as molecules-to-man ] and the mainstream worship of the atheist god of science so-called. I’m not talking about the perfectly good operational science here but instead the so-called science that want to determine things in the past quite contrary to what stands in the bible in Genesis 1-11.

Have a read here instead: http://creation.com/lennox-design-and-suffering

Jon Garvey - #42285

December 2nd 2010

@Trevor K. - #42278

Do you not see what you’re saying here? “I don’t care what this man is saying - all that matters is to categorise him into the pro-evolution brigade.”

You can hardly be surprised if people ignore your arguments and just dump you into the “anti-evolution brigade.”

Such is tribalism.

“Too lazy to search up on him”? “Go to the ant, thou sluggard.”

merv - #42476

December 4th 2010

While scientists and mathematicians may be ‘up closer’ to the raw beauty of our mathematically oriented universe than most of us lay people can reach, I still think that the average man-on-the-street should be able to appreciate the same even if in a more vague way.  I know my calculus students come to appreciate the “smoothness” of a function which seems so much more natural than cusps or corners in piecewise functions.  In the same way we scientifically see how the natural world abhors “sudden changes” (the physics equivalent of the mathematical cusp or corner.)  This kind of beauty (I maintain) is easily within reach of most of our intuitions—but yet we (or at least I) wouldn’t describe it as seeming ‘unreasonable’ or ‘surprising’.  It seems as if that is the way its supposed to be even if I have no better reason for thinking so than just to say that “it is.”  But whatever we do with it metaphysically, it should also affect the way we approach the world practically—I like to tell my physics & calculus students that if they really understand, they will drive differently than most automobile drivers do.  Beauty & practicality can kiss each other.

John VanZwieten - #42526

December 4th 2010

Merv wrote:
I like to tell my physics & calculus students that if they really understand, they will drive differently than most automobile drivers do.

That’s great!  I actually refered to derivatives when teaching my son to drive.

Merv - #42593

December 5th 2010

We should develop a calculus-based driving curriculum.  Too many people try to make their velocity functions look like a square-waves when traveling through a series of stop-lights.  Sinusoids (of gentle amplitude) rule!  And our brakes, gas-tanks, and probably a host of other mechanical things show their gratitude back to us in the most material of ways!  (And the drivers behind me are often so happy to have been saving gas of their own that they gratefully shake their fists in when they finally get the chance to pass!)


Page 1 of 1   1