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John Polkinghorne on Natural Theology, Part 3

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December 18, 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 2 of this series, Dr. Polkinghorne looked at the first of two meta-questions. In today’s post, he looks at the second of these meta-questions: “Why is the universe so special?”

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

Fine-tuning and the “Fruitful Universe”

Now my second meta-question is a little bit more specific. I ask the question, “Why is the universe so special?” Now scientists don’t like things to be special; we like things to be general, and our natural anticipation would have been that the universe is just a common or garden specimen of what a universe might be like.

But we’ve come to understand a lot about the history of the universe. We know that our universe started 13.7 billion years ago, and it started extremely simple, just an almost uniformly expanding ball of energy, about the simplest physical system you could possibly think about. But a world that started so simple has of course become rich and complex. With you and me, in fact, the most remarkable and complex consequences are its history, at least of which we are aware. The human brain is far and away the most complicated physical system we have ever encountered anywhere in our exploration of the universe.

That fact itself might suggest that something has been going on in cosmic history rather than just one thing after another. But we’ve also come to understand many of the processes by which this rich fruitfulness has come to birth. As we’ve come to understand these, we’ve come to see that though these processes are of course evolving processes, they took long periods of time – the universe was 10 billion years old before any form of life appeared in it, at least as far as we know anyway – and life of our complexity only appeared yesterday.

Nevertheless, the universe is pregnant with life, pregnant with the possibility of life, essentially from the beginning onwards. By which I mean the given laws of nature had to take a very specific, very finely tuned form, if the universe was to have so fruitful a history.

That’s a very remarkable discovery, and let me give you some examples of why we believe that. If you’re going to have a fruitful universe, one of the first things you have to get right is that you have to have the right stars in the universe. The stars are going to have a very important role to play. First of all, you must have some stars that are going to be very long lived, live for billions of years, steadily burning, steadily producing energy which will enable the development of life on one of the encircling planets. We understand what makes stars burn in that sort of way very well, and it depends on a delicate balance between the strength of gravity and the strength of electromagnetism. Electromagnetism is the force that holds matter together. The seats on which you are sitting are held together by electromagnetism and in fact you are held together by electromagnetism.

If you alter that balance a little bit in one direction the stars will begin to burn intensely, furiously, just pouring out energy and they will only live a few million years rather than a few billion years. If you move it a little bit in the other direction they will burn so slowly they will be brown stars and they will not produce enough energy to fuel the development of life. So you have to have a very delicate finely tuned balance between the strength of gravity and the strength of electromagnetic forces in a fruitful universe.

Remember, science takes the laws of nature, takes the given strengths of gravity, the given strength of electromagnetism, uses that to explain processes in the world, how things happen, but it doesn’t explain where those laws of nature come from. They are just brute facts as far as science is concerned.

And the stars have another absolutely indispensible role to play. The stars are the place where the heavier elements essential for life are made in the interior nuclear furnaces. There are many elements that are necessary for life, of which carbon is perhaps the most essential. Carbon is the basis of the long chain molecules, which are the biochemical basis of life. The early universe only makes the simplest elements; it makes hydrogen and helium and it makes no carbon at all. Carbon only begins to be made when the universe, which started uniform, begins to condense and become lumpy and grainy with stars and galaxies. As the stars condense they heat up, nuclear processes begin again in their interiors. And it’s those nuclear processes in the stars that make carbon and the heavier elements. Every atom of carbon in your body was once inside a star. We are people of stardust made in the ashes of dead stars.

And that’s a very beautiful process that takes place in that sort of way. And one of the great triumphs of astrophysics and the second half of the 20th century was to unravel that process. One of the people who did some of the most important work on that was a senior colleague of mine in Cambridge called Fred Hoyle. And they were trying to figure out how to make carbon. They got helium, and if you can make three helium nuclei stick together that will produce carbon, but when you have something as small as a nucleus it is impossible to get three to stick together at one time, they’re just too small.

Ok, so let’s do it step by step. Stick two together gives you berylium. Helium 4 gives you beryllium-8, hope it stays around for a bit, another helium comes along, attaches itself, and bingo, you’ve got carbon-12. That’s the obvious thing to think about but it doesn’t work in the obvious way, and the reason it doesn’t work in the obvious way is that beryllium-8 is terribly unstable. It doesn’t oblige you by staying around long enough to catch that third helium, at least in an ordinary, straightforward way.

But Fred realized that it would be just possible for this to happen if there was a very large enhancement effect, in the trade we call it resonance, occurring in carbon at just the right energy, it has to be the right energy, which would enable that attachment process to catch that third helium much much more quickly that you might have thought, in fact so quickly that some of them would get caught before the beryllium-8 disappeared. It was a very good idea, and he must have felt pretty pleased with himself and he went off to just check in the nuclear data tables of this particular resonance’s energy levels, and it wasn’t in the tables, but he knew it must be there, he’s carbon based life like you and me.

So he rang up some friends in the States, a father and son team who were good experimentalists and he said, “Look, you missed something. There’s a resonance and energy level in carbon that you haven’t spotted, and I’ll tell you exactly where to look for it. I know exactly where this energy has got to be. You go look for it.” And they said, “No, no, we don’t want to do that, we have more interesting things to do.” But Fred was very determined and he bullied them into looking for it and they found it.

Now that’s a wonderful achievement, to predict an energy level in carbon on the basis of how it might have been made in the stars is a fantastic scientific achievement. But it’s more than that. Fred had a lifetime conviction of atheism, realized of course that if the laws of physics had been just a little bit different that resonance wouldn’t have been there, and the possibility of carbon-based life is too significant for it just to be a happy accident in his view, so he says in a Yorkshire accent that is beyond my power to imitate, he said that the universe is a put-up job. Fred didn’t like the word God, and so he said some Intelligent, capital “I” Intelligence, must have monkied with the laws of nature to make carbon production possible. What that could possibly be I don’t know, but the more sensible thing to say is that creation is ordained, that the laws of nature would be such, as to enable the fruitfulness of carbon-based life.

We’ll come back to evaluating that possibility in a minute, but before we do, let me give you two other examples of how specific, how special, our universe has to be for us to be able to be here today to think about. We live in a universe that is immensely big, beyond our powers to imagine really. There are a hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy in the Milky Way, of which our sun is just a common or garden specimen, and there are about a hundred thousand million galaxies in the observable universe, of which our Milky Way is a pretty common or garden specimen. So we live in a world that is unimaginably vast, and sometimes we might feel upset by that and think, “What could be the significance of us who are simply inhabitants of a speck of cosmic dust, as you might say, in this vast, vast universe?”

Nevertheless, if all those stars were not there, we would not be here to be upset at the thought of them. Because there is a direct connection between how big a universe is and how long it lasts, and a universe that is significantly smaller than our universe would not have been able to last the 14 billion years, which is the necessary time to produce beings of our complexity. So that’s another condition of the world that has to be right for human beings, or something like human beings, to be a possibility.

One final example, which is the finest tuning of all: quantum theory suggests that there should be an energy attached to space itself. In quantum theory the vacuum, so called empty space, is not just a void. There are things called vacuum fluctuations which occur in a continual sort of seething mass of things coming into being and going out of being all the time. So while there is nothing there that doesn’t mean there is nothing happening. That may sound strange and paradoxical but believe me that’s what quantum theory implies. And of course these happenings, these fluctuations, generate a certain amount of energy, we call it “zero point energy”, and that energy is spread out over the whole of space. So we expect there to be energy associated with space.

And just recently the astronomers have discovered something called dark energy which is driving the expansion of the universe, which is just such an energy associated with space. Well that’s very good, you might say. However, when we estimate, just from thinking about quantum theory, how much energy there should be in space it turns out to be a fantastically large amount, and when we see the amount of energy there actually is per volume in space, it turns out to be very, very small in relation to that expected size. In fact, it turns out to be smaller by a factor of 10-120. That means by a factor of 1 over 1 followed by 120 zeros. You don’t have to be a great mathematician to see that’s a fantastically small number. So some fantastic cancellation has taken place to turn that big number into the tiny number that we actually observe, and if it hadn’t taken place we wouldn’t be here to observe it because significantly higher energy would simply have blown the whole show apart too fast for anything interesting to happen. That’s the finest tuning that we know in the universe: one part in 10120.

So we live in a world that is very remarkably finely tuned, and we have to consider that. And all scientists would agree about what I have been telling you; this is non-contentious. Where the contention comes in is what we might make of that, what is the further significance of it.

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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Papalinton - #44593

December 21st 2010

@ Gregory

Bono also said,  “These are big questions.  If there is a god, it’s serious.  And if there is no god, it’s even more serious.  Or is it the other way around?  I don’t know, but these are the things that, as an artist, are going to cross your mind - as well as ‘Ode to My New Jaguar’ “.

Gregory you say,  “There are many people, especially natural-physical scientists, thinking horizontally and *not* vertically on this topic. Religious humanism is valid to some degree here and it is more attractive than a minimalist atheist humanism, though the humanism of the religious person obviously drops away before the Divine.

The problem with speaking of ‘meaning’ in an atheist framework is not its absence, but rather its deficiencies (slabost), which are too obvious to most people, to be even entertained. Atheism is a ‘meagre meaning’ perspective.

Dancing the Dawkins-Dennett dance is sheer delusion, i.e. diversion from reality to ‘have a good time’ before death, i.e. emptiness from the atheist standpoint.”

Is this the end product, the culmination of your research as a ‘human-social scientist’?
I wouldn’t put you on contract or hire you.


Steve Ruble - #44612

December 21st 2010


Just remember, Steve, you are guided by none other than yourself.

That’s obviously incorrect.  I don’t know how you can possibly justify making such a claim.

Who learns ‘humanism’ from a ‘natural-physical scientist’?!

Someone who can detect and appreciate the implicit assumptions underlying the words and actions of people they respect.  It’s not actually that difficult, although it may be more challenging than reading and regurgitating the words of (allegedly) great thinkers.

Without God/Allah, the meaning of life ends with an individuals’ death. As A. Rand was fond of saying, ‘it is not I that dies, it is the world that dies.’

Have you no friends or family for whom you care? Will you leave nothing of value behind when you die? Are you truly so egocentric and selfish that you only think the world has meaning if you are there to enjoy it?

Are you seriously quoting Ayn Rand?

Gregory - #44615

December 21st 2010

“I don’t know how you can possibly justify making such a claim.” - Steve

B/c I know ‘human-ism’ (as ideology) better than you do. I’ve seen varieties of it around the world. & you are *not* a human-social scientist, are you Steve?

If one is thinking of ‘humanism’ as being their ‘religion,’ e.g. like the religion of humanity was to Comte or Lunacharsky, then humans have an empty image.

“Someone who can detect and appreciate…”

This oft-repeated feature is common to both religious & atheist humanists.

Yes, & the ‘specialness’?

“our universe is “special” in the sense that it supports life, but not in the sense of “uniquely improbable”, and no designer is needed to explain its properties.” - Steve

Perhaps we should ask: ‘in relation to what’ is it special? In relation to God? Or just in relation to our own human imaginations? The latter is anthropo-centrism.

I was quoting Rand out of disagreement, rather than agreement with her, though I hear she is strangely becoming popular again with Repubicans in USA. Rand was a popular Russian-USAmerican atheist-humanist (though she denied the latter label), as you probably know.

Natural theology survives beyond her ‘objectivism’.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #44617

December 21st 2010

Steve Ruble #44553,

It seems to me that you make my point very well with our quote from Richard.


“The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”

The question is whether life has objective meaning and purpose.  If one says that life is as meaningful as we choose to make it, that is affirming that the meaning of life is subjective and relativist, rather than objective and real.  In other words Dawkins says that life has no real meaning.

What do you say?

PS If meaning cannot be proven experimentally, then it must be an illusion, right?

Steve Ruble - #44620

December 22nd 2010

Gregory, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen humanism “around the world” or not. You don’t know me, nor do you know by what I am guided. Your claim is utterly absurd.

Perhaps we should ask: ‘in relation to what’ is it special? In relation to God? Or just in relation to our own human imaginations?

Oh, you have some evidence that those are different things?

Papalinton - #44621

December 22nd 2010

Hi Roger

You say,  “The question is whether life has objective meaning and purpose.”
There are many levels and perspectives in response to this questions.
1. Mum and Dad wanted a baby;  result: you were born; and pass on their genes.  [purpose]
2. Mum and Dad just wanted some hank-panky;  result, you were born [ perhaps not the intended purpose but they knew that what they were doing does have a purpose, the result of the action had every likelihood that you would be born]
3.  You were born; result, there is need in your life to survive [purpose]
4.  You were born; result, there is need in your life to live it as you can best do [purpose] and to make meaning on your life.
5.  You were born; result, get married, have a child (produce another life), pass on you genes to the next generation [fundamental purpose]

And universally, these seem to be purposes that one could arguably posit are purposes that are objective. 


Steve Ruble - #44622

December 22nd 2010

Roger, I hesitate to ask, but how do you propose to experimentally detect “meaning”? I can see how you might scientifically study what people think is meaningful but I don’t see how you could detect whether it actually is.

How do you expect to find an “objective” meaning? Intrinsic to the concept of meaning is the idea of being meaningful to - that is, the meaning has a subject. An objective meaning would be meaningful to… what? No one? Nothing? Doesn’t sound very meaningful to me.

Papalinton - #44623

December 22nd 2010

@ Roger [cont]

Each transcends the subjective nature of personal choice which one might make throughout life that best fits one’s character, psychological make-up etc.  Religion, the choice, brand, stripe and colour, are all subjective selection’s one makes, or chooses not to make, that adds meaning and purpose to one’s life.  But such choice is fully optional, as history shows us [so many Muslims, so many Buddhists, so many animists, so many Wkkans, so many atheists, so many scientologists, so many pagans].  And embedded in all those subjective choices [and some do not] includes the kind of god one wishes to glorify. 

It is mischievous to suggest Dawkins says, “that life has no real meaning”.  He says [as you rightly point out]  : “The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”
And that is perfectly correct, even for theists.

If you wish to have “as meaningful, as full and as wonderful [a life] as you can make it”, and for that you must include a god into your equation, then so be it.  But such a choice is purely subjective and is not an objective purpose to make meaning in your life.

So endeth the lesson


Roger A. Sawtelle - #44637

December 22nd 2010


It is patently false that the purpose of life is survival, because it does not answer the Why?

To say that because I was born I must reproduce is not true.  Because I was born I must die, that is true.  People, unlike other creatures, have a choice as to whether to reproduce or not and until you or anyone else can give a rational reason to say life is good and meaningful, it is irrational to live and give birth to children. 

To say that a life is a failure or is meaningless because that person does not have children is clearly false. 

If the meaning of life is to reproduce then the greatest and most important people would be those with the most offspring.  I hardly think that you and most atheists would agree with that, because generally speaking atheists have fewer children than believers, particularly Muslims.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #44638

December 22nd 2010

Steve Ruble - #44622

December 21st 2010

Roger, I hesitate to ask, but how do you propose to experimentally detect “meaning”? I can see how you might scientifically study what people think is meaningful but I don’t see how you could detect whether it actually is.

How do you expect to find an “objective” meaning? Intrinsic to the concept of meaning is the idea of being meaningful to - that is, the meaning has a subject. An objective meaning would be meaningful to… what? No one? Nothing? Doesn’t sound very meaningful to me.


You are moving the discussion to another level by indicating that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, which would include science too.  Basically in science we determine that something is meaningful if it is true.  E = mc squared is meaningful/true, although most people do not really understand the full meaning of this statement. 

Darwinism is considered by many meaningful, because it is true, & by others as untrue and not meaningful.  The problem I have with Darwinism is that it is not meaningful, if it were scientifically true, which it is not.  Ecology however is both meaningful and scientifically true, so it can provide a scientifically verifiable meaning for life.

Steve Ruble - #44664

December 22nd 2010

OK, I’ve been going way off topic. To return: Sy, you wrote,

Steve, you ask what I think is the “third way”, what do I really think happened to allow such a finely tuned universe to exist, so improbably.

That’s not really what I was asking; perhaps I wasn’t clear. What I’m curious about is why you think it’s possible for the physical constants to have different values. When you claim that the observed values are “improbable”, you implicitly assume that the values could have been different than they are. But since we don’t actually know what sets those values, nor whether or not it’s a deterministic process, this assumption seems at least as unwarrented as the assumption that there may be multiple universes.

What you seem to be doing is assuming that the origin of the universe had free parameters, then asserting that God is needed to explain the values those parameters took. But we don’t observe the universe having free parameters, so we don’t need God to explain their values.

The “gap” where you are inserting God is entirely of your own devising.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #44677

December 22nd 2010

Gregory - #44576

December 21st 2010

That said, I don’t like Roger’s line of questioning. It is not that atheists have no meaning, but that we are *all* meaning-making beings. Do we make meaning from nothing in a meaningless universe?

Gregory, my friend,

I think the difference between us is I say that humans are meaning seekers, while you say that humans are meaning makers.  I agree that humans often find meaning where there is none, as Eve & Adam found out in the Garden, but Christians claim that God through the Logos incorporated Meaning into the universe, which was later revealed through the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ. Thus the search for Meaning is part of God’s plan to reveal Himself through Jesus.

I suspect that you are making the case for Christian relativsim, which makes sense in this postmodernist age.  My point is that we need to go beyond postmodernism and can do so by basing our new science and philosophy on ecology and the Logos, rather than on Darwinism and relativism.  Even though one would think that ecology and the Logos would be mainstream concepts, acceptance is slow, but in the long run postmodern relativism cannot stand and we need a real alternative the the return of modernism.

Ashe - #44894

December 24th 2010

Steve wrote:

What you seem to be doing is assuming that the origin of the universe had free parameters, then asserting that God is needed to explain the values those parameters took. But we don’t observe the universe having free parameters

Of course we do. There are constants in physics that are different in low energies but become equal at higher order energies.

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