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John Polkinghorne on Natural Theology, Part 4

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January 15, 2011 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 today's fourth and final installment, Dr. Polkinghorne looks at two explanations for the so-called "fine-tuning" principle -- the multiverse theory and the existence of a divine intelligence -- and explains why natural theology alone is not sufficient to make the case for a God who interacts and cares for his creation. To make the case for theism, he argues, we need revelation, God's self-disclosure.

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

So what shall we make of it? Well I have a friend, a philosopher, called John Leslie, who thinks about these things. And he’s a very interesting philosopher. He does his philosophy by telling stories. He’s what you might call a parabolic philosopher. He tells parables. I find that very helpful. I’m not trained in philosophy, but anyone can get the point of a story. And he’s interested in this fine-tuning of our universe, this special character of our universe. And the way he wants us to think about this is by telling the following story.

You are about to be executed. You are tied to the stake, and the rifles of fifty highly trained marksmen are leveled at your chest. The officer gives the order to fire, the shots ring out, and you find you have survived. So what do you do? Do you just shrug your shoulders as you stroll away saying, “Gee, that was a close one”? I think probably not. So remarkable a fact surely calls for an explanation.

And Leslie suggests there are only two kinds of logically possible explanations for your extraordinarily good fortune. One is, maybe, there are many many many executions taking place today. Even the best of marksman occasionally miss, and you happened to be the one where all fifty missed. There will obviously have to be a lot of executions taking place today to make this possible, but it is at least possible.

But then of course there is another possible explanation of your good fortune. Maybe there was only one execution scheduled for today, but more was going on in that execution than you were aware of. The marksmen were on your side and they missed by design.

Now you see how that charming parable translates into thinking about the fine-tuning of our world. Of course if our world wasn’t fine-tuned, we wouldn’t be here to be even thinking about it. There would be no carbon-based life. But it’s such a remarkable and astonishing fact that it isn’t rational to simply say, “We’re here because we’re here. Nothing to worry about” any more than it is to say “Gee, that was a close one” as you strolled away from the execution. You should look for an explanation if you possibly can.

And Leslie suggests that there are really only two forms of explanation which are possible. One is maybe there are just many many many different universes. Always different laws of nature, all separated from each other, all but our own unobservable by us, and if there is a big enough portfolio of them (and there would have to be a very very large number), if there is a bigger portfolio then just by chance our universe turns out to be the one that has the right laws of nature for carbon-based life, because of course we are carbon-based life living in it. In other words, our universe is no more than by chance a winning ticket in a sort of multiverse lottery. That is the multiverse explanation of what’s going on, of the fine-tuning of our world.

Of course there is another explanation. Maybe there is only one universe, and it is the way it is because it is not any old world; it is a creation that is to be endowed by its Creator with precisely the finely tuned laws and circumstances which have enabled it to have a fruitful history. These seem to be the two kindsof understandings that make fine-tuning intelligible: either the multiverse, or the universe is a creation.

And then the question is: which shall we choose? And Leslie says, and I think he’s right in saying this, he says that as far as fine-tuning is concerned, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. We don’t know which to choose. Each does the explanatory work required of it.

But I think that there is sort of a cumulative case for seeing the world as a creation which I don’t see reflected on the side of the multiverse. I’ve already suggested that the deep intelligibility of the world suggests we should see it as a divine creation with a divine mind behind it. And so that reinforces the notion of seeing the fine-tuning of the world as an expression with a divine purpose behind it. And of course there are also well testified human experience and encounters with sacred reality, of course. So it’s more of a cumulative case for a theistic view for the world that builds up on this side. I don’t see a corresponding cumulative case building up on the multiverse side.

Moreover, of course, it’s not clear without further argument that the multiverse thing simply does the trick. Having an infinite number of things doesn’t guarantee that every desirable property is found among an infinite collection of things. There are an infinite number of even integers, but none of them has the property of oddness. So you have to make some more argument to say that it works in that way.

So that’s another meta-question, which I think receives its most satisfying response and explanation in terms of natural theology, of seeing the world as a divine creation.

In Western metaphysical tradition, there are really two different types of metaphysical tradition, and they differ from each other in what they take as their founding brute fact. Metaphysics simply means a worldview. Scientists sometimes say, “Oh, we don’t go bother with metaphysics,” but that’s absurd. Everybody who has a worldview has a metaphysic. We think metaphysics as inevitably as we speak prose, and the reductionist scientist who say everything is mere matter, nothing but atoms and molecules, is not making a scientific statement, but making a worldview, a metaphysical statement.

So everybody has a metaphysic and everybody has a basic brute fact. And the materialist metaphysic tradition takes the laws of nature, the given properties of matter, as its unexplained brute fact. Somebody like David Hume would suggest that was the right plotting point. And of course a theistic metaphysic takes the brute fact of a divine agent, a divine creator, as its unexplained brute fact.

What I’ve been trying to say to you in the last 20 or 25 minutes is that the laws of nature and their fine-tuned fruitfulness and deep intelligibility have a character that seems to me to point beyond themselves to demand further explanation and makes them unsatisfactory to be treated simply as a brute fact starting point. And that would be my defense of theism.

But now, natural theology, as I said at the beginning, is an attempt to learn something of God by the exercise of reason, by the inspection of the world, by a certain limited source of understanding. And it only appeals to limited kinds of experience -- general experience, the kind we’ve been thinking about – and so it only can lead to limited insight. If you were to give me the maximum success in what I’ve been saying to you this afternoon, it would be as consistent with the spectator God of deism who simply set the world spinning and watched it all happen, as it would be with the providential God of theism, who is of course the God in whom I believe, who not only set the world spinning but who is concerned for that world and interacts providentially in its unfolding history.

So natural theology, even when it’s most successful, can only give you a limited insight into God, and give you a very thin picture of the nature of God. God is the great mathematician or the cosmic architect, something like that. If you want to know more about God, if you want to know, for example, does God care for individual beings? Does God indeed interact with unfolding history? Then you’ll have to look in a different realm of experience, you will have to move from natural theology to the theology of revelation, which appeals to what are believed to be acts of divine self-disclosure in the course of history.

So it’s a limited exercise, but I think it’s an exercise of some value.

[…] I’ll say two things very briefly. I’ve simply been talking about natural theology in terms, essentially, of our scientific understanding of the world, but there is another possible source of natural theology which I think is very important, a different kind of general human experience: personal experience, the experience of value in the world.

For example, I believe that we have irreducible ethical knowledge. I believe that is just a fact, and I know actually about as surely as I know any fact, that torturing children is wrong. That’s not some curious genetic survival strategy which my genes have been encouraging in me. It’s not just some cultural convention of our society, that we choose in our society not to torture children. It’s an actual fact about the world in which we live.

And there lies the question of where do those ethical values come from? And theistic belief provides one with an answer for that, just as the order of world we might see as reflecting the divine mind and the fruitfulness of the world is reflecting the divine purpose, so our ethical intuitions can be seen as being intonations of the good and perfect world of our creator.

And then of course there is the aesthetic experience in the world, and I think we should take our aesthetic experience extremely seriously. I think it’s an encounter with a very important and specific dimension of reality. It’s not just emotion recalled in tranquility or something like that.

And again of course science offers no help for us in these questions of value. If you ask a scientist as a scientist to tell you all he or she could about the nature of music, they would say that it is neural response -- things go off in our brains, neurons fire -- to the impact of sound waves on our ear drum. And of course that is true and this way is worth knowing, but it hardly begins to engage with the deep mystery of music, of how that sequence of sounds in time can speak to us -- and I think speak to us truly -- an encounter of a timeless realm of beauty. I think we should take our aesthetic experience very seriously.

And where do they come from? Where does that aesthetic value come from? And again theistic belief suggests that aesthetic experience is a sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation. So I see belief in God as being a great integrating discipline really, a great integrating insight, perhaps I should say rather than discipline. It links together the order of the world, the fruitfulness of the world, the reality of ethical values, the deep and moving reality of aesthetic values. It makes sense. It’s a whole theory of everything in that way, which is to me, essentially, most satisfying.

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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Tim - #48318

January 20th 2011

,,,should be “hopelessly biased”

Rich - #48321

January 20th 2011


I doubt Abbott’s book led even a single major scientist to stop practicing Baconianism, because no significant scientist (as opposed to stuffy Oxbridge philosophers of science, who were probably Abbott’s target) practiced Baconianism in Abbott’s day, or had for 200 years.  But I don’t deny the value of Abbott’s story in expanding people’s imaginations.  If your point is that scientists should be imaginative and not just plodding empiricists, I’d agree.
But the debate between design and the multiverse hypothesis has nothing to do with the debate between theoretical daring versus plodding empiricism.  The debate is over whether a hypothesis that is *merely* theoretically daring, and has *no* empirical tether, should be counted as science at all, and further, if it isn’t science, whether men who purport to represent science should be appealing to it just because they’re trying to block a conclusion they don’t like.  I’ve already explained this, and I don’t know why you don’t see it, and I don’t have time to keep repeating myself.  I have to exempt myself from further reply.

Rich - #48328

January 20th 2011


You wrote:

“On the one hand you want me to “admit” that Susskind is biased.  I don’t know, maybe he is.  I haven’t looked into it.  If your representation of his position is accurate… “

Tim, did you even *read* the paragraph-long quotation from Susskind that I provided?  From these words above, it sounds as if you didn’t, or weren’t even aware that I had provided it.  And if you didn’t, you shouldn’t have been dragging me through this argument, especially when I referred repeatedly to the quotation.  I’ve been assuming that you have read the quotation, and have just been stubborn in refusing to respond to it.  But if you haven’t even *read* it, you’ve been wasting my time.

Tim - #48350

January 20th 2011


I’m sorry, but I’m not going to form a hard opinion of a scientist’s view off just one quoted paragraph, but yes I read it.  Here is my feedback:

““If, for some unforeseen reason, the landscape [i.e., megaverse] turns out to be inconsistent—maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation—I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations…”

I agree.  In fact, we are already looking for alternative explanations now, and it hasn’t even been falsified.

“But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position.  Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID [intelligent design] critics.”

I think Brian Greene would disagree with this statement.  I do as well.  The answer might very well be that the constants are non-arbitrary for one.

“One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.”

Yes, but the hope that any solution whatsoever might present itself to this seemingly intractable problem requires “faith.”  It’s the testing & validation that is not so much.  Einstein I’m sure had “faith” in his solutions.

Tim - #48356

January 20th 2011

(to add to the above)

In any event Rich, if what Susskind is advocating for is for scientists to accept as preferable a natural explanation that is as equally as likely to be (and in the same degree) untestable and unverifiable, across all spectrums of investigation (including mathematically-based theoretical models) as Fine Tuning, then sure I’d say he’s biased.  But I don’t know that from the quote.  For one, just by virtue of belonging to the realm of natural explanations, given our success in resolving similarly apparent intractable problems in the past, we might have a reasonably higher degree of confidence that a natural explanation might eventually lend itself to validation/falsification in the future, whereas we might have a reasonable expectation that a supernatural explanation might avail itself less so - simply as a matter of our historical track record in science.  But if in his mind these two are totally equivalent, and he wants to elevate the one and discount the other as a matter of science (as opposed to personal views), then sure he’d be biased.  But I’d have to read more of his statements to be sure.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #48964

January 24th 2011

It seems to me that there are two basic issues here, the antropic principle which is the basis of “fine tuning” and “multiverse” theory.  We seem to be treating them as opposing concepts, however according to my understanding this is not accurate.

As far as I can determine the antropic principle is accepted science.  Basically it states that our universe and specifically the planet earth is structured so that life, even human life, is possible.  That does not mean that it is inevitable, but it is made possible by a number of conditions which are so numerous and precise that it is not reasonable to think that this is a coincidence or accident. 

Because these observations and calculations are real and empirical, it would seem hard to understand why they might be controversial.  They are because they smack of “teleology.”  Teleology is the philosophical thought generally associated with Aristotle that says all things have purpose and meaning.  Now this is IMHO mostly likely true, but Aristotle was coopted by the Catholic Church and “teleology” was used to opposed empiricism.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #48965

January 24th 2011

Part 2

Thus teleology became a dirty word, the kiss of death for scientific ideas.  James Lovelace complained bitterly that some people, I am sure he meant Dawkins, tried to brand ecology with the dreaded brand of teological.  Teology suggest purpose & purpose suggests Purposer & this is what some people opposed. 

Some scientists took another tack.  They recognized the scientific fact of the antropic principle, but said that the form of our universe was the ineviable result of a natural process, the multiverse.  See Discover, dec/08 by Tim Folger, “Science’s Alternative to an Intelligent Creator.”

One multiverse theoretician said that there must be 10 to the 500 BILLIONTH power universes to make sure there is one like ours which will sustain intelligent life.  Since the size & complexity of our universe blows the mind, how can some people think that a trillion of similar universes exist along side ours?

What real difference does it make?  It does not change the fact that humans must find away to live together on this planet.  One cannot prove empirically either one is correct.  It seems that Ockham’s Razor would favor the Creator, but those who absolutely reject that concept would not agree.

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