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Polkinghorne’s Masterful Reminder

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October 15, 2010 Tags: Lives of Faith
Polkinghorne’s Masterful Reminder

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Saturday, October 16, marks Sir John Polkinghorne’s 80th birthday. In honor of the occasion, we post this reflection on his book Theology in the Context of Science. Sir Polkinghorne’s life and work have been a shining example of the harmony of science and faith, and we at BioLogos extend to him the warmest of wishes on this special day. We invite you to offer your own birthday messages in the comment section below.

Sir John Polkinghorne’s brief survey Theology in the Context of Science should be required reading for anyone engaging the religious implications of contemporary science, regardless of their personal beliefs. I wish all of the “New Atheists” would read this and engage with theology as it is expressed here, rather than in the uninformed babblings of televangelists or wherever P. Z. Myers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne get their irrelevant ideas about theology. For religious believers, this small volume provides a great survey of why Christianity need not cower in the shadows, hoping that the searchlights of modern scholarship won’t find it.

Polkinghorne is a remarkable, almost unique scholar. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and former respected mathematical physicist who did important work on quarks. Now 80 years old, he has been an Anglican priest for several decades. His work as a priest included a stint in a parish, where he did the familiar work of a priest—marrying people, burying people, administering the sacraments and counseling parishioners through personal struggles. His reflections on science and religion—articulated in more than 30 books—show an engaging familiarity with both the nuances and the major players of both communities, where he continues to be a respected figure. As a fellow physicist—although one not worthy to sharpen his pencils—I have delighted in his personal anecdotes of interactions with luminaries like Paul Dirac, Abdus Salam, and Steven Weinberg. It has been my privilege to know Polkinghorne over the years in a variety of settings and I have fond memories of his last visit to Eastern Nazarene College when he stayed in my home for a few days.

In Theology in the Context of Science he highlights points of contact where science provides insights and raises important metaphysical questions of relevance to theology. Nominally written for theologians, the book is equally useful for scientists wanting to engage theology. Polkinghorne has long lamented that too much of contemporary theology is done without taking into consideration the scientific view of the world.

Polkinghorne begins the argument in this book by noting that the “methodological context of science” is inadequate for a “world that is too rich in its nature to be contained within such a reductionist straitjacket.” Science, he says, cannot account for a number of critically important aspects of our experience, although it can illuminate them. Take the rational character of the fundamental laws of physics. As a mathematical physicist he understands only too well just how deeply rational the world is, when you drill all the way down to the most basic layers. In this barely accessible world, particles and forces live in splendid isolation from the messiness that makes biology and even chemistry so clunky. Science can find this layer but it cannot explain why the foundations of reality have this character.

Consider also the reality of mathematics. Even agnostic mathematicians like Sir Roger Penrose have argued that there needs to be some kind of “platonic” world beyond the physical where the truths of mathematics reside. Penrose, who I had the privilege of interviewing when I was at Oxford, is as deep a thinker as we have on the planet today. And he is absolutely convinced that a purely physicalist worldview simply cannot account for our experiences. The mathematics that describes the physical world where we live is separate from this world. It “lives” somewhere else. Closely related to this is the unexplained mathematical prowess of our species. Our minds—some of them!— are capable of doing way more math than we needed to get by on the grasslands of Africa where our ancestors first put two and two together, or figured out that parallel lines don’t intersect. Polkinghorne suggests that our minds have developed in a multi-layered reality that includes the non-physical world of mathematics and, just as we have learned our way around the physical world we have, in some sense, learned how to negotiate this other world as well.

Polkinghorne also notes the clarity of our moral intuitions, which he sees as more than just sentiments programmed by natural selection. Evolutionary psychology can explain, more or less, why we care about others and often help them in sacrificial ways. Or why we are so attentive to the needs of children. But these explanations are always in terms of our emotions. We “desire” certain behaviors and they reward us by making us feel good. But is this adequate, asks Polkinghorne? Is there not some larger sense in which “torturing children” is actually wrong, and not just something that we don’t enjoy, like moldy cheese or people with oozing head wounds?

The bio-friendly nature of the universe is another, perhaps overly familiar, example. The finely tuned universe cries out for an explanation that he says is not provided by the “ingenious but highly speculative and uncertain” multiverse hypothesis. Polkinghorne is quite convinced that the motivation for the multiverse is simply to “explain away” this particular argument for the reality of a Creator.

Polkinghorne uses such broad considerations to open the door to consideration of truths beyond the explanatory reach of science. This sort of old-fashioned apologetics argument starts by dismantling the omniscience of science, moving on to highlight pointers toward a Creator, and then introducing theological particularities. Polkinghorne takes the reader down this path into the precincts of theology, where he explores the motivations for traditional Christian beliefs like the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of eternal life.

Polkinghorne’s ruminations on the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection are particularly interesting. In this postmodern age we hear all too often that such beliefs are just matters of faith now and that we had better not suppose that the New Testament writers are actually providing real evidence for the resurrection. Reminding us that physicists are “bottom up” thinkers who naturally move from facts to generalities, Polkinghorne reads the gospel accounts through an evidentiary lens and concludes that they do provide “motivation” for belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

Theology in a Scientific Context is a great short read. It is also a nice summary of Polkinghorne’s ideas, many of which are dealt with in more detail in his previous books.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Ted Davis - #36410

October 25th 2010

As a “PS” to my comments for Steve, I simply want to call attention to the similarities between some of the things Steve says about mathematical knowledge and something that Galileo said in his famous “Dialogue.”  It will be immediately evident, however, that Galileo put mathematics into a larger context that we explicitly theistic—my point being (again) that the world *does* make sense from a theistic perspective, and that it’s rational for people to think in that way.  (This is quite different from saying that it’s irrational for people *not* to think that way.)

“But taking man’s understanding *intensively*, in so far as this term denotes understanding some proposition perfectly, I say that the human intellect does understand some of them perfectly, and thus in these it has as much absolute certainty as Nature itself has.  Of such are the mathematical sciences alone; that is, geometry and arithmetic, in which the Divine intellect indeed knows infinitely many more propositions, since it knows all.  But with regard to those few which the human intellect does understand, I believe that its knowledge equals the Divine in objective certainty, for here it succeeds in understanding necessity…”

Steve Ruble - #36448

October 25th 2010

...if there were no brains “smart” enough to do higher mathematics…then would it still be true that 1 + 1 = 2?

Yes. That’s the definition of “1”, “+”, “=”, and “2”. If there were no minds sophisticated enough to play chess, would bishops still be bound to move diagonally?  Yes.  Those are the rules of chess.

There is no a priori reason why beautiful equations should prove to be the clue to understanding nature… it does not seem sufficient simply to regard it as a happy accident.

I agree, Ted, that this is where we part ways. I see that many aspects of nature are described by mathematics, beautifully; and that many are not.  If the balance were obviously tilted one way or another, you might have a case for a designer with some intentions.

Instead, we see a universe where the rules are complicated enough to allow huge complexity, but consistent enough to allow complexity to persist.  It would be amazing if we found ourselves in a universe with rules that did not have those properties, but as it is, your argument is just another version of Douglas’s puddle (http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/index.html).

Steve Ruble - #36451

October 25th 2010

Ted, let me put my point about the transcendence of mathematics another way:

Consider the halting problem[Wiki].  You assert that it’s reasonable to believe that all mathematical truths exist in the mind of your Transcendental Being (TB).  If the TB knows all mathematical truths, then it can decide, for any program X, whether X will halt (a truth).  However, it is a mathematical truth that no algorithm has this property.  There are three options:

(1) The halting problem is not a mathematical truth;
(2) The TB does not use an algorithm to decide whether a program will halt.
(3) Some truths are unknown by the TB

Option (1) is not tenable.  On option (2), the TB must have a pre-existing oracle of all possible programs, with their halting values. However, the set of all possible programs has cardinality ℵ1, meaning there is no way to create a set containing all possible programs.  Therefore, the TB does not posses such a set, and option (2) is not tenable.

So in which mind, Ted, exist the truths not known by the TB who knows all mathematical truths? Or can you tell by this point why I think that it’s unreasonable to believe in such a being?

Steve Ruble - #36479

October 25th 2010

It’s the absence of intellectual modesty of this kind, especially when dealing with questions of this sort, that *does* bother me when I encounter it—and I don’t see it in Steve’s comments here.

Is “this kind” of intellectual modesty the kind that involves claiming to have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe, who will create a happy eternal existence for people who believe in him? You may want to recalibrate your sense of what constitutes modesty.

I think it might be slightly more modest to stick to explanations which are sufficient to account for the evidence, to refrain from making extravagent claims in domains about which nothing can be known or discovered, and to avoid pretending to have knowledge which is not available to humans.

It’s amazing how blind theists seem to be to the fundamental arrogance of their revelatory claims.

Ted Davis - #36756

October 27th 2010


Your point about the halting problem—with which I am not familiar—is fascinating and very effectively presented.  To answer it at all with any confidence—that is, to explain why I would opt for a given reply—would take a good bit of preparation on my part, such that I doubt I will try to respond here.  You can “score one” on this.

Informally, and with little confidence, I sense that this is probably related pretty closely to Godel’s theorem, which I am familar with.  Equally informally, my instincts are that open theism (which Polkinghorne espouses) is probably consistent with your option (3). 

You’ve raised an excellent question about the meaning of transcendence, relative to mathematics, however I don’t see that you’ve engaged the point Polkinghorne makes about the deep correspondence between “beautiful” mathematics and the natural world.  Granted, mathematics doesn’t seem to describe *everything*, but it does describe the fundamental features of the physical universe so very well—and ultimately so much else depends on that.  Also, please note that “beautiful” equations here (in Polkinghorne) doesn’t quite mean “described by mathematics, beautifully.” (continued)

Ted Davis - #36760

October 27th 2010


Rather, he is referring to the great utility of equations that mathematicians regard as “beautiful.”  I’m sure that you know what this is about; the specific person Polkinghorne most often mentions in this regard is Paul Dirac, who so very strongly favored mathematical beauty as a criterion for truth in the physical universe, that he felt it was even more important than empiricism.

In the passage I quoted, Polkinghorne is basically getting at what Eugene Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences,” another idea that I’m sure you know.

In short, Polkinghorne thinks that theism is the best explanation for Einstein’s question about comprehensibility and Wigner’s question about the effectiveness of mathematics, coupled with Dirac’s observations about “beautiful” equations.  I’ll put it this way: why are the “beautiful” equations discovered by our minds just the very tools we need to understand so much about nature?  Why is the universe not only comprehensible, but comprehensible in just this way?

I respect your reticence to invoke a transcendent being to account for this, but I do not see why it is unreasonable for Polkinghorne to do so.

Ted Davis - #36765

October 27th 2010

As for modesty and claims about immortality, Steve, I doubt we’ll find much common ground.  I’ll say simply this and be done with it.  I am convinced (and no doubt you are not) that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is true—that the combination of the empty tomb and the post-crucifixion appearances are not adequately explained by other hypotheses.  In short, I believe that we’ve heard of Jesus today, while we’ve forgotten about several other “messiahs” from his time, b/c his life continued beyond the tomb and that fact literally created the earliest Christian believers.  I think that’s what the evidence actually warrants, but I also grant the rationality of some other opinions: genuine objectivity on this particular matter is hard to demonstrate.

Given that I believe this, it shouldn’t surprise you that would take seriously what Jesus says in John 14 and what Paul says in 1 Cor 15—namely, that our own deaths are not the ends of our own lives.  I don’t see anything immodest about saying any of this.  I might be crazy, I might be self-deluded, I might be just wrong, but I don’t see any immodesty here.  I grant the rationality of holding a different opinion about this.  I don’t know whether you reciprocate.

Steve Ruble - #37122

October 28th 2010

As you say, some aspects of reality are described by “beautiful” mathematics, especially at the fundamental level. However, some are not. For example, the relationship between gravity and quantum phenomena is not described by any mathematics; much quantum behavior must be approximated by statistical methods, and there is no clean solution to the equation descibing the orbital relations of three bodies.

It seems pretty obvious that we live in a universe which is partially comprehensible - and of the part we can comprehend, only part is described well by “beautiful” math.  So what fraction of phenomena at any given scale need to conform to “beautiful” math for it to be “reasonable” to believe that conformance is the will of a deity? If only 10% were conformant, would it be reasonable? 1%? And what fraction is actually conformant? What’s you standard? How do you check it?

Those are the kinds of questions that a “reasonable” belief should be able to respond to. Can you?

Steve Ruble - #37126

October 28th 2010

As for the rationality or “intellectual modesty” of believing in immortality because of the resurrection of Jesus: even granting (for the sake of argument) that the resurrection is the best explanation of Christianity’s success, all that gets you is evidence that on at least one occasion someone came back from the dead. Is it possible that people come back from the dead? Apparently. Is it likely that you will come back? Well, it’s only happened once, so I wouldn’t bet on it.

Is it reasonable to believe all the assertions of a person who came back from the dead? Why would it be? By what argument do you move from “X rose from he dead” to “X is always correct”?

The intellectually modest thing to do is to refrain from concluding that a claim is true when there are equally valid arguments that it is false, or when there are many alternate claims with equal claims to truth, or when there is no reason to believe the claim is true. All of these apply to Christianty in particular and theism in general.

Ted Davis - #37209

October 28th 2010


With Michael Polanyi, I think that sometimes we need to commit ourselves to things in the absence of certainty.  In his view, at least, that’s a common situation for scientists to find themselves in, and I would say that it’s consistent with intellectual modesty both to make such commitments and also to make them while being fully cognizant of the absence of certainty.

As for the implications of the Resurrection, I don’t believe that anyone—including Jesus—“comes back from the dead.”  What Paul taught in Corinthians is not “coming back from the dead,” but being raised into a new embodied existence in a world that is both like and unlike our own.  That’s what he was referring to when he says, “if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ is not risen.”  He was referring to the general resurrection into a new existence, of which Christ was “the first fruits of them that slept.”  Whatever is left of my body won’t “come back from the dead,” according to this teaching; rather, I’ll enter a new phase of embodied existence of a different type.

Ted Davis - #37211

October 28th 2010

It was b/c of their experience of the Resurrection that Jesus’ Jewish disciples blew the doors off the core Jewish belief that God is not in human form—or any other embodied form.  Just as it was oxymoronic to have a “crucified messiah,” so it was oxymoronic to have an Incarnation: the Jewish God, at least, would not take on human form.  The Resurrection, when viewed against the background of Jesus’ life, death, and ministry, indicated to Jesus’ disciples that they needed a new box in which to put their concept of God.  This doesn’t mean that everything Jesus says in the gospel accounts is gospel truth (so to speak)—they are documents by human authors with their own perspectives, limitations, etc.—but it does mean that Jesus was (as he said) “the way, the Truth, and the life.”  And, his disciples understood his Resurrection as the source of their own hope; I am in no position to tell them that they didn’t get it.

Ted Davis - #37214

October 28th 2010

It’s probably time for me to step away from a conversation that I’d love to have in person, rather than online, and at much greater length.  Would that time were unlimited.  I’ve thought a bit more about the mathematics we discussed, and I’m a bit less hesitant now to see parallels between the halting problem and Godel’s theorem.  If I’m on the wrong track, I really hope you’ll show me the right one: it’s a darn interesting question you’ve raised, and I want to understand it better.

So, assuming that it’s very similar to Godel’s theorem, then I would say that the approach I would probably take would employ the definition of omniscience given by Richard Swinburne, “The Coherence of Theism,” p. 162: “A being X is omniscient if, at a given time T, X knows every true proposition.” This is sometimes called “limited omniscience,” since at any given time there are only so many propositions that one can state in a formal system.  Obviously one can take other approaches, using other definitions of omniscience—such as (for example) a Molinist approach involving “middle knowledge”—but my instincts favor Swinburne’s definition, esp in the context you raised.

A final comment, on Godel, is coming.

Ted Davis - #37215

October 28th 2010

Concerning Kurt Godel’s own thoughts about God, the following popularization seems accurate to me, though I don’t know the primary sources (i.e., Godel himself) well enough to be sure:

I do know John Dawson, the historian named in the article who specializes in Godel.  As far as I know, his ideas about Godel are accurately restated here.

Certainly, Godel didn’t think that believing in God was irrational…

My best to you, Steve,

gingoro - #37233

October 28th 2010

Ted Davis@37214

“since at any given time there are only so many propositions that one can state in a formal system”

I do not understand why the number of propositions is limited.  It seems that one could always generate one more proposition from existing ones and then on and on.  Maybe I don’t understand the kind of formal system being talked about.  Sure the number of symbols to express the propositions grow without bound but that does not seem a problem for an omniscient being.  Somehow I always figured that an omniscient being could know the answer to any particular problem that interested him.

Am confused.
Dave Wallace

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