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John Polkinghorne in a Nutshell

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December 7, 2011 Tags: Lives of Faith

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.

Today's video is courtesy of filmmaker Ryan Pettey, director/editor of Satellite Pictures and features physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne.

I grew up in a Christian home and I can't really remember a time when I wasn't, in some sense, part of the worshiping and believing community of the church. So Christianity has always been central to my life. Academically, I was good at mathematics and so I moved into theoretical physics and I spent about 25 years working in that and enjoyed it very much and regarded it as being a Christian vocation to use such talents as I had. But you don't get better as you get older in mathematical subjects and after 25 years I found I had done my bit for physics and I'd do something else. So the idea of seeking ordination and becoming a Christian minister of Word and sacrament seemed a worthwhile thing to do--also, to my wife fortunately. So she agreed with that and that's how I made this rather unusual change.

Physicists do, I think, have a sort of cosmic religiosity. They do find it necessary to take seriously the order of the world. They are wary of religion because they have a picture of religion that is based upon blind faith, submission to authority, and so they don't want to commit intellectual suicide. Neither of course do I. So I've also tried to show my friends that my religious belief, not only explains the order of the world, but has other motivations which are also important.

Science has [achieved] its great success by the limit of its ambition. It doesn't try to ask and answer every question, but essentially asks the question "how do things happen"? It's a very important question to ask and, of course, science has been stunningly successful in answering it. But it is not the only question to ask about the world. There are questions of meaning and purpose. Is there something going on in what is happening? Now science, by its very nature, when it's honest and true to itself, doesn't seek to answer those questions. But they are questions that we know are meaningful and necessary and I want to have as full of an understanding of the world as possible which means that I need the religious answers to, if you like, the "why" questions about the world, the meaning and purpose and value of the world, just as I need the scientific answers to the "how" questions about the process of the world.

I worked in quantum physics and of course quantum physics is totally different to the physics of the world of everyday. So in the quantum world things can sometimes be like waves--spread out and flappy. Sometimes they can be like particles, little bullets. Now nobody would think that that is a sensible thing. Only the nudge of nature itself, only the way the world actually is could drive us in that direction. And now, of course, we understand many things on that basis. And that is one of the things, incidentally, that persuades me that science is dealing with truth. Not the complete truth. There is always something more to find out, there is something around the next corner which we wouldn't have thought of before hand. But we have to keep on looking for the truth and when we find it we have to commit ourselves to it and trust it.

I think that discoveries of new truth in science and beyond science are always in some continuing relationship to the truth that has been there before. When Einstein came along and discovered general relativity he didn't throw Newton away. He showed the limitations of Newton's understanding and was able to extend them. Newtonian ideas are still good enough to send an explorer satellite to Mars so they are not exactly useless. In the same sort of way, I think there is a sort of development of doctrines as people sometimes say. The understandings of truth in the present build upon the understandings of the past. They may modify them in various ways, see them in a different perspective. But I don't think they just wipe them away and start with a clean slate.

I suppose everybody would like certainty, but it isn't available to us in that absolutely black and white way. We have reasons for our beliefs. I commit myself to my Christian belief for reasons that are sufficient enough for me to bet my life upon it. But we don't have absolute certainty in the 2+2=4 sense. And that is true of everybody. Everybody has to make a commitment beyond what they know for certain to be true. I would define faith as commitment to well motivated belief, accepting the consequences of that, not only for my intellectual attitude to the world, but also the way I live my life.

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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Roger A. Sawtelle - #66430

December 7th 2011

I am glad that Dr. P understands that certainty is not a reality for human beings.  Living by faith is not saeeking certainty, living by sight is.  Living by faith means that we must trust God, trust in ourselves, and trust in others when things are uncertaint which is all the time. 

Trust does not mean without knowledge or information, burt recognizes the limitations of information.  Dr. P is wise to pint out the limits of science.  It gains much of its success by limiting its search to questions about the physical.  However it seems that some what to say that if science can’t answer certain questions then they must be unimportant. 

Math is not knowledge, it is a language, a way of knowing and thinking.  Until we understand this there will always be confusion about what science is and does.  Science has its own language and methods, as does theology.  Each addresses its own questions in its own way.  Thwere is no necessary contradiction between them that cannot be worked out by the proper methods and tools.   

Jimpithecus - #66436

December 8th 2011

Roger, good point about math.  One of my friends is a mathematician and he drills it into my head that science is not math.  In science, there is either support for an hypothesis or there is not.  In math, it is either right or it is wrong.  As Rick Davies would say: “There ain’t no in-between.”  We can use the certainty of math to construct statistical methods to test scientific hypotheses, but that is as close as it gets.

HornSpiel - #66448

December 8th 2011

Nice thoughts. I gel with your ideas.

I happened to be thinking about the difference between math and science recently. I had the idea that science is about accurately describing and modeling the world we apprehend with our senses, that is, physical reality or “nature”. Math is a tool, or language as you put it Roger, useful for manipulation and description. Also, as Jimpithicus says, for testing our descriptions.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66454

December 9th 2011


We are on the same page, except when you equate “the world which we apprehend through out senses” with physical reality and nature.  First of all we live in at least 3 overlapping worlds or realities.  We live in the physical world governed by physical laws, we live in a bio world which we share with other living creatures (which we may be losing by our own greed), and we live in the human world, human institutions and culture, which science for the most part does not address. 

Science in general and scientism in particular tries to pretend that the bio and human worlds do not exist.  They claim that the only real world is the physical world which can be explained by physical natural laws.  However the existence of math and natural laws exposes this claim as false.  Math is a language and a language is not physical, that is, composed of matter/energy.  I call it as part of the intellectual world that we live in.    

Thus the intellectual world overlaps the physical because natural laws govern the physical world, just as moral laws govern the human world, and ecological laws govern the bio world.  Furthermore ideas plus the physical equals meaning and purpose, so we all live in the spiritual world of meaning and purpose.

Science is our knowledge of the physical world.  Philosophy can be called the knowledge of our bio world.  Theology is our attempt to understand the spiritual world, which we share with God and other people.  Please note that organisms can be considered thinking creatures, because they are not passive like physical things are.  They actively interact with their environment and learn how to adjust to it.        

HPS - #66471

December 10th 2011

Roger, I think HS is correct in saying that we apprehend the world through our senses, because frankly, there is no other way to interact with the world.

It simply isn’t true to say that science in general pretends that these other “bio and human worlds do not exist”. Fields such as biology, ecology, geography, psychology, etc. study the “bio world”, and likewise studies including economics and political science are designed to study the “human world”. Most of these are appropriated deemed as ‘social sciences’. Granted, there is continuing debate as to whether these are to be classified as science (which is part of a larger question - “What is science?”). In fact, Samuel Coleridge, the famous Romantic, referred to theology as “the Queen of the sciences”. But what is and isn’t science is a debate for another place.

Regardless, all of these disciplines attempt to apprehend the world, by first observing it. Crudely put, even philosophy requires inputs from the senses, and by that I don’t mean in the empirical, scientific sense - but in the fact that philosophy aims to prescribe or describe reality; which means we first must agree on what that reality is!

But you are on the right track I think in noticing the trend for science to become synonymous with a materialist (that physical matter and energy is all that exists) world view. This view is particularly prevalent amongst the atheists of today. However, I do not think that all materialists would dispute the existence of these other ‘bio’ and ‘human’ worlds, they would simply say that they are derivative of the physical. This sort of thinking is quite popular amongst scientists (possibly because its one of the only concepts they are exposed to within the philosophy of science), and has at its heart the very simplistic ideal of using maths to explain all of physics, physics to explain all of chemistry, chemistry to explain biology, biology to explain psychology (which would include for the atheist, a psychological explanation of religious belief), psychology to explain sociology, etc. This sort of thinking is known as methodological reductionism.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #66472

December 10th 2011


Thank you for your comments and recognizing that I am on the right track in pointing out what appears to the direction of current thinking in the philosophy of science. 

It is my observation from numerous discussions on the internet and research on the same that this type of scientism or reductionism or ontological naturalism is the dominant ideology of science and those who disagree with it do not have a viable philosophical alternative. 

The Christian faith is a religious alternative, but until we can transform it into the basis of a viable philosophical, scientific view, materialist monism will seem to prevail. 

What concerned me in the statement of HS was the equation of what we apprehend with the physical world.  We apprehend primarily information the internet, TV, radio, conversation, observation, etc.  This is about in part the “physical” world, but more often about bio and human worlds.  We apprehend not only through the senses, but also through the MIND.  

Materialists that I have spoken with cannot deny the reality of these worlds, but their focus is entirely on the physical world and because they are monists they in effect deny the relational reality which is the basis of bio and human worlds. 

One cannot oppose something with nothing.  We need a better idea to oppose the faulty idea of methological reductionism.  This what I have been working at and for.  The three worlds concept adapted from Plato and Penrose seems offer a creative and positive solution.      

HPS - #66484

December 10th 2011

Roger, firstly I should apologise and clarify what I mean by senses. I don’t mean the traditional see, touch, smell, hear, etc. - but ‘any means by which we interact with the world’. I would classify apprehending something in the world with the mind as analogous to interacting with our senses, so I think we agree.

Secondly, methodological reductionism is actually quite useful concept, but it has to be understood for what it is. From a pragmatic point of view there is nothing wrong explaining higher order processes in terms of lower order processes to our advantage (e.g. we use pharmacology and chemistry to design drugs which alleviate psychological disorders such as depression); the issue is that higher order processes cannot always be deduced from lower order processes. The Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel is quite famous for his Incompleteness Theorems, which crudely put indicates that “the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts” (Dyson, F). So to sum up, methodological reductionism is good, but it has limits.

Perhaps relevant to this conversation, is the commonly referred to argument, ‘God of the gaps’ - where God is presented as an alternative to scientific thinking. Philosopher Richard Swinburne says: “Note that I am not postulating a ‘God of the gaps’, a god merely to explain the things that science has not yet explained. I am postulating a God to explain why science explains. The very success of science in showing us how deeply ordered the natural world is provides strong grounds for believing that there is an even deeper cause for that order.” 

Therefore, I think there is not a need to present Christianity as an alternative, or repackage it into a philosophical system with new ‘worlds’, but to reconcile the falsely dichotomous nature between science and theism which has been espoused by the new atheists. Christianity is not an alternative, rather it is the truth - it should not be dictated by our philosophy, but rather define it.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #66490

December 11th 2011

HPS and HS,

First of all do not think that I am arguing for the sake of argument.  Second do not take what I say personally.  I agree that basically we are on the same team, on the same side.  What I am arguing is that our team, our side needs to rethink our game plan.  We are basically right, but the situation has changed, the game has stayed the same, but the rules have changed so we must alter the way we think and act.  That might be hard for traditionalists to accept, but it is a fact.   

 HPS wrote: Christianity is not an alternative, rather it is the truth - it should not be dictated by our philosophy, but rather define it.

I couldn’t agree more.  Christians believe in a Trinitarian God.   Logically then our view of Reality should be Triune, not monist or dualist.  Scientism embraces monism.  If reality is strictly physical as HP indicated, then they are right.    Now if reality as we know it, is created by the interplay of the physical and the mental, that is, the mental apprehension of the physical, then Western dualism is right. 

Maybe I could make the case that Western dualism is more nearly right then monistic materialism, but the strength of materialism is not its positive case, but its criticism of the flaws of Western dualism, which are substantial.  Materialists are like the Republicans criticizing Pres. Obama for the problems of the the economy, which they created and haven’t a clue how to fix it.  Still they might win by default if people decide to take out their frustrations on the Democrats.     

Now if monism doesn’t work and dualism doesn’t work well, why NOT try Trinitarianism?  I would be the last person to advocate a world view on strictly theological grounds, but it is worth a try.  That is what I am trying to do, but the proof is in the pudding.  I am reasonable satisfied with the pudding and no one as far as I can see has raised substantial objections, but may be you can find some.      

HornSpiel - #66683

December 20th 2011

I  just realized that there had been quite a lot of traffic on this page. I have not been back here for some time.

Roger, I would just like to clarify that I never said “reality is strictly physical,”  nor do I believe that. I said  physical reality or “nature” is the world we apprehend with our senses. It is, I believe, the proper realm of scientific study. By senses I include any sort of scientific instrument that records physical phenomenon. I would include purely mental activities, such as mathematics, philosophy, logic and theology only an extended sense of the word.  

I certainly do not limit science to the hard sciences. But I do see certain qualitative gaps, where new assumptions must be made.  The first is between the  life sciences (biology, ecology, medicine) and the hard sciences (physics chemistry). The second, is between life sciences and human sciences (anthropology, economics, psychology, etc.)  Science has not yet given a complete
explanation of the transition from life to non-life, and it may never do so. Nor has the transition from animal to human  yet been scientifically explained. In practice, life sciences have to simply take life for granted and social sciences have to likewise assume the humanness of people.

However that are other important kinds of knowledge that are not scientific: mathematics, philosophy, theology, ethics, history.  A healthy person will not eat only one kind of food. Knowledge comes from a network of sources that we must combine them to get a clearer view of Reality. (Thus Reality is not just material.)

So for what it’s worth, that is how I look at things.  It seems to work for me.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66686

December 20th 2011


I agree with you 100%.  The question arise is why is this the case?

The word “science” basically means “knowledge,” and scientism claims that hard science is the only basis for “real” knowledge.  When worked out theoretically this means that humans do not live in a “real” world at all.

So how do those who want to defend  balanced view of reality accomplish important task?  See my views below.     

Jon Garvey - #66495

December 12th 2011

“Christians believe in a Trinitarian God.  
Logically then our view of Reality should be Triune, not monist or

Roger, in developing your approach it would be important to distinguish “triune” (ie Three-in-One) from “trialist” (or “tritheistic”) if one wants a truly Christian framework. At times your apparent attribution of completely demarcated roles to individual Persons of the Trinity seems to veer towards the latter.

The formula “From the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit” would seem to be a unifying principle for pretty much the whole work of God, from creation, through inspiration and redemption, to individual salvation.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66498

December 12th 2011


If you want to talk about how I do theology, you will have to read my book.



Roger A. Sawtelle - #66517

December 13th 2011


I have decided to address your question, although I wish that you would address mine, “Why not try a Trinitarian world view?”  However to fully see the basis of my understanding of the Trinity you will still have to read my book, The GOD Who RELATES.

The Trinity can be viewed in three different perspectives.

1) One God working as Three distinct divine Persons, which is the more OT view.

2) Three distinct divine Persons working as One God, which is the more the NT view.

3) A combination of both equally valid models, although as NT people Christians prefer the second over the first.

HPS - #66497

December 12th 2011

We can demarcate reality into as many worlds as we like, but at the end of the day, it is just human philosophy. The fact is there is nothing new under the sun, and reality does not change because of how we choose to see it.

My objection is that I don’t see how this triune-worldview makes Christianity any more acceptable to a non-believer. I’ll say it again; Christianity dictates philosophy, not the other way around. An a priori triune-philosophy is an abiblical concept. It will not make Christianity any more acceptable than if coming from a dualist or monist worldview; opposition to Christianity is due to hardness of heart, not intellectual disposition.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #66499

December 12th 2011


Why do you think that a Triune world view is not Biblical?  What is your evidence?

My intent is not to prove Christianity, but to provide a solid intellectual foundation for Christian and non-Christian thinking about God’s Creation.  The Fathers of the Church, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine, and others did the same thing for their time.  

HPS - #66505

December 12th 2011

I don’t think it’s unbiblical - but abiblical. I don’t see where it comes from in scripture for I don’t think it follows logically from a triune creator other; albeit sounding allegorically nice. What I think follows logically from the bible is creator, and creation. All you are doing is further dividing creation into three, unclearly defined worlds.

At the end of the day, Christianity isn’t concerned with whether you have a triune or dualist worldview, but to pass one of them off as a theological position is just wrong. I worry about what makes a particular worldview any more solid than another, especially once we come to Christ and have our lives defined and grounded in him rather than human intellect. I have nothing against a triune philosophy, I’m just saying I don’t see how it solves any problems than dualism has.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #66506

December 12th 2011


If you read the Gospel according to John, you will see that “In the Beginning was the Word (in the Greek LOGOS) and the Logos was with God [the Father] and the Logos was God [the Son.]  He [Jesus Christ] was with God [the Father] in the beginning..  Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.”

This is the clear unmistakable Biblical and theological basis for a Trinitarian cosmology.  If you do not think that Jesus Christ is the Logos, then there is something wrong with your understanding of Him as the Word of God.  If you think that the Father sent the Son into the world so you do not have take to Him and His Truth seriously, you are mistaken.   

If you do not know or understand what a triune world view might be, how can you determine its value?  If you understand it please share. 


HPS - #66518

December 13th 2011

That passage is a clear unmistakable biblical and theological basis for a Trinitarian God, not for the worldview of creation that you originally proposed consisting of ‘bio’, ‘human’ and ‘physical’ worlds. Please forgive me if this is not what you meant by triune philosophy? 

If this is what you mean - then I have already commented on its value. “I don’t see how this triune-worldview makes Christianity any more acceptable to a non-believer…it will not make Christianity any more acceptable than if coming from a dualist or monist worldview”.

I’m not saying it is not valuable, I’m saying that the value or strength of a worldview is irrelevant to accepting Christ. We need not waste so much effort in a pursuit of unnecessary philosophising. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Col 2:8)
Roger A. Sawtelle - #66538

December 13th 2011


As I said before, a Triune world view is not primarily for the unbeliever, but for believers who are called as I am sure you know to love God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with all their hearts, MINDS, souls, and strength.  How can one do that if one lives in a culture that has a non-Christian understanding of the universe?

Now a resultant benefit of a Triune world view would be to discredit the materialist monistic world view of most nonbelievers.  I do not see that making Christianity more acceptable to nonbelievers.

(Col 1:15-20)  He is the Image of the invisible God, the Firstborn over all creation.

(16)  For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.

(17)  He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

(18)  And He is the Head of the body, the Church; He is the Beginning and the Firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy.

(19)  For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him,(20)  and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the Cross.

How dare you imply that a world view based upon Jesus Christ the Logos and the Image of the Father is hollow and deceptive.  Judge not that you be not judged.        

HPS - #66553

December 13th 2011

We are to live in the world, but not be worldly. We do as we are called to do by having our faith and hope in Christ. To have a worldview is to be looking at the world, which is not necessarily wrong, but not the main game - rather we should ‘fix our eyes on Jesus’ (Heb 12:2).

I feel this may be heading in an unhelpful and discouraging direction for both of us - so perhaps it might be wise to cease. There is little point continuing if we do not agree on the premises from which our argument is deduced. Although I would like to vehemently deny that I made any such blasphemous implication as you have mistakenly suggested. Good luck brother!

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66557

December 14th 2011


I apologize for for coming down on you so hard, but it seems to me that you implied that I was trying to impose a worldly secular view upon Jesus Christ, which I am not.  I think that you have been caught up in a false dualistic view of God’s world, which is why this kind of discussion is very important. 

We live in God’s world, which belongs to no one else.  Jesus is still King of kings and Lord of lords.  I have heard some people say that the Devil is the lord of this world, but that is not true.  The Devil might want to be and pretend to be master of the universe, but he is not. 

Atheist materialists have bought into the lies of Satan, which say that God has no control over the world.  Dualistic Christians tend to affirm this view by placing the power of God above and outside the world, but Jesus is God with us.  

The Trinitarian God is God of the physical/scientific world, God of the intellectual/philosphical world, as well as God of the spiritual world of meaning and purpose.  Dualism is not a spiritual error, but an intellectual error, which can lead to serious mistakes.

 (Rom 12:1 NIV)  Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

(Rom 12:2)   Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

I would submit therefore that we need as Paul commands to offer ourselves to God, body, mind , and spirit, as living sacrifices to God’s Will, and renew our minds by rejecting worldly and faulty monistic and dualistic world views and developing a Triune world view based on the Logos, Jesus Christ, Who is God with us and for us. 

I hope that we can agree on this, even if you are not sure that this is possible.  I mean we live by faith, isn’t that true?  


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66568

December 15th 2011

It appears that HPS is unable or unwilling to wage spiritual warfare against worldly materialism on the philosophical level, but surely there must be someone in BioLogos land besides me who is. 

John Polkonghorne has said that the Trinity is essential in understanding Reality.  What we need to do is take this basic Christian truth and apply it our basic understanding of how God created the world(s) we live in. 

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