Belief in God in an Age of Science: John Polkinghorne, Part 1

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

My previous series of columns introduced readers to John Polkinghorne’s attitude toward “motivated belief” and applied it to the Resurrection of Jesus. This column opens a new series, in which Polkinghorne explains his approach to natural theology. Just as the last series shows that TE (or evolutionary creation) need not entail the rejection of miracles or the deity of Jesus, this series shows that it need not entail the rejection of design arguments.

A few months ago, I provided an overview of Polkinghorne’s views on natural theology. However, perhaps the best place to get acquainted with his position is to read the title chapter from his book, Belief in God in an Age of Science. First delivered as the Terry Lectures at Yale University in October 1996, this eloquent little book contains five chapters and a short epilogue. Readers are invited to explore the rest of the book on their own. I especially recommend the highly original second chapter (“Finding Truth: Science and Religion Compared”), in which he compares the ways in which physicists struggled to understand the dual nature of light (as a wave or a particle) in the early twentieth century with the ways in which early Christian thinkers struggled to understand the dual nature of Jesus (as divine and human). Unfortunately we won’t be presenting additional chapters here, but neither the print nor the electronic version of the book is very expensive!

In the fourth sentence below, Polkinghorne defines “belief in God” in terms of the proposition “that there is a Mind and a Purpose behind the history of the universe.”  This excerpt presents some evidence for a divine mind behind the visible world revealed to us by science, while the next (coming in about two weeks) discusses some evidence for divine purpose.

My editorial policy for these excerpts is explained at the bottom of this post.

Belief in God in an Age of Science (part 1)

What does it mean to believe in God today? Different religious communities propose different answers to that fundamental question. I speak from within the Christian tradition, though much of what I say in this chapter would, I believe, find endorsement from my Jewish and Islamic friends. For me, the fundamental content of belief in God is that there is a Mind and a Purpose behind the history of the universe and that the One whose veiled presence is intimated in this way is worthy of worship and the ground of hope. In this chapter, I sketch some of the considerations that persuade me that this is the case.

The world is not full of items stamped “made by God”—the Creator is more subtle than that—but there are two locations where general hints of the divine presence might be expected to be seen most clearly. One is the vast cosmos itself, with its fifteen-billion-year history of evolving development following the big bang. The other is the “thinking reed” of humanity, so insignificant in physical scale but, as Pascal said, superior to all the stars because it alone knows them and itself. The universe and the means by which that universe has become marvelously self-aware—these are the centers of our enquiry.

Paul Dirac (source)

Those who work in fundamental physics encounter a world whose large-scale structure (as described by cosmology) and small-scale process (as described by quantum theory) are alike characterized by a wonderful order that is expressible in concise and elegant mathematical terms. The distinguished theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, who was not a conventionally religious man, was once asked what was his fundamental belief. He strode to a blackboard and wrote that the laws of nature should be expressed in beautiful equations. [Remember that Polkinghorne was a student in Dirac’s lectures on quantum physics; see here.] It was a fitting affirmation by one whose fundamental discoveries had all come from his dedicated pursuit of mathematical beauty. This use of abstract mathematics as a technique of physical discovery points to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe that we inhabit, and to the remarkable conformity of our human minds to its patterning. We live in a world whose physical fabric is endowed with transparent rational beauty.

Attempts have been made to explain away this fact. No one would deny, of course, that evolutionary necessity will have molded our ability for thinking in ways that will ensure its adequacy for understanding the world around us, at least to the extent that is demanded by pressures for survival. Yet our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life. Remember that Sherlock Holmes told a shocked Dr. Watson that he didn’t care whether the Earth went round the Sun or vice versa, for it had no relevance to the pursuits of his daily life!

Even less plausible, in my view, is the claim sometimes advanced that human beings happen to like mathematical reasoning and so they manipulate their account of physical process into pleasing mathematical shapes. [Polkinghorne cites Andrew Pickering, Constructing Quarks, p. 413] Nature is not so plastic as to be subject to our whim in this way. In 1907, Einstein had what he called “the happiest thought of my life,” when he recognized the principle of equivalence, which implied that all entities would move in the same way in a gravitational field. This universality of effect meant that gravity could be expressed as a property of space-time itself; physics could be turned into geometry. Einstein then embarked on a search for a beautiful equation that would determine the relevant geometrical structure. It took him eight years to find it, culminating in the discovery of the theory of general relativity in November 1915. It was a truly beautiful theory but now came the moment of truth. On 18th November, Einstein calculated the prediction made by his theory for the motion of the planet Mercury. He found that it precisely explained a discrepancy in relation to Newton’s theory that had baffled astronomers for more than sixty years. Einstein’s biographer, Abram Pais, says “This discovery was, I believe, by far the strongest emotional experience in Einstein’s scientific life, perhaps in all his life. Nature had spoken to him.” Whilst the great man himself said, “For a few days, I was beside myself with joyous excitement.” [Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein, p. 253]. It was a great triumph but, if the answer had not come out right, the aesthetic power of the equations of general relativity would have been quite unable in itself to save them from abandonment. It was indeed nature that had spoken.

There is no a priori reason why beautiful equations should prove to be the clue to understanding nature; why fundamental physics should be possible; why our minds should have such ready access to the deep structure of the universe. It is a contingent fact that this is true of us and of our world, but it does not seem sufficient simply to regard it as a happy accident. Surely it is a significant insight into the nature of reality. I believe that Dirac and Einstein, in making their great discoveries, were participating in an encounter with the divine.

Old French Bible moralisée (c. 1208-15), Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. lv, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (source).

 It has become common coinage with contemporary writers about science to invoke, in addressing the general public, the idea of a reading of the Mind of God. [Polkinghorne cites Paul Davies, The Mind of God and Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.] It is a small, but significant, sign of the human longing for God that apparently this language helps to sell books. There is much more to the Mind of God than physics will ever disclose, but this usage is not misleading, for I believe that the rational beauty of the cosmos indeed reflects the Mind that holds it in being. The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in uncovering the structure of the physical world (to use Eugene Wigner’s pregnant phrase) is a hint of the presence of the Creator, given to us creatures who are made in the divine image. I do not present this conclusion as a logical demonstration—we are in a realm of metaphysical discourse where such certainty is not available either to believer or to unbeliever—but I do present it as a coherent and intellectually satisfying understanding.

Looking Ahead

We continue with the excerpt on purpose in about two weeks.


References & Credits

Excerpts from John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998), copyright Yale University Press, are reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point(s)—and sometimes inserting annotations where warranted [also enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information. Polkinghorne uses footnotes a bit sparingly, and I usually find another way to include that information if it’s important for our readers.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.