John Polkinghorne on Natural Theology, Part 2

Featuring: Transcript written by the BioLogos Editorial Team

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. Follow the links to see the first, third, and fourth posts in this series.

In Part I of this series, Dr. Polkinghorne laid the foundations for what he believes to be a new natural theology. This new natural theology, he says, does not claim to talk in terms of proofs of God’s existence, but it talks about insight which suggests the existence of a divine creator. The claim, Polkinghorne says is that theism enables one to understand more than atheism. So the new natural theology doesn’t appeal to truth, but it appeals to what you might call best explanation; that to see the world as a divine creation makes it more intelligible than the opposite deduction: that the world is just a brute fact with no further explanation.

In today’s talk, he goes on to look at the first of two meta-questions that arise from science. Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that meta-question #1, which emerges from the inherent success and beauty of mathematics, points to a capital M Mind—the Creator of the universe.

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


So here are two meta-questions which illustrate what I’m trying to say. The first question is a question that is so simple that most of us would not even stop to think about it or to ask it, but which I am going to suggest to you is a very significant question that we should think about, that we should ask. It is simply this: Why is science possible at all?

Why can we understand the world in which we live in the deep way that science has made possible for us? Well you might say evolutionary biology would explain that: We’ve got to survive in the world. If we didn’t understand the world, we couldn’t figure out that it is a bad idea to step off of a high cliff and we might not stay around for very long. So the evolutionary process must have so shaped the human brain that we’re able to understand the world. And of course that must be true up to a point. It’s obviously true of our understanding of the everyday world in which we have to survive: Beware of the high cliff. But when someone like Isaac Newton came along and who, in an astonishingly high leap of the imagination, saw that the same force that makes the high cliff dangerous is also the force that holds the moon in its orbit around the earth, the earth in its orbit around the sun and discovers a mathematically beautiful law of universal inverse square law of gravity and in terms of thatexplains the whole solar system—now that is a human achievement that is going far beyond anything that we need for everyday survival.

Yesterday I quoted from that great and wise man Sherlock Holmes. He was pulling Watson’s leg from the start and he pretended not to know whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun goes round the earth. And of course the good Dr. Watson is horrified at the apparent ignorance on the part of the great detective. And Holmes simply says, “What does it matter? My daily work is that of a detective.” And of course it doesn’t matter at all.

So we all know things that we don’t need to know for everyday life or everyday survival. Human powers to understand the world, to penetrate the secrets of the physical world have proved to be amazingly powerful. Or putting it the other way round, the universe has proved to be amazingly intellectually transparent to our inquiry.

I worked in quantum physics. The quantum world is completely different than the world of everyday and you have to think about it in completely different and counter-intuitive ways. In the quantum world, if you know where something is, you don’t know what it is doing. If you know what it is doing, you don’t know where it is. That’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in a nutshell. That world is cloudy and fitful. It has all sorts of strange properties. In that world, some things sometimes behave like waves, sometimes, like particles, little bullets. Electrons can be in a state where they are both here and there at the same time and so on, and so on.

This is a very weird, very counterintuitive, very strange world. Nevertheless we can understand it; we can penetrate its secrets. The world is amazingly rationally transparent. And the mystery is even more surprising than that because it turns out that the key to unlocking the secrets of the physical world is actually mathematics—mathematics, the most abstract of subjects. It is an actual technique of fundamental physics, a technique that has proved its worth over three centuries of work in the area—to look for theories within their mathematical expression, in terms of beautiful equations. Now some of you will know about mathematical beauty, probably not all of you. It is a rather austere form of the esthetic pleasure, but it is a real form of esthetic pleasure. Those of us who speak that wonderful language can recognize a theme about mathematical beauty. It involves things like being economic and elegant, and being what the mathematicians call deep, which means that if you take a very simple definition, it turns out to have very wide and proliferating consequences. And we have found time and again that the only theories, which by their long term success in explaining what is going on—persuade us that they really are describing aspects of the physical world—are always endowed with this character of mathematical beauty.

The great theoretical physicist, Paul Dirac one of the founding physicists of quantum theory, the greatest British theoretical physicist of the 20th century once said, “it is more important to have beauty in your equations than to have a fit experiment.” Now he didn’t mean by that that it didn’t matter if your equations fit your experiment; no physicist could possibly believe that. But he meant: okay you have your new theory and it doesn’t seem to fit the experiment. That’s a set back for sure, but there is some possibility that you might be able to save the day. Probably you solved the equation with an approximation and maybe you’ve made the wrong approximation. Or maybe your experiments are wrong—that’s happened more than once in physics. So at least there is some sort of residual hope. If your equations are ugly then in Dirac’s opinion, there is no hope; they couldn’t possibly be right.

Now Dirac’s brother-in-law, Eugene Wigner, who also won a Nobel prize in physics, once said, “Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective?” Why is this abstract subject the key to unlocking the secrets to the physical universe? What brings together the reason within the mathematicians’ thoughts in their minds with the reason without—the structure of the world around us? Why are some of the most useful patterns that the mathematicians can dream up in their studies found actually to occur and to be substantiated in the physical world around them?”

So why is science possible in the deep way it is? Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective? I think it would be intolerably lazy to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well gee that’s the way it happens to be, and it’s very good luck to you chaps who are good at math.” This is a highly significant, highly remarkable fact about the world and we should seek to understand it if we possibly can.

Now when you ask a meta-question like that, there won’t be a knock-down answer. But to me the most intellectually persuasive and coherent answer is simply this: that the reason within and the reason without is because they have a common origin in the mind of the Creator who is the ground of both our mental existence and of the physical world of which we are apart.

We can summarize what I’ve just been saying that as science studies the physical world it sees a world shot through with signs of mind. And I am suggesting to you that you should consider seriously the proposition that it is a capital M Mind, the Creator that lies behind that wonderful order which gives the physicist the order of wonder for the weary labor of their research.

So I think that science is possible actually because the world is a creation and to use an ancient powerful phrase: We are creatures made in the image of our Creator.

N.T. Wright, Former Bishop of Durham

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- N.T. Wright, Former Bishop of Durham
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