Belief in God in an Age of Science: John Polkinghorne

Ted Davis
Ted Davis 
On May 23, 2013

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

Note: My editorial policy for these excerpts is explained at the bottom of this article.

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

Belief in God in an Age of Science

Belief in God in an Age of Science

Previously, 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.

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.

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.

#Belief in God in an Age of Science: John Polkinghorne, Part 2

Earlier, I presented the opening section of the title chapter from John Polkinghorne’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science, where he presents some evidence for a divine mind behind the universe. This second excerpt presents some evidence for divine purpose in the universe. As you read this, keep in mind that it was originally published in 1998. If he were writing today, Polkinghorne would surely give 13.8 billion years for the age of the universe rather than 15, and he would probably say something about string theory and recent efforts to test it with precise measurements of the microwave background.

Colorized version of a black and white engraving by an unknown artist

Colorized version of a black and white engraving by an unknown artist (possibly Flammarion himself), originally published in Camille Flamarrion, L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). Flammarion did not intend this image to refer to multiple universes, but it reminds me of that concept nonetheless.

So much for signs of Mind. Where are we to look for signs of Purpose? Before 1859, the answer would have been obvious: in the marvelous adaptation of life to its environment. Charles Darwin, by the publication of The Origin of Species, presented us with natural selection as a patient process by which such marvels of “design” could come about, without the intervening purpose of a Designer being at work to bring them into being. At a stroke, one of the most powerful and seemingly convincing arguments for belief in God had been found to be fatally flawed. Darwin had done what Hume and Kant with their philosophical arguments had failed to achieve, abolishing the time-honored form of the argument from design by exhibiting an apparently adequate alternative explanation.

Since then, two important developments have taken place. One is the realization in the late 1920s that the universe itself has had a history and that notions of evolving complexity apply not only to life on Earth, but to the whole physical cosmos. The other is the acknowledgement that when we take this cosmic history into our reckoning, evolution by itself is not sufficient to account for the fruitfulness of the world. Let me explain.

A convenient slogan-encapsulation of the idea of evolution is to speak of it as resulting from the interplay of chance and necessity. “Chance” stands for the particular contingencies of historical happening. This particular cosmic ripple led to the subsequent condensation of this particular group of galaxies; this particular genetic mutation turned the stream of life in this particular direction rather than another. “Necessity” stands for the lawfully regular environment in which evolution takes place. Without a law of gravity, galaxies would not condense; without reasonably reliable genetic transmission, species would not be established. What we have come to understand is that if this process is to be fruitful on a cosmic scale, then necessity has to take a very specific, carefully prescribed form. Any old world will not do. Most universes that we can imagine would prove boring and sterile in their development, however long their history were to be subjected to the interplay of chance with their specific form of lawful necessity. It is a particular kind of universe which alone is capable of producing systems of the complexity sufficient to sustain conscious life.

This insight, called the Anthropic Principle, has given rise to much discussion. [Polkinghorne cites John D. Barrow and Frank  J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle; John Leslie, Universes and his own Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality, chap. 6, and Beyond Science, chap. 6.] Is it no more than a simple tautology, saying that this universe which contains ourselves must be compatible with our having appeared within its history? For sure that must be so, but it is surprising—and many of us think significant—that this requirement places so tight a constraint on the physical fabric of our world. Although we know by direct experience this universe alone, there are many other possible worlds that we can visit with our scientific imaginations, and almost all of them, we believe, would be infertile.

John Leslie, who has given a detailed account of the many processes that depend on the precise character of physical law for their ultimately life-generating effects, has also given a careful discussion of what conclusions we might draw from the Anthropic Principle. [Leslie summarizes his position at here.] We are in a realm of discourse where such conclusions depend on the judgment that we have attained a deeper and more comprehensive understanding, rather than that we have deduced a logically unassailable consequence. Leslie believes that it is no more rational to think that no explanation is required of fine anthropic coincidences than it would be to say that my fishing apparatus can accept a fish only exactly 23.2576 inches long and, on casting the rod into the lake, I find that immediately I have a catch, which is simply my good luck— and that’s all there is to say about it. The end of the matter for Leslie is: “My argument has been that the fine tuning is evidence, genuine evidence, of the following fact:that God is real, and/or there are many and varied universes. And it could be tempting to call the fact an observed one. Observed indirectly, but observed none the less.” [Quoting Leslie, Universes, p. 198. The fishing example is on pp. 9-13 in the same book.] Either there is one world whose fruitful potential is the expression of divine purpose or there are many worlds, one of which just happens to be right for the evolution of life.

Those who wish to avoid any suggestion of a divine purpose manifested in the fruitful fine tuning of physical law will have to opt for the second of Leslie’s alternative explanations. [Here Polkinghorne has a note: “A theist could, of course, combine the two options, but personally I find that unappealing.”] There are a variety of ways in which one might conceive of the existence of such a portfolio of different universes, understood as domains in which different laws of nature are operating. The more plausible accounts will seek to make some appeal to scientific knowledge and will not just rely on the ad hoc assumption that there are a lot of separate worlds that just happen to exist.

Many-worlds quantum theory will not do the trick (even if one believed in it, which I do not), for its parallel worlds are simply ones in which quantum events have different specific outcomes and the basic laws of nature are common to them all. [Polkinghorne cites The Quantum World, pp. 67-68, and Alastair. Rae, Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality?, chap. 6.] Modern ideas about symmetry breaking offer a little more scope. If there is a Grand Unified Theory of the fundamental forces of the universe, then the particular forces that we actually observe, and which are the concern of the Anthropic Principle, will have crystallized out from this highly symmetric ur-state very early in cosmic history, as expansion cooled the world below the relevant transition temperature. The precise details of this symmetry breaking, and the consequent precise force ratios resulting from it, are spontaneously generated through the amplification of tiny random fluctuations. This process need not be literally universal, and the cosmos may be split into vast domains in which different consequences have been realized. The universe observable by us might be a part of one such huge domain, and, of course, in our particular neck of the woods, the force ratios are “by chance” compatible with our evolution. This account is speculative, but motivated, and I am inclined to consider its possibility as far as it goes. That, however, is not very far. One still needs the right sort of Grand Unified Theory for all this to be feasible, and in that respect our universe is still very special compared to the totality of universes that we can imagine.

Moving up on the scale of bold speculation, one might evoke notions of quantum cosmology which suggest that universes of various kinds are continually appearing as a physical process called inflation blows up microworlds, which have bubbled up as quantum fluctuations in some universal substrate. [Here Polkinghorne has a note: “The quantum vacuum is an active medium owing to fluctuation effects.”] Proponents of this point of view are sometimes moved to describe our anthropic universe as being “a free lunch.” The phrase itself should trigger a cautious evaluation of the offer being made. The cost of this particular cosmic meal is the provision of quantum mechanics itself (a classical Newtonian world would be a perfectly coherent possibility, but a sterile one), and just the right quantum fields to fluctuate in order to produce first inflation and then all the necessary observed forces of nature. This idea is less well established scientifically than the domain option and, in any case, it does not really remove anthropic particularity, for the basic physical laws still have to take certain specific forms which are the necessary foundation of the proposed quantum cosmology.

Beyond this point, speculation becomes rapidly more rash and more desperate. Maybe, the laws of nature themselves fluctuate, so that a vast portfolio of conceivable, or (to us) inconceivable, worlds rise and fall in the relentless exploration of random possibility—occasional patches of transient and varied order in a sea of seething chaos. We have moved far beyond anything that could be called scientific in this exercise of prodigal conjecture. It is time to consider Leslie’s other alternative: that there is a divine purpose behind this fruitful universe, whose fifteen-billion-year history has turned a ball of energy into the home of saints and scientists, and that this purpose has been at work in just one world of consistent physical law (though maybe with domains of different expressions of that law).

Once again the theistic conclusion is not logically coercive, but it can claim serious consideration as an intellectually satisfying understanding of what would otherwise be unintelligible good fortune. It has certainly struck a number of authors in this way, including some who are innocent of any influence from a conventional religious agenda. [Polkinghorne cites two books by Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, and The Mind of God; Hugh Montefiore, The Probability of God; and his own Science and Creation, chaps. 1, 2; and 4.] Such a reading of the physical world as containing rumors of divine purpose, constitutes a new form of natural theology, to which the insight about intelligibility can also be added. This new natural theology differs from the old-style natural theology of Anselm and Aquinas by refraining from talking about “proofs” of God’s existence and by being content with the more modest role of offering theistic belief as an insightful account of what is going on. It differs from the old-style natural theology of William Paley and others by basing its arguments not upon particular occurrences (the coming-to-be of the eye or of life itself), but on the character of the physical fabric of the world, which is the necessary ground for the possibility of any occurrence (it appeals to cosmic rationality and the anthropic form of the laws of nature). [For some historical comments on this approach to natural theology, see here.]

This shift of focus has two important consequences. The first is that the new-style natural theology in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it within a wider and more profound context of understanding. Science rejoices in the rational accessibility of the physical world and uses the laws of nature to explain particular occurrences in cosmic and terrestrial history, but it is unable of itself to offer any reason why these laws take the particular (anthropically fruitful) form that they do, or why we can discover them through mathematical insight. The second consequence of this shift from design through making to design built into the rational potentiality of the universe is that it answers a criticism of the old-style natural theology made so trenchantly by David Hume. He had asserted the unsatisfactoriness of treating God’s creative activity as the unseen analogue of visible human craft. The new natural theology is invulnerable to this charge of naive anthropomorphism, for the endowment of matter with anthropic potentiality has no human analogy. It is a creative act of a specially divine character.

#Belief in God in an Age of Science: John Polkinghorne, Part 3

This third excerpt from John Polkinghorne’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science, focuses on biology rather than cosmology, moving (as he says) “from natural theology to a theology of nature.” I explained that distinction some time ago. Where natural theology tries to demonstrate God’s existence from reason or nature, apart from the Bible, theology of nature starts from God and seeks to understand nature in light of God’s existence. A central topic in this part of the book is theodicy, the problem of reconciling divine goodness and power with evil and suffering in the world. I talked about this at some length in my series on “Science and the Bible,” especially in columns about Concordism and Theistic Evolution (part 2 & part 3). Readers who want more background for this excerpt should review those columns before going further.

Theodicy is hard enough to tackle by itself, but it can’t really be separated from another difficult subject—divine action, understanding how God acts in the world. Christian views on theodicy and divine action are quite diverse, even among those Christians who do not accept evolution. There simply is no consensus on how best to formulate conceptions of God and nature in light of these challenges, which often arise in the conversations about science but are not answered by science (whether or not evolution is true). As the variety of viewpoints expressed in articles on our site suggests, BioLogos does not endorse one given position on theodicy or divine action. We believe in a God who is both immanent and transcendent—a God who acts in & through, but also sometimes apart from, “natural” causes—but we realize that multiple positions on theodicy and divine action are consistent with this core commitment. Few have thought as much about this as physicist and theologian Robert Russell, whose careful analysis is well worth reading in full.

Like BioLogos, Polkinghorne sees God acting both transcendently and immanently. As we have already seen, his view of the Resurrection makes sense only if God sometimes acts transcendently. At the same time, he is a “bottom-up thinker” (as he likes to describe himself) who also believes in “top-down agency” (as he calls it) that takes place immanently, within the created processes of nature. He elaborates on this in the third chapter of Belief in God in an Age of Science (not presented here), entitled “Does God Act in the Physical World?” There he unambiguously affirms that “the Christian God is not just a deistic upholder of the world” (p. 49) and explores how we might understand this claim in light of modern science.

Polkinghorne’s specific position on theodicy, however, takes readers into some of the more controversial aspects of Theistic Evolution (or Evolutionary Creation). His conception of nature as a “free process,” rather than “the puppet theatre of a Cosmic Tyrant,” finds significantly less support among proponents of TE, who often share his enthusiasm for cosmic design arguments and his affirmation of the bodily Resurrection. For Polkinghorne, however, it is a consequence of the self-limiting love that God has for the creation.

Physical scientists, conscious of the wonderful order and finely tuned fruitfulness of natural law, have shown significant sympathy with the attitude of the new natural theology. Biological scientists, on the other hand, have been much more reserved. Their attention is focused on the process of the world (particularly, the evolutionary processes of developing terrestrial life) and they pay scant attention to the fundamental physics that underlies that process. [Polkinghorne cites two works by Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker and River out of Eden.] They seem to regard it as unproblematic that the chemical raw materials for life are available in our universe. Instead, they look to the variety of life, both in its marvelous fecundity and ingenious strategies for living and also in its wastefulness and suffering, exemplified by the extinction of species and the existence of painful parasitisms. Beneath it all some of them discern no more than the strife of selfish genes struggling for continuing survival. Joy in nature and sorrow at its apparent tragedies are alike, to them, vain human musings on the meaningless tale of cosmic history:

If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of a bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. [Dawkins, River out of Eden, pp. 132-33]

Whatever this bleak judgment is, it is clearly not a conclusion of science alone. It was not his knowledge of genetics that enabled Richard Dawkins to make this pronouncement. Rather, it represents his metaphysical judgment on the significance of the scientific story which is presented to us. In fact, it is science that is “blind,” for as a self-defining methodological strategy it has closed its eyes to the possibility of discerning evil or good or justice or intention. Those who construct metaphysical theories of wider meanings, or lack of meaning, must take science into account, but there is certainly more than one way in which to do so.

The theologian’s response to the biologist’s unbelief must lie in proposing an alternative interpretation of the history and process of the universe. Here we are concerned, not with metaquestions about the pattern and structure of the physical world, but with metaquestions about how its historical process is to be understood. This shift of attention corresponds to a transition from natural theology to a theology of nature. [For more on this, see my comments in the introduction to this column.] We are not now looking to the physical world for hints of God’s existence but to God’s existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have.

It has been an important emphasis in much recent theological thought about creation to acknowledge that by bringing the world into existence God has self-limited divine power by allowing the other truly to be itself. [Polkinghorne cites Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science(chap. 6, subsequently revised); Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, chap. 4; Arthur R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, chaps. 2 & 3; W.H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense; and his own book, The Faith of a Physicist, chap. 4.] The gift of Love must be the gift of freedom, the gift of a degree of letting-be, and this can be expected to be true of all creatures to the extent that is appropriate to their proper character. It is in the nature of dense snow fields that they will sometimes slip with the destructive force of an avalanche. It is the nature of lions that they will seek their prey. It is the nature of cells that they will mutate, sometimes producing new forms of life, sometimes grievous disabilities, sometimes cancers. It is the nature of humankind that sometimes people will act with selfless generosity but sometimes with murderous selfishness. That these things are so is not gratuitous or due to divine oversight or indifference. They are the necessary cost of a creation given by its Creator the freedom to be itself. Not all that happens is in accordance with God’s will because God has stood back, making metaphysical room for creaturely action.

The apparently ambivalent tale of evolutionary advance and extinction, which Dawkins sees as the sign of a meaningless world of genetic competition, is understood by the Christian as being the inescapably mixed consequence of a world allowed by its Creator to explore and realize, in its own way, its own inherent fruitfulness—to “make itself,” to use a phrase as old as the Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley’s response to Darwin’s Origin of Species. The cruciform pattern of life through death is the way the world is, not only in the familiar tale of biological life on Earth but also cosmically. We are here today because some five billion years ago a star died in the throes of a supernova explosion, scattering into the environment those chemical elements necessary for life, which it had made in the nuclear furnaces of its interior.

The Crab Nebula, the remnant of a supernova explosion from the year 1054 (NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

The suffering of the world is such that we might be tempted to think that less freedom would be a worthwhile cost to pay for less pain. But do we really wish we had been automata? The well-known free will defense in relation to moral evil asserts that a world with the possibility of sinful people is better than one with perfectly programmed machines. The tale of human evil is such that one cannot make that assertion without a quiver, but I believe that it is true nevertheless. I have added to it the free-process defense, that a world allowed to make itself is better than the puppet theatre of a Cosmic Tyrant. [Polkinghorne cites his book, Science and Providence, chap. 5.] I think that these two defenses are opposite sides of the same coin, that our nature is inextricably linked with that of the physical world which has given us birth.

The fact that we wrestle with the problem of pain and suffering shows us that the cold scientific story of a universe of some losers and some gainers, as presented to us by Dawkins, is far from sufficient to satisfy our human longing to understand to make sense of the world in which we live. Questions of meaning and justice cannot be removed from the human agenda. The success of the apparently objectified account of science should not tempt us to commit the Enlightenment error of rejecting the subjective as a source of real knowledge. We are thinking reeds (Pascal), and our thoughts far exceed impersonal evaluation of logical entailment. In fact there seems to be a principle of mutual exclusion between what can be established beyond a peradventure and what is of real significance for the gain of understanding. Kurt Gödel has taught us that even pure mathematics involves an act of intellectual daring, as we commit ourselves to a belief in the unprovable consistency of the axiomatic system under consideration. The Cartesian program of seeking to found knowledge on the basis of clear and certain ideas has proved to be an unattainable ideal. “Nothing venture, nothing win” is the motto of the intellectual life.

I do not think that this realization of the necessary precariousness involved in human theorizing, condemns us to a post-modernist belief in the personal or communal construct ion of a variety of views from which we are free to make our a la carte selection. There is a middle way between certainty and relativism, which corresponds to the critical adherence to rationally motivated belief, held with conviction but open to the possibility of correction. Michael Polanyi spoke of such a way when he set out to describe and defend “a frame of mind in which I hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it might conceivably be false.” [Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 214.] Significantly, he called this epistemological stance “personal knowledge.” One of its most striking exemplifications is science itself.

Looking Ahead

Next, Polkinghorne will discuss aesthetic judgment in science, our moral instinct, and briefly reply to Richard Dawkins’ idea of “the selfish gene”. Overall, he will argue that “Theism presents an adequately rich basis for understanding the world in that it readily accommodates the many-layered character of a reality shot through with value.” There is plenty to discuss in the interval, but my schedule will probably limit me to the role of occasional listener rather than active participant.

#Belief in God in an Age of Science: John Polkinghorne, Part 4

We continue presenting excerpts from John Polkinghorne’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science. Expanding on the reference to Michael Polanyi’s attitude of “personal knowledge” at the close of the previous excerpt, Polkinghorne explores aesthetics and morality from a Christian perspective.

Although science presents its arguments and conclusions in the guise of an objective discourse, its method is, in fact, more subtle and dependent upon acts of personal valuation. [Here Polkinghorne cites his Rochester Roundabout, chap. 21, and (for the following discussion) Beyond Science, chaps. 2 & 8.] We have already noted that the search for beautiful equations lies at the heart of the success of fundamental physics. The recognition of mathematical beauty resembles other forms of aesthetic experience in that it is hard to describe but, for those endowed with seeing eyes, there is an unmistakable authenticity to it. It involves an acknowledgement of value which must be made by persons and which cannot be reduced to the successful completion of an algorithmic check-list. Yet the long-term fruitfulness of discoveries made in this way, yielding understanding of phenomena far wider than those considered in the original investigation, makes it clear that what is involved here is not the private satisfaction of the aesthetic tastes of a mathematical coterie, but the opening of a window into the reality of the structure of the physical world. Here is the first of a number of signs we must consider which indicate that encounter with value is fundamental to an adequate apprehension of the world in which we live.

It is precisely the recognition of the qualities of elegance, economy and naturalness which solves the problem of the under-determination of theory by experiment, so often pressed by philosophers of science, who sometimes speak of the process of discovery as if it were a dull routine of fitting curves to data points. From the point of view of the working scientist, whose thought is consciously or unconsciously controlled by the canons of scientific value, the problem is exactly the reverse—not of selecting from a plethora of possible explanations but of finding one which is adequate to a large swathe of experimental knowledge and which possesses the form of a good scientific theory. Whatever they may write in the formal prose of their published papers, you will find that physicists appeal all the time to value, according belief to an elegant insight long before its experimental verification is completed, and saying of an ugly and contrived idea, “That can’t be right.” I do not say that such judgments are invariably correct, but they prove to be so to a degree which makes it clear, contrary to the popular presentation, that science is a value-laden activity.

There is another sense in which the community of scientists is one founded on value, and that relates to the honesty and the generosity of intellectual sharing which are the indispensable basis of its activity. Cases of fraud are extremely rare and rightly fatal to the career and reputation of those involved. This is, of course, just a particular professional aspect of general human morality. I believe that it is of the highest significance that we live in a moral world, that we have moral knowledge which tells us that love and truth are better than hatred and lies. I know that much modern criticism is directed to explaining this away as the result of genetic imprinting or tacit communal cultural agreement. There is, no doubt, some truth in these insights, but I cannot think they come anywhere near an adequate account of what is involved. Doubtless parental care for young children has a genetic element of passing on inheritance to future generations, but does that explain a moving case I encountered recently in which a father wished to donate his second kidney to a son, already with his own children, for whom the first transplant had failed? Did Oskar Schindler take great risks to rescue more than a thousand Jews from extermination because of some implicit calculation of genetic advantage? Such a suggestion only shows the desperate poverty of a “morality” of sociobiology. Dawkins himself recognizes this to some extent in the closing sentence of The Selfish Gene: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” (p. 215) I would add, “Not only we can, but we frequently do.”

Nor do I think that ethical acts are simply the result of cultural determinations. I know about the selfish nature of the Ik tribe of East Africa, but the very fact that I know about them is due to the atypical character of their morality, perceived as an aberration in the portfolio of human cultures. Of course, there are many variations of detailed practice, but I cannot see the condemnation of the abuse of the young or of the neglect of the elderly as being merely the way we choose to think about these things in our society. Rather, it is a true insight into the way things are, another window into reality. The vulnerable are to be cared for in their vulnerability. All religious traditions value acts of compassion.

The recognition of other forms of value opens further windows into reality. The poverty of an objectivistic account is made only too clear when we consider the mystery of music. From a scientific point of view, it is nothing but vibrations in the air, impinging on the eardrums and stimulating neural currents in the brain. How does it come about that this banal sequence of temporal activity has the power to speak to our hearts of an eternal beauty? The whole range of subjective experience, from perceiving a patch of pink, to being enthralled by a performance of the Mass in B Minor, and on to the mystic’s encounter with the ineffable reality of the One, all these truly human experiences are at the center of our encounter with reality and they are not to be dismissed as epiphenomenal froth on the surface of a universe whose true nature is impersonal and lifeless. From the practice of science to the acknowledgement of moral duty, on to aesthetic delight and religious experience, we live in a world which is the carrier of value at all levels of our meeting with it. Only a metaphysical account which is prepared to acknowledge that this is so can be considered to be at all adequate. This is an issue which frequently comes up in conversation with scientific colleagues who are not believers. I am repeatedly seeking to encourage them to take a generous view of the nature of reality, to recognize that a quasi-objective scientific description constitutes a metaphysical net with many holes in it, to reflect in their thinking those same personal qualities that they enjoy and exercise in their lives.

William Blake, When the Morning Stars Sang Together

William Blake, When the Morning Stars Sang Together (ca. 1804–7), Illustrations of the Book of Job, no. 14, Pen and black ink, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Theism presents an adequately rich basis for understanding the world in that it readily accommodates the many layered character of a reality shot through with value. Scientific wonder at the rational order of the universe is indeed a partial reading of “the mind of God,” as the popular books asserted, speaking better, perhaps, than their authors realized. Yet there is much more to the mind of God than science will ever discover. Our moral intuitions are intimations of the perfect divine will, our aesthetic pleasures a sharing in the Creator’s joy, our religious institutions whispers of God’s presence. The natural understanding of the value-laden character of our world is that there is a supreme Source of Value whose nature is reflected in all that is held in being. Otherwise the pervasive presence of value is hard to understand. I cannot believe that it simply came into being when hominid brains had acquired sufficient complexity to accommodate such thoughts. Rather our ancestors were then able to recognize what had been there from the beginning.

I am presenting here a form of the axiological argument for the existence of God, a twentieth-century version of the fourth way of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Therefore there must also be something which to all beings is the cause of their being, goodness and perfection; and this we call God.” [Summa Theologiae, I. 2.3.] The acknowledgement of value is the recognition of worth and our value-laden world testifies to the presence of One who is truly worthy of worship. This is confirmed by our worshipping experience, mediated through public liturgy and private prayer.

#Belief in God in an Age of Science: John Polkinghorne, Part 5

Our final excerpt from John Polkinghorne’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science, is about hope—an essential component of Christian faith. On reading these words freshly once again, I immediately think of the text in Revelation depicted so strikingly in the mosaic above. It is indeed from biblical revelation, not from science, that the Christian hope originates. As Polkinghorne says elsewhere, “science cannot tell us the whole story, for it does not know about the everlasting faithfulness of God. In that steadfast love of the creator for creatures lies the only possible ground for the hope of a destiny beyond death, either for ourselves, who are condemned to futililty on a timescale of tens of years, or for the universe that is condemned to futility on a timescale  of many tens of billions of years. We shall die, and the cosmos will die, but the final word does not lie with death but with God.” (p. 9)

In the modern “dialogue” of science and religion, Polkinghorne has been up front about his eschatology, and out in front of the conversation, blazing a path that several other leading Christian thinkers have followed. Here and in other works at much greater length, he links our own hope for resurrection with the resurrected universe: both we and it will be made new, just as God raised Jesus by transforming his dead body into a new form of embodied life. These are profound ideas. Those who want to see more of his eschatology are encouraged to read The God of Hope and the End of the World or The End of the World and the Ends of God, but be prepared to do some hard thinking. The latter book, which Polkinghorne edited with German theologian Michael Welker, is a collection of 16 essays by leading Christian thinkers, including Walter Brueggemann, Janet Soskice, Jürgen Möltmann, and Miroslav Volf. I recommend Catholic theologian Mark Wynn’s well-written review of the essays by Polkinghorne and Welker, who approach the relation between science and Christianity from quite different starting points.

Two other matters ought to be mentioned before diving into the selection. First, I’ve sometimes heard people say casually that Polkinghorne is a process theist, and then they will dismiss him without bothering to read him, because they believe process theism is fundamentally mistaken. Process theism is difficult to explain clearly and fairly in a short piece, and I won’t attempt it here. However, it should be understood that Polkinghorne is not a process theist, and in this selection he states one of his basic disagreements with that position: “it gives a diminished description of God’s love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for you and me,” basically because the god of process theism is not in the resurrection business. Elsewhere in the book he offers further objections to process theism, but I won’t review them here.

Polkinghorne’s conception of the soul also calls for some commentary. In his opinion, humans are “psychosomatic unities,” and “the soul” is “understood in an Aristotelian sense as the ‘form,’ or information-bearing pattern, of the body.” This is philosophical language, but philosophy has always mediated the conversation between science and theology, so we mustn’t be put off by it. Here’s what he’s getting at: a person’s soul is what makes someone a unique person, and it can’t be reduced to material things. His position is not equivalent to Platonic dualism, in which each person has an innately immortal soul that survives death and can be re-embodied in some other material body. (Plato himself believed in the transmigration of souls, such that your soul or mine could be reincarnated as an animal or another person in a future existence. Christian Platonists don’t believe that, but they still believe in an immortal soul as an entity independent of the body.) Rather, it’s a version of what is called “dual aspect monism,” another idea that is difficult to explain clearly and fairly in a short piece, so I will leave it aside. The bottom line, for Polkinghorne, is this: God remembers us after death, and God will give us a new, embodied existence that preserves our unique identities for eternity. A similar view of our ultimate fate has been advanced by N. T. Wright, who calls it “life after ‘life-after-death’.”

What I said in an earlier section about theodicy and divine action applies once again here: Christian thinkers hold various philosophical and theologial conceptions of the soul, and BioLogos does not endorse any one conception over others.

The Last Judgment, 11th or 12th century Byzantine-Ravennate mosaic, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice

The Last Judgment, 11th or 12th century Byzantine-Ravennate mosaic, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice (source). The angel rolling up the starry scroll as the trumpets sound illustrates Revelation 6:14, “The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (NIV)

The fourth general aspect of contemporary belief in God which I have identified is that there is one who is the ground of hope. At first sight this might seem the most difficult claim to substantiate in an age of science. Transience and death have always been part of the world of human experience. Today, moreover, we realize that mortality characterizes the whole universe itself. Not only has it looked very different in the past from its appearance today, but eventually, after many more billions of years, it will change again, ending either in the bang of cosmic collapse or the long-drawn out whimper of an ever expanding dying world. In my view, the desperate implausibility of Frank Tipler’s scenario of “physical eschatology” does nothing to modify the bleakness of this prognosis. [Tipler, The Physics of Immortality. For a critique, see Polkinghorne, Faith of a Physicist, pp. 164-66; he cites this book several times more in the rest of this selection, especially chapters 6 & 9.]

I wish to take with considerable seriousness the implications of this prediction of eventual cosmic futility. In the challenge it presents to belief in God, I do not think it differs greatly from the even more certain assertion of individual human mortality. I have never felt that the perpetuation of the race, or of life itself, or—least of all—of selfish genes, represented sufficient fulfillment to make sense of the history of this world. The fact that we now know that all these carbon-based entities will one day perish, only makes the point more clearly. If cosmic history is no more than the temporary flourishing of remarkable fruitfulness followed by its subsequent decay and disappearance, then I think Macbeth was right and it is indeed a tale told by an idiot.

Yet there is a deep intuition of hope within the human spirit which revolts against such a nihilistic conclusion. The atheist philosopher, Max Horkheimer, expressed a profound longing when he said that the murderer should not triumph over his innocent victim. [“Theology is—and I consciously phrase it carefully—the hope that injustice, which is typical of the world, will not have the last say… a yearning that in the end the hand of the killer will not remain on top of the innocent victim.” (Horkheimer, “Die Sehnschucht nach dem ganz Anderen,” Gesammelte Schriften, VII., s. 389)] But if mortality is the final fate of all, then the murderer has a temporary triumph, though he gains but a little of what he has totally denied to his victim. Only God, it seems to me, can take from death the last word. If the human intuition of hope—that all will be well, that the world makes ultimate sense—is not a vain delusion, then God must exist. I would go beyond the Kantian assertion that belief in God, and in an afterlife, is necessary in order to confirm the moral order of the world, to the claim that the integrity of personal experience itself, based as it is in the significance and value of individual men and women and the ultimate and total intelligibility of the universe, requires that there be an eternal ground of hope who is the giver and preserver of human individuality—the God, as Jesus said, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “the God, not of the dead, but of the living” (Mk. 12:27)—and the eternally faithful Carer for creation.

Is such a hope a coherent possibility? Here I can only sketch some considerations which I have sought to develop more fully elsewhere. If we regard human beings as psychosomatic unities, as I believe both the Bible and contemporary experience of the intimate connection between mind and brain encourage us to do, then the soul will have to be understood in an Aristotelian sense as the “form,” or information-bearing pattern, of the body. Though this pattern is dissolved at death, it seems perfectly rational to believe that it will be remembered by God and reconstituted in a divine act of resurrection. The “matter” of the world to come, which will be the carrier of this re-embodiment, will be the transformed matter of the present universe, itself redeemed by God beyond its cosmic death.

That resurrected universe is not a second attempt by the Creator to produce a world ex nihilo [out of nothing] but it is the transmutation of the present world in an act of new creation ex vetere [out of the old one]. God will then truly be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) in a totally sacramental universe whose divine-infused “matter” will be delivered from the transience and decay inherent in present physical process. Such mysterious and exciting beliefs depend for their motivation not only on the faithfulness of God, but also on Christ’s resurrection, understood as the seminal event from which the new creation grows, and indeed on the detail of the empty tomb, with its implication that the Lord’s risen and glorified body is the transmutation of his dead body, just as the world to come will be the transformation of this present mortal world.

The Anastasis

The Anastasis, 11th-century mosaic, Hosios Loukas Monastery, near Distomo, Greece

Belief in a human destiny beyond death stems not only from the value of individual creatures, but also from the recognized incompleteness of our lives in this world. All of us will die with business unfinished, hurts unhealed, potentialities unrealized. The vision of a continuing process of purification leading to the inexhaustible experience of the vision of the living God, as set out in Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso, is a necessary part of the fulfillment which alone makes total sense of the assertion of individual value. I cannot think that mere remembrance, such as process theology’s notion of our lives contributing to the filling of the reservoir of divine experience, is an adequate account. It confuses the preservation of the past with the perfection of the future and it gives a diminished description of God’s love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for you and me. [In many versions of process theism, God remembers us after we die, but we ourselves do not experience immortality in any traditional sense. This is essentially a modern version of an idea taught by the medieval Islamic physician and philosopher Ibn Sīnā.]

The human paradox is that we perceive so many signs of value and significance conveyed to us in our encounter with reality, yet all meaning is threatened by the apparent finality of death. If the universe is truly a cosmos, if the word is really intelligible through and through, then this life by itself cannot be the whole of the story.

I have tried to write of belief in God today as offering us a way of making sense of the broadest possible band of human experience, of uniting in a single account the rich and many layered encounter that we have with the way things are. I have forsworn false attempts at demonstration and instead I have chosen to rely, as honesty requires, on the persuasiveness of an intellectually satisfying insight. I have suggested that we need to explore with profound seriousness all avenues of our meeting with reality as they open up for us. The impersonal is not to be preferred to the personal, the quantifiable to the symbolic, the repeatable to the unique. All are part of the one world of our experience. I am a passionate believer in the unity of knowledge and I believe that those who are truly seeking an understanding through and through, and who will not settle for a facile and premature conclusion to that search, are seeking God, whether they acknowledge that divine quest or not. Theism is concerned with making total sense of the world. [Here Polkinghorne cites Bernard Lonergan, Insight.] The force of its claims depends upon the degree to which belief in God affords the best explanation of the varieties, not just of religious experience, but of all human experience.

The considerations which I have presented in support of that affirmation in this chapter have been of a general character, concerned with our insights of rational beauty, finely-tuned fruitfulness, a value-laden world, and human hopeful defiance in the face of mortality. In the following chapter I seek to continue the defense of Christian belief in a scientific age, by addressing some matters of more specific particularity.

[Readers who want to see that fascinating chapter, exploring parallels between the ways in which modern physicists wrestled with the dual nature of light and the ways in which early Christian writers wrestled with the dual nature of Jesus, must obtain a copy of the book.]


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Ted Davis
About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is 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.


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