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

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

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.

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

Belief in God in an Age of Science (part 4)

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.”

Oskar Schindler, with some of the Jews he saved
from extermination (source)

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.

Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Johann Sebastian Bach (1746), Stadtgeschichtliches Museum, Leipzig

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. [See Part 1, especially the final paragraph.] 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.

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

Looking Ahead

The final excerpt is coming in two weeks, when Polkinghorne turns from “One who is truly worthy of worship” to “One who is the ground of hope.” There is plenty to discuss in the meantime, though I will be relatively quiet, doing my best to take a respite from my customary schedule.


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.


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