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