Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 1

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Having introduced readers to the life, work, and thought of John Polkinghorne, it’s now time to let him speak for himself. In the next few months we will present edited excerpts from two of his books, starting with the opening section of the chapter, “Motivated Belief,” from Theology in the Context of Science. Most of the editing involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I will 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 will usually find another way to include that information if it’s particularly important for our readers. The next words you read will be his.

Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 1

Motivated Belief

As we noted earlier [in this book], scientists are not inclined to subscribe to an a priori [i.e., knowledge that is not dependent on experience or empirical evidence] concept of what is reasonable. They have found the physical world to be too surprising, too resistant to prior expectation, for a simple trust in human powers of rational prevision [i.e., foresight] to be at all persuasive. Instead, the actual character of our encounter with reality has to be allowed to shape our knowledge and thought about the object of our enquiry. Different levels of reality may be expected to have their idiosyncratic characters, and there will not be a single epistemic [knowledge-based] rule for all. A physicist, aware of the counterintuitive natures of the quantum world and of cosmic curved spacetime, is not tempted to make commonsense the sole measure of rational expectation. Because of this, we have seen that the instinctive question for the scientist to ask is not “Is it reasonable?”, as if one knew beforehand the shape that rationality had to take, but “What makes you think that might be the case?” Radical revision of expectation cannot be ruled out, but it will only be accepted if evidence is presented in support of the new point of view that is being proposed. Science trades in motivated belief.

One of the difficulties that face a scientist wanting to speak to his colleagues about the Christian faith is to get across the fact that theology also trades in motivated belief. Many scientists are both wistful and wary in their attitude towards religion. They can see that science’s story is not sufficient by itself to give a satisfying account of the many-layered reality of the world. Those who acknowledge this are open to a search for wider and deeper understanding. Hence the wistful desire for something beyond science. Religion offers such a prospect, but many scientists fear that it does so on unacceptable terms. Their wariness arises from the mistaken idea that religious faith demands that those who embrace it should be willing to believe simply on the basis of submission to some unquestionable authority—the claimed utterances of a divine being, the unchallengeable assertions of a sacred book, the authoritative decrees of a controlling community, whatever it may be—simply declared to be unproblematic deliverances of infallible truth. [This describes the attitude that Polkinghorne likes to call “top-down thinking,” vis-à-vis “bottom-up thinking,” which is mentioned at the end of this excerpt.]

The picture that many scientists have of religious revelation is that it is a collection of non-negotiable propositions, presented to be accepted without further argument or attempt at justification. According to this view, faith is simply a matter of signing on the dotted line without taking too much care about the small print. These scientists fear that religious belief would demand of them an act of intellectual suicide. I believe this to be a quite disastrous misconception. If an uncritical fideism [reliance on faith alone] is what religious belief requires, then I would have the greatest difficulty in being a religious person.

What I am always trying to do in conversation with my not-yet-believing friends is to show them that I have motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for scientific beliefs. They may not share my view of the adequacy of these motivations, but at least they should recognize that they are there on offer as matters for rational consideration and assessment. Theology conducted in the context of science must be prepared to be candid about the evidence for its beliefs. This task is one of great importance, since the difficulty of getting a hearing for Christian faith in contemporary society often seems to stem from the fact that many people have never given adequate adult consideration to the possibility of its being true, thinking that they “know” already that there can be no truth in claims so apparently at odds with notions of everyday secular expectation.

While science and religion share a common concern for motivated belief, the character of the motivating evidence is, of course, different in the two cases. [SNIP]  Theology lacks recourse to repeatable experimental confirmation (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Deuteronomy 6:16), as in fact do most other non-scientific explorations of reality. Judgments such as that of the quality of a painting, or the beauty of a piece of music, or the character of a friend, depend upon powers of sympathetic discernment, rather than being open to empirical demonstration. Moreover, I have already said that I believe that no form of human truth-seeking enquiry can attain absolute certainty about its conclusions. The realistic aspiration is that of attaining the best explanation of complex phenomena, a goal to be achieved by searching for an understanding sufficiently comprehensive and well-motivated as to afford the basis for rational commitment.

Michael Polanyi (Source)

Neither science nor religion can entertain the hope of establishing logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny. No one can avoid some degree of intellectual precariousness, and there is a consequent need for a degree of cautious daring in the quest for truth. Experience and interpretation intertwine in an inescapable circularity. Even science cannot wholly escape this dilemma (theory interprets experiments; experiments confirm or disconfirm theories). We have seen [in another chapter] how considerations of this kind led Michael Polanyi to acknowledge the presence of a tacit dimension in scientific practice, depending on the exercise of skills of judgment, and to speak of science as necessarily being personal knowledge, not absolutely certain but still capable of eliciting justified belief. Recall that he said that he wrote Personal Knowledge to explain how he might commit himself to what he believed (scientifically) to be true, while knowing that it might be false. This stance recognizes what I believe to be the unavoidable epistemic condition of humanity.

When we turn to religious belief, it too cannot lay claim to certainty beyond a peradventure [uncertainty or doubt]—for believers live by faith and not by sight. Yet faith is by no means the irrational acceptance of unquestionable propositions. I believe my religious faith to be well motivated and that is why, for me, Christianity is worthy of acceptance and commitment. Religious people are content to bet their lives that this is so. If theology is to prove persuasive to enquirers in the context of science, it will have to set out the motivations for the assertions that it makes, expressed in as honest and careful a fashion as possible. I believe that the argument will need to have the character of bottom-up thinking, making appeal to specific forms of evidence.

Looking Ahead

In the next few posts in this series we will continue exploring Polkinghorne’s approach to “motivated belief,” with further excerpts from this chapter.




Davis, Ted. "Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 1" N.p., 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 21 January 2019.


Davis, T. (2013, March 28). Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 1
Retrieved January 21, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/motivated-belief-john-polkinghorne-on-the-resurrection-part-1

References & Credits

Excerpts from John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009), copyright Yale University Press, are reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

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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