Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 1

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

My previous column offered a brief overview of the life and work of John Polkinghorne. This column introduces a few of the ideas and attitudes at the core of his thought.

Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 1Understanding John Polkinghorne: Natural Theology

John Polkinghorne likes to describe himself as a “bottom-up thinker,” whereas many theologians (in his view) are “top-down” thinkers. What does he mean by this?

“I like to start with the phenomena, with things that have happened, and then try to build up an explanation and an understanding from there,” Polkinghorne explains. The “top-down” thinker, on the other hand, will, “go the other way: start with some grand general ideas and use them to explain particular events.” He sees the former as the “natural” route for the scientist, who looks for “ideas which have reasons backing them up; these reasons will lie in the experience we consider, the events that motivate our belief.” (Searching for Truth, p. 14)

Thus, for Polkinghorne, theology and science are “cousinly” disciplines, in that both are open-minded searches for “motivated belief.” This contrasts starkly with the attitude of the “New Atheists,” for whom religion is a wholly unjustified leap of faith, in the complete absence of any evidence. Let’s be honest: many Christians do match that stereotype. Polkinghorne addresses this implicitly, when he says, “Revelation is not the presentation of unchallengeable dogmas for reception by the unquestioning faithful. Rather, it is the record of those transparent events or persons in which the divine will and presence have been most clearly seen.” (The Faith of a Physicist, pp. 5-6) For some Christians, this may be a step too far, but for many Christians who work in scientific fields it’s an accurate description of what makes sense. They want to know why something is worthy of belief, in religion no less than in science. Blind faith is not enough for them, and it’s not enough for Polkinghorne.

Perhaps his most fundamental challenge to the New Atheists, however, is his view that both nature and our ability to have a science of nature (i.e., our ability to understand nature at all) make more sense within a theistic worldview than without it. Where Dawkins and others seem to think that science comes with an atheist worldview attached at the hip, Polkinghorne realizes that, “Physics constrains metaphysics, but it no more determines it than the foundations of a house determine the precise form of the building erected on them.” In short, it’s a two-way street. While, “Science offers an illuminating context within which much theological reflection can take place,” science in turn, “needs to be considered in the wider and deeper context of intelligibility that a belief in God affords.” In the next few months, we’ll see more precisely what Polkinghorne has in mind. (Theology in the Context of Science, pp. 60 and 95)

As I’ve just implied, Polkinghorne devotes considerable attention to natural theology, more indeed than many other contemporary theologians, who largely ignore it for a combination of reasons that I cannot explore adequately here. However, his approach to natural theology is more modest than that of many previous authors, especially those who stand strongly in the line of William Paley, by emphasizing the inexplicable, stunning intricacy of living things as irrefutable evidence for God’s existence. I’ll develop this point more fully in a future column. Instead of seeking knock-down “proofs” of design in nature—thereby “proving” God’s existence to skeptics—Polkinghorne claims instead that theism makes more sense of our whole experience of the world than atheism does, all things considered. For more on this, see my earlier column.

His approach to natural theology can be understood specifically in terms of three larger, metaphysical questions about nature and our ability to understand it. I’ll present these in the words of three non-Christian scientists who also voiced them.

Why does the world make sense at all?

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” (Antonina Vallentin, Einstein: A Biography, p. 24) Polkinghorne wants to know why a science of nature is possible at all—a fundamental question that science itself cannot answer.

Why is mathematics so powerful for understanding nature, down deep?

No one got at this issue better than Eugene Wigner. In his wonderful paper, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (1960), Wigner spoke eloquently of, “the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.” Polkinghorne sees this as, “a hint of the presence of the Creator, given to us creatures who are made in the divine image.” He also underscores a related question, “Are mathematical truths invented or discovered?” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, pp. 4 and 126)

Paul Dirac (source)


Why, specifically, is “beautiful” mathematics exactly what we need to understand nature?

Wigner’s brother-in-law, Paul Dirac, once said, “God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.” (Behram N. Kursunoglu and Eugene Paul Wigner, eds., Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist, p. xv) I don’t mean to imply that Dirac believed in God—quite the opposite. But, like Einstein, he was not averse to invoking “God” to express his deepest convictions about nature.

Polkinghorne wants to go more deeply than Dirac into this astonishing fact about nature: “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.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 4)

Overall, Polkinghorne seeks to go “beyond science,” to borrow the title of one of his books, in search of deeper explanations for such things as these. The New Atheists reject that sort of enterprise out of hand. Since science cannot provide the answers, they proclaim, the questions themselves are meaningless; therefore, our efforts to answer them cannot produce evidence for God’s existence.

I beg to differ. Surely it’s fully in keeping with the scientific enterprise to search for deeper answers than science alone can give about the intelligibility of nature, questions that many great scientists have raised about the ultimate mysteries that confront them when they do their work as well as they can.

Looking Ahead

Our discussion of Polkinghorne’s views will continue in about two weeks, when we will explore aspects of his theology of nature and his overall attitude toward science and Christianity, as seen in his approach to the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime, please read the essay by Eugene Wigner that I linked above, as background for understanding Polkinghorne’s natural theology.


References & Credits

John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998).

John Polkinghorne, From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography (2008).

John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (1994). This book contains the Gifford Lectures for 1993-94. Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, another major figure in the science-religion “dialogue,” wrote an appreciative review. A review by Jewish physicist Baruch Sterman summarizes the book’s overall religious attitude.

John Polkinghorne, Searching for Truth: Lenten Meditations on Science & Faith (1996).

John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009). My review for First Things online is here

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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