Friday, 17 January 2014

Polkinghorne's Perspective on Science and Religion - Reflection on "Quarks, Chaos and Christianity" by John Polkinghorne

I read this book earlier than I had planned to (January as opposed to July) because I have gone through my January reading list, and also because the title intrigued me: I have long retorted to the claim that I believe in some invisible being (God) and that such a belief was ridiculous by pointing out that, as I study physics, I seem to believe in all sorts of things that are invisible. Worse, although I claim that God could be seen when he was incarnate in Christ, quarks (said to be some of the most fundamental "stuff" that make up matter - protons and neutrons, for instance, are made up of three quarks each) are intrinsically invisible; our current scientific understanding is that we will most likely never be able to directly observe (and probably never even separate) quarks. And yet, we believe they exist. So it must not be too ridiculous to think that invisible things exist, after all.

But Polkinghorne's book, Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, is not a response to believing in invisible things, even though he does mention the connection in the very last pages. This book is not a detailed statement on his harmonizing of science and religion, or of a deep discussion of the connections and divergences between the two: this book, as he says, is basically an outline of such theses born out of the sort of questions he gets asked when he speaks on these issues.

Before I proceed to go into my thoughts on the book, a note on who John Polkinghorne is: the man was, for a very long time, an eminent physicist and professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge, and when he decided that he had done his part in the field after many years, he became a clergyman in the Church of England. In fact, the chap is Sir John, because he got knighted in 1997, and like many eminent religious scientists, he has also received the Templeton Prize. He knows his physics - which means that he does not suffer from the same level of accusations of misusing science, as some philosophers and theologians do, sometimes baselessly, sometimes not - and he knows his theology. Which means, as various people have noted, that he is an ideal candidate to speak on these issues.

The book has eight short chapters, each dealing with some of the themes that arise in science-religion discussions. I will comment on some of them, since the others seem to present mostly "well-travelled" points of view:

1. Fact or Opinion?
2. Is There Anyone There?
3. What's Been Going On?
4. Who Are We?
5. Can a Scientist Pray?
6. What About Miracles?
7. How Will it End?
8. Can a Scientist Believe?

1. The three most compelling aspects of science is how useful it is, how effective it is in answering questions about the world we live in, and importantly, how much agreement it commands. Religion, by contrast, is said to either be universally false, or at best, a matter where opinions are higher than facts. Science is about facts, religion about opinions, and so obviously science must win. Generally, my response is that religion, somewhat like philosophy, may not give answers that command universal respect, but is nonetheless a crucial part to knowing what is true; it has more scope, asks and answers different questions, and answers them in different ways. Supposing some religious account could be true, the diversity of religious views is no testament to their universal falsity.

But interestingly, Polkinghorne takes the opposite stance, and his point is important to heed: science isn't really about facts anyway, it's about interpretations of facts. One could hardly publish a scientific paper that was just data (or "facts") - one gives discussions, organizes the data, speaks of its significance. In short, the aim of science is the theory, not the facts. Insofar as fact and theory are mixed, then, the distinction between the evidence and opinion is not quite as clear cut as some would like to believe it is. Certainly, there are reasons for the opinon, but they are indispensable. He also points out the need of opinion to judiciously consider one's data set - sometimes one must eliminate some data because it is background noise, but that can also lead to problems.

He does go on to speak about the religious side, but the terrain is quite well gone over, and I will not dawdle on all his views, just the ones that seem to bring a new perspective.

2. The second chapter gives a brief overview of his reasons for thinking that there is "Someone out there." He provides two basic arguments, one from fine-tuning, and one from the applicability of science.

I do not think fine tuning arguments are very good, for two reasons: first, they are inherently probabalistic, and yet, it seems difficult to see how one would know about what other values the fundamental constants could take on purely scientific grounds, so it's not so clear to me that we do know the unlikelihood of this universe. Second, design type explanations to these sorts of problems seem to me to override the general rule of thumb in science to prefer metaphysically economic explanations: yes, it could be that angels pull the Earth around the sun and make all the effects of gravity look like what they do, and yet it is so much simpler, or in other words, metaphysically economical, that it be the result of attraction between masses.

The applicability of science is a far more interesting argument, one which produces peer-reviewed philosophy papers in eminent journals every so often - so it is not a ridiculous argument, although I grant that Polkinghorne's presentation of it seems quite weak. What is more interesting, and is something he could have developed more, is the idea that the a priori knowledge of mathematics is so unusually applicable to the real world, which is usually only knowable a posteriori. Nonetheless, I am still uncomfortable of drawing theistic conclusions at this point.

3. This chapter deals with two underlying questions that pop up frequently, and those are "what's God up to now?" and "what about suffering?" The problem of evil is basically given a free will defence, interestingly, even extending a certain sort of freedom to the natural world, and so attempting to solve both the moral and natural evil problems. The curious thing about his "free-processes defence" is that it involves a sort of necessity clause - the fecundity of evolution requires the capacity for both positive and negative mutations, for instance, and so a free world necessarily has things like cancer. It's not clear to me that the free-processes defence works, but it's also not clear that it fails - I simply do not know the possibilities and necessities involved in the creation of the world.

His point on what God is doing now can be summed up in one, very important, line:

"God is not a God of edges, with a vested interest in beginnings. God is the God of the whole show."

By this he means that God does not simply create and then move on to more interesting things, but that creation is a continuous act of unfolding and sustaining. Evolutionary biology is not atheistic unless one understands God's place to be that of setting things in motion purely or zapping things into existence. More generally, events that look like chance and events that look necessary are, in a sense, no problem for the theist, only insofar as the theist understands God not to be just the Alpha and the Omega, but all the letters in between also. This much seems sort of obvious to me, but it is interesting how often it is neglected, even though it is foundational for Christian theology: I am being "made new in Christ", for instance, and this is not just a once of zapping thing, but an inward transformation that happens over time.

5. This was perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book. His answer is yes, obviously, and yet he does not give the response that has grown to be a sort of common cop-out: that prayer is basically a form of self-help with a spiritual dimension. His proposal is what might be considered a "classical physics" version of QDA (Quantum Divine Action) based on chaos theory. On this view, God basically works in small, non-perceptible ways, which have great influences on other events because of the butterfly effect. I don't know how powerful that makes God's action in the world, but I suppose that could work for small things, like answering prayers.

That might work, and it would certainly explain why prayers are not usually answered in such a way that precludes natural explanations. It's not a falsifiable view, but as long as God could be acting in that way, it does not rule the possibility out. What makes Polkinghorne's view in this chapter difficult is that he, because of free choices and so forth, "even God does not yet know the unformed future." It is hard to accept such a conclusion. In fact, one does not have to, since I think the concept of "middle knowledge" effectively deals with the issue of knowledge about free agents without determinism. For the record, when applied to soteriology, this view is often referred to as Molinism.

8. For Polkinghorne, the reason that science and religion can go well together is that they are looking at different questions. The essence of his harmonization project is summed up in his last paragraph's opening sentence:

"Religion is our encounter with divine reality, just as science is our encounter with physical reality."


Whilst I find Polkinghorne an interesting intellectual interlocutor, I must admit to preferring other Anglican clergymen's comments on science and religion, such as the less eminent as a scientist, but far more prolific as a theologian, Rev. Alister McGrath. Polkinghorne's chaos theory approach to divine action is one I would like to pursue further, and I can look with renewed excitement towards the chaos mathematics course I was going to take in 2015. His "continual creation" point is important, but it can simply be said to be biblical, and so "unoriginal." His views on science would probably be helpful for many, but I am largely convinced by scientific anti-realism (which is a view mostly rejected by scientists, I would say because scientific realism is nicer) and his only response to that view is a basic no miracles argument.

So whilst this short book was worth the read, I concur with a certain Masters student who was defending her thesis in a seminar room which I chanced to walk into: Polkinghorne answers questions very well, because he asks the easier questions.

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