Faith, Science and Understanding

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In this captivating book, one of the most highly regarded scientist-theologians of our time explores aspects of the interaction of science and theology. John Polkinghorne defends the place of theology in the university (it is part of the human search for truth) and discusses the role of revelation in religion (it is a record of experience and not the communication of unchallengeable propositions). Throughout his thought-provoking conversation, Polkinghorne speaks with an honesty and openness that derives from his many years of experience in scientific research.

A central concern of Polkinghorne's collection of writings is to reconcile what science can say about the processes of the universe with theology's belief in a God active within creation. The author examines two related concepts in depth. The first is the divine self-limitation involved in creation that leads to an important reappraisal of the traditional claim that God does not act as a cause among causes. The other is the nature of time and God's involvement with it, an issue that Polkinghorne shows can link metascience and theological understandings. In the final section of the book, the author reviews three centuries of the science and theology debate and assesses the work of major contemporary contributors to the discussion: Wolfhart Pannenberg, Thomas Torrance, and Paul Davies. He also considers why the science-theology discussion has for several centuries been a particular preoccupation of the English.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In his sixth book on the relationship of science and theology, Polkinghorne revisits some of the issues raised in his earlier works (including, most notably, Belief in God in an Age of Science). Noting that a university's very existence presupposes the essential unity of knowledge, Polkinghorne begins by maintaining that theology's appeal to revelation is not so much an appeal to some unquestionable authority as it is a recourse to illuminating experience, which is analogous to science's recourse to observation and experiment. He divides his book into three parts. The first part reassesses the relationship between the God who is considered immanent in human and cosmic history and the traditional characterization of God as uncaused cause. The second part examines the nature of time and God's relation with it. The third part synopsizes three centuries of the theology-science conversation, and evaluates the work of some of the major contemporary contributors to this discussion. This specialized book may not appeal to general readers, but it should be a welcome addition to university or seminary libraries.--David I. Fulton, Coll. of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
How can science be reconciled with a belief in a God active in creation, not evolution? Faith, Science & Understanding explores different aspects of science and theology, defending the place of theology in the scientific world and discussing how religious ideas and can still coexist within the scientific framework. Recommended for any interested in the science/theology debate.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300091281
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 226
  • Sales rank: 809,237
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Theology in the University

Ever since their origins in the late Middle Ages, universities have been sources of trained personnel apt for the service of the community, whether by providing clerks for the Royal Court or canon lawyers for the service of the Church. Advances in scientific technology, which have done so much to define the context of our life today, have only broadened and intensified the importance of this role. I believe that the universities can claim significant success in meeting this need. It would, however, be a bad error to mistake a valuable byproduct for the principal object of activity. The essential purpose of a regime of physical exercise and good nutrition is the maintenance of health. If it also produces some excellent football players, that is to be welcomed, but that result is a collateral good rather than the main objective. The essential purpose of a university is the discovery and propagation of knowledge. Many other goods will derive from the fulfilment of that main objective, but their continuance depends, in the long run, upon not losing sight of the central aim. I state very clearly my belief in the value of knowledge for knowledge's sake, together with my belief in the essential unity of all knowledge. Universities are the institutionalised expressions of these beliefs.

    I became very aware of these issues in the late 1970s when I was briefly Chairman of the Nuclear Physics Board of what was then called the Science Research Council (SRC). It was my job to ask the British taxpayer, through SRC, for the £40 million or sonecessary to finance our national contribution to the international field of research into the fundamental structure of matter. Then, as always, money was short and the arguments between the different sciences seeking their share of what was available, correspondingly intense. We particle physicists were studying the behaviour of matter in extreme regimes that were far removed from circumstances relevant to everyday technology. In fact, that was the source of much of the expense, since such unusual states of matter could be created only in accelerators costing hundreds of millions of pounds to build and tens of millions of pounds per year to run. These machines were too expensive for any single European nation to construct and maintain on their own, but we belonged to CERN, the international consortium that ran this activity in Europe. Developing precision engineering on kilometre scales, and control devices with nanosecond response times, certainly generated remarkable technical advances that would find application outside the particle physicists' specialised field of use. Many talented young people served their scientific apprenticeship within our community, and most of them subsequently went on to use the skills they had acquired in a variety of totally different contexts. In terms of spin-off, there was much that could be said for particle physics. But when the chips were finally down, when the last round of argument was in progress about whether it was to be £40 million or only 35, there was just one central honest argument to be used in our cause. It was that to understand the fundamental structure of the matter of the universe, to unravel the mysteries of quarks and gluons, was in itself a worthwhile thing to do, a high human achievement that did not need to find its justification outside itself. It was a case of knowledge for knowledge's sake.

    Arguing in such terms cut ice with my scientific colleagues on SRC because the argument is fundamental to the whole practice of natural science, whether it be physical, biological or psychological enquiry. The prime motivation of science lies in the desire to understand the physical world. Contrary to the priorities stated by Karl Marx, scientists give first place to science's power to understand the world, even over technology's power to change it.

    Arguing in such terms would have cut ice with theologians also, had they been sitting round the table at SRC. They too are concerned with the search for understanding—though of a more profound Mystery than that of quarks and gluons. Theology has a natural role in an age of science just because it shares with modern science this quest for intelligibility. A theological faculty is a necessary presence in a true university because the search for knowledge is incomplete if it does not include in its aim gaining knowledge of the Creator as well as gaining knowledge of creatures. The unity of knowledge is fractured if theology is excluded. Before I attempt to justify these large claims, it will be helpful to look more closely at the scientific sector of this universal quest for truthful understanding.

    The first thing we can learn is the distinction between understanding, on the one hand, and the lesser attainment of explanation, on the other. Quantum theory makes the point most clearly for us. In its modern form it was discovered in the mid 1920s. Since then its techniques have been used daily in many branches of physical science with impressive success. It explains the nature of chemical reactions, the properties of materials, the way the Sun shines. We know how to do the sums and they always seem to come out right. Invented to deal with atoms, quantum theory now makes successful predictions about the behaviour of quarks, which are at least a hundred million times smaller than atoms. At the level of explanation and prediction, it is, perhaps, the most successful scientific theory ever. Yet we do not understand it. By that I mean that we are not in a position to feel intellectually content about it, to reckon that we see how it constitutes a totally satisfactory matrix of understanding, whose intrinsic nature and inner consistency we are able to grasp. The problem does not lie in the strangeness of quantum phenomena viewed from our everyday perspective, with their probabilistic character and the unpicturable behaviour in which an entity sometimes appears to show wavelike properties and sometimes appears to show particlelike properties. All that may seem very odd to the commonsense mind, but we have come to see how quantum thinking has to deviate from everyday thinking if it is to accommodate these unexpected possibilities. Once we have grasped that, these counterintuitive properties yield themselves up to being understood in terms of a modified quantum form of intuition. One way of dealing with these seeming perplexities is to recognise that in the quantum world those little logical words `and' and `or' have different properties to those that they possess in everyday discourse. It turns out that quantum mechanically, you can mix together possibilities, like `being here' and `being there', that we normally think of as being mutually exclusive of each other. The quantum mechanically learned follow their master, Paul Dirac, in calling this the `superposition principle'.

    All that may sound pretty weird, but if you trust what I have said, you can draw from it a useful moral about how to pursue the quest for understanding: `Do not make common sense the measure of everything but be prepared to recognise aspects of reality in those modes that are intrinsic to their natures, however strange these modes may at first sight seem to be'. There is not one single, simple way in which we can know everything; there is no universal epistemology. We know the everyday world in one way, in its Newtonian clarity; we know the quantum world in another way, in its Heisenbergian uncertainty. Our knowledge of entities must be allowed to conform to the way in which they actually can be known. If we are to meet reality at all, we must meet it on its own terms. If that is a lesson applying to our knowledge of the quantum world, it would not be altogether surprising if it were a principle that also applied to theology's quest for knowledge of the mystery of God.

    Once we have grasped the principle of quantum superposition, it turns out, we are also in a position to understand the strange duality of wave and particle. Dirac solved this problem through the discovery of quantum field theory. A field is a spread out entity, and so has wave properties, but stirring in quantum theory also produces countable packets of energy (quanta, in fact!), so that there are particle properties as well. The wavelike states are superpositions of states with different numbers of particles, an option impossible in a Newtonian world (where you simply count however many particles you have, and that's that), but perfectly natural in the quantum world.

    However, there are other aspects of quantum mechanics that continue resist our understanding more than seventy years after the theory's original discovery. The most perplexing of these is called `the measurement problem'. The theory predicts probabilities for various possible outcomes only when a measurement is made on a quantum system. Yet each time such a measurement is actually made, one of these possibilities emerges as the unequivocal result of the experimental observation. How does this definite answer come about? One might attempt to rephrase the question, as Niels Bohr essentially did, by asking, How does the cloudy and fitful quantum world interlock with the clear and determinated world of laboratory equipment? Yet, putting the issue in that form is really begging the question, for there are not two worlds—quantum and laboratory—but one single physical world of which both are aspects. It is humiliating for a quantum physicist to have to admit that currently there is no satisfactory and agreed solution to the measurement problem—a particularly troublesome confession given the fundamental role of measurement in the whole of physics. There is clearly more still to be understood. Another difficulty makes a similar point.

    The two great fundamental discoveries of physical science in this century have been quantum theory and the general theory of relativity, which is Einstein's profoundly beautiful and successful account of gravitation. Yet these two theories are imperfectly reconciled with each other. Every attempt so far to combine them has come to grief through the generation of infinite inconsistencies. Most of the time, the problem can be ignored. General relativity is mostly applied to large systems, including the universe itself. Quantum theory is concerned with small-scale behaviour. The normal fields of application of the two theories are thus well separated from each other. However, not only must two such fundamental physical theories eventually find a satisfactory merger for reasons of principle but also those cosmologists, like Stephen Hawking, who are bold enough to talk about the extremely early universe must make some sort of shift at combining them. This is because the cosmos is then so small that it must be treated in a quantum mechanical way. The dazzling speculations with which the quantum cosmologists regale us in their popular books are intellectual arabesques performed on extremely thin theoretical ice. Here is another area of physical science in which understanding is still lacking and where it is much needed.

    There is something further we can learn from science's quest for understanding. It is the multi-levelled complexity of reality. The Holy Grail of contemporary particle physics is the so-called Grand Unified Theory (GUT) in which all the fundamental forces of nature might be unified in a description based on a single set of equations—equations so compact that they could be written on your T-shirt, and so beautiful that they would make an intellectually thrilling adornment. So far, the quest, though actively pursued by many very able people, has not succeeded. I certainly wish it well and entertain hopes of its eventual success. However, I begin to dissent when some of my erstwhile colleagues go on in a grandiose way to rename the putative Grand Unified Theory, a `Theory of Everything'. For that to be true it would be necessary that we had attained a remarkable degree of universal understanding, and that criterion would not even be satisfied within physics itself. A GUT would be an immensely satisfying intellectual discovery but many, many physical phenomena of the highest interest—such as the turbulent motion of fluids, the superconducting properties of metals and the thermodynamic properties of bulk matter—would lie far outside its explanatory range. Conceptually, as well as methodologically, physics cannot be reduced to particle physics. The imperialist claims of a Theory of Everything that asserts it has all within its grasp are no more realistic within physics than are the imperialistic claims of physics outside itself to have all of biology or psychology within its grasp. In turn, it is even less true that science encompasses all that is attainable or significant in the universal quest for understanding.

    Galileo encouraged concentration on the primary quantities of matter and motion and a discounting of those secondary qualities, such as colour, that are directly accessible through human perception. Explanations of change were expressed in terms of the mechanical consequences of efficient causes and not in terms of the teleological action of final causes. There is no contesting the brilliant success of this narrow methodological strategy. Limiting the field of view brought into sharp focus certain kinds of phenomena which then yielded up their secrets to the investigating scientist. Newton's laws of motion and the universal inverse square law of gravity provided a profound, though ultimately (as it turned out) only approximate, understanding of the the nature of the solar system. Yet to believe that what had been omitted in order to make these gains had thereby been shown to be insignificant or peripheral would, from the point of view of an adequate understanding of reality, be an altogether unwarranted conclusion. It would amount to mistaking Mr Gradgrind's definition of a horse—`quadruped, graminivorous, forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye teeth and twelve incisive' and so on—for a living animal. A. N. Whitehead would have called it `the fallacy of misplaced concreteness'.

    Let us come straight to the point. A central question is the significance to be assigned to personhood in forming a credible and adequate account of reality. By a person I mean at least this: a self-conscious being, able to use the future tense in anticipation, hope and dread; able to perceive meaning and to assign value; able to respond to beauty and to the call of moral duty; able to love other persons, even to the point of self-sacrifice. To this I would also wish to add an explicit religious dimension arising from the sense of a Reality beyond oneself, without whose gracious sustaining power life is incomplete, a Reality which is the ground of value and being and to whom the proper response is worship and obedience. I believe that we all know ourselves to be persons, even if we do not all wish to label as `religious' certain aspects of our experience of personhood. Then the question is, What do we make of this phenomenon of personhood? Is the appearance of persons here on planet Earth (and, for all we know, maybe on many other planets elsewhere in the universe) an event of prime significance for the understanding of what is going on, or is it just a curious byproduct of the physiology of certain kinds of animals, so that it is more complicated than, but no more meaningful than, the fact that some animals can digest grass and some cannot? Are we to believe that some animals are self-conscious and some are not, and that's that? To take so dismissive and epiphenomenal a view of personhood seems to be tantamount to denying that there are any meaningful events in cosmic history at all. I cannot conceive of an occurrence in the universe's evolutionary development that is more astonishing and fraught with signs of fruitful significance than that it should have become aware of itself through the coming to be of humanity. Pascal spoke of us as `thinking reeds', so insignificant on a cosmic scale but yet exceeding all the stars, since we know them and ourselves, and they know nothing. The mystery of consciousness must surely be a deep clue to the mystery of reality. A small but important aspect of this coming-to-be of cosmic awareness is that it permitted the development of science. It is strange, therefore, that some scientists seem to repudiate the insights of consciousness, preferring instead to remain set in the misplaced concreteness of a world of atoms and the void.

    If the event of the evolution of persons is a profound pointer to the nature of reality, then science's deliberately chosen self-restriction to impersonally describable phenomena may be methodologically effective but it is metaphysically jejune. The search for understanding will have to be widened to a very considerable degree beyond the limits of purely scientific discourse. In doing so we shall have to learn to discard some intellectual restrictive practices that have been encouraged by that Enlightenment style of thinking of which we are all, to some extent, the heirs. The impersonal is not to be given precedence over the personal, or me quantitative over the qualitative, for they are simply differing aspects of our encounter with a reality whose character is complex and multidimensional and whose different levels can be known only in ways that conform to their distinctive natures. Our study of the experience of doing science has prepared us for such a possibility, with its recognition of the limited role of a reductionist particle physics within the totality of scientific understanding. Reality is too rich to be taken in at a single glance; it must be viewed from many perspectives.

    If it is true that the evolution of persons is of prime significance, then it is also true that the personally perceived qualities of reality must be expected to carry a corresponding prime significance. All personal perceptions are, to use a phrase of Thomas Nagel's, `views from somewhere'. A person has a perspective on the world, with the opportunities for insight and the dangers of deception that every perspective confers. Of course, the same is true of the scientists' perceptions of what they choose to look at, for scientists are persons and I shall argue in the next chapter that this fact is fundamental to the whole scientific enterprise and to its success. Yet the differing perspectives involved in the practice of science are usually rather easily superposed and reconciled—intersubjectively agreed, as we say—with the consequence that the resulting construct has the air of a `view from nowhere'; it has the air of an `objective account'.


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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Acknowledgements xvi
I Issues
1. Theology in the University 3
2. Motivations for Belief 27
3. The Role of Revelation 52
4. Design in Biology? 66
5. Second Thoughts 78
1 Critical Realism 78
2 Quantum Cosmology and the Anthropic Principle 85
3 Panentheism 89
4 Dual Aspect Monism 95
5 Chaos Theory 99
II Divine Agency
6. God in Relation to Nature: Kenotic Creation and Divine Action 105
7. Natural Science, Temporality and Divine Action 130
III Significant Thinkers
8. Contemporaries 155
1 Wolfhart Pannenberg's Engagement with the Natural Sciences 156
2 Thomas Torrance's Engagement with the Natural Sciences 173
3 Paul Davies' Engagement with Theology 186
9. Science and Theology in England 195
Index 207
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