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One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology

One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology

by John C. Polkinghorne

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My impression is that scientists are as likely to be religious believers as any other section of the community. Nevertheless there is a feeling abroad that somehow science and religion are opposed to each other. This book is written to defend that thesis.


My impression is that scientists are as likely to be religious believers as any other section of the community. Nevertheless there is a feeling abroad that somehow science and religion are opposed to each other. This book is written to defend that thesis.

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"Polkinghorne's remarkable facility to communicate science, his honest and non-dogmatic style in setting forth his own religious convictions, and his fairness to scientific, philosophical and theological issues make One World one of the best introductory books in religion and science today."--Religious Studies Review

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Templeton Press
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)
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One World




Copyright © 1986 John Polkinghorne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59947-111-2


The Post-Enlightenment World

The practice of religion and a belief in God appear to have been almost universal phenomena, with the exception of the modern Western world. We live in a pluralist society of belief and unbelief. That exception is often attributed to the rise of science. Our enhanced understanding of the physical world is held to have undermined the belief of many in a spiritual reality. Thus baldly stated, the proposition has the air of a logical non sequitur. Are not physical and spiritual matters concerned with different levels of meaning and thus no more in direct opposition than is the character of the page in front of you, discerned as composed of paper and ink, in conflict with the assertion that it is also the means by which its author is attempting to set his thoughts before you? The most comprehensive discussion of its chemical composition could not exclude consideration of its possible intellectual content. To see how science and theology have come to be thought of by many as being in some way in opposition requires a historical, rather than a logical, assessment.

Science first achieved a recognizably modern form in the seventeenth century. Those concerned in its early development were, almost all, people who took seriously the existence of a religious dimension to life. Many of the first Fellows of the Royal Society were of a puritan persuasion. Indeed, it has been suggested that the Christian doctrine of creation, with its emphasis on the Creator's rationality (so that his world was intelligible) and freedom (so that its nature had a contingent character which could be discovered only by investigation, rather than by speculation) provided an essential matrix for the coming into being of the scientific enterprise. Of course, some of those early scientists had problems in their relations with the ecclesiastical authorities and with orthodox belief. We cannot feel that the Galileo affair reflects much credit on the church, even if it was not quite the confrontation between a lonely hero, imbued with a simple desire for truth, and the forces of clerical obscurantism, that popular mythology depicts. Newton had his difficulties in accepting Trinitarian belief, but neither he nor Galileo was a skeptic, and Newton appears to have held the mistaken view that his writings on the book of Daniel were of equal importance to the Principia.

Yet in the seventeenth century we can also see the beginnings of what was to become thought of as the conflict between science and religion. Thomas Hobbes eagerly, if inexpertly, seized on the mechanical ideas then being developed to make the Democritean assertion that reality was nothing but a concourse of atoms in motion. That was a materialistic take-over bid, leaving no place for the mental, let alone the religious. Few were inclined to be so dismissive of the claims of mind to its own existence, but the manner in which those claims were defended itself contained the seeds of future difficulty.

Descartes proclaimed the duality of mind and matter. How the thinking substance of mind and the extended substance of matter were related was not so easy to say. Ultimately he had to invoke God as the guarantor of their connection. The Cartesian system, wittily characterized by Gilbert Ryle as the ghost in the machine, had grave problems. William Temple said that he considered that day on which Descartes conceived it ("shut up alone in a stove"—a heated room—as he tells us) was "the most disastrous day in the history of Europe." Such a judgment is the pardonable exaggeration of a philosophically inclined person, but there is no doubt that Cartesianism had a dangerous tendency. Its author's fondness for clear ideas drove him to a total divorce between mind and matter as the only tolerable way of preserving the claims of the former to equal consideration with the latter. Yet if too sharp a separation is made, the tangible nature of matter is liable eventually to promote a feeling of the unreality of intangible mind. Moreover, the Cartesian system is stiffly rationalistic. Clear ideas are excellent when we are able to conceive them, but it may be that at certain times with certain problems it is better to be content with a creative confusion than to strive for an oversimplified solution. Clarity can be purchased at the expense of the complexity of the truth. Even today our ignorance of matters germane to the relationship of brain and mind is such that we can proceed only with modesty and caution.

It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the chill of mechanistic ideas communicated itself widely in a form less crude than that of Hobbes, and so more persuasive. The remarkable success of Newton's ideas in explaining the behavior of physical systems, both terrestrial and celestial, encouraged reliance on a discourse of reason whose paradigm was seen in the power of mathematics. That there might be aspects of reality, intuitively discerned, whose nature was fittingly expressed in the cloudier language of symbol was not taken sufficiently seriously. The thinkers of the Enlightenment sought by cold clear reason to comprehend an objective world of determinate order. They saw themselves as self-sufficient and were confident of their powers and of human perfectibility. Even theology was affected. When it did not lapse into a detached deistic belief in a God who had set the world a-spinning but cared little for it thereafter, it adopted a coolly rational tone, placing great reliance on natural theology's supposed demonstrations from the intricate design of the world. In line with the spirit of the age, God had become the divine Mechanic. There was considerable suspicion of religious experience less ordered and decorous than that provided by attendance at public worship. The principal role of religion was thought to be the encouragement of morality. In England in the eighteenth century, one of the great theological figures was Bishop Joseph Butler, author of The Analogy of Religion. He warned John Wesley about the dangers of enthusiasm, saying: "Sir, pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing." Indeed, it is, if it is a matter of pretense, as Wesley agreed. But it is always possible that what is involved is, in fact, a valid experience which goes beyond the staid limits of conventional expectation.

Wesley and the other great preachers of the Evangelical Revival represent religion's protest against the frigid rationalism of the Enlightenment. Their preaching of human sinfulness may have been unhealthily guilt-ridden, but it took a more realistic view of the flawed condition of mankind than that provided by optimistic ideas of human perfectibility. other protests were also made against prevailing rationalism. The poets and artists of the Romantic movement intuitively rejected the desiccated analytic method of the Enlightenment which, in Wordsworth's phrase, murdered to dissect. William Blake proclaimed with mystic intensity the preeminence of the symbolic over the scientific: "'What,' it will be questioned, 'when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?' O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.'" Blake's vision is powerful and disturbing but too idiosyncratic to have been widely influential.

In fact, as the nineteenth century progressed, the light of reason seemed to shine with ever greater clarity on a comprehensible and determinate world. Clerk Maxwell brought an order into the phenomena of electromagnetism which was fit to stand beside Newton's achievements in mechanics. The principles of physics seemed complete. All that was left was their application to problem solving. Above all, Darwin showed how competitive selection could sift favorable mutations from random variations, creating thereby the appearance of design without need for the intervention of a Designer. The one apparently convincing demonstration of the existence of God, on which the eighteenth-century theologians had placed such great reliance, was found to be fatally flawed. Paley had compared the likelihood of the intricate structure of the world being the result of chance to the assertion that a watch had been assembled by random causes. However, it now seemed that after all one could find a watch without a watchmaker's having had to put it there.

None of this logically denied the validity of religious experience or the existence of God. Yet it marginalized such claims in the minds of men. Like Laplace, whose demonstration of the inherent stability of the solar system made unnecessary Newton's belief in a divine corrective occasionally applied to stop the planets wobbling apart, people came to feel that they had no need of the hypothesis of God. The Enlightenment attitude had done its acid work, and many people's faith dissolved away.

By a curious irony, as the nineteenth century came to an end, the method and view of the Enlightenment were themselves beginning to dissolve in their turn. We now live in a post-Enlightenment age. The essential character of Enlightenment thinking was to allow the clear light of reason to play upon an objective and determinate world. Scarcely a feature of that description now survives intact.

The insights of depth psychology have modified our understanding of the operation of human reason. We are more than rational egos. The exact nature of the polarities within the psyche is a matter of dispute between Freud and Jung and their successors. Yet it is clear that our conscious minds are counterbalanced by an unconscious component, at once creative, chaotic, and teeming with symbol. These deep levels within ourselves need to be spoken to, and they themselves speak to and influence the ego of which we are aware. There is an element of Blake within all of us.

At the same time that the human psyche has revealed its shadowy and elusive depths, the physical world has denied determinate objectivity at its constituent roots. Heisenberg tells us concerning electrons and other elementary particles that if we know what they are doing we do not know where they are, and if we know where they are we do not know what they are doing. His uncertainty principle proclaims the unpicturability of the quantum world. Naive objectivity is a status inappropriate for its inhabitants. Moreover, the fitfulness inherent in quantum theory breaks the bonds of strict determinism. In general we can give relative probabilities only for differing possible outcomes of an experimental observation, and no cause is to be assigned for obtaining a particular result on a specific occasion. The world known to the twentieth century is a good deal more curious and more shadowy than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could have conceived.

That in itself is no great cause for religious rejoicing. The ancient Hebrews knew well the dangers of the waters of chaos. Our century has seen a recurrent cult of the Absurd which is destructive of true understanding. To acknowledge the limits of rationality, objectivity, and determinism is not to relinquish a belief in reason, a respect for reality, or a search for order. It may, however, lead to greater openness to the variety of the world and our experience of it, an acceptance that beside the insights of science, expressible in the quantitative language of mathematics, there are the equally necessary insights of religion, expressible in the qualitative language of symbol. It is the purpose of this book to explore and defend such a thesis. Our first task will be to evaluate the scientific enterprise itself, for it has not been immune from the threat of a twentieth-century dissolving process.


The Nature of Science

There is a popular account of the scientific enterprise which presents its method as surefire and its achievement as the inexorable establishment of certain truth. Experimental testing verifies or falsifies the proposals offered by theory. Matters are thus settled to lasting satisfaction; laws which never shall be broken are displayed for all to see. In actual fact, as we shall find out, the matter is a good deal subtler than that. Nevertheless, the great enhancement that the twentieth century has seen in our understanding of the world in which we live, even encompassing an account of its earliest moments fourteen thousand million years ago and including the beginnings of a comprehension of how life could have evolved from inanimate matter, together with the remarkable technological developments stemming from scientific advance, lends a certain credibility to this triumphalist point of view. Such splendid successes suggest that here is the key to real knowledge. In the bright light of science's achievements, other forms of discourse are in danger of appearing mere expressions of opinion. The widespread thought that science has somehow "disproved religion" is based on psychological effect rather than logical analysis. It is a continuation of the Enlightenment distrust of all knowledge which is not patterned according to the paradigm of scientific method.

It is ironic that at the same time that there is this widespread popular attitude there is also, in circles more austerely intellectual, a critical review of the nature of the scientific method and of its actual achievement. The practices of science have been reassessed and its procedures found to be more complex and questionable than the simple popular account acknowledges. The picture of the professor in his laboratory watching the pointer move across the scale to the expected reading, and thereby establishing his theory beyond the possibility of doubt, bears about as much relation to reality as does the simplicity of the comic-strip detective to the complexities of actual police investigation. If the method of science is open to revaluation, so, of course, will be the nature of the conclusions resulting from it. It is to these matters that we must now turn.

Certainly science seems to be successful in settling issues to the satisfaction of those concerned. At the beginning of this century, there were still a few physicists like Ernst Mach who did not believe in atoms. They thought the idea just a useful figment of the chemists' imaginations, but they did not accept the existence of a real granularity in nature. Nowadays, you would not find a scientist who would espouse such an anti-atomic opinion. We all believe in atoms, even if the elementary particle physicists think of them as "large" composite systems, and it is to the quarks and gluons that we now look for the basic constituents of matter. Such achieved agreement is impressive. It contrasts with many other forms of knowledge where debates continue without prospect of universal settlement. Karl Popper said, "But science is one of the very few human activities—perhaps the only one—in which errors are systematically criticized and fairly often, in time, corrected ... in other fields there is change but rarely progress." This apparent scientific progress is pretty clearly connected with the exploitation of the experimental method. Is it not science's power to manipulate and interrogate the material at its disposal which enables it to provide agreed answers to the questions raised? I write as a theoretical elementary particle physicist who for more than twenty-five years worked in that discipline. For the greater part of that period, the subject was experimentally led. It was the discoveries of our experimental colleagues which largely set the theoretical agenda. Latterly theory has regained the initiative, with its development of gauge theories of fundamental interactions, but even so it is still to experiment that it must look for the confirmation of its ideas. In 1967 Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg independently proposed an attractive theory which combined electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force (responsible for such effects as the beta decay of nuclei) into a single unified account. It was an idea comparable with the unification of the apparently dissimilar forces of electricity and magnetism which Clerk Maxwell had achieved in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Salam and Weinberg's work gained comparatively little attention until the confirmation in the second half of the 1970s of the existence of an effect that their theory had postulated, the so-called neutral current. Now the theory seems to us to be completely established because of the discovery in 1983 by physicists at CERN of the very heavy W and Z particles which are the cornerstone of its construction.

Told like that, it all sounds like a textbook example of the simple view that theory plus experimental verification equals established truth. Yet the story is a little bit more complicated in its details. The experimentalists could have discovered the neutral current in the 1960s, before Salam and Weinberg had formulated their ideas. They actually saw events which we would now understand as due to its effects. However, it is difficult to sift out this elusive phenomenon from the experiments, because many other things are also going on. Amongst this background (as the physicists call it) were events induced by neutrons which could look very much like those caused by a neutral current. To interpret the results, therefore, it was necessary to estimate how great these neutron effects would be. In the 1960s it was believed that these spurious background events would be sufficiently numerous to explain away altogether the apparent neutral current interactions. In the 1970s improved calculations showed that this was not the case. I do not doubt that the new calculations really were better than the old ones, but we have to recognize that people were motivated to do them partly by the theoretical expectation, by then existing, that there might well be an actual neutral current to be observed. This is just one of many possible examples of how difficult it is for an experimentalist to see what he is not looking for.

Excerpted from One World by JOHN C. POLKINGHORNE. Copyright © 1986 John Polkinghorne. Excerpted by permission of TEMPLETON PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

 John C. Polknghorne is an Anglican priest, past president of Queens’ College, Cambridge University, and former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge. Polkinghorne resigned his chair in physics to study for the Anglican priesthood. After completing his theological studies and serving at parishes, he returned to Cambridge. In 1997, Dr. Polkinghorne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for distinguished service to science, religion, learning, and medical ethics. He was the recipient of the 2002 Templeton Prize. He lives in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

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