Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

by John Polkinghorne
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Yale University Press


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Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

John Polkinghorne, an international figure known both for his contributions to the field of theoretical elementary particle physics and for his work as a theologian, has over the years filled a bookshelf with writings devoted to specific topics in science and religion. In this new book, he undertakes for the first time a survey of all the major issues at the intersection of science and religion, concentrating on what he considers the essential insights for each. Clearly and without assuming prior knowledge, he addresses causality, cosmology, evolution, consciousness, natural theology, divine providence, revelation, and scripture. Each chapter also provides references to his other books in which more detailed treatments of specific issues can be found.

For those who are new to what Polkinghorne calls "one of the most significant interdisciplinary interactions of our time," this volume serves as an excellent introduction. For readers already familiar with John Polkinghorne's books, this latest is a welcome reminder of the breadth of his thought and the subtlety of his approach in the quest for truthful understanding.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300188110
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/13/2012
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,187,737
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

John Polkinghorne is a scientist and an Anglican priest, fellow and former president of Queens' College, Cambridge, and winner of the 2002 Templeton Prize among many other awards and honors. He lives in Cambridge, UK.

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Science and Religion in Quest of Truth



Copyright © 2011 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17839-5

Chapter One

Truth and Understanding

PEOPLE sometimes say that science deals with facts but that religion simply trades in opinions. In other words, science's concern is with truth, understood as correspondence with reality, but the best that can be said of religion is that it might be 'true' for an individual, but only in the weak sense that it was helpful for that particular person to look at life in that particular way, without necessarily implying anything about the way reality actually is. Two bad mistakes lie behind this claim.

The first is a mistake about science. There are no scientifically interesting facts that are not already interpreted facts. No doubt all could agree what the reading was on the dial of some piece of measuring apparatus, but for that reading to have meaning one would need to know what the instrument is actually capable of measuring. For that one needs a theoretical understanding of the nature and operation of the apparatus. In science, experimental 'fact' and theoretical 'opinion' intertwine in a subtle circularity, as experiment seeks to confirm or disconfirm theory and theory seeks to interpret experiment.

The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy.

Both science and religion are part of the great human quest for truthful understanding. Before we explore what this might imply for their mutual relationship, we must pay further attention to the individual characters of these two truth-seeking endeavours. The claim will be that both are seeking truth through the attainment of well-motivated beliefs.


Perhaps the first thing to say about science is that it has been wonderfully successful in its quest for understanding. Time and again it has been able to present results of the greatest interest which have been universally agreed by the whole scientific community. Repeatedly in science, questions actually get settled. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were still some physicists who thought that the notion of atoms might be no more than a manner of speaking, useful for some purposes but not needing to be taken seriously as indicating the actual existence of a particle structure in matter. Today, it is universally acknowledged that matter has a granular nature, even if the current elementary constituents are quarks and gluons and electrons, rather than the much larger atoms. To take another example, when expounding his theory of evolution in 1859, Darwin had to appeal to the existence of unexplained small variations between the characteristics of successive generations of living beings, which produced results that could then be sifted and preserved by natural selection. We now know that these variations arise from mutations in the genetic material DNA. No other realm of human enquiry can present such a successively enlarging catalogue of successful agreed conclusions as that which science is able to claim.

Science has purchased this great success by the modesty of its ambition. It sets out to ask only the question of what are the processes by which things happen, bracketing out of its consideration other questions, such as whether there is meaning, value or purpose present in what is happening. Science is principally concerned to explore only one dimension of the human encounter with reality, essentially that which can be called impersonal, open to the unproblematic repetition of the same phenomena, irrespective of the place of investigation or the character of the investigator. Even in historical sciences such as cosmology or evolutionary biology, concerned with understanding unique sequences of events, much scientific explanatory power depends upon the insights of directly experimental sciences, such as physics and genetics. It is this self-defining limitation to impersonal experience that has given science the great secret weapon of experiment as its unique means for attaining intersubjective agreement. Repeatability of this kind is unattainable in any realm of personal encounter with reality, where each event possesses its own unique character, and the resulting diversity of experience makes complete agreement much more difficult to achieve. Science's declining to engage with the personal dimension of experience implies the limited character of the account that it can give of reality. A scientist, speaking as a scientist, can say no more about music than that it is vibrations in the air, but speaking as a person there would surely be much more to say about the mysterious way in which a temporal succession of sounds can give us access to a timeless realm of beauty.

Despite agreement being readily attained in science about immediately perceptible phenomena (all those watching see the pointer move to the same point on the scale), the question of the significance of the phenomena observed is made complex by there being the circular interaction, already noted, between experiment and theory in interpreting the meaning of the results. The frequent attainment of universal agreement in the scientific community arises from the conviction among scientists that this circularity is usually benign rather than vicious. A number of factors produce this belief.

A really successful scientific theory attains a persuasive naturalness of explanation from the fact that an economically formulated hypothesis is seen to lead, without forcing or manifest contrivance, to the understanding of a wide range of diverse phenomena. Darwin's theory of evolution not only made sense of the fossil record but also explained the existence of vestigial organs, such as the human appendix, and it made intelligible the local variations in species observed in groups of nearby islands, such as finches in the Galapagos Islands. Much later in the development of evolutionary biology, it became apparent that the order in which species had emerged could also be inferred from study of the differences between their genomes and the results of this independent assessment were found to be in good accord with the ordering derived from the fossil record, a compatibility that afforded an impressive confirmation of the basic concept of descent with modification.

A successful scientific idea frequently manifests long-term fruitfulness by showing a capacity to explain not only the phenomena that originally led to its discovery but also other phenomena, known at the time but not understood or taken into account in framing the theory. Even more impressively, the theory can also lead to the prediction of unanticipated phenomena which are subsequently found experimentally to occur. Paul Dirac discovered a celebrated equation that describes the electron. He hit upon it by finding an elegant way in which to combine quantum theory with special relativity. The equation immediately provided an unexpected bonus by turning out to explain a known, but till then not understood, aspect of the electron's magnetic properties. A little later the equation was shown by Dirac also to imply the existence of antimatter, a wholly unexpected consequence that was quickly confirmed experimentally. This experience of the long-term fertility of an insight strongly encourages scientists to take their discoveries with ontological seriousness. Unless there was a correspondence between ideas and reality, these successes would seem unintelligibly gratuitous. Instinctively scientists are philosophical realists, believing that what we come to know about the physical world is indeed telling us what that world is actually like.

Such a realist belief receives further support from the way in which the physical world is often found to resist our prior expectations and prove stranger in its character than we had thought, or perhaps even could have thought without being prompted by the stubborn nudge of nature. A striking example of this experience is provided by the discovery of quantum physics. No one in 1899 could have supposed that light could manifest the oxymoronic property of sometimes behaving like a wave and sometimes like a particle. After all, waves are spread out and flappy, while particles are small and bullet-like. Nevertheless, as we all know, this is how light has actually been found to behave. This led eventually to the discovery of quantum theory, in which states can exist that are mixtures of possibilities that classical physics and commonsense would say could never be combined together (technically this is called the superposition principle). For example, in the clear Newtonian world there could only be states with a specific number of particles present in them (just look and count how many). However, in the cloudy quantum world there can be states that correspond to an indefinite number of particles (formed out of superpositions of states with different particle numbers). These are the states that turn out to display wave-like properties. The recalcitrant way in which nature can resist our prior expectation is a powerful incentive to believing that in science we are actually exploring a world that stands over against us in its independent character.

Nevertheless, the strangely elusive and counterintuitive character of the quantum world has encouraged some to suggest that the idea of entities like electrons which can be in unpicturable states such as superpositions of being 'here' and being 'there' is no more than a convenient manner of speaking which facilitates calculations, and that electrons themselves are not to be taken with ontological seriousness. The counterattack of the scientific realist appeals to intelligibility as the key to reality. It is precisely because the assumption of the existence of electrons allows us to understand a vast range of directly accessible phenomena—such as the periodic table in chemistry, the phenomenon of superconductivity at low temperatures and the behaviour of devices such as the laser—that we take their existence seriously.

Belief in scientific realism is well-motivated, but one cannot claim that it is logically proved to be true beyond any possibility of question, as if it would be wilfully stupid for anyone to deny it. This relatively modest assertion of status of the belief recognises that there are some possible difficulties opposing a realist point of view, which now need to be considered and evaluated. The progress of science, with the changes of understanding that can result from this, make it clear that scientific achievement cannot be claimed to constitute the attainment of complete and absolute truth. Instead, science's exploration of reality must be seen as resulting in the creation of 'maps' of the physical world which are indeed reliable, but only on a particular scale. No map can reproduce all the detail of the terrain and changing the scale can lead to the exhibition of new features not previously recorded. The immense success of Newtonian physics had eventually to be qualified by the recognition that understanding phenomena on the subatomic scale required the quite different insights of quantum theory, together with the recognition that phenomena involving particles moving with velocities close to the speed of light required the insights of relativity. The Newtonian map was not torn up, but its limitations had been identified. Some philosophers of science, such as Thomas Kuhn, saw these changes as revolutions that subverted the realist claims of science. However, the issue is more subtle than that and Kuhn's conclusion does not follow. A really successful scientific theory, such as Newtonian mechanics, never totally disappears. In fact, it is still good enough to send a space probe to Mars. What happened was that the domain of Newtonian applicability had been circumscribed and the appropriate scale of its map had been determined. When a new theory, such as quantum theory or relativity, has been discovered, one of the vital tasks is to establish what are called 'correspondence principles', explaining how the new theory can attach to itself the undoubted successes of the old one in appropriate circumstances. The different maps of the reality offered by physics are not identical, but they can be shown to be mutually compatible where there is an overlap between them. While the achievement of science does not amount to absolute and exhaustive truth, it can be asserted to be what one may call 'verisimilitude', an ever tightening, but never total, grasp of physical reality. Science can claim to attain the discovery of yet more satisfactory levels of understanding, adequate to what is currently known, without pretending to rule out the possibility of future discoveries revealing an even deeper and more complex order present in the physical world. Its achievement can be characterised as a kind of convergent realism.

Michael Polanyi was a philosopher of science who brought to his task the prior experience of a long and distinguished career as a physical chemist. In Personal Knowledge he recognises that there is no coercively logical certainty in science, yet he also maintains that it affords an understanding that should rightly command our intellectual assent and commitment. Not only does Polanyi duly recognise the delicately circular nature of the interaction of theory and experiment but also he identifies the need for acts of personal judgement in the practice of science, involving decisions taken with universal intent, that are open to assessment within the truth-seeking community of science but which are not simply the result of following an explicitly prescribed protocol. For example, all experimental analysis has to deal with the problem of 'background', that is, the possible presence of spurious effects arising from uncontrolled environmental influences, such as the collisions of stray cosmic rays accidently traversing a bubble chamber. These have to be eliminated or allowed for in some way. There is no little black book or computer program guaranteed to tell the experimenter exactly how to do this. Solving the background problem requires individual acts of personal judgement. These require the exercise of tacit skills—'we know more than we can tell' is a favourite Polanyi remark—that have to be acquired through apprenticeship within the practice of the truth-seeking scientific community. Polanyi tells us that he wrote Personal Knowledge to show how he could rationally commit himself to what he believed scientifically to be true, although he knew that it might be false.

The concept of commitment is very important in Polanyi's thinking about the nature of science. People sometimes say that scientists doubt everything, but in fact that would be a stultifying policy to pursue, leading to a paralysing enslavement to uncertainty. Instead, scientific discovery requires the boldness of provisional commitment to a point of view, while remaining aware that this may require subsequent modification in the light of further experience. Above all, science requires commitment to the basic act of faith that there is a deep rational order in the world awaiting discovery, and that there is a sufficient degree of uniform consistency in the working of the universe to permit successful argument by induction as a means to discover aspects of that order, despite the inevitably limited and particular character of the experience that motivates the belief.

This section has sought to set out considerations that present a reasoned defence of the realist interpretation of science. This philosophical conviction arises out of the actual experience of doing science, with its repeated feeling of satisfying discovery, rather than from a logical argument purporting to show that the world had to be open to our enquiry in this manner. The deep intelligibility of the universe is a fortunate fact, a wonderful gift that makes science possible. The deeper significance of this gift is a question to which we shall have to return in due course. Meanwhile, the kind of issues we have been discussing make it clear that scientific realism is something more subtle and more interesting than just naïve objectivity of the kind that an Enlightenment belief in access to clear and certain ideas might have encouraged one to expect. At the same time, acknowledging the subtlety of scientific belief should not drive us to embrace a post-modern account of science as social construction, as if its insights were the result of a largely unconscious and arbitrary choice by the invisible college of scientists, selected from a large portfolio of equally possible ways of thinking. Rather, the insights of science arise from and are controlled by our encounter with the way the world is, but in a complex and delicate manner that requires us to speak of scientific realism under the rubric of critical realism. The noun asserts the positive relationship of scientific knowledge to the way the world is, while the adjective acknowledges the subtle role that circularity and commitment play in its practice. Science yields well-motivated beliefs, but it does not deliver complete and absolute certainty about them. It is no stranger to belief in unseen realities—for example, quarks are thought to be 'confined' within the particles that they constitute, so that a single quark will never be observed in isolation. The existence of quarks must be defended by appeal to the intelligibility that they offer of more directly accessible phenomena (the properties of the particles that are made of quarks). In fact I believe that critical realism is a concept that is fundamental to the entire human quest for truth and understanding and that theology can defend its belief in the unseen reality of God by a similar appeal to the intelligibility that this offers of the general nature of the world and of great swathes of well-testified spiritual experience. A sophisticated twentieth-century approach of this kind can be found in the writing of Bernard Lonergan, whose thought was shaped by the theological tradition stemming from Thomas Aquinas.

At this stage, a final point remains to be made. Discussion in later chapters will show that when one comes to very broad issues about the character of reality, such as the nature of time and the nature of causality, while our thinking is constrained by scientific knowledge it is not totally determined by it. We shall see that there remain judgements to be made which require acts of metaphysical decision. Scientists often eschew the idea of metaphysics and claim to have no need of it, but later in this chapter I shall seek to show the indispensability of metaphysical thinking for anyone wishing to attain an integrated world-view.


Excerpted from Science and Religion in Quest of Truth by JOHN POLKINGHORNE Copyright © 2011 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY 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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Table of Contents

Abbreviations for Selected Writings of John Polkinghorne ix

Introduction xi

1 Truth and Understanding 1

2 Some Lessons from History 26

3 Insights from Science 33

4 Theology and Science in Interactive Context 69

5 Motivated Christian Belief 116

Postscript: Other Faiths 131

Index 135

What People are Saying About This

John Haught

I found this survey of science and theology to be readable, scholarly, well-organized, and insightful as always…this is a fine introductory survey that will be helpful to a wide variety of readers.—John Haught, author of Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life 

Karl Giberson

Polkinghorne is the unquestioned leader in the growing field of science and religion, and by a considerable margin, is its most intellectually credible thinker…Volumes like his from respected academic presses are increasingly important as the rhetoric of the New Atheists grows steadily louder and more confident with no associated increase in the intellectual sophistication of their arguments.—Karl Giberson, co-author of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age

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