On Science and Theology

John Polkinghorne has an interesting new book out Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, which I highly recommend even if I’ve only read the first chapter. Mr Polkinghorne has had a distinguished career in theoretical physics involved in the development of the Standard Model, and is now retired from that and has subsequently been ordained as a Anglican priest and has been thinking theology. His view is that Theology and Science, especially Physics are not opponents, but more like cousins. In his words:

The basic reason is simply that science and theology are both concerned with the search for truth. In consequence, they complement each other rather than contrast each other. Of course, the two disciplines focus on different dimensions of truth, but they share a common conviction that there is truth to be sought. Although in both kinds of enquiry this truth will never be grasped totally and exhaustively, it can be approximated to in an intellectually satisfying manner that deserves the adjective ‘versimilitundinous’, even if it does not qualify to be described in an absolute sense as complete.


… The thesis of underlying turth-seeking connection between science and theology appeals strongly to someone like myself, who spent half a lifetime working as a theoretical physicist and then, feeling that I had done my little bit for science, was ordained to the Anglican priesthood and so began a serious, if necessarily amateur, engagement with theology. I do not discern a sharp rational discontinuity between these two halves of my adult life. Rather, I believe that both ahve been concerned with searching for truth through the pursuit of well-motivated beliefs, carefully evaluated.

[note: emphasis mine]

Mr Polkinghorne notes that this stands in contrast to the post-modernist currents which hold that there is no truth to be sought, that truths are constructed things. And I for one, applaud that.

This book attempts to trace in detail 5 events in Physics and Chrsitian theology and seeks to find parallels and to compare and contrast them. These are:

  1. A moment of enforced radical revision — for Physics, the photo-electric effect and the emergence of Quantum physics, for theology the realization that Jesus was God.
  2. A period of unresolved confusion — for Physics again, the period of 1900 to 1925 had held a growing number of experiments which had no resolution in the theory of the day. Again, for theology the period in the first centuries after Jesus as they attempted to formulate ways of talking about it.
  3. A new synthesis — 1925-1926 when Heisenberg and Schroedinger came up with a way to explain what was being seen and the Creedal periods of the 4th and 5th century when the Patristic fathers resolved the tensions between Jewish, Greek, and Christian ways of seeing the world and truth.
  4. Continued wrestling with unresolved issues — The measurement problem in Physics and understanding the divine, e.g., terms which are unclear “begetting” and “procession”.
  5. And deeper implications — the theories that resolve the problems (see above) have further implications which deepen our understaning of a wide variety of other matters.

This short book will as I mentioned investigate and explore similarities and differences of these matters in more depth. I look forward to reading on … and I encourage y’all to do so too.

For further reading of how science finds its meaning and its method of enquiry Mr Polkinghorne suggests this book: Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post- Critical Philosophy by Michael Polyani.

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  1. DebD says:

    This book does sound quite fascinating as I have an odd interest in String Theory. However, my husband is more the science guy and is involved in science/faith apologetics locally. I think he may enjoy it as well.

  2. Mark says:

    I’ll give my standard book suggestions to those “interested” in physics as a layperson. First, it’s a little dated but George Gamow’s The New World of Mr Tompkins: George Gamow’s Classic Mr Tompkins in Paperback is wonderful. And Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions is a really good look at the cutting edge of modern physics both theoretical and phenomenological.

  3. DebD says:

    I read most of Warped Passages and really enjoyed it. I need to get back to it someday.

    Thanks for the other suggestion, I’ll go check it out.

  4. Mark says:

    The Gamow book is a little simpler than Lisa Randall’s book. But, if you like that, Gamow did write a lot of other physics for the lay enthusiast, which I also would recommend.

  5. Mark says:

    On Polkinghorne, … as an authority, does that help? For 25 years his word “carried weight” in the “lab”, why now that he is a Priest, does it no longer.

    And, yes I agree with Polkinghorne on reading the book, as well as from my somewhat more limited experience, that science and theology are “after the same thing.” Both reject the common Academic notion of the age, that truth is a constructed thing. Both are using similar methods to seek an understanding of the world out side of self (see the Polanyi book noted above on that latter assertion … or keep an eye on this blog, I’m sure to write more on it again).

  6. jprapp says:

    Mark – I posted a response here. And another in your column on free will. I thought both registered. I don’t see them. Trying a third time here. Maybe a technical problem on my end?


  7. Mark says:

    I don’t see the others in my spam collector. I’d be interested in both, it may be the “preview” button which has caused some problems, try it again, but don’t use that (sorry I have to find a better plugin for those).

  8. jprapp says:

    Sorry that my prior post on Polkinghorne erred on the side of vague brevity.

    I agree that Polkinghorne is an unquestioned authority in the “lab” of mathematical physics.

    What I meant is that his claim to “authority” ends among other scientists when he steps outside his “lab” and offers speculative and amorphous imaginations on the science-religion intersection. The recent Paul Davies flap (science is based on faith in a rational universe) proves that the contrary response by scientists is a constant, and, the NAS formalized this contrary credo in its draft statement.

    I’m not at all antagonistic to Polkinghorne’s ephemera. Most scientists today would confine novel insight to tropes of analytic speculation (pre-hypothesis formation), but I would go further by holding up Kekule’s dream as a model for a spectrum of liminalia entering science through deeper, primordial (Damassio) neural rhythms, which suggest a common spring to science and religion. My theological convictions across hierarchies of concepts don’t antagonize me. Not at that level. Besides, I know that Polkinghorne collaborates with E.O. Wilson, who remotely I consider my single greatest biophilaic-consilient mentor (see my profile, http://www.blogger.com/profile/07674489078935633842), and Wilson and Polkinghorne share a common praxis: “An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.”

    I feel extraordinarily generous toward exploratory science-religion integrations at the liminal level (Kekule, Damassio), and such conversations have potential merit at the level of consilient dialogue.

    A prodigious future-day Aquinas could unify things via novel proof. That can’t be ruled out in advance.

    So, I’m warm on all that.

    But, it’s got to be merciless in the lab. If you think a little about the intellectual history between Laplace (omniscient demon) and Bloom (“God is an Accident”) in my post above, then the necessary mercilessness of the lab is pretty well elaborated to date. Polkinghorne is not even on these guys’ minds. Besides, Polkinghorne is not saying stupid stuff like a “constant holds in the ratio of the cube of a planet’s average distance from the sun and its period of revolution squared” (Kepler’s mistake) – his integrative religion-science stuff is not testable. His reception by other scientists in that domain isn’t at stake: but, some sort of perturbation analysis to measure MRI responses to his thought would be a lot of fun!



  9. Mark says:

    I’ll keep checking the spam filter for your posts. I recovered this one!

    Polkinghorne didn’t just “step out of the lab”. He’s an Anglican priest and getting respectful remarks regarding his foray’s in theology from leading theological thinkers of the day, such as N.T. Wright. In that sense he’s a scientific and theological authority. That doesn’t mean he’s (necessarily) an authority on the juncture between the two I’ll admit doesn’t follow …

    However at this juncture I’m making a weaker claim. For I think when he says, that for him, the intellectual activity of theology and theoretical science is similar in that he (by virtue of his particular life experience) is something of an authority. Furthermore, if he finds the connection in Polanyi’s variant of critical realism to provide insight into that similarity … that might therefore be interesting to look into.

    His parallel between the two is of a different nature than saying that they are “the same” or aligned, he described it more as a “cousinly” relationship. Both share some structural similarities (the 5 points above) and both share a epistemological claim that there is an underlying “truth” or “reality” to understand, which is a stance athwart the post-modernist notion that reality and truth are social or human constructs.