John Polkinghorne was a particle physicist at The University of Cambridge who left the university thirty years ago to become an Anglican priest. Since then, he’s published a spate of books, many about the compatibility of science and faith. He was knighted in 1997 and received the Templeton Prize in 2002.
I’ve read a fair amount of his stuff, including his latest book with Nicholas Beale, Questions of Truth (see a scathing review by Anthony Grayling), and I’ve always been amazed that someone can make a good living churning out such wooly accommodationism. It’s so easy to write this stuff! You just cover up ignorance and lack of evidence with a lot of fancy words, like “ground of being” or “motivated belief.”
A few weeks back, the website in character: a Journal of Everyday Virtues, published an interview with the man, “Polkinghorne’s unseen realities” . Here’s a few of his arguments:
Scientism is rampant. While chastising fundamentalists for adherence to a literalist scripture, he takes out after scientists for their lack of “humility”:
Certainly scientists who make arrogant claims that science tells you everything worth knowing are making a boastful claim that just doesn’t stand up. Science tells us how the world works, but it really doesn’t try to tell us about matters of meaning or value or purpose, which are equally important. So there are, of course, in the scientific community un-humble people, who try to be imperialist about the successes of science and claim that it’s the whole story.
When accommodationists make this claim, exactly which scientists are they referring to? I don’t know any who assert that science tells us everything we want to know, or that science dictates purpose and morality (although Sam Harris is coming close to a naturalistic morality). How can science tell why I prefer Rhone wines to Bordeaux? Or if Dylan Thomas is a better poet than Anne Sexton? What we do claim is that science–or better, reason—tells us everything about the workings of the universe that we want to know. And, for God’s sake, what truths does religion tell us about meaning, value, and purpose?
Science and faith are equivalent enterprises. Notice in the following how Polkinghorne claims that science is not a search for truth, but for “motivated belief.”
I think both science and religion are concerned with the search for motivated belief. They are not just plucking ideas out of the air but they have reasons from experience to support the ideas they believe to be true. But the way they seek them is somewhat different. Science is looking at the world as an object – as an “it”-which you can pull apart and do with what you want. And with science you can repeat things. You can do the same experiment over and over again until you feel sure you understand what is going on. And that gives science a great secret weapon. But there are great swaths of human encounter with reality where you meet reality not just as an object but where there is a personal dimension. Unlike with the scientific experiment, no personal experience is ever going to be exactly repeated.
Science and faith are alike, he says, because they both use “reasons from experience to support the ideas they believe to be true.” What he avoids here is the issue of how we determine what is true. Personal experience just doesn’t do it. Does personal experience tell us that Jesus, as opposed to Mohamed, is God’s messenger? Is is “true” that we can attain paradise by killing infidels? While Polkinghorne doesn’t tackle this question directly, he does allude to it later (see below).
A theistic God resides in quantum physics. Oh dear, not again! Here’s the question-and-answer:
Does quantum physics make deism’s God obsolete?
Quantum physics shows, I think, that physics has not proved the closure of the world in terms of its own laws and equations. Physics can’t tell us that the exchange of energy between bits and pieces is the only thing that is going on in the world. Quantum theory, and in a different way chaos theory, have a more subtle picture of the world. If the world were simply mechanical, as people thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it would just be a gigantic piece of cosmic clockwork, and its creator would be an unseen cosmic clockmaker. That’s the creator who just makes the clock and lets it tick away. Quantum theory is something more subtle than that. We can believe a world in which we ourselves interact – we’re not clockwork at all – and we can believe in a world in which God interacts. We can believe in a God who doesn’t just sit and wait for it to happen but is involved in the unfolding of creation.
This is, as we’ve learned, an increasingly common stance. When we can’t get evidence for God on the macroscopic level, we can find it on the quantum level in the “unpredictability” of particles. Once again, God becomes the Prime Mover of Electrons. People who have this stance don’t explain how this quantum “indeterminacy” affects the universe on a macroscopic scale, like producing miracles, or why God chooses to hide himself on that scale but to act on particles. In the end, this ploy is nothing more than a God-of-the-gaps argument. Since we can’t find Him in normal experience, he must be acting in atoms.
But at the end Polkinghorne concedes two important points:
Do you think that the diversity of the world’s religions – I am referring especially to the non-Abrahamic religions – poses a challenge to religious belief?
Yes, I do. I think there are two great problems for religious people. First, there is the problem of evil and suffering. The second problem, which is really pressing at the moment, is the question of how the world’s faith traditions relate to each other. They are almost all thinking about the same domain of human experience. They have certain commonalities. All the world’s faith traditions commend compassion, for example. They are all operating in the same sort of area, but they have such different things to say about it. Just take the question of human nature. The three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – see the human person as of unique and abiding significance. Our Hindu friends see the human person as being recycled through reincarnation. Our Buddhist friends think life is an illusion from which to seek release. These are not three sets of people saying the same thing in different cultural languages. They are three sets of people saying different things. I think that the dialogue among the world’s faith traditions is just beginning. I think it will be long and painful, but I don’t think the answer is to look for a lowest common denominator. When you do that you get a very anemic picture of religion.
At least he recognizes that the problem of evil and suffering is not one that has been solved, or can be easily dismissed. He has his own solution (not mentioned in this piece), but it’s not very satisfactory. Anthony Grayling criticizes it:
I found the Beale-Polkinghorne explanation of natural evil (tsunamis and earthquakes that drown or crush tens of thousands, childhood cancers, and other marks of benign providence) as disgusting, though it is novel, as any that other apologists trot out. They say that the deity allows natural evils to happen because “he” has given creation “freedom to be and to make itself” – thus imputing free will to “creation” to explain natural evil in the same way as moral evil is imputed to the free will of humans. Heroic stuff.
And the most serious admission is that the “truths” arrived at by faith are mutually incompatible. This is the first time I’ve seen such a frank acknowledgment that the beliefs of “our Hindu friends” and “our Buddhist friends” (what condescending characterizations!) are fundamentally different from those of “our Christian friends.”
Now when Polkinghorne tells us exactly how these contradictory claims will produce a “truth,” I’ll start paying attention.