I wanted to put up a brief post to get reader reaction to two claims that are common among science-friendly theologians. They are a centerpiece, for instance, of John Polkinghorne’s arguments for God’s existence. In the evenings these days (to the detriment of my sleep), I’m reading Polkinghorne and Alvin Plantinga to learn about the brand of “sophisticated” theology that tries to reconcile faith and science.
I’ve already discussed Polkinghorne a few days ago, and the quotes I give below are from his book Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. As I noted in my earlier post, Polkinghorne, unlike many theologians, does think that pure revelation cannot suffice as evidence for God; one needs empirical observations as well.
I’ll give my brief reactions to the arguments, but, as I said, I’d like to know how readers would respond to these. I’m looking for serious responses, but feel free, as always, to be lighthearted as well.
His two arguments are these:
- The universe can be comprehended by the rational faculties of humans, and its workings appear to adhere to laws of physics.
- Much of our understanding of the universe is expressed through mathematics, which is “unreasonably effective” in encapsulating what we discover about nature.
Here are some supporting quotes from Polkinghorne, showing how he connects the above observations—both undoubtedly true—with God.
“. . . why is science possible at all in the deep way that has proved to be the case?” p. 71
“A distinguished nuclear physicist, Eugene Wigner, once asked, ‘Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective?’ Those seeking an understanding as complete as possible must ask what it could be that that links together the reason within (mathematical thinking) and the reason without (the structure of the physical world) in this remarkable way? The universe has not only proved to be astonishingly rationally beautiful, affording scientists the reward of wonder for all the labours of their research. Why are we so lucky?
It would surely be intolerably intellectually lazy not to seek to pursue this question. Yet science itself will not provide its answer, for it is simply content to exploit the opportunities that these wonderful gifts afford us, without being in a position to explain their origin. Theology, however, can step into the breach. Science has disclosed to us a world which, in its rational transparency and beauty, is shot through with signs of mind, and religious belief suggests that it is indeed the Mind of the Creator that lies behind the wonderful order of the universe. (p. 73)
I have several tentative responses, and I believe Sean Carroll has addressed some of the above, though I can’t immediately lay my hands on his essays and posts (perhaps he’ll weigh in here).
- If the Universe didn’t obey physical laws, we wouldn’t exist, for the universe we know couldn’t have formed in the first place. Too, we couldn’t exist as biological entities if the physiology and biochemistry of our bodies didn’t adhere to physical laws—natural selection could not create faculties and senses that behave with regularity.
- If the Universe didn’t always obey physical laws, that, too, could be taken as evidence for God, who could intercede with alarming regularity to alter whatever laws did exist. Heads God wins, tails physicists lose.
- We don’t understand why there are physical laws that behave with regularity, but that lack of understanding doesn’t point to the existence of a creator—much less Polkinghorne’s Christian creator who birthed Jebus.
- The existence of those laws must (like the existence of God itself to theologians) be left as something that does not require an answer—or the answer that “that’s just the way things are.” I think this is physicist Sean Carroll’s answer.
- Physical laws could differ—or even be irregular—in other universes that may exist. (Remember that multiverses are not, as some theologians imply, a “desperation move” on the part of physicists to explain fine-tuning and the anthropic principle. Rather, multiverses fall out as a prediction of some theories of physics.)
- These are god-of-the-gap arguments: science could one day explain the existence of regular physical laws, but right now we don’t understand them, or why they must take the form they do.
- In other places Polkinghorne (along with other theologians) argue that there are many phenomena in nature that cannot be comprehended with science, much less mathematics. These supposedly include love, aesthetics, and morality. Those phenomena, too, are given as evidence for God. In other words, Polkinghorne is trying to have it both ways: the universe’s comprehensibility via science is given as evidence for God, but aspects that supposedly aren’t scientifically comprehensible are also given as evidence for god.
- The “God” explanation offered by Polkinghorne is not testable, that is, it can’t be disconfirmed. Even if we find out why there are laws of physics, Polkinghorne could argue that God was behind it all.
I know that there are a fair number of physics- and math-savvy readers here, and I’m particularly interested in their responses (particularly about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”), but anybody is welcome to respond.