Faith, Science and Understanding

(Paperback - Aug 2001)
$24.00 - Online Price


In this captivating book, one of the most highly regarded scientist-theologians of our time explores aspects of the interaction of science and theology. John Polkinghorne defends the place of theology in the university (it is part of the human search for truth) and discusses the role of revelation in religion (it is a record of experience and not the communication of unchallengeable propositions). Throughout his thought-provoking conversation, Polkinghorne speaks with an honesty and openness that derives from his many years of experience in scientific research. A central concern of Polkinghorne's collection of writings is to reconcile what science can say about the processes of the universe with theology's belief in a God active within creation. The author examines two related concepts in depth. The first is the divine self-limitation involved in creation that leads to an important reappraisal of the traditional claim that God does not act as a cause among causes. The other is the nature of time and God's involvement with it, an issue that Polkinghorne shows can link metascience and theological understandings. In the final section of the book, the author reviews three centuries of the science and theology debate and assesses the work of major contemporary contributors to the discussion: Wolfhart Pannenberg, Thomas Torrance, and Paul Davies. He also considers why the science-theology discussion has for several centuries been a particular preoccupation of the English.


  • SKU: 9780300091281
  • SKU10: 0300091281
  • Title: Faith, Science and Understanding
  • Series: Yale Nota Bene
  • Qty Remaining Online: 86
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Date Published: Aug 2001
  • Pages: 224
  • Weight lbs: 0.38
  • Dimensions: 7.80" L x 5.08" W x 0.61" H
  • Features: Price on Product
  • Themes: Theometrics | Academic;
  • Subject: Philosophy

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

Theology in the University

Ever since their origins in the late Middle Ages, universities have been sources of trained personnel apt for the service of the community, whether by providing clerks for the Royal Court or canon lawyers for the service of the Church. Advances in scientific technology, which have done so much to define the context of our life today, have only broadened and intensified the importance of this role. I believe that the universities can claim significant success in meeting this need. It would, however, be a bad error to mistake a valuable byproduct for the principal object of activity. The essential purpose of a regime of physical exercise and good nutrition is the maintenance of health. If it also produces some excellent football players, that is to be welcomed, but that result is a collateral good rather than the main objective. The essential purpose of a university is the discovery and propagation of knowledge. Many other goods will derive from the fulfilment of that main objective, but their continuance depends, in the long run, upon not losing sight of the central aim. I state very clearly my belief in the value of knowledge for knowledge's sake, together with my belief in the essential unity of all knowledge. Universities are the institutionalised expressions of these beliefs.

I became very aware of these issues in the late 1970s when I was briefly Chairman of the Nuclear Physics Board of what was then called the Science Research Council (SRC). It was my job to ask the British taxpayer, through SRC, for the £40 million or so necessary to finance our national contribution to the international field of research into the fundamental structure of matter. Then, as always, money was short and the arguments between the different sciences seeking their share of what was available, correspondingly intense. We particle physicists were studying the behaviour of matter in extreme regimes that were far removed from circumstances relevant to everyday technology. In fact, that was the source of much of the expense, since such unusual states of matter could be created only in accelerators costing hundreds of millions of pounds to build and tens of millions of pounds per year to run. These machines were too expensive for any single European nation to construct and maintain on their own, but we belonged to CERN, the international consortium that ran this activity in Europe. Developing precision engineering on kilometre scales, and control devices with nanosecond response times, certainly generated remarkable technical advances that would find application outside the particle physicists' specialised field of use. Many talented young people served their scientific apprenticeship within our community, and most of them subsequently went on to use the skills they had acquired in a variety of totally different contexts. In terms of spin-off, there was much that could be said for particle physics. But when the chips were finally down, when the last round of argument was in progress about whether it was to be £40 million or only 35, there was just one central honest argument to be used in our cause. It was that to understand the fundamental structure of the matter of the universe, to unravel the mysteries of quarks and gluons, was in itself a worthwhile thing to do, a high human achievement that did not need to find its justification outside itself. It was a case of knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Arguing in such terms cut ice with my scientific colleagues on SRC because the argument is fundamental to the whole practice of natural science, whether it be physical, biological or psychological enquiry. The prime motivation of science lies in the desire to understand the physical world. Contrary to the priorities stated by Karl Marx, scientists give first place to science's power to understand the world, even over technology's power to change it.

Arguing in such terms would have cut ice with theologians also, had they been sitting round the table at SRC. They too are concerned with the search for understanding-though of a more profound Mystery than that of quarks and gluons. Theology has a natural role in an age of science just because it shares with modern science this quest for intelligibility. A theological faculty is a necessary presence in a true university because the search for knowledge is incomplete if it does not include in its aim gaining knowledge of the Creator as well as gaining knowledge of creatures. The unity of knowledge is fractured if theology is excluded. Before I attempt to justify these large claims, it will be helpful to look more closely at the scientific sector of this universal quest for truthful understanding.

The first thing we can learn is the distinction between understanding, on the one hand, and the lesser attainment of explanation, on the other. Quantum theory makes the point most clearly for us. In its modern form it was discovered in the mid 1920s. Since then its techniques have been used daily in many branches of physical science with impressive success. It explains the nature of chemical reactions, the properties of materials, the way the Sun shines. We know how to do the sums and they always seem to come out right. Invented to deal with atoms, quantum theory now makes successful predictions about the behaviour of quarks, which are at least a hundred million times smaller than atoms. At the level of explanation and prediction, it is, perhaps, the most successful scientific theory ever. Yet we do not understand it. By that I mean that we are not in a position to feel intellectually content about it, to reckon that we see how it constitutes a totally satisfactory matrix of understanding, whose intrinsic nature and inner consistency we are able to grasp. The problem does not lie in the strangeness of quantum phenomena viewed from our everyday perspective, with their probabilistic character and the unpicturable behaviour in which an entity sometimes appears to show wavelike properties and sometimes appears to show particlelike properties. All that may seem very odd to the commonsense mind, but we have come to see how quantum thinking has to deviate from everyday thinking if it is to accommodate these unexpected possibilities. Once we have grasped that, these counterintuitive properties yield themselves up to being understood in terms of a modified quantum form of intuition. One way of dealing with these seeming perplexities is to recognise that in the quantum world those little logical words 'and' and 'or' have different properties to those that they possess in everyday discourse. It turns out that quantum mechanically, you can mix together possibilities, like 'being here' and 'being there', that we normally think of as being mutually exclusive of each other. The quantum mechanically learned follow their master, Paul Dirac, in calling this the 'superposition principle'.

All that may sound pretty weird, but if you trust what I have said, you can draw from it a useful moral about how to pursue the quest for understanding: 'Do not make common sense the measure of everything but be prepared to recognise aspects of reality in those modes that are intrinsic to their natures, however strange these modes may at first sight seem to be'. There is not one single, simple way in which we can know everything; there is no universal epistemology. We know the everyday world in one way, in its Newtonian clarity; we know the quantum world in another way, in its Heisenbergian uncertainty. Our knowledge of entities must be allowed to conform to the way in which they actually can be known. If we are to meet reality at all, we must meet it on its own terms. If that is a lesson applying to our knowledge of the quantum world, it would not be altogether surprising if it were a principle that also applied to theology's quest for knowledge of the mystery of God.

Once we have grasped the principle of quantum superposition, it turns out, we are also in a position to understand the strange duality of wave and particle. Dirac solved this problem through the discovery of quantum field theory. A field is a spread out entity, and so has wave properties, but stirring in quantum theory also produces countable packets of energy (quanta, in fact!), so that there are particle properties as well. The wavelike states are superpositions of states with different numbers of particles, an option impossible in a Newtonian world (where you simply count however many particles you have, and that's that), but perfectly natural in the quantum world.

However, there are other aspects of quantum mechanics that continue to resist our understanding more than seventy years after the theory's original discovery. The most perplexing of these is called 'the measurement problem'. The theory predicts probabilities for various possible outcomes only when a measurement is made on a quantum system. Yet each time such a measurement is actually made, one of these possibilities emerges as the unequivocal result of the experimental observation. How does this definite answer come about? One might attempt to rephrase the question, as Niels Bohr essentially did, by asking, How does the cloudy and fitful quantum world interlock with the clear and determinated world of laboratory equipment? Yet, putting the issue in that form is really begging the question, for there are not two worlds-quantum and laboratory-but one single physical world of which both are aspects. It is humiliating for a quantum physicist to have to admit that currently there is no satisfactory and agreed solution to the measurement problem-a particularly troublesome confession given the fundamental role of measurement in the whole of physics. There is clearly more still to be understood. Another difficulty makes a similar point.

The two great fundamental discoveries of physical science in this century have been quantum theory and the general theory of relativity, which is Einstein's profoundly beautiful and successful account of gravitation. Yet these two theories are imperfectly reconciled with each other. Every attempt so far to combine them has come to grief through the generation of infinite inconsistencies. Most of the time, the problem can be ignored. General relativity is mostly applied to large systems, including the universe itself. Quantum theory is concerned with small-scale behaviour. The normal fields of application of the two theories are thus well separated from each other. However, not only must two such fundamental physical theories eventually find a satisfactory merger for reasons of principle but also those cosmologists, like Stephen Hawking, who are bold enough to talk about the extremely early universe must make some sort of shift at combining them. This is because the cosmos is then so small that it must be treated in a quantum mechanical way. The dazzling speculations with which the quantum cosmologists regale us in their popular books are intellectual arabesques performed on extremely thin theoretical ice. Here is another area of physical science in which understanding is still lacking and where it is much needed.

There is something further we can learn from science's quest for understanding. It is the multi-levelled complexity of reality. The Holy Grail of contemporary particle physics is the so-called Grand Unified Theory (GUT) in which all the fundamental forces of nature might be unified in a description based on a single set of equations-equations so compact that they could be written on your T-shirt, and so beautiful that they would make an intellectually thrilling adornment. So far, the quest, though actively pursued by many very able people, has not succeeded. I certainly wish it well and entertain hopes of its eventual success. However, I begin to dissent when some of my erstwhile colleagues go on in a grandiose way to rename the putative Grand Unified Theory, a 'Theory of Everything'. For that to be true it would be necessary that we had attained a remarkable degree of universal understanding, and that criterion would not even be satisfied within physics itself. A GUT would be an immensely satisfying intellectual discovery but many, many physical phenomena of the highest interest-such as the turbulent motion of fluids, the superconducting properties of metals and the thermodynamic properties of bulk matter-would lie far outside its explanatory range. Conceptually, as well as methodologically, physics cannot be reduced to particle physics. The imperialist claims of a Theory of Everything that asserts it has all within its grasp are no more realistic within physics than are the imperialistic claims of physics outside itself to have all of biology or psychology within its grasp. In turn, it is even less true that science encompasses all that is attainable or significant in the universal quest for understanding.

Galileo encouraged concentration on the primary quantities of matter and motion and a discounting of those secondary qualities, such as colour, that are directly accessible through human perception. Explanations of change were expressed in terms of the mechanical consequences of efficient causes and not in terms of the teleological action of final causes. There is no contesting the brilliant success of this narrow methodological strategy. Limiting the field of view brought into sharp focus certain kinds of phenomena which then yielded up their secrets to the investigating scientist. Newton's laws of motion and the universal inverse square law of gravity provided a profound, though ultimately (as it turned out) only approximate, understanding of the nature of the solar system. Yet to believe that what had been omitted in order to make these gains had thereby been shown to be insignificant or peripheral would, from the point of view of an adequate understanding of reality, be an altogether unwarranted conclusion. It would amount to mistaking Mr Gradgrind's definition of a horse-'quadruped, graminivorous, forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye teeth and twelve incisive' and so on-for a living animal. A. N. Whitehead would have called it 'the fallacy of misplaced concreteness'.



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