Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne (Part 2a) — Comparative Heuristics

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne (Part 2a) — Comparative Heuristics

We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne.  Today we will look at the first part of Chapter 2- Comparative Heuristics.  One of the lessons that quantum science teaches us about physical reality is that its character is frequently surprising.  As a consequence, scientists who are carefully reflective don’t just instinctively ask the question, “Is it reasonable” as if they were confident beforehand what shape rationality had to take.  Instead, the truth-seeking scientist may ask, “What makes you think that might be the case?”  We’ve already seen how “unreasonable” the nature of light, in classical Newtonian terms, turned out to be.  John says:

If you examine what Thomas Young had discovered about diffraction phenomena, and what Albert Einstein had to say about the photoelectric effect, you will be forced to take seriously the seeming paradox of wave/particle duality.  In an analogous way, the writers of the New Testament were forced to affirm the even more perplexing fact of their encountering qualities both human and divine in their experience of Jesus Christ… Neither in physics nor in theology can one remain content with accepting the brute fact of the surprising character of reality.  There has to be a further struggle to set this new knowledge in some deeper context of understanding.

Polkinghorne definitely believes that Christian thinking had to explore how the lordship of Christ related to the fundamental lordship of the God of Israel.  He believes it was a journey of theological exploration that led the Church eventually to trinitarian and incarnational belief.  He also believes that it is fruitful to pursue further the analogies discernable between these two forms of enquiry, even though they engage very different subject material.  I appreciate that some commenters don’t necessarily agree with him and they are more than welcome to continue to make their counter-arguments.  But this is his book we are reviewing, so I must continue to express his viewpoint.  I think there are rich treasures to mine in making analogies between the natural world and the supernatural world.  How can we even begin to understand the Kingdom of God, God’s realm, without analogy to our common sense experience?  Most of the Kingdom parables of Jesus used mundane natural world examples to explain the nature of the Kingdom.  Trees bearing fruit, wise and foolish builders, sower sowing seed, seed sown on different ground, mustard seeds, lamp on a stand and not under a bushel, and so.  So what’s wrong with wave/particle duality and divine/human duality as an analogy?

I’m not as well read in the Fathers as some, but, there was development of expression and means of stating the truths that were passed down from the apostles.  The meaning of “I and the Father are one” vs. “the Father is greater than I” was not obvious to Arius and his followers. At least the expression of what was meant had to be expanded upon.  But, as I said, that’s Polkinghorne’s viewpoint, so I going to do my best to represent it as faithfully as I can.  I certainly don’t agree with everything Polkinghorne says, as I noted before for example, he tends toward open theism, but it should make for some thought-provoking discussion.

So John believes that similarities will emerge in the ways in which experience impacts upon thinking and the manner in which heuristic strategies, that is an approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals, are developed to yield fuller comprehension.  He says four exemplary comparisons illustrate the point.  These four comparisons are:

  1. Techniques of discovery: Experience and understanding.
  2. Defining the problem: Critical questions.
  3. Expanding horizons: New regimes.
  4. Critical events of particular significance.

(1) Techniques of discovery: Experience and understanding.  Advance in understanding requires a subtle and creative interaction between experience and conceptual analysis.

(a) Theoretical creativity and experimental constraint.  In Chapter 1, he stressed the indispensable role played by experiment in driving the development of quantum physics.  He now wants to redress the balance a little in favor of the theorists by emphasizing the creative role of conceptual exploration.  An outstanding example of the creativity Polkinghorne is talking about was Einstein’s ability to write down in November 1915 the equations of general relativity, fully formed after years of brooding on the nature of gravity.

In 1905, Albert Einstein determined that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, and that the speed of light in a vacuum was independent of the motion of all observers. This was the theory of special relativity. It introduced a new framework for all of physics and proposed new concepts of space and time.  Einstein then spent 10 years trying to include acceleration in the theory and published his theory of general relativity in 1915. In it, he determined that massive objects cause a distortion in space-time, which is felt as gravity.

Two objects exert a force of attraction on one another known as “gravity.” Sir Isaac Newton quantified the gravity between two objects when he formulated his three laws of motion. The force tugging between two bodies depends on how massive each one is and how far apart the two lie. Even as the center of the Earth is pulling you toward it (keeping you firmly lodged on the ground), your center of mass is pulling back at the Earth. But the more massive body barely feels the tug from you, while with your much smaller mass you find yourself firmly rooted thanks to that same force. Yet Newton’s laws assume that gravity is an innate force of an object that can act over a distance.

As noted above, in his theory of special relativity, he determined that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, and he showed that the speed of light within a vacuum is the same no matter the speed at which an observer travels. As a result, he found that space and time were interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. Events that occur at the same time for one observer could occur at different times for another.

As he worked out the equations for his general theory of relativity, Einstein realized that massive objects caused a distortion in space-time. Imagine setting a large body in the center of a trampoline. The body would press down into the fabric, causing it to dimple. A marble rolled around the edge would spiral inward toward the body, pulled in much the same way that the gravity of a planet pulls at rocks in space.

The orbit of Mercury is shifting very gradually over time, due to the curvature of space-time around the massive sun.  Einstein said the happiest day of his life was when he found that his new theory of gravity perfectly fitted the behavior of the planet Mercury, whose motion had long been known to exhibit a small discrepancy with the predictions of Newtonian theory.  John says:

The interplay between theory and experiment in physics is deeper than simple dialogue about the interpretation of experimental results.  It involves a creative interaction of a profoundly truth-seeking kind between stubborn experimental findings and imaginative theoretical exploration.  Truly illuminating discovery far exceeds in subtlety and satisfaction the plodding Baconian accumulation and sifting of a host of particulars, in the hope of stumbling on some useful generalization.

(b) Christology from below and from above.  Polkinghorne believes that scientific progress through a dialectical engagement between experimental challenge and theoretical conceptual exploration has its analogue in theology.  An important component in Christological thinking is a careful evaluation of what can learnt historically about the life of Jesus of Nazareth and about the experiences of the early Church.

These first century events are the experiential counterparts for theology of the experiments that initiated the development of quantum physics—what theologians call “Christology from below”, since the movement of thought is upwards from events to understanding.  Just as physics has to combine experimental challenge with conceptual exploration, so theology has also to complement Christological argument from below with further argument “from above”.  For theology, the tools for this investigation would be provided from resources of philosophy, in contrast to physics recourse to the equations of mathematics.  That is why it is often asserted that Christianity “baptized” Greek philosophy.  Not that the church Fathers accepted it wholly, but used some of the ideas and re-defined them according to Christian understanding in order to articulate “what had already been believed from the beginning” i.e. what had percolated “up from below” in the early Churches experiences and teaching of the apostles.

(2) Defining the problem: Critical questions.  A sharp and selective focus on issues of critical significance is essential to achieve progress in understanding.

(a) Quark theory.  The discovery of the Standard Model of quark theory proceeded through the successive identification of two key issues that had to be settled.  The first arose from the search for an underlying order hoped to be present in the welter of new elementary particles that were discovered by experiment from the 1950s onward.

Before the Second World War, Heisenberg had suggested that, since protons and neutrons behave in very similar ways inside the nucleus, despite their having quite different electrical properties that might be bracketed together for some purposes and treated as two states of a generic entity he called a “nucleon”.  The numerous post-war discoveries of new states of nuclear matter encouraged a greatly enhanced boldness in thinking along these lines.  A helpful summary of the timeline of the development of the Standard Model of quark theory is given here.

Elementary Particles

A fascinating and suggestive answer had been found to the question of how to introduce some taxonomic order in the particle zoo, but this led to the second question of whether this was just a useful mathematical trick, not really much more than an intriguing mnemonic, or whether it was the sign of the presence of an actual underlying physical structure of a quark-like kind.

High Energy Paricle Collision

Enter the invention of particle accelerators where the investigation of behavior in an extreme physical regime where high-energy projectiles bounced off target particles at wide angles.  This kind of encounter probed the inner structure of the target in a transparent way.  Extremity of circumstance had produced simplicity of analysis.

The study of deep inelastic scattering, as these kinds of experiments are called, revealed phenomena that correspond exactly to the projectiles having struck quarks within the target.  In the judgment of physicists, the reality of quarks had been convincingly established, despite the fact that no single quark has ever been seen in isolation in the laboratory.

(b) Humanity and divinity.  Polkinghorne thinks there are three critical questions that theologians must ask to find an acceptable interpretation of the Church’s knowledge and experience of Jesus Christ and its consequent understanding of the nature of God.

  1. Was Jesus indeed resurrected on the third day, and if so, why was Jesus alone among all humanity, raised from the dead within history to live an everlasting life of glory beyond history?
  2. Why did the first Christians feel driven to use divine-sounding language about the man Jesus?
  3. What was the basis for the assurance felt by the first disciples that through the risen Christ they had been given a power that was transforming their lives in a new and unprecedented way?

He notes that some people see Jesus as differing only in degree from the rest of humanity.  Jesus’ role is seen as that of providing an example of what humanity might aspire to in relationship with God.  According to this view, while Jesus was unique in his time, such a level of life with God might be attainable also by others who come later.  He doesn’t see this position as offering satisfactory answers to the 3 critical questions of Christology.  If Jesus was just an unusually inspired man, use of the divine language of lordship about him would seem to have been an unfortunate error, quite inappropriate to someone who was simply a human being, however remarkable.  Especially considering those first Christians were Jews.  John says:

What theologians call the work of Christ—the forgiveness of sins, victory over death, and the bestowal of the Spirit—is an important clue to the nature of Christ.  I believe that only an understanding of Jesus that sees in him not only full humanity, but also the fullness of the divine life itself, offers a prospect of meeting adequately the demands made by the New Testament witness to him.

36 thoughts on “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne (Part 2a) — Comparative Heuristics

  1. P.S. I just discovered this edited interview video by MEMRI which indicates Islam is having a similar problem, reading their Koran and Hadith as a divinely-inspired Science Text:

    I think a lot of his points would echo (if not transfer directly to) the Plain Reading of Scripture(TM) attitudes you find in Evangelicalism.


  2. This.

    I think the trouble with EO is that it wants to freeze the theological language, to fix at and never allow it to change or be changed by exposure to anything new. But, just as truth is truth whether expressed in the language and concepts of Jewish religion or Greek Platonism, both of which were included in the nascent theological language and thinking of early and Patristic Christianity, it is also truth when expressed in the language and concepts of Buddhist and Indian religious philosophy. The unwillingness to seriously engage Asian religions as an equal dialogue partner, from which something valuable and new can be learned, is EO’s weakness in comparison with Western Christianity, which has in recent times been more open to such dialogue.


  3. Such statements are not self-refuting, rather they are not in fact statements at all. They are the electronic record of the author’s finger movements stimulated by a pattern of light on a computer screen. To ascribe purpose, meaning or intention to them is magical thinking resulting from an ignorance of the operation of the brain. (Or at least it would be magical thinking if “thinking” or ascribing anything to anything existed as meaningful concepts at all.)


  4. Hello Fr. Ernesto,

    yes, I see.

    and those ‘struggles’ we go through, all the ‘problems’ we encounter, are formative in ways we can’t foresee until we are challenged to confront that which we must confront


  5. But Reductionism results in Perfectly Pure Simple Ideology.

    Geology Guy has a REAL uphill battle with this series; contrast the complexity of quantum mechanics or genomics with a SIMPLE “God Said It; I Believe It; THAT SETTLES IT!” or “I HAVE A VERSE!”


  6. All these different opinions, now matter how erudite and articulate, really just mean we don’t know shit about any of this stuff! But we sure like to think we do.


  7. Western Christianity could benefit greatly from the easier acceptance of ‘mystery’ seen in Eastern Christianity. The ‘shared’ fathers of the Church have done more to contribute to Christian theology, particularly in reference to the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Cappadocian Fathers especially!


  8. Most congregations do not feel the need to address an issue unless it becomes a problem. Paul did not address the relationship between the Church and Judaistic laws until it became an issue. Ignatius of Antioch and the Didache did not speak about church structure until it became an issue. James did not address social issues until the rich were begin given extra privileges. You get the idea. Thought often develops in conflict not in isolated ivory towers.


  9. The Eastern Orthodox would argue that the West became too caught up in philosophy. But, we would agree with the bifurcation that took place in the West, beginning with Augustine, but particularly becoming obvious in Anselm. The East is more mystical and uses philosophical terms while arguing (agreeing) with Paul that earthly philosophy has some serious problems.


  10. Yep.

    And is “determinism” like “clock work”, or something vastly more complex, perhaps containing indeterminate components?


  11. > Who cannot see the contradiction

    I see no contradiction.

    He is the type of mind that provided this inputs comes to that conclusion and is compelled to write a book [the response of the kind of mind one finds in teachers].

    > I find such statements self-refuting.

    I don’t see any self-refutation what so ever. Absent whatever “free will” is does not negate information processing or stimulus-response.


  12. “I gave up on Free Will a long time ago” Then why did you write this comment 🙂 Seriously, though, I get our consciousness rides on a physical existence that is subject to the forces and vagueries of the physical universe. In that sense, I agree, there is no absolute free will.

    “A neuroendocrinologist (and primatologist) scientist who says that the more he has learnt about the workings of our brain, the more impossible belief in free will has become.” Who cannot see the contradiction in that statement from the fact he has written a book about it. I’m sorry, that still does not make sense to me. I find such statements self-refuting.


  13. Yep. I freely acknowledge to my Calvinist friends that God DOES seem to have a bit of Calvinism in Him (can’t deny there are verses that suggest it), but there are also plenty of verses that suggest He is something else, too.


  14. As it says in the article above, what point you are in time is determined by what point you are in space. If God is at no particular (or every) point in space he can’t be at any particular point in time either.
    “Knowing the future” in the sense Calvinists take it would require God to be present at this particular point in time now and not present at the future time he is contemplating, which is firstly only possible if he is in our particular place and not elsewhere as well, and secondly that God in the future is a different, changed, God with a different state of knowledge than the one now (our present being his past, and our future his present). All of this is pretty contrary to an infinite, unchanging God.
    The classic idea, as I understand it, is that God knows the future because it is as present to the one unchanging God as the present and the past. God creates and acts in past, present and future all at once in a single, simultaneously act of creation. Only we who are subject to time perceive it as linear.


  15. I’ve watched several Sapolsky “Great Lecture” courses. Informative and entertaining. I like his teaching style a lot.

    I believe in free will; I also believe people don’t know when they’ve allowed their free will to be taken from them.


  16. When my feeble life is o’er
    Time for me will be no more
    Guide me safely o’er
    To thy kingdom’s shore

    I am attempting to keep time in a bottle but it seems I am running out of time. What time is it ? Its Howdy Doody Time which was not real time like day light savings time or was it just as real? I have no time for this as I am confused.


  17. Doesn’t biological determinism rely on physical determinism to operate? Biological determinism is the insistence that our behaviour is determined by the physical properties and operation of our brains. If physical processes aren’t determinative then biological processes can’t be either, because they are also physical processes. And that’s leaving aside any issue of whether our thought processes are entirely material in the first place.


  18. Interesting, I have just finished “Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst”, Robert Sapolsky. A neuroendocrinologist (and primatologist) scientist who says that the more he has learnt about the workings of our brain, the more impossible belief in free will has become.

    I gave up on Free Will a long time ago (haha), but from a basic rational assessment, (absolute) free will does not exist. However, I think it is reasonable to assume effective free will on a pragmatic level.


  19. The way the Calvinists explained it, God can’t “know” the future unless he determined it would happen beforehand. For example, Acts 2:23 “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain”.


  20. I can view all these interesting theories quite comfortably.

    What really blows my mind is the great mystery of these verses from sacred Scripture found in the Book of Colossians, ch. 1

    For in Him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible,
    whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
    all things were created through Him and for Him.i
    He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together”

    I do see that the early Church felt the need to address questions of ‘Who is Christ?’; of the nature of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and of the mystery of the Incarnation, yes. Because if the Church, AS CHURCH, did not come to a formal collegial presentation of these mysteries,
    then there were plenty of others at the time who were giving it a go. I’d say the Church did a good job, all things considered, especially after observing the total fiasco of the declaration and then rejection of the heretical teaching of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), which was developed and used to shore up a denial of the full personhood of women, using Christ as a ‘model’ of how He was ‘eternally’ under submission to the Father. . . . .

    Honestly, until the downfall (and it took long enough) of this dreadful teaching (ESS), I don’t think Paige Patterson could have been so thoroughly ejected from leadership in the SBC. BUT WHAT REALLY GIVES ME HOPE is that even apart from collegiality with Rome, the Christians who confronted and diminished the ESS heresy were giving evidence that the process of ‘collegiality’ within the Church (whole Church) was still active and very like under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think so. This helps strengthen my own understanding of how the Body of Christ may be functioning even in our own time.


  21. Certainly, the idea that God “knows” the future but doesn’t determine it seems to be paradoxical on the face of it.

    Because he gives us free will to make our own determinations?


  22. There’s some “futurism” stuff in this podcast…Yuval Hurari interviewed on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

    (From Wikipedia: Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of the international bestsellers Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. His writings examine free will, consciousness and intelligence.)

    Some of you might find this highly interesting/entertaining.

    [audio src="https://www.wired.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/geeksguide325final.mp3" /]


  23. On physical determinism Prigogine says the more we know about the universe the more it becomes difficult to believe it. On biological determinism, Chesterton says I regret that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am. I am not clear what that is; but I am pretty sure that most of it is my own fault. God is outside the arrow of time. But there is no need for us to deny free will and insist on determinism which is a denial of processes capable of moving backward as well as forward. That type of thinking, which is everywhere throughout classical theism is being challenged today. Just because the old man doesn’t play dice doesn’t mean everything that it was meant to convey originally. It’s more correct to accept paradox in our analysis. In fact, Chesterton was foremost in showing us the paradoxes of Christianity. There are people and books capable of presenting open futurism of which I’m not capable of tying those person’s shoelaces. But I’m open.


  24. There is a bit of a danger here in linking a scientific idea|theory|hypothesis with Theology. What happens when the science changes?

    There is a new-ish idea floating about, with some reputable supporters, which resolves some of the quantum strangeness with a “simple” approach: Time does not exist. Some of those guys are out of IBM’s Quantum labs where they have built working quantum devices for data transmission with zero latency regardless of the distance between the sender and the receiver.

    It may not be that God is outside of time [whatever that means] but more that Time is specifically an us thing
    Experiencing time may be the phenomenon.


  25. I think we as Christians are afraid to “experiment”. We think it will be offensive to the Lord. Perhaps on a par with “testing” Him rather than living with a powerful and certain faith. Still, in the the last ten years or so I have found myself keeping an internal log of data. I prayed for such and such under such and such circumstances and such and such happenened. That has led me to certain conclusions that have been helpful to me. One is that prayer is not random. I think I am called to pray earnestly for a limited numbers of things that are mostly confined to my more immediate realm of influence or experience. There is no figuring out of any formula involved as it will always have a large element of mystery and uncertainty but I have slowly, creepingly, honed things to what I at least believe is a more effective prayer life. No question it could all be in my imagination but I don’t think the Lord is offended by my effort to make some connections. Again, I am fully aware that to any observer I could appear to be drawing utterly fruitless and random conclusions about arbitrary and disconnected events. That is exactly what I am trying to observe over a very long stretch of time. Some of the factors that come into play are my distinct sense that this particular thing has been placed upon me as a burden to help carry combined with my willingness to sacrifice something for the cause such as time or fasting. There are a few other things involved and unlike scientific method there will be no quantifiable result but it doesn’t stop me from taking note. We all wonder why we pray for some things and seem to get no answer so it seems a worthy exercise to throw some calculus at it over a lifetime.


  26. Sure, T.S., if you’ve got an argument, then bring it. I was always taught that God was out of time– it’s the difference between watching a parade from a doorway and watching it from a rooftop. Acts 15:18 18 “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” But if you’ve got a different perspective, I, for one, would give it a fair hearing. I’ve never understood why such an idea has to be called “heretical”. Certainly, the idea that God “knows” the future but doesn’t determine it seems to be paradoxical on the face of it.


  27. Did anyone here see that Fresno Pacific U axed three visiting professors? It seems it was over open theism. Clark Pinnock learned the same lesson the hard way as these three men about speaking or writing about the issue. Michael Spencer was a man open to ideas, and used Internet Monk to explore when he would not preach on them. Open Theism is probably not the best way to describe the idea itself. Polkinghorne was more into open futurism. It isn’t about any limitation of God, but about the future. I was first introduced to the concept by the Lutheran Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed. We at Internet Monk should not be the type to dismiss it out of hand. At heart is the question of God’s self limitation as the very reason for God’s interdependence (kinship).


  28. For theology, the tools for this investigation would be provided from resources of philosophy, in contrast to physics recourse to the equations of mathematics. That is why it is often asserted that Christianity “baptized” Greek philosophy. Not that the church Fathers accepted it wholly, but used some of the ideas and re-defined them according to Christian understanding in order to articulate “what had already been believed from the beginning” i.e. what had percolated “up from below” in the early Churches experiences and teaching of the apostles.

    Which is why it’s a mistake to speak of the early and ongoing Hellenistic influence on Christian theology is if it’s a foreign stream of impurity that has polluted the purity of Biblical/ ancient Jewish categories, language and thinking, and must be strained out to understand the original meaning of Christianity. This can be seen most clearly in the negative attitude to Platonist and neo-Platonist influence that is so common in modern theology, even though so much of the Christian mystical tradition depends on both for its philosophical and theological language and thinking. The Eastern Orthodox have been much better at not bifurcating Greek philosophy and Jewish religion than the Christian West has; both are necessary and invaluable resources for doing theology that is true and meaningful for our contemporary situation, including developing rapprochement between science and Christian theology.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: