By John Polkinghorne (Part 2b) — Comparative Heuristics
We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne. Today we will look at the second part of Chapter 2- Comparative Heuristics.
As we said last time, 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:
- Techniques of discovery: Experience and understanding.
- Defining the problem: Critical questions.
- Expanding horizons: New regimes.
- Critical events of particular significance.
We looked at the first two the last time, today we will look at the next two comparisons.
(3) Expanding horizons: New regimes. Progress requires allowing novel experience to enlarge the range of conceptual possibility.
(a) Phase transitions. One of the most assured results in physics was Ohm’s Law, discovered in 1827, which asserted that current in an electrical circuit was given by dividing the applied voltage by the circuits resistance: I = V/R. This had been verified experimentally many times, but in 1911 Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, discovered that if certain metals were cooled to very low temperatures, their resistance vanishes and a current can circulate without a sustaining electromotive force driving it. Onnes had discovered superconductivity, for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1913. At the time no one had the slightest understanding of why this strange behavior happened. We now know that it was a quantum phenomenon, but it took another 50 years for a theoretical way of accounting the effect would be discovered.
Of course the laws of physics had not changed but the consequences of these laws altered drastically when one moved from the conducting regime to the superconducting regime; a phase transition had occurred. The physicists had had the horizon of their understanding enlarged under the stubborn impact of the strange way metals had proved to have actually behaved.
(b) Miracles. A rather similar approach is needed in theology in relation to the question of miracles. John says:
It does not make theological sense to suppose God is a kind of show-off celestial conjurer, capriciously using divine power today to do something that God did not think of doing yesterday and won’t be bothered to do tomorrow. There must be a deep underlying consistency in divine action, but that requirement does not condemn the deity never to do anything radically new and unexpected… when history enters the phase of a new regime, one might say—it is a coherent possibility that the new regime will be accompanied by novel providential phenomena… These two issues, resurrection and human/divine duality, are central to the theological agenda of this book. They inextricably intertwine. If Jesus is the Son of God, it is a coherent possibility that his life exhibited new and unprecedented phenomena, even to his being raised from the dead to an unending life of glory.
The attitude to miracles being taken here by Polkinghorne corresponds to the way in which John’s gospel speaks of them as “signs” (John 2:11), events that are windows opening up a more profound perspective into the divine reality that that which can be glimpsed in the course of everyday experience, just as superconductivity opened up a window into the behavior of electrons in metals, more revealing than the discoveries of Professor Ohm had been able to provide, or even conceive.
(4) Critical events of particular significance. Specific phenomena, contrary in nature to previous expectation, can confirm radically new forms of understanding.
(a) Compton scattering. Progress in scientific insight is often gradual and episodic, fought for step by step. The idea of the isolated critical experiment that settles an issue out of hand is a notion beloved by the popular press writing on science issues. Nevertheless, there are some occasions when an important matter does seem to receive definite settlement as the consequence of a particular experimental result. Such a critical moment occurred in 1923 in an investigation by Arthur Compton into the scattering of X-rays by matter.
What Compton had discovered was the frequency of X-rays is changed by their being scattered by matter. The scattering was induced by an interaction between the incident radiation and the electrons in the atoms that composed the matter. According to a wave picture, these electrons would vibrate with the frequency of the incoming X-rays, and this excitation would cause them in turn to emit radiation of the same frequency. Therefore, on the basis of an understanding framed in terms of classical wave theory, no change in frequency was to be expected. Based on a particle picture, however, what would have been involved was a kind of “billiard ball” collision between photons and electrons. In this collision, the incoming photon would lose some of its energy to the struck electron. According to Planck’s rule, reduced energy corresponds to reduced frequency, with the result that the outgoing scattered radiation would have its rate of vibration diminished, just as Compton had discovered to be the case. It was straightforward to calculate the effect, and the resulting formula agreed perfectly with the experimental measurements. Compton’s work had clinched the case for particle-like behavior, fully dispelling any lingering doubts.
(b) The resurrection. The critical question on which all turns in the case of Christology is the resurrection of Jesus. No one disputes his remarkable public ministry; drawing crowds, healing the sick, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. But then on that final visit to Jerusalem, it all seems to fall apart. First, his entry into the city with being hailed by the politically dangerous cry, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10). Shades of Judas Maccabee, Pilate must have thought, here we go again! Then the religiously and economically provocative act of the cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-18). The expected result occurred; Caiaphas and Pilate acted to regain control of a potentially dangerous situation. Jesus was swiftly arrested, condemned, and led away to crucifixion.
This painful and shameful death, reserved by the Romans for slaves and rebels, was seen by devout Jews as a sign of God’s rejection, since Deuteronomy 21:23 proclaimed a divine curse on anyone hung on a tree. Even Jesus himself seemed to agree because out of the darkness of the place of execution came the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). As far as the people and even the disciples were concerned, it was over, done, and had ended in utter failure. As John says:
If that had been the end of his story, not only would it put into question any claim that he might have had to any special significance, but I believe that it would have made it likely that he, someone who left no personally written legacy, would have disappeared from active historical remembrance in the way that people do who are humiliated by being seen to have had pretensions above the sober reality of their status. Yet we have all heard of Jesus, and down the subsequent centuries he has proved to be one of the most influential figures in the history of the world. Any adequate account of him has to be able to explain this remarkable fact. Something must have happened to continue the story of Jesus. Whatever it was must have been of a magnitude adequate to explain the transformation that came on his followers, changing that bunch of frightened deserters who ran away when he was arrested, into those who would face the authorities in Jerusalem, only a few weeks later, with the confident proclamation that Jesus was God’s chosen Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:22-36). I do not think that so great a transformation could have come about simply through calm recollection and a renewed determination to continue to affirm the teachings of Jesus. All the writers of the New Testament believe that what had happened was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead on the third day after his execution.
John points out that Paul’s hymn/creed in 1Corinthians 15:3-8, written within 20-25 years of the crucifixion, can reasonably be traced to his reception of it shortly after his Damascus road conversion within 2-3 years of the crucifixion, too soon for legendary accretion. The character of the resurrection stories in the New Testament are enigmatic rather than triumphalist; there is a recurrent inability to recognize at first who it is that is with them, and even then a persistent tendency to doubt their own eyes—see Matthew 28:17 (When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.) That does not read like a collection of pious fictional tales made up to express their conviction that the message of Jesus could continue beyond his death. Not to Polkinghorne, and not to me.
Then there are the accounts of the empty tomb. The story, told in all four gospels, is essentially the same, again with the striking absence of a triumphalist tone. In fact, the initial reaction to the emptiness of the tomb is fear rather than rejoicing. The gospels certainly do not present the story as an instant, knock-down proof of the resurrection. The first question to ask is whether there was an identifiable tomb. The usual Roman custom was to cast executed felons into a common grave, though Polkinghorne says there is archeological evidence there were exceptions to this. The case for believing that Jesus was one of these exceptions is strengthened by the part played by Joseph of Arimathea in the story. He is an otherwise unknown figure of no obvious importance to the early Christian community, and there seems to be no reason to assign him this honorable role other than the fact he actually performed it. In the controversies that developed between the growing Christian movement and contemporary Judaism, conflicts that can be traced back into the first century, it is always common ground between the parties that there was a tomb and that it was empty.
The strongest reason for taking the story of the empty tomb seriously is completely under-appreciated by the modern reader. That is the women are assigned the principal role as the prime witnesses. In that ancient world, their testimony would have been regarded as unreliable and not to be trusted in a court of law. Any first century person making up so strange a story would have sought to bolster their credibility by making good reliable men the prime witnesses. The women are credited with the discovery simply because they actually made it. Perhaps they were given that privilege because, unlike those “reliable” men, they had not run away when the authorities closed in on Jesus.
Another consideration that also is under-appreciated today; the Christian establishment of Sunday as the Lord’s Day in place of the Jewish Sabbath, in commemoration of its being the day of his rising. This was a change that would surely have required strong motivation in the first church whose members were pious Jews. Finally, the continuing witness of the Church, from its very first conception, has been to speak of Jesus as its living Lord in the present, rather than as a revered founder figure in the past.
Polkinghorne certainly realizes that a unique event of this kind cannot be confirmed with the same degree of certainty that attaches to a repeatable experiment like Compton scattering. Nevertheless, he thinks resurrection belief is a well-motivated belief he finds persuasive. It surely deserves the label of a critical event of particular significance.