Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne (Part 3a) – Lessons from History

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship

By John Polkinghorne (Part 3a) — Lessons from History

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 3- Lessons from History.

Polkinghorne begins the chapter by discussing Thomas Kuhn’s famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his notion of paradigm shifts.  Kuhn’s idea is that there are times of scientific revolution that are moments of radical change in which the scientific paradigm (the currently accepted total view) is drastically altered.  The dawn of quantum theory, with the abandonment of Newtonian paradigm would be one such occasion.  A physical world previously thought to be clear and deterministic was found to be cloudy and fitful at its subatomic roots.  The theological analogue would be the birth of Christianity, with its radical notions of a crucified Messiah and a risen Lord leading to an incarnational and Trinitarian paradigm of the nature of God and his relationship to his creation.

Although Kuhn later admitted he oversold the “paradigm shift” and exaggerated the degree of discontinuity in his enthusiasm for his new idea, nevertheless, he had certainly hit on an important general principle of how to understand what is going on in science, namely; the history of science is the best clue to the philosophy of science.  If you want to know how science operates, and what it may legitimately claim to achieve, you have to be willing to study how science is actually done and how its understanding develops.  The philosophy of science, properly pursued, is largely a bottom-up argument about how things have turned out to be, rather than a top-down argument about how they had to be.  Polkinghorne believes that theology needs to work with the idea of an historically unfolding development of doctrine, as is concomitant with the belief in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-15).  He asserts revelation is a process rather than a once-for-all act of the communication of instant knowledge.  He says:

There will certainly be times of special insight, such as the New Testament period, that are comparable to times of revolutionary scientific paradigm shift, but there will also times of steady ‘normal theology’.  Our comparative study of science and Christian theology can appropriately turn to considering some historical examples of how the discovery of truth proceeds in these two disciplines.

   (1) Growing recognition of deeper significance.  Progress in understanding requires a process of the sifting and exploration of the consequences opened up by new conceptual possibilities.

(a) Theoretical progress.  Plank’s original hypothesis, that radiation is emitted and absorbed in packets (he called quanta) whose individual energy content is directly proportional to the frequency of the radiation, yielded a splendidly successful formula for the spectrum of black-body radiation.

Plank was not comfortable with his discovery, describing it later in life as an ‘act of desperation’.  Quanta are entities that are countable (you have 1, 2, 3, … packets of energy).  In 1913, Niels Bohr extended this idea of countability to another physical quantity, angular momentum, a measure of a system’s rotatory motion.  This enabled Bohr to construct his famous model of the hydrogen atom, which was quantitatively successful in explaining the properties of the hydrogen spectrum, but was still a numerological curiosity that fitted the facts, although no one new why.

Not until 1926, when Erwin Schrodinger exploited an analogy with the relationship between wave optics and geometrical optics that enabled him to conjecture his famous “Schrodinger Equation”, did it seem that a real understanding had been gained.

A little earlier, Werner Heisenberg had discovered the first true formulation of quantum theory, but he expressed it in what was at the time seemed to be an unfamiliar and untransparent fashion that wasn’t immediately recognizable as being the same physical theory as proposed by Schrodinger.  Paul Dirac demonstrated the fundamental equivalence of the two theories based on the superposition principle, and quantum physics was born.

John says:

The quantum story is one of continuous development within an expanding envelope of understanding.  The endpoint (modern quantum theory) looked very different from the starting-points (drops of energy dripping from a black body), yet the pattern had been one of coherent growth in conceptual understanding and effective explanation, linking start to finish and giving the whole episode the character of an increasingly profound grasp of truth.

(b) Titles and incarnation.  Polkinghorne says Christian thinking about the status and significance of Jesus exhibits a corresponding pattern of truth-seeking development.  The persistence of the title Christ, until it soon effectively became a second name, suggests the earliest Christians recognized that this was an original title of his Lordship that had faithfully to be preserved.  The title “Son of man” has a more complex story.  Sometimes it seems the phrase is clearly referring to Jesus and it implies a special significance attached to him (for example Mark 8:31).  At other times it seems to refer to a figure closely associated with Jesus but not unequivocally identified with him (Mark 8:36).  It is very likely that in using the phrase, Jesus had in mind the vision described in Daniel 7.  If that is the case, the title carries a very special degree of significance, beyond that of simply referring to a prophetic messenger charged with conveying a word from God.  It seems inconceivable that the post-resurrection Christian community would have any doubt that Jesus was the final fulfiller of God’s purposes.

Polkinghorne notes that among the Old Testament images that the first Christians used were the notion of Jesus as the second Adam who reverses the consequences of the first Adam’s fall (Romans 5:12-21) and the figure of divine Wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24).  By the time the prologue to John was written (probably towards the end of the first century) Jesus is identified with the Word.  Polkinghorne believes this is a blending of the ordering principle of universe, which is one meaning of the Greek word logos, with the Hebrew concept of dabar, the Word of God active in history—and the Word is identified with divinity.  Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as Son sent by the Father, yet that gospel contains a verse (John 14:28, ‘because the Father is greater than I’) to which the Arians would later appeal as supporting their subordination of the Son to the Father.  Polkinghorne says:

By the end of the New Testament period, there was already much Christological development and some Christological confusion.  Theological debate continued, leading eventually to the decisions of the great ecumenical Councils that culminated in the doctrine that the man Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  As in quantum theory, so in Christian theology, much greater significance came finally to be recognized than had been apparent at the start of the process of searching for the truth.


11 thoughts on “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne (Part 3a) – Lessons from History

  1. I don’t have much to add, but I’ve been enjoying this series on quantum mechanics. I remember the first time I heard about quantum theory, I (mistakenly) took it as an affront on my Christian faith. Wasn’t God a God of order and Newtonian Physics? But now, I see it as that marvelous mystery within the real universe that God has made. I think Schrodinger was wrong about his cat. The cat is either alive or dead, but you have to open the box.


  2. “We do not know the shape of that future, or where it will lead us. We only know it is always born in pain.”
    — J Michael Strazynscky, Babylon-5

    “What were all those explosions?”
    “A paradigm shifting without a clutch.”
    — Dilbert


  3. Very late to the party here but wish to exclaim a hearty Amen! While there are quite extended periods of established theology (God never seems in a rush) and it would be heretical in such times to contradict or “elaborate” such theology, I believe we are in one of those perilous times of paradigm shift. Perilous because it requires the sacrifice of innocents. Someone gets, or many someone’s get hurt. You could say it’s formulaic. Nothing evolves without pain.


  4. I (and I imagine many others) can completely relate to and understand that paradox. I’m glad that that sense of peace has endured through it all, that is such a blessing.


  5. Well I certainly didn’t have “that” specific application in mind lol.

    I believe pursuing God though will often lead to being dumbfounded, and changes in the ways we think about things, and as we all know change is not always easy or comfortable…


  6. Hello David H

    your comment is very thought-provoking . . . .

    I can identify with it in the sense that when I was faced with profound grief from the sudden loss of a family member, I was given ‘peace’ . . . . oh, I still intensely mourned and wept . . . . but that initial sense of absolute terror and horror was replaced with a feeling that I wasn’t left alone to endure the shock and sadness on my own

    a strange paradox:
    I had to enter into deep grief in order to experience the incredibly powerful impact of that gift of peace . . . . and the phrase ‘the peace that surpasses all understanding’ was made real for me . . . years have gone by and I still will have those moments of intense sadness, but the sense of peace has not left me and, that I don’t feel ‘alone’ in the midst of that pain, is the best way I can explain the gift of comforting I have received


  7. –> “Being uncomfortable and dumbfounded takes us outside our little bubbles and is often the precursor to a revolutionary insight. So it should be with our pursuit of God.”

    Please don’t be telling me it IS all about God’s wrath…


  8. “Plank was not comfortable with his discovery,”

    That’s what so wonderful about science. Most great discoveries or revelations don’t simple come from extrapolating on what we know, but being confronted by something that makes absolutely no sense, and being forced to pursue an entirely counterintuitive explanation. Being uncomfortable and dumbfounded takes us outside our little bubbles and is often the precursor to a revolutionary insight. So it should be with our pursuit of God.


  9. I believe that pluralism is a major issue in theology that is still developing as described here. I find in this Christian journey “much greater significance came finally to be recognized”
    (1) that there is much more to revelation than fundamentalism and inerrancy.
    (2) that in unraveling reformed scholasticism there is a more dynamic theology for me.
    (3)that revising classical theism you can allow for mercifully present
    (4) and in a mix of Eastern, Wesleyan, and Pentecostal streams is where I’m flowing( and that’s not mainstream).
    When combining these with yesterday’s talk on Christian metaphysics, you can see pluralism is used in opposition to monism and dualism.


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