Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne (Part 3d) — Lessons from History
We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne. Today we will look at the fourth part of Chapter 3- Lessons from History. John continues his comparative study of science and Christian theology with some additional historical examples of how the discovery of further truth proceeds in these two disciplines. Last time we looked at: (3) Tides of fashion. This week we look at:
(4) The role of genius. Advance in understanding owes much to the insights of small number of exceptional people.
(a) The founders of quantum theory. Certainly a great deal of development in science stems from the labors of the honest toilers in research and Polkinghorne would never fail to acknowledge that. Still in the case of quantum theory, especially in the formative years of the mid-1920s the exceptional insights of Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Dirac laid the foundation of modern quantum theoretical understanding. Of course the name Einstein is now synonymous with the word genius, although poor Niels Bohr doesn’t get the credit he deserves except by actual physicists.
(b) Apostolic insight. Polkinghorne asserts that the writings of the New Testament are dominated by the profound insights of three particular authors, Paul, John, and the unknown person who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. He believes that the depth of theological reflection found in their writings has meant that all subsequent generations of theologians had to engage with them. He says their brilliant insights have shaped the form of Christian theology in a manner that the believer will see as the result of providential inspiration by the Holy Spirit, guiding the use of individual human gifts. However, I’m not sure how that squares with Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29
26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: 27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: 29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.
And Polkinghorne doesn’t mention Jesus here. Was Jesus a genius? This section makes me think about how history seems to be a celebration of great men (and rarely great women—which may be telling in itself). Is this an all too human propensity to hero-worship? Is the Enlightenment/Modern Project notion of “the progress of humanity” a real increase in human flourishing? To a certain extent it is, of course; I love me some modern sanitation, I have a stent in my left circumflex heart artery—otherwise I’d be dead, slavery is universally condemned in theory if not always in practice, and so on.
Is the story of the Church one of progress? It certainly does not seem to be a progress that can be measured by worldly standards. Father Stephen Freeman said:
I often see examples of what I would describe as “comparative denominationalism.” It is the comparison of one Church to another (yes, I know that Orthodoxy is not a denomination). Indeed, the drive for a “better Church,” a “more authentic Church,” the “true Church,” the “New Testament Church,” is little more than a game invented in America during the 19th century. It is post-Reformation and represents the rise of Christian consumerism… Particularly after the Reformation, the notion that correct doctrine would produce a correct Church gained increasing acceptance. However, history has repeatedly proven this to be a false idea. No matter the corrective measures, Christianity, as Church, remains flawed. Apparently, allowing sinful people to be part of the Church ruins its excellence, and, even the most excellent people are revealed to be broken.
I’m inclined to agree with Father Freeman here, but I wonder if there is a counter-argument? Polkinghorne’s final comparison is:
(5) Living with unresolved perplexities. While the ultimate aim is a coherent and fully integrated scheme of understanding, it may be necessary to tolerate living with not all problems fully solved.
(a) Quantum problems. John asks, how does it come about that the apparently reliable Newtonian world of everyday experience emerges from its fitful quantum substrate? Almost a hundred years after the initial discovery of modern quantum theory, it is embarrassing to physicists to have to admit that there is no comprehensive and universally agreed answer to that reasonable question. The theory enables us to calculate with impressive accuracy the probabilities of obtaining these different answers, but it is unable to explain how it comes about that a specific answer is obtained on a specific occasion. John says:
No one rejoices at these perplexities in physics, and all physicists hope for their eventual resolution. Meanwhile the subject is not paralyzed in its search for understanding. Scientists can live with partial knowledge and a degree of intellectual uncertainty.
(b) The problem of evil. Polkinghorne asserts the most perplexing problem that theology faces is the problem of evil and suffering. If God is both good and almighty, whence come the disease and disaster, the cruelty and neglect that we observe in creation? If God is good, surely these ills would have been eliminated. If God is almighty, there is surely divine power to do so. Polkinghorne believes a partial answer can be held to lie, not in qualifying divine goodness, but in a careful analysis of what is meant by ‘almighty’. Almighty means that God can do whatever God wills, but God can only will that which is in accordance with the divine nature. Christians believe that nature to be love. He says the God of love could not be a cosmic tyrant, whose creation was simply a divine puppet-theater manipulated solely by the divine Puppet-Master. The gift of love is always the gift of some kind of due independence to the object of love. This is basically the Free Will Defense of Alvin Plantinga.
The bigger problem is physical evil, disease, and disaster that seems to be much more the direct responsibility of the Creator. Chaplain Mike has called this “surd evil”, and revisited the subject again this Monday with Richard Beck’s essay.
Riffing off of Plantinga, Polkinghorne suggests there is a kind of “free-process defense” paralleling the free-will defense:
All parts of the created order are allowed to act according to their varied natures, being themselves and—through the evolutionary exploration of the potency with which the universe has been endowed—making themselves. In a non-magic world (and the world is not magic because its Creator is not a capricious magician), there will be an inevitable shadow side to fruitful process. Genetic mutation will produce new forms of life, but other mutations will induce malignancy. Tectonic plates will enable mineral resources to well up at their edges to replenish the surface of the Earth, but they will also slip and induce earthquakes and tsunamis.
Although I provisionally accept answers like Polkinghorne’s and Beck’s as probably the best we can do, as I get older, I have left off expecting easy answers anymore—or any answer at all. The Christian God is the crucified God, truly a fellow sufferer who understands. As Dorothy Sayers said:
“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”
I really think this insight touches the problem of suffering at the deepest level at which it can be met. In fact, I no longer conceive of God as anything other than “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). John 1:18 says, “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” That word “declared” in Greek is where we get the word “exegete”. So “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has exegeted Him”. Christ is how we “read” God. We cannot get behind Christ to speak about God as though we knew anything of God apart from Christ. Therefore, the crucifixion and the resurrection are the answer and there is no answer apart from them.