Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne Part 5 – Cousins
We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne. Today we will look at Chapter 5- Cousins and wrap up the review of the book. Polkinghorne starts the chapter by comparing two explanations that biologists in comparative anatomy appeal when they discover homologies between different forms of animal life.
One is the classic Darwinian thinking that attributes the similarities to common origin, a primitive common ancestor from which the two contemporary species later diverged. The second is the idea of convergent evolution—that the evolutionary process may be more constrained by a limited number of basic structures that are both evolutionarily advantageous and readily biologically available. For example, eyes have developed several times independently but still manifest homologies in their basic structure i.e. camera eyes in mammals and cephalopods. Simon Conway Morris has written extensively on this convergent aspect of evolution; there is a deep substructure of universal principles shaping fruitful possibilities.
John asks if one could explain the cousinly relationships between the rational procedures of science and theology in ways analogous to these biological approaches. The appeal to common ancestry would correspond to the thesis that modern science owes religion a debt of gratitude since the latter historically provided the intellectual matrix that brought the former to birth. The doctrine of creation the Abrahamic faiths profess encourages the expectation that there will be a deep order in the world expressive of the Mind and Purpose of its Creator. Since the world is God’s creation, it is fitting duty for religious people to study it. Those early scientists like to say that God has written two books; the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, and ultimately there could not be any contradiction between the two.
John notes the critical parting of the ways between these two forms of insight into reality began in the middle of the eighteenth century when later generations of scientists became so flushed with the apparent success of the mechanical argument that they began to make the triumphalist claim of the sufficiency of the scientific method on its own to yield all knowledge that was worth knowing or even possible to know.
The second kind of explanation offered for biological homologies appeals to the notion of deep underlying forms, whose universal patterns enable and shape the paths of fruitful development. The theological counterpart to this idea would be the doctrine of the Logos, the divine Word which is the fundamental source of the rational order of creation. The Logos doctrine also speaks of the Word as enlightening everything (John 1:9), an insight that can be appealed to for theological endorsement of the concept of critical realism. John says:
These claims imply that the cousinly relationships that exist between different forms of creaturely truth-seeking endeavor derive ultimately from the fact that the universe was created as true cosmos. It is an integrated world, whose deep intelligibility and consistency is a manifestation of the divine Word that lets be the whole of created reality (cf. Genesis 1 ‘And God said, Let there be…’). This in turn implies that religious people who are seeking to serve the God of truth should welcome all truth from whatever source it may come, without fear or reserve. Included in this open embrace must certainly be the truths of science. In the case of the scientists, the same insight implies that if they want to pursue the search for understanding through and through—a quest that it is most natural for them to embark on—they will have to go beyond the limits of science itself in the search for the widest and deepest context of intelligibility. I think that this further quest, if openly pursued, will take the enquirer in the direction of religious belief. It is a search for the Logos. In consequence, I believe that ultimately the cousinly relationships that we have investigated in this book find their most profound understanding in terms of that true Theory of Everything which is trinitarian theology.
It is no surprise that one such as John Polkinghorne would write a book like this. He is both an accomplished quantum physicist and a noted Anglican theologian; why wouldn’t he combine the two? Polkinghorne is the author of five books on physics, and 26 on the relationship between science and religion. In the Wikipedia page, Polkinghorne said in an interview that he believes his move from science to religion has given him binocular vision, though he understands that it has aroused the kind of suspicion “that might follow the claim to be a vegetarian butcher.” He describes his position as critical realism and believes that science and religion address aspects of the same reality. It is a consistent theme of his work that when he “turned his collar around” he did not stop seeking truth.
Polkinghorne is liable to criticism and he certainly has his detractors. In the Amazon reviews for this book he generated 20% of comments as 1 or 2 stars. Some examples :
1) There is no kinship between falsifiable theory and nonfalsifiable wordplay. Total babble. Quantum mechanics is verifiable by experiment; religion is just a bunch of words. The author has churned out the same drivel over and over in many books.
2) This book is worthless. Full of platitudes and Christian apologetics, the theology of Christianity, offered as counterparts to the intellectual challenges of quantum physics. But nowhere does he mention what effects QED has on the mind trying to understand it. So he simply says that both theology and QED require a lot of effort to understand and involve the same kind of perseverance. Nowhere does he show any homology between the constructs of reality in QED and in Christian theology. Without homology there is nothing comparable here. Full of self-importance, he’s an establishment windbag. He’s written a half dozen or more books of the same ilk that he references as if together they constitute a commanding intellectual achievement, but in the final analysis he leaves no trace of any substance whatever. There’s no real mind here. A theoretical physicist and an Anglican priest, all in one? He’s a charlatan in both guises.
3)The author clearly wants very badly to believe and to bring the kind of certainty and rigor to the examination of Christianity that exists in science and quantum physics in particular. And he fails badly to pull it off…..as he should you realize upon reflection that the effort was truly doomed from the beginning. Not that the author does not give it the “old college try”. It is rather that what he is trying to do simply cannot be done. As a result, his attempt not only fails but ends up doing more damage to his case than had he simply kept the lid on his pen and not tried at all.
Well, there you go, then. There is a point to this criticism. Quantum physics moved forward on the basis of empirical justification. The results of the experiments ultimately verified the speculations of the theorists. Theology does not have the same counterpart. There is no empirical verification of a theological doctrine, except perhaps the fruit test. Does the theological doctrine under consideration lead to good fruits? Does it promote faith, hope, and love and inspire greater devotion to God and encourage Christians to walk in His ways? Does Premillennial Dispensation inspire good fruits or does it lead to passivity in the care for this world since “it’s all gonna burn”? Does the Eternal Submission of the Son and its corollary, Complementarianism lead to better, or worse, relationships between men and women? How about Replacement Theology and its deadly fruit of Jewish persecution down through the years, as Chaplain Mike talked about yesterday. Surely that’s some bad fruit. Is that empirical evidence of true theology?
I liked the book, and I liked Polkinghorne’s attempt. Not perfect, but still though provoking. And I learned something about quantum physics, which was cool. So give me some feedback in the comments today about what subjects or books you might to see me review and blog about.