January 26, 2006

John Polkinghorne on Faith and Science

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:17 pm

John Polkinghorne is my new idol. I had never heard of him before I saw this interview (video is here and transcript is here). Polkinghorne is a retired particle physicist and current Anglican priest. (A physicist and a priest — how cool is that?) Now that I’ve heard him speak on the intersection of science and theology, I’m a big fan.

Here are some excerpts, first on the subtle signs of God in science:

We’ve found time and time again in fundamental physics that the equations that describe the way the world works are written in terms of what we recognize as beautiful mathematics. There is a aspect of wonder in the organization of the world which is very striking and very rewarding to the scientist as part of discovery. Now we can ask the question is that just our luck or is there a reason for it? And I would say that the universe is rationally transparent and rationally beautiful in other words shot through with science of mind because in fact there is a divine mind, the greatest mind behind the wonderful and beautiful order of the world.

I studied physics in my younger days. There is an elegance and a beauty to, say, Maxwell’s Equations that makes one believe that these equations are so perfect that they just have to be true. But I remember a professor telling me that Maxwell’s equations aren’t true because they are aesthetically pleasing, they’re true because they work, i.e. they describe the way the world works. So why is it that, time and time again, the equations that work are also beautiful?

On the Anthropic Principle, which observes that the fundamental constants of the universe just happen to be set to the precise values required for life to develop:

But it’s a very real sense that the universe was pregnant with the possibility of life from the big bang onwards. The laws of nature were just exactly finely tuned to allow that to happen. It couldn’t happen in just any old world. That’s a very striking fact about the world. Again you could ask the question, “Is that a happy accident or is it the sign there is some divine purpose behind the very fruitful history of the universe that’s turned a ball of energy into the home of saints and mathematicians?”

As much as science can tell us, there is much it can’t do:

You can only go too far [in finding evidence of God in science] in two senses. First of all I don’t think that it’s logically coercive. I mean I think there are arguments that say that the rational view to the world points to a mind behind it, the fruitfulness of the world points to a purpose behind it but if you don’t see it that way, I can’t say to you, “You’re stupid.” … The second this is that even if you give me the maximum success of my arguments you give me a picture of God which is a very abstracted picture of God, it’s God as the great mathematician or the cosmic architect or something like that. Now, I’m actually a Christian believer and so I have a much more so to speak detailed and personal, transpersonal, picture of God and that I’ll never get out of natural theology. That will have to come from a more personal religious experience.

I have argued that God seems to have designed the world to give hints, but not proof, that God exists. After all, faith and free will seem to be an important part of God’s plan, and scientific evidence of God would make the question of faith moot. When we experience God, it seems to always be a personal and subjective experience that can’t be repeated, measured or verified. But these personal religious experiences are what makes an abstract God blindingly real for us.

… I believe quite passionately in the existence of quarks and gluons and that’s an intellectual commitment of mine. But it doesn’t really effect my life otherwise. But my Christian belief in The God and The Father, our Lord, Jesus Christ, has all sorts of implications in my life and arise out of all sorts of experiences.

Science, including the Big Bang, evolution and all the rest, is true, but the saving grace of Jesus Christ is Truth, which is much more important.


  1. “God seems to have designed the world to give hints, but not proof …” Great insight. Another way of expressing our “seeing through a glass darkly.” Thanks.

    Comment by Questing Parson — January 27, 2006 @ 6:47 am

  2. Weird that you mention John. My mom (who was visiting me here in England for about a week) had the good pleasure of hearing him speak at St. Mary’s just this week! He was really cool. He talked about beauty in math, dissed (in a very polite way) Richard Dawkins, and generally had a good old time. Quite fun.

    Comment by Chris — January 28, 2006 @ 2:39 am

  3. […] Just wanted to point to a great post over at I Am A Christian Too about John Polkinghorne. What a fascinating, amazing person! […]

    Pingback by new mus(ings)ic » Blog Archive » Let’s get in a 3rd post today! — April 29, 2006 @ 9:48 pm

  4. Just like to say that…
    Steven Hawking was a Christian for a while but decided that adjusting minute factors at the
    begginning of the universe leaves no room for God to work miracles, but I would say that
    the fact that there is always a cirtain amount of entropy (randomness) very strongly suggests
    that there is a god, and the amount of historical proof there is available for Christ’s actions
    backs up that it is “Our” God!
    Science can’t prove anything that isn’t true, so the existance of God will never be outlawed
    as a scientific possibility; I know that, you know that, and the fact that mankind still has
    faith in some “Ruler” today – wether that be science, or wether it be God, or in my case, both,
    there will never be too much science to leave room for God – HAVE FAITH! science is accurate
    God genuine.

    PS. one of the reasons why Hawking is no longer christian, is that “A circle who’s center is
    everywhere, and who’s circumference is nowhere” is a mathematical fallacy.

    Comment by reuben — June 30, 2006 @ 4:59 am

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