Discussion

Fraser Watts

John Polkinghorne and I agree about most things, but nevertheless I will try to indicate the points in his talk where I think it would be helpful to probe more deeply. First, about the relationship between science and religion (or rather theology - the rational reflection of the religious tradition). John pointed to the differences, for example that they are answering different kinds of question. Science generally answers 'how' questions and theology answers 'why' questions. I am convinced this is right, at least as a first approximation, but this kind of distinction is frustratingly difficult to make in an exact way. However you make it, people seem able to think of counter-examples. I don't think we should we too fussed by that. The problem arises from the diversity of what both theology and science encompass, but I believe there is still a difference between what science and theology generally deal with. What intrigues me most here is whether science will always have to bracket out questions about the moral nature of the universe, questions which are central to theology. If so, there can never be any close integration between theology and science, and science will always neglect what, for theology, represent the most important questions. I always assume that we are dealing at present with the very early achievements of science after just a few centuries, and that there is a long way to go. I am not convinced that science will always have to bracket out moral considerations, and hope that an enlarged science will be able to stretch to them. That would, to some extent, erode the current distinction between theology and science.

Next, John went on to discuss two big questions arising from science, the first being why the universe was intelligible to science at all. I am attracted by the answer he suggested that there is a rationality behind the universe that science studies, a rationality that might be called the 'mind of God', and that the human mind has access to that same rationality. Despite the attractiveness of that idea, it is worth our while pausing in our discussion to examine the alternatives. One is that our intelligence has been shaped by the world in which we live, which is why it is well suited to understanding that world. The other is that the world as we know it is shaped and constructed by our intelligence, and that creatures with different intelligence would construct it differently.

After this, John went on to the question of why the universe should be so remarkably fruitful. It is tempting to see that as suggestive of a God who intended that it should be so. The interesting question for me is what the prospects are for a scientific explanation of the remarkable facts about our 'fine-tuned' universe. Before Darwin, people thought the adaptation of species to their environments was so remarkable that it invited an explanation in terms of the purposes of God. Then Darwin provided a scientific explanation in terms of natural selection. Could the same happen with the fine-tuned universe? Inflation theory already seems as though it might perhaps be able to explain the balance between big-bang expansion and gravity. One question is whether there is any reason in principle why, for example, the values of the basic forces are so fundamental that science could never explain them. The other question is whether it would make any fundamental difference if science could explain them. It might just mean that we needed to re-phrase the theological point about the purposes of God.

John Polkinghorne

There are obviously tricky demarcation questions that depend on how one defines science and theology. I am concerned with natural science, whose defining characteristic I take to be the study of impersonal and largely repeatable experience that consequently can be investigated by the experimental method. Theology I take to be concerned with human encounter with the transpersonal reality of God, where a meeting with the sacred comes as gracious gift. If that is the case, the two disciplines are clearly distinguishable though, since God is the ground of all that is, there will be topics of mutual concern, such as the character of the natural world. I believe that the insights of an evolutionary epistemology are significant, but I believe that they are insufficient to explain even science itself. Understanding a remote and counterintuitive realm, such as the quantum world, seems to me to go far beyond what could be warranted by survival necessity or by any plausible spin off from such a necessity. I also resist a constructivist account of human knowledge. In science we frequently find that nature resists our prior expectations, its recalcitrance forcing us to insights that would have been beyond our imagining without the necessary nudge of reality. Quantum theory is again a case in point. This is why the impression of discovery is so central to the experience of a scientist.

My personal opinion – and I believe I say this as a physicist without covert appeal to a theological agenda – is that even a Grand Unified Theory will have some adjustable scale parameters in it. In any case, one would still have to ask why fundamental physics is quantum mechanical and gravitational, both anthropic necessities but neither logical necessities. But suppose it did turn out that the only consistent theory of quantum gravity was essentially scale-free and also anthropically finely-tuned. That would seem to me to be the most remarkable anthropic coincidence of them all.

Donald Broom

John Polkinghorne’s talk and the comments by Fraser Watts emphasise for me the value of an explanation of the relationship between science and religion based on biological science rather than physical science. I shall make two points now about what has been said. Firstly, biologists are accustomed to trying to answer both "how" questions, to which the answer involves explaining mechanisms, and "why" questions, which are answered by explaining how natural selection might have brought about a particular situation. Hence biological and theological answers can usefully be compared. Secondly, I very much support Fraser’s view that science will not "always have to bracket out moral considerations". Indeed my arguments on the subject will be published later this year by Cambridge University Press in a book entitled: "The evolution of morality and religion" which emphasises the value of religion and its biological foundations.

John Polkinghorne

I do not doubt that biologists have a somewhat different perspective on these matters and it is certainly valuable to have their point of view expressed. However, I query biology’s ability to answer the deepest moral questions. The kind of "Why" questions it addresses are functional in character rather than truly purposive. It seems to me that sociobiology casts light on the shape of prudent action but it fails to explain truly altruistic behaviour, such as that of someone risking their life to enter a burning building to rescue an unknown stranger.


Risako Morimoto

Sir John, you have made several points on Science and Theology including the differences between them, how they deal with the same issues differently, and how some natural phenomena can be explained by theology. There are numerous mysterious issues in this world that deserve firm explanations such as the finely tuned properties of the universe. I am a social scientist, and would like to ask you a question more from the social science point of view. Social science is more closely related to human behaviour, relationships, and interaction. I wonder if you could comment on the relationship between the finely tuned universe in which we live and the reality of human suffering, the existence of poverty and of human conflict. How can we reconcile such fine-tuning with the realities of the human condition?

John Polkinghorne

The problem of evil and suffering is the deepest perplexity that faces religious belief. I do not want to suggest that there is some simple ‘one line’ answer to it. Nevertheless, science does offer theology some modest help here. Theologically we understand an evolving universe as a creation that is allowed by its Creator ‘to make itself’, to explore and realize its God-given potentiality in its own way. Such a creation seems a greater good than a ready-made world. It is a most fitting creation of the God of love, whose creation could never be just a divine puppet theatre. Yet such a creation has a cost. The same cellular processes that have driven the fruitful history of evolution through genetic mutation, must necessarily allow other cells to mutate and become malignant. The anguishing fact that there is cancer in creation is not gratuitous, something that a more compassionate or competent Creator could easily have remedied. It is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself. I think this is mildly helpful in relations to the problem of evil and suffering.

Herbert Huppert

John, I wonder if we could talk a little more about these interesting and courageous comments about evil? I think, if I understand your argument, that in order to evolve we need to undergo mutations, and some of those mutations are necessarily disadvantageous - indeed, this is the much-favoured theory at the moment as to why we age. However, it seems pretty clear from research that evil is not genetic, but environmental. I doubt if you would accept the notion that some of us were born evil. Unfortunately, many of us imbibe it from our surroundings. Thus, I was a little unsure about your explanation of how evil is a necessary downside of some of the good things we enjoy.

John Polkinghorne

I think we need to distinguish between physical evil (disease and disasters such as volcanic eruptions) and moral evil (the chosen cruelties of humankind). As far as the latter is concerned, it seems clear that there is something slanted in human nature, something that often turns a country’s liberator into its next tyrant, that tarnishes hopes and promotes shabby compromises. Christian theology understands this as the human environment of original sin, stemming from an alienation from the God who is the true ground of our being. A famous American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once called this the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine – just look around you or within your own heart.

Herbert Huppert

Your example of volcanoes (mentioned during your lecture) is somewhat biased in that the downside of the resulting deaths and destruction is partially mitigated by the advantage of new, fertile soil which the eruption brings to the Earth's surface. Hawaiian agriculture, for example, is almost totally dependent on this. But I cannot see the advantages of hurricanes, tornadoes or long periods of drought.

John Polkinghorne

Yes, positive and negative consequences intertwine in this world. We all tend to think that had we been in charge of creation we would have done it better, kept all the good and got rid of all the bad. Yet the more we understand the process of the world scientifically, the more it seems a package deal, with good and bad consequences inextricably entangled.

Herbert Huppert

John, you have argued very persuasively for the existence of God and you have made your own faith as a believing Christian extremely plain. The question I should like to know your thoughts on is: what lines of argument can you imagine that would shake your belief; make you doubt your lines of argument?

John Polkinghorne

The centre of my own belief in God does not lie in the important questions we have been discussing but in my encounter with the figure of Jesus Christ, as I meet him in the gospels, in the church and in the sacraments. If it could be shown that he was a dubious used-chariot salesman or, more significantly if it could be shown that he was not raised from the dead that first Easter day, then my Christian faith would indeed be shaken. I would probably still believe in a divine Mind behind the universe, but much of the greatest significance and hope would have been lost.


Philip Luscombe

Isn’t there a danger that the whole concept of the anthropic principle will simply turn out to be like the ‘God of the gaps’ argument?

John Polkinghorne

Gaps that appear to be just matters of current ignorance (such as our current inability to understand the origin of life) are clearly vicious and not to be used as bases for argument. However, where there are intrinsic gaps, whether of predictability (as in quantum theory) or of principle (as in science’s self-restricted inability to explain the origin of its assumed laws of nature) then they may properly be appealed to as spurs to seeking a more comprehensive interpretative setting. That is how a certain kind of natural theology can, I believe, arise as an exercise in metascientific understanding.

Philip Luscombe

We can’t predict scientific discoveries before they are made. Isn’t the very fact of this set of remarkable coincidences a spur to encourage scientists and theoreticians to investigate whether they are more than a set of coincidences and in fact hint at some deeper connecting theory which we can’t yet imagine. The fine tuning of the universe may indicate not coincidence but real connection, and thus remove God once again from the physical world.

Paul Shellard

I just wanted to make a cautionary remark about juxtaposing design with the concept of a multiverse, a possibility which is widely discussed amongst cosmologists. There is very good reason to suppose that there is more to the universe than we can observe today. The time since the Big Bang and the speed of light combine to provide a limit on the furthest objects which can be seen at present. However, if we wait patiently then even more distant objects will come into view or, more technically, will fall inside our causal horizon. So what of the rest of the universe beyond the observable horizon and therefore beyond scientific scrutiny today? Well, few cosmologists would venture to suggest that this part of the universe does not exist because their hypothesis could be tested tomorrow when more is seen (in principle, anyway). It is eminently reasonable, therefore, to believe in distant and currently inaccessible regions of the universe. And, so the argument goes, might it not be reasonable for the fundamental physical properties of the universe to be different in some of these distant regions? This is the kernel of the so-called `multiverse', a universe or a set of universes in which the constants of nature and the laws of physics vary from place to place. There are popular cosmological models, such as inflation, which provide a context in which to study theoretical realizations of multiverses, albeit rather imprecisely and speculatively at this stage.

So how does the notion of a multiverse contradict that of design, or does it? The argument continues that, although we see such a wonderful universe apparently fine-tuned for our existence (the anthropic principle), this is merely a selection effect on the infinite set of possibilities available within our multiverse. Of course, the subtext is that the multiverse dispenses with the need for a designer, but there is nothing logically compelling about such a conclusion. Might not the multiverse itself be designed specifically to allow for the existence of a special region in which we could emerge? Human life depends on tiny constrained regions coincidentally overlapping in a multidimensional parameter space (like small regions in a Venn diagram possessing a non-zero intersection). It seems reasonable to suppose that a self-consistent multiverse could be constructed in which these tiny parameter regions missed each other completely, that is, with no intersection and therefore no life. Indeed, would not such a frustrated multiverse be the generic case?

Well I could continue heaping speculation on what is already a speculative idea, but it seems that the concept of a multiverse is actually fairly neutral theologically. Theists can be as comfortable with one universe as with many. Rather, it would seem better to turn the argument on its head because, broadly speaking, the atheist is much the happier with the multiverse. When confronted with the anthropic principle, refuge is sought in the multiverse whether or not it actually solves the problem of apparent design. But the multiverse is unquestionably an additional metaphysical assumption outside the domain of traditional scientific enquiry; no matter how reasonable, it is a step of faith which exposes the incompleteness of the reductionist worldview.

John Polkinghorne

Thank you for an interesting point. I agree that it is entirely credible that spontaneous symmetry breaking may have reduced an initial Grand Unified Theory into currently observable forces in a way that varies between a set of vast cosmic domains. If that was the case, we obviously live in the domain where the reduction gave forces lying within anthropic limits. This modifies but does not eliminate anthropic specificity. One still requires the right kind of initial GUT, to generate suitable forces and to give inflation. Attempts to get rid of anthropic specificity altogether require a much larger and entirely speculative concept of a multiverse. The only motivation for this latter prodigal assumption seems to me to be the desire to avoid the threat of theism at all costs.


Tim Jarratt

I am wondering how scientists who are Christians view the Genesis account of creation and how this fits with what we have been hearing tonight?

John Polkinghorne

When we read the Bible we have to figure out what we are reading for; it is not a book but a library with all sorts of different kinds of writing in it – history and stories, poetry and prose, etc. If you get the genre wrong, you can make some bad mistakes. (‘My love is like a red, red rose’ does not mean that Robbie Burns’ girl friend had green leaves and prickles.) Genesis 1 and 2 are not divinely guaranteed textbooks of science, but deeply theological writings whose purpose is to assert that nothing exists except through the will of god (‘God said Let there be …’). So-called ‘creation scientists’ are actually misusing the Bible and making a bad theological mistake.

Donald Broom

There have been several references this evening to physical events, or even biological events such as a disease outbreak, as evil because they cause harm to individuals. I do not think of anything as being evil unless a malicious intent is involved. Indeed quite a lot of the discussion about events in the universe seems to me to be irrelevant to the central questions. My concept of God is not associated with physical phenomena such as the origin of the universe. For me, God started when there were sentient beings so in a universe with no sentient beings I do not need to consider God. Hence, in the present day, I do not think of God as causing every lightning strike or earthquake. I think that a lot of people have moved away from the Christian churches because they cannot accept a God who is responsible for every physical event.

John Polkinghorne

I certainly could not agree that ‘God started’ when sentient beings appeared. God is neither a human construct nor solely concerned with mental or spiritual reality. That seems to me to be another important message of Genesis 1 and 2, endorsed by a great weight of theological reflection. But I do agree that God is not directly responsible for every physical event. That is because of the freedom that God’s love has given to creatures to be themselves and to make themselves. In consequence by no means everything that happens is in accordance with God’s will. I believe that God wills neither the act of a murderer nor the incidence of a cancer but God allows both to happen in a world which has been given the divine gift of freedom.

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