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The scientific questions that remain

28 July 2010

There are still live issues in the debate between science and religion, says Mark Vernon

“SCIENCE’s success is linked to the modesty of its ambition.” It is a crucial insight, central to the thinking of the Revd Dr John Polkinghorne — the Professor of Mathematical Physics who became an Anglican priest, be­fore returning to Queens’ College, Cambridge, and writing copiously on science and religion.

He means that the power of scientific explanations, based on re­peated testing in controlled environ­ments, limits the scope of its enquiry when compared with the panoply of human experience — not least, the individual’s encounter with God.

In other words, there are good reasons to be committed to beliefs other than because science justifies them. In particular, it is a mistake to believe that science might prove God’s existence, though, as science helps us understand the natural world, so it will be suggestive about the world’s creator — the exploration of which occupies no small part of Dr Polkinghorne’s apologetics.

He is 80 years old this year, and a three-day Oxford conference earlier this month, attended by theologians and scientists, celebrated his achieve­ments. They also offered critiques, and highlighted the theological issues that remain difficult to reconcile with modern science.

ONE significant challenge concerns Christian eschatology, or the end of the world. The Bible talks of an end of history and the appearance of “a new heaven and a new earth”. It is a central part of the Christian hope, for, as Revelation has it, there will then be no more mourning, crying, or pain.

That image of fulfilment is “not congenial” with the end of the cos­mos as science imagines it, said the Revd Dr Fraser Watts, the Cambridge psychologist who was speaking at the con­ference. [PULL QUOTE]Science is too materialistic in its understanding of nature[PULL QUOTE END]

The picture science paints is bleak, currently a choice between two op­tions. There is “heat death”, in which the universe continues to expand in­definitely until the distance between atoms is as great as the distance between the stars. Or there is a “big crunch”, in which the universe collapses to a point of such density that space and time are themselves crunched in the process.

Dr Polkinghorne’s solution is to draw an analogy between the death of an individual and the death of the cosmos. At your and my death, he conceives of a continuation and a transformation. We will not become disembodied souls, for our physical bodies are too involved in who we are for us to remain persons without them. Instead, the rich “information-bearing pattern” that might be thought of as our essence, or soul, will be embodied in a new way. Some­thing similar will per­haps happen to the cosmos as a whole.

But, as the theo­logian and philosopher the Revd Pro­fessor Keith Ward suggested when he spoke, the informa­tion model itself raises prob­lems. For ex­ample, is the notion of in­formation adequate when it comes to capturing all that we are as per­sons?

Professor Ward sus­pects not, since, for all its power, the math­ematics that is used to express what we call in­formation cannot cap­ture every detail of the world. In particular, its des­criptive power wanes when it comes to those things that are intrinsically fuzzy, dappled, and opaque, and that would include some of the charac­teristics that are very im­portant when it comes to being human.

DR WATTS probed another problem, namely whether the transition at the end of time should be conceived of as sudden — “in the twinkling of an eye”, as St Paul puts it — or more gradually, which might be more amenable to science, as then it could be possible to speculate about the processes involved.

A gradual transformation might be called the “spiritualisation of matter”, Dr Watts reflected, perhaps not unlike the evolutionary change envisaged by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: as matter has given rise to mind, so mind might give rise to spirit.

That thought might find en­courage­ment in the evidence that modern science is too straight­forwardly materialistic in its under­standing of nature. It tends to view the cosmos as built out of the basic matter of subatomic particles. But there could be an intrinsic place for mind in nature, according to some interpretations of quantum mechanics — the science of subatomic particles. These interpretations argue that observers are needed to determine the location of subatomic particles. So that, in turn, raises the possibility that mind is as good a candidate as a basic feature of reality as matter.

The difficulty is that it is hard to cash out what the “spiritualisation of matter” might mean in terms of physics. And what would the “new earth”, of which Revelation speaks, be like in terms of science?

Dr Polkinghorne tends to think of it as not being physical at all, but rather as existing in the mind of God. The scientific question, then, is to work out what of this world con­tinues into the next. But that takes us back to the rich “information-bearing pattern” — and the challenge raised by Professor Ward.

The science of the end times is contentious and mysterious. So perhaps better, Dr Watts concluded, to follow the biblical lead all the way, and not take the accounts of the end times to be a comment on scientific processes at all. These accounts are a collection of myths and metaphors that speak of a cosmic mystery, as well as a human hope. That they are mysterious is precisely why metaphors are so valuable when it comes to trying to talk about them.

We need to resort to non-scientific language precisely because of science’s modesty of ambition — that key Polkinghornian insight. That modesty must mean that things in heaven, and some things on earth, are simply beyond science’s descriptive reach.

Mark Vernon is the author of After Atheism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); www.markvernon.com

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