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It depends what you mean by ‘gaps’

09 October 2015

John Polkinghorne, physicist, priest, and writer, will be 85 on 16 October. Patrick Miles talked to him


The long view: Canon Polkinghorne

The long view: Canon Polkinghorne

Was there ever a time when you thought that science and religion were not compatible?

No, there hasn’t been. And that’s my particular experience. Of course, there remain puzzles about how they relate to each other; but I never felt I was faced with a critical choice of either/or, it’s always been both/and for me. I want to take science absolutely seriously, and I want to take my Christianity absolutely seriously.


Why do you think people feel that you can’t believe in God and science at the same time?

I think that a lot of people believe that without thinking about it very much. It has become just a commonplace of our society: “Of course you have to choose one or the other.” And that isn’t helped by the work of fundamentalists on both sides.

It grieves me very much to see Christian people who refuse the insights of science. But the strident new atheists are equally fundamentalist in their way.

I have been very struck by the fact that The God Delusion sold millions of copies, because in my view it’s a very bad book. Dawkins, in that polemical mode, is as much a fundamentalist as people who tell us that the world was created in six days.

It’s a book full of assertion rather than of argument and discussion. Yet there are obviously many people out there who really just want to be told: “Don’t believe in God; just don’t worry about it.”

One of the ways in which scientific truth and religious truth differ is that religious truth is more dangerous. It has implications for how you behave, and how you live your life. I believe in quarks and gluons [elementary particles] as the constituents of matter very fervently, but it doesn’t really affect my life; whereas my Christian faith does affect my life, in all sorts of ways. It’s costly.

Some people think that religious belief is just plucked out of the air, or mysteriously conveyed as propositions that God whispered in somebody’s ear; but I think that religious belief is motivated, just as scientific belief is motivated — but, of course, the motivations are different, because the kinds of belief are different.

For me, the Bible is not a divinely guaranteed textbook, where you just look up all the answers, and then parrot them forth; it’s much more like a laboratory notebook that records the experiences and encounters with a divine reality of generations of people, over a long time. Reading the Bible enables us to enter into their experiences.


Presumably, when people say that they “believe” in science, they mean that they believe in the scientific method; but when you say “I believe in Christ,” you are believing in a person, which is so different.

Yes. Science is a wonderful activity, and marvellously successful, of course, but the basis of its success is the modesty of its ambition.

First of all, it asks only a single question about how the world works: it doesn’t ask questions of meaning and purpose and value, or why things are the way they are. It deals exclusively with impersonal experience: that particular dimension of experience where experiences can be repeated at will.

That gives science its great secret weapon, which, of course, is experiment. In principle, you don’t believe what a physicist tells you: you go and do it for yourself. Obviously, you are unlikely to have a Hadron Collider in your back garden, but, in principle that’s the point: it’s repeatable experience.

But we all know that personal experience, truly personal experience, is never repeatable. We never hear, say, a Beethoven late string quartet the same way, even if we play the same disc of it. Science is very lucky in having the experimental method, but it would be an incredible impoverishment in our account of reality to say that only things that can be repeated ad nauseam are things that we should take seriously.


Do you think the problem is that some people are just not “hard-wired” to understand a spiritual dimension?

We know that a great deal — in fact, the majority — of the structure of the brain is epigenetic, and is, therefore, formed during our actual experience; but, no, I don’t think people are “hard-wired” in that way. We encounter reality at a variety of levels. Sometimes, when I am chatting about this sort of thing with my scientific friends who aren’t believers, I say to them: “What do you make of music?” From a purely scientific point of view, music is vibrations in the air impinging on the eardrum. But that hardly exhausts the mystery of music. And most scientists are very keen on music!


When you decided, in 1977, to resign your chair in mathematical physics at Cambridge and enter the ordained ministry of the Church of England, a lot of people assumed that you had had a “conversion”.

Not in the sense of a dramatic reversal. I had to disappoint a number of interviewers who wanted some sort of Damascus-road experience, because, in fact, Christianity had always been central to my life.


But there have been almost Damascene experiences that affected your faith, haven’t there?

Yes. When I was a curate in Bristol, I was suddenly very seriously ill. In fact, I thought I was going to die; and God seemed very far away, then, in that sort of barren experience. But I felt very conscious of people praying for me. I twice had an experience — I wouldn’t call it a vision, but a sort of waking dream — in which I saw one of the Sisters in the convent kneeling before the altar and praying for me, and I was strengthened by that, and grateful for it. It gave me a bit, a tiny bit, anyway, of deeper understanding of the communion of saints.


I notice that in your books you refer several times to obedience to the divine will. I take it that “kenosis”, which you are particularly interested in, is a form of that?

I think that the concept of kenosis (self-limitation) is very important in theology. If one may venture to say so, I think there is a divine kenosis in relation to creation, in that God is not the puppet-master pulling every string, but he allows people to be themselves, and to make themselves; and, indeed, the whole of creation, in appropriate ways, to be itself, and make itself.

A woman who has not married, and who devotes her life to her ageing father, for example — that’s a kenosis, and it’s certainly not costless. Also, I don’t believe that we are autonomous people, the peak of whose perfection is to decide everything for themselves, without any concern for what God might be saying to them or other people. We live in community. We are heteronomous.


How does kenosis relate to two of your other central theological concerns, theodicy and eschatology?

The God of love must give some degree of due freedom to creatures — freedom that’s appropriate to their natures. That means that God is not the cause of everything, and that is a kenosis on the part of God; it is omnipotence, allowing others to be themselves. If we understand evolutionary history in this way, it’s a great good, but it has to be purchased by the possibility of ragged edges and blind alleys.

To take a very simple example: the driving force of the amazing three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life on earth, from bacteria to you and me, has been genetic mutation. But you cannot have genetic mutation, producing new forms of life to be selected and sifted through natural selection, without having the possibility, also, of malignancy.

So the fact that there is cancer in the world is not a sign that God is gratuitously incompetent, or uncaring, but that it is the necessary cost of a world in which we people are allowed to be ourselves.


But does cosmic decay and eventual collapse, which science tells us is inevitable, imply a malignancy programmed into creation? Most people find it very difficult to understand a creator who destroys his creation.

If God has brought into being this world, which has the openness of structure that enables it to evolve in a free sort of way, then it’s going to have a degree of entropy in it. There are so many more different ways of being disorderly than orderly, and, in the end, entropy is always going to win. That’s the second law of thermodynamics.

But, of course, I believe that while God has given freedom to creatures to be, and make, themselves, that’s simply the first step in what is basically a two-step creation process.


How do you mean?

First of all, God creates creatures that exist at some distance from the veiled presence, and are able to be themselves, and make themselves. But, of course, the eventual purpose is to draw all creatures freely into encounter and exploration with the divine reality, increasingly unveiled. And that’s the concept of the new creation, which is pretty fundamental in the New Testament, and a concept beyond science’s grasp.

If you just take the scientifically discerned history of the world, the predictions that science, of itself, can make, then the world does seem to end in futility rather than fulfilment.


One of your best-known statements, from Exploring Reality (2005), is: “It is clear that science has not demonstrated the causal closure of the natural world.” This seems perfectly reasonable, but is it a plea for the “God of the gaps”?

I think that’s a good question. You have to ask yourself, “What’s wrong with gaps?” There are various sorts of gaps. Some gaps are simply gaps of current ignorance: we don’t understand this, we don’t know how to do that. A God of those sort of gaps is no God at all; as knowledge advances, he fades away.

But there are other gaps that are intrinsic, and some of them are intrinsic in the actual physical structure of the world as science has discovered it; and some of them are intrinsic for reasons connected with metaphysics rather than science.

Take the first ones: modern physics has discovered that there are intrinsic unpredictabilities present in physical processes — that is to say, unpredictabilities not due to the fact that we can’t calculate accurately, or measure precisely; they are just there.


I notice that several times in your most recent books you refer to quantum reality as “cloudy”, “fitful”, even “veiled”.

Yes, we have lost the simple clarity of Newtonian physics. Quantum theory can calculate, for example, the probability of a radioactive nucleus’s decaying, but it cannot establish whether this particular one is going to decay in the next hour or so. And then there are gaps of principle involved in questions that go beyond science’s self-limited power to answer. There are big questions.

Perhaps the biggest of these metaphysical questions is Leibniz’s great question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Why does the world exist at all, and why do the laws of nature exist with the remarkable properties they have?

We know that they have to take a very precise form, if the universe was to be capable of evolving carbon-based life; in fact, just producing carbon requires the laws of nuclear physics to take a very specific quantitative form in relation to that.


Did God have any choice, then?

Einstein said that, when he went to heaven, that was the first thing he was going to ask God. I think that the answer is, Yes, God did. I mean, it’s interesting that, at the end of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, when he’s explaining all about the beautiful equations of nature and so on, he then asks the question he should have asked himself earlier: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations, and makes a universe for them to describe?” And I think that God has chosen the world that we are able to describe in that sort of way.


I’ve read your Quantum Theory: A very short introduction (2002) several times, and can see why Niels Bohr said that anyone who thought that they fully understood quantum theory showed that they hadn’t begun to understand it. But you yourself explain that much of it is “unpicturable”, and many of its postulated particles haven’t been “observed directly in the laboratory”. So how empirical is quantum physics?

Very. The phenomena that we are trying to explain are carefully measured, and wonderfully accurately calculated. We know certain properties of electrons to an accuracy that represents the width of a human hair in relation to the distance between Los Angeles and New York, and that’s pretty exact.

We have the results, the “phenomenology” as we physicists tend to call it; we know that these are interesting things that go on in the world; they have these suggestive patterns about them. But how do they fit together? How are they consistent with each other? How can we actually use them to gain further understanding — to go beyond where we started? That’s when we try to find a theory.


Clearly, quantum theory is intensely mathematical. But if, according to Gödel’s Theorem, we can’t prove the consistency of axiomatised systems such as mathematics, isn’t quantum physics in danger of being self-verifying but not “falsifiable”, as Karl Popper required a truly scientific hypothesis to be?

I”m pretty critical of Popper’s logic of scientific discovery. Falsifiability is a much trickier concept than he really conceded — at least, in his original writings. A famous example is: all swans are white, until you go to Australia and then see a black swan. But is it really a black swan? Or is it a long-necked duck?

I think, ultimately, all physical theories — and, in fact, I think, ultimately, all human understandings of the nature of reality — have an element of commitment to a point of view that is not logically coercive.


What worries me about quantum physics, string theory, or Hawking’s stream of cosmological ideas, is that, in the absence of empirical observations or falsifiability, they seem more like metaphysics.

They are not simply unmotivated, airy speculations. At the end of the day, an appropriate degree of empirical accuracy is always going to be required. Paul Dirac once said that it was more important to have beauty in your equations than to have them fit physical experiment. By that, he didn’t mean that the fit didn’t matter, but simply that, if they didn’t seem to match, the experiment might be wrong, or you might have made a mistake in the calculations. Particularly people working in fundamental physics are deeply impressed with the order of the world. Not only is it orderly, but it is also beautifully ordered. The fundamental equations of physics are always found to be expressed in what mathematicians would recognise, and agree about, as being beautiful equations.


As a layman, I find it extraordinary that these very scientific chaps, such as Einstein, or Schrödinger, studying a physical reality, have such fierce metaphysical and aesthetic emotions.

But everyone has a metaphysics. It simply means their world-view. Somebody who tells you, for example, that there’s nothing to do with reality other than what physics can tell you about it, hasn’t learned that from his or her science: it’s a metaphysical assumption. Important interpretative issues in quantum physics demand, for their settlement, not only physical insight, but metaphysical decision. It has turned out that there are both deterministic and indeterministic interpretations possible of quantum physics.


Are you afraid of being thought to argue by analogy, which philosophers don’t like?

Theologians are less reluctant about analogy. Aquinas’s analogia entis (analogy of being) was an important part of his theological thinking. The point is, when we have to talk about entities that have properties that are not part of our common-sense experience of the world, we have to make use of analogy to get some sort of grip on things. And, of course, when you’re thinking about analogies, the interesting things are not only the things in common, but also the differences.


You end the last two chapters of Quantum Physics and Theology by emphasising that, for you, Trinitarian theology is the true “theory of everything”.

I think that theology is the theory of everything, because God is the ground of everything. It seems perfectly clear to me that science does not answer every question, and, therefore, we have to seek other insights as well. It’s not an argument that can be condensed into a sentence or two, but I believe that the most comprehensive way of understanding things is in terms of a theological view.

For example, the beautiful equations and deep intelligibility of the physical world are understood as being a reflection of the mind of God. Theology really does have a “scope” that enables it to be an integrating discipline. That’s why I say that I think the true theory of everything is theology. But, of course, that’s not a knock-down argument.


Patrick Miles is a Russianist with a lifelong interest in philosophy and religion.

© John Polkinghorne and Patrick Miles, 2015

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