Saturday, November 8, 2008

Seminar: John Polkinghorne

Class notes for my presentation today in Science, Philosophy, Theology seminar:

The Rev’d John Polkinghorne: Truth in Science and Christian Theology
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
November 6, 2008

I. Biography

Rev Dr. John Polkinghorne KBE FRS, Cambridge University, England, is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow (and former President) of Queens' College,Cambridge. He was born 16th Oct 1930 in Weston-super-Mare, England, and was married to Ruth until she died in 2006. They have three children (Peter, Isobel and Michael). His distinguished career as a Physicist began at Trinity College Cambridge where he studied under Dirac and Abdus Salaam and others. He received his MA in 1956, was elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1954, and gained his PhD in 1955.

In 1979 he resigned his Professorship to train for the Anglican Priesthood, studying at Westcott House.

He was awarded the Templeton Prize for Science and Religion in 2002 and also in that year became the Founding President of the International Society for Science and Religion.

Dr.Polkinghorne believes that the universe is an "open" and "flexible" system, where patterns can be seen to exist, but where "the providential aspect cannot be ruled out." But, in fact, his own faith has little to do with physics. It stems, instead, from a more personal "encounter with Christ." When asked if his exacting scientific background makes him scornful of the vagaries of theology, he responds: "Far from it. Theology is much more difficult. Physics, at least at the undergraduate level, is a subject on which the dust has settled. In theology the dust never settles."

II. Initial Observation

“Recent years have seen a resurgence among scientists of the thought that those who seek the deepest attainable understanding of the world will have reckon with the possibility that it will be found in theism. The beautiful structure of the laws of physics—simple, yet subtle—together with the delicate balance of their operation, by which the world’s process is made fruitful, have seemed to many to speak of an Intelligence behind the unfolding evolution of the universe” (Science and Providence, pg. 7).

III. The Question(s)

“Do we have to choose between [scientific and religious worldviews] or are they, instead, complementary understandings that, seen together, give us a fuller picture than either on their own would provide?” (Quarks, Chaos & Christianity, pg. 9)

a. “complementary understandings”:

How can radically different (even opposing) worldviews complement one another?

How does each worldview define “understanding,” in other words, what does a scientist/theologian mean when he/she says, “I understand X”?

How does each come “to know the truth about X”?

b. “fuller picture”:

In what sense can we say that each worldview provides a complete picture without the other? A less than complete picture?

Does the search for creating a “fuller picture” imply that there limits on the breadth and depth of our understanding regardless of which worldview we take? In other words, is this “picture” framed? If so, by what and how?

III. Truth per se

a. "Veritas logica est adaequatio intellectus et rei" (Truth consists in the equation of mind and thing)[…]”(ST.I.21.2)

b. Critical realism: CR "is a philosophical view of knowledge. On the one hand it holds that it is possible to acquire knowledge about the external world as it really is, independently of the human mind or subjectivity. That is why it is called realism. On the other hand it rejects the view of naïve realism that the external world is as it is perceived. Recognizing that perception is a function of, and thus fundamentally marked by, the human mind, it holds that one can only acquire knowledge of the external world by critical reflection on perception and its world. That is why it is called critical" (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion).

c. St. Thomas Aquinas, “Is God Truth? [. . .] I answer that, As said above (art. 1), truth is found in the intellect according as it apprehends a thing as it is; and in things according as they have being conformable to an intellect. This is to the greatest degree found in God. For His being is not only conformed to His intellect, but it is the very act of His intellect; and His act of understanding is the measure and cause of every other being and of every other intellect, and He Himself is His own existence and act of understanding. Whence it follows not only that truth is in Him, but that He is truth itself, and the sovereign and first truth” (ST I.16.5).

d. “Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality. . .” (Michael Polyani, Personal Knowledge, pg. vii-viii).

IV. Truth from science

“Science […] enlightens our minds and enlarges our imaginations […] Science tells us what makes the stars shine, why water is water, how genetic information is conveyed from one generation to the next […] Not only does science answer questions, it does so to universal satisfaction”(QCC, 12).

“One of the most significant [difference between science and faith] is that science deals with the physical world that is at our disposal to kick around or pull apart as we please. In short, science can put things to the experimental test. God, however, is not at our disposal in this way […] In the realm of personal experience, whether between [sic] or with God, we all know that testing has to give way to trusting”(QCC, 22).

“The trouble with the simple view of scientific method is that it does not take into account the sophisticated web of interpretation and judgement involved in any experimental result of interest […] Experiments are always theory-laden. The dialogue between observation and comprehension is more subtle and mutually interactive than is represented by the simple confrontation of prediction and result […] Our scientific seeing is always ‘seeing as’”(One World, pg. 9).

“As in a political revolution, so in a paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the consent of the relevant community. To discover how scientific revolutions are effected, we shall therefore have to examine not only the impact of nature and of logic, but also the techniques of persuasive argumentation effective within the quite special groups that constitute the community of scientists”(quoted in OW, pg. 13 from Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

V. Truth from theology

“If there is a God he is a hidden God. He does not make himself known unambiguously in acts of transparent significance, invariably preserving those who trust him from every misfortune and regularly restraining and punishing the acts of transgressors. Neither prayer nor blasphemy is a magical lever which can be used to act upon God to make demonstrate his existence. He is not to be put to the test, either by the demand for particular outcome or by challenge to his authority”(OW, pg. 26).

“The view of theological enterprise which I would wish to defend is summed up in a splendid phrase of St. Anselm: fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. Thus conceived, theology is reflection upon religious experience, the attempt to bring our rational and ordering faculties to bear upon a particular part of our interaction with the way things are”(OW, pg 28).

St Thomas Aquinas, “Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required […] I answer that, It was necessary for man's salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason […] But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man's whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation” (ST. I. 1.1).

VI. Complementary?

“Religion is our encounter with divine reality, just as science is our encounter with physical reality”(QCC, pg 118).

“Theology shares the lack of power to manipulate and interrogate its material with all other forms of intrinsically personal knowledge. This contrasts with the power of testing inquiry possessed by the impersonal mode of scientific investigation […] Scientific knowledge is concerned with generalities—what all can find if they choose to look. In consequence, it has a repeatable, and so shareable, character to it. Personal encounter is always idiosyncratic, because each individual is unique. We may find analogies in the experience of others but never identity”(Science and Creation, pg. 104).

“The true God, the Creator [i.e., not the “god of the gaps”], is related to the whole of creation, not just the bits that are hard to understand. Theology’s job is not to rival science on its own ground (the How questions) but to complement science by offering its own more profound kind of understanding (the answers to the Why questions)”(Traffic in Truth, pg. 30).

CCC.159 "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth”( Dei Filius 4: DS 3017). "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are”( GS 36.1).

VII. Questions for discussion

1. Does Polkinghorne’s complementary model of the interaction between science and theology suggest a single source of truth? Or, are we directed to look for a “double source”?

2. Can we grab onto some notion of unifying theory as a way of linking science and theology; that is, could we argue, for example, that the so-called transcendentals (true, good, beautiful) best describe the results of both scientific experiment and religious experience?

3. How does Polkinghorne’s use of critical realism square with Aquinas’ notion of truth as a “received given”?

4. How can we faithfully account for the content of divine revelation given the distinctions Polkinghorne makes between the How questions of science and the Why questions of theology?

5. Given that distinction, how do we account for the event of revelation itself; that is, how do we come to some complementary understanding of the Christ-event if theological inquiry is limited to asking Why questions?

6. The CCC (159) declares that “faith is above reason.” How are we to understand this assertion in light of Polkinghorne’s arguments for a complementary investigation of the whole of reality using the best lights of science (reason) and theology (faith)?