Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Polkinghorne's Complementarity

Below is the report I wrote for my science, philosophy, and theology seminar last semester. We were limited to ten pages and asked to be highly focused, thus the length and the lack of detail.

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Preferring “a hut on the ground to a castle in the sky”:
John Polkinghorne, Critical Realism & the Complementarity of Science and Theology

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
January 21, 2009

I. Polkinghorne’s “project”

In his 2006 book, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding, John Polkinghorne offers a brief description of his project to build a complementary relationship between science and the Christian faith that accepts “the unity of knowledge…and the attainment of a harmonious and integrated view of the nature of reality”(83). He writes: “To put it in simple and directly personal terms, my experience as a physicist and my experience as a priest have to be capable of being held together, without compartmentalism or dishonest adjustment. . .One’s instinct to seek a unified view of reality is theologically underwritten by belief in the Creator who is that single ground of all that is” (83). He goes on to argue that the evident complexity of the universe—its finely tuned order and that order’s gift for creativity—must be given an explanation that accommodates “the constituent insights of elementary particle physics and the integrating insights of aesthetics and religious experience,” including the human experience of history and our “worshipful intuitions of eternity”(83). Polkinghorne’s search for scientific/theological complementarity will have to be firmly grounded in what he calls “a tentative view of reality that holds together, in a single account, the varied subjects of our discourse”(84). The tentative view of reality that Polkinghorne champions is called “scientific-critical realism.”

II. Initial Observations

Before delving into Polkinghorne’s epistemology of truth, it would be helpful to take note of how he understands the project of finding scientific/theological complementarity. He writes in Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World: “Recent years have seen a resurgence among scientists of the thought that those who seek the deepest attainable understanding of the world will have to 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”(7). Of note here is Polkinghorne’s insistence that the complementary relationship between science and theology is meant to be a way of finding “the deepest attainable understanding of the world.” Unlike theologians in the Intelligent Design movement and scientists who use their art to debunk the “myths” of theism, Polkinghorne is not interested in finding ways for science to “prove” his theology nor is he interested in having God fill the explanatory gaps of his most current scientific theory.

Insisting that any explanation of the universe—its origins, purpose, continuing existence—must be a fulsome explanation, even if that explanation proves to be an ideological inconvenience, Polkinghorne frames the question of complementarity this way in Quarks, Chaos & Christianity: “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”(9). The consequences of answering this question with “yes, we must choose one or the other” would be fatal for both the humane curiosity of the well-educated but non-believing scientist and for those who seek wisdom in sacred books and from sacred teachers. The faithful scientist and the enlightened believer would be well-served in Polkinghorne’s view by considering the cosmos and all of its constituent elements, rational and non-rational, the experienced and the experiencer, as a single artifact with just one artist. Pope Benedict XVI has suggested that we think of the cosmos as “a 'book'. . .considering it as the work of an Author who expresses himself through the 'symphony' of Creation…” (Homily for Epiphany, 2009). And like all symphonies or poems or paintings, there is a unifying element, a single phrase or note, a color or pattern that picks up the artist’s intent and becomes the key to understanding the artifact.

Pope Benedict, in this same homily, has suggested a name for the key theme, the patterned-color, the unifying note of creation. He continues, “Within this symphony [of creation], one finds, at a certain point, that which one would call in musical language a 'solo', a theme entrusted to one instrument or to one voice, which is so important that the significance of the entire work depends on it. This 'solo' is Jesus, to whom a regal sign corresponds: the appearance of a new star in the firmament”(2009). If this appears to be entirely too theological, that is, overly reliant on a divine revelation, remember that Polkinghorne’s project in bringing science and faith together is not a dilution of the Christian faith or materialist science. As he says early on, his project must proceed “without compartmentalism and [no] dishonest adjustment”(SC, 83). This means no shying away from the hard science of physics. And it means no convenient adjustments to Christian doctrine to rid us of the mystical bits. The strength of Polkinghorne’s project rest squarely on his resistance to any sort of compromise, any sort of concession from theology to science or vice-versa. Clearly evident in his work is a foundational commitment to understanding who and what we are as rational creatures within a knowable universe describable by the best science.

III. The Question(s)

In order to lay a foundation for discussing critical realism, it is necessary to unpack the initial question asked in Quarks, Chaos & Christianity: “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”(9) Two features of this question must bear the weight of immediate investigation: “complementary understandings” and “fuller picture.” Taking these two features separately, we have:

a. “complementary understandings”: In what sense can we say that radically different (even opposing) worldviews complement one another? This question is really more about what the divergent fields of inquiry have in common rather than a question about how they differ. Obviously, any attempt to explicate the differences between scientific inquiry and theological inquiry will produce different answers; but, will this meeting of the “minds” at a crossroads of discovery produce a complementary worldview? How does science and/or theology define what one means when one, as a scientist or theologian, says, “I understand X”? This question is much more than a question about the certitude of a propositional truth claim. What is at stake here is one’s allegiance to an epistemology, a whole way of taking in, making sense of, digesting, and using that which one is given as the most likely, given circumstances, of the One we call “true.” How does each come “to know the truth about X”? Assumed here, of course, is that “truth” is a knowable quality of X, or that some knowable quality of X can be said to be true. With this assumed, how do theologians and scientists separately or together come to a knowledge of a 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? Science and theology are both capable of providing comprehensive descriptions of the world as each defines the world. However, as competing descriptions of the world, each is complemented by the other in “filling out” a description that encompasses the material and the mental, the spatio-temporal and the spiritual, the developmental and the divine. 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? As a methodological premise this question admits that any comprehensive description of the universe is going to be “the fullest possible picture at this moment,” reserving the prerogative of either the scientist or the theologian or both together to declare an expansion in the description. That both these disciples are concerned with exploring the “frame” of the description as we have it is best situated in a discussion of Polkinghorne’s preferred notion of truth.

Critical realism, as an epistemological frame for acquiring knowledge and understanding truth, serves Polkinghorne’s project quite well precisely because as a theory of truth-finding, critical realism is welcomed among theologians and scientists alike. Polkinghorne writes, “. . .I see there to be a cousinly relationship between the ways in which theology and science each pursue truth within the proper domains of their interpreted experience. Critical realism is a concept applicable to both, not because there is some kind of entailment from method in one to method in another. . .but because the idea is deep enough to encompass the character of both these forms of human search for truthful understanding” (QPT, 15). Seeking after and acquiring this “truthful understanding” must begin by coming to terms with what we mean by “truth.”

III. Truth per se

Up until roughly the early modern period, the sciences of theology and natural philosophy shared a notion of truth that was best formulated by Thomas Aquinas as: "Veritas logica est adaequatio intellectus et rei"(ST.I.21.2). Brian Davies has rendered the Latin here to mean “truth consists in the matching of mind and reality”(254). Truth in this sense is not a quality possessed by the thing and apprehended by the mind nor it is the categorical imposition of the mind on the thing, rather truth here is understood to be an “adequating” relation between the mind and the real. Adaequatio describes the accommodation of the mind to the thing as the thing really is, but at the same time the thing’s intelligibility to the mind is accommodated to the mind by the mind’s limits. Thomas writes:

Now the mind, that is the cause of the thing, is related to it as its rule and measure; whereas the converse is the case with the mind that receives its knowledge from things. When therefore things are the measure and rule of the mind, truth consists in the equation of the mind to the thing, as happens in ourselves. For according as a thing is, or is not, our thoughts or our words about it are true or false. But when the mind is the rule or measure of things, truth consists in the equation of the thing to the mind; just as the work of an artist is said to be true, when it is in accordance with his art. (ST.1.21.2)

Clearly, according to Thomas, truth is not a quality to be apprehended nor a state of mind preceding apprehension. “Truth” is the relation of the measuring and ruling mind to the measured and ruled thing and vice-versa. Truth is neither found “in the thing,” objectively speaking, nor is truth merely invented by the mind. CR is an attempt to give us adequate knowledge of a mind-independent reality, but that knowledge is nonetheless dependent on the presence of a functioning human mind. Polkinghorne approvingly quotes Michael Polanyi from his book, Personal Knowledge: “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. . .” (QPT, 6).

Polkinghorne explains why CR is so attractive to scientists and theologians alike. In his book, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion, he writes: “The adjective [in the phrase ‘critical realism’] is necessary because something more subtle than na├»ve objectivity is involved. . .The noun [‘realism’] is justified because the best explanation of persistent scientific explanatory power and technological success is that science succeeds in describing, within the acknowledged limits of verisimilitude, the way things actually are”(3-4). In other words, scientists get a consistently workable means of explaining physical phenomena and theologians get a critical apparatus that allows for the movement of the divine among the physical. And both get a unified epistemology that is larger than all their prejudices combined.

IV. Truth from science

What contributions does Polkinghorne see science making to the building of the complementary relationship between faith and reason? Without a doubt Polkinghorne is a thorough-going advocate for the scientific method of uncovering truth. However, he is quick to point out that this method is not always what we need it to be: “The trouble with the simple view of scientific method is that it does not take into account the sophisticated web of interpretation and judgment 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’”(OW, 9). Despite this oversimplification by some, Polkinghorne points to the ability of the scientific method to make accurate predictions, to describe mathematically material properties not available for inspection to the senses, and the explanatory power that comes with the predictions and the maths.

If we follow Thomas and understand truth as an “adequating relationship” between mind and reality, then we can say that science provides the mind with reliable tool for “measuring and ruling” the real.

V. Truth from theology

Polkinghorne, as a scientist, is quite comfortable with the role he has assigned to science in this project of complementarity. Where does faith and theology come in? He writes, “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, 28). Theological reflection then is to be brought to bear on “the way things are.” Science will tell us how things really are in so far as they exist as material objects. Theology will tell us how those existing things mean; that is, our religious faith will provide us with all we need to understand how these existing things come to be meaningful for us. Earlier, we read Pope Benedict XVI calling Jesus the “solo” of the cosmic symphony—the one consistent note, the patterned-color, the first and last of the whole composed piece. Beyond the poetics of the moment, the Holy Father is pointing out that Jesus, fully-human and fully-divine, is the paradigm figure for bridging ostensibly unbridgeable gaps. As faithful men and women who treasure science’s ability to explain the otherwise inexplicable, we have in Christ an exemplary figure that shows us how to place the human mind graced by God “in front of” reality and see not only what is really there, objectively speaking, but also see and understand why what is there is there, subjectively speaking, speaking as one purchased by Christ.

VI. Complementarity?

At the very root of the complementarity Polkinghorne wishes to construct is this hard reality: “Religion is our encounter with divine reality, just as science is our encounter with physical reality”(QCC, 118). In so far as we are dealing with the really real, that is, an encounterable reality of some sort, the philosophical tools of critical realism provide for us a way of describing how the human mind encounters, collects, and understands any objectively existing reality. Facts about an objectively existing reality are held in the human mind as knowledge, and to the degree that this knowledge “matches” the real, we can say that what the mind knows is true. Polkinghorne is convinced that a judicious application of the critical realist epistemology in thinking through the relationship between science and theology would yield a wonderfully complementarity and provide those interested with many years of worthy research projects and fruitful discoveries.

Comparing and contrasting each field, Polkinghorne writes: “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”(SC,104). By adhering faithfully to the core methods of science and theology, the seeker wishing to take advantage of complementarity, will find analogies that point to, open up, spread around all the wisdom possible for the human mind to comprehend. The materialist defeat of religious faith will not give us a godless universe. It will only give us an inexpressible longing for the divine. The religious defeat of materialist dogma will not give us a universe immaculately explicated in biblical terms. It will only give us a stunted vocabulary for coloring the heavens and no more than our twenty fingers and toes to count the stars.

Works Cited

Davies, Brian and Brian Leftow. Aquinas: Summa theologiae, Questions on God. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Polkinghorne, John. One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. SPCK, 1986.

______________. Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion. Yale University Press, 2005.

______________. Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding. Templeton Foundation Press, 2006.

______________. Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. Yale University Press, 2007.