Reformed Seminary, College, Free Sermons, Scholarly Resources, and Overseas Missions Opportunities

Sola Scriptura | Reformation Christian Ministries

 

 

[~][`]

 

Scripture and Science In Conflict by Prof. Philip Stott Introduction

Scripture and Science In Conflict by Prof. Philip Stott Site Map
 

The Creation and Structure of the Physical World

By John C. Polkinghorne

In this essay we see a highly intelligent and well educated physicist, convinced of the correctness of current theories in science, arguing the case for theology. He illustrates a problem which the majority of theist scientists face if they wish to associate their theism with Christianity - the necessity of accepting the Scriptures as somehow authoritative, and the necessity of interpreting it with a hermeneutic which places authority elsewhere. Polkinghorne seems to be left with no alternative but to rest his claim for authority on personal experience.

"The intelligibility and tightly-knit structure of the world provide the basis of a revived natural theology. The feeling that there is more to the world than meets the scientific eye encourages the thought of an Intelligence behind its processes. It is the scientists themselves who have seen things that way while their theological colleagues have remained surprisingly unconcerned."

OUR modern understanding of the structure of the physical world originates in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. It has been argued persuasively by Michael Foster1 and others that it was the Christian doctrine of creation which enabled this step to be taken in Western Europe, a step which had not proved possible in the equally technically advanced setting of, say, Chinese culture. To the Christian, God is reasonable and so the works of the Creator are intelligible and open to rational inspection. Yet, because God is free, there is a contingency in creation which means that its order cannot be determined by a priori thought but must be discerned through experimental observation. Torrance puts this very well when he says: "The intelligibility of the universe provides science with its confidence, but the contingency of the universe provides science with its challenge."2 The separation which Christian theology maintains between Creator and creation desacralizes the world and so makes its contingency open to empirical inquiry, free from the danger of impiety. Because the universe is God's creation, it is a fit subject for study. Thus it was that in the seventeenth century Christian theology provided the ideological setting in which science could embark on its task of investigating the pattern and structure of the physical world.

I

Ironically, the fledgling of the seventeenth century threatened to become a cuckoo in the nest as it grew up. The advance of physical understanding looked like demoting God to a detached deistic role. After the worlds had been set aspinning, Newton's laws took over and were perfectly competent to deal with the subsequent evolution of the universe. Sir Isaac had thought that divine intervention, angelically applied, might be necessary from time to time to preserve the integrity of the solar system and prevent its wobbling apart. His great successor, the Marquis de Laplace, showed that there was an inherent stability in gravitational interactions which enabled him to dispense with that divine hypothesis. Eventually, even the notion of the Divine Mechanic, the contriver of clever devices, proved unnecessary. Darwin pulled the rug from beneath the feet of Paley and his fellow apologists by showing how natural selection of random variations could provide the appearance of design without need for the intervention of a Designer. Science had come of age and seemed ready to disown its parent, Christianity.
To a very large extent, the problem had arisen from defective theological thinking. God had come to be regarded as a cause among causes, an agent at work alongside other agencies in the world. The sovereign Creator had become no more than an ingenious demiurge, restraining the teetering planets and assembling complicated creatures. The divine role was to explain the currently inexplicable, a time-dependent assignment, subject to decay with the advance of knowledge. There are always puzzling areas in our understanding of the world, but there is no reason to suppose that there are scientific no-go areas. Questions which are scientifically posable seem likely to prove to be scientifically answerable, however difficult it may prove at times to find what the actual answers are. The undeniable limitations of science arise from its self-imposed boundaries, its restriction to certain types of inquiry, that is, to issues of an impersonal and testable character. Within its own domain, it does not call for theological augmentation.

The God that Laplace and Darwin did not need to invoke was that straw deity, the God of the Gaps. The devout Methodist and distinguished theoretical chemist, Charles Coulson, who invented that phrase, once said briskly about murky areas in contemporary science: "When we come to the scientifically unknown, our correct policy is not to rejoice because we have found God; it is to become better scientists."3

God's activity in creation is not to be located with intervention in the world, either with or against the grain of physical law. Rather, it is to be found in those laws themselves, of which God is the guarantor. God is not a cause among causes but the sustainer and orderer of the world. Its regularities, discerned by science, are the pale reflections of God's faithfulness. To say that is not to assume a detached deistic role, so that once God had lit the blue touch paper of the big bang, the universe was left to get on with its own development. Such an understanding would attribute a false autonomy to nature and its laws. Those laws, and the universe that embodies them, are held in being solely by the Logos, the Word and Reason of God, eternally uttered.

But is all that just a flourish of theological rhetoric? After all, one can hardly put it to the test, as if we could withdraw the divine presence and see if the world collapses. All theological assertions partake of the nature of faith and so share in the risks inherent in such commitment. That does not mean, however, that the insights of faith are not rationally motivated. We do not shut our eyes and believe what we will. There is no unique way of proceeding from inspection of the physical world to the construction of a metaphysical scheme, such as the doctrine of creation, but, equally, it is not possible rationally to erect an arbitrary metaphysical edifice upon a given physical foundation. Questions of congruity constrain us. Our scientific and theological insights have to fit together. As a minister and a physicist, I am aware of that need for a consonant relationship between our understandings of the physical universe and of our encounter with God.

As far as the doctrine of creation is concerned, the proper place to look for such congruence is in the pattern and structure of the physical world, the nexus of law and circumstance which forms the data, the given, which science assumes in its theory of the world. Every intellectual endeavor must have its irreducible starting point, the unexplained in terms of which its explanations are to be framed. If the role of the Creator is that of the universal sustainer and orderer of the world, rather than that of an ingenious intervenor in its processes, then it is to these foundational acts of scientific faith that we should look for consonance with our belief in God. The endeavor to do so declines to dispute with physics on its own territory (as the old style God of the Gaps tried to do), but it seeks instead to incorporate that territory in a wider realm of metaphysical coherence.

Such a quest seems to me to be obligatory, in one form or another, for all who wish to attain a unified understanding of the world in which we live. Quite frankly, science by itself is not enough. It leaves too many questions unanswered. But, you may say, are we not in danger of an intellectual infinite regression if we demand an explanation of everything, a regression which is only avoided by the trick of inventing an inexplicable God to put a stopper to it? After all, we have to start somewhere, and are not the laws of fundamental physics and the brute fact of the world's existence as good an irreducible basis as that provided by belief in a Creator? Certainly they seem to be better known and more widely agreed to than God is. I would reply that our intellectual restlessness can only find quiet where it also finds satisfaction. It is a remarkable fact that there has been a growing feeling among physicists that science, by the very character of its discoveries, raises questions which transcend its own power to answer. To their surprise, physicists feel an urge to concern themselves with metaphysical issues. In the homely language we scientists employ, there is a widespread feeling among us that there is more to the world than meets the scientific eye.

A number of books have been written recently putting forth this point of view. Perhaps such a book is most striking when it comes from the pen of someone who in other writings has shown considerable lack of sympathy with conventional religious thought. Such a one is Paul Davies. He recently went so far as to write: "It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion."4 His book, God and the New Physics, is an account of those aspects of the structure of the physical world that lead him to this conclusion. The argument is innocent of any understanding of theology as an intellectual discipline, and it is indeed bizarre in its lack of balance. Davies, by declining to take account of the considerable body of claims to religious experience and insight, resembles nothing so much as a cosmologist who is only prepared to acknowledge what he can see through a telescope and who refuses the additional information about the nature of the universe offered to him by radio- and X-ray-astronomy. Nevertheless, within its self-limited terms of reference, the book is an interesting phenomenon.

II

The feeling that there is more to the world than meets the eye finds its scientific motivation at two different levels. The first is that fundamental intelligibility of the physical universe which makes science possible. The fact that we can understand the world is so familiar that most of the time we take it for granted. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is a highly significant fact about the way things are. What is perhaps more to the point, it also seemed so to Einstein. He once remarked that the only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.

At the articulate level of thought, it is mathematics that provides the perfect language with which to describe the pattern and structure of the physical world, the key to unlock its mysteries. Time and again, successful theories in fundamental physics have proved to be characterized by that unmistakable quality of economy and elegance which the mathematicians rightly call beauty. So frequently has this proved to be the case that a theoretical physicist, offered a putative theory which is clumsy or contrived in its mathematical character, will instinctively feel that it cannot be right. This power of mathematics to mirror physical reality has survived crises so grave that they might have seemed to threaten the subversion of science's rationality. The dilemma of the early years of this century that faced physicists when they realized that light behaved sometimes as a wave and sometimes as if composed of particles is a case in point. One might have thought that this was a clash of contrarities which would have defied rational synthesis. However, Dirac worked the necessary dialectical trick by his invention of the formalism of quantum field theory.

Human reason has always proved equal to the tasks set it by the phenomena of physics. It could so easily have been otherwise. Suppose we had access only to the geometrical rationality of the circle and that the analytic rationality of the calculus and the inverse square law was closed to us. Then our gropings after the structure of the solar system would have been condemned to an endless proliferation of epicycle upon epicycle (whether in the spirit of Ptolemy or in the spirit of Copernicus) with the pattern of Newton's great theory forever hidden from us. But it has not proved so. There is a remarkable congruence between the experienced rationality of our minds and the perceived rationality of the world around us. Dirac expressed his faith in this congruity when he wrote:

It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment... because the discrepancy maybe due to minor features which are not properly taken into account and which will get cleared up with further developments in the theory.... It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has a really sound instinct, one is on a sure line of success.5

In this passage, he draws our attention to a second aspect of the way in which human reason is so successful in exploring the physical world. The reference to "a really sound instinct"-something which Dirac himself possessed in abundance-reminds us of that tacit side to scientific activity which Polanyi emphasized in his account of the scientific method.6 The choice of questions to ask, the interpretation of experimental results, the elimination of spurious "background" effects, the judgment when a discrepancy is serious or venial, all these call for the exercise of skills which are not exhaustively specifiable but which are essential for the scientific enterprise. I would wish to add to that list the skillful exercise of induction, for I do not think that mere falsifiability gives an account of scientific method which is adequate to actual scientific experience, whose fundamental character is that of discovery. The great success of science in settling questions to universal satisfaction (Is matter composed of atoms? Are atoms composed of electrons and nuclei? Are nuclei composed of protons and neutrons? Are protons and neutrons composed of quarks and gluons?), this success indicates that our tacit powers of judgment are as adequate for the successful discernment of the pattern and structure of the physical world as are our explicit mathematical abilities.

Some may feel that I am in danger of being carried away in scientifically triumphalist euphoria. Well, in my professional lifetime as a physicist, I lived through the advance in our understanding of the structure of matter which took us from protons and neutrons to quarks and gluons. It was a heady experience. And that experience was made possible by the marvelous intelligibility of the world, its transparency to human reason.

Is that just our luck or has it a deeper significance about the way things are?

Let me return to Einstein. He once said:

In every true searcher of nature there is a kind of religious reverence; for he finds it impossible to imagine that he is the first to have thought out the exceedingly delicate threads that connect his perceptions. The aspect of knowledge which has not yet been laid bare gives the investigator a feeling akin to that of a child who seeks to grasp the masterly way in which elders manipulate things.7

Although not a conventionally religious man, Einstein often spoke of God, whom he referred to in comradely terms as "the Old One."

If the congruence between the experienced rationality of our minds and the perceived rationality of the world is to find a deeper explanation, it must lie in some rational basis which is common to both. An elegant and persuasive understanding would be provided by recognizing the undergirding reason of the Creator, who is the ground of all that is. To refuse to take that step would be to leave oneself with an unresolved coincidence, an action which is contrary to all the instincts of the scientist. If the search for rational understanding is so successful in our exploration of the physical world, must it not also be pursued beyond that world of science into realms of wider metaphysical coherence?

I am greatly in sympathy with the Bishop of Birmingham when he writes:

Here I must declare myself and say that I believe very strongly in the Principle of Sufficient Explanation.... It seems to me extraordinary that many who spend their lives exercising their minds on human problems or on the investigation of the natural world... should state categorically that the mind has no right to ask "Why" questions about the universe in which we live. To me, this is a dogma every bit as objectionable as religious dogma appears to rationalists.8

The great expositor of such a point of view has been the Jesuit philosopher, Bernard Lonergan. His whole metaphysics is built upon the analysis of, the centrality of, and ultimately the apotheosis of understanding. He does not hesitate to declare that "since we define being by its relation to intelligence, necessarily our ultimate is not being but intelligence."9 That sounds like the creed of a professor! It often seems that for Lonergan God is the Great Explanation, so that he proclaims that "God is the unrestricted act of understanding, the eternal rapture glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of Eureka."10 Certainly, it is part of the attractiveness and coherence of theism that it offers insight into the rationality of the world, as well as into such features, indispensable to a whole view of reality, as the existence of beauty and of the moral order.

III

The second level of thought which motivates our feeling that there is more to the world than meets the scientific eye pertains to the character of the laws and circumstance revealed to rational inquiry. We have become aware in recent years of what appears to be a very delicate balance necessary in the data of our world if it is to be capable, in the course of its unfolding process, of evolving such interesting systems as you and me. In other words, if we played at God and wrote down a prescription for a universe-dictated its fundamental physical laws, prescribed the values of the physical constants which control the balance between the different forces described by those laws, specified the initial conditions from which the world derived its particular character-then, unless we had been meticulously careful in the mutual adjustment of the data of that prescription, our world would be one in which nothing interesting would happen. That is to say, it would not through its evolution prove capable of producing systems of the complexity which seems necessary if conscious beings are to appear upon its scene. Random twiddling of the "knobs of the universe" will get you nowhere as a Creator. Fine tuning is necessary if humans are to come into being. This insight is sometimes called the anthropic principle.

Let me give some examples of the considerations which lead to this conclusion. In the very early stages of its existence, the whole universe was hot enough to be a gigantic arena for nuclear reactions. However, quite quickly-after about three minutes, in fact-the expansion of the universe had so cooled it down that nuclear reactions ceased, only to start up again much later in the interiors of stars, formed by local condensation. Thus, those hectic first three minutes11 fixed the gross nuclear structure of the universe as we still find it today: three-quarter hydrogen and one-quarter helium. The precise proportion of these two elements depends upon the mutual relationship of the fundamental forces of physics, in particular the balance between the weak nuclear force, which causes some nuclei to disintegrate, and the other forces. Had this balance been only a little different from its actual value, then we should not be here, for either the world would be all helium and no hydrogen or there would be no supernova explosions in stars. Either would have disastrous consequences for the possibility of the existence of life. In the first case, if there were no hydrogen, there would be no water, and we cannot imagine life evolving without that vital substance. On the other hand, if supernovae did not explode, then the heavier elements, such as carbon and iron, which are also essential for life and which are only made by localized nuclear processes in the interiors of stars, would have remained locked up forever in dying stellar cores and so would have been unavailable for incorporation into living systems. We are all made of the ashes of dead stars. Thus, without that particular balance between strong and weak nuclear forces that we actually observe, we should not be here today.

A second example relates to the circumstance of the world, namely that it is very big. Our sun is just an ordinary star among the hundred thousand million stars of our galaxy, which itself is nothing to speak about among the thousand million galaxies of the observable universe. We sometimes feel daunted at the thought of such immensity. We should not. If the world were not about that big, we should not be here to be dismayed by it. A smaller universe would have run its course before we had time to appear upon its scene. It takes about eighteen thousand million years to make us the way we are.

A third example may relate either to the character of universal law or to particular circumstance, according to how things work out. The phenomenon to which it draws attention is the incredibly delicate balance between two competing effects in the early universe. One is the force of expansion, present in the singular explosion of the big bang, driving matter apart. The other is the force of gravity, pulling matter together. At a very early epoch (the Planck time), these two competing effects, expansion and contraction, were so closely balanced that they differed from each other by just one part in 1060. The numerate will marvel at such accuracy. For our innumerate friends, let us translate that into pictorial terms. If I took a target an inch wide and placed it on the other side of the observable universe, eighteen thousand million light years away, and took aim and hit the target, then I would have achieved an accuracy for one in 1060. Remarkable! But once again, if there were not this delicate balance between expansive effects and contractive effects, then we would not be here to be astonished at it. In a universe in which expansion predominated even a little bit more, matter would fly apart too quickly for it to be able to condense into stars and galaxies. In so dilute a world, nothing interesting would happen. On the other hand, if the forces of contraction predominated even a little bit more, then the universe would have collapsed in on itself again before there had been time for anything interesting to happen. Therefore, if you are going to play at Creator and set up a universe, make sure that you get the balance between expansion and contraction right if you want your world to have a fruitful history. [I find it interesting that physicists, who usually work from the known towards the unknown, choose to do the opposite in this case. The reasoning "given the big bang, the chance of producing observed reality is miniscule" would more normally be "given observed reality, the chance of it having been produced by a big bang is miniscule" P.R.S]

It is possible that this balance can be achieved, not by having to put it into the specification of initial circumstance but by a suitable choice of the universe's basic physical laws. An ingenious young American, Alan Guth, has suggested that there might have been what he calls "an inflationary scenario" for the universe.12 This is a process rather like the "boiling" of space, in which a very rapid expansion of the world takes place. If that is correct, it would not only explain the delicate balance between expansion and contraction but also other puzzling properties of the universe, such as its high degree of isotropy. (It looks the same in all directions.) Guth's suggestion is highly speculative, and it would be wise to bear in mind the warning about cosmologists uttered by the great Russian theoretical physicist, Lev Landau, that they are "often in error but never in doubt." However, even if Guth is right, his inflationary scenario depends for its possibility on the form and balance of the basic laws of physics, so once again one would have to be careful in framing one's prescription for the world.

As with the intelligibility of the world, so with the anthropic principle: is it just our luck or has it a deeper significance about the way things are? Scientists have certainly felt uneasy about the question and have sought to carry its discussion further. Various lines of attack have been pursued.

One suggests that if we understood things properly, we should find that there is only one rationally coherent theory of the physical world that is actually possible, completely specified in all its characteristics. In other words, the cosmic "knobs" cannot be twiddled after all. Relativistic quantum theory is very subtle and perhaps what seem like arbitrary quantities-the balance of strong and weak nuclear forces, for instance-may have to be exactly as they are if the theory is really to be totally consistent. Such a suggestion, if it were successful, would simply reduce our second consideration (the laws and circumstance of the world) to the first (the rationality of the world). The claim being made goes far beyond our present knowledge, and it also seems to me to be intrinsically improbable. Quantum electrodynarnics, which describes the interaction of electrons and photons, is a beautiful and highly successful physical theory. I cannot see any rational impossibility in a world made up solely of electrons and photons, though we should not be part of it to enjoy its intellectual coherence.

A second suggestion is that perhaps there is a portfolio of different universes, each with a different setting of the cosmic "knobs." Then, if there were enough of them, it would scarcely be surprising if by chance in one of them the tuning were fine enough for us to appear on its scene. Of course, that is the one in which we live because we could not turn up anywhere else. This ample proposition is sometimes alleged to be supported by the notion of an oscillating universe, endlessly collapsing into a sort of cosmic melting pot and reemerging thence, it is suggested, with its parameters changed by a mysterious process beyond the present power of science to investigate. Thus, a temporal succession of possible worlds would be generated. Alternatively, the highly contentious "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics is invoked.13 This proposes that at every act of quantum measurement, the world divides into a series of "parallel" universes, in each of which one of the possible results of the measurement actually occurs. However, that bizarre theory in no way suggests changes in cosmic parameters. The fact is that none of these ideas about multiple worlds is part of physics; they have no motivation at all in terms of our understanding of the pattern and structure of the physical world that we actually experience. In the strictest sense of the word they are metaphysical speculation.

The same can be said for the even cloudier proposition of the strong anthropic principle, which declares that in some unexplained way the emergence of human beings as observers forces the parameters of the world to assume values that permit that emergence. Here we would, with a vengeance, be hoisting ourselves by our own bootstraps.

There is nothing wrong with metaphysical speculation, but it should be recognized as such and. not tricked out as pseudo-science. It seems to me that a metaphysical idea of much more economy and elegance is that there is just one world, which is the way it is, in its order and delicate balance, because it is the creation of a Creator who wills it to be capable of fruitful evolution.

IV

The intelligibility and tightly-knit structure of the world provide the basis of a revived natural theology.14 The feeling that there is more to the world than meets the scientific eye encourages the thought of an Intelligence behind its processes. It is the scientists themselves who have seen things that way while their theological colleagues have remained surprisingly unconcerned. The theologians are mostly either ignorant of what modern science has to say, or are so confident in revelation that they feel no need of ancillary help from general reason, or-mindful of the fate of Paley and the authors of the Bridgewater treatises-they are excessively wary of the whole enterprise of natural theology.

Such wariness fails to recognize that a revived natural theology is also a revised natural theology. It differs from its predecessors in two respects. Firstly, it is more modest in its claims. It presents itself, not as a demonstrative discipline, but as an insightful inquiry into the nature of the world. It does not assert that God's existence can be proved, but it seeks to persuade us that God provides that sufficient reason which can make satisfying sense of the remarkable world revealed to our investigations. It is in this search for an understanding of the world through and through, to its very fundamentals, that we discover the meaning of Augustine's claim that we must believe in order that we may understand.

Secondly, a revised natural theology looks for the source of its insight, not to particulars-the emergence of life, the structure of the eye, even the complexity of the human brain-but to the root structure of the physical world, the data of scientific inquiry. Its concern, therefore, is with laws and not with occurrences. Its God is not a God of the Gaps, competing with science as the explanation of events and continually being jostled off the stage of the world by the advance of knowledge.

Rather, God is the Sustainer of the World, whose faithful will for material creation is expressed in those patterns of regularity which are the given of scientific inquiry. God is found, not in the gaps of knowledge, but in the fact of knowledge. William Temple once said that the fact of knowledge is more important than all known facts.

My case for a revived and revised natural theology rests ultimately on the order of the world. It would not be candid of me if I did not acknowledge the existence of three threats to that picture of wonderful order that I have presented. The first might seem to be posed by quantum theory, for it has dissolved the clear and determinate world of everyday into a cloudy, fitful world at its constituent roots.15 For a subatomic particle, such as an electron, if I know where it is I do not know what it is doing, and if I know what it is doing, I do not know where it is. That is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in a nutshell. Can the appeal to order survive such strange elusiveness in nature? Quantum theory deals in probabilities rather than certainties. At the level of elementary particles, it seems that God does indeed play at dice. In general, no cause is to be assigned to individual quantum mechanical events; their regularities are purely statistical.

There is a peculiar insubstantiality in the world. We may think that Dr. Johnson had a point, in his bluff way, when he kicked the stone and asserted that he refuted Bishop Berkeley thus. However, that solid seeming stone is mostly empty space and what is not is a weaving of wave mechanical patterns. Even logic is subject to modification in the quantum world. You tell me that Bill is at home and that he is either drunk or sober. Neatly employing the distributive law of classical logic, I conclude that I will either find Bill at home drunk or I will find him at home sober. Who could doubt so transparent a conclusion? Yet a similar argument applied to electrons would, in fact, be fallacious and von Neumann and Birkoff had to invent a special quantum logic to apply to their behavior.

I could go on telling weird travellers' tales of those who voyage in the quantum world. Its elusive and counter-intuitive character has seemed to some more suggestive of the dancing, dissolving thought of the religions of the Far East16 than the sternly realist tone of the religions of the Near East. I do not agree. However idiosyncratic elementary particles may prove to be in their behavior, they have their own essential reality, even if it differs from the naive objectivity of everyday experience.

I reject the positivist views of people like Niels Bohr who treated quantum theory as just a highly successful manner of speaking about the behavior of laboratory apparatus. Such a view is an inadequate account of scientific experience. When physicists at CERN got very excited in 1983 because they considered that they had discovered the heavy W and Z particles predicted by elementary particle theory, they were not just rejoicing at an ingenious account of the behavior of an elaborate and expensive array of electronic detectors. They believed-and rightly in my opinion-that they had added to our knowledge of what is. If I am to defend this realist position about quantum entities, I think that ultimately I have to do so by asserting that it is our ability to understand them that assures us of their reality. In the unpicturable quantum world, we have to rely on intelligibility as the criterion of reality. That gives physics something in common with Western theology as the latter pursues its quest for insight into the nature of the Unpicturable, transcendent as well as imminent in the rational ordering of the process of the world.

A more serious threat might be thought to be posed by the realization that that evolving process of the world depends for its fruitfulness upon a delicate interplay between chance and necessity.17 Chance-the random congregation of atoms or the mutation of a gene-is the source of novelty. Without its operation, nothing new would happen. But without the presence of a lawfully regular environment to preserve and select these fortuitous variations, all would vanish again like smoke in the wind. The role of chance has been held by some to preclude the possibility of meaning in the workings of the world. Its end point is not foreseeable from its beginning. Jacques Monod expressed this with Gallic intensity when he wrote: "Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution."18 For Monod the universe is a tale told by an idiot.

Monod reaches this conclusion by his concentration on the chance half of the partnership. Let us consider for a moment the sphere of lawful necessity. The aspects of the behavior of atoms, relevant to the coming-into-being of life and its subsequent elaboration, are adequately accounted for by the laws of electromagnetism (which is the controlling force of interaction in this regime) and the laws of quantum theory (which is the appropriate form of dynamics describing the effects of that force).

When I first read of the speculations of biochemists like Monod about the origin of replicating molecules and life, I was bowled over by the thought of the astonishing fruitfulness of these simple laws-the thought that such equations could eventually lead to you and me. It spoke to me of a deep-seated potentiality present in the structure of the world, an insight of design which gripped my imagination. I am not a natural Teilhardian, but, for once, I could follow de Chardin in apostrophizing matter: "You I acclaim as inexhaustible potentiality for existence and transformation."19

The role of chance is to explore and realize that potentiality present in the pattern and structure of the physical world. To be sure, the final details of the end are not prescribed in the beginning. No doubt there are accidental features in humankind, such as the precise number of toes. But we have no reason to suppose that it is an accident that the raw material of matter is capable of evolving, in one form or another, into conscious beings, transcending their origin and capable of communion with their Creator.

I would argue that the balance between chance and necessity that we observe in the workings of the world is consonant with that balance between the gift of freedom and the reliability of purpose which should characterize Love's act of creation. I have written elsewhere:

Theology has always been in danger of a double bind in relation to physical causation. A tightly deterministic universe, evolving along predetermined lines, seems to leave little room for freedom and responsibility. It is congenial only to deistic indifference or the iron grip of Calvinistic predestination. On the other hand, too loose a structure dissolves significance. Meaning can drown in the rising waters of chaos. A world capable of sustaining freedom and order requires an equilibrium between these rigidifying and dissolving tendencies.20

Chance signifies the vulnerability accepted by the Creator in making room for creation; necessity reflects the divine steadfastness in relation to it. No scientific umpire can adjudicate between Monod and my own view in our different judgments of the world. We agree on the physical circumstances (though he understood them much better than I do) but find conflicting significance in them. Both natural theology and natural atheism partake of the nature of faith and find their motivations from wider realms of understanding than the strictly scientific.

V

The most severe threat to claimed significance is posed by the third matter which we must consider, namely the ultimate futility of the physical universe. We do not know for sure the future fate of the world. It depends on the precise nature of the near balance between expansion and contraction in the cosmic process. If the forces of expansion prove just to be the victors, then the matter of the world will continue to fly apart for ever. Within galaxies, however, it will contract under gravity to form gigantic black holes which, after almost inconceivable lengths of time, will decay by Hawking radiation. If, as some modern speculative theories in elementary particle physics suppose, the proton is an unstable particle with a lifetime in excess of 1031 years, then the nuclear pattern of the world will already have disintegrated long before this happens. By one route or another, according to this scenario, the universe will decay.

No less dismal is the prospect if the forces of contraction gain a marginal victory. Then the expansion that we presently observe will eventually be halted and reversed. The universe which began in the fiery explosion of the big bang will collapse in upon itself again to terminate in the fiery implosion of the big crunch.

Neither scenario that I have sketched seems encouraging to those who look for an ultimate purpose fulfilled within the history of the physical universe. Macquarrie was sufficiently dismayed by such a prospect to write: "Let me say frankly, however, that if it were shown that the universe is indeed headed for an all-enveloping death, then this might seem to constitute a state of affairs so negative that it might be held to falsify Christian faith and abolish Christian hope."21

Such a reaction strikes me as extreme. After all, Christian faith and hope have never been centered on utopian expectations for this present world. We cannot suppose that Macquarrie has never heard of the resurrection from the dead and the life of the world to come. Modern science simply makes plain with deadly earnestness the fact that if in this life only we have hope, the prospect is pretty bleak, not just for us individually but also for the whole of the physical universe. If there is a purpose at work in the world, it can only find its lasting fulfillment in a destiny beyond what we now experience. Such a destiny is unimaginable, but I do not think that it is an incoherent possibility. We know that what counts is pattern-not the particular realization of that pattern but the pattern itself. Our material bodies change their physical constituents every few years. It is the information content of their organization that is preserved as the expression of our personal continuity. It does not seem in the least irrational to suppose that the pattern might be reconstituted in a new environment of God's choosing. For us, that would be the resurrection of the body. For the universe, it might be what Paul was groping after in those mysterious words in Romans when he spoke of the creation "subjected to futility" but also "subjected in hope" that it might "be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God."22 I think the empty tomb might have something to say to us here if we would-be willing to listen to its story, submitting ourselves to its insight rather than subjecting it to our prejudgment.

But if it's all going to be changed, why bother with the whole unsatisfactory process up to now? If fulfillment is in the new creation, what is the purpose of the old creation? Is not Macquarrie right after all to suggest that the decay of this present world is so negative a fate that it puts in question the hope of better things beyond it? The answer must lie in the preparatory processes of a God who chooses to work by unfolding development rather than by instantaneous decree. There is work for theologians to do in digesting these matters. I do not think the task is without clue or promise. Most of us Christians are content to face the prospect of the discarding and decay of our bodies without feeling that that denies the hope of a destiny beyond death. If that is true for us cosmic atoms, might it not be true for the cosmic whole?

It is time to face the question of what sort of God it is who is made known to us in the particularity of creation. Certainly this is not a God in a hurry. When one thinks of those eighteen thousand million years which elapsed from the big bang until conscious beings appeared, one can see that God is patient, content to achieve purposes through the slow unfolding of process. In that realization lies the small contribution that natural theology can make to that most agonizing of theological questions, the problem of the apparently wasteful suffering of the world. [The scriptural explanation - that death and suffering are a consequence of man's fall into sin - has to be rejected in the cosmology which Polkinghorne accepts. PRS]

The intelligible regularity of the universe reflects the rational reliability of its Creator. Its delicately balanced structure, intricately knit, evinces the subtlety of God's purpose to be achieved through the evolution of the world. The freedom which Love gives to its creation means that the potentiality with which the universe has been endowed is to be explored by the precarious interaction of chance and necessity and realized, not by the pronouncement of magical fiat, but by evolving development. If God's faithfulness implies that creation is orderly rather than fitfully manipulated; if the divine wisdom implies that creative purpose will be achieved by the anthropic potentiality inherent in the carefully adjusted balance of the universe; if love implies the acceptance of vulnerability by endowing the world with an independence which will find its way of development through the shuffling operations of chance rather than by rigid divine control; if all these things are true, then the world that such a God creates will have to look very much like the one in which we live, not only in its beautiful structure but also in its evolutionary blind alleys and genetic malfunctions.

We all tend to think that it would have been easy to have made things very differently, to have "twiddled the knobs" of the universe so as to have preserved the good and eliminated the bad. The anthropic principle gives pause to such facile speculation. I am not quite daring to say with Leibnitz that this is the best of all possible worlds, but the idea is not as manifestly foolish as one might at first sight have supposed, if the world is to be one of lawful process.

VI

What are the implications for theology generally of what we have been considering? I think they are considerable and need a sustained dialogue between scientists and theologians for their evaluation and digestion. If we believe in the unity of knowledge and experience, then advances in understanding in one realm of knowledge modify the tone and limit the range of acceptable insight in all others. There is an inescapable interaction between science and theology, as the whole of intellectual history from Copernicus through Darwin to the present day makes abundantly clear. That history is by no means one of continual warfare. Einstein once said that religion without science is blind and science without religion is lame. The two disciplines need each other.

Natural theology is alive and well and being practiced by scientists, however much it may be neglected or despised by theologians. It is important to recognize that there are reasons for believing in God which lie wholly outside our psyches. Such a realization would release contemporary theology from an undue dependence on existential analysis-a concern which, however necessary as part of a balanced exploration of experience, is, in isolation, always liable to threaten to reduce theology to anthropology. Natural theology also poses questions about the nature of God which general theological thought needs to take into account. For example, Bartholomew, in his important discussion of the role of randomness in the processes of the world, calls for "a doctrine of providence which, while allowing that God is ultimately responsible for everything that happens, does not require ultimate involvement in all things."23

In other words, God willed a world in which chance has a role to play, thereby both being responsible for the consequences accruing and also accepting limitation of God's power to control.

Natural theology is valuable, but it can only take us so far. People like Paul Davies, while they claim that physics provides a road to God, usually go on to say that they detect no sign of the personal God of Jews and Christians. The most they can assent to is the Divine Mathematician or the Grand Intelligence. We need hardly be surprised. Limited investigation yields limited insight. If one wishes to encounter the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, then one must be willing to take the risk of leaving the clear, beautiful, lunar landscape of science for the untidy, perplexing world of personal encounter. But to pursue that matter belongs to a different discourse.

Notes

John C. Polkinghorne is Vicar of St. Cosmas and St. Damian in the Blean, Kent, England, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Honorary Professor of Theoretical Physics, the University of Kent. This essay, delivered as a lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1986, is based on the Drawbridge Lecture given to the Christian Evidence Society, London, 1985. Dr. Polkinghorne is the author of The Quantum World (1984) and One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (1987).

1 M.B. Foster, Mind XLIII (1934), p. 446; R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Scottish Academic Press, 1972).
2 T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 58.
3 C.A. Coulson, Science and Religion: A Changing Relationship (Cambridge University Press, 1955), p. 2.
4 P. Davies, God and the New Physics (Dent, 1983), p. ix.
5 P.A.M. Dirac, Scientific American (May, 1963).
6 M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958).
7 A. Einstein quoted in A. Moszokowski, Conversations with Einstein (Horizon, 1970).
8 H. Montefiore, The Probability of God (SCM Press, 1985) p. 8.
9 B. Lonergan, Insight (Longman, 1957), p. 677.
10 Lonergan, ibid., p, 684,
11 S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (Andre Deutsch, 1977).
12 A.H. Guth and P.J. Steinhardt, Scientific American (May, 1994).
13 J.C. Polkinghorne, The Quantum World (Longman, 1984), chap. 6.
14 For a fuller discussion, see J.C. Polkinghorne, One World-The Interaction of Science and Theology (SPCK, 1986).
15 See Polkinghorne, Quantum World.
16 F. Capra, The Tao of Physics (Wildwood House, 1975) and G. Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Rider/Hutchinson, 1979).
17 D.J. Bartholomew, God of Chance (SCM Press, 1984).
18 J. Monod, Chance and Necessity (E.T.: Collins, 1972), p. 110.
19 T. de Chardin, Hymn to the Universe (E.T.: Fontana, 1970), p. 64.
20 Polkinghorne, One World.
21 J. Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 1977), p. 256.
22 Romans 8:20-21.
23 Bartholomew, op. cit., p. 145.

 
 
Reformation Christian Ministries - Reformed International College - Reformed Theological Seminary.  www.Reformation.edu