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Seeking Purpose in a Universe of Chance (1998)

Victor J. Stenger


Review of Belief in God in the Age of Science by John Polkinghorne. New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1998.

This book is taken from a series of lectures given at Yale by a well-known elementary particle physicist who took up the cloth to become an Anglican priest and theologian. He is a uniquely equipped and frequent participant in the dialogues between theology and science.

I am inclined to suggest that Chapter 5, "Critical Realism in Science and Religion," be read first. There Polkinghorne motivates much of what he presents earlier. He shows how the problem of determining "truth" in religion has many similarities with that in science. Both engage in a rhetorical process he calls "critical realism."

Polkinghorne claims that much of what we do in science is "the creative interpretation of experience, not rigorous deduction from it." Science is not the search for truth but for "verisimilitude," the quality of having the appearance of truth or reality. Scientists can never know when they have absolute truth (104).

Neither can theologians. All scientists and theologians can do is mount their best possible arguments and try to convince each other and everyone else. This does not mean that reality is subjective or relative. Polkinghorne is very much a realist, expressing no doubts that quarks and electrons are real. He calls the period 1950-80, when both he and I were active workers in particle physics, "a substantial episode in the history of discovery" (103). How could I disagree with that?

Polkinghorne is a refreshing contrast to Hugh Ross, another physicist turned-theologian. Ross writes from the framework that he already knows the truth - what's in the Bible - and does his best to make the data conform to that truth. (See my review of Ross's Creator and the Cosmos at <URL:/library/modern/vic_stenger/ross.html>).

Don't get me wrong. Polkinghorne is a True Believer. While he acknowledges the greater power of science to test its beliefs against observation, he thinks that theology also has a legitimate claim on verisimilitude.

He does not accept the account of God as some abstract Platonic concept of perfection and order. Although he views the religious experiences of the "conflicting variety of the world faith religions" as "authentic," he stands on his own conviction that the Christian revelation is superior to them and to science. Science has a "circularity" that is mutually sustaining while theology offers the means to break this circle. "One must believe in order to understand" (113).

Chapter 1 presents reasons from human experience that Polkinghorne says encourage belief in a divine mind and purpose behind the history of the world. He refrains from talking about "proofs" and is content with looking for insights from theology on "what is going on" (10). But Polkinghorne offers no new insights here, referring in typical fashion to our moral, aesthetic, and religious intuitions. Here, as throughout the book, he falls back on his personal convictions. He "cannot believe" that life "simply came into being when hominid brains had acquired sufficient complexity to accommodate such thoughts" (20). He laments: "If cosmic history is no more than the temporary flourishing of remarkable fruitfulness followed by its subsequent decay and disappearance, then I think Macbeth was right and it is indeed a tale told by an idiot" (21). Perhaps it is, whether we like it or not.

Chapter 2 considers the "Christ event" and its aftermath, claiming it provides insights of reason and revelation, with further information provided by tradition. The point is to take a case from theology, namely the development of attitudes about the nature of Christ and compare it with scientific method. He likens the Pauline formula to Bohr's theory of the hydrogen atom, "highly instructive as a heuristic device" (37). He argues that Christology is not the "height of metaphysical speculation" but an "attempt to give a coherent and adequate account of the fact of [the Church's] encounter with Christ" (47).

In chapter 3, Polkinghorne indulges in some interesting speculation about how God acts on the physical world. Most people would simply say God performs miracles, doing whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it. If God wants to violate energy conservation, he does it. If he wants to nudge evolution a certain way, he does it. Polkinghorne, good physicist that he is, wants to find a mechanism that is consistent with the laws of physics and not require blatant miracles. This makes sense, since science has never found evidence for a miracle of any shape or form, blatant or not.

Although Galileo had been condemned by the Church, Newton restored God to the throne of Heaven even as Charles II was being restored to the throne of England. Newton believed that his laws of mechanics and gravity were those set down by the great lawgiver in the sky. Using the modern catchy phrase of Stephen Hawking, Newton had succeeded in reading the "mind of God." The only miracle God need to have ever performed was the one of creating the universe and its laws.

The quantum revolution undermines the notion of a Newtonian clockwork universe operating deterministically according to a divine plan. Random chance appears to play a significant role in events. And, if quantum mechanics indeed indicates that chance is inherent in nature, chaos theory and the other new sciences of complexity have demonstrated how chance processes in sufficiently complex systems can generate order and beauty with no preexistent design. Structure and beauty can be simulated on a computer running the simple algorithm of the Mandelbrot set or other nonlinear procedures. Genetic algorithms can produce artificial life in a computer with completely unpredictable structure and form.

This has left theology in a quandary. How can we live in a purposeful universe when a good part of that universe seems to be the product of chance? Where can God exert his influence in such a universe?

Polkinghorne thinks that God probably cannot control things on the macroscopic scale by simply acting microscopically on each elementary particle in the universe. As far as we know from current, conventional physics, these particles and the laws they obey do not fully determine the development of macroscopic complexity. Complexity seems to evolve by processes of self-organization that include an unpredictable element of chance. We are very unlikely ever to find an equation that shows DNA developing from the motion of quarks and electrons. At best, elementary processes place broad limits upon what can develop. Our present best guess is that the behaviors of macroscopic systems are "emergent phenomena" that result from a combination of chance and constraint, not necessity.

Polkinghorne, and other scientist-believers such as biochemist and fellow Anglican priest Arthur Peacock, have found room for God to act within the framework of chaos theory. God does not selectively inject energy into various places in the universe needing his intervention. Rather, as "pure spirit," he injects information. Thus, as the complex nonlinear systems of life oscillate back and forth trying to decide which strange attractor to move towards, God intervenes with a gentle nudge in the direction that moves the system where he wishes it to go.

Polkinghorne speculates that the possible mechanism may be related to one proposed by Nobel laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine. Prigogine has advanced the notion that macroscopic, many-body processes are able to act down to the elementary particle level and provide a "top-down" causality that violates the longstanding reductionist, "bottom-up" causality of conventional physics. This idea has had a wide and enthusiastic reception among new age holists who, like Christians and other more traditional theists, hate the thought of mindless chance playing such a crucial role in the universe. Indeed, those who search for religion in science are allied with those who seek evidence for top-down causality in a system where virtually all explanations are bottom-up. No surprise, then, that both efforts are tinged with mysticism.

Prigogine has shown that it is possible to enlarge the class of solutions of certain equations in statistical mechanics to contain ones that cannot be reduced to sums of localized particle trajectories. This is presumed to leave the door open for holistic, top-down causality. However, no evidence has been found to support this notion. All that evidence continues to be consistent with bottom-up causality tempered by chance.

In Chapter 4, Polkinghorne considers other modern developments in the dialogue between science and religion. He dismisses what he calls the polemical scientific writings of authors like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett as a problem for the secular academy, not the Church. He asserts that biologists are still intellectually inebriated by their success in unraveling the basis of molecular genetics, a victory comparable to the physicists' earlier elucidation of the laws of motion and gravity. Physicists have now gone beyond reductionism and are so more congenial to religious notions (79).

Polkinghorne argues that many physical notions, such as conservation laws and fields, have been asked to carry too much metaphysical freight. He knows from his physics that conservation laws are virtual tautologies. They are "consequences of the symmetries of creation and can easily be understood as expression of the Creator's will rather than impositions on it." Similarly, he finds the common use of the field as a metaphor for omniscient spirit "quaint" and "distinctly limited" (82).

Polkinghorne claims he is not engaged in "an apologetic exercise, trying to make the faith appear acceptable in a scientific age. He warns against a "scientific takeover bid, offering no more than a religious gloss on a basically naturalistic account." He rejects Spinoza's deus sive natura. "That was Einstein's God, but it is certainly not mine" (85-86).

Polkinghorne finds science writers who "garnish their wares" with references to God and big bang cosmology as tiresome. He insists that "theology is concerned with . . . ontological questions . . . and gains little from science's fascinating, but largely theologically irrelevant, talk of temporal origins." This places him outside the large group of theistic scientists who are obsessed with cosmology and what they see as evidence that the universe has been fine-tuned for life. Far more important to Polkinghorne is "the most significant event in cosmic history to date - the dawn of consciousness" (88).

Once again Polkinghorne calls on chaos and complexity theory. He argues that "holistic and relational concepts are coming to play an increasing role in science." These are regarded as "congenial to theological thinking," as exemplified by "much Trinitarian discussion that emphasizes relationship (communion) as the ground of being" (97,98).

Chapter 6 is a "Mathematical Postscript" which takes the Platonic line promoted by mathematician Roger Penrose and others that "mathematics is the exploration of an existing noetic realm." In a book that contains many expressions of his personal beliefs, Polkinghorne winds up by saying "I believe there is a much more persuasive case for believing in the reality of the Mandelbrot set than in the reality of the Idea of a lion." The realm of physical and mental experience are "parts of an interlinked complementary created reality" (128-130).

In his 1994 book The Faith of a Physicist, Polkinghorne was quite explicit in rejecting even the remotest chance that we live in a purely natural, purposeless universe: "The strategy of the materialist atheists is usually to claim that science is all, and that beauty and the rest are merely human constructs arising from the hard-wiring in our brains. I cannot accept so grotesquely impoverished a view of reality." But there, as here, he insists on interpreting the world from an anthropocentric, theocentric perspective. Nonbelieving scientists such as Feynman and Sagan looked at the material universe with wonder and found material reality to be anything but grotesquely impoverished.

Theologians and scientists each seek understanding. But theologians rely on the mythical tales and subjective human experiences that emanate from the insignificant point in spacetime that encloses human history. Scientists, by contrast, view a range of space from inside atomic nuclei to the farthest quasar, and a range of time from a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang to the present. They see a universe more vast and with far more potential for development than has ever been imagined in any scripture or mystical trance.

I was greatly aided in this review by comments from Jean Bricmont, Scott Dalton, Keith Douglas, Peter Fimmel, Jim Humphreys, Norm Levitt, Ricardo Alder Mur, Clay Stinson, and Ed Weinmann.