The late 20th century saw renewed interest in the interaction between science and religion.[1] Galileo and Newton believed religion mattered to their scientific exploration of God’s two great books: nature and scripture. The works of Ian Barbour and Anthony Peacocke have advanced a framework for meaningful cross-discipline dialogue in the fields of philosophy, creation and natural theology. While progress has been made to resolve complex difficulties, there remain unsettled challenges in need of intellectual engagement from practitioners of both scientific and religious studies. Physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, laments the invasive role the media and populist science have played in promoting the “myth of the light of pure scientific truth confronting the darkness of obstructionist religious error.[2]” In point of fact, science and theology have more in common than popular sentiment will allow. To counter these superficial notions, there is a need for thoughtful scientists and theologians to eschew common hostility and pursue intellectual discourse. The scientist must rise above reductionist philosophy and the Christian must avoid fideism.[3]

What follows is a quick introduction to the thoughts of Polkinghorne on how science and religion can interact in a meaningful way. According to Plkinghorne, here are some things to consider as the dialogue unfolds.

  1. Prioritize the recent thoughts of modern science.[4]
  2. Avoid the “semantic danger of transferring terms across disciplines.”[5]
  3. Tolerance, acceptance, dialogic engagement with those who venture outside their expertise to undertake the risk of interdisciplinary study.[6]
  4. A mutual understanding of methodical preferences expressed in semantics; the common “Bottomup” language of scientists (vis-à-vis, analogia entis) vs. the common “Topdown” language of the theologian (vis-à-vis, analogia fidei).[7]
  5. Understanding, for the scientist, increases with time and ultimately supplants past achievements.[8] Understanding, for the theologian, grows only as it remains grounded in the past; advancing terminology, but maintaining the substance of historic [9]
  6. Science is fundamentally concerned with the ‘how’ and theology with the ‘why,’ yet share a critical realist approach to knowledge.[10]
  7. The increasing role of holistic thought in science has a direct corollary to the insight of theology.[11] Therefore, theology can work in concert with scientific insight.[12]

The goal of interdisciplinary dialogue is not a scientific takeover of religion or a religious takeover of science. Each discipline must interact and resist the inclination to suborn the authority of the other. Polkinghorne concludes that the theologian must pursue the path of consonance which seeks to espouse a theology informed by science, but which reserves the right, along with the scientist, to “retain those categories which its experience has determined that it shall use, however counterintuitive they may be.[13]” Only with this approach can science and theology work together to “tackle the moral problems posed by the growth of science.[14]

The ethical snare for the scientist is to get so caught up in the excitement of research that there is never time to ask where it is going and to what end. Not everything that can be done should be done. The technological imperative must be tempered by the moral imperative. All new discoveries are ”falls upward,” the enlarged powers thus obtained containing the potential both for good and for ill.[15]

Both science and theology share a critical realistic approach of intellectual inquiry that tries to make sense of experience in the search for truth.[16] For the scientist, asserts Polkinghorne, there is a recognition that the search for truth is both partial and corrigible. The results of scientific exploration provide a probable but not absolute answer.[17] This understanding stands at the core of Polkinghorne’s critical realist approach to ontology. To be certain, philosophers employ second-order reflections that question the ability of science to expose reality through first-order experimentation. Recognizing these delimiters, With an eye toward continuing interdisciplinary dialogue, Polkinghorne outlines the epistemological character of the scientific method.

  1. Individuals can remain amenable on some localized ideas without the expectation that everything within a proposed as right or acceptable.[18]
  2. There is no universal scientific method, but a variety of methodologies that rely on nonempirical methodologies and therefore must remain open to correction.[19]
  3. Theoretical prediction and experimental fact are inextricably linked in the scientific method such that all facts are interpreted facts.[20]
  4. As illustrated in the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty, there is no uniform epistemology.[21]
  5. Social factors may impact the pace of scientific pursuit, but will not ultimately change the character of the knowledge discovered.[22]
  6. Scientific realism “is a contingent fact about the relation between our epistemological power and the ontology of our world” and provides the best approach for doing science without imposing any metaphysical necessity on all possible worlds.[23]

Polkinghorne’s scientific realism is a direct corollary to his theological realism that seeks clarity of knowledge but understands the limitations of a finite mind exploring an infinite God.

While the resolute sceptic can never be defeated in logical argument, neither can the epistemologically optimistic who decline to despair of gaining verisimilitudinous knowledge of reality. It is the instinct of a scientist to encourage a trusting attitude towards those insights that afford a satisfying basis for understanding what is going on… As a passionate believer in the ultimate integrity and unity of all knowledge, I wish to extend my realist stance beyond science to encompass, among many other fields of enquiry theological reflection on our encounter with the divine. I take as my motto for that endeavour the remarkable words of Bernard Longergan: “God is the unrestricted act of understanding, the eternal rapture, glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of Eureka.”8 The search for truth through and through is ultimately the search for God.

Ultimately, science and religion are fundamentally similar in kind but differ only in their “degree of power of empirical interrogation which these various investigations enjoy.[24]” There is a shared circularity of reason accompanied by the paradox of direct encounter that will never lead to anything more than a partial understanding of an ineffable truth. The image of God in man is the source for our drive for scientific exploration. Therefore, we can have a hope that both science and theology, within their unique domains, can achieve a knowledge that is partial but reflects an ontological reality that is understandable through reasoned dialogue.

Recommended Reading

If you are new to Polkinghorne and want to learn more, here are some suggested books to get you started.

Belief in God in an Age of Science

START READING

John Polkinghorne is a major figure in today’s debates over the compatibility of science and religion. Internationally known as both a theoretical physicist and a theologian—the only ordained member of the Royal Society—Polkinghorne brings unique qualifications to his inquiry into the possibilities of believing in God in an age of science. In this thought-provoking book, the author focuses on the collegiality between science and theology, contending that these “intellectual cousins” are both concerned with interpreted experience and with the quest for truth about reality. He argues eloquently that scientific and theological inquiries are parallel.

The book begins with a discussion of what belief in God can mean in our times. Polkinghorne explores a new natural theology and emphasizes the importance of moral and aesthetic experience and the human intuition of value and hope. In other chapters, he compares science’s struggle to understand the nature of light with Christian theology’s struggle to understand the nature of Christ. He addresses the question, Does God act in the physical world? And he extends his ideas about the role of chaos theory, surveys the prospects for future dialogue between scientific and theological thinkers, and defends a critical realist understanding of the activities of both disciplines. Polkinghorne concludes with a consideration of the nature of mathematical truths and the links between the complementary realities of physical and mental experience.

Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

START READING

John Polkinghorne, an international figure known both for his contributions to the field of theoretical elementary particle physics and for his work as a theologian, has over the years filled a bookshelf with writings devoted to specific topics in science and religion. In this new book, he undertakes for the first time a survey of all the major issues at the intersection of science and religion, concentrating on what he considers the essential insights for each. Clearly and without assuming prior knowledge, he addresses causality, cosmology, evolution, consciousness, natural theology, divine providence, revelation, and scripture. Each chapter also provides references to his other books in which more detailed treatments of specific issues can be found.

For those who are new to what Polkinghorne calls “one of the most significant interdisciplinary interactions of our time,” this volume serves as an excellent introduction. For readers already familiar with John Polkinghorne’s books, this latest is a welcome reminder of the breadth of his thought and the subtlety of his approach in the quest for truthful understanding.


Footnotes

[1] Polkinghorne pinpoints 1966 and the publication of Ian Barbour’s “Issues in Science and Religion” as the demarcation of when this modern period of increased interaction began. J. C. Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 76-77, Digital, WorldCat.org.

[2] Ibid., 77. Polkinghorne is here critical of what he characterizes as the “facile triumphalism” of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett that has perverted the secular academy.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 81. Polkinghorne makes an interesting observation that Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein reflect the “last of the ancients” who do not reflect the insight of the modern scientific world.

[5] Ibid., 82.

[6] Ibid., 83.

[7] Ibid., 84-85. This difference in approach, however, does not mean the scientist and theologian cannot meet together with a common understanding. Pearcy and Thaxton’s research observe that pre-modern scientists used a Topdown approach in their conception of natural order. Early scientists held an a priori assumption of nature’s order based on God’s revealed nature, “The early scientists did not argue that the world was lawfully ordered, and therefore there must be a rational God. Instead, they argued that there was a rational God, and therefore the world must be lawfully ordered.” Nancy Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Turning point Christian worldview series (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994), 26-27.

[8] This tendency within science may be one reason modern scientists disclaim the role of Christian theology in many of its fundamental presuppositions. If so, then exposing this tendency may help open more paths of dialog.

[9] Polkinghorne, 87.

[10] Ibid., 99.

[11] Ibid., 98.

[12] J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Theology: An Introduction (London: SPCK, 1998), 2.

[13] Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science, 86.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 92.

[16] Ibid., 98.

[17] Ibid., 104. Polkinghorne makes special note of David Hume’s criticism of the method of induction.

[18] Ibid., 105.

[19] Ibid., 106.

[20] Ibid., 107.

[21] Ibid., 108.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 109.

[24] Ibid., 114.

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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