Polkinghorne on Natural Theology and Moral Law

In this post today I would like to point to a series of posts on the BioLogos site featuring Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne and his views on Natural Theology. Dr. Polkinghorne (picture to the right obtained from wikipedia) was a very successful scientist, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, before he resigned to study for the priesthood. He has since been a parish priest, Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall Cambridge and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. After retirement he continues to write, think, and lecture about the interface between science and faith. I’ve read and commented on a couple of his books – Quarks, Chaos & Christianity and Belief in God in an Age of Science. I hope to read, and perhaps comment on, more of his work.

Last November Dr. Polkinghorne gave a series of lectures at Point Loma Nazarene University (available for download as mp3 files here) – he is, as always, insightful and well worth the time. The fourth excerpt from his lectures was posted on BioLogos last Saturday – and some of the concepts fit quite nicely with the discussion in last Tuesday’s post on belief.  In this excerpt Dr. Polkinghorne discusses the multiverse – and the idea that this theory, this hypothesis really, is irrelevant to the discussion of faith and science. The multiverse doesn’t impact the argument for a creator. If true, it provides insight into the nature of creation.  Science alone, without an accompanying metaphysical commitment cannot disprove God. If we accept that God exists, he is responsible for and behind all,  not just the parts not otherwise explained – and any reasonable, rational explanation is consistent with the nature of God.

At the end of the excerpt Dr. Polkinghorne talks about other signposts for God – coming back to the argument from Moral law,  adding to this a discussion of aesthetics. The text of this part of the lecture is copied after the break. I asked two questions at the end of the post on Tuesday and I’d like to come back to these questions today.

Is the existence of the Moral Law an argument for the existence of God? Why or why not?

What is the relationship between our view of moral behavior and our view of God?

Moral Law as pointing to God … From Dr. Polkinghorne’s lecture.

[…] I’ll say two things very briefly. I’ve simply been talking about natural theology in terms, essentially, of our scientific understanding of the world, but there is another possible source of natural theology which I think is very important, a different kind of general human experience: personal experience, the experience of value in the world.

For example, I believe that we have irreducible ethical knowledge. I believe that is just a fact, and I know actually about as surely as I know any fact, that torturing children is wrong. That’s not some curious genetic survival strategy which my genes have been encouraging in me. It’s not just some cultural convention of our society, that we choose in our society not to torture children. It’s an actual fact about the world in which we live.

And there lies the question of where do those ethical values come from? And theistic belief provides one with an answer for that, just as the order of world we might see as reflecting the divine mind and the fruitfulness of the world is reflecting the divine purpose, so our ethical intuitions can be seen as being intonations of the good and perfect world of our creator.

While it is true that all human society has moral behavior, the definition of morality varies from place to place. In the comment here Polkinghorne assumes that the torture of children in wrong, that knowledge that it is wrong is written into our very being. Yet there are examples of societies that practiced child sacrifice. Some think that the story of Abraham and Isaac may point to such a prevalent culture. In a lecture I heard him give Tim Keller presents moral law as an argument for God (unfortunately the lecture is no longer available on line). Most of us here would consider female genital mutilation to be morally wrong, yet it is an accepted practice in a number of cultures – on what basis can we declare it to be wrong, something to be opposed? Is it wrong here and now – but not wrong then or there? If we find an absolute moral law, how can we argue against the existence of a transcendent reality providing a ground for this transcendent morality? Is all of moral behavior merely pragmatic and relative?  There are too many questions here – but perhaps it can be focused a bit:

If moral law is inborn – not as social convention, but as an absolute value, how do we account for cultures where child sacrifice is an accepted practice?

If moral law is not absolute – a signpost for a transcendent reality – how can we argue against such practices?

After all the things we consider immoral could simply evidence an alternative way for a healthy and functioning society to develop. True for you, not for me … in a very real sense.

Aesthetics as pointing to God. Dr. Polkinghorne continues and discusses aesthetic sense as a form of Natural Theology – a signpost for God.

And then of course there is the aesthetic experience in the world, and I think we should take our aesthetic experience extremely seriously. I think it’s an encounter with a very important and specific dimension of reality. It’s not just emotion recalled in tranquility or something like that.

And again of course science offers no help for us in these questions of value. If you ask a scientist as a scientist to tell you all he or she could about the nature of music, they would say that it is neural response — things go off in our brains, neurons fire — to the impact of sound waves on our ear drum. And of course that is true and this way is worth knowing, but it hardly begins to engage with the deep mystery of music, of how that sequence of sounds in time can speak to us — and I think speak to us truly — an encounter of a timeless realm of beauty. I think we should take our aesthetic experience very seriously.

And where do they come from? Where does that aesthetic value come from? And again theistic belief suggests that aesthetic experience is a sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation. So I see belief in God as being a great integrating discipline really, a great integrating insight, perhaps I should say rather than discipline. It links together the order of the world, the fruitfulness of the world, the reality of ethical values, the deep and moving reality of aesthetic values. It makes sense. It’s a whole theory of everything in that way, which is to me, essentially, most satisfying.

A nice way to end – the combination of scientific knowledge of the material world and belief in God as an integrating insight, a unifying theory of everything. Science alone isn’t enough, but it is an approach to understanding part of the story.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit Polkinghorne on Natural Theology and Moral Law at Jesus Creed

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