I don’t often do afternoon posts – but I did this week. The interview with John Polkinghorne discussed in the post Tuesday concludes with Dean Nelson asking for Dr. Polkinghorne’s favorite scientific joke. Dr. Polkinghorne responds with the requested scientific joke and his favorite theological joke (27:15 in the audio; 54:20 in the video).
DN: I think you have your favorite science joke – what is your favorite scientific joke…
There are three scientists who are traveling together through the highlands of Scotland. One of them is a mathematician, one of them is a statistician, and one of them is a cosmologist. And they look out of the car and on the hill side they see a black sheep.
The cosmologist responds by saying all hills in Scotland have black sheep on them; cosmologists just generalize rapidly from particular experience.
The statistician says there is a non zero correlation between hills in Scotland and black sheep.
The mathematician says there is at least one hill in Scotland, on which there is at least one sheep, at least one of whose sides is black.
All good jokes are serious jokes, and that does illustrate certain differences of intellectual discourse between different aspects of science.
All good jokes are serious jokes, and sometimes telling a joke or a story is the best way to get a point across. Polkinghorne’s favorite theological joke is below.
What is your favorite joke with a purpose – scientific or theological?
Dr. Polkinghone’s science joke also has, I think, a point in the context of the dialog between science and the Christian faith. Scientists from various disciplines look at the data and deal with data in somewhat different ways. As Christians is is perfectly appropriate to look at the data and wrestle with the data in a context where faith plays a role. In particular there is nothing unscientific about rejecting or questioning overarching claims, particularly claims of scientism, which is an insistence that the natural world is the limit of all that is or could be. But a claim that discounts or plays havoc with the data is rightfully dismissed as ridiculous.
But on to the theological joke:
There is a man who is caught by a flood, and he has to go up to what you would call the second floor of his house, and he is looking out of a window and a man comes along with a ladder and says you climb down and I’ll carry you from your house. And he says no, no, no, God will look after me, I don’t need that. So the man goes away and the waters continue to rise. Somebody comes in a boat and says come on jump in the boat, I’ll take you away. The man says no, no, no, God will look after me. Eventually he’s up on the roof things are getting so desperate and a helicopter hovers overhead … no, no, no, I don’t need that, God will look after me.
When he appears before the Lord he says Lord, why didn’t you look after me?
God says to him, I sent you a ladder, I sent you a boat, I sent you a helicopter. What more do you want?
The serious message of course, is that God works as much through people as through any other way.
Dr. John Polkinghorne is, I think, one of the people God has sent to help us as a church through these issues of science and faith. He is not an infallible prophet,we can certainly interact with him, question some of his conclusions, and disagree at times. But Dr. Polkinghorne is a reliable witness to both science and faith, well worth listening to.
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org