Science and Theology 2 – What Has Science Taught Us?

On Tuesday I began a discussion of a recent book by The Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science. This is a rather academic book – but the kind of book that someone who wants to move beyond the culture war issues of young earth, old earth, and evolution should find useful. In this book Dr. Polkinghorne looks at the ways in which the insights from science and the scientific way of thinking may be used to help Christians explore theology in our 21st century context.

In Ch. 2 Dr. Polkinghorne discusses some ways in which there can be a discourse between modern science and Christian theology. One of these is in the insight that physics has provided about studying the unknown. One profound insight from physics is the danger inherent in extrapolating from things we are familiar with to other circumstances and regimes. Ordinary objects traveling at ordinary speeds in ordinary gravitational fields can be described quite well using the physics developed by Newton. The world was explicable and common sense. But in the early 20th century an accumulation of inexplicable observations changed this view.

As the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane said in 1928, commenting on the work of his physicist colleagues, he had come to suspect that the universe was not only queerer than we had supposed, but queerer than we could have supposed. Under the prompting of the way that nature actually turned out to behave, physicists had been driven to discover entirely novel modes of thought. (p. 20)

Electrons are neither here nor there but can be both here and there. There is a distinct probability that, if measured, it will be here and another probability that it will be there – but any given measurement is unpredictable. There is no universal experience of time shared by all observers. Indistinguishability, entanglement, superfluidity, superconductivity, symmetry, subatomic particles, and black holes – none of these phenomena are consistent with our “common sense” everyday experience of the world.

Science is a useful context for theology; not because science constrains or limits or worse, undermines belief in God; not because science gives us facts about the world; but because science has taught us to think in novel and unexpected ways.

Does science have important approaches, modes of thought, to offer to theology?

Dr. Polkinghorne goes on to describe some the the ways in which these novel modes of thought can and perhaps should provide a context for theology.

1. Things must be known as they are.

This result from physics illustrates a philosophical lesson of more general applicability. There is no universal epistemology applicable to all entities. They can only be known in a manner that corresponds to their actual and individual natures. Different kinds of entities can be expected to be knowable in different kinds of ways. In relation to theology’s search for knowledge of God, this point has been particularly emphasized by Thomas Torrance. He wrote, ‘How God can be known must be determined from first to last by the way in which He is actually known.’ (p. 22)

God, for example, is known through relationship, revelation, and experience; not by pure reason, logic, or extrapolation.

2. There is more than one form of logic. For example, the Aristotelian idea that A and not-A are mutually exclusive is not the only possible description of realizable systems. An electron for example is both here and not-here (i.e. there), it can be both spin-up and spin-down.

3. There is inherent uncertainty and openness in nature. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is one example of this limit, but radioactive decay is perhaps a more significant example. Rare events drive many significant processes. These have an inherent degree of openness. In aggregate half of the atoms in a collection of Carbon-14 will decay in 5730±40 years, but there is no way to predict exactly when any given atom will decay.

4. Intelligibility is ground for ontological belief. The unseen world is observed and understood indirectly, yet we accept observations as reflections of reality, as descriptions of how things really are (their ontology or being) because they provide coherence and reason.

It is because belief in photons and electrons makes deep sense of a great swathe of directly observable phenomena, from the facts of chemistry to the properties of superconductors, that we affirm their identity. For similar reasons, particle physicists affirm the unseen reality of quarks, constituents of nuclear matter that are intrinsically unobservable… Theology owes science no apology for its belief in the unseen reality of God, for that belief serves to make sense of great swathes of spiritual experience. (p. 24-25)

Both scientists and theologians know that all interesting facts are interpreted facts.

Science brings a bottom-up approach to knowledge. Science and theology have some very different features. God is not testable through experimentation the way atoms and molecules are … we interact with God as a person in relationship. But Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that it is still possible to approach both science and theology in a “bottom-up” manner. Scientists, consciously or unconsciously adopt an approach of critical realism. There is an outside reality independent of our human construction, but it can be partly veiled or imperfectly encountered. “Scientist-theologians agree in claiming that an analogous concept of critical realism appropriately describes theology’s search for motivated belief arising from encounter with the veiled reality of God. (p. 26)”

The lesson from science is not that anything goes … that after quantum physics and relativity nothing is “too strange.” Rather the lesson is that we can adopt “an open and flexible mode of thought, responsive to the actual experienced character of reality, however unexpected that may prove to be. (p. 26)”

The incarnation, trinity and resurrection are places where this bottom-up approach can be in play. Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that Trinitarian theology ought not be viewed as something imported onto reality, but the result of Christians who, in the first centuries after the resurrection, wrestled with the nature of this new reality and searched for terms and concepts to describe and understand it. The orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity did not originate in a top-down fashion but developed from the bottom-up to describe what was perceived, however veiled, as reality.

The problem with miracles – including the miracles of incarnation and resurrection – is not with a God who can or can’t do anything, but with divine consistency. Do these miracles have a purpose that makes sense in the larger narrative of God’s relationship with His creation? Dr. Polkinghorne sees reason for motivated belief in these events arising from bottom-up thinking. Belief in incarnation and resurrection is a motivated belief that makes sense of swathes of human experience including the experience of the earliest Christians as they wrote, thought, and preached.

This only touches the surface of the ideas raised by Dr. Polkinghorne in this chapter – but is more than enough for one post.

What do you think?

Can science help us better think through theological questions?

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

If you have comments please visit Science and Theology 2 – What Has Science Taught Us? at Jesus Creed.

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