Faith, Science and Understanding

by JC Polkinghorne. Notes by Nicholas Beale. (last updated 31 Dec 00)

This is a portfolio of a number of significant themes, some developed from the Firth Lectures given at the University of Nottingham. They are grouped into three sections:

I Issues

1. Theology in the University. This is to some extent a defense of the place of Theology, and an explanation of why it is important.

2. Motivations for Belief explores the ways in which both Science and Theology seek motivated belief.

3. the Role of Revelation deals with the misconception that "believers enter into any intellectual discussion with the ace of trumps of revelatory certainty hidden up their sleeve".

4. Design in Biology? explores some of the biological aspects of the anthropic principle.

5. Second Thoughts. offers some further remarks about issues that have been parts of John's thinking for many years: Critical Realism, Quantum Cosmology and the Anthropic Principle, Panentheism and Dual Aspect Monism

II Divine Agency

6. God in Relation to Nature: Kenotic Creation and Divine Action.

7. Natural Science, Temporality and Divine Action

III Significant Thinkers

8. Contemporaries He considers particularly Pannenberg, Torrance, and Paul Davies.

9. Science and Theology in England is a review of why this has been a particularly live issues in England, tracing it back to Robert Grossteste's De Luce

I'll try to add some particularly choice extracts below - but do buy the book if you can - it is excellent.

1. Theology in the University

John argues that "The one central honest argument for scientific research in particle physics is that to understand the fundamental structure of the matter of the universe [is] in itself a worthwhile thing to do...the prime motivation of science is to understand the physical world." Theologians, too, are "concerned with a search for understanding - though of a more profound Mystery than quarks and gluons. A theological faculty is a necessary presence in a true university because the search for knowledge is incomplete if it does not include in its aim gaining knowledge of the Creator...the unity of knowledge is fractured if theology is excluded."

To justify these claims, let's "look more closely at the scientific sector of this universal quest for truthful understanding...

The first thing we can learn is the distinction between understanding...and explanation. Quantum theory makes the point most clearly for us...At the level of explanation and prediction it is, perhaps, the most successful scientific theory ever. Yet we do not understand it." It's not the wierdness of the quantum world, although this shows that, in order to pursue a quest for understanding, we can not make common sense the measure of everything, but must "recognise aspects of reality in those modes that are intrinsic to their natures, however strange these modes may at first sight seem to be" It is that there is no agreed solution to the measurement problem, and no-one knows how to reconcile Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity [John points out that "the dazzling speculations with which the quantum cosmologists regale us in their popular books are intellectual arabesques performed on extremely thin theoretical ice"].

We can also learn The multi-levelled complexity of reality. Even if a satisfactory Grand Unified Theory is found, it will not be a "Theory of Everything". Many physical pheonomnea of the highest interest, such as the turbulent motion of fluids...would be outside its explanatory range..physics cannot be reduced to particle physics nor can all of biology or psychology be reduced to physics. In turn it is even less true that science encompasses all that is attainable or significant in the universal quest for human understanding.