Review of Belief in God in an Age of Science by John Polkinghorne

Yale University Press, £14.95/$18, ISBN 0300072945
From New Scientist  4 July 1998 Vol. 159 No. 2141 Reproduced by kind permission
(c) New Scientist, RBI Limited, 1998
by Simon Ings

 For particle physicist John Polkinghorne--the only ordained member of the Royal Society--science and theology are not at loggerheads. They are instead attempts to formulate coherent and adequate accounts of the phenomena within their purview. The four Terry Foundation Lectures from which this book grew add up to an invitation to a dialogue between adherents of both.

Why is our Universe so friendly to life and to mind? Polkinghorne builds his answer on the anthropic principle. This holds that the values we observe for various fundamental constants--from the charge on an electron to the number of dimensions of space-time--are what they are because they are the values which produce a universe hospitable to observers, like us. Small changes would give a universe with no atoms, or no planets, and no observers. From this near-tautology Polkinghorne argues that either there is a God, setting the values, or there are many varied universes. He argues that the many-universes model of quantum observation does not fulfil the requirement that the universes be varied.

Polkinghorne's argument for the proposition that God is real is cogent and his evidence is elegant. Natural theology once looked naively to nature for examples of God's craft. Polkinghorne's critical-realist theology, by contrast, rests on a metaphysically pleasing bedrock: the fact that the Universe is amenable to mathematical treatments--which is, once you think about it, quite surprising--especially "provides a powerful encouragement to . . . embrace a generous view of the mental/material nature of reality".

To demonstrate that the God this implies is "worthy of worship and the ground of hope" is Polkinghorne's most daunting task. Confronting the problem of evil, he has to tackle nothing less than the nature of time. He cites the Universe's "freedom to become", manifested in our consciousness as free will. If God is atemporal--outside past and future and aware of both--then our free will is (from her/his/its point of view) actually mere ignorance of the future. God must, he concludes, be unable to prevent misery and atrocity, and must suffer the future as we do. He resolves the conflict between God's omniscience and failure to prevent woe by proposing that there is no future to be aware of, even for an omniscient entity.

But God must also act. Here Polkinghorne turns to the mathematics of chaos: Providence--God as caretaker--is to him a dynamic system of nano-ener-gic mathematical transactions. Citing the work of the chemist Ilya Prigogine (Review,6 September 1997), Polkinghorne postulates that "new causal principles may be held to be operating, which determine the pattern of future behaviour and which are of a holistic character".

Particularly enticing for an argumentative reader are the passages concerning the appearance of notions of value. "I cannot believe," Polkinghorne writes, "that [value] simply came into being when hominid brains had acquired sufficient complexity to accommodate such thoughts." His proposal that our ancestors recognised something that was there from the beginning leads him onto extremely risky ground.

This book, refreshingly, is not an apology for Polkinghorne's Christian faith. God is more than a cypher for the rational order of the Universe: "That was Einstein's God," he says, splendidly robust, "but it is certainly not mine."

His is a rational and humane enquiry into pheno-mena which, by epistemological necessity, resist scientific method. In this, his inquiry shares much with the current debate around consciousness--a debate he must now engage in with some urgency.

Simon Ings' next novel, Headlong, will be published by HarperCollins in February
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