2nd Overflow Page of John Polkinghorne Q&A

Meeting John I'm working on a profile story on John Polkinghorne to mark his winning the Templeton Prize. I interviewed him myself about a week ago, and to finish off the article, I am interested in hearing from people who know John personally. My purpose is to give our readers a positive sense of John, the man, in addition to John, the eminent scholar. As the webmaster of a site devoted to him, I should think you have had a fair amount of contact with John. If you could answer some the following questions for me, I would be very grateful: - When did you first contact John about having a web site about him? What was his reaction to the web site? How did you come to be the webmaster? How often do you see or talk to him? - Did you first meet John in person or by phone/email? What was your first impression of him? How has impression changed over time? - What five words would you use to describe John's personality? - Has John ever done or said anything that struck you as being the epitome of John Polkinghorne - the sort of thing that really just sums up who he is? Or has he ever said or done anything that sort of surprised you or made you laugh? If so, please describe what happened, when and where this was, how you felt or reacted at the time, who else was there, and why it's a strong memory for you. Any information that you can share with me would be greatly appreciated.

Nicholas's Response I met John when I was an undergraduate and he was Head of Particle Physics in the Cambridge Maths Dept. I remember being struck by his twinkling intelligence. He would also attend Christian Union meetings at my College (Trinity). I then saw him occasionally at the Royal Society and was delighted, but not greatly surprised, by his decision to quit, become ordained, and his subsequent elevation as Dean of Trinity Hall and the President of Queens. I remember him saying "you could have knocked me over with a feather" when he was offered the post. Of course I read his books as they came out, and I attended a lecture at the RSA (www.rsa.org.uk) on Can a Scientist Pray? I recall an elderly chap getting up to ask a question, with great trepidation, beginning hestiantly "I'm a retired physicist..." to which John immediately replied "so am I", putting the questioner completely at his ease. John was asked to Chair the Science, Medicine and Technology Committee of the Church of England and he asked me to serve on it, and this deepend our friendship. It was a joy to serve under him - the decision to disband this committee (on grounds of cost) at the end of the 20th Century was one of the more bizzaire misjudegements by the CofE bureaucracy. I was fortunate enough to be involved in his nomination for a KBE and to see the tributes that poured in to him from everyone with whom he had been involved. They stressed his courtesy, conscientiousness, generosity of spirit and the wisdom he brought to the most intractible problems. I imagine that the delay in awarding him the Templeton Prize was caused by scruples, either on his part or that of the organisers. No-one could be more deserving - no-one is more truly rooted as a scientist and as a Christian. His donation of the money to research at Cambridge is so typical.

The Soul (TM) I have seen an interview with John Polkinghorne in the testing God series. I was wondering what his thoughts are on the subject of what or who the soul is. are we our soul or do we have a soul and if so what are we when we have a soul? This question puzzles me a lot and I would be gratefull to know what John thoughts are on this.

Preliminary ResponseJohn thinks (Science & Theology p63) "In essence [the soul] must be 'the real me'. It is clear that this is not simply the material that happens to compose my body at some particular time... They cannot be the source of our exprience of a continuing self but, rather, we may suppose that the self is composed of the immensely complex 'pattern' in which that matter is organised. It is beyond present human power to explicate exactly what what are the characteristics of this pattern, what changes...and what remains the same... [it] would be totally inadequate to think of the soul as the super-programme running on the hardware of the body, but that ...analogy would at least point in a helpful direction...Aristotle spoke of the soul as the 'form' of the body; in oher words, he too thought of the soul as a pattern. This way of thinking was taken up by Thomas Aquinas, who rejected ... Platonic dualism."

Self and Consciousness Recent scientific research seems to suggest that our feeling of "self" and conciousness is simply the strongest coherent oscillating states resulting from inhibitory signal competition in our brain. It is illusory and keeps changing at different times ("I of the Vortex" by Llinas, "How brains make up their mind" by Freeman, etc.). Also, it seems that our behaviours are ultimately determined by our genes and the environment around us. Although our brain is quite a closed system that generates its own predictions, we are unable to find a thing called "free will" that enables us to really make choice and be responsible to what we did. In short, science tells us that we are just zombies or puppets. I think this is very contradictory to my belief, since Bible says we have "spirit" and can choose to love or sin. If our mind and our behaviour are just "natural phenomena" like a stone rolling downhill, then ... ?

Whatever popular science books may suggest, the brain is far too complex for any important aspect of mental behaviour to be explained away as "simply" anything. The 10 billion neurons are interconnected in networks of unimaginable complexity, and awash with chemical and other influences (even the gilal cells subtly influence the firing of the neurons) and bombarded by inputs from nerves which can be sensitive to individual photons. A complete description of the state of the brain is impossible, and any approximation however accurate will become grossly inaccurate within milliseconds. There is even some evidence (from the work of Prigogine & others) that soultions to the 'equations' of brain states are inherently fractcal and thus non-deterministic. Consequently, although our behaviours are certainly influenced by genes and environment they are not *determined* by anything: there is plenty of "room" for freewill, which of course like consciousness is not a "thing" but an emergent property. Exactly how these emergent properties emerge is far from clear - that they exist is manifest. [Just to emphasise how little is really understood in detail about the behaviour of complex systems, it's worth remarking that a detailed, although approximate, simulation of 256 molecules of water freezing into ice just made the front page of Nature. They did 6 runs of about 0.5 microseconds, one worked, and each run took "several months on a supercomputer". A single neuron is billions of times more complex than 256 water molecules, and freezing is much better understood than nerve impulses] So we can give thanks for various theoretical insights and hypotheses about the brain, whilst never believing the "nothing buttery" which is un-scientfic hype. John says "nothing to add to [this] judicious reply"

Neurotheology While this may be out of John's field of expertise, I was wondering what his thoughts were on the neuroscience research on the "biology of belief" or neurotheology. Since a fair amount of evidence for religion comes from religious experience, how do we evaluate that experience as data for some other aspect of reality that is otherwise inaccessible? Two recent studies -- those by A'quili and Newberg {talk summary - book} and those by Persinger look at two different aspects. In the first, there is a mapping of brain activity associated with prayer and meditation, in the second there is an attempt to reproduce, through stimulation, of "religious experiences", or one form thereof, in the minds of test subjects. The second form of experiment is intended, in part, to undermine the veracity of religious experience, especially if one holds to a naturalist metaphysic, by ascribing all religious experience to the effects of such phenomenon, having no actual basis in reality.
There are a variety of potential problems in such assertions:
(1) it is unlcear from published data that what is simulated has the hallmarks of otherwise attested to religious experience (in terms of content, form, etc.),
(2) whether it represents a small subset of religious experience,
(3) if it does, there is the question of whether the experience has transformative effects that might otherwise be expected of religious experience,
(4) if all of the above may be true, what does being able to simulate seemingly authentic religious experience in a brain mean from a practical standpoint?
Certainly, as Newberg himself has pointed out for his research (which I think accurately reflects a statement about Persinger) that if evolution is either guided or stacked in such a way as Peacocke might suggest to allow creatures that can perhaps at least dimly perceive God that those mechanisms would develop in the brain since that is at least the hardware of our sensing activity. It seems to me the atheist like Persinger runs into at least two fallacies (maybe more):
(1) that biological activity associated with religious experiences "debunks" a supernatural realm -- this is an implicit underpinning and misstatement of many theists' views of reality. Ironically, it often seems that the same atheist would say if there were no corresponding brain activity that it was all made up -- so either way it is all in a person's head (a classic head's I win, tails you lose gambit); and
(2) because I can simulate an effect, all such effects are illusory and do not mirror what goes on in the "real" world. This second fallacy seems to be that because something can be simulated to occur in the brain the underlying experience is untrue. Yet, certain things can be simulated by electrical impulses such as hearing and perhaps some day vision (on one level all sense data are all simulated in the brain in that our experience of them anyway, so all seem potentially reproducible by contrived stimuli), that does not make the faculty to perceive such things any less real, even though they can be simulated or fooled. Indeed many things can disrupt brain function in many ways.
I was wondering what your thoughts were on the whole issue of being able to simulate such "religious" experience and the role of religious experience in theists' arguments for the reality of God.

Preliminary Response Firstly, these kind of brain imaging studies, while quite interesting, are not nearly as clear-cut as people pretend. Not only are these studies very crude, with tiny sample sizes: the brain is (almost literally) infinitely more complex than such studies pretend. But suppose for a moment that they are correctly identifying brain-events which correspond with religious experience? This says nothing about the validity of these experiences. No doubt sufficiently accurate brain imaging would show certain brain-events corresponding to doing brain-imaging or writing books. Equally, the 'fact' that you can fool people into thinking they have had religious experiences has been known for centuries - and says nothing about whether these are real.

John Adds: that you might want to read Fraser Watts on this topic.

Many Worlds I am a third year Physicist studying Physics with Astrophysics (BSc) at the University of Kent at Canterbury. I have for a long time been very interested in the subject of The Many World's Theory, which (to my disappointment) was only barely touched upon in one of my lectures of Quantum Mechanics last year. I have tried to find out more from my lecturers, as I am fascinated by the Philosophical aspects of Physics and theories such as this and Schroedinger's Cat, and yet there is nobody in my department who can give me more information.
I was wondering if you could please ask Rev. Polkinghorne the following for me: How can I get more involved with these Philosophical ideas in Physics? Do I need to do a course in Philosophy or is there a way to reach them in Physics?
I also read a book by Gary Zukav called "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" which shows the links between Eastern religions (particularly Buddhism) and Physics and this too covered the Many Worlds Theory . I am filled with such enthusiam for this subject (more than any other area of Physics) and I would like to know where I can find it.
Are there actual research groups involved with these Philosophical areas or are they merely confined to personal research? Nicholas, I would be really grateful if you and Rev. Polkinghorne could help me out here as I am not sure where else to find the answers. Thanking you in anticipation of any help you may be able to offer.
John's response: I suggest you look at Reason & Reality ch 7. There is also my new book called Very Short Introduction to Quantum Theory (OUP).

Motivated Belief (LK) I'm a high school student in Austin, Texas. My physics teacher recently assigned us the task of reading any book that had to do with science, writing a paper about a topic that we'd learned about from the book, and giving a presentation on this topic. I chose Belief in God in an Age of Science, which I found to be fascinating (a little over my head, though.) I have decided to write my paper about information from the second chapter of the book, in which you compare the events of the Christ aftermath to five steps used in scientific quests for understanding. Honestly, the reason I chose this was because it is the only part of the book I thought I understood well enough to write a paper on. My teacher and I have been struggling to figure out how I can present this information to the class in a useful way, and how I can focus some on the scientific aspect. Could you tell me why you chose to compare the events after Jesus' death with those steps of scientific inquiry? I'm not sure if you'll even get this message or answer my question, but I thought I'd give it a shot. Thanks!

Preliminary Response: I think that John is showing how there is a real affinity between the way in which scientific knowledge grows and deepens and the way theological knowledge does. John believes that we live in One World and that the idea that Science=Objective Fact; Religion=Subjective Opinion is dangerous and misleading. The fact is that in areas like the discussion on Anthropic fine-tuning, the argument by atheists seems to go "all the available evidence points to God, but we don't like that conclusion, so let's posit at least 10^23 unknowable other universes instead, for which the only real reason is that we don't want to accept the existence of God."
John adds: I wanted to show that religious faith is based on motivated beliefs, just as scientific understanding is based on motivated beliefs

Evil and Soul Making A question for Dr. Polkinghorne. Actually, it is more of an observation. Perhaps I want to have my cake and eat it too, but I have never been able to get around the problem of evil and accept the various soul-making theodicies. My observation is this: One popular explanation for all the evil in this world -- and I am including natural disasters, the suffering of animals, and the evil waged by humans upon each other -- is the 'soul-making' theodicy of John Hick. This basically says that God must allow such evils to occur if we are to learn and experience the emotions of empathy, hope and love. But if God is assumed to exist, we must also assume he is perfect, and that he therefore did NOT have to build his own soul. So it is indeed a mystery that this benevolent deity should then require the vast majority of creatures (humans included) on this planet to go through so much agony in their attempts to acquire, or "make", souls of their own.
BTW, I was born and raised Roman Catholic, but have been agnostic for the majority of my life. I have most of John's books and enjoy them very much.

Nicholas' Preliminary Response Thanks for the question/observation. Surely the point is this: God is (by defintion) self-existent, hence God necessarily has freewill and the capacity to love. But God's creatures are not. It really seems that the only way in which creatures which are totally dependent on God can become free is through some form of indeterministic 'darwinistic' system. Certainly Neural Nets and Genetic Algorithms are the only known ways of achieving something comparable in computing. I hope this helps and I'd be interested in your comments. John is in the US at present but he can review the correspondence when he gets back and add his remarks.

Reply Assuming God is the foundation/source of all things, I must accept that he is, "by default", capable of love and free will. But that does not solve the mystery of this "requirement" that we build our souls while he did not have to do so himself. This point is, for me, fundamental to accepting the possibility of a deity. I cannot be "wowed" into belief in a moral, personal God by equations, "intelligent design" or the anthropic principle. Emotion and morality are all that count at this level of discussion.
God supposedly always existed. Did he expend any effort or do any "soul-making" to acquire his supposed benevolence and empathy? Not that I can tell. Yet so many of us must go through hell here on earth in order to have free will and build our souls. This doesn't wash. It is almost as if I must look upon a cancer patient in extreme pain and, while comforting/caring for him, think to myself, "I am doing my best to care for you. And while I deeply wish you were not in such pain, we could not have free will and we would not be worthy of God were such pain totally eliminated from this universe."
How sad a philosophy. How distant and illogical this God.

N's 2nd Response Sorry - I've been a bit slow to see the point you are making. If theodicy consists of "to build you soul you have to suffer", "building souls is necessary" hence "suffering is necessary" then I agree that it is logically flawed. But what John (and I and others) say is something different, roughly this:
a: To Love you have to have freewill
b: To have freewill in a universe which Another has created the universe has to have free processes and you have to have free actions, both of which can cause pain and death.
c: Once you have freewill you have the free possibility of Sin - ie a freely chosen breaking of perfect love from Human to Creator, and (at least in a Sinful state), Sin, pain and death are evils and will occur
d: hence the evils of Sin, pain and death are an inevitable by-product of a universe in which Loving Creatures can exist.
e: God is not an impassive spectator but take on Himself all the Sin, pain and death and a immense personal cost is redeeming the Universe.
Does this make a bit more sense?

Reply So what was God like "before" he created us? Was there no possibility of love? It's an interesting concept. Did God have free-will "before" he created free creatures? Was God capable of loving and experience rejection "before" he created us? If not, then God himself did not know of love or free-will and we are all part of (through no choice of our own) this divine experiment.
Did God "freely" choose to create us, or did he have no choice in the matter? If he freely chose to create us, how was this free choice possible without him having first experienced love, rejection or pain? HOW did he "build" his own soul and obtain free-will? If he was capable of experiencing free-will and love prior to our creation (and without pain), than we too deserve to have been created that way: pain-free. Why then did he not make us so?
Certainly the concept of "the cross" is a an interesting attempt at justification and it works for many. My suspicion (fear?) is that it remains the grandest delusion humanity has ever fabricated.

N's 3rd Response Well Christians know (believe if you prefer) that God is in fact a Trinity of three Persons in perfect loving communion, so there was actual as well as potential love from the beginning.
Did God have free-will "before" he created free creatures?
Yes of course. And why the "" on before. Few people deny that there was a Universe before there were human beings. Was God capable of loving and experience rejection "before" he created us? Yes although there was noone who might have rejected Him before the creation of other freewill creatures (I'll leave the angels out of this for now if you don't mind, it's a needless complication).
Did God "freely" choose to create us?
Yes If he freely chose to create us, how was this free choice possible without him having first experienced love, rejection or pain? HOW did he "build" his own soul and obtain free-will? Freewill is needed for Love, not vice versa. If he was capable of experiencing free-will and love prior to our creation (and without pain), than we too deserve to have been created that way: pain-free. Why then did he not make us so? Because of b in my earlier reply (To have freewill in a universe which Another has created the universe has to have free processes and you have to have free actions, both of which can cause pain and death). Of course God is not in a universe which Another has created. When we 'create' automata in a virtual world using software we can see analagous issues.
Certainly the concept of "the cross" is a an interesting attempt at justification and it works for many. My suspicion (fear?) is that it remains the grandest delusion humanity has ever fabricated.
Well Jesus certainly lived, and taught, died on a cross and His body was never found and His disciples fervently believed in His resurrection and through them He went on to change the world. Only if you had overwhelming prior reasons for rejecting it could you reject the obvious explanation for these facts.

Scripture (TK) Do you or Dr. Polkinghorne believe in the innerancy of scripture? It seems to me as if higher criticism has shown the Bible to be thoroughly human. Thank you for your comments.

Nicholas' Preliminary Response That the Bible was written and selected by humans does not mean it is not divinely inspired. Jesus is thoroughly human and thoroughly divine. And "higher criticism" should be taken with a big pinch of salt. The Bible certainly contains truth about God, has inspired many people's lives in wonderful ways, and is certainly an indispensable resource. Yet it also contains unedifying material such as acts of genocide portrayed as divine commands. Any adequate and honest account of the Bible has to take account of all these features. (to paraphrase John in Science & Theology, pp99-100).
My own view is that every word of the Bible is part of one or more significant parts, and these significant parts have one or more meanings that God wants us to receive from them, and that these meanings are true. This is not a simplistic "if it says X in the Bible, X must be true". The Word of God is living and active, not a rubber stamp.

Age of the Earth (HW) I have a question that I feel I know the answer too, but I have a hard time backing it up. I was born and raised in a Christian family and my education has been Christian, even college. I have always been taught that this earth is about 2,000+ years old, not millions and millions like the evolutionists say. I was talking to someone the other day, a Christian, and he commented that this earth is millions of years old. I did not go into it then, but I felt helpless with no argument. Can you please tell me how old this earth is from a Christian perspective?

Nicholas' Preliminary Response From a Christian perspective the Earth is, like everything else in the Universe, created by a loving, faithful God who surrendered His son to a terrible death at the hands of sinful men. In scripture and reason He has given us ways to come closer to understanding parts of His designs for us, although our knowledge will always only be partial in this life.
A very simplistic literal reading of the Old Testament suggests that the earth was created in about 4004BC, but there are very good reasons for believing that God does not want us to read the OT in this way. He gives us a big clue in Genesis when there are 2 different accounts of creation which agree in the essentials but differ in details. It is as though He is saying, right at the beginning "the Bible is dealing with the deepest truths, that can barely be conveyed in human language. Learn to distinguish the essence of what is being said from the literal details". And of course much of the OT, if taken 'literally' is completely incompatible with the loving Father revealed in Jesus.
Now there are very good scientific reasons to believe that the earth is about 5bn years old - not just geology but the mix of isotopes. Some devout, but misguided, Christians suggest that God 'planted' this evidence to 'test our faith' - that the earth is 'really' 6004 years old but God has made it look 5bn years old. The problem with this approach is that it implied that God deliberately deceives His people - it's rather like the Docetists who said that Jesus did not really suffer, he only appeared to. Whereas we know that God is faithful and gives us the immense privelige of freewill and living in a regular universe - indeed it is the only way we can see to answer the 'problem of evil'. Admittedly this scientific knowledge challenges us to a deeper way of understanding the Bible - but that is also a good thing.

Human Genome Project and the Resurrection: I have written a personal faith statement for my tenure decision here at a small university in the US of Baptist heritage. In that statement of how I see an integration of my faith and my discipline (chemistry) my thesis was that the atomic bomb can be likened to the death of Jesus and the Human Genome Project can be related to the resurrection. I only use these relations to illustrate to the students the far reaching effect of 2 of the most important technologies that man has invented and how these 2 events might share something in common with the 2 greatest events in the life of a Christian. Listed below are 2 short examples of how I see these connected:
a) Our life as humans will be forever changed, once again, as we delve further into the results of cloning, stem cell research, and the myriad aspects of not only human genome projects but animal and plant genome projects. The hope and passion to remake species into more perfect persons can be related to the desire of God to enable humans to become a more perfect image of himself through the death and resurrection of his son.
b) The atomic bomb generated well-known destruction. Yet it was the work of scientists wanting to track these genetic changes that led to the initial conferences which ultimately led to the Human Genome Project. So we see that out of death and destruction has arisen a new view of life, assisted by the human genome project, which has the ability to completely alter life as we understand it today.
I have received criticism for this work. Some say that this interpretation of the resurrection has no theological basis. Without going into my entire faith statement, I was wondering if you do see any theological basis for using the human genome project to help students to understand the resurrection?

Preliminary Response: Indeed everything links to the death and resurrection of Christ - all good and all evil. But it is worth stressing, and I'm sure you do for your students, that to "remake species into more perfect persons" by genetic means is completely different from God's approach to making us more perfect through faith and love. It is not those with 'perfect' bodies that come into the kingdom, but those with perfect trust in their Redeemer. And genetic changes, however far reaching, will not alter morality. As Father Brown put it so memorably 'Reason and justice grip the remotest and lonliest star...you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please..but don't fancy that all that ... would make the smallest difference to reason or justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, "Thou shalt not steal."' [The Blue Cross]

John says that he has nothing really to add to my reply. He is very wary indeed of the kind of association that you make, because the death and resurrection of Christ are events quite without parallel and of cosmic significance.
I don't think John means by this that the comparison is without value - especially if you are talking to young people who don't see the relevance of events long ago (although if they can see the relevance of the Big Bang 15bn yrs ago they shouldn't have a problem with something 0.000002bn yrs ago really). But you need also to stress, as I am sure you do, that these events are to Jesus' death and resurrection (roughly) what a big bang is to The Big Bang.

Freewill and Evil I am corresponding with somebody who studied philosophy for 6 years who maintains that God can create beings with free will who are wholly good and never sin. Is this correct, and, if possible, could you give the names of a few Christian philosophers who support this position?

Response (endorsed by John): A being with freewill might freely choose never to sin - all orthodox Christians believe that Jesus had freewill and did not sin (although of course Jesus was begotten, not created, but that does really impinge on the point at issue). Many Christians believe that Mary did as well (eg . But clearly a being with freewill would always have the possibility of sinning. And orthodox Christian doctrine - as well as common sense - states that "if we say we are without sin, the truth is not in us".

String Theory I don't want to sound like a cry baby or anything, but I see more people using string theory as a reason to think that God will be disproven (there is no need for one). I am not a physicist; you are more of one than I am. My opinion is that is all speculation dressed up in fancy words. It's not the ultimate theory of everything. I don't know what type of experiments have shown with respect to it. But let me ask you: Does string theory, if proven true, prove anything in terms of the existence of God? Does it affect theism in the sense that it makes the Universe circular and self-contained and therefore no need for a God outside.

Preliminary Response: You are quite right to think that:
a. String Theory is still highly speculative and almost certainly wrong. There's a review of Three Roads to Quantum Gravity in the 8 March 2001 issue of Nature - a book which suggests that physicists are within 10-15 years of putting together string theory (which now threatens to evolve into a still unknown entity called M-theory), loop quantum gravity and topos theory (portraying quantum space-time as an interrelationship of processes and information) into a viable theory of quatum gravity. It points out that back in the 1930s, a rumour got about that Heisenberg had put together the broad outlines of a theory that would unify gravity and electromagnetism, and that he would publish once he had sorted out the details. Pauli sent a postcard to a friend on which he crudely drew a picture frame enclosing a blank space, and wrote "this is to prove I can paint like Titain. Only details are missing."
b. Even if String Theory were right, it could not conceivably prove the non-existence of God. Any set of laws of physics is always compatible with a law-giver, and any conceivable set that described this universe would have strange 'anthropic coincidences' which are impossible to explain away convincingly - without the rather desperate resort to 'multiverse' theories which can "explain" anything.

John says: Nothing really to add to your response. Of course String Theory, or any other scientific theory, could not disporve God. It could only tell us a bit more about the world God chose to create.

Chaos Theory I am a theologian and mathematician. For the Macmillan project "Encyclopedia of Science and Religion" I have agreed to write the article about Chaos Theory. Because I want to do justice to your important contribution to the theological reception of chaos theory I would like you to ask you three questions: 1. Which one of your books is according to your own evaluation the most important book about Chaos theory - Theology? (I need the title for the bibliogfraphy)
2. How would you describe the relation of chaos theory to bottom up and top down causality in two sentences?
3. What is according to your interpretation the relation of chaos theory to the free will.

John says: Good to hear from you an to know that you are writing the encyclopaedia article on Chaos Theory. Here are my responses to your questions:
1. Belief in God in an Age of Science (YUP 1998)
2. If the unpredictableness of chaos theory are interpreted ontologically, as indicating the possibility of extra causal principle operating in addition to exchanges of energy between constituents, these principles will be holistic in effect, acting on the system as a whole, and they will be concerned with the input of information specifying a future pattern of behaviour. This is the kind of causality that may be called "active information" and is clearly "top-down" in its character.
3. The top-down causal effect of active information begins to give a hint of the kind of causality that is excersiced in the freely chosen acts of human agents.
Best wishes John Polkinghorne

Singularity (HP) When we look up into the night sky, we are looking back in time. The farther we see into the cosmos, the farther back in time we go. It stands to reason that if we go back far enough in time, we will see the Singularity of the Big Bang. My question is, will we see the Singularity surrounding us? That is, will we see that we are actually inside the Singularity? How can this be, if the Singularity is a point???

Preliminary Response The singularity is a 'point' where the currently known laws of physics break down. It's as though we were living on the surface of a balloon which was being blown up and expanding all the time. We observe that the radius of the balloon r = kt and we could project this backwards to the time when the balloon was reduced to a 'singularity' of radius 0 at t=0. We know enough about balloons to know that they cannot in fact become a single point, so at some point the 'law' r=kt breaks down. But if you had only ever observed one balloon, and lived on its surface, it would be tricky to discover exactly where this law would break down. For the Universe, it is even trickier! It is possible for example that space is quantised and that there is a minimum size, or that at these tiny scales there many more dimensions become significant (this is so called String Theory or M Theory). At present we just don't know. But of course we can 'see' the echo of the Big Bang which is the so-called Cosmic Background Radiation.

John Adds We cannot in a literal sense see back to the big bang, even with the most powerful resources, because before the universe was about half a million years old it was opaque because of the universal interaction between matter and radiation. It only became transparent when the celebrated background radiation became detatched from matter. With our minds we can enter that cloud, as the early universe cosmologists do, but it all becomes more and more speculative the earlier we try to penetrate and we shall always fall short of the singularity itself, since that is where physics fails.

Mathematical Reality In his Science and Creation (p 75) [Sir*] John writes: It is difficult to believe that they [the truths of mathematics] come into being with the action of the human mind that first thinks them. Rather their nature seems to be that of ever-existing realities which are discovered, but not constructed, by the explorations of the human mind. Is he is attributing the characteristics of the divine (i.e. pre-existence) to mathematical truths here? If they are ever-existing how they can have been created? In what sense are they then dependent upon God? It seems to me that he is adopting a Christianised (neo)Platonic view of maths. But doesn't this conflate the creator/ creation distinction? Does [Sir*] John see maths as being necessary or contingent?

Preliminary Response Mathematical truths are all of the form "if A then B" where A includes the axioms and definitions. It is not that God creates 2, 4, + and = so that 2+2=4, it is that 2+2=4 because of the true meanings of these terms: if we chose to use the terms two, four, plus and equals or II, IV, et and es we would be expressing the same proposition. What God does create is the human mind capable of understanding these concepts, and a universe of sufficient regularity that these concepts are valuable to predict behaviour. So the truths of Maths are necessary, our ability to understand and use them is contingent.

John Adds I see maths as necessary, not contingent, and I do take a modified platonic view that the entities of mathematics exist and we discover them (So does Roger Penrose, see The Emperor's New Mind) However they are not independent of God or place constraints on him, for the exist everlastingly in the mind of God. (This is the sort of Christianised platonism tha Augustine embraced). Of course, the realm of maths could not be explored by other creatures until rational (human) beings came into existence.

Supplimentaries: 1) Does [Sir*] John see the creator/ creation distinction as being exhaustive? (If not what sort of things are uncreated?) (2) Does [Sir*] John see mathematics as neutral? Is maths wordlview-independent? and Nicholas's response: My own take on the 2 supplimentaries is: (1) All necessary truths are essentially mathematical - they are not created but inherent in the definitions and exist in the mind of God. Anything that is contingent is either created or does not exist. (2) Depends what you mean. The underlying truths of Mathematics are neutral and worldview-independent in the natural senses of those words, but if you teach 5 year olds that "2 Kalashnikovs + 2 Kalashnikovs = 4 Kalashnikovs" or do calculations on the dispersion of nerve-gas or the triggering of nuclear weapons then your choice to explore these areas in this was may be far from neutral and worldview-independent.

More Supplimentaries: First of all, I want you to know that I am a Christian (an Episcopalian), but I have been disturbed that we Christians base our faith upon documents written millenia ago. We base our faith on a living relationship with a living God, revealed in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation was a unique event - in many ways a second Big Bang - and consequently we look very closely at the evidence around this - rather like a Bubble Chamber trace or the fossil evidence of a speces in a way. Because the Incarnation is God's communication with humanity, and we know that God is not incompetent, we can trust that He has ensured that enough trustworth evidence has been preserved for us to come into this relationship. But, as wise Christians have always understood - certainly since St Augustine - the Bible is not a scientific treatise in any way.
These documents represent a universal view that is primitive by our current standards. I desire to formulate my theology taking into account current understanding of the universe. I believe our faith needs to be brought into the twenty-first century, and that science and religion can find harmonious ground. Our faith is in the 21st Century - and will be in the 31st - because it is Eternal. As CS Lewis said, all that is not eternal is eternally out-of-date. And true Science and true Christian Religion have always had harmonious relationships - all the great pioneers of science until Darwin were Christians, and many of Darwin's early champions were Christians as well.
Second, you state that the total amount of matter and energy in the universe is finite and conserved; I understand that. However, Sir John and you have both in effect stated that the laws of physics fail when we get to the singularity; in other words, we can't explain how conditions are at the singularity. So "finite and conserved" may not apply to the singularity. I may be right, you may be right--who knows? Well the singularity only exists as an extrapolation of the laws of phyisics. It's the only basis on which we can talk about it rationally. Some highly speculative cosmologies posit an infinity of singularities and universes - a "multiverse" - mainly to get out of the Anthropic coincidences which stronly point to a Creator.
Third, we do not know whether God encompasses more than the singularity. I believe that God encompasses at least the singularity, and it is from the singularity that the universe was created. Time and space break down at the singularity, so the singularity may be eternal from our frame of reference. Philosophically we do kind of know this. If God =df the Loving Ultimate Creator then the Singularity cannot be God.
Finally, consider this: I have only heard from physicists that the Big Bang was an explosion. What if it actually was an implosion? Wouldn't our perspective be the same either way? Wouldn't that explain why we would see ourselves as inside the singularity? Not sure what you mean by this. If the universe exceeds a critical density (now thought to be unlikely) then it will end in a 'big crunch' with a final implosion, and this would look very different from what we see now.

Q: Fine Tuning. (MJ) How high is the probability, that the universe is fine-tuned? (with attachment of 32 anthropic coincidences)

Preliminary Response Thanks for this. The points you list make it clear that the universe is fine-tuned - the question is: what is the probability that this has occurred "by chance"? In order to assess this we'd have to have an alternative hypotheses to the natural explanation (the existence of God = Loving Ultimate Creator) and be able to estimate:
- the prior probability of this hypothesis
- the likelihood, under this hypothesis, of these conditions arising.
As far as I know, no-one has a sufficiently good theory of universe creation to make remotely convincing estimates of the likelihood, but, even though not all the conditions you list are necessarily independent, it is clear that the likelihood of these arising by chance is infinitessimal. Pretty well anyone who has looked into this who does not want to believe in God has to posit a 'multiverse' composed of an infinity of Universes in order to explain this fine-tuning away (eg Martin Rees in Just Six Numbers). But this view is fraught with grave difficulties:
a. Even an infinite number of universes will not necessarily contain a universe that is 'fine tuned'. (the infinite set of integers does not contain pi)
b. Positing an infinite set of (otherwise unknowable) universes would "explain" any inconvenient fact.
c. If you go as far as people like (allegedly) Max Tegmark, and posit that every logically possible Universe exists, then it follows that God exists, since if God exists in one universe He must exist in all of them.
I'll try to see what John wants to add to this, but it may take a while. Nicholas

Q: from "A Confused Intellectual Who is under the false impression that science has all answers." While surfing the web, I noticed a website mentioning your name with a great deal of interest. Accordingly, I wanted to contact you directly to make certain inquiries. Presently, I am a young professional who is confused about the role of science and religion in my life. Since 18, I have had continued doubts about my faith to the extent of becoming greatly distraught. In fact, I lost hope for living once I found out that man is merely a well adapted ape.
At 35, I still have misgivings about the faith thing, but remain hopeful that God will eventually coexist with science. I'm an extremely analytical individual who has to see evidence for belief. Science provides evidence, but it doesn't satisfy the longings in my soul for meaning. Science seems to suggest that we are only pawns in the vast cosmic universe.
I wanted to find out if there are suggested readings you may offer. If so, please e-mail me back with such readings. I'm curious as to whether all scientist are athiest and believe in a mindless universe that haphazardly creates.

Preliminary reply: It's certainly not true that all scientists are atheists - indeed surveys suggest that the proportion of theist scientists in the US - about 35% - has not changed much in 70 years. Logically there is no contradiction between science and Christianity - it's only rabid atheists like Dawkins who pretend there is. Stephen J Gould - also an atheist but not rabid - is quite clear on the matter. And the fact that there is even one rational Christian FRS would be a counterexample - and there are many.
It simply isn't true that "man is merely a well-adapted ape" You might as well say that man is merely a set of chemicals or a set of elementary particles or an economic consumer. Or that Hamlet is merely a string of letters. Even from a purely 'scientific' point of view, there are obviously essential aspects of human behaviour that cannot be understood purely by applying hominid biology.
As for evidence, I think it's fair to say that the evidence for Christianity is "almost overwhelming". Christianity, even as a hypothesis (and of course it's far more than that) explains far more than Atheism: I'd refer in particular to the life of Jesus, the existence of objective values, and the astonishing anthropic fine-tuning of the Universe. (see my debate with Colin Howson if you like) It's not that there are no other possibilities, it's just that the likelihoods, under the Atheist hypothesis, is infinitessimal. That's all you can expect in Science either - we'd normally dismiss someone who wanted to invent 10^23 un-knowable parallel universes to explain away an awkward fact as pretty desperate.
As for readings, it depends a bit where you are coming from. Almost any of John's books would be helpful. (Can a Scientist Pray - The Faith of a Physicist maybe). If you're a biologist or want a really meaty long exposition of the history and current state of Science and Religion, and why the "warfare hypothesis" is such bunk, then Denis Alexander's Rebuilding the Matrix - endorsed by many FRSs - would be good.

John Adds I wonder if you might find Beyond Science helpful or even Science and Theology


If you have any comments feel free to send them to me at nb@starcourse.org .  You might also want to check out the Star Course. and the debate on science and the existence of God between me and Prof. Colin Howson.

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