The philosophical foundations of J.C. Polkinghorne’s theory of consonance concerning science and theology.

Presentation and assessment.

Johannes Maria Steinke SJ


In almost every one of his publications, the English physicist and theologian John C. Polkinghorne (1930-) examines the relationship between science and theology. Polkinghorne concludes that the relationship between these two disciplines is "consonant". This book is both an introduction to his thought as well as a preliminary exploration of the philosophical foundations of his theory of consonance.

The initial part A introduces John Polkinghorne and contextualizes his thought within the larger discussion. Part B expands upon basic concepts that are central to both his general academic perspective as well as the specific details associated with his theory of consonance—particularly in relation to the primacy of personality and the irreducibility of the different dimensions of human experience.

Part C and D examine Polkinghorne’s understanding of science and theology. He considers both disciplines as “rational inquiries” of human experience: science is the systematic reflection of the impersonal dimension of experience, theology the systematic reflection of religious experience. Together, they achieve a “verisimilitudinous” knowledge of reality (critical realism). Polkinghorne insists that both theology as well as science contain a personal dimension that again requires an explanation. Therefore, he differentiates between theology of the first order and theology of the second order (understood as a theological metaphysics). This theology of the second order forms the explanatory background where the mutual relationship between all sciences are understood and the conditions of their possibility become clear. This theological metaphysics forms the basis of the theory of consonance.

Part E explores the concept of consonance and defines it as complementarity of autonomous, internally coherent sciences. The consonance of theology and science is visible on several levels: as different forms of rational inquiries, they have a principle and methodical relationship that is mutually enriching. Consonance can also be shown on the level of content where Polkinghorne connects his idea of creation to the theory of evolution, which shows how God could act in a evolving world and presents a possible understanding of eschatology. Polkinghorne’s thought represents a dual aspect monism, which he combines with a doubled theory of emergence. In this way, he is able to explain the origin and the interaction of the mental and the material dimension of reality. Polkinghorne assumes new holistic causal principles that allow the mental to affect the physical world.

Part F is dedicated to providing an intensive and expanded philosophical analysis of Polkinghorne’s position. In this section, it is shown how Polkinghorne’s assertions are reasonable and a consonance of science and theology are plausible – such as the considerations regarding creation and evolution. However, at times, it lacks a detailed philosophical clarity insofar the concept of experience, the relationship of liberty and causality, the concept of the soul is concerned. On closer examination, some statements, such as the assumption of new holistic principals and the theory of divine action within the world, are problematic since they are highly speculative and have little empirical support.

The book concludes with a summary of both the strengths and the weaknesses of Polkinghorne’s philosophical position, as well as with a differentiated perspective concerning his propositions:

The important contribution of Polkinghorne exists in the ways that he outlines a method to overcome the delimitations of the single sciences in order to open up a horizon that leads from a single reality into a wider perspective. This synopsis also has important ramifications for the single disciplines. With his theory of consonance, Polkinghorne succeeds in formulating an apology of Christianity within the paradigm of modern natural science. Concerning science Polkinghorne underlines on the one hand its autonomy and their relevance for the understanding of the world, but on the other hand he shows the limits of natural science and reveals its innermost personal dimension. With this he places the natural science into a larger, metaphysical framework that is able to explain the conditions of the possibility of science.

The strength of Polkinghorne’s thought subsists in the way that he relates science and theology using a philosophical connection. In doing this, he avoids the temptation to look for naive and direct transitions between science and theology that would limit the specific autonomy of each of the two disciplines. With the assistance of a philosophical perspective, and in particular a theological metaphysics, he succeeds in demonstrating the consonance of science and theology on the systematic level and attempts to show this consonance on the level of content. Nevertheless, in his considerations there is a lack of precision in the details. So the strength of Polkinghorne’s thought reveals at the same time its weakness: his argument lacks often philosophical precision and sharpness. However, the wider perspective remains, which is a view of the world that assigns the human person an appropriate and a sense fulfilled place in the world and forms his different kinds of knowledge to a consonant whole.