16 June 2011

Live Blogging John Polkinhorne Address at Christian Scholars' Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

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I’m going to live blog the John Polkinghorne address at the Christian Scholars Conference. Two notes: (1) Read from the bottom, obviously. (2) Forgive my EDT time stamp; the talk began at 11 a.m. PDT.


Now an organizer is reminding me that I won’t be able to go to Polkinghorne’s second Saturday session because it overlaps with mine. Grrr…


Question: You gave an argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ at a lecture you gave at a public university. I said to the atheist who organized your talk “That’s the first time I’ve heard the gospel preached in this place.” So I have a testimony, not a question.

Answer: Well thank you. It’s been great fun being here.


Question: My wife is a biologist, and one of her favorite quotes is attributed to ? (I have heard this quote recently): “I’m afraid that when we ascend to the top of the mountain, we’ll find the theologians already there.” Do you think spending lives denying the importance of theology is part of what’s going on in their meanness toward it?

Answer: No, not really (essentially). The quote is silly because scientists ask scientific questions and theologians ask theological questions. We work in complementary ways.


There’s another reason: biologists see a much more ambiguous picture of the world. Biologists see wonderful fruitfulness, but they also see the wastefulness and blind eyes and ragged edges of the evolutionary process. “We as believers have to take that absolutely seriously.”


He’s making an interesting point here about how the biologists are going through right now what physicists have already gone through, this idea of a mechanistic universe. Physicists have emerged on the other side of that process, and he thinks that will happen to biologists as well.


Question: Why is it that so few scientists are believers given all the discoveries about our surprising and open universe?

Answer: I don’t think there’s a general answer to that. “Physics looks at a world that is full of wonderful order.” There’s a “cosmic religiosity to be found among physicists,” even if they’re not traditionally faithful. Einstein felt like a “child in the presence of the elders,” and so on. But he said he saw he saw no evidence for the personal God of theism. “Of course, that’s not surprising, because he wasn’t looking in the right place.”

There’s far less openness to religious belief among biologists. One of the reasons is this terrible bickering over evolution. (He said some fairly unkind thing about supposed servants of the God of truth here, which I quite catch, unfortunately.)


Question: Do you think philosophy of science is a good resource for those of us working on science and theology?

Answer: Yes, there’s a certain cousinly relationship between all these disciplines. “I think philosophy is a wonderful handmaid. Like all scientists, I’m a bit wary of philosophy. They so often come up to us and say, ‘I’ll tell you what you’re really doing.’”


A note to Americans: British academics prefer to be called “Professor So-and-so” rather than “Dr. So-and-so.” Don’t I have that right?


There’s no universal epistemology either. The appropriate question about a proposition isn’t “isn’t it reasonable?” (quantum physics wasn’t) but “what makes you think that might be the case?” Theology also needs to take this outlook. Need to be willing to be bottom-up thinkers, beginning with our experience. The problem with the top-down approach is that clear and certain ideas so often turn out to be “neither clear nor certain.” Dual nature of Christ is, of course, a more perplexing claim than the dual nature of light. But the continuing worshiping experience of the church continues to offer answers to the question “what makes you think that might be the case?” And so, for this and other reasons, we still need theology in the modern university. Full stop. (I’ve missed a few things in here, of course.)


Realism commends itself because of the “stubborn recalcitrance” of nature. It just does not want to conform to our evolving understandings of it. There’s no universal rationality.


As in physics, successful theories in metaphysics also needs to offer us a certain explanatory power. “Atheists are by no means stupid, and many are genuine truth seekers.” But, in P.’s view, the theistic view is more properly explanatory.


Two metaphysical traditions from the West: (1) naturalism — takes existence of nature as their basis, and (2) theism — takes existence of a divine creator as basis. Nature seems to point beyond itself. Wonder is a pointer toward that second view, P. says. These are not knock-down arguments, he notes.


“Intuitive powers of perception” made Einstein’s discoveries possible. Desirable metaphysical properties motivated him, notice.


“Exercise of judgment” is too important to science to overlook. “We know more than we can tell,” Polanyi says. There’s a sense in which science is an art.


I don’t know MacIntosh, but what P.’s saying about him sounds a lot like Thomas Kuhn to me.


“Natural history ends and science begins precisely when we interrogate the world from a particular point of view.” Our theoretical science has to be open to correction. The process is a subtle mechanism, subtler than Popper would have us believe (P. sides with MacIntosh’s idea of a research program).


Both religion and science, Polkinghorne says, are shooting for “reliable insight” not “indubitable proof.” The term “proof” is used way too often. Even in mathematics, Goedel showed, we can’t expect systems to internally derive themselves (I’m not getting that phrasing quite right). So even mathematicians have to take a certain leap of faith.


[Lost track of how we got here...] Whitehead’s “fellow-sufferer” observation meets the problem of suffering head on, though of course it doesn’t solve it.


Notice: Theorizing in theology is bound to be less successful than theorizing in science, because of the nature of what we’re talking about. And so we see Chalcedon, etc., merely draw off some boundaries about what we can say and what we can’t say and still be working within the same theory-space (my term).


Now let’s use Christology as an example of the pursuit of truth in the religious realm. The “phenomenology of early Christian belief” has to be assessed with appropriate scrupulosity (he does this in Faith of a Physicist). But after we do that, we can observe that what’s going on in that phenomenology is the construction of models. These monotheistic Jews played with models for what would describe their experience of Jesus.


So we’ve got two models: Bohr and Bohm. Polkinghorne says the choice between them has to be made for metaphysical reasons, since they’re empirically identical. While constrained by physics, the question between determinacy and indeterminacy is a metaphysical question.


Quantum physics has a probabilistic character, of course. We don’t know when a nucleus will decay. There are two possibilities: (1) there are all kinds of factors we can’t understand that are contributing to the time of decay, and (2) actual ontological indeterminacy. The early quantum physicists followed Bohr in adopting the latter. But Bohm in the ’50s made a more deterministic move that nevertheless makes the same predictions as the Bohr model.


Key point: It took a long time to get some theoretical machinery in place. His process is (1) phenomenology, (2) theory, (3) models. (I think I got these right.) Now to the point about realism: We’ve got to be quite convinced of the reality of these theories when, say, Dirac combines quantum mechanics and relativity and then makes “unforced” predictions about the physical world that turn out to be true.


He’s talking about the history of theorizing about the quantum lines of hydrogen, etc. I’m trying to take pictures.


Let’s return to the theme of “motivated beliefs.” “Indispensable role of theoretical interpretation” can’t look purely Baconian. “Truly insightful understanding is a much more complex activity, and exercise in creative imagination to see truly illuminating underlying patterns.” Einstein: physical meaning (?) has to be created. Einstein was pointing to the need for open, intuitive insight in describing reality. He didn’t brood on the failure of Michaelson Moorely (sp?), he thought about what it would be like to ride on a wave of light.


This project will leave us with a wide circle, and universities should embrace “this whole spectrum.” Universities are “loose affiliations” of researchers on narrow bands of this spectrum. Universities without theology departments are missing out on this perspective on truth-seeking.


Both are engaged by the great human quest for truth “attained through motivated belief.” (Helpful phrase, no?) “So theological questions receive theological answers given for theological reasons.” We can separate these as “how?” and “why?” questions. But their answers “must be consistent with each other.”


“Science has achieved its great success by the modesty of its ambition.” It concentrates on process not on value and purpose. But we know these latter things are “both meaningful and necessary.” Scientist: “the kettle is boiling.” A different kind of answer: “The kettle is boiling because I’m making tea. Would you like some?”


Encounter with “sacred reality” is what is meant by revelation. “Bible is not divinely dictated textbook set forth in propositional terms.” Bible is “more like a laboratory notebook in which are recorded” spiritual experiences.


Theology is concerned with “interpersonal encounter” and “transpersonal encounter with the sacred reality of God.” Here “testing” has to yield to “trusting.”


We meet reality at different levels with different kinds of experience in both science and religion. We reach “high degree of intersubjective agreement” in science because the way we approach the world is based in experiments.


Hehe, “My [scientist] friends do not want to commit intellectual suicide. Of course, neither do I.”


“Enormous explanatory success of science” says that the interpretive circle involved in science is virtuous rather than vicious. Scientists who reflect on their methodology generally say that their perspective is that of “critical realism.” Einstein feared that the Uncertainty Principle created a bit of a monster of the world. He made the mistake, Polkinhorne says, of confusing reality with our experience of it [I think this is his gist. I'm still getting the hang of the live blogging workflow...].




Conference organizer is giving an overview of the conference, it’s theme (“The Path of Discovery: Science, Theology, and the Academy”), and its special guests.

Provost of Pepperdine University is now welcoming us as well. He’s quoting a Wesley hymn about the pairing of knowledge and “vital piety.”

Learning from third introducer that Polkinghorne studied under Dirac. It’s also apparently inappropriate to call him “Sir John Polkinghorne” because he’s also ordained.

Polkinghorne: People say science is about facts and religion about opinions. The latter is about personal preference, they say. There are two bad mistakes in this judgment, he says. The first is a mistaken idea about scientific discovery. No interesting facts are not already interpreted.

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