Polkinghorne on quantum physics and theodicy

May 8, 2010 • 6:56 am

John Polkinghorne was a particle physicist at The University of Cambridge who left the university thirty years ago to become an Anglican priest.  Since then, he’s published a spate of books, many about the compatibility of science and faith.  He was knighted in 1997 and received the Templeton Prize in 2002.

I’ve read a fair amount of his stuff, including his latest book with Nicholas Beale, Questions of Truth (see a scathing review by Anthony Grayling), and I’ve always been amazed that someone can make a good living churning out such wooly accommodationism.  It’s so easy to write this stuff!  You just cover up ignorance and lack of evidence with a lot of fancy words, like “ground of being” or “motivated belief.”

A few weeks back, the website  in character: a Journal of Everyday Virtues, published an interview with the man, “Polkinghorne’s unseen realities” .   Here’s a few of his arguments:

Scientism is rampant. While chastising fundamentalists for adherence to a literalist scripture, he takes out after scientists for their lack of “humility”:

Certainly scientists who make arrogant claims that science tells you everything worth knowing are making a boastful claim that just doesn’t stand up. Science tells us how the world works, but it really doesn’t try to tell us about matters of meaning or value or purpose, which are equally important. So there are, of course, in the scientific community un-humble people, who try to be imperialist about the successes of science and claim that it’s the whole story.

When accommodationists make this claim, exactly which scientists are they referring to? I don’t know any who assert that science tells us everything we want to know, or that science dictates purpose and morality (although Sam Harris is coming close to a naturalistic morality).  How can science tell why I prefer Rhone wines to Bordeaux? Or if Dylan Thomas is a better poet than Anne Sexton? What we do claim is that science–or better, reason—tells us everything about the workings of the universe that we want to know.  And, for God’s sake, what truths does religion tell us about meaning, value, and purpose?

Science and faith are equivalent enterprises.  Notice in the following how Polkinghorne claims that science is not a search for truth, but for “motivated belief.”

I think both science and religion are concerned with the search for motivated belief.  They are not just plucking ideas out of the air but they have reasons from experience to support the ideas they believe to be true. But the way they seek them is somewhat different. Science is looking at the world as an object – as an “it”-which you can pull apart and do with what you want. And with science you can repeat things. You can do the same experiment over and over again until you feel sure you understand what is going on. And that gives science a great secret weapon. But there are great swaths of human encounter with reality where you meet reality not just as an object but where there is a personal dimension. Unlike with the scientific experiment, no personal experience is ever going to be exactly repeated.

Science and faith are alike, he says, because they both use “reasons from experience to support the ideas they believe to be true.” What he avoids here is the issue of how we determine what is true. Personal experience just doesn’t do it.  Does personal experience tell us that Jesus, as opposed to Mohamed, is God’s messenger? Is is “true” that we can attain paradise by killing infidels?  While Polkinghorne doesn’t tackle this question directly, he does allude to it later (see below).

A theistic God resides in quantum physics. Oh dear, not again!  Here’s the question-and-answer:

Does quantum physics make deism’s God obsolete?

Quantum physics shows, I think, that physics has not proved the closure of the world in terms of its own laws and equations. Physics can’t tell us that the exchange of energy between bits and pieces is the only thing that is going on in the world. Quantum theory, and in a different way chaos theory, have a more subtle picture of the world. If the world were simply mechanical, as people thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it would just be a gigantic piece of cosmic clockwork, and its creator would be an unseen cosmic clockmaker. That’s the creator who just makes the clock and lets it tick away. Quantum theory is something more subtle than that. We can believe a world in which we ourselves interact – we’re not clockwork at all – and we can believe in a world in which God interacts. We can believe in a God who doesn’t just sit and wait for it to happen but is involved in the unfolding of creation.

This is, as we’ve learned, an increasingly common stance.  When we can’t get evidence for God on the macroscopic level, we can find it on the quantum level in the “unpredictability” of particles. Once again, God becomes the Prime Mover of Electrons.  People who have this stance don’t explain how this quantum “indeterminacy” affects the universe on a macroscopic scale, like producing miracles, or why God chooses to hide himself on that scale but to act on particles.  In the end, this ploy is nothing more than a God-of-the-gaps argument.  Since we can’t find Him in normal experience, he must be acting in atoms.

But at the end Polkinghorne concedes two important points:

Do you think that the diversity of the world’s religions – I am referring especially to the non-Abrahamic religions – poses a challenge to religious belief?

Yes, I do. I think there are two great problems for religious people. First, there is the problem of evil and suffering. The second problem, which is really pressing at the moment, is the question of how the world’s faith traditions relate to each other. They are almost all thinking about the same domain of human experience. They have certain commonalities. All the world’s faith traditions commend compassion, for example. They are all operating in the same sort of area, but they have such different things to say about it. Just take the question of human nature. The three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – see the human person as of unique and abiding significance. Our Hindu friends see the human person as being recycled through reincarnation. Our Buddhist friends think life is an illusion from which to seek release. These are not three sets of people saying the same thing in different cultural languages. They are three sets of people saying different things. I think that the dialogue among the world’s faith traditions is just beginning. I think it will be long and painful, but I don’t think the answer is to look for a lowest common denominator. When you do that you get a very anemic picture of religion.

At least he recognizes that the problem of evil and suffering is not one that has been solved, or can be easily dismissed.  He has his own solution (not mentioned in this piece), but it’s not very satisfactory.  Anthony Grayling criticizes it:

I found the Beale-Polkinghorne explanation of natural evil (tsunamis and earthquakes that drown or crush tens of thousands, childhood cancers, and other marks of benign providence) as disgusting, though it is novel, as any that other apologists trot out. They say that the deity allows natural evils to happen because “he” has given creation “freedom to be and to make itself” – thus imputing free will to “creation” to explain natural evil in the same way as moral evil is imputed to the free will of humans. Heroic stuff.

And the most serious admission is that the “truths” arrived at by faith are mutually incompatible.  This is the first time I’ve seen such a frank acknowledgment that the beliefs of “our Hindu friends” and “our Buddhist friends” (what condescending characterizations!) are fundamentally different from those of “our Christian friends.”

Now when Polkinghorne tells us exactly how these contradictory claims will produce a “truth,” I’ll start paying attention.

48 thoughts on “Polkinghorne on quantum physics and theodicy

  1. Quantum indeterminancy presents us with a God who has attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. Nonetheless, teh quantumz God can’t make a Dominican cigar taste as good as a Cuban cigar. So what good is he?

    1. I hear he can turn water into wine. I don’t know if the wine is any good though – witnesses tell me it tastes like water.

      1. Oh, I also hear he turns wine into blood – but the blood tastes just like sherry. Apparently god blood is yummy – to some.

  2. How can science tell me if I like a Rhone wine better than a Bordeaux?

    Actually, it can. You could perform a double-blind test, where you taste two liquids blind-folded, and you tell which one you prefer. Science may even go a long way in finding out why you prefer one over the other, by tracing the effects of certain molecules from your taste buds to your brain activity.

    As for Polkinhorne, he is a good example of how many theologians appear to have given up on providing evidence for God, or even arguments for his existence, but will settle for defending a belief if you already have it. That is, they will only give reasons why it’s not 100% bonkers to believe in a religion if you already do, but won’t offer anything that is even remotely convincing if you don’t.

    1. Whoops! I meant WHY I prefer Rhones to Bordeaux (I’ve fixed this). And even then it might be able to single out the flavor components that I like better, but in the end it can’t tell me objectively why I, but not others, prefer Rhones.

      1. You prefer Rhones to Bordeaux because of certain dispositions of your brain. In principle these could be studied and understood, though in practice they may be far too complex, and there may be insufficient evidence to determine the historical factors which led to your brain reaching this state.

        I don’t think there is any matter of principle that excludes your preferences from being scientifically studied and understood.

          1. Yes, –we know there are tastes that some people can taste and others can’t. We know there are super-tasters who are less likely to get fat and have more taste buds:


            The degree to which you experience wine’s bitterness, astringency and acidity is correlated with your taster status. Non-tasters gave significantly lower intensity ratings for the bitterness, astringency and acidity of the red wines than did tasters and supertasters. Tasters have reported a greater perceived bitterness and irritation from alcohol.

            original PubMed article on gene: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1397913/

        1. There are also odd factors such as one wine but not another evoking the memory of meeting the person you love because that was when you first tasted it (or like Proust’s madeleine). Those would be very difficult to study scientifically, but so what?

      2. Yes, I agree with other posters that science could in principle tell you WHY you prefer Rhones to Bordeaux. It’s in the same explanatory category as “why you like females” or “why you don’t like clowns” (!) (although it would be considerably harder to answer). Perhaps there was this one time that a clown pulled a scary face when you were very young…

        Science cannot, though, tell you whether “Dylan Thomas is a better poet than Anne Sexton”, since this is not a factual state of affairs concerning the two poets. As with the first set of examples, though, it could tell you whether you prefer Dylan Thomas, and why.

        But this is the smallest of quibbles in yet another wonderful article.

        1. On the other hand, you could wonder whether “Is “Dylan Thomas a better poet than Anne Sexton?” is a well-posed question to begin with. It’s quite possible that when the question is better defined, science can answer the question after all. As a trivial example, if “better” means “sells more books”, the question is much better defined and can be answered by science just fine.

          Just an even smaller quibble on your quibble. I wonder if we can get to fractal quibleness? 😉

  3. Polkinghorne appears to be either:

    1. Ignorant, fearful and incompetent
    2. Malicious, deceiving and obfuscatory
    3. All of the above

    My guess is the third.

    1. I don’t think he is the first. He is probably the second, and he is this way because it allows him to make money.

  4. So lemme get this straight. He’s disturbed by subatomic particles, which demonstrably exist, until he posits a supernatural actor for which there is no demonstrable proof.

    1. It is the ancient notion of “completeness”. What’s real can’t exist without what’s imaginary – that kind of bullshit. It’s at least 2600 years old and yet it persists. It is still one of the most popular “proofs” of a sky fairy although it is called “perfection” rather than “completeness”. “We can’t imagine anything perfect unless something perfect exists, and therefore god exists.” Shit premise, shit conclusion.

  5. “I don’t know any who assert that science tells us everything we want to know…”

    Nor do I, but there are some who think their scientific knowledge renders them authoritative in other areas. For example, the railing against reading myths as facts when they are not except to the uninformed.

    Ironically, science demands precision in language while religious–used here as a reference to one’s personal meaning system–language is imprecise.

    Much of the dispute, mine included, sprouts from ignorance or prejudice, the solution being, knowledge.

    WEIT offers a forum for this pursuit.

  6. When we can’t get evidence for God on the macroscopic level, we can find it on the quantum level in the “unpredictability” of particles. Once again, God becomes the Prime Mover of Electrons….In the end, this ploy is nothing more than a God-of-the-gaps argument.

    Not that the distinction matters much, but I think the appeal to QM is the opposite of the classic God-of-the-gaps in the form we see it from the ID/creationist crowd. The latter attempt to construct an unbridgeable gap of explanation which they can then span with their God, so they can point to it and say “Look! God must exist!”. Obviously, for this purpose, the larger the gap the better. By contrast, the QM idea seems to be to (conceptually) find a job for God, who has been rendered redundant in the classical universe. Unlike the usual GotG, it doesn’t purport to present evidence *for* the existence of God, as to provide a rationalization to go on believing in the absence of any visible Divine activity. The former puports to reveal God’s existence and action; the latter to hide it.

    1. “In the end, this ploy is nothing more than a God-of-the-gaps argument.”

      And this God seems to do nothing but fill the gaps – he’s made of (Polyfilla, bog, [insert local brandname here]) gap-filler.

  7. When I read things like “it really doesn’t try to tell us about matters of meaning or value or purpose” I always add in a silent “anything I want to hear.” Science has told us many important things about meaning and value and purpose. At the most basic level: they don’t reside in the world. Anthropology has taught us that they differ across cultures. And so on.

    1. Indeed, we can learn about all these things if we put in the effort to go looking instead of just letting religion have a free ride. We need to make it clear that religion has nothing of any value to say to anyone that can’t be understood more thoroughly through science.

  8. Thanks, everyone!
    Polkinghorn wants to see divine intent despite that science reaveals none as the teleonomic argument notes. His god of the gaps is not one of knowledge but of the ultimate explanation and primary cause which the presumptiom of naturalism keel hauls like oxygen keel hauls phlogiston!
    There was no intent for the Big Bang, and there is no intent for miracles.
    Theology is mere animism writ large!
    Carneades[ eons ago] and Victor Stenger keel haul supernaturalism!
    See and post @ Ignosticmorgan’s Blog @ WordPress.com, please!I welcome there serious inquiry!

  9. I’m honestly amazed that the same person who helped discover quarks is spouting off such gibberish even someone with a freshman year’s worth of physics could be stunned by the lack of scientific merit in his claims. I crunched a few very basic numbers and if Polkinghorne is right and if instead of controlling the macro universe, God would resort to micromanaging some 4.21 x 10^78 quarks, gluons, bosons, and their complex interactions, which happen on a scale of picoseconds, the very last words you’d use to describe this deity would be “omnipotent” or an “intelligent designer”…

    1. No wonder there’s evil — god is so busy managing the quantum world he doesn’t have time for ours.

  10. Greg, gee, how dare we question the advanced theologians for they can interpret His ideas whilst the authors of those anthologies -the Tanakh and the Testament- and the Qur’an could not: they know what He really meant to say versus what those literalist writers wrote!
    Those advanced thinkers blspheme reason!
    Fr. Griggs rests in his Socratic ignorance and humble naturalism.

  11. Polkinghorne says:
    All the world’s faith traditions commend compassion, for example.

    Agreed that regard for compassion is common among human faith traditions, but surely Polkinghorne is not saying that this is limited to the faithful, in which case he has failed to provide anything common to religions that sets them apart.

    1. Moreover, one can use any religion’s argument(including quantum weirdness) to support a conflicting religion or woo. Therefore, such arguments are useless in regards to the truth.

      I think Polkinghorne meant to imply that atheists lack compassion (they are so strident dontchaknow?), but his banal and messy argument can be used to support belief in demons, reincarnation, thetans, or wormhole bigfoot visitors! Shall we allow all such people in under the umbrella where “faith commends compassion”– or only the ones that are “traditional” (whoever gets to define that)?

      Whenever I read the compatiblists I feel like I’m straining to find the point, –and when I think I have it, I am left shaking my head at how readily the “argument” could be used to support a belief in “magic” that the compatiblist doesn’t share. That means that the compatablist must know this is BS on some level. Polkinhorne would surely reject a Satan-of-gaps quantum argument, wouldn’t he? (After all, though the world’s faiths may commend compassion, many of them worship the supposed creator of hell.)

      I wonder if those who applaud Polkinghorne can sum up his main points as well as Jerry has.

  12. I see – Polkinghorne is saying “don’t believe in science, believe in gods instead. Especially my god.”

    1. ‘Motivated belief’, this means wishful thinking or believing what you want to believe, right? Certainly this is what the religious do, but it is the antithesis of science.

      The inability to tell the difference between religion and science in a man who aught to know so much about both is bizarre and disturbing. I suppose he’s using ‘motivated thinking’ to come to his conclusions so they are what ever suits him. Science must have got too hard so he decided life would be so much cushier in religious cotton-wool.

  13. Just read Grayling’s review, apparently Polkinghorne is a member of the Royal Society and will be launching this book from their premises! Appalling!

    They should chuck him out for bringing the Society into disrepute.

  14. LOL. Science discovered QM, and now theists want to appropriate it. Theists meditated and navel-gazed for millenia without so much as an inkling of QM. Cold, hard science revealed QM, not mysticism, and QM is science at its predictive best.

  15. The problem with Polkinghome’s theory is its crude ‘God of the Gaps’ metaphysics — always trying to find a way to shoehorn some manifestation of the divine into the physical world, resulting in a diminishment of God and Nature.

  16. There was not much compassion manifested at Jericho and Sodom, in the sacking of Constantinople, at the burnings of countless witches across Europe and of Giordano Bruno, in Calvin’s and Luther’s theology and attitudes, in the mutual massacres between Hindus and Muslims that attended independence on the Indian sub-continent – but perhaps, like God, it’s found in the gaps, the gaps in history, in this case…

    1. You can always do some historical revisionism – it’s very popular, especially in the jesus cults. It appears that the mere claim of a historical jesus is quite a revision of history.

  17. As a fellow human traveler, not wanting to take up too much time and space here, I wonder whether the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is considered a good Internet source.

    My specific interest is in the reference to Sam Harris coming closest to naturalistic morality and the Stanford section on Moral Naturalism. Hope I embedded the link okay.

    1. If Sam Harris is taking something like a standard Moral Naturalist (realist) position, it would be helpful if he said so. Instead, he gives every impression of being unfamilar with standard positions and arguments, and fails to make clear just what his position is. His writing on the subject seems very muddled and crude.

      Of course, that’s just based on his recent online articles. One must hope that his forthcoming book will be clearer.

      1. He likes the flamboyant statement. I smiled when I thought I heard him say, “My next project is to show the idea of free will is false.” I hope he would first define free will.

        One of the challenges in discussing faith, religion, theism, theology, myth and other matters of imagination is the use of narrow definitions of broad subjects which reject extensive and valid worth considering.

        But that’s Sam’s approach and his success is readily observed. It might be helpful to understand his intent.

        1. “My next project is to show the idea of free will is false.”

          If it is false then he does not get to make this decision to choose it as his next project.

  18. Rule #1 for any would-be accomodationists should be:

    Stop fucking telling me the limits of what science can tell us (because we all agree there are limits) and start by telling me one damn thing that faith and religion can tell us.

    To recognize that science does not have an epistemological monopoly does not, repeat does not implicitly grant any epistemological real estate to faith.

  19. Absence of quantum mechanics never made deists out of Maxwell, Faraday and Lord Kelvin. I doubt it would one of Polkinghorne.

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