Saturday, March 14, 2009

John Polkinghorne and Questions of Truth

The Reverend John Polkinghorne has a new book out called 'Questions of Truth'

Many years ago, I read another of his books Serious Talk

The arguments in it were really bad.

I quote from my review of the book :=

Dr. Polkinghorne's official web pages describe him as 'one of the greatest living writers and thinkers on science and religion', so I was naturally curious to know what would persuade a world-class scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society to believe in God. It turns out that the book consists of rationalisations. Clearly, Polkinghorne is a very nice man and he needs to believe that the Universe is as nice as he is. In his preface he writes ' that it is a coherent hope that all shall in the end be well.' . In the book Polkinghorne creates a God to fulfil this hope. The God Polkinghorne has created is very like himself. Polkinghorne's God does not know the future but prepares himself for whatever it may bring, just as we do. Polkinghorne's God suffers like we do and has human values of beauty and truth , order and morals.

Polkinghorne needs a God to make sense to him of the world we live. I am reminded of the people in Ramachandran's book 'Phantoms in the Brain' who rationalise away any evidence which might disturb their world-view. Some people cannot see or have paralysed limbs , yet maintain that they are not disabled in any way. To protect this world view, they must improvise rationalisations. What is surprising is the facility and ease with which they produce explanations on the spot of why their inability to see or move their arm has nothing to do with their blindness or paralysis - after all, they are not paralysed or blind , are they? For example, they might say that they cannot move their arm, not because it is paralysed, but because the arm at their shoulder actually belongs to their brother, not to themselves. These people are perfectly sane, but are an extreme example of how people can fit facts to their worldview, regardless of evidence.

Polkinghorne does very similar things. Faced with a difficulty , he simply invents a new attribute of God to cover that situation. Just like the patients in Ramachandran's book, he need produce no evidence to back up his rationalisation, but it suffices just to produce an answer. Each rationalisation is consistent with itself, but they are hopelessly inconsistent with each other.

It appears that the arguments in Questions of Truth have not improved in the meantime...


Blogger starcourse said...

Steven. Can you give an example from "Questions of Truth" were we give two responses that are inconsistent with each other?

12:16 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Has Polkinghorne changed his views then since 'Serious Talk'?

For example, in Chapter One of Serious Talk, Polkinghorne tries to avoid the problem of evil by saying '...God allows the world to be itself and does not stop tectonic plates from slipping and producing an earthquake, because they are allowed to be themselves just as we are allowed to be ourselves.'

But in Chapter Four, Polkinghorne writes ' The open future of the world allows room for God's providential action.' and in Chapter Six, he writes ' The detached God of deism, simply watching it all happen, is another extreme unacceptable to Christian thought.'

So God allows things to be themselves except when he does not.

With such a powerful world-view, how can Polkinghorne ever be shaken by facts? If something bad happens, Polkinghorne can (and does) say ' I believe that God neither wills the act of a murderer nor the incidence of a cancer, but God allow both to happen in a world to which he has given its creaturely independence. '

God simply allows things to happen while the 'detached God of deism, simply watching it all happen, is another extreme unacceptable to Christian thought.'


Polkinghorne would be shocked at that level of argumentation in a science book.

2:59 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

And in Serious Talk....

Polkinghorne writes ' One of the most striking features of the physical world is its rational transparency to us. We have come to take it for granted that we can understand the universe, but it is surely a highly significant factor about it that this is the case. ' Polkinghorne specialised in quantum mechanics.

Polkinghorne writes about quantum mechanics ' We really do not know what the answer is.... The moral, I think, is that explanation and understanding are two different things. We can use quantum theory to explain very successfully a great many things about the world in which we live... But we do not understand quantum theory. '

So is quantum mechanics 'rationally transparent' to us or do we not understand it? As it is a major part of Polkinghorne's case that we can understand the universe , we should be able to understand quantum mechanics.

It should also be pointed out that while Polkinghorne is happy to live with puzzles in his theology about evil, other religions (' I just have to confess my perplexity here. ') and our inability to understand a universe which is also transparently rational, he extends no such leeway to non-believers.

He writes 'It goes against the grain for a scientist to be so intellectually lazy. The meta-question of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics insists on being answered.'

Atheists must fully account for everything (consciousness, morality, truth, the laws of physics) or they will be accused of having no grounds for denying God, while believers are allowed to retreat into mystery when the going gets tough.

Polkinghorne just says those questions he can't answer are perplexing and then goes back to demanding atheists explain everything or admit their beliefs are irrational.

Can we really understand the universe? Is it rationally transparent to us? Is mathematics 'unreasonably effective'?

If it is, you might expect us to have made progress in finding the true laws of physics....

Polkinghorne writes in Chapter Six ' The first question is what one makes of the deterministic equations from which the theory of chaos begins. I believe that they must be treated as approximations to a more supple reality.... '

He also writes ' There may be holistic laws of nature presently unknown to us but capable of scientific discovery..... '

If the universe is rationally transparent to us and we are capable of understanding it, why do we not know what the laws of nature are?

If we understand the universe, why have we got things so wrong?

How does Polkinghorne know mathematics is unreasonably effective when our deterministic mathematical equations are only approximations to a more supple reality?

It seems surprising to say that our deterministic mathematical equations which express the beauty of the laws of nature are a sign of God's mind, and then turn round and say that they are only approximate and the real laws of nature are of an entirely different kind to the ones we use now.

3:03 AM  
Blogger starcourse said...

a. What Polkinghorne is saying is that God's providential action is done in such a way that allows things (and people) to be themselves. Where is the contradiction? If even humans can do this, why can't God?

b. As every scientist knows, we can understand the universe to a remarkable extent but not totally. It is not a question of "either we understand the universe or we don't".

c. We don't, of course, "demand that atheists explain everything" but it is fair to point out that Christianity offers rational explanations for some remarkable facts about the world that are not explained by normal atheism. These explanations might be wrong - there are no knock-down proofs either way. But there is no contradiction in saying "we don't understand everything, but here are some things that we can understand that are otherwise deeply puzzling". Again this is how all science works.

4:23 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

So we don't understand things which are 'transparently rational'?

Polkinghorne's point is that we understand some things about the universe and don't understand other things.

Wow! There must be a God!

How else could human beings understand some parts of the universe and not others, unless there was a god?

And God 'does not stop tectonic plates from slipping and producing an earthquake', because this alleged god leaves room for 'providential action'

Just how contradictory can you get?

The meta-question of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics insists on being answered.

Beale insists this is not Polkinghorne having double-standards, demanding answers from atheists while Polkinghorne admits he is just perplexed when it comes to explaining things from a theistic point of view.

I guess if Beale can't see his double-standards.....

Perhaps one day Polkinghhorne might explain how effective mathematics is evidence for a god, rather than just a total non sequitor with zero logic behind it.

And as for Polkinghorne's Biblical scholarhip when trying to show that a corpse left the tomb....

5:45 AM  
Blogger starcourse said...

I don't know if you've done any science, but there really is a lot more to it than "sometimes we understand and sometimes we don't". I don't think there is a single working physicist who isn't somewhat amazed by "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics". Why should we be able to calculate the chemical composition of stars millions of light years away? Why can we make such amazingly accurate calculations about the quantum world? Why is mathematical beauty such a reliable heuristic?

Of course none of these are knock-down arguments, but it is just silly to say they are contradictory. "insists of being answered" is (obviously) a figure of speech.

Re the tectonic plates/providence point, can you show the (alleged) contradiction between:
(1) God almost always allows things to behave in accordance with their own natures.
(2) God sometimes intevenes providentially in the world.

Even if we allow a stronger version
(1a) God always allows things to behave in accordance with their own natures.
then you can only get a contradiction if you have something like:
(3) if things behave in accordance with their own natures there is always only one possible outcome.

But Polkinghorne (and I) are very explicitly not determinists (and provide very strong scientific and philosophical arguments against determinism in QoT). So you certainly can't accuse us of inconsistency, even if, against all the evidence, you cling to (3).

3:32 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home