Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Friday, October 14, 2011

John Polkinghorne: The Christian Faith & Science

Which Side Are You On?

by Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson
September 2, 2011

In the film Nacho Libre, Jack Black plays a preposterous worker in a Mexican orphanage with a secret life as an incompetent professional wrestler. There is a scene where Black and his scrawny wrestling partner assess their competition – two vicious-looking men in the opposite corner. It appears to Black that his life as a wrestler will end immediately in serious injury. He says to his partner, in a horrible Spanish accent, “Pray to the Lord for strength.”

His partner immediately replies, in only a slightly better accent, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science.”

While that bit of dialogue appears in a comedy film, it echoes statements made in serious conversations throughout the world. Conventional wisdom seems to say that one either believes in God, or one believes in science. There is no third option.

We don’t believe that at all, and neither does the deep thinker we profile in this book. We hope you won’t either, when you are finished reading. Much has been written about faith and science – the history of supposedly major conflicts and minor harmonies between the two; the rational and irrational accounts from people who read just one of the two books set before us – the Bible and the Book of Nature; the condemnation and condescension of one group toward the other. There is a lot of diatribe, but not much dialogue.

We illuminate this issue by writing about John Polkinghorne. We chose this strategy because it involves a story. What we offer is not a conventional biography of John Polkinghorne. We didn’t read his correspondence, interview his family members, students and colleagues, search data bases for public and private records. Instead, we wrote the story of John Polkinghorne, probably the most significant voice in this generation’s conversation about science and religion. But we also unfold some bigger issues. How do we know Truth? How does a leading scientist think about the more mysterious aspects of faith -- prayer, miracles, life after death, resurrection? How should people of faith approach science, especially when new scientific discoveries appear to contradict their religious beliefs? To get at those questions, we tell the story of John Polkinghorne.

We conducted many interviews with Polkinghorne. Wherever the book shows a quote from him without an endnote, it came from a personal interview. The interviews occurred from 2007-2010 in the following locations: Quincy, Massachusetts; a monastery in Venice, Italy; the President’s Lodge at Queens’ College (while the president was away) in Cambridge, England; the chapels at Trinity College, Queens’ College, Trinity Hall and Westcott Seminary – all in Cambridge; the parlor of Queens’ College; the Senior Combination Room at Queens’ College, under both his own portrait and that of the Queen; the study in his home in Cambridge; the sitting room in his home; walking from the vicarage to his old parish church in Blean, England; in his car to and from Blean; at the Good Shepherd Church in Cambridge; and in pubs throughout Cambridge.

As if to cosmically underscore the need for this book, when we approached Passport Control at London’s Heathrow Airport for a final series of interviews with Polkinghorne, the officer asked why we were coming to England.

“For a conference at Oxford,” we said.

“What’s the conference about?” he said.

“God and Physics,” we said.

“God and Physics, eh?” He paused and looked at us. “Which side are you on?”


For more on the biographical series by Biologos:

Quantum Leap, Part 1: Which Side Are You On? (Sept 2, 2011)

Quantum Leap, Part 2: Polkinghorne Leaves Physics for the Priesthood (Sept 9, 2011)

Quantum Leap, Part 3: John Polkinghorne’s Faith (Sept 16, 2011)

Quantum Leap, Part 4: John Polkinghorne’s Science (Sept 23, 2011)

Quantum Leap, Part 5: Polkinghorne’s Faith Challenges (Sept 30, 2011)

Quantum Leap, Part 6: The Legacy of John Polkinghorne (Oct 7, 2011)


2010 Lecture Series by John Polkinghorne
on the Christian Faith and Natural Theology

The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne comes to us from the United Kingdom. He is truly a household name in the best of Christian academic inquiry, especially as it relates to the intersection of science and faith. For 25 years, he was a theoretical physicist and played a significant role in the discovery of the smallest known particle called the "quark." In 1979 he resigned his chair as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University to study for the ministry. He was ordained in 1982 within the Church of England - John Wesley's own theological tradition - and subsequently served in parish ministry for 5 years. He then returned to Cambridge to serve as Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall from 1986 - 1989, and then President of Queen's College, Cambridge. Dr. Polkinghorne is a founding member of the Society of Ordained Scientists and the International Society for Science and Religion.

His work demonstrates a commitment to both human agency and divine creative activity in the world - both central tenets of Wesleyanism -particularly expressing the conviction that these need not be mutually exclusive, competing allegiances. His work in bioethics, characterized by a commitment to the dignity of human life, as shared by the American Evangelical tradition, renders his contribution to the H. Orton Wiley Lectures as most timely.

Dr. Polkinghorne is chairperson of the Science, Medicine and Technology Committee of the Church of England's Board of Social Responsibility and has helped shape the UK's ethical guidelines pertaining to the responsible limits of reproductive technology, with particular concern for the ethical implications of fertility treatments and stem cell research.

The Search for Truth in Science and Theology

Lecture 1"Natural Theology"
November 15th, 2010
Crill Performance Hall
Download MP3

Lecture 2"Motivated Belief"
November 16th, 2010
Crill Performance Hall
Download MP3

Lecture 3"Providence and Prayer"
November 16th, 2010
Crill Performance Hall
Download MP3

Lecture 4 "A Destiny Beyond Death"
November 17th, 2010
Crill Performance Hall
Download MP3


The Friendship of Science and Religion

An Afternoon with Dr. John Polkinghorne - Part 1 November 14th, 2010
Download MP3

An Afternoon with Dr. John Polkinghorne - Part 2November 14th, 2010
Download MP3

Dr. John Polkinghorne guest speaker in PLNU ChapelNovember 15th, 2010
Download MP3


More Videos on John Polkinghorne -



November 27, 2010

Today’s entry is part of our Video Blog series. For similar resources, visit our audio/video section, or our full "Conversations" collection.

Today's entry was written by John Polkinghorne. John Polkinghorne is a British physicist and theologian who has written extensively on matters concerning science and faith, becoming a leading advocate for their compatibility as different ways of knowing. He worked in theoretical elementary particle physics for 25 years before resigning his chair in 1979 to study for the Anglican priesthood. He was ordained in 1982 and served as a priest for several years. Polkinghorne has written many books on issues in science and theology, including Science and Christian Belief (in the USA, The Faith of a Physicist), Belief in God in an Age of Science, and Questions of Truth (with co-author Nicholas Beale). In the United Kingdom, Polkinghorne has been the Chairman of several Committees advising on ethical and social issues related to new developments in science and technology. In 2002 he was awarded the Templeton Prize. John Polkinghorne was one of the founders of the Society of Ordained Scientists and the Founding President of the International Society for Science and Religion.

~ ~ ~ ~  ~ ~ ~  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~  ~

Recently, as part of the H. Orton Wiley Lecture series in Theology on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California, Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne stimulated students and faculty alike with the brilliance of his mind and the depth of his logic as he led us into thinking about the interaction between science and the Christian faith. We have much to learn by paying close attention to the words of Dr. Polkinghorne. In coming days we’ll discuss various aspects of this lecture series. The first lecture, entitled, Natural Theology, was delivered on November 15th, 2010.

Below, we provide a transcript of the portion that extends from 10:06 to 16:10. This portion describes a very interesting and, we think, extremely helpful way of thinking about intelligent design. Many think that the Intelligent Design Movement is largely an attempt to revive the two hundred year old arguments of William Paley: to take his approach and to place it into the present day world of science. There is no question that the tools of science have shown even more beauty and cause for awe than humankind could possibly have imagined two hundred years ago. That beauty which is all around us informs our worship and enriches our understanding of God. Polkinghorne however, describes a new natural theology, one quite different than that of William Paley. Polkinghorne, I believe, points us to a better and much richer approach to the interface of science and the Christian faith than that associated with the intelligent design movement.

Here is the transcript of Part I of this series. It is provided as a transcript to allow each of us to mull over his words and to think carefully about what he has to say. You are encouraged to listen to the words as you read the transcript in order to be sure you are fully understanding his intended meaning.

Part I Transcript

“William Paley… wrote a book, a famous book, called Natural Theology. Paley’s form of natural theology was an uninhibited appeal to the inspection of the world. He produced the argument from design in a familiar form pointing to the atlas of living beings, surviving and functioning in their environment, pointing to such things as the amazingly complex optical system of the mammalian eye and so on. The existence of these things were manifest demonstrations of the existence of the divine designer who brought them into being. It must have seemed a very persuasive argument.

Indeed many people perceived it that way but of course the rug was pulled from beneath that argument in 1859 when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in which Darwin was able to show how the patient shifting and accumulation of small differences between one generation and the next over very long periods of time could bring into existence the appearance of design without requiring the direct intervention of a divine designer. The key thing that enabled Darwin to have that insight was the realization of deep time and that living things had existed on the earth over vast periods of time and that there was the possibility of slow change in the characteristics of living beings. And that perfused Darwin’s demolition of Paley, essentially producing a disillusionment with natural theology in many theological circles. But we are living in a time when there has been a revival of natural theology. It is not only a revived natural theology …but it is also a revised natural theology. It is revised in two very important ways.

First of all it is more modest in the claims that it makes. It does not claim to talk in terms of proofs of God’s existence, but it talks about insight which suggests the existence of a divine creator…The claim is that theism enables one to understand more than atheism. So the new natural theology doesn’t appeal to truth, but it appeals to what you might call best explanation; that to see the world as a divine creation makes it more intelligible than the opposite deduction: that the world is just a brute fact with no further explanation.

It is also revised because it is not trying to rival science on its own ground. With hindsight we can see that the old-style-natural-theologians like William Paley were actually making a mistake about the relationship between science and religion. They were trying to use religion to answer scientific questions….

Science doesn’t require augmentation from theology or any other discipline in its own proper domain. So the new natural theology doesn’t set itself up as a rival to scientific explanation as the best explanation, but as a complement, as a complementary relationship to scientific explanation —to place that understanding in a broader and deeper context of intelligibility….

So the new natural theology is not part of a war between science and religion, but is a part of a peaceful co-existence of mutual help and exchange of gifts between science and religion.

So if the new natural theology isn’t answering scientific questions what sorts of questions is it answering?.... In particular it is answering what you might call meta-questions. Meta-questions arise in a particular context, and their very character takes you beyond the context of their origin. So the questions that natural theology addresses today are questions that arise out of our experience of doing science but which are not in themselves scientific questions. Science essentially only answers questions of how… They are not scientific questions but they arise out of scientific experience. They are meaningful and necessary to ask and we seek to find answers to them, but if we are do so we will have to look elsewhere—beyond the science. The claim of natural theology is that a theistic belief affords the most natural persuasive explanation of our state of affairs.”


November 29, 2010

Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne is widely regarded as one of the most important scholars in the science/religion discussion in the world today. Having been a leading theoretical physicist at Cambridge University, he set this aspect of his career aside in order to become an Anglican priest in the early 1980’s. Following that, he returned to Cambridge as chapel dean, and then became President of Queen’s College. Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne has received numerous honors including the Templeton Prize. In 1997, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Recently, as part of the H. Orton Wiley Lecture series in Theology on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, Reverend
Dr. John Polkinghorne stimulated students and faculty alike with the brilliance of his mind and the depth of his logic as he led us into thinking about the interaction between science and the Christian faith. We have much to learn by paying close attention to the words of Dr. Polkinghorne. In coming days we’ll discuss various aspects of this lecture series. The first lecture, entitled, Natural Theology, was delivered on November 15th, 2010. The entire MP3 is available for download here. (Introduction written by Darrel Falk.)

Part I of this series, Dr. Polkinghorne laid the foundations for what he believes to be a new natural theology. This new natural theology, he says, does not claim to talk in terms of proofs of God’s existence, but it talks about insight which suggests the existence of a divine creator. This new natural theology applies the finding of the sciences along with foundational truths of Christianity to make better sense of the world. The claim, Polkinghorne says is that theism enables one to understand more than atheism. So the new natural theology doesn’t appeal to truth, but it appeals to what you might call best explanation; that to see the world as a divine creation makes it more intelligible than the opposite deduction: that the world is just a brute fact with no further explanation.

In today’s talk, he goes on to look at the first of two meta-questions. These are questions, he says, that arise from science, using scientific tools, but which point in each case to God. The first meta-question he examines arises from the inherent success and beauty of mathematics as a manifestation of the way things are in the physical world. Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that meta-question #1 points to a capital M Mind—the Creator of the universe.

We provide a written transcript of the talk to make it easier to mull over Dr. Polkinghorne’s ideas. We urge you to read the transcript as you are listening to the recording in order to be sure that his main points are sinking in. (Introduction by Darrel Falk.)

Part II Transcript

So here are two meta-questions which illustrate what I’m trying to say. The first question is a question that is so simple that most of us would not even stop to think about it or to ask it, but which I am going to suggest to you is a very significant question that we should think about, that we should ask. It is simply this: Why is science possible at all?

Why can we understand the world in which we live in the deep way that science has made possible for us? Well you might say evolutionary biology would explain that: We’ve got to survive in the world. If we didn’t understand the world, we couldn’t figure out that it is a bad idea to step off of a high cliff and we might not stay around for very long. So the evolutionary process must have so shaped the human brain that we’re able to understand the world. And of course that must be true up to a point. It’s obviously true of our understanding of the everyday world in which we have to survive: Beware of the high cliff. But when someone like Isaac Newton came along and who, in an astonishingly high leap of the imagination, saw that the same force that makes the high cliff dangerous is also the force that holds the moon in its orbit around the earth, the earth in its orbit around the sun and discovers a mathematically beautiful law of universal inverse square law of gravity and in terms of that explains the whole solar system—now that is a human achievement that is going far beyond anything that we need for everyday survival.

Yesterday I quoted from that great and wise man Sherlock Holmes. He was pulling Watson’s leg from the start and he pretended not to know whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun goes round the earth. And of course the good Dr. Watson is horrified at the apparent ignorance on the part of the great detective. And Holmes simply says, “What does it matter? My daily work is that of a detective.” And of course it doesn’t matter at all.

So we all know things that we don’t need to know for everyday life or everyday survival. Human powers to understand the world, to penetrate the secrets of the physical world have proved to be amazingly powerful. Or putting it the other way round, the universe has proved to be amazingly intellectually transparent to our inquiry.

I worked in quantum physics. The quantum world is completely different than the world of everyday and you have to think about it in completely different and counter-intuitive ways. In the quantum world, if you know where something is, you don’t know what it is doing. If you know what it is doing, you don’t know where it is. That’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in a nutshell. That world is cloudy and fitful. It has all sorts of strange properties. In that world, some things sometimes behave like waves, sometimes, like particles, little bullets. Electrons can be in a state where they are both here and there at the same time and so on, and so on.

This is a very weird, very counterintuitive, very strange world. Nevertheless we can understand it; we can penetrate its secrets. The world is amazingly rationally transparent. And the mystery is even more surprising than that because it turns out that the key to unlocking the secrets of the physical world is actually mathematics—mathematics, the most abstract of subjects. It is an actual technique of fundamental physics, a technique that has proved its worth over three centuries of work in the area—to look for theories within their mathematical expression, in terms of beautiful equations. Now some of you will know about mathematical beauty, probably not all of you. It is a rather austere form of the esthetic pleasure, but it is a real form of esthetic pleasure. Those of us who speak that wonderful language can recognize a theme about mathematical beauty. It involves things like being economic and elegant, and being what the mathematicians call deep, which means that if you take a very simple definition, it turns out to have very wide and proliferating consequences. And we have found time and again that the only theories, which by their long term success in explaining what is going on—persuade us that they really are describing aspects of the physical world—are always endowed with this character of mathematical beauty.

The great theoretical physicist, Paul Dirac one of the founding physicists of quantum theory, the greatest British theoretical physicist of the 20th century once said, “it is more important to have beauty in your equations than to have a fit experiment.” Now he didn’t mean by that that it didn’t matter if your equations fit your experiment; no physicist could possibly believe that. But he meant: okay you have your new theory and it doesn’t seem to fit the experiment. That’s a set back for sure, but there is some possibility that you might be able to save the day. Probably you solved the equation with an approximation and maybe you’ve made the wrong approximation. Or maybe your experiments are wrong—that’s happened more than once in physics. So at least there is some sort of residual hope. If your equations are ugly then in Dirac’s opinion, there is no hope; they couldn’t possibly be right.

Now Dirac’s brother-in-law, Eugene Wigner, who also won a Nobel prize in physics, once said, “Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective?” Why is this abstract subject the key to unlocking the secrets to the physical universe? What brings together the reason within the mathematicians’ thoughts in their minds with the reason without—the structure of the world around us? Why are some of the most useful patterns that the mathematicians can dream up in their studies found actually to occur and to be substantiated in the physical world around them?”

So why is science possible in the deep way it is? Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective? I think it would be intolerably lazy to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well gee that’s the way it happens to be, and it’s very good luck to you chaps who are good at math.” This is a highly significant, highly remarkable fact about the world and we should seek to understand it if we possibly can.

Now when you ask a meta-question like that, there won’t be a knock-down answer. But to me the most intellectually persuasive and coherent answer is simply this: that the reason within and the reason without is because they have a common origin in the mind of the Creator who is the ground of both our mental existence and of the physical world of which we are apart.

We can summarize what I’ve just been saying that as science studies the physical world it sees a world shot through with signs of mind. And I am suggesting to you that you should consider seriously the proposition that it is a capital M Mind, the Creator that lies behind that wonderful order which gives the physicist the order of wonder for the weary labor of their research.

So I think that science is possible actually because the world is a creation and to use an ancient powerful phrase: We are creatures made in the image of our Creator.


December 18, 2010

In Part II of this series, Dr. Polkinghorne looked at the first of two meta-questions: questions, he says, that arise from science, using scientific tools, but which point in each case to God. The first meta-question he examined arises from the inherent success and beauty of mathematics as a manifestation of the way things are in the physical world. Dr. Polkinghorne suggested that meta-question #1 points to a capital M Mind—the Creator of the universe.

In today’s post, he looks at the second of these meta-questions: “Why is the universe so special?” To illustrate this point, Dr. Polkinghorne presents several examples of how the universe is fine-tuned for life, including the constants of stars and the balance of “zero point energy”. The potentiality for life, the fruitfulness of the universe, as he calls it, is accepted throughout science. The question we must ask ourselves, however, is what is the significance of this fine-tuning.

We provide a written transcript of the talk to make it easier to mull over Dr. Polkinghorne’s ideas. We urge you to read the transcript as you are listening to the recording in order to be sure that his main points are sinking in. (Introduction by Stephen Mapes.)

Part III Transcript - Fine-tuning and the “Fruitful Universe”

Now my second meta-question is a little bit more specific. I ask the question, “Why is the universe so special?” Now scientists don’t like things to be special; we like things to be general, and our natural anticipation would have been that the universe is just a common or garden specimen of what a universe might be like.

But we’ve come to understand a lot about the history of the universe. We know that our universe started 13.7 billion years ago, and it started extremely simple, just an almost uniformly expanding ball of energy, about the simplest physical system you could possibly think about. But a world that started so simple has of course become rich and complex. With you and me, in fact, the most remarkable and complex consequences are its history, at least of which we are aware. The human brain is far and away the most complicated physical system we have ever encountered anywhere in our exploration of the universe.

That fact itself might suggest that something has been going on in cosmic history rather than just one thing after another. But we’ve also come to understand many of the processes by which this rich fruitfulness has come to birth. As we’ve come to understand these, we’ve come to see that though these processes are of course evolving processes, they took long periods of time – the universe was 10 billion years old before any form of life appeared in it, at least as far as we know anyway – and life of our complexity only appeared yesterday.

Nevertheless, the universe is pregnant with life, pregnant with the possibility of life, essentially from the beginning onwards. By which I mean the given laws of nature had to take a very specific, very finely tuned form, if the universe was to have so fruitful a history.

That’s a very remarkable discovery, and let me give you some examples of why we believe that. If you’re going to have a fruitful universe, one of the first things you have to get right is that you have to have the right stars in the universe. The stars are going to have a very important role to play. First of all, you must have some stars that are going to be very long lived, live for billions of years, steadily burning, steadily producing energy which will enable the development of life on one of the encircling planets. We understand what makes stars burn in that sort of way very well, and it depends on a delicate balance between the strength of gravity and the strength of electromagnetism. Electromagnetism is the force that holds matter together. The seats on which you are sitting are held together by electromagnetism and in fact you are held together by electromagnetism.

If you alter that balance a little bit in one direction the stars will begin to burn intensely, furiously, just pouring out energy and they will only live a few million years rather than a few billion years. If you move it a little bit in the other direction they will burn so slowly they will be brown stars and they will not produce enough energy to fuel the development of life. So you have to have a very delicate finely tuned balance between the strength of gravity and the strength of electromagnetic forces in a fruitful universe.

Remember, science takes the laws of nature, takes the given strengths of gravity, the given strength of electromagnetism, uses that to explain processes in the world, how things happen, but it doesn’t explain where those laws of nature come from. They are just brute facts as far as science is concerned.

And the stars have another absolutely indispensible role to play. The stars are the place where the heavier elements essential for life are made in the interior nuclear furnaces. There are many elements that are necessary for life, of which carbon is perhaps the most essential. Carbon is the basis of the long chain molecules, which are the biochemical basis of life. The early universe only makes the simplest elements; it makes hydrogen and helium and it makes no carbon at all. Carbon only begins to be made when the universe, which started uniform, begins to condense and become lumpy and grainy with stars and galaxies. As the stars condense they heat up, nuclear processes begin again in their interiors. And it’s those nuclear processes in the stars that make carbon and the heavier elements. Every atom of carbon in your body was once inside a star. We are people of stardust made in the ashes of dead stars.

And that’s a very beautiful process that takes place in that sort of way. And one of the great triumphs of astrophysics and the second half of the 20th century was to unravel that process. One of the people who did some of the most important work on that was a senior colleague of mine in Cambridge called Fred Hoyle. And they were trying to figure out how to make carbon. They got helium, and if you can make three helium nuclei stick together that will produce carbon, but when you have something as small as a nucleus it is impossible to get three to stick together at one time, they’re just too small.

Ok, so let’s do it step by step. Stick two together gives you berylium. Helium 4 gives you beryllium-8, hope it stays around for a bit, another helium comes along, attaches itself, and bingo, you’ve got carbon-12. That’s the obvious thing to think about but it doesn’t work in the obvious way, and the reason it doesn’t work in the obvious way is that beryllium-8 is terribly unstable. It doesn’t oblige you by staying around long enough to catch that third helium, at least in an ordinary, straightforward way.

But Fred realized that it would be just possible for this to happen if there was a very large enhancement effect, in the trade we call it resonance, occurring in carbon at just the right energy, it has to be the right energy, which would enable that attachment process to catch that third helium much much more quickly that you might have thought, in fact so quickly that some of them would get caught before the beryllium-8 disappeared. It was a very good idea, and he must have felt pretty pleased with himself and he went off to just check in the nuclear data tables of this particular resonance’s energy levels, and it wasn’t in the tables, but he knew it must be there, he’s carbon based life like you and me.

So he rang up some friends in the States, a father and son team who were good experimentalists and he said, “Look, you missed something. There’s a resonance and energy level in carbon that you haven’t spotted, and I’ll tell you exactly where to look for it. I know exactly where this energy has got to be. You go look for it.” And they said, “No, no, we don’t want to do that, we have more interesting things to do.” But Fred was very determined and he bullied them into looking for it and they found it.

Now that’s a wonderful achievement, to predict an energy level in carbon on the basis of how it might have been made in the stars is a fantastic scientific achievement. But it’s more than that. Fred had a lifetime conviction of atheism, realized of course that if the laws of physics had been just a little bit different that resonance wouldn’t have been there, and the possibility of carbon-based life is too significant for it just to be a happy accident in his view, so he says in a Yorkshire accent that is beyond my power to imitate, he said that the universe is a put-up job. Fred didn’t like the word God, and so he said some Intelligent, capital “I” Intelligence, must have monkied with the laws of nature to make carbon production possible. What that could possibly be I don’t know, but the more sensible thing to say is that creation is ordained, that the laws of nature would be such, as to enable the fruitfulness of carbon-based life.

We’ll come back to evaluating that possibility in a minute, but before we do, let me give you two other examples of how specific, how special, our universe has to be for us to be able to be here today to think about. We live in a universe that is immensely big, beyond our powers to imagine really. There are a hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy in the Milky Way, of which our sun is just a common or garden specimen, and there are about a hundred thousand million galaxies in the observable universe, of which our Milky Way is a pretty common or garden specimen. So we live in a world that is unimaginably vast, and sometimes we might feel upset by that and think, “What could be the significance of us who are simply inhabitants of a speck of cosmic dust, as you might say, in this vast, vast universe?”

Nevertheless, if all those stars were not there, we would not be here to be upset at the thought of them. Because there is a direct connection between how big a universe is and how long it lasts, and a universe that is significantly smaller than our universe would not have been able to last the 14 billion years, which is the necessary time to produce beings of our complexity. So that’s another condition of the world that has to be right for human beings, or something like human beings, to be a possibility.

One final example, which is the finest tuning of all: quantum theory suggests that there should be an energy attached to space itself. In quantum theory the vacuum, so called empty space, is not just a void. There are things called vacuum fluctuations which occur in a continual sort of seething mass of things coming into being and going out of being all the time. So while there is nothing there that doesn’t mean there is nothing happening. That may sound strange and paradoxical but believe me that’s what quantum theory implies. And of course these happenings, these fluctuations, generate a certain amount of energy, we call it “zero point energy”, and that energy is spread out over the whole of space. So we expect there to be energy associated with space.

And just recently the astronomers have discovered something called dark energy which is driving the expansion of the universe, which is just such an energy associated with space. Well that’s very good, you might say. However, when we estimate, just from thinking about quantum theory, how much energy there should be in space it turns out to be a fantastically large amount, and when we see the amount of energy there actually is per volume in space, it turns out to be very, very small in relation to that expected size. In fact, it turns out to be smaller by a factor of 10-120. That means by a factor of 1 over 1 followed by 120 zeros. You don’t have to be a great mathematician to see that’s a fantastically small number. So some fantastic cancellation has taken place to turn that big number into the tiny number that we actually observe, and if it hadn’t taken place we wouldn’t be here to observe it because significantly higher energy would simply have blown the whole show apart too fast for anything interesting to happen. That’s the finest tuning that we know in the universe: one part in 10120.

So we live in a world that is very remarkably finely tuned, and we have to consider that. And all scientists would agree about what I have been telling you; this is non-contentious. Where the contention comes in is what we might make of that, what is the further significance of it.


January 15, 2011

In the last post of this series, Part III, Dr. Polkinghorne looked at the question, “Why is the universe so special?” He presented several examples of how the universe is fine-tuned for life, including the constants of stars and the balance of “zero point energy”. The potentiality for life, the fruitfulness of the universe, as he calls it, is accepted throughout science. The question we must ask ourselves, however, is what is the significance of this fine-tuning.

In today's final installment from his lecture on natural theology, Dr. Polkinghorne looks at two explanations for the so-called "fine-tuning" principle -- the multiverse theory and the existence of a divine intelligence -- and explains why natural theology alone is not sufficient to make the case for a God who interacts and cares for his creation. To make the case for theism, he argues, we need revelation, God's self-disclosure. This is manifest in various ways, including that which we experience personally through, for example, ethics and aesthetics.

We provide a written transcript of the talk to make it easier to mull over Dr. Polkinghorne’s ideas. We urge you to read the transcript as you are listening to the recording in order to be sure that his main points are sinking in. (Introduction by Stephen Mapes.)

Part IV Transcript

So what shall we make of it? Well I have a friend, a philosopher, called John Leslie, who thinks about these things. And he’s a very interesting philosopher. He does his philosophy by telling stories. He’s what you might call a parabolic philosopher. He tells parables. I find that very helpful. I’m not trained in philosophy, but anyone can get the point of a story. And he’s interested in this fine-tuning of our universe, this special character of our universe. And the way he wants us to think about this is by telling the following story.

You are about to be executed. You are tied to the stake, and the rifles of fifty highly trained marksmen are leveled at your chest. The officer gives the order to fire, the shots ring out, and you find you have survived. So what do you do? Do you just shrug your shoulders as you stroll away saying, “Gee, that was a close one”? I think probably not. So remarkable a fact surely calls for an explanation.

And Leslie suggests there are only two kinds of logically possible explanations for your extraordinarily good fortune. One is, maybe, there are many many many executions taking place today. Even the best of marksman occasionally miss, and you happened to be the one where all fifty missed. There will obviously have to be a lot of executions taking place today to make this possible, but it is at least possible.

But then of course there is another possible explanation of your good fortune. Maybe there was only one execution scheduled for today, but more was going on in that execution than you were aware of. The marksmen were on your side and they missed by design.

Now you see how that charming parable translates into thinking about the fine-tuning of our world. Of course if our world wasn’t fine-tuned, we wouldn’t be here to be even thinking about it. There would be no carbon-based life. But it’s such a remarkable and astonishing fact that it isn’t rational to simply say, “We’re here because we’re here. Nothing to worry about” any more than it is to say “Gee, that was a close one” as you strolled away from the execution. You should look for an explanation if you possibly can.

And Leslie suggests that there are really only two forms of explanation which are possible. One is maybe there are just many many many different universes. Always different laws of nature, all separated from each other, all but our own unobservable by us, and if there is a big enough portfolio of them (and there would have to be a very very large number), if there is a bigger portfolio then just by chance our universe turns out to be the one that has the right laws of nature for carbon-based life, because of course we are carbon-based life living in it. In other words, our universe is no more than by chance a winning ticket in a sort of multiverse lottery. That is the multiverse explanation of what’s going on, of the fine-tuning of our world.

Of course there is another explanation. Maybe there is only one universe, and it is the way it is because it is not any old world; it is a creation that is to be endowed by its Creator with precisely the finely tuned laws and circumstances which have enabled it to have a fruitful history. These seem to be the two kindsof understandings that make fine-tuning intelligible: either the multiverse, or the universe is a creation.

And then the question is: which shall we choose? And Leslie says, and I think he’s right in saying this, he says that as far as fine-tuning is concerned, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. We don’t know which to choose. Each does the explanatory work required of it.

But I think that there is sort of a cumulative case for seeing the world as a creation which I don’t see reflected on the side of the multiverse. I’ve already suggested that the deep intelligibility of the world suggests we should see it as a divine creation with a divine mind behind it. And so that reinforces the notion of seeing the fine-tuning of the world as an expression with a divine purpose behind it. And of course there are also well testified human experience and encounters with sacred reality, of course. So it’s more of a cumulative case for a theistic view for the world that builds up on this side. I don’t see a corresponding cumulative case building up on the multiverse side.

Moreover, of course, it’s not clear without further argument that the multiverse thing simply does the trick. Having an infinite number of things doesn’t guarantee that every desirable property is found among an infinite collection of things. There are an infinite number of even integers, but none of them has the property of oddness. So you have to make some more argument to say that it works in that way.

So that’s another meta-question, which I think receives its most satisfying response and explanation in terms of natural theology, of seeing the world as a divine creation.

In Western metaphysical tradition, there are really two different types of metaphysical tradition, and they differ from each other in what they take as their founding brute fact. Metaphysics simply means a worldview. Scientists sometimes say, “Oh, we don’t go bother with metaphysics,” but that’s absurd. Everybody who has a worldview has a metaphysic. We think metaphysics as inevitably as we speak prose, and the reductionist scientist who say everything is mere matter, nothing but atoms and molecules, is not making a scientific statement, but making a worldview, a metaphysical statement.

So everybody has a metaphysic and everybody has a basic brute fact. And the materialist metaphysic tradition takes the laws of nature, the given properties of matter, as its unexplained brute fact. Somebody like David Hume would suggest that was the right plotting point. And of course a theistic metaphysic takes the brute fact of a divine agent, a divine creator, as its unexplained brute fact.

What I’ve been trying to say to you in the last 20 or 25 minutes is that the laws of nature and their fine-tuned fruitfulness and deep intelligibility have a character that seems to me to point beyond themselves to demand further explanation and makes them unsatisfactory to be treated simply as a brute fact starting point. And that would be my defense of theism.

But now, natural theology, as I said at the beginning, is an attempt to learn something of God by the exercise of reason, by the inspection of the world, by a certain limited source of understanding. And it only appeals to limited kinds of experience -- general experience, the kind we’ve been thinking about – and so it only can lead to limited insight. If you were to give me the maximum success in what I’ve been saying to you this afternoon, it would be as consistent with the spectator God of deism who simply set the world spinning and watched it all happen, as it would be with the providential God of theism, who is of course the God in whom I believe, who not only set the world spinning but who is concerned for that world and interacts providentially in its unfolding history.

So natural theology, even when it’s most successful, can only give you a limited insight into God, and give you a very thin picture of the nature of God. God is the great mathematician or the cosmic architect, something like that. If you want to know more about God, if you want to know, for example, does God care for individual beings? Does God indeed interact with unfolding history? Then you’ll have to look in a different realm of experience, you will have to move from natural theology to the theology of revelation, which appeals to what are believed to be acts of divine self-disclosure in the course of history.

So it’s a limited exercise, but I think it’s an exercise of some value.

[…] I’ll say two things very briefly. I’ve simply been talking about natural theology in terms, essentially, of our scientific understanding of the world, but there is another possible source of natural theology which I think is very important, a different kind of general human experience: personal experience, the experience of value in the world.

For example, I believe that we have irreducible ethical knowledge. I believe that is just a fact, and I know actually about as surely as I know any fact, that torturing children is wrong. That’s not some curious genetic survival strategy which my genes have been encouraging in me. It’s not just some cultural convention of our society, that we choose in our society not to torture children. It’s an actual fact about the world in which we live.

And there lies the question of where do those ethical values come from? And theistic belief provides one with an answer for that, just as the order of world we might see as reflecting the divine mind and the fruitfulness of the world is reflecting the divine purpose, so our ethical intuitions can be seen as being intonations of the good and perfect world of our creator.

And then of course there is the aesthetic experience in the world, and I think we should take our aesthetic experience extremely seriously. I think it’s an encounter with a very important and specific dimension of reality. It’s not just emotion recalled in tranquility or something like that.

And again of course science offers no help for us in these questions of value. If you ask a scientist as a scientist to tell you all he or she could about the nature of music, they would say that it is neural response -- things go off in our brains, neurons fire -- to the impact of sound waves on our ear drum. And of course that is true and this way is worth knowing, but it hardly begins to engage with the deep mystery of music, of how that sequence of sounds in time can speak to us -- and I think speak to us truly -- an encounter of a timeless realm of beauty. I think we should take our aesthetic experience very seriously.

And where do they come from? Where does that aesthetic value come from? And again theistic belief suggests that aesthetic experience is a sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation. So I see belief in God as being a great integrating discipline really, a great integrating insight, perhaps I should say rather than discipline. It links together the order of the world, the fruitfulness of the world, the reality of ethical values, the deep and moving reality of aesthetic values. It makes sense. It’s a whole theory of everything in that way, which is to me, essentially, most satisfying.