The ‘Messy’ God of Science

The department of physics in the University of Oxford is a hodgepodge of buildings, old and new. In a warren of rooms, its scientists pursue interests from quantum computing to theoretical cosmology. The diversity says much. As a tree of knowledge, modern physics has branches that shoot off in all directions.

Just opposite the department stands a very different building: Keble College. Its unified, gothic structure is unforgettable—built in polychromatic brick, sometimes referred to as the ‘holy zebra’ style. The ‘holy’ refers to the college’s Victorian founder, John Keble, who is famous for spearheading the Catholic revival in the Church of England.

Today, Keble College appears to gaze across the road at its neighbor, as if musing on what science has done to religion. So the lecture theaters of the physics department were an excellent place to host a conference on that very subject, celebrating and critiquing the work of John Polkinghorne, one of the best known scientist-theologians of our times.

For the first part of his career, Polkinghorne was a mathematical physicist, rising to the position of professor in the University of Cambridge. Then, in 1979, he resigned his chair, and trained to become an Anglican priest. In the quarter century since, he has written about two dozen books on the relationship between science and religion. A delightful man to meet, between papers and presentations he talked quite as easily with humble journalists as with distinguished peers.

Polkinghorne describes himself as a ‘bottom-up’ theologian. He is concerned to show not only that modern science is compatible with orthodox Christian belief, but that the believer can have as rational a basis for their commitment as the scientist has for theirs. He borrows a notion put forward by the philosopher Michael Polanyi, of well-motivated belief, which seeks: a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know it may conceivably be false.

It makes Polkinghorne’s account of natural theology—that part of theology which looks to reason and nature rather than revelation—more attractive than that of his contemporaries, Alister McGrath and Richard Swinburne. So argued one contributor, Rodney Holder.

For example, McGrath stresses that natural theology must be embedded in God’s revelation: it tells Christians about the God they already know as Trinity. But McGrath also says that natural theology can lead non-believers to God. Hence, he deploys reason and nature against his atheist opponents, not least in his book The Dawkins Delusion. Put the two assertions together though, and there appears to be an inconsistency, Holder pointed out.

Alternatively, Richard Swinburne’s natural theology deploys probability theory to argue that God is the most likely explanation for natural phenomena, from religious experience to cosmic fine-tuning. But this approach is problematic, Holder continued, partly because the probabilities can always be questioned, and partly because it only makes for a rationalistic, and therefore cool, God of the philosophers.

Polkinghorne is different. He believes that natural theology shows us things about God that can’t be learned through revelation alone. It does not offer proofs of God, but it does offer insights. For example, science suggests not only that God created time out of eternity, the traditional doctrine, but that God actually experiences temporality and does not know the future. Polkinghorne’s natural theology can be summed up in the comment of theologian Bernard Lonergan: ‘God is the all sufficient explanation, the eternal rapture, glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of Eureka.’ It is, Holder concluded, profoundly satisfying.

Fraser Watts, the Starbridge Lecturer in Natural Science and Theology in the University of Cambridge, was not quite so sanguine. He offered critiques of Polkinghorne, if in a spirit of respect. Take the apparent fine-tuning of the universe, he said. Believers need to be wary of making theological hay with what is also known as the anthropic principle, which essentially asserts that the universe is as such because otherwise humans would not be here to observe it. For one thing, physicists may one day be able to explain it from within the domain of science. For another, to claim it as evidence for God’s design requires an epistemological sleight of hand—a move from science, which conceives of the cosmos as lacking agency, to religion, which conceives of the cosmos as replete with purpose and intention.

As it happens, physicists could be halfway towards accounting for fine-tuning, via the so-called multiverse theory. This posits our universe as just one of many, and so shows that it’s no surprise ours is ‘fine-tuned,’ for we wouldn’t be here to notice it if it weren’t. So it’s better, Watts argued, not to do your theology by claiming advantages from science. Christians can come to terms with multiverses too, he concluded.

Perhaps the most arresting paper of the conference was given by the philosopher of science, and non-believer, Nancy Cartwright. She is well known for her idea that science is not as unified a discipline as scientists tend to think it is. By carefully observing how science actually proceeds, she’s concluded that it deploys a diverse range of principles and theories to describe the phenomena it does, and that these cannot be boiled down to a few, simple laws that could be melded into a ‘theory of everything.’

What this might mean for believers, she suggested (tongue half in cheek) is that God is not a law-giver, but an engineer. A deity commensurate with modern science would be one who takes the rough stuff of nature and molds it into this, and then that. A seed would be an example of this divine engineering because, all else being equal, it produces a plant. In general, if the book of science appears to be written in multiple languages, that’s perhaps because the book of nature is too.

To Cartwright’s mind, this would actually make for a more attractive notion of divinity than the traditional one she was raised with, as it’s a God who loves the mess! ‘Glory be to God for dappled things,’ wrote Gerard Manly Hopkins. Quite, she agreed.

Her audience of theologian-scientists listened nervously, perhaps as Keble College does to the physics labs. Some were worried that she might be taken to be advocating Intelligent Design. And Polkinghorne himself didn’t buy it. What about the conservation laws of physics, he asked—of energy, momentum and charge. They’re clearly universal.

And they point to the unity of truth, and beauty of cosmic order, that leads this remarkable thinker to the God whom he believes lies below, above and through it all.