July 01, 2009

Why people believe in god-2: When good physicists get theology

All believers in an even minimally activist god face the challenge of explaining why there seems to be no evidence for his actions, and why the world seems to be understandable and explicable without postulating his existence. They cannot face up to the fact that the logical conclusion is that there is no god, and this is where the vague and cloudy language of theology comes in, trying to mask this fundamental problem.

Physicist John Polkinghorne in his book Faith, Science, and Understanding (2000) pulls the same trick as chemist Francis Collins, biologist Kenneth Miller, and mathematician John Lennox, arguing first for the possibility of a deist god (whom I have called Deigod), and then asserting without argument that this makes it rational to believe in Supergod. But Polkinghorne has a weapon that the other two don't have. He has studied theology formally and so can dress up the same weak arguments in obscurantist language.

Polkinghorne is a highly able and respected particle physicist. He was a former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society who, at the age of around fifty, gave up physics and became an ordained priest in the British Anglican Church. So he has studied both physics and theology in considerable depth. In his book he invokes the usual staple of the anthropic principle as an argument for god, which essentially suggests that the universe seems to be exquisitely fine tuned in order to allow for human life to emerge and that this suggests that it must have been designed. It is a popular argument amongst religious scientists. As Polkinghorne puts it:

The wonderful order of the world is perceived…as being a reflection of the Mind of the Creator, and the universe's finely tuned aptness to the evolution of life is perceived as an expression of the Creator's fruitful intent. (p. 22)

Another physicist Victor Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis has effectively demolished that anthropic argument. But that has not stopped it from being regularly advanced because it has proved very lucrative, especially recently for physicists, with the annual Templeton prize essentially rewarding those who concoct new ways to try and make science and religion compatible, and being repeatedly given to physicists who invoke variations of the anthropic principle.

Some new atheists argue that the Templeton Foundation exists essentially for this sole purpose, to use its wealth to co-opt scientists and journalists to keep on forever discussing the issue of how to find ways of reconciling science with god, thus perpetuating the idea that such a reconciliation is even conceivable. They suggest that we should fight back against the pernicious influence of the Templeton organization by not going along with this strategy and by boycotting these 'dialogues'.

Polkinghorne also goes in to some depth about how the uncertainty principle and chaos and complexity theory, all of which introduce elements of unpredictability into the world, and thus can be postulated as the vehicles of god's action that escape detection. He also invokes consciousness as a deep mystery that is inexplicable without reference to god. All this is to establish the possibility of existence of Gosh (the God Of the Scientific Holes).

But then he too makes the great unexplained leap to assert the existence of Supergod, and says that he actually believes that Jesus rose from the dead and performed the miracles claimed in the Bible, without making any attempt at all to explain what, if anything, the uncertainty principle or chaos or complexity theory has to do with such miraculous, macro-level science-defying events. All of these people think that allowing for the logical possibility of any god at all allows for the existence the particular god they want to believe in.

While I have criticized the books by religious scientists like chemist Francis Collins book and biologist Kenneth Miller for the faults in their reasoning, at least they both write clearly about their religious beliefs, without using the usual impenetrable theological jargon. Physicist John Polkinghorne, on the other hand, while he writes well when explaining physics, because he is also a theologian has the unfortunate ability to revert to the usual theological linguistic obscurity when discussing how god works. Here is a passage from his book:

God's act of creation would not only have involved a divine kenosis of omnipotence, resulting from allowing a creaturely other truly to be itself, but also a divine kenosis of omniscience, arising from allowing the future to be truly open. (p. 150)

The meaning of the above passage was initially incomprehensible to me but I thought that it may be due to the fact that I was unfamiliar with the work 'kenosis', which is the kind of neologism that sprouts all over the place in theology. So I looked up the word in the dictionary and it means "the relinquishment of divine attributes by Jesus Christ in becoming human." So I think that what he is saying is that when God chose to appear in the human form of Jesus, he gave up the powers of omnipotence and omniscience. But why not simply say so? What is the need for things like the "creaturely other truly to be itself"?

If he did speak more straightforwardly and people understood what he was saying, then some obvious questions would arise in their minds. People might ask how Jesus, if he was not omnipotent, could bring Lazarus back from the dead or walk on water or transform water into wine, and all the other tricks claimed for him. Or how, if he was not omniscient, he could know in advance that Peter would deny knowing him. Polkinghorne cannot help speaking obliquely because, to paraphrase taking a cue from George Orwell, religious speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible, designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Reading this kind of passage in Polkinghorne's book brought back memories from the time when I used to indulge in this kind of metaphysical talk as part of my religious training. It is possible to convince oneself that this kind of thing makes sense, as long as one keeps it on a high abstract plane and do not demand concrete examples of what is being said. And of course, one has to want to believe that there is some sense to believing in god.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the Supergod

Maybe Jesus didn't fully invoke the 'divine kenosis of omnipotence' and become a 'creaturely other truly being itself'.


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Not that it really matters other than for sheer curiosity, but I have another interpretation of what Polkinghorne means in that last passage you quoted. It's a puzzle!

I haven't read it in context, but it looks like Polkinghorne isn't talking about god becoming Jesus. According to wikipedia it can have other meanings, particularly in protestantism. Instead he is trying to address a contradiction that arises when religious folk claim that the god they believe in is omniscient and omnipotent.

"God's act of creation would not only have involved a divine kenosis of omnipotence, resulting from allowing a creaturely other truly to be itself..." "Creaturely other" is an adjective noun that refers to anything that god created and that is not part of god (I think). It is a meaningless phrase if you don't care about the distinction between "of god" and "not of god". And why should you? All this part means is that by creating the universe in general and specifically people who have "free agency" (which is also one of those loaded phrases that doesn't mean anything and is loaded with incostistencies), god gave up part of his all-encompassing power.

"...but also a divine kenosis of omniscience, arising from allowing the future to be truly open." So now he is saying that god can't be omniscient about the future because he cannot know what you will do because you are a "free agent" and an "other".

So I think that the passage is just an attempt to refute the point that skeptics such as I would make about the contradiction in various properties that believers ascribe to god, particularly SuperGod: the supposed ability we have to choose right from wrong and god's supposed omnipotence/omniscience.

Regardless of what Polkinghorne means, this a perfect example of what Dawkins talks about in the preface to the paperback edition of "The God Delusion" when he addresses the criticism that he should understand theology before he can try to debunk it. It doesn't matter how precisely the theologians describe various properties (which is the reason for the abundance of nitpicky terms like "creaturely others" and "kenosis")--nor does it matter how they dance around logical inconsistencies that inevitably arise--if their very premise is based on something that they all just made up.

It's like if someone went through Harry Potter and tried to iron out all the various plot holes and inconsistencies with various logical acrobatics. It would be hard and it would take a awhile, but it would probably be doable. Yet I wouldn't need even need to mention this likely very-complicated work if I wanted to argue that "Harry Potter" is pure fiction.


PS - When does your book come out? I have been looking forward to it...

Posted by Jared on July 1, 2009 11:23 AM

I recognize the gist of Polkinghorne's argument, because I have used it many times to confirm my own supernatural beliefs in the past: "Science can't explain 'X;, therefore, my 'woo' is true". (Another variation is: "Science can't prove me wrong; therefore, my 'woo' is true.")

I eventually realized that this same argument could be used to justify beliefs I didn't share and things I knew couldn't be true, and, thus, it was invalid. Like Polkinghorne, I desperately wanted to convince myself by convincing others that my beliefs were rational so as to keep myself from realizing that my beliefs stood on as shaky ground as the beliefs I rejected.

Believers need the support of others to keep spinning their delusions; whereas, the truth just keeps being the truth whether people "believe in it" or not.

Posted by articulett on July 1, 2009 03:59 PM

P.S. I suspect that Jared's interpretation of Polkinghorne's thick verbiage is more akin to what Polkinghorne was trying to say, and his Harry Potter analogy is spot on.

Posted by articulett on July 1, 2009 04:06 PM

Jared and articulett,

I just finished preparing the index for my book and reviewed the page proofs and approved the dust jacket design, so my work is done. It should come out in the fall.

Thanks to you both for the clarification. You may be right and I went back and looked up the full passage which is given below. To be quite honest, I am now more confused.

Here is the fuller Polkinghorne:

"The option under discussion has the attraction of allowing scope for the operation of divine special providence in the history of the universe. Because of the hidden character of active information, God's action will not be demonstrable, though it may be discernible by the discriminating eye of faith. The balance between divine agency and other forms of causality is left open in this proposal, which, therefore, has to continue the long theological discussion of the relationship between grace and free-will, considered now in a cosmic setting. A critical theological question is whether the cost of this idea is an unacceptable reduction of the Creator to the role of an unseen cause among creaturely causes, as issue already discussed in chapter 6.

The strongly temporal character of the metaphysics proposed would seem to imply that God, knowing the universe as it actually is, would know it temporally. The future would be brought into being as time evolves and it would appear that God, knowing all that can be known, would nevertheless not yet know the unformed future. God's act of creation would not only have involved a divine kenosis of omnipotence, resulting from allowing the creaturely other truly to be itself, but also a divine kenosis of omniscience in allowing the future to be truly open.

Thus, the theological picture consonant with this option is one that sees in the divine nature a temporal pole of engagement with creation as well as, of course, an eternal pole corresponding to the steadfastly unchanging benevolent nature of God. There would be divine knowledge of creation, always complete in terms of realised history but not embracing a future that is open and not yet actualized. These ideas have been supported by a number of people writing on the interface between science and theology."

Posted by Mano on July 1, 2009 04:44 PM

Just to clarify...George Orwell was writing specifically about political language, not "religious speech and writing."

Posted by kathy on July 1, 2009 06:33 PM


You are quite right. In the first part of this series, I explained that Orwell's comments about political writing applied just as well to theological writing and that was what I meant here. But I realize now that 'paraphrase' is the wrong word, so have changed it accordingly.

Posted by Mano on July 1, 2009 08:43 PM


Polkinghorn's viewpoint sounds like "Process Theology," the philosophical brain child of Alfred North Whitehead , Charles Hartshorne, and theologians like John Cobb. Jr. and Charles Ray Griffin.

The basis of the metaphysics is the belief that the fundamental basis of the universe is "becoming" rather than "being," one of the hallmarks of Aristotle's metaphysics and the theology of Aquinas upon which much of Christian orthodoxy was based.

I mention this, knowing full well you may already be aware of the connection, just to say that process theology seems to be a popular way that scientists go when they decide to express their theism.

Posted by Scott on July 2, 2009 09:35 AM

I believe that there is one God. When Jesus was born He was placed here for us. His life had a destiny. It was fulfilled. I just wait for his return in the beautiful open eastern sky.

Posted by John Fagan on July 12, 2009 09:31 PM

I love the idea of Gosh. Life will continue to be such a mystery at its depths. There is certainly reason for both physicists and theologians in there. But after allowing for the possibility of a god, how could we move to describing its specificity?

Posted by Rosie on August 25, 2009 01:12 PM