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

Wednesday, 01 July 2009

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.

By Mano Singham

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 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'.

This series is archived here.