Re: Math applications; was Wheel of God

From: iain.strachan2 (
Date: Mon Aug 13 2001 - 14:25:20 EDT

  • Next message: John W Burgeson: "Re: Is Jonah to be taken literally?"

    > On Fri, 10 Aug 2001 21:48:35 +0100 "iain.strachan2"
    > <> writes:
    > >
    > > Polkinghorne has published 113 papers on mathematical physics, and
    > > is a
    > > Fellow of the Royal Society - one of the highest scientific honours
    > > in the
    > > UK. I think he is entitled to his amazement. If you are as
    > > intimately
    > > acquainted with Polkinghorne's subject as he is, perhaps that would
    > > qualify
    > > you to dismiss him as casually as you seem to do.
    > >
    > >
    > > Iain.
    > >
    > Am I to gather that ad hominem has become a valid argument?
    > Dave

    I should like to apologise to the group what what appeared to be an "ad
    hominem" attack. The particular passage by Polkinghorne, whom I knew at
    Cambridge, is one I have always regarded as one of the most profound and
    intelligent comments on the relationship between science and religion, and I
    was irked to see it dismissed in that manner. However, I should not have
    responded as sharply as I did.

    However, on re-reading the chapter of Polkinghorne's, I find it to contain
    many interesting insights, and here reproduce it in full, in the hope that
    it will be of interest and relevance to the concerns of the group. The book
    I took it from is called "The Particle Play" and was a layman's account of
    particle physics and the ultimate constituents of matter, as understood in
    1979, when the book was written. I do not know much about Polkinghorne's
    theology - from what I remember, he was more inclined towards the "liberal"
    theology than to evangelicalism. He was very much friends with the dean of
    Chapel , Bishop John A.T. Robinson, who was no stranger to controversy,
    being dubbed an "atheist bishop" after the publication of his book "Honest
    to God". It is clear from the passage that Polkinghorne is, in any case, not
    a fundamentalist. (See the last paragraph).

     Here is the chapter in question, which was the final chapter in the book,
    entitled "Epilogue":
    I am not a habitual reader of popular books on science but when I do puruse
    one I am from time to time irritated by the _obiter dicter_ in which its
    author indulges. The subject is frequently religion, the tone inimical, but
    I do not think that my vexation is simply the pique of a Christian believer
    at hearing his faith disparaged. It seems to me that the comments are often
    shallow, sometimes ignorant, and their presence in the text which is
    otherwise an authoritative exposition of a highly successful activity gives
    them an apparent weight which they do not in fact possess. The answer
    clearly is not counter-propaganda of the same kind [IGDS - a piece of
    advice I should have heeded when phrasing the above response!] I have tried
    in writing this book to stick strictly to its theme and not give the reader
    the benefit of my views on wider issues. However, as a reward for my
    scrupulosity I am permitting myself the indulgence of these parting few

    There are two things I would like to say. One is that, of course, there are
    many puzzles which relate to that North-West frontier of knowledge that can
    roughly be called the 'science and religion' borderline. To most of these
    we are not at present in a position to give answers. For example, it is an
    interesting question whether biology is physics writ large, in the sense in
    which chemistry is certainly physics writ large. In principle (though
    scarcely in practice), all chemical facts are deducible from physical first
    principles. Even more in principle, is the same true of biological systems
    or are they of a scale which introduces something new, not discernible in a
    catalogue of the separate parts? It seems to me that some biologists say
    one thing and some the other and that this means that we do not really know
    the answer. Even more fascinating, how is our experience of consciousness
    related to the physical events occurring in our brains? (It is curious to
    note that some people believe that consciousness is fundamental to the
    interpretation of quantum mechanics, which if it were so might cut quite a
    few Gordian knots. But the question is still very far from settled.)

    These sorts of questions are of the highest interest but it is not helpful
    to suppose we know the answers to them before in fact we do so. In a period
    of enforced agnosticism about the answers to these questions, it seems to me
    important to hold fast to primary experience and not to subject it to a
    procrustean over-simplification in search of premature understanding. That
    is a waiting attitude which science itself encourages. The physicists of
    the early years of this century would not have made progress by denying of
    discarding the wave-like or the particle-like aspects of the photon. It was
    necessary to hold to both, in dialectical tension, for many years before
    quantum field theory dissolved the apparent paradox. So in our life as
    persons, I believe we must hold fast to the insights of science, and to our
    experiences of beauty, choice (however circumscribed) and moral
    responsibility. And to the that list I would want to add the worship of God
    and the knowledge of his grace in Jesus Christ.

    This second thing I want to say a brief word about is whether I detect any
    consonance between the world view of Christianity and the world view of
    science. In fact I do, but I do not suppose that I can prove it for you,
    any more than someone else could disprove it. We are in an area of
    discourse where such knock-down arguments are not available to anyone. I
    can only share an insight which comes to me.

    I am very struck by the fact, first mentioned in Chapter 1 and continually
    illustrated by all that followed, that mathematics, which essentially is the
    abstract free creation of the human mind, repeatedly provides the
    indispensible clue to the understanding of the physical world. This
    happening is so common a process that most of the time we take it for
    granted. At root it creates the _possibility_ of science, of our
    understanding the workings of the world. It seems to me a remarkable fact.
    I believe - I cannot prove it - that it is one aspect, perhaps rather a
    small one really, of the logos doctrine of Christianity. Israel developed
    an idea of the Word of God who was his agent in the creation of the world.
    The prologue to St. John's gospel not only makes the astonishing
    identification of that Word with Jesus of Nazareth, but also says that the
    Word is the true light that lightens every man. The use of mathematics to
    comprehend the universe shows a relation between the workings of our minds
    and the structure of the world. I believe that this is one aspect of what
    the writer of the Fourth Gospel is telling us.

    In the creation myth of Genesis, Adam is given lordship over nature in the
    naming of the animals. The pursuit of science is an aspect of the _imago
    dei_. Therefore it does not seem to me strange that these words which I
    have written while Professor of Mathematical Physics in the University of
    Cambridge will be published when I am an ordinand studying for the Anglican
    priesthood at Westcott House.

    Hope the above is found to be stimulating and thought provoking.

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Mon Aug 13 2001 - 14:27:43 EDT