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    Polkinghorne gets it right

    The Rev. Dr. Sir John Polkinghorne has some good things to say about science & religion. He also has more titles than you. Image source: University of St. Andrews


    Last week Biologos released a short video called John Polkinghorne in a Nutshell. In it, our protagonist says something with utter clarity that I’ve been trying to say for years. It has to do with the relationship between two aspects of science: its limits and its success. Many see its successes; few see its limits; and fewer still see the connection between the two. What did Polkinghorne say? Here’s the golden sentence:

    Science has achieved its great success by the limit of its ambition.

    That’s it. It’s so simple. The success of science is because of its finite scope, not in spite of it. It’s not a unusual idea, really. There is rarely success without boundaries. By eliminating entire classes of questions, science can address its own with integrity. By disallowing certain kinds of evidence, science can focus on what matters to it. By insisting on reproducible, falsifiable, and continuous results, science can happily ignore everything that does not fit these categories.

    For example, questions of meaning are right out; science eliminates all notions of purpose before it even gets going. So there should be little wonder that the world uncovered by science appears, of itself, pointless. By turning a deaf ear to the combined witness of hundreds of generations of religious believers, science can avoid the difficulties of theology. By saying “no” to all discontinuities, science can ignore claims of divine action in the world.

    My point is not that the meaning of the world is self-evident, or that all religious believers are right, or that obvious miracles happen every day. I’m just saying that, even if it was and even if they were and even if they did, science qua science wouldn’t know it. It couldn’t know it. It just doesn’t go there. Scientists would know it because they’re people, not because science would tell them so.

    Perhaps it takes someone like Polkinghorne, who has seen science from the outside as well as from the inside, to make this so clear. I for one am grateful. The Rev. Dr. Sir really is a refreshing contrast to those who consistently overinterpret and oversell science. May we all aspire to his breadth of vision.

    Not to mention his clarity of expression.

    Comment Pages

    There are 8 Comments to "Polkinghorne gets it right"

    • […] friend Paul, whose blog and you can and should read here, is a scientist and theologian. In a post today, he says something important about science that I’ve tried to say many times, but not so […]

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    • Tom Harkins says:

      I agree to some extent. But it is also important to note that even qua science the discipline is not totally “successful.” Even “scientism-ists” agree there can be mistakes, but say this is part of the “nature of the beast,” an “always learning” and “self-correcting” procedure. But the very recognition of the possibility of error should lead to some humility, including particularly with respect to the “weeding out” of “direct” divine intervention as a causative element of what we actually do “see” and “measure.” If scientists stick to “seeing and measuring” what is directly before them, we’re okay. But when we get to causation, we have to be careful, especially as we drift further and further into the past. God may well have “stepped in” at points to make things different from what they otherwise might have been (or, to have been at all).

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    • […] friend Paul, whose blog you can and should read here, is a scientist and theologian. In a post today, he says something important about science that I’ve tried to say many times, but not so […]

         0 likes

    • jackd says:

      By turning a deaf ear to the combined witness of hundreds of generations of religious believers, science can avoid the difficulties of theology. By saying “no” to all discontinuities, science can ignore claims of divine action in the world.

      I don’t mean to be harsh here, but you’re rather stacking the deck, aren’t you? The “combined witness” glosses over a myriad of disagreements within Christianity alone, much less between traditions. And the second line carries the implication that actual miracles occur frequently despite your subsequent disclaimer.

      And just why, if miracles happened every day, would science not know it? Is there a requirement that the miraculous must always hide its own traces? The causes and the actual workings could – must, perhaps – remain inaccessible but the bald fact of a miraculous occurrence should be documentable. E.g. an amputee with new limbs, a holy woman verifiably seen in two locations at once, a few hours’ pause in the rotation of the earth.

      Ah but wait, I think I see your point now. Science cannot declare an inexplicable event to *be* a miracle. The only scientific answer in the face of an event that utterly contradicts what we know is to say, “we don’t know”.

      All this aside, I actually like Polkinghorne’s epigram. Scientists don’t try to find Truth, or the Ultimate Answer, or any such thing. They ask mostly rather small questions (with a few Newtonian exceptions) and often figure out clever ways to answer them. And yet out of this we keep learning the most amazing things.

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      • Paul Paul says:

        Hi Jack. I don’t think the “combined witness” remark stacks the deck. This phrase is in no way meant to convey the idea that science just can’t see what’s obvious to everyone else, that there’s a God, etc. In fact, the myriad disagreements really *are* disagreements, and serious ones too. But the point is that science doesn’t deal with these, because they don’t exactly lend themselves to empirical investigation.

        And how much serious science is done to verify claims of the miraculous? Not much, because there’s not any point. Science can afford to ignore such things.

        And yes, you see my point exactly, maybe better than I did: “miracle” is not a scientific category. Science alone would not know a miracle if it saw one. Which is fine: An amputee with new limbs would not need science to confirm the miracle.

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    • Alan Cooper says:

      “Science has achieved its great success by the limit of its ambition.”
      Absolutely! But the other side of that coinage is:
      “Religion is tainted by the unboundedness of its ambition”

      It never ceases to amaze me when scientists are accused of arrogance by religionists who are so arrogant as to proclaim their own humility while claiming certain knowledge of the unknowable.

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    • Tom Harkins says:

      Alan, certainly all people should be humble, whether “religionists” or scientists. However, I think many scientists are just as “certain” that evolution is true as many Christians are that God exists. Can a person act as though he is less “certain” than he feels himself to be? Is that the mark of humility? I think everyone should have the attitude that they can be “corrected,” but I don’t think “conservative Christians” are in some unique category of being “sure of themselves.”

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      • Alan Cooper says:

        Thanks Tom. I think I agree with you on those points.

        Actually I have always thought that if humility is a virtue then to flaunt it is to deny it. So I don’t mind if religionists hide their humility under a barrel of apparent confidence and I don’t even mean to suggest that honest confidence in what you believe indicates a lack of humility.

        What I object to is when *some* religionists go so far beyond expressing honest confidence in their own faith as to enter and judge the minds of others and accuse scientists of arrogance for their refusal to address what is beyond the scope of their understanding.(Especially when the claimed scope of the scientists is often so much smaller than that of the religionists).

        With regard to evolution, I have a pet peeve with those on both sides who argue whether or not it is “true”. Evolution is not a proposition but a phenomenon or process. Two propositions about it which I consider fairly certain are that it is a mathematically predictable consequence of random variation and natural selection, and that it is observable in the world around us. Another, which I also think is probably true – but with a bit less certainty than the first two, is that the process of evolution through random variation and natural selection provides an essentially complete explanation of how we came into being on a previously lifeless planet. I do feel reasonably “sure of myself” on these points but I have no ambition to address the question of “purpose”, and I suspect that to have any such ambition requires the kind of pride that the Bible ironically occasionally seems to be warning us against.

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