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.