Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Simon Blackburn reviews John Polkinghorn

I found this review difficult to grasp.

Faith, Science and Understanding,

by John Polkinghorne

(Yale University Press, TK pp., $TK)

The God of Hope and the End of the World

by John Polkinghorne

(Yale University Press, TK pp., $TK)

According to Boswell, Hume once remarked that ‘when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’ The face on both of these books must surely belong to someone in the small set of counterexamples that even Hume admitted. Sir John Polkinghorne, Fellow of the Royal Society, Doctor of Divinity, sometime Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Cambridge, recipient of this years million-dollar Templeton Prize in religion, beams out like an Anglican clergyman from central casting, white-haired, wholesome, and radiant: a one-man Ode to Joy. And on reading these volumes, one can see why. It is pretty uplifting to be a scientist-theologian, happy with the universe, confident of the ways of the Lord. It is especially fizzy to be one in Cambridge, England, where Sir Isaac Newton himself, as well as writing Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and The Apocalypse of St. John, left nearly a million and a half words on theological subjects. Admittedly, another Cambridge professor, A. E. Houseman, wrote that ‘malt (i.e. beer) does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to Man’; but this is not Sir John’s view at all. Houseman was not a scientist.

Polkinghorne’s beam is the more surprising, since he holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a ‘meaningless empire of accident.’ This would wipe the smile off the faces of many scientists. For science is not good about ‘forever.’ It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million galaxies or so. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of man-made military, environmental, or genetic disasters.

That, more or less, is the scientific picture of the world. It proves so disturbing to some people, such as creationists, that they prefer not to believe it. Yet the scientist-theologian cannot take the stupid option. So Polkinghorne wishes to reconcile the scientific understanding of the world with the idea of a guiding intelligence, a designer who put the whole show together. Alongside science—or, in some passages in Polkinghorne, apparently reigning over science—goes the quest for theological understanding of the worldís maker and his (or her, or their) purposes. This is Polkinghorne’s unpromising agenda, and it has to be said that he pursues it with a fervid diligence that few believers can match. His twists and turns have much to teach those who protect their belief in the divinity mostly by not thinking the thing through.

Science is firstly supposed to help the theist agenda by showing us how to frame hypotheses about the nature of the divine. Polkinghorne is a ‘critical realist’ about science: he believes that scientific method is adapted for discovering the truth, although its results are often provisional and in principle can be overturned by better theories to come.

Yet he allows what is called the ‘inference to the best explanation,’ whereby we are perfectly entitled to hold our theories, albeit in a fallibilist or open-minded spirit. The point, then, is to show that the hypothesis of divine providence is really a simple extension of scientific thinking; that religion is really an extension of science.

Thinking scientifically, what then might be the best explanation of the cosmos in which we find ourselves? What is the best explanation of the Vale of Tears in which human life plays itself out? The eighteenth century and (despite the best efforts of Hume and Kant) the early nineteenth century seized on the answer: there is a divine architect. It is often thought that Darwin scotched this answer, by providing the evolutionary explanation of the existence of complex life. On this account, Hume and Kant failed to kill the argument to the divine architect, the argument to design, and it was only when Darwin came along that it withered in the popular imagination. Some scientists, notably Richard Dawkins, have been a little triumphalist about this. But their triumph was premature. For we only have to find some other fact about the cosmos, one that resists Darwinian or biological explanation, for the argument to get back into gear.

Polkinghorne’s favorite is the minute adjustment of the various cosmological constants and magnitudes, without which large atoms and molecules could not exist. Why do they have these fortunate properties? We do not know; and in the absence of fairly wild cosmological speculation, there is no evolutionary story to help us. Most scientists would surely leave it there. Maybe one day there will be a physical theory explaining the value of these constants, or maybe not. But Polkinghorne jumps in. The problem signals the need for a ‘deeper form of intelligibility, going beyond the scientific.’ In other words, it must be due to the divine architect, or providence, lovingly going to all that trouble to make a universe, especially for us.

Hume and Kant told us that such thinking is natural, but not scientific. It is extravagant, and it is not falsifiable, since it generates no new predictions. It merely represents a primitive preference for explaining the unknown in terms of agency rather than in terms of nature—a tendency that science had to suppress and to overcome before it could develop. And it requires truly spectacular leaps of understanding. Minds we know about are physically embodied and dependent upon physical brains. But the mind of the architect is not. Our minds cannot make things without materials and their abiding properties. But the architect can. Our minds required physical birth and nurture, language and culture. But the architect requires none of these things.

We also face a regress of second, third, and upward architects, meta-designers, each responsible for the previous one. After all, if the balance and the complexity of the world needs to be explained by a designer, then the superior balance and the superior complexity of this designer also is in need of explanation. But no, the divine mind is self-sufficient. The elephant (the cosmos) has to stand on something so we suppose it stands on a tortoise (an architect). And what does the tortoise stand on? Nothing. Tortoises just stand. So now we need to ask why, if tortoises can just stand, elephants cannot.

But even waiving these familiar objections, where do the leaps of logic land us? If all of an architect’s buildings use lots of glass, we presume that the architect is happy with glass. We proportion cause to effect. Similarly, if all we know about a designer is that he designed a Vale of Tears, the natural inference, the scientific inference, the economical inference, is to a mind that gets off on Vales of Tears. Or more cautiously, one might speculate about a designer, or a design team, that either does not know about the tearful bits, or does not care about them, or cannot in any case do anything about them. Hume put the point in his inimitable way. He says, of someone using the design argument:

The world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity, and is the object of derision to his superiors: It is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him

If we are told, moreover, that after death we go to another world that the same architect designed, our best bet, thinking scientifically of course, will be that this other creation of the same designer will be much like this one. If the just suffer and the unjust flourish in this world, that is probably how it will always be. Suffering worlds are what this architect does, judging from the one sample of his work that lies in view. Naturally enough, Hume concludes that so ‘wild and unsettled’ a system of theology is in no way preferable to none at all. Or as Wittgenstein was later to say, nothing will do as well as something about which nothing can be said.


The design argument is all you get, or in fact a bit beyond what you get, when you think scientifically. So to bypass all the devastating Humean objections, the scientist-theologian has to make a break. The answer, unsurprisingly, does not lie in scientific thinking. It lies in revelation. The mind of the architect, read off from the world as a whole, does not do much for us. We have to cope with the world as it is, whatever we think about whether it is the creation of someone who creates worlds like this. But the architect’s mind as revealed not by the world, but by what people say about it: now that is a different story.

Revelation comes in two flavors: your own, or that of others, personal or historical. Polkinghorne allows for the former. At least he thinks that the experiences of being bowled over by a piece of mathematics, or the awfulness of moral duty, or the beauty of the morning primrose, gives us glimmerings of the divine nature of providence. Or, as he would put it, they afford fructifying and salvific multi-leveled encounters with Reality. ‘Encounter’ is a favorite word in this kind of theology, I suppose because it neatly insinuates success without actually stating it. In this way one can speak of Conan Doyle’s encounter with fairies, referring just to Conan Doyle’s experience when he was duped, but a page later presuppose that since Conan Doyle encountered fairies, there were fairies there to be encountered.

But Polkinghorne wisely concentrates upon history. Personal revelation is not really for Anglicans, raising on the one hand the Anglican dread of superstition and Rome, and on the other hand the Anglican loathing of enthusiasm and low-church anarchy. I approve of this caution: one manís revelation is indeed anotherís lunacy. Better, then, to stick with established history, and especially with scripture, the ìlaboratory notebooks of gifted observers of Godís ways with men and women.î

In a fairly typical passage, Polkinghorne writes that ‘I understand revelation not as being propositional knowledge ineffably conveyed, but as the record of the particularly transparent people and events through which God has graciously shown forth the divine nature.’ I find the phrasing here peculiar. You do not have to be an especially gifted observer of God’s ways with men and women to notice that he doles out disease, famine, accident, parasites, pain, and death in spades. But the gifted see something different. In particular they see, or saw, events apparently occurring in first-century Palestine (rather, say, than seventh-century Arabia, or nineteenth-century Salt Lake City). Who were these ‘particularly transparent people’? ‘Transparent’ presumably means not so much guileless or gullible, but somehow receptive or tuned-in, so as to be the chosen audience for the arrival of Divinity on Earth.

But that cannot be right either, since the Jews of first-century Palestine were not particularly receptive to the idea of an incarnation. They may have been waiting for a messiah, but their theological traditions found the idea of an incarnate God blasphemous. That is why, twenty years after the event, Paul had to start proselytizing in Asia Minor and Greece, and even then it was only gradually that he worked up to the idea of Jesus being divine. All went well after that, since pagans were much more receptive to his idea. Indeed, Paul tells us that they were perfectly cheerful about regarding Paul himself and his companion Barnabas as yet more Gods. It was much easier to make Gods in Thessalonia and Corinth than in Jerusalem.

Historically, this makes things all very messy. It is as if a very gifted orator and politician set about proclaiming the resurrection of Elvis as far as possible from Memphis, in a place prone to accept this sort of thing, and at least twenty years after the historical Elvis, pills and hamburgers and all, left us. A wise strategy, but scarcely a reason for supposing that the people of Memphis are particularly transparent and open to encounters with the Divine. Of course, given the background theory_a divine creator who for some reasons tends to conceal himself, but then mysteriously decides upon one revelation to one people in one place at one time_he has to choose some people, some place, some time. But that is only given the background theory. If you know in advance that there are to be true reports of flying saucers, you can deduce that the people of New Mexico who make these reports are the favored recipients of alien manifestations; but you cannot argue from the favored transparency of the good folk of New Mexico to the existence of flying saucers. Nor can you argue from the same premise to the wisdom of extraterrestrials in exhibiting themselves in New Mexico rather than, say, in Times Square, where they might have more impact.

In other words, although Polkinghorne is officially using history as evidence for theology, he is actually using theology to determine how to read the history. This is always so. Presumably Polkinghorne does not believe in the Prophetís night flight to Jerusalem, and presumably Osama bin Laden does not believe in Christís resurrection, but in neither case is their mind made up by historical evidence or scientific thinking.

Polkinghorne seems to lack perfect pitch when it comes to historical confirmation. He supposes that the literal truth of the Resurrection is well confirmed by the halting and confused character of the biblical accounts of how and where the dead Jesus appeared, and how difficult it was to be sure it was Him:

Such a non-triumphalist indication of the problematic character of recognizing the risen Christ, so variously expressed, seems to me much more likely to be the kernel of an historical reminiscence than a feature curiously common to a bunch of made up tales.

Would that these were the options! Surely any historian, and for that matter any scientist who has made a study of our cognitive functions, and certainly any philosopher, would be a little more sensitive to many others possibilities of explanation. The gospel writers were neither independent of each other, nor witnesses of what they write about. And we know that delusions are contagious, emotions are malleable, and they are powerful determinants of belief. Reminiscences themselves are known to be subjects of invention, since memory makes up stories and is itself easily assaulted and manipulated.

Self-deception, in short, is the human lot. And one wonders if Polkinghorne the scientist would take the hesitation and the uncertainty and the lack of agreement that attended certain laboratory observations to be confirmations of their accuracy. It is true that there are occasions when agreement is suspiciously perfect, and many frauds have been detected because of it; but this does not turn a confusion of witnesses into a reliable indicator of anything.

There is also the innocent tactic of taking the very improbability of an historical narrative as a reason for placing confidence in it. What could possibly explain the peoplesí acceptance of such wild stories as those of the biblical miracles, except that they are true? Polkinghorne refers patronizingly to Hume, but he never refers to Humeís quotation from the Cardinal de Retz, that there are many things in which the world wishes to be deceived. Nor does he reflect upon another of Humeís maxims, that the wise lend a very academic faith to any report that flatters the passions of the reporter.


Polkinghorne believes that the arrival of persons on earth is ‘an event of prime significance for the understanding of what is going on.’

Are we to believe that some animals are self-conscious and some are not, and thatís that? To take so dismissive and epiphenomenal a view of personhood seems to be tantamount to denying that there are any meaningful events in cosmic history at all. I cannot conceive of an occurrence in the universeís evolutionary development that is more astonishing and fraught with signs of fruitful significance than that it should have become aware of itself through the coming to be of humanity.

This illustrates a pervasive rhetorical device, a tendency to do what in Polkinghorne’s mind passes for philosophy by posing false contrasts. (The dilemma of immortality or futility was another.). On the one hand, our nature as persons is ‘fraught with signs of fruitful significance,’ or some kind of portent for an infinite life to come; or on the other hand we dismiss it, or treat it as ‘epiphenomenal’. Treating something as epiphenomenal means treating it as irrelevant to the way events occur: the whistle on the engine rather than the steam that moves it, in William James’s famous example. But nobody in their right minds treats the fact that there are persons around as irrelevant to the way events happen. Our sayings and doings and plans and intentions make things happen, just as our buses and airplanes and bombs make things happen. This does not freight us with fruitful significance. It freights us only with buses, airplanes, and bombs.

Nor would anyone say that some animals are self-conscious and some are not, and that’s that. Self-consciousness is connected with a great number of capacities: capacities for planning and forming intentions, for the use of language, for awareness of the gaze of others. We can discern the difference between self and world even in our knowledge of ourselves as animals with a point of view, moving around an independent space. But human self-consciousness is also shown in complex emotions, such as shame or embarrassment. We would certainly like a better understanding of the difference between ourselves, as clearly self-conscious, and other higher primates as less clearly so, down through the animal world to creatures who exhibit none of the complex signs of it. Many disciplines and many books are devoted to elucidating that understanding. One of the few things that they agree upon is that it is a dead-end to think that mind and body are two different substances, mysteriously connected. It is Cartesian dualism that makes the influence of the mind on the world mysterious, and threatens to treat the mind as epiphenomenal. As Darwin noticed, such a view is refuted every time we blush.

Polkinghorne is not officially a Cartesian dualist. He says he is a monist, or a believer in a single substance, and he refers approvingly to Aristotleís idea that the soul is the form of the body. But he also believes that agency, our ability to make things happen, requires some kind of eruption from outside the physical order into what would otherwise be the causal ordering of events in the universe. Referring to chaos theory, Polkinghorne suggests that it ushers in the right new kind of causal process. Only ‘an extension of causal principles beyond the energetic exchanges described by a reductionist physics’ allows ‘a genuinely instrumental role for mind, active in the execution of human intentions.’ Mind can get in and push things about only because things are not really set by physical facts. We can roll up our sleeves and make things happen only because nature is ‘subtle’ and ‘supple.’ Similarly, God’s agency within the world occurs when he gets in amongst the ‘cloudy unpredictabilities of created processes.’ Chaos thus offers a habitat for God’s interferences in the physical processes of nature, his loving little buffets nudging it towards fulfillment of the divine plan.

Perhaps it was this idea that earned Polkinghorne his million dollars. But there are scientific problems with it, as he himself admits briefly. The usual interpretations of dynamical systems offered by chaos theory has them perfectly deterministic, but indefinitely sensitive to initial conditions. Chaos introduced no new kinds of causality. But even if some extension of the science were defensible, it leaves the philosophy of mind completely at sea. The whole point of the Aristotelian view is that it is absolutely incompatible with a model in which the mind leaps into what would otherwise be the rigid unfolding of physical systems, pulling levers in just the gaps where physics fails to make things happen. For the Aristotelian, the agent is the animal; and animals do not act in spite of physics, but because of physics. There is no more of a problem about my agency in the world than there is about the fact that my computer’s capacities make it show letters as I type them. (Aristotle said that if an eye were an animal, its soul would be sight.) In fact, it is only a Cartesian dualism of mind and body which suggests that there is any problem about reconciling agency and physics.

When someone uses the argument to design, they are involved with the idea of a self-sufficient ‘mind’ requiring no birth, no sustaining brain, no surroundings, no law-governed physical environment in which to continue to exist. One hypothesis about why people allow themselves such a bizarre idea is the evolutionary one: that we are adapted to look for intentions and purposes whenever we find things around us that we do not understand. But this is surely only a part of the picture. A much more important source is a first-person illusion, and the same one that sustains Polkinghorne’s problems with mind and body. When we act and think, we are not conscious of the multitude of causes in the brain or outside it that make our acting and thinking possible. The illusion is to project that lack of awareness onto the universe: to think that instead of being unaware of causes, we are aware that there are no causes. Our own actions and thoughts then become little exemplars of divine self sufficiency. If we can have minds and make thoughts, just like that, why canít God make worlds, just like that?

It is a melancholy thought that so much of mankindís long affair with religion springs from an illusion infecting our conception of mind: the illusion that when we do not know what causes us to act and think, we know that nothing causes us to act and think. But it is only this illusion that sustains the argument to design, and it is only the argument to design that sustains belief in a self-sufficient divine agent. A cloud of religion can be condensed into a drop of philosophy, and we have another exception that Hume needs to admit, when he said that generally speaking errors in religion are dangerous but errors in philosophy merely laughable.

For gods are dangerous things. When the divine architect condescends to reveal himself to an especially transparent people, you would think that He or She or They would take a lot of care over the messages the receivers get from Him or Her or Them. Polikinghorne notices that the biblical record does not come out too well on this score: ‘Inevitably it expresses attitudes (to women, genocide and slavery, for instance) which we cannot endorse today.’ Inevitably? Could not omnipotence have got in among those cloudy chaotic processes with a bit more fine tuning, and got some words down that are a bit clearer and more just about women, genocide, and slavery? And all the other things for which people have been beaten and burned and drowned and stoned on Biblical authority? But Polkinghorne is calm and unperturbed, because when doing ethics from the Bible ‘I feel that I can discern a cousinly relationship between myself and many other Christians as we seek to bring modern knowledge and ancient experience together in a consonant combination.’

In other words, and thank heavens, we can mix’n match. If we do not like bits of Deuteronomy or Leviticus, we may thankfully junk them. If Jesus’s view of fig trees and pigs and witchcraft and possession by devils, or his view of Canaanites (or perhaps it was just Canaanite women) as dogs no longer appeals to us, then we may tiptoe past. And if Paul’s evident belief that the world was about to come to an end impugns his status as recipient of the Divine word, we may airbrush it out. In this way we may arrive at a consonant combination and a good night’s sleep. Meanwhile our cousinly fellow-readers in Rome or Riyadh can enthusiastically help the God of love to persecute those who use contraceptives or like their sex upside down or back to front, before marriage, or in a mirror. According to Polkinghorne, this is just the price of complexity and plurality. Whereas the truth is that when you mix’n’match you only bring back what you already wanted to bring back. Appeals to biblical authority are pure reader responses; hermeneutics run riot; postmodernism in action.

In Princeton, Polkinghorne earnestly assures us, he and an ‘interdisciplinary group of scholars’ recently spent three fruitful years making scientific estimates of God’s plans for the destiny of the world. According to Polkinghorne and the Princetonians, the last things, when the day of judgment comes and the tombs are opened, are a bit like what we have now, but also a bit different: they are an ‘interplay between continuity and discontinuity.’ They do not include real Hell. They only include people who have not asked for admission to heaven, and these get some kind of after-life Bible classes. Beyond that, Heaven itself is a bit vague, but it includes pilgrimage and progress, and increasing fullness. Heaven does not provide endless harps and psalms; nor, I think, does it afford Aquinas’s favored pleasure of watching the tortures of the damned, nor Islamís seventy-two virgins per male martyr. In fact, I could not discover whether it included sex at all, but in their three years of deliberations Polkinghorne’s group has determined—scientifically, remember—that it possibly does include some animals, especially domestic pets, although perhaps not too many of them, since it is permissible for God to ‘cull individuals in order to preserve the herd.’

In any case, we need not inquire too closely into these details of Polkinghorne’s and the Princetonians’s high deliberations, since we are assured in advance that all manner of things shall be well. But why did God not skip the first course, the current Vale of Tears, and go straight to the Fields of Elysium? We are confidently assured that the team’s work ‘clearly establishes the value of the old creation, since it affords the raw material for eschatological transformation into the new creation.’ Even God, it seems, cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.

I do not know whether this is orthodox; from the outside it strikes me as somewhat blasphemous. I certainly do approve of a comfortable, domestic, friendly afterlife, with not too much wailing and gnashing of teeth, rather like a Cambridge college but even more harmonious. It confirms one’s sense that the Church of England is a docile old Labrador, toothless and friendly, and nobody need take much notice of it. When schism erupts and heretics get things wrong, or when agnostics and atheists (such as myself) lock God out, chaps like Sir John give us a sherry and a biscuit on the lawn, rather than burning, stoning, and crucifying, as their ill-bred cousins love to do.

And yet I did end Polkinghorne’s books, with their sublime contempt for philosophical reasoning and historical thinking, in despair about humanity’s desperate self-deceptions and vanities and appetite for illusions. Everything will be all right in the end, we are washed in the blood of the lamb, we are blessed, and above all God is on Our Side. Who could dissent? Fantasy beats reason every time. People believe what they want to believe. I do not know how it is at Princeton, but in Cambridge there are eight established chairs in the Faculty of Divinity, but only two in the Faculty of Philosophy. Hallelujah!

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