Science and Theology 2 – What Has Science Taught Us? (RJS)

On Tuesday I began a discussion of a recent book by The Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science. This is a rather academic book – but the kind of book that someone who wants to move beyond the culture war issues of young earth, old earth, and evolution should find useful. In this book Dr. Polkinghorne looks at the ways in which the insights from science and the scientific way of thinking may be used to help Christians explore theology in our 21st century context.

In Ch. 2 Dr. Polkinghorne discusses some ways in which there can be a discourse between modern science and Christian theology. One of these is in the insight that physics has provided about studying the unknown. One profound insight from physics is the danger inherent in extrapolating from things we are familiar with to other circumstances and regimes. Ordinary objects traveling at ordinary speeds in ordinary gravitational fields can be described quite well using the physics developed by Newton. The world was explicable and common sense. But in the early 20th century an accumulation of inexplicable observations changed this view.

As the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane said in 1928, commenting on the work of his physicist colleagues, he had come to suspect that the universe was not only queerer than we had supposed, but queerer than we could have supposed. Under the prompting of the way that nature actually turned out to behave, physicists had been driven to discover entirely novel modes of thought. (p. 20)

Electrons are neither here nor there but can be both here and there. There is a distinct probability that, if measured, it will be here and another probability that it will be there – but any given measurement is unpredictable. There is no universal experience of time shared by all observers. Indistinguishability, entanglement, superfluidity, superconductivity, symmetry, subatomic particles, and black holes – none of these phenomena are consistent with our “common sense” everyday experience of the world.

Science is a useful context for theology; not because science constrains or limits or worse, undermines belief in God; not because science gives us facts about the world; but because science has taught us to think in novel and unexpected ways.

Does science have important approaches, modes of thought, to offer to theology?

Dr. Polkinghorne goes on to describe some the the ways in which these novel modes of thought can and perhaps should provide a context for theology.

1. Things must be known as they are.

This result from physics illustrates a philosophical lesson of more general applicability. There is no universal epistemology applicable to all entities. They can only be known in a manner that corresponds to their actual and individual natures. Different kinds of entities can be expected to be knowable in different kinds of ways. In relation to theology’s search for knowledge of God, this point has been particularly emphasized by Thomas Torrance. He wrote, ‘How God can be known must be determined from first to last by the way in which He is actually known.’ (p. 22)

God, for example, is known through relationship, revelation, and experience; not by pure reason, logic, or extrapolation.

2. There is more than one form of logic. For example, the Aristotelian idea that A and not-A are mutually exclusive is not the only possible description of realizable systems. An electron for example is both here and not-here (i.e. there), it can be both spin-up and spin-down.

3. There is inherent uncertainty and openness in nature. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is one example of this limit, but radioactive decay is perhaps a more significant example. Rare events drive many significant processes. These have an inherent degree of openness. In aggregate half of the atoms in a collection of Carbon-14 will decay in 5730±40 years, but there is no way to predict exactly when any given atom will decay.

4. Intelligibility is ground for ontological belief. The unseen world is observed and understood indirectly, yet we accept observations as reflections of reality, as descriptions of how things really are (their ontology or being) because they provide coherence and reason.

It is because belief in photons and electrons makes deep sense of a great swathe of directly observable phenomena, from the facts of chemistry to the properties of superconductors, that we affirm their identity. For similar reasons, particle physicists affirm the unseen reality of quarks, constituents of nuclear matter that are intrinsically unobservable… Theology owes science no apology for its belief in the unseen reality of God, for that belief serves to make sense of great swathes of spiritual experience. (p. 24-25)

Both scientists and theologians know that all interesting facts are interpreted facts.

Science brings a bottom-up approach to knowledge. Science and theology have some very different features. God is not testable through experimentation the way atoms and molecules are … we interact with God as a person in relationship. But Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that it is still possible to approach both science and theology in a “bottom-up” manner. Scientists, consciously or unconsciously adopt an approach of critical realism. There is an outside reality independent of our human construction, but it can be partly veiled or imperfectly encountered. “Scientist-theologians agree in claiming that an analogous concept of critical realism appropriately describes theology’s search for motivated belief arising from encounter with the veiled reality of God. (p. 26)”

The lesson from science is not that anything goes … that after quantum physics and relativity nothing is “too strange.” Rather the lesson is that we can adopt “an open and flexible mode of thought, responsive to the actual experienced character of reality, however unexpected that may prove to be.

The incarnation, trinity and resurrection are places where this bottom-up approach can be in play. Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that Trinitarian theology ought not be viewed as something imported onto reality, but the result of Christians who, in the first centuries after the resurrection, wrestled with the nature of this new reality and searched for terms and concepts to describe and understand it. The orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity did not originate in a top-down fashion but developed from the bottom-up to describe what was perceived, however veiled, as reality.

The problem with miracles – including the miracles of incarnation and resurrection – is not with a God who can or can’t do anything, but with divine consistency. Do these miracles have a purpose that makes sense in the larger narrative of God’s relationship with His creation? Dr. Polkinghorne sees reason for motivated belief in these events arising from bottom-up thinking. Belief in incarnation and resurrection is a motivated belief that makes sense of swathes of human experience including the experience of the earliest Christians as they wrote, thought, and preached.

This only touches the surface of the ideas raised by Dr. Polkinghorne in this chapter – but is more than enough for one post.

What do you think?

Can science help us better think through theological questions?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Paul W

    I would think that when we understand one area of knowledge quite well that it would result in shedding light on other areas of knowledge. I suspect that this is true for any number of disciplines.

  • Susan N.

    Very nicely written post, RJS — clear and compelling. Thank you. I’m starting to like this Polkinghorne fellow, in the same way that I came to be a fan of Francis Collins…very smart people, who are able to write in an accessible manner. And I heard it here first (many thanks).

    As Paul W remarked, I (for one, at least) tend to be the type of learner who looks for a context or a connection from which to make sense of new information. In fact, “integrated” or inter-disciplinary curriculum is something of a hot trend. The more connections that a learner can make to what is already known, the better the “sticking power.” Inquiry/discovery-based learning in lieu of traditional methods is gaining popularity as well 🙂

    The point is, I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that learning is a lifelong endeavor, and, a willingness to be open to new ideas or evidence combined with a sense of curiosity and wonder are required.

    Just for fun, I’ll share a few of my “wondering” thoughts in response to basic chemistry study:

    * “Matter is neither created nor destroyed; rather, it changes form.” <– sounds a lot like the concept of 'eternal life' to me!

    * On the visible spectrum — we are able to perceive only such a small range of light energy. "The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Col. 1:15-17, NIV) And Jesus was called the Light of the World 🙂

    Perhaps I tend to over-spiritualize matters, but this how my brain has been processing the scientific concepts I've been exposed to. And, I can only say, Wow! The world is an amazing and infinitely interesting place!

  • AHH

    I think
    Things must be known as they are.
    is a great lesson for theology.

    If we start with our assumptions about what we think God is supposed to be like, we get in trouble, constructing a “god of the philosophers” or some other idol.

    This lesson also applies to approaching the Bible (touching on the Jonah post today). If we come at the text with human-generated presuppositions about what we think the Bible is supposed to be like (such as “inerrancy”), problems result. Better to come at the text with a more open attitude, letting the phenomena of Scripture inform our doctrine of Scripture, rather than assuming it must be the way we would have made Scripture if we were God.

  • RJS


    I agree completely. One of the most important lessons is that things must be known as they are.

    And you are right – this governs my approach to scripture as the word of God. Scripture doesn’t have to conform to my ideas of “Word of God” rather it shapes my ideas of what the Word of God is. The Jonah post is a great example. Jonah may or may not be historical – but a completely human definition of what it means for the Bible to be the word of God plays no role in my reasoning process about the question.

    This goes for the posts on Calvinism as well – too much of the reasoning is top-down.

  • I’ve enjoyed the posts and discussion on Science and Theology. I have two questions:

    1. I agree that things must be known as they are and that, as a result, we need to resist the urge to reach conclusions based on our preconceptions rather than reality itself. But, theologically isn’t there a sense in which we are incapable of coming to a correct understanding of God and His plan on our own? It seems to me that Scripture provides us with a necessary framework for correctly understanding reality as it actually is. To that extent, don’t
    we in some sense reason theologically from top down. I don’t see that as being inconsistent with what you’re saying. I’m just wondering about the difference between top down reasoning and bottom up reasoning in this context.

    2. Given that “science has taught us to think in novel and unexpected ways”, why do so many seem to cling to a naturalistic worldview that excludes the possibility of God working in the world?

  • dopderbeck

    This is good stuff. I think I would argue, however, that theology is not learning any of these modes of thought from science, but rather that science first learned them from theology, and is now having to re-learn them. It is also true that theology is re-learning what it once knew. Both science and theology are recovering more careful modes of thought that were challenged by the Enlightenment.

    I’m not sure how helpful I find the “bottom-up” metaphor. That sounds foundationalist — you start with some basic principle and then build your foundation of knowledge on that. But this isn’t how people really know things. In fact, we always start with some “given” and then in a kind of dialectical process try to understand that “given” more fully in light of further observations and experiences.

    As an example, it’s not really correct to say that the Church Fathers constructed the doctrine of the Trinity from the ground up based on some surprising experiences. They understood the doctrine to be inherent in the deposit of faith — in the Apostolic witness to Christ. It was all there and given to them already, implicitly in scripture and experientially in the incarnation of Christ, but their task was to tease out its meanings and implications.

    The same can be said of our knowledge of creation. Creation is all there already, a given, a gift. The cultural task of science is to explore all the truths and meanings that are already present in that gift.

  • RJS


    I would have to see convincing proof that both science and theology are recovering or re-learning more careful modes of thought that were challenged by the Enlightenment.

    I don’t think it is an accurate assessment that earlier thinking was “more careful.” (This is where I would need to see convincing proof.) I also don’t think this suggestion or assessment truly appreciates the revolution that quantum physics and relativity bring to our thinking. It doesn’t return to earlier modes – it moves beyond both earlier modes and Enlightenment modes of thinking into something different.

  • RJS

    And some more … “bottom-up” isn’t foundationalist. It is really part and parcel of the idea that things should be known as they are and that there should be a coherence. Top-down starts with overriding principles … God is sovereign, the Bible is inerrant … And thus constrains what the result must be.

    And to the Trinity … where was this inherent deposit of faith? Is there some document where Paul or Peter passed down a divinely delivered doctrine of the Trinity? The basis for the doctrine of the Trinity comes bottom-up out of the apostolic witness growing in the early church … the apostles and the apostolic fathers were an important part of this bottom-up process. Their experience is an important (even the most important) part of the data. The expression of the apostolic experience is in scripture – but the doctrine of the Trinity, while consistent with this and derivable from it, is not there in clear concise form.

  • Tim


    I think the really neat thing about science is that it provides mechanisms to reality-check. Is there a Higgs Boson? Particle Physics experiments at the LHC are expected to answer this questions in either the affirmative or negative sometime next year. If the Higgs is ruled-out, Particle Physcists will have to adapt to this new view, regardless of what there previous views and investiture concerning the Higgs may have been.

    What reality-checking mechanism does religion have to offer? If you are wrong about something truly central to your faith, how would you know? If we’re going to be comparing science with theology, I think questions like these need to be seriously considered. Science isn’t just about formulating explanations or frameworks for making sense of observations. It’s about reality-testing those explanations and frameworks. Because, let’s face it, most initial formulations happen to be wrong. So what of theology in this vein?

  • phil_style

    Q: “What reality-checking mechanism does religion have to offer?”
    A: Death?

    Morbid humour. Sorry.

  • RJS


    Clearly there is not a perfect analogy or comparison. This post deals with ways of knowing and thinking and how this can be of use in approaching theology. But most things in life can’t be put to scientific test in the way that the Higgs boson or, for that matter, superluminal neutrinos can be tested and explored. Religion – specifically God – cannot be put to such test.

    An upcoming chapter in the book deals with Polkinghorne’s discussion of motivated belief. Here I think that we will get into his ideas on this a bit more.

  • Tim


    Thanks for the response. In reply I would say that if you were to remove reality-checking from science, making it in essence more comparable to theology/religion, what you would have would be more a “way of guessing”, that a “way of knowing.” We don’t typically think we “know” something in science until the explanation is well tested.

  • RJS


    But there are different ways of reality checking. The reality checking of your concern for your children is different than the way or reality checking the existence of the Higgs boson, is different from reality checking the route of the campaigns of Alexander, is different from reality checking the reasons for the campaigns of Alexander is different from reality checking the beauty of a rainbow.

    Scientific reality checking is not the only thing out there.

    Polkinghorne’s discussion of motivated belief involves reality checking – but not double blind experiments of efficacy (for example).

  • Tim


    OK. I look forward then to your next post in this series discussing Polkinghorne’s treatment of “motivated belief” as pertains to reality-checking. I would be interested in seeing what that looks like and how it may be practically applied.

  • RJS


    Motivated belief is Ch. 6 in the book … this post was on Ch. 2, so it may be a bit before I get to it.