Science, Religion, and the Quest for Truth

Science, Religion, and the Quest for Truth December 15, 2018

John Polkinghorne writes:

When I left the full-time practice of science and turned my collar round to become a clergyman, my life changed in all sorts of ways. One important thing did not change, however, for, in both my careers, I have been concerned with the search for truth.

Religion is not just a technique for keeping our spirits up, a pious anaesthetic to dull some of the pain of real life. The central religious question is the question of truth. Of course, religion can sustain us in life, or at the approach of death, but it can only do so if it is about the way things really are. Some of the people I know who seem to me to be the most clear-eyed and unflinching in their engagement with reality are monks and nuns, people following the religious life of prayerful awareness.

In the investigations of the different aspects of experience that concern them, it seems to me that science and religion share a common desire to learn what is true. Neither will attain absolute certainty in this pursuit; both will call for a belief that is motivated but not unquestionable.

The quote comes from his book Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. Mike the Geologist has begun reviewing another book of Polkinghorne’s, Quantum Physics and Theology. It addresses a similar theme, namely that “all truth is God’s truth.” Meanwhile, Vance Morgan wrote in a recent blog post (quoting a scientist who is also a Catholic priest, and then also a rabbi):

Vatican observatory astronomer Fr. George Coyne tells the story of how, during the question and answer period after he gave a conference paper on the uncertainties of determining the age of the universe, an audience member commented, “Father, it must be wonderful that, with all the uncertainties we have in our scientific pursuits, that you have this faith, this rock of faith to stand upon.” Father Coyne was not amused.

I took off my Roman collar and faced him down and said, “Who told you that my faith was kind of a rock?” I said, “Every morning I wake up I have my doubts. I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow.” Because faith is love. Love in marriage, love with friends, love of brothers and sisters is not something that’s there once and for all and always kind of a rock that gives us support. What I want to say is, ignorance in doing science creates the excitement of doing science, and anyone who does it knows that discoveries lead to a further ignorance.

Ignorance and doubt are wonderful places to be as we turn our attention toward the unknown. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told Krista Tippett, “Whatever God is, he is not as simple as we are. He is in places you would never expect him to be . . . Don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.” And than science, I might add.

Listening to scientists who are or have been clergy is important, because there are some who insist that belief in God and pursuit of scientific knowledge are mutually exclusive. As Dave Gustavsen wrote recently, “I just don’t know how you look at the guy who led the team that cracked the code of human DNA, and say he’s not a real or true scientist.”

Of related interest, see the article in Christianity Today about Mars and how it calls to us. I can relate – my most recent work of science fiction (about which I’ll say more if it is accepted for publication) is about Mars. See also the connection recently made between Mars and current politics.


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  • I enjoyed Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. You know, moreso than the specific content, I enjoy reading thoughtful, theistic scientists because of the transparency and the overall demeanor with which they approach their subjects. That quote you bolded about faith not being a like a kind of rock is signatory. The complexity, mystery, and wonder of the natural universe and the quest for knowledge in general has shaped their disposition toward theology, and rather than the dogmatic tribe-defenders most people experience Christians as, these are by and large people who also approach their faith with a sense of complexity, mystery, and wonder. They’re not afraid to not know the answers. They’re not afraid to doubt their closely held hypotheses. And they’re also not afraid to make brave, new ones.

    And, generally speaking, this seems to have had a very moderating, humbling effect on their communication. When I read a Polkinghorne book, there’s not the slightest sense of some kind of smug superiority that you get from your typical Christian apologist. He just seems like the kind of guy that a theist or an atheist could have tea with in the living room and enjoy themselves. I hope I grow more into that kind of person.

    • John MacDonald

      It’s interesting. How do you interpret Polkinghorne’s statement

      “The central religious question is the question of truth.”

      “Truth” is very polysemic concept. It can mean things like 1 “True” statements; 2 Exemplary (“true-friend”); 3 Ownmost (the great “truths” of the human condition); 4 Un-hiddenness (a-letheia in Greek, ‘I thought he was a nice guy, but he really “showed his ‘true’ colours” in his divorce’).”

      What does “Truth” mean to you?

      • From what I’ve read of Polkinghorne, I think he’d define truth in the sense of “corresponding with what is.” But I don’t know that for sure. I started working my way through one of his more philosophical books, and I think I might be overly-reductionistic in portraying him this way, so take it with a grain of salt.

        • John MacDonald

          What makes “Truth as correspondence” important? If I say “My dog is white and brown,” my statement “corresponds” with reality, but I’m not sure why anyone should care, lol?

        • John MacDonald

          One other thought: Regarding the correspondence understanding of Truth and legality, would you, as a theist, say it is “beyond a reasonable doubt” that God exists, or more cautiously say it is “by the preponderance of the evidence” that God exists?

          • Me, personally, I would not say it is beyond a reasonable doubt. I would -very- cautiously say by the preponderance of the evidence, but I’d want to include a conversation about what someone considers evidence.

          • John MacDonald

            Would you say a jury of your intellectual peers who were uncommitted on the topic would, for the most part, agree with your interpretation of the evidence, or are you just asserting “there is a preponderance of the evidence in favor that there is a God” for reasons that are personal to you?

          • I don’t know what it means to be uncommitted on the topic. I don’t know anyone that’s uncommitted on the topic and have never spoken with anyone whose uncommitted on the topic. I’ve spoken with people for whom the topic isn’t that big of a deal, but they held a position.

            If I imagine as a thought experiment a jury of hypothetical people who a priori genuinely thought it just as likely that a god existed than did not and were waiting to be presented with evidence before they came down on one side or other, then I guess, once again, it would depend on what they counted as evidence and what weight they gave to it. Why do they not lean one way or the other, for instance? Somehow, they’ve become aware of both positions and find them both equally credible and are waiting for something to sway them one way or the other – I suspect the reasons behind that would be different for each person.

            If you’re asking, if I stood up in front of a bunch of people who did not believe a god existed, would I convince them after giving my own reasons? Probably not. My experience has been that people generally aren’t argued into or out of such things but come into those positions through personal journeys that may involve hearing someone’s argumentation but are rarely the result of it.

          • John MacDonald

            So it is pointless to try to persuade people about the existence/non-existence of God because people are superheroes with a “personal journey” shield that deflects evidence?

          • John, I don’t know what side of the bed you woke up on this morning, but you seem hell bent on picking a fight of some kind. I don’t know how all of this came from my little comment about appreciating Polkinghorne’s humility.

            No, it’s not pointless to persuade people – just the persuasive process involves a highly subjective element. As I noted earlier, even what counts as “evidence” has a subjective component to it. The idea that everyone’s core views are shaped by dispassionate syllogism or raw data is just so counter-experiential. Why are there Democrats and Republicans? Is the historical data different for these people? Is one politically party just fundamentally ignorant or willfully defiant of “the evidence?”

          • John MacDonald

            Sorry, lol. I’m a little charged up because I’m trying to get a Philosophy essay through peer review in a journal. There’s like a 96% rejection rate and the editors/reviewers are real sticklers. I’m on my 3rd rewrite!

          • John MacDonald

            How are you using the word “evidence?” What do you mean by it? What does it mean for you to say that you believe “God exists by the preponderance of the evidence”? I’m asking because you seem to be saying:1 An objective assessment of the evidence suggests God exists, but 2 Whether or not one believes God exists depends on their subjective journey.

          • Well, I definitely never said #1 because an objective assessment of evidence is impossible, but I suppose I implied #2. And your question is what my point has been all along – people define “evidence” differently, and establishing what someone means by that is key to answering a question like “Does the evidence indicate God exists?”

            For example, you might ask one person why they think God exists, and they might point to the accounts in the Old Testament. “See? Here’s written records of God interacting with human history and specific individuals.” Another person would not consider those records evidence, probably specifically because they record a God interacting with human history and specific individuals. Both parties already have a disposition toward the “evidence” that not only influences the persuasive power of that evidence, but whether or not the evidence even exists.

            I mean, how many Jesus mythers have said, “There is no evidence that Jesus ever existed?” Well, of course there’s evidence. There are the gospel accounts, for instance. There are a handful of extrabiblical references. What they mean, of course, is, “There is no evidence that I consider valid evidence for Jesus’ existence.”

            And that’s why I said what I said about a personal journey. The idea that anyone comes to this issue or any but the most raw positivistic issues as a dispassionate observer weighing evidence we all agree upon on some objective scale is ludicrous.

          • John MacDonald

            We’ve arrived! I knew we’d get here, lol. So, then, this naturally flows into the fundamental point of:
            What is the evidence that tips the scales “for you” in favor of the position that God exists?

          • That’s a good question, because I was raised in the Christian faith, so there was never a time when I made the switch from atheism to theism. I’ve always been a theist. There’s never been any scale tipping per se.

            Over the past few years, however, I’ve undergone some major revisions in how I think about the Bible, the Church, God, etc. While I believe these are healthy revisions, they also had the unsettling effect of removing a lot of the traditional bulwarks of certainty that are common to, say, Christian fundamentalism or evangelicalism. It caused me a lot of anxiety, to be honest with you. I’ve even had some moments that are no doubt hilarious to some of my atheist friends where I’ve had long prayers with God where I explained to Him that it was hard for me to believe He existed.

            So, now, when I think about why I believe God exists, I turn to things that are perhaps more common to human experience such as the persistent and widespread intuition of theism that has historically been quite common, the various historical testimonies of people or people groups of their experiences with God, mysteries that at least at present are very difficult to explain from purely materialistic mechanisms and seem to require positing things like the eternality of at least subatomic particles, near death experiences, stories of miracles – those kinds of things. They are all things that can have other explanations, of course.

            And, since I am a Christian, I find a lot of direction from what I know of Jesus, who was a theist even in the face of God’s silence and inaction in the face of suffering. Jesus’ time in Gethsemane prior to his arrest has been especially helpful in this regard.

          • John MacDonald

            Phil said,

            They are all things that can have other explanations, of course.

            If there is ambiguity in the meaning of the evidence (God / Not-God), would you say Theological Reasoning (whether theistic, or atheistic), basically boils down to personal preference, and so Theological Reasoning is more akin to Aesthetics (eg., Cabernet is preferable to Merlot) than Science?

            On a related issue, presumably if there was strong, unambiguous evidence that God exists, theists would have identified it and be parading it around and rubbing atheist’s faces in it, just as Atheists would be doing the same if they had the smoking gun that demonstrated unambiguously the God didn’t exist, lol. It definitely worthy of questioning as to why theological thinking (atheistic and theistic), so naturally turns into proselytizing?

          • Well, some would say that all of our reasoning boils down to aesthetics and we simply rationalize those preferences after the fact.

            That aside, it certainly isn’t science, but I don’t know I’d chalk it up to preferences, either. It also involves intuition and the enterprise of sense-making / meaning-creation, both individually and collectively, and it also involves what I’ll call the mystical side of being human – a side that’s prevalent enough that even Sam Harris acknowledges it as part of our experienced reality, albeit with different explanations than a theist might offer.

            I’m always hesitant to say that the activity of human reasoning, belief, and decision-making boils down to a single thing. It seems to me a complex interplay of factors.

          • John MacDonald

            I’ve seen some extremely weird things in my life. Theists might suggest they are signs, atheists would probably just label them coincidences. As to my personal journey, I was raised in a secular home, but not really an atheist home because religion was never really discussed. Maybe that’s why I’m agnostic. I guess the evidence I’ve seen is ambiguous enough to allow polysemia, and since I have no prior inclination toward atheism or theism, I prefer to leave the question open.

          • John MacDonald

            One other thing: Since James’ post here is about Religion and Science, what do you make of Karl Popper’s Maxim “for a theory to be scientific it must be falsifiable”? Can some hypothetical evidence compellingly falsify theism, or atheism for that matter?

          • I’m pretty much on board with Popper’s maxim, which is why statements of faith are not scientific propositions for the most part.

            I’m not sure how theism could be falsifiable with the tools we have at our disposal, although there may be aspects of religious thought that hypothetically could be. Aliens could show up with proof that they created our planet, for instance.

            But at least Christian theism has always maintained that God is more or less inaccessible to our normal means of perception unless He chooses to reveal Himself, which is sort of frustrating for all sides. Even in the biblical writings, the times that God made some kind of indisputable, definitive appearance are few and far between and to a limited audience, and these are the records of the people of that religion.

            When you posit a being like this, it kind of brings everyone to an epistemic standoff of sorts. If this being exists, then we cannot apprehend Him directly without His allowance, which appear to be very rare. At the same time, it’s exactly those such things that people generally rely on to falsify hypotheses. The atheist may say that only an indisputable empirical event could establish the plausibility of God’s existence, and the theist sort of has to shrug and say, “What do you want ME to do about it?” And at that point, everything sort of comes down to how strongly you feel empiricism defines all knowledge and how willing you are to take on the risk of a claim that can’t be empirically established – aesthetics, perhaps

            But there is a difference between an atheism that lacks a belief in a god and an atheism that positively advances the proposition, “No gods exist.” The latter have taken upon themselves the burden of proof, and the same issue that keeps “gods exist” from being falsifiable seems like it would apply here as well.

            And ultimately, this all circles back around to what counts as evidence. If an ethereal man suddenly appeared before you floating above the ground and announced in a booming voice, “I AM A THEOPHANY OF THE TRUE GOD! DO YOU BELIEVE, NOW?” I think people who already did not believe in a god would find almost any other interpretation of this event more likely than “a god exists and appeared to me,” so there’s that hurdle.

            You know, when I was young and getting my philosophy degree, I remember two professors arguing – one was a Christian and one was an atheist. And the dialogue went something like:

            “You can’t expect me to believe in God if you can’t show me proof He exists.”

            “What would you accept as conclusive proof that God must exist?”


            In fairness, I think just about everyone operates this way when it comes to their foundational presuppositions, theist or non, it just so happens he was being honest.

          • Al Cruise

            Good points. Slightly off topic here, although I believe they are related. There is a vast gulf between those who look at life after death through the lens of academia , philosophy and theology, and those who deal with death on the front lines in the real world, where evidence is displayed in reality. Where as philosophy and theology exist only in human thought . However that does not necessarily prove the existence of God but it takes us through another doorway.

          • John MacDonald

            Phil and I aren’t that far off one another. James’ post here is the relationship between “God judgments” and science. Phil emphasizes the evidentiary weight of the “Personal Journey.” Regarding the “God Question,” if evidence is primarily interpreted in terms of personal taste, atheistic/theistic judgments are primarily Aesthetic, not Scientific.

          • I agree. I read a couple of books by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross this past year that I thought were very illuminating. Whether one agrees with all her interpretations or not, you can’t argue that she was on the front lines of death and her thoughts come from multitudinous practical experiences with the dying.

          • Al Cruise

            Yes , you will learn more truth about dying and death from hospice care workers, and others who comfort the dying, than you ever will from philosophers or theologians . The experiences and evidence are universal around the world.

          • Al Cruise

            Yes , you will learn more truth about dying and death from hospice care workers, and others who comfort the dying than you ever will from philosophers or theologians . The experiences and evidence are universal around the world.

  • Al Cruise

    I enjoy the work Martin Rees . As an atheist he acknowledges the mystery and the unknown of the universe , and is critical of “militant” atheists and their views.

  • John MacDonald

    I don’t think the issue is whether, in order to be a rigorous scientist, you need to be an atheist. Clearly, one can be either a rigorous theist-thinker, or a rigorous atheist-thinker, and still speculate about God (unless Einstein in the God letter was right: “For me the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition.” lol).

    Analogously, there were rigorous thinkers whose positions fell on either side of the Kantian antinomies before Kant wrote. These brilliant figures weren’t “un-rigorous,” just “pre-critical.”

    From a “critical” point of view of cosmology, the atheist position runs into the problem of how the materials that made up the big bang got there in the first place? Whenever an original material “stuff” is posited, thinking about the cause(s) of the sources falls into an infinite regress.

    Similarly, theistic thinking about cosmology falls into “The God of the Gaps Fallacy.” For instance, the ancient Greeks had a “gap” in their knowledge as to why the sun moved across the sky during the day, so they filled in the Gap by speculating the god Helios dragged the sun across the sky. Similarly, it doesn’t follow from the point that we are unclear about scientific cosmological origins of the universe that we are warranted speculating that some sort of “Mind” lies behind it all.

    I think the “critical (in the Kantian sense)” position is to “bracket” or “suspend judgment” about the God question in cosmology. There are clearly brilliant minds on either side of the issue, but a further question that needs to be asked is whether this is the sort of issue we can have confidence in picking a side?

    • David Evans

      “the atheist position runs into the problem of how the materials that made up the big bang got there in the first place?”
      Only if you think any answer has to be theistic. It is possible that the “first place” for our universe is the end state of a previous universe, possibly one of an infinite series. You can ask “what explains the existence of the whole series?”, but I should be able to answer “I don’t know” to either question without thereby committing to the existence of a personal God.

      • John MacDonald

        A “previous universe explanation” that goes back infinitely is logically impossible because if there is no original starting point our universe would never have been reached.

        What you are proposing is analogous to saying in evolutionary biology: “I have parents, and they had parents, and they had parents, …” without closing off the long series by saying “My being began with the spark of life of the first single-celled organism on earth.” If the series of biological life had no starting point with the first single celled organism, I wouldn’t exist – by definition

        • David Evans

          It’s not analogous, of course. We know there was a first living thing on Earth, because we know how old the Earth is. We don’t know how old the universe is. We know how long has elapsed since the Big Bang, but our concepts of space and time break down at that point.
          Similar arguments to yours can be used to argue that space cannot be infinite or that the set of positive and negative integers cannot be infinite. They seem more valid when applied to time because we experience instants of time successively, but that’s logically irrelevant.

          • John MacDonald

            You’re not making any sense, it is completely analogous.

            Our universe began with The Big Bang. The question then arises how the material that made up the Big Bang got there in the first place? If an answer to this is given, the more originary “stuff” then demands to be so grounded, and so on = indefinitely, until we reach some kind of first cause (which doesn’t have to be a mind) that itself is uncaused. We don’t know how old the universe is, but it isn’t “infinitely old,” which is meaningless if you are interpreting “infinite” to mean “indefinite. ”

            However old the universe is, even if there are multiple previous universes, the buck has to stop somewhere. You position is logically contradictory in a very average, run of the mill way because you are apparently (correct me if I’m wrong) operating within the horizon of an unclarified understanding of infinite/indefinite. Please define what you mean by the terms indefinite and infinite.

            Moreover you make the unclarified assertion “We know how long has elapsed since the Big Bang, but our concepts of space and time break down at that point. ” What do you mean by time? In ordinary understanding we say “Christmas is coming,” as though time flowed out of the future, into the present, and then passes away. On the other hand, we also experience time marching steadily on toward the future, like when we say “I’ll make it to New Years in a few days.” On the other hand, we experience the stretching out of time in Boredom. What do you mean by time?

            To recapitulate, you say “We know how long has elapsed since the Big Bang, but our concepts of space and time break down at that point.” C’mon dude, lol. Really? Does it really make sense to say that when it implies there was a time before time? “When” was it “when” the concepts of space and time were unfunctioning, lol? There can’t be a time before time, even though a time before time is implied if we consider where the material that made up the Big Bang came from – so, it is logically absurd to claim, in a completely naturalistic view of the universe, that the The Big Bang created time.

          • David Evans

            I can only suggest that you read, for instance, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order Of Time and Reality Is Not What It Seems. Not to convince you that I understand time (I don’t) but to show you that our everyday concepts of space and time are inadequate to describe the Big Bang.

          • John MacDonald

            Thanks for the refernces, I’ll check them out!

            If we assume for the sake of argument that the universe is completely naturalistic and therefore there is no divine God, the CONTINGENT materials that made up the Big Bang imply a PRIOR cause, by definition. A PRIOR cause can either be in time, or out of time. Since there is no God, that cause must itself have been something naturalistic. Naturalistic materials must be “in time,” for what would it mean for an entity to be physical but not persisting as one and the same thing throughout all its changes in time (as the notion hupokeimenon implies). Therefore the prior naturalistic cause that grounds the materials that made up the Big Bang must be temporal. But, as you pointed out, time isn’t applicable prior to the Big Bang. So, the purely naturalistic account of the Big Bang is logically contradictory, because there must, and there must not, have been time prior to the Big Bang.

            For that matter, it makes no sense, from a theistic point of view, to say God is outside of time, because God is a being, and to be a being means to persist as one and the same substance over time through all personal changes. So, God is quite clearly subject to time.

          • Nick G

            the CONTINGENT materials that made up the Big Bang imply a PRIOR cause, by definition

            No, they don’t. Causation operates within time (no coherent account exists of what it could mean to be “out of time”, or for something “out of time” to be a cause of anything) and it may be (this is the most common interpretation of what is known about the Big Bang) that there was no time before it. There is nothing logically wrong with the idea that there was a first state of our space-time which had no cause.

          • Hey David, have you read The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time by Unger and Smolin? I have not, but I know they make an opposing case arguing that time is a fundamental feature of the universe. I only know about the book because there’s a footnote in The Order of Time that mentions them and says that their case is “defensible,” but it doesn’t say any more than that.

          • David Evans

            No, but I’ll look out for it. Smolin is an interesting man.

          • John MacDonald

            I find Dr. McGrath’s blog very interesting for a number of reasons, including that The Concept of Time keeps coming up, often in the context of Science Fiction – which are both strong areas of interest for me. If anyone is interested, just today I posted an article on “Heidegger’s Theory Of The Human Experience Of Time” on my blog, which may be of interest to you if you like thinking about Time, or about The Postmodern interpretation of Time generally (there is a lot in the article about Derrida on time!). See

  • Robert Landbeck

    “Neither will attain absolute certainty in this pursuit;” because it maybe that the Quest for final certainty is outside the potential of natural reason to reach, and thus the path to do so must be revealed. Could that be the nature of the apocalypse? In the literal meaning of that expression, to reveal or unveil what has been hidden. My question is then whether if such an ‘apocalypse’ ever takes place, possibly as part of a second coming, will it confirm existing tradition or expose error and correct the intellectual vanity of theologies attempt to comprehend the divine. My betting is on the latter. ”

    “The fact remains that someone must enter it, [the Kingdom of God] and since those who first heard
    the good news failed to enter through unbelief, God fixes another day.” Until that day comes, all may just be chasing after wind!