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Bottom-up Thinking in Science and Religion


Bottom-up Thinking in Science and Religion

John Polkinghorne looks at religion through the eyes of science

By John Polkinghorne
(April 1, 2002)

John C. Polkinghorne is one of the best-known figures in the field of science and religion. After a distinguished career in physics, where he made important contributions to quark theory, he studied for ordination and became an Anglicanpriest. After a few years as a parish priest, he moved, essentially full-time, into science and religion and quickly became widely acclaimed for his clear no-nonsense writing and application of a scientific outlook to religion. He has written over a dozen books, of which The Faith of a Physicist, his 1993 Gifford lectures, is the best known. Polkinghorne was elected to the Royal Society in 1974 and knighted by the queen in 1997. In March, he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize.

By John Polkinghorne

How scientists approach issues of science and religion is undoubtedly influenced by their brand of science. I spent 25 years working in theoretical elementary physics, a subject in which the search for a beautiful equation is often the guide to discovery.

Physicists are deeply impressed by the wonderful rational order of the universe, and it is quite natural for them to consider whether this is not the reflection of a divine Mind that lies behind the creation of this world of profound intelligibility and beautiful structure. We are also aware that although, as far as we know, life only appeared in the cosmos when it was 10 billion years old, the universe was already pregnant with the possibility of life almost immediately post-big bang.

This is because the laws of nature as we observe them seem finely tuned in a way that is indispensable for allowing the development of carbon-based life. If the balance between the strengths of gravity and electromagnetism were not what it actually is, stars would either have burned too feebly or too fiercely to have been able to fuel the long-term history of life on one of their planets; if the laws of nuclear physics were not what they actually are, carbon itself, and the other chemical elements necessary for life, could not have been formed in the nuclear furnaces of the stars.

All scientists would agree about these insights of the so-called anthropic principle, but they do not all agree about what further should be said about these striking coincidences. Is fine-tuning a sign that our universe is just the lucky one in a vast multiverse, containing uncountable numbers of other worlds with other laws and forces? Some say yes, but I prefer the more economic interpretation that this universe of our actual experience is the way it is because it is not just any old world, for it is a creation that has been endowed by its Creator with just those laws and circumstances that have allowed it to have so fruitful a history.

Because I see things this way, I have been a strong proponent of a revived form of natural theology. This new version differs from the old-style natural theology of people like William Paley in two very important ways. First, it does not seek to rival science in its own domain, by making claims that only direct divine intervention could produce the complex optical system of the eye.

Instead, it complements science by showing that the remarkable intelligibility and fruitfulness of the cosmos are not just happy accidents, but they are best understood as signs of the presence of a divine mind and purpose behind what is happening in the world.

Second, the new natural theology does not claim the attainment of certain proof, but only satisfying insight. It is not the case that atheists are stupid (far from it) but that they explain less than theists can.

So much for physics.

When one comes to biological science, the scene is more ambiguous and complex. Natural theology has to give way to a theology of nature: scientific understanding interpreted in the light of a doctrine of creation. In this area I am grateful to my colleagues Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke for their writings on continuous creation. I am also grateful to a number of 20th-century theologians who have emphasized the concept that creation involves a kenosis, or divine self-limitation, as God permits creatures to be themselves and to make themselves, the latter phrase encapsulating the theological understanding of the nature of an evolutionary world.

These insights even offer theology some help with its most intransigent difficulty, the problem of suffering. The same cellular processes that allow some cells to mutate and to produce new forms of life will also necessarily allow other cells to mutate and become malignant. Although the presence of cancer in creation is an anguishing fact, it is not a gratuitous fact, for it is the inevitable cost of a creation allowed to make itself.

The thoughts of a scientist-theologian like myself are not only influenced by the content of science but also by the general scientific style of thinking. If the pursuit of science teaches one anything, it is that reality is frequently surprising, beyond our prior powers to anticipate.

I was a quantum physicist, and the quantum world is totally counterintuitive in terms of everyday expectation. In consequence, scientists are not prone to ask the question, Is it reasonable? as if we knew beforehand what form reason should take. Instead, we ask the more open question, What is the evidence that makes you think that this might be the case?

I call this latter approach to reality, which seeks to move upwards from experience to understanding, bottom-up thinking. It is the way in which I try to approach theological issues.

When I came to write my Gifford lectures (Science and Christian Belief in the United Kingdom; The Faith of a Physicist in the United States), I devoted the greater part of what I had to say to a discussion of clauses drawn from the Nicene Creed, defending the beliefs there expressed by just such a bottom-up strategy. While I believe that each generation of Christian thinkers has to make these truths its own and in its own way, I also believe that this needs to be done in recognizable continuity with the development of thinking over the centuries from the apostolic era to the present day.

In this respect, I am, perhaps, more traditionally orthodox than some of my colleagues in science and religion. This does not mean, however, that I see no need for contemporary revision. For instance, in both science and religion, an important aspect of 20th-century thinking has been an increasing recognition of the significance of temporality.

Time is not just an index of when events happen, but it is constitutive of how things are. We live in a world of true becoming and not static being. I believe that this implies that God, while certainly eternal in one pole of the divine being, is also engaged with time, even to the point that God does not know the unformed future, simply because it is not yet in existence to be known.

I have worked in the field of science and religion for about 20 years. It has been an exciting and stimulating experience, with much progress being made. In the last 10 years, the topic that has been at the top of the agenda has been divine action. This moves the discussion beyond the God of deism to the interactive God of theism.

The existence of widespread unpredictabilities in nature (quantum theory and chaos theory) is in itself an epistemological matter, relating to what we can know. It is natural, however, to go on to ask what ontological consequences might be assumed to flow from it for the causal nexus of the world.

This latter issue is a matter for metaphysical decision. In the extensive discussion of these questions in the science and religion community, I have laid particular stress on the desirability of a bold metaphysical strategy of interpreting chaos theory as affording causal openness at the level of macroscopic events. I believe that this relates helpfully to understanding how both human agency and divine providence are likely to be exercised in the world.

Openness, of course, does not mean that the future is a random lottery. It simply implies that the causes that bring it about go beyond the interchange of energy between constituents that are the conventional concern of physics. I have emphasized the possibility of what I have termed active information, a pattern-forming influence on the totality of what is happening.

This idea of the role of information can be related scientifically to the infant theory of complexity, currently at not much more than the natural history stage but offering considerable promise of future developments. It can also be related theologically to some recent developments, to which I have sought to contribute, in which thinking in science and religion has begun to address issues of the credibility of an eschatological hope. An insightful way of conceiving of the human soul, viewed in the light of our psychosomatic unity, is to regard it as the immensely complex, information-bearing pattern carried by the body.

I was privileged to take part in the first phase of the Science and the Spiritual Quest project. It is perplexing and somewhat unnerving to the scientist to contrast the universality of science with the largely regional character of the world faiths, with the apparent cognitive clashes between the accounts that they give of their encounters with the sacred. The dialogue between the world faith traditions is surely a very important item on the contemporary theological agenda and one to which the science and religion community can make a significant contribution.

I have greatly enjoyed my life as a scientist-theologian. It has involved engagement with many fascinating and important issues, conducted within a community that is lively, stimulating and truth-seeking. My experience has combined two of the great formative influences that have acted on my life: the study of science and the pilgrimage of a Christian believer.






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a) Agential Models of God’s Interaction With the World
Agential models deal explicitly with contemporary science and its philosophical implications to explore the concept of God as interacting with, but not intervening in, the world. They, in turn, include three distinct approaches, each of which has been widely developed in the theology and science literature: top-down causality, whole-part constraints, and bottom-up causality. However, most scholars insist that a combination of these approaches will be needed eventually for an adequate account of non-interventionist divine action.

i) Top-down causality. This approach focuses on the possibility of ‘top-down’ causal relations between properties and processes at higher and lower levels of complexity: the term ‘top-down’ means that processes at the higher levels effect those of lower levels. Peacocke explores models involving top-down causality in light of Big Bang cosmology: God acts on the ‘world-as-a-whole’ in order to bring about special events in nature and history, including revelation.Murphy, Clayton, Peacocke and Theo Meyering discuss divine action and the neurosciences in light of the ‘mind/brain’ problem (i.e., is the mind, which emerges from the brain, capable of effecting the brain?), relying on supervenience and holist epistemology.(See the ‘miniscience’ section below on cosmology and the neurosciences below). The challenge to this approach is to show how God’s action through top-down causality can bring about actual changes in the processes at lower levels if they are governed by classical physics.

Note: “Supervenience” can be thought of as a more technically-detailed form of top-down causality. Its roots lie in philosophical ethics where it describes the multiplicity of relations between moral and nonmoral properties. We will return to this approach below.

ii) Whole-part constraints. This approach stays within one level of complexity. ‘Whole-part constraints’ refers to the effects of the system as a whole on its parts (though these effects are transmitted entirely by efficient causes; compare with quantum ‘whole-part causality’ below). A helpful example is the Bérnard phenomenon in fluids where, beyond a critical point, individual molecules move in hexagonal ‘cells’ caused by the fluid being bounded by its container and by the effects of the container being conveyed by inter-molecular collisions throughout the fluid. Whole-part models typically draw on recent developments in non-linear, non-equilibrium thermodynamics as applied to systems open to their surrounding environment. Peacocke has used this approach to point to novelty emerging in the world. Whole-part themes become one way of viewing God as bringing about special events through God’s interaction with the whole of which these events are a part. The challenge again is that thermodynamics is part of classical physics and thus fully deterministic, making God’s non-interventionist action problematic.

Science minisummary: thermodynamics.In the 19th century, thermodynamics, the study of heat transformation and exchange, was concerned with closed systems (i.e., systems which do not exchange matter or energy with their environment). In such systems although the total amount of energy E is always conserved (the “first” law, ΔE=0), the amount of available energy inevitably decreases to zero (the “second” law); equivalently, the entropy S of the system, defined as the amount of unusable energy, increases to a maximum: ΔS>=0. During the 20th century, the field was broadened to include open systems (i.e., systems which exchanged matter and/or energy with their environment). These first included non-linear systems in which effects on the system were highly amplified, and then non-linear systems far from equilibrium in which spontaneous fluctuations were even more fully amplified. Such systems demonstrated the surprising phenomena of ‘order out of chaos’, to use Ilya Prigogine’s famous phrase: they could spontaneously move to greater forms of organization, driven always by the internal production and dissipation of entropy (i.e., ‘dissipative systems’), and though, of course, the total entropy of the open system plus its environment obeyed the second law.Two final points: 1) Whether ‘entropy’ applies to the universe as a ‘closed’ system is subject to intense debate, as we will see below. 2) Although most physicists reduce thermodynamics to dynamics, thus explaining (away) time’s (thermodynamic) arrow, Prigogine and others insist it should be the converse. In any case, non-linear, non-equilibrium thermodynamics points to at least one form of novelty and apparent openness in nature, although it still comes (pace Prigogine) under the rubric of deterministic classical dynamics, and, like chaos theory (below), rendering its portrait of novelty in terms of epistemic ignorance.

Others have drawn on chaos theory and complexity in discussing divine action.Polkinghorne has been particularly committed to arguing that chaotic phenomena point to the fundamental openness of nature, and that such openness could lead to a non-interventionist understanding of divine action.These suggestions have been picked up by Edwardsand developed in detail by Gregersen,but the appeal to chaos theory, at least in its present form, is open to severe criticisms similar to those regarding thermodynamics --- namely that it is still a part of classical physics.

Science minisummary: chaos theory.Over the past three decades, the study of chaotic systems has dramatically expanded from physics to include all the natural and even social sciences. Chaotic phenomena now include such physical and biological systems as the weather, water dripping from a faucet, bands in the rings of Saturn, oscillations in the populations of organisms, and the fluctuations of populations in complex ecosystems. In physics, though, chaotic systems are ‘classical’ in scale and thus subsumable in principle under classical mechanics with its deterministic laws of motion. Still even for the simplest systems, minute uncertainties in the initial conditions and the effect of countless interactions with other systems in nature, together with unusual characteristics in the underlying mathematics (e.g., ‘strange attractors’) make complete predictability impossible even in principle. Surprisingly, then, chaos breaks the long-standing philosophical link between determinism and predictability. Still since it is describable by deterministic equations, chaos theory supports a strictly deterministic philosophy of nature, although within subtle epistemic limits.

It is possible, however, as Polkinghorne suggests, that chaotic systems may one day be more accurately described by more complex theories, sometimes referred to as ‘holistic chaos’. The current deterministic laws would then be seen as simple approximations to holistic chaos through what Polkinghorne calls ‘downward emergence.” Finally, the new theories of holistic chaos would, hopefully, suggest an indeterministic interpretation.It is also possible that a satisfying connection will be found between chaos at the present, classical level, and quantum mechanics(sometimes referred to as ‘quantum chaology’), suggesting that the uncertainty in the initial conditions that, together with coupling to the environment, drive chaotic behavior is at least partially due to quantum indeterminism.

iii). Bottom-up causality. In this approach, God acts at a lower level of complexity to influence the processes and properties at a higher level, either acting as one among other factors or as fully determining them. This approach requires that the lower level be ontologically indeterministic for God to act in that level without intervening in its processes.

A number of scholars have focused on quantum mechanics as indicative of an indeterministic ontology at the subatomic level, and from there have discussed a non-interventionist view of objective, special divine action. A number of important but technical distinctions about divine action in this context (and others) surface in the literature:i) If specific quantum events occur without a sufficient natural cause, one can think of God as acting to bring them about, either by acting in, through and together with the processes of nature (i.e., ‘mediated’ divine action) or unilaterally (i.e., ‘unmediated’ divine action). ii) God may be thought of as acting directly at the quantum level (i.e., these acts of God are ‘basic’ acts), but the ‘objective, special events’ we attribute to God at the macroscopic level are in this interpretation the indirect result of them as they ‘percolate’ up the levels of complexity and ‘size’. iii) This approach to divine action does not imply a ‘God of the gaps,’nor that God is reduced to a natural cause; moreover, God’s actions, though objective, would be hidden from scientific methods.iv) Finally, one may argue that God acts with nature in every quantum event or only in some.

These arguments prove particularly fruitful in discussing God’s action in evolution, where genetic mutations are at their core a quantum process (see Part 2, C, 2 below). Those who have explored this approach to non-interventionist special divine action include Karl Heimand William Pollardin the 1950s, Mary Hesseand Donald MacKayin the 1970s, and recently and in detail by Nancey Murphy,Tom Tracy, George Ellis, Mark W. Worthing,Christopher F. Mooney,Phil Clayton and me.It has been criticized by a number of scholars including Peacocke,Polkinghorne, and Saunders. The challenge here includes the fact that quantum physics can be given a compelling interpretation in terms of ontological determinism (eg., David Bohm), making the case for indeterminism far from settled. In addition, quantum physics raises tremendously complex, and as yet unsettled, philosophical and technical problems including: the measurement problem / collapse of the wave-function (how and when does a quantum event ‘occur’ and lead to macroscopic effects?) and non-locality / non-separability (why do once interacting, now vastly separated, particles continue to act in some ways as though they remained part of a single system?) and the challenge to classical ontology and critical realism (how does one speak of the ontology of quantum processes?). Future research in theology and science should address these questions with rigorous detail if progress is to be achieved in the problem of divine action in light of science.

Science minisummary: Quantum mechanics.The empirical basis for quantum physics lies in such phenomena as blackbody radiation, the photoelectric effect, the specific heats of solids, the stability of the structure and the emission spectrum of atoms, all of which remained unexplainable in terms of classical physics. In 1901, Max Planck solved the blackbody problem by proposing that energy is quantized: it is available in discrete, not continuous, amounts. The quantization of light as ‘photons’ by Einstein in 1905 explained the photoelectric effect as well as the specific heat two years later. In 1913 Niels Bohr predicted the emission spectrum for hydrogen with a simple ‘planetary’ model of the atom in which the angular momentum of the orbiting electron, and thus the size of its orbits, are quantized. In 1924, Louis de Broglie attributed wave-like behavior to particles as the converse of energy quantization. Based on this idea, Erwin Schrödinger developed the wave equation which has proved to be foundational for quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg announced the uncertainty principle (and an alternative, but mathematically, equivalent formulation to that of Schrödinger), Wolfgang Pauli discovered the exclusion principle; by the end of the decade (nonrelativistic) quantum mechanics was basically complete.

Conceptual problems: Still, almost a century later, major conceptual problems persist in interpreting quantum mechanics:

---the Schrödinger equation propagates continuously in time but ‘collapses’ discontinuously in a process not described by the Schrödinger equation when a particle interacts with a classical system (often called ‘the measurement problem’);

---the Schrödinger equation describes the propagation of the wave function ψ but this is a complex variablewhose squared value ψ2 represents information about the quantum system;

---a composite quantum system displays a holistic character entirely unlike classical composite systems (what can be called ‘whole-part causality’ as distinct from ‘whole-part constraints’): once interacting, now vastly separated, particles continue to act in some ways as though they remained part of a single system, as underscored by the “EPR” paradox in the 1930s and Bell’s theorem in the 1960s and now referred to as ‘non-locality’ and ‘non-separability’;

---’chance’ in quantum mechanics (i.e., quantum statistics) is not only strikingly different from classical chance (as in the familiar ‘bell curve’), it actually gives rise, in a ‘bottom-up’ way, to the basic features of the classical world, including the impenetrability of matter.

Philosophical issues: Quantum mechanics can be interpreted philosophically in a variety of conflicting ways, and so far we know of no experimental basis for choosing definitively between them. These include ontological indeterminism (Heisenberg), ontological determinism (Einstein, David Bohm --- as stressed recently by Jim Cushing), or many worlds (Everett); as involving consciousness (Von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Roger Penrose), non-standard logic (Gribb), or consistent histories (Bob Griffiths, Chris Clarke).It is particularly important to note that Bohm’s approach assumes an underlying, deterministic ontology; the implications of his approach for a philosohy of nature and for theology have received some attention.It is also important to recognize that all of these interpretations challenge classical ontology, with its core concepts of waves, particles and locality, as well as a critical realist philosophy of nature. In any case, quantum mechanics, at least compared to the other sciences surveyed here, can plausibly be said to offer the strongest reasons for expecting that the ontology of nature at the lowest levels at least is indeterministic.

Topic Index Next:
b) Agential Models of Embodiment and Non-Embodiment  

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell


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