Top positive review
Better than his more recent stuff
on 9 August 2017
I am beginning to wonder if Prof Polkinghorne is beginning to, perfectly reasonably, not be quite the bright spark he once was. I have read a lot of his more recent works just recently and found them to be a bit ‘thin’. This earlier work, from 1998, is much better, with a ‘meatier’ line of argument.
As ever, Prof P is seeking to improve relations between science and religion, and as ever he is doing this by pointing out the similarities between the two. I have seen scathing atheist reviews of this sort of argument, and I wonder just how many of those atheists actually have a background in science that got beyond O-levels. My justification for this theory is a) I know a lot of scientists who are very highly qualified and their views on religion are much less caustic, and their views on the ‘factness’ of science much les definite, ie they know that scientific ‘facts’ can be a bit, well, not very ‘solid’, and b) I contrast this with the militant materialist empiricist atheists I come across who have an uncritiqued, postivist view of science that once an experiment is successful, it definitively proves beyond and shadow of a doubt that that fact is true, and religion can’t and so doesn’t and so is bunk.
Prof P’s line of argument, therefore, can not and may well not appeal to the militant material empiricist atheists, very few of whom are found in the highly qualified, doing it as a job scientific community, more often doing non-science jobs and found fulminating in pubs, because it is built upon the ‘he’s actually done it as a job’ point that a lot of science can be theoretical and the experiments can give inconclusive results.
One must therefore have faith that one’s theory has merit - or else why would anyone want to fund it ? - and believe that the answer may at some point be found - ditto. And so begin the points of contact between science and theology scattered throughout the six chapters. And scattered they are, which makes turning 130 pages of text into a compact review rather problematic.
The depth of argument is such that we get into the nitty-gritty of a) the scientific process, and b) specific scientific problems (mostly from theoretical physics, Prof P’s department) in a manner that I as someone with extensive FE / HE qualifications in the arts and humanities could find enlightening, informative and intellectually satisfying without being a specifically scientific treatise that I probably wouldn’t understand. I do have two FE / HE science qualifications, but that was a very long time ago.
Chapter 5 may be the best example, as that is the one I found the most helpful. Prof P would like us to resist “total account” theories of knowledge and allow knowledge and truth to be more piecemeal (p105) for the following reasons. It is difficult to define science (p105-6), eg Popper = refutable conjectures, Lakatos = pursuing progressive research programmes, van Fraassen = attaining empirical adequacy, Rorty = pragmatic success, Polanyi = an activity of people (ie and all that *that* entails) tacit skills learn through apprenticeship in a community whose purpose is to seek the truth about the physical world, while remaining open to the possibility of correction.
Theory and experience are inextricably intertwined (p107), it is not a clear division of theoretical confrontation leading to experimental fact, one needs to find mutually compatible theories and experiments that are convincing on both sides. Science encourages the recognition that there is no single universal epistemology (p108), entities are only known through their own inherent nature, cf Heisenberg’s problems: the quantum world is not unknowable, but to us it can not be completely known.
Science works in a social environment that determines what is studied when and how (p108), and the doctrine of scientific realism has been drawn up to determine the best way of doing science (p108-9), ie it is currently a self-reinforcing circle with a two-way relationship between technology and what is studied, which leads to the intelligibility leads to ontology argument earlier in the book. Prof P wonders if we must be limited to such a narrow encounter with reality, and predictably would like to add theology into the worldview.
Science and theology are kin through the tractability of the subject material (p114), the difference is the amount (I wonder if also ‘and place’ ?) of empiricism in the process. Science is circular (p115), theory -> experiment -> result -> theory, etc, and so too is theology, believing -> understanding, understanding -> believing. God must be known in ways that are true to His nature (p116), and so must science maintain a level of integrity to do the same with what it is studying. I leave the final word to Penrose, p127, “Like Everest, the Mandelbrot set is just there ... There is something absolute and ‘God given’ about mathematical truth”.
If that lot interests you then so will the book, if it doesn’t, then it won’t. I got 2 A4 pages of notes out of this book.