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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.
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on 3 November 2016
Read and re-read.
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on 7 January 2016
Good !
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on 24 July 2013
In this helpful contribution to the Science/Religion debate written for Jane & Joe Public - Polkinghorne (both scientist and theologian) - says that he is not engaged in "an apologetic exercise, trying to make the faith appear acceptable in a scientific age." Equally, he warns against a "scientific takeover bid, offering no more than a religious gloss on a basically naturalistic account." Indeed, he specifically declines to adopt Baruch Spinoza's deus sive natura argument; stating bluntly, "That was Einstein's God, but it is certainly not mine".

He argues that the vast majority of what is done in science is, as he puts it, "the creative interpretation of experience, not rigorous deduction from it." It is not "truth" that it seeks but "verisimilitude" - a philosophical concept that distinguishes between the truth and the falsity of assertions and hypotheses. Absolute truth is as illusive to the scientist as the theologian. That said, though he acknowledges the capacity of science to test its theories against observation, theology too has a reasonable claim on the basis of verisimilitude.

He insists that theology is concerned with "ontological questions" which do not profit much from "science's fascinating, but largely theologically irrelevant, talk of temporal origins." In this regard, he is somewhat different from other theistic scientists who find much in current cosmology that appears to offer evidence that the universe has been fine-tuned for life. For him what is of much greater significance "in cosmic history to date - (is) the dawn of consciousness."

Drawing on chaos and complexity theory, he concludes that "holistic and relational concepts are coming to play an increasing role in science." These, he argues, are "congenial to theological thinking," as exemplified by "much Trinitarian discussion that emphasizes relationship (communion) as the ground of being." In this way, he finds room for God to act within the framework of chaos theory. God does not randomly or selectively insert "energy" into various places in the universe requiring his intervention, instead, as "pure spirit," he injects "information". Thus, as the complex nonlinear systems of life oscillate back and forth trying to decide towards which strange attractor to move, God intervenes in a way that moves the system in the direction towards which he desires for it.
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on 6 January 2010
One must presume that the author of Belief in God in an age of science, a theoretical physicist and theologian of some eminence, must be very accomplished. Unfortunately his accomplishments do not extend to the writing of clear English. For a mere modest scientist with only around thirty years of experience in teaching and research (but not in quantum mechanics)the message of the book, even on a sympathetic reading, is very difficult to discern. Perhaps on a second reading, and after reference to some of the cited literature (and a primer in quantum mechanics) it may become clearer. Sadly, the book is unlikely to persuade any who are swayed by the fatuous writings of Richard Dawkins. At least Dawkins' writing, however irritating, is intelligible.
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on 3 September 2009
This should be a fascinating read - an eminent scientist who's also a Christian and who can think. I found it however quite disappointing. The author has some interesting ideas, for example: "there is no universal epistemology but rather entities are knowable only through ways that conform to their idiosyncratic nature." He thinks this has been shown to be true in physics and can also be applied to theology. That seems an important insight worthy of thought, and this is just one of many parallels between science and theology he suggests in the book. The problem I have with this book is that the important ideas are put in such complex language and sentence structure as to make his thoughts needlessly hard to follow. Philosophical texts like this one are not known for simplicity. It's fine to come up with phrases to try to express meaning exactly and to be fair this author does try to define these, but the main difficulty is that he chooses not to use a simple word when a more complex one will do. One sentence chosen at random from chapter 5 gives an example: "While the resolute sceptic can never be defeated in logical argument, neither can the epistemologically optimistic who decline to despair of gaining verisimilitudinous knowledge of reality." If this sort of language puts you off, I would recommend you avoid this book. If you are not put off however and the themes interest you, then you may find this a worthwhile read.
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on 3 September 2008
i read this book because i was told i would have the pleasure of interview the author for some tv thingy. in all honesty i foud it amazingly irritating, reading and talking to him. his arguments are basically, "this is one solution to all the questions i have, there are others but i like my one". prety much he "has faith". he dismisses selfish gene theory as a means of explaining human nature, despite knowing very little about it at all, and then uses God to explain things such as altrusim which any 16 school boy could explain using the evolutionanry theory if they had a good read around. He also miss uses the anthropic principle, and then later says the ressurection is true because why else whould such a story last so long apart from it being true....unbelivable! I have read his books on physics which are seriously good but he lacks any philsophical rigour, scientist and theologians should shut up about God's existance and leave it to the educated philosophers and that is coming from a scientist.
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on 13 April 2003
John Polkinghorn a theologian and theoretical physicist is in a unique position to bridge the gap between science and religion. To enjoy this book which is written at a high level of abstraction one needs to be familiar with natural and physical sciences.Issues such as reductionism, and evolution of Universe are approached in a philosophical manner.A comparison of methodologies in Science and theology is given, and prospects for future dialogue is disscussed. The author finds parallel between the scientific quest for understanding and its counterpart in theology. The book appeals more to the proponents of natural theology than to the fundamentalist. I enjoyed the book very much.
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on 21 June 2000
I am one of the "scientific atheists" described in previous reviews. Whilst I found this book interesting (and yes, at times immensely irritating) I did not find many of the arguements compelling. My perception of most people I know who describe themselves as religious is that they have generally inherited their belief, accept it as "Truth" and have no interest whatsoever in challenges to their "Truth". Surely the fundamental approach of science is to discover the truth, irrespective of what we think (God Fearing people may insert the word "believe" at this point!) that truth might be. Most scientific experiments are designed to test or disprove a hypothesis. Organised religions are, as far as I can see, based on hypothesis - not empirical Truth. A good scientist who believes in a hypothesis without conclusive, reproducable supporting evidence should be willing, even eager to be proven wrong. Moreover, they should be attempting to disprove their own theories as vigorously as possible. When the Pope sanctions attempts to disprove the existance of God, or critically and objectively examines Holy scriptures, then I will concede that religion and science adopt similar approaches in the quest for truth, and if Satan existed, he would surely be skating to work. One of the points I agreed with was the important role religion plays in maintaining social structure, based on a set of rules that make sense for our species in an evolutionary context (e.g. don't kill each other!).
An interesting read though (if a little heavy going at times), certainly thought provoking, and for the many irritable scientists out there, this may even help to clarify ideas on religion and science.
Of course, as a scientist, I'm more than happy to accept that I may be totally wrong about all this!
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on 3 December 1999
A difficult but enriching read for the well-educated general reader. I intend to read this book again. Although evidently intended for the cognoscenti in the fields of Natural Theology and/or Physics (or maybe Polkinghorne just can't stop himself expressing his ideas in this way?), it is a worthwhile read. It is especially attractive to the believer who never accepted the assertion that human reason and faith can't be reconciled. Personally, this book provided many "ah hah" moments for me and I am still jumping for joy. Atheists are likely to find this book utter nonesense. One criticism? When WILL academics learn to stop constructing convoluted sentences when a straight-forward one will do?
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