Holes in the Net

Believing in God in an Age of Science

The retired president of Queen’s College Cambridge has had an illustrious career in both science and religion. In this interview, he discusses some of the shortcomings of a scientific approach that excludes belief. 

In a world where science and religion may seem to be at irreconcilable odds, Sir John Polkinghorne has worked hard to build a bridge between the two. He had a notable career as a mathematical physicist at Cambridge, during which time he published numerous books and papers and was elected (in 1974) to the prestigious Royal Society. But in the late 1970s he opted to change paths and join the Anglican clergy.

Since that time, the professor-turned-priest hasn’t slowed the pace of his writing, though his preferred subject is no longer physics but the relationship between science and religion. His most recent book is Questions of Truth: Fifty-One Responses to Questions About God, Science, and Belief (2009), cowritten with colleague Nicholas Beale. He writes, “The rational transparency and beauty of the universe are surely too remarkable to be treated as just happy accidents.” Science, he concludes, “is then understood to be possible because the universe is a creation and we are creatures made in the image of the Creator.”

Winner of the 2002 Templeton Prize, which is awarded for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension,” he is regarded today as one of the preeminent voices in the quest to bridge the perceived gap between science and belief. Vision’s Dan Cloer talked to Dr. Polkinghorne about that gap.


DC The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Hebrews (11:3) that it is by faith that we understand the universe to have been created by the Word of God—that the visible was not made by things that are visible. He seems to say that faith is not connected to scientific rationality. How do you view this as a physicist?

JP Paul is writing to the Hebrews with a different worldview than we have today. We know much more now about the nature of the universe in which we live. The wonderful order of the world and its character—in that sense the “things that are seen”—reflect the invisible mind of the Creator.

DC What makes a belief in God rational? Or is it rational?

JP A belief in God is not a question of shutting our eyes and gritting our teeth and believing impossible things because some unquestionable authority tells us that is what we have to do. There are many measures for religious belief just as there are for scientific belief. Of course, these are different kinds of belief, but I think there are two broad supports for a belief in God.

One is that when you look at the world there are actually questions that go beyond science, deeper questions than science sees. For example, in exploring the world, we have found that it is wonderfully and beautifully ordered in its fundamental structure. I worked in particle physics in my science days, and one of the things we found is that there is a deep order in the world. This is expressed in beautiful mathematical equations. Science exploits that fact, but it does not explain where that fact comes from. It is such a remarkable fact that we can understand the world in a deep way, and that when we do so we get this experience of wonder. I would say we need further explanation and would answer happily that the mind of God lies behind the deep order of the world; the order expresses God’s nature.

The second core argument for belief in God comes from religious experience. I am a Christian and my religious experience centers on my encounter with the figure of Jesus Christ. Now that is a much more personal and somewhat ambiguous experience, but for me an absolutely central and inescapable source of belief.

The existence of God is a complex argument. But it does not rely on irrational assertions.

DC An individual’s personal experience remains a key factor, in that the meaning of the gospel message comes through the doing—following through on what one is instructed to do.

JP And in that way religious belief is more dangerous than scientific belief. I mean, I believe in quarks and gluons as the constituents of matter, but that does not really affect my life very much. But if I am a Christian believer, that does affect my life in all sorts of ways; it is more all-embracing and is much more costly in a way than is scientific belief. It is not just a sense of mind, but a sense of the world and how one lives his life.

DC God working through natural means seems to have been a strong Victorian idea. Is there a connection here with Charles Darwin’s work?

JP When Darwin published the Origin of Species, there were mixed reactions both on the scientific side and on the religious side. Quite a few of his scientific colleagues did not accept his ideas; they didn’t know where these small variations came from, for example.

On the religious side there were people who from the start welcomed Darwin’s insights. They saw that these implied that God’s work of creation was not a snap-of-the-fingers that produced a ready-made world, but that God had produced a world endowed with great fruitfulness and potentiality.

DC Is that the meaning, then, of Origin’s last sentence, where Darwin invokes the Creator?

JP Yes, that’s correct. I certainly think there is a connection there.

DC Paul speaks of human consciousness as a matter of spirit. If you were to translate “There is a spirit in man that knows the things of man” (from 1 Corinthians 2:11) in scientific terms, would you say “There is a pattern in man’s brain . . .”?

JP The spirit of man is obviously much richer, more complex than that, because we are more than the pattern of our brain. We are struggling in the language of our day, as Paul did in his, to express the richness of human nature. We cannot deny that we are materially embodied beings, but we are not merely material. We are in a way amphibians: we are in the physical world but we are also in some sort of mental and spiritual world. We live in mind and in matter.

We are materially embodied beings, but we are not merely material. We are in a way amphibians: we are in the physical world but we are also in some sort of mental and spiritual world.”

Sir John Polkinghorne

I think that is a real, reliable experience, but it is a difficult experience to explain. We try to do what we can with the resources of our generation in the way that Paul was trying to do with the resources of his generation.

DC For many people there’s a disconnect between the idea of a loving God and a universe that is decaying and running down. Is the second law of thermodynamics necessary for life to proceed?

JP It is necessary in this world. That’s the way things work. The law simply says that disorder always wins over order basically because there are many, many more ways to be disorderly than orderly. In the end, chaos increases and that is how you get death and decay. It may take a long time, but it happens.

There is reason to believe that death was in the world for a long time before there were human beings. Biological death did not come into the world by the dawning of human self-consciousness. What came into the world was a kind of sadness at the recognized transience of this world because our ancestors had become alienated and isolated from God, the only God with the hope of anything additional beyond death. That was a matter of sadness. But I believe nevertheless that God is faithful and that, as Paul told the Corinthians, death will be “swallowed up in victory.” 

There is no reason to believe that God could not bring into being a new form of matter (as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15), which has such strong self-organizing principles that the drift to decay will no longer take place. But this world has to have something like death and decay in it, because it is an evolving world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves. As far as we can see, that is a necessary characteristic of such a world.

DC In the film Expelled, which concerned the competition of ideas, academic freedom, evolution and Intelligent Design, you said, “People tell you that science says all you need to know about the world, or that science tells you that religion is all wrong, or that science tells you there is no God. Those people are not telling you scientific things. They are saying metaphysical things, and they have to defend their positions for metaphysical reasons.”

JP That is absolutely right and I would still say that. Someone who says there is no formal reality other than physical reality is not making a scientific statement but a metaphysical claim. This has to be defended just like any other metaphysical claim.

DC Is this defense the core of the territoriality of science and religion?

JP I think so. Science is enormously successful, but this is so because it has restricted its ambition. It does not ask or answer every question about the world; it asks the question of how things happen; what’s the process of the world? And it quite deliberately bans from the discussion other questions such as values or meaning or purpose. These are meaningful questions that science just doesn’t address. In my view these are very necessary questions to think about, but science doesn’t trade in that.

Similarly, science considers particular aspects of reality. It treats the world impersonally, as an “it,” as an object. That way you can put things to the test. Of course, that’s what gives science its great secret weapon: the experiments. And that is tremendously powerful. But we all know that there are many personal areas of contact with reality, where testing must give way to something much more like trusting.

Science explores one aspect of reality, but only one.”

Sir John Polkinghorne

Between ourselves, person to person, if I were always setting little traps to see if you were my friend, I would destroy the possibility of friendship between us. So that sort of interpersonal contact or, more importantly, the knowledge of the transpersonal reality of God, is a different domain of experience and understanding. I think we need both. We need the insights of science and the insights of religion as well as the insights of all sorts of other things, such as our ideas of moral value and beauty that lie between those two extremes. Science explores one aspect of reality, but only one.

DC So when you speak of reconciling science and religion, it is not about changing one or the other but about understanding that both bring important insights.

JP Absolutely. I think we have every reason to believe that the scientifically statable question will receive a scientifically statable answer; they may be very hard to find, but I am very sure that that is the way to look for an answer to those questions. Equally, I think we have every reason to believe that religious questions—questions of meaning, purpose and ultimate value—will have to receive answers that are statable in religious terms.

Of course, answering questions of how things happen does not answer questions about why they happen. These are independent questions, but the way they are answered must fit together. For example, if I say, “The kettle is boiling,” I can put on my scientific half and say, “That’s because burning gas heats the water.” But with my human half I say, “I want to make a cup of tea. Would you like to have one?” I don’t have to choose between those two answers, and in fact both of them can be true. But the answers have to fit together. If I said to you, “I’ve just put the kettle in the refrigerator, and I intend to make a cup of tea,” you would think something weird was going on. So the relationship has to be correct, but it is not a matter of each answering the other’s question.

DC In your book Belief in God in an Age of Science, you challenge your scientific colleagues “to take a generous view of the nature of reality, to recognise that a quasi-objective scientific description constitutes a metaphysical net with many holes in it, to reflect in their thinking those same personal qualities that they enjoy and exercise in their lives.” That seems to be a call to scientists who don’t consider that God is behind creation to think more open-mindedly, to think about their scientific findings in terms of real human experience. What was your intent?

JP I want to encourage them to think as persons. For many, the leap from science to God in one step is too big a leap to make, so it’s necessary to make more steps.

For many, the leap from science to God in one step is too big a leap to make, so it’s necessary to make more steps.”

Sir John Polkinghorne

One thing I often talk about in taking a small step is music, because many scientists value and are influenced by music. If you ask a scientist, as a scientist, to describe music, he or she could simply say that it is the aural response as nerves fire off in the brain, linked to the impact of sound waves on the eardrum. And that’s the truth, in a way. But it is not the whole truth. There is a deep mystery about music. How a sequence of silences and sounds in time can speak to us is not trivial; there is a timeless beauty.

A view of the world that did not adequately encapsulate the mystery and reality of music—the simply physical sound-waves view of the world—would be an inadequate view. So once you begin to raise your sights a little bit, to see that there are dimensions of reality that elude science, that there are holes in the net, so to speak, then I hope that you might begin to take seriously the idea that our experiences of beauty might themselves be reflections of the Creator.

You have to start moving from the crass, reductionist point of view that so many scientists adopt in principle, but in practice, in living their lives, never do. No human being, as a person, could live so harried and limited a life.

DC So it is silly to believe, from our own human experience, that science alone can answer all of the questions?

JP Well, some do, but it seems to me to be manifestly untrue.