November 12, 2018

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne, Part 5 – Cousins

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne Part 5 – Cousins

We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne.  Today we will look at Chapter 5- Cousins and wrap up the review of the book.  Polkinghorne starts the chapter by comparing two explanations that biologists in comparative anatomy appeal when they discover homologies between different forms of animal life.


One is the classic Darwinian thinking that attributes the similarities to common origin, a primitive common ancestor from which the two contemporary species later diverged.  The second is the idea of convergent evolution—that the evolutionary process may be more constrained by a limited number of basic structures that are both evolutionarily advantageous and readily biologically available.  For example, eyes have developed several times independently but still manifest homologies in their basic structure i.e. camera eyes in mammals and cephalopods.  Simon Conway Morris has written extensively on this convergent aspect of evolution; there is a deep substructure of universal principles shaping fruitful possibilities.

John asks if one could explain the cousinly relationships between the rational procedures of science and theology in ways analogous to these biological approaches.  The appeal to common ancestry would correspond to the thesis that modern science owes religion a debt of gratitude since the latter historically provided the intellectual matrix that brought the former to birth.  The doctrine of creation the Abrahamic faiths profess encourages the expectation that there will be a deep order in the world expressive of the Mind and Purpose of its Creator.  Since the world is God’s creation, it is fitting duty for religious people to study it. Those early scientists like to say that God has written two books; the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, and ultimately there could not be any contradiction between the two.

John notes the critical parting of the ways between these two forms of insight into reality began in the middle of the eighteenth century when later generations of scientists became so flushed with the apparent success of the mechanical argument that they began to make the triumphalist claim of the sufficiency of the scientific method on its own to yield all knowledge that was worth knowing or even possible to know.

The second kind of explanation offered for biological homologies appeals to the notion of deep underlying forms, whose universal patterns enable and shape the paths of fruitful development.  The theological counterpart to this idea would be the doctrine of the Logos, the divine Word which is the fundamental source of the rational order of creation.  The Logos doctrine also speaks of the Word as enlightening everything (John 1:9), an insight that can be appealed to for theological endorsement of the concept of critical realism.  John says:

These claims imply that the cousinly relationships that exist between different forms of creaturely truth-seeking endeavor derive ultimately from the fact that the universe was created as true cosmos.  It is an integrated world, whose deep intelligibility and consistency is a manifestation of the divine Word that lets be the whole of created reality (cf. Genesis 1 ‘And God said, Let there be…’).  This in turn implies that religious people who are seeking to serve the God of truth should welcome all truth from whatever source it may come, without fear or reserve.  Included in this open embrace must certainly be the truths of science.  In the case of the scientists, the same insight implies that if they want to pursue the search for understanding through and through—a quest that it is most natural for them to embark on—they will have to go beyond the limits of science itself in the search for the widest and deepest context of intelligibility.  I think that this further quest, if openly pursued, will take the enquirer in the direction of religious belief.  It is a search for the Logos.  In consequence, I believe that ultimately the cousinly relationships that we have investigated in this book find their most profound understanding in terms of that true Theory of Everything which is trinitarian theology.

It is no surprise that one such as John Polkinghorne would write a book like this.  He is both an accomplished quantum physicist and a noted Anglican theologian; why wouldn’t he combine the two?  Polkinghorne is the author of five books on physics, and 26 on the relationship between science and religion.  In the Wikipedia page, Polkinghorne said in an interview that he believes his move from science to religion has given him binocular vision, though he understands that it has aroused the kind of suspicion “that might follow the claim to be a vegetarian butcher.”  He describes his position as critical realism and believes that science and religion address aspects of the same reality. It is a consistent theme of his work that when he “turned his collar around” he did not stop seeking truth.

Polkinghorne is liable to criticism and he certainly has his detractors.  In the Amazon reviews for this book he generated 20% of comments as 1 or 2 stars.  Some examples :

1) There is no kinship between falsifiable theory and nonfalsifiable wordplay.  Total babble. Quantum mechanics is verifiable by experiment; religion is just a bunch of words. The author has churned out the same drivel over and over in many books.

2) This book is worthless. Full of platitudes and Christian apologetics, the theology of Christianity, offered as counterparts to the intellectual challenges of quantum physics. But nowhere does he mention what effects QED has on the mind trying to understand it. So he simply says that both theology and QED require a lot of effort to understand and involve the same kind of perseverance. Nowhere does he show any homology between the constructs of reality in QED and in Christian theology. Without homology there is nothing comparable here. Full of self-importance, he’s an establishment windbag. He’s written a half dozen or more books of the same ilk that he references as if together they constitute a commanding intellectual achievement, but in the final analysis he leaves no trace of any substance whatever. There’s no real mind here. A theoretical physicist and an Anglican priest, all in one? He’s a charlatan in both guises.

3)The author clearly wants very badly to believe and to bring the kind of certainty and rigor to the examination of Christianity that exists in science and quantum physics in particular. And he fails badly to pull it off… he should you realize upon reflection that the effort was truly doomed from the beginning. Not that the author does not give it the “old college try”. It is rather that what he is trying to do simply cannot be done. As a result, his attempt not only fails but ends up doing more damage to his case than had he simply kept the lid on his pen and not tried at all.

Well, there you go, then.  There is a point to this criticism.  Quantum physics moved forward on the basis of empirical justification.  The results of the experiments ultimately verified the speculations of the theorists.  Theology does not have the same counterpart.  There is no empirical verification of a theological doctrine, except perhaps the fruit test.  Does the theological doctrine under consideration lead to good fruits?  Does it promote faith, hope, and love and inspire greater devotion to God and encourage Christians to walk in His ways?  Does Premillennial Dispensation inspire good fruits or does it lead to passivity in the care for this world since “it’s all gonna burn”?  Does the Eternal Submission of the Son and its corollary, Complementarianism lead to better, or worse, relationships between men and women?  How about Replacement Theology and its deadly fruit of Jewish persecution down through the years, as Chaplain Mike talked about yesterday.  Surely that’s some bad fruit.  Is that empirical evidence of true theology?

I liked the book, and I liked Polkinghorne’s attempt.  Not perfect, but still though provoking.  And I learned something about quantum physics, which was cool.  So give me some feedback in the comments today about what subjects or books you might to see me review and blog about.


  1. Mike the G Man, thought the series was great and you did a great job of keeping it real, as we say in the hood, well actually at the club. I think your last paragraph summed it up well. I have no “proof” of an empirical nature that my Mother loved me but I believe she did. To be honest due to my limited intellect I have to take it on “faith” that what Polkinghorne and other great minds tell me that their theories and research prove. I believe and have faith the size of a mustard seed that God exist and no matter how at times I swing from the high point to the low point on the faith meter I cannot fathom any other explanation for my being and all that entails but God. If I could prove it , it would not be faith it would be science and then I would not understand it. So thanks for your effort in at least exposing me to Polkinghorne. I do like quarks.

  2. Christiane says:

    “The doctrine of creation the Abrahamic faiths profess encourages the expectation that there will be a deep order in the world expressive of the Mind and Purpose of its Creator. Since the world is God’s creation, it is fitting duty for religious people to study it. Those early scientists like to say that God has written two books; the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, and ultimately there could not be any contradiction between the two.”

    I LOVE this quote!

    I can see its meaning expressed in my own Church in these words:

    “the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.
    The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”
    (from ‘Gaudium et Spes’, a pastoral letter)

    I think that the DIFFERENCE between fundamentalist-evangelicals and those who claim membership in the Abrahamic faith community is THIS: a recognition that Creation is from the hand of a Creator God which is WHY
    why there is “being” rather than “nothing”, as God the Creation has formed all that exists ‘ex nihilo’.

    So, if in fundamentalist-evangelical theology, the relationship between mankind and the Earth is one of ‘stewardship’, a person claiming to witness to God in the way of the Abrahamic faiths will see a wider context of relationship between mankind with all of Creation as witness to and reflectors of the Creator who made them.

    This concept is likely best expressed best in Christianity through Francis of Assisi who viewed all creatures as being united in the depths of their being by the fact of being creatures of the same God and therefore similar in that in their very existence, they reflect their Creator Who is ‘Being Itself’ or “I am Who am”.

    Once the wider context of meaning is applied to mankind’s relationship to the Earth, then we can get past the ideas of a mandate to ‘dominate’ meaning it’s okay to pollute and abuse for personal gain;
    and we can move more towards an understanding such as was once expressed through a legendary speech given by Chief Seathl to his people well over a hundred years ago:

  3. johnbarry says:

    What do you think? Great letter but is it really legit. However we do need myths and they play a part in our past and future.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And when Myths and Mythical Heroes are deconstructed as “old-fashioned” or “idolatry”, people WILL make new Myths and Mythical Heroes. This explains Charlie Sheen, Paris Hilton, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, Celebrity Megapastors, and all those recent Marvel Superhero Movies.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    I enjoyed the series; even if sometimes I completely failed to see Mr. Polkinghorne – often very long – leap.
    Speculation is good, useful, and fun – so long as one always keeps in mind that the text is Speculative.

    > Not perfect, but still though provoking.


    > Does the theological doctrine under consideration lead to good fruits?

    For me the answer is a pretty solid “No”; I fail to see any connection to these Theologies and Fruit. The tragic flaw in Theology may not be that it fails to study God/gods or Scripture but that Theologians tend to have a desperate lack of understanding of People.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      Any subjects you’d like to see for future discussions?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        In the context of Science+Christianity I am curious about how much we know about who these peoples were – particularly the Israelites – and how distinct they were from one another. Over the years I’ve heard various things or blown past articles about things like an Aaronic gene. Given the bad reporting of science and wierd things wrapped up in that I don’t know how valid any of it is. Like there is supposedly a lost israelite tribe in Saudi Arabia or something? And generally what can science tell us about how distinct these groups were or who they were? It is hard to believe, even from all the biblical admonitions about intermarriage that these groups were very distinct. I don’t know if anyone credible has written something about that.

        That’s what occurs to me off the top of my head between meetings. I’ll continue to ponder it.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          Perhaps for mining for smaller topics take a look at “Journal of Sociology and Christianity” which is an academic journal. I did not know such a thing existed until I ran across it a few months ago.

        • The origins of Judaism, or more accurately (since that term is often associated with the post exilic period) the origins of the Israelites would indeed be a fascinating topic. Was Moses real? Probably, but who was he really? What’s with Yahweh vs El? How did henotheism develop into the truly novel…sorry Ra fans … monotheism? Was David real? Perhaps. Was Josiah real? Unquestionably. Et cetera .

  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Any study of the scientific laws that govern the material world assumes, but cannot prove, that the material world exists, that it is subject to universal regular laws which always apply everywhere regardless of circumstances and which are not arbitrary but logical, ordered and at least in principle comprehensible. Without assuming these things, the whole exercise is pointless. Complaints that theology is “just a bunch of words” because it assumes rather thsn proves ab inititio some basic facts about the existence of God thoroughly miss the point. Both disciplines assume a basic philosophic underpinning the correctness or otherwise of which are only provable or disprovable “outside the system”.
    Theology does, or at least ought to, have an empirical base. You mention the “fruits” of a theology as one, but also any theology must conform to experience in the real world (the theology around the “problem of suffering / sin” is a clear example of this, likewise things like Biblical inerrancy). Also, importantly and deduced conclusions about God can only be valid theology if they conform to God as actually experienced (or not) by believers and unbelievers themselves.

    • Burro (Mule) says:

      A meditation on John 12:27-29:

      “That which thou callest science, or natural philosophie, is nought but the least of the thaumaturgies, for it benefitteth sage and simpleton alike. The holy man and the devilish assay, and receive the same recompense. The real Craft does not show its wonders until the Craftsman is himself wrought and ready, and some Magick, the Deepest Magick, can be performed by at best one man in a generation. ‘He is a fraud, a trickster’ say the vulgar, but he moveth the flow of events as he will.”

      from John Crowley, I believe

  6. Thanks for the book review series, Mike the G. Much of the discussion was outside my brain’s capability of understanding, but your perspective and posts were appreciated. Looking forward to the next topic.

  7. johnbarry says:

    Mike the G Man, not in the science group but the time period between the OT and NT, the 400 period that set up the cultural, social and economic background of the NT. The effect of Greece and Andy the Ok on the world and changed history. Whatever you pick will be fine but remember for me it has to be KISS