Science Book Club: Quantum Physics and Theology Ch 2

boiling water photo

Boiling water is a phase transition, a new experience which provides an opportunity to consider new possibilities. (Photo by Arenamontanus )

Welcome to the second week of our blog book discussion on Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne. We’re going a chapter a week through the book with posts and discussion here; last week was chapter 1. For those that like more interactive discussion, we’ll have biweekly video chats too. The first one is tonight (9/27); join us at 9pm Eastern to talk all things science and theology. Now on to chapter 2.

Is it reasonable?

Polkinghorne notes that following the data can lead us places we would not otherwise expect or perhaps even imagine, both in science and theology. Thus an a priori commitment to prefer answers which are “reasonable” is not always a dependable route to the truth. Reasonableness can be subjective, just like verisimilitude. If we’re talking about conclusions which can be reached by sound reasoning, then perhaps reasonable is a quality we should desire in our science and our theology. But I think what Polkinghorne intends here by reasonable is more akin to intuitive or plausible given prior experience. And in that sense, it is almost more rational to expect the unexpected as we explore scales of nature for which we have no direct experience, such as the submicroscopic scales of quantum theory. Our intuition, developed within a relatively narrow range of scales compared to everything the universe has to offer, is in no way guaranteed to be applicable once we wander farther and deeper. (Of course, it’s easier for me to say that now that others have done the hard work and demonstrated just how different physics can be when things get tiny or enormous.) From that perspective, a God who is far removed from our experience may also have unexpected qualities.

I used ‘rational’ which is another fun quality to dive into. It has roots in the Greek mathematical aesthetic which preferred ratios of integers to other numbers. As a result, they approached science with the related question “Is it rational?” and developed models accordingly. In the long run, that preference was not always fruitful; in that original Greek sense, most of our physics is irrational, even the Newtonian mechanics that describes our common experiences.

What usually happens is what always happens

Cartoon on the perceived relative 'purity' of different sciences, from sociology to psychology to biology to chemistry to physics to mathematics

Maybe the x-axis indicates the average “size”
of a space for which the “usual” is the “always.” (Cartoon by Randall Munroe )

Polkinghorne summarizes the organizing principle of science as “what usually happens is what always happens.” Thus we expect scientific theories to be repeatable and to make predictions that can be verified. In a sense, this maxim may seem to be a restatement of the reasonableness criterion we already rejected; it leaves little room for surprise. The trick is defining the appropriate scope, similar sets of conditions such that what usually happens actually does turn out to be what always happens. We’ve looked before at the popular concept of a ranking of sciences (see cartoon). Instead of labeling the axis “purity” we might instead think of it as a measure of how often what usually happens actually happens. Physics get a lot of mileage out of what usually happens, because gravity and electromagnetism follow the same rules across a wide range of conditions. As we move towards chemistry and biology, we have more “players” with more possible ways for them to combine and interact, resulting in a more diverse set of usuallies, each more narrowly defined. This already creates issues for fields like medicine, where our organizing principle is sometimes expressed as “when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras” which is absolutely reasonable but will also sometimes be wrong because what usually happens is not always what happens in medicine. Or perhaps a bit more precisely, we don’t understand all the players and their interactions well enough to always know which “usually” applies for a given patient.

We can think of history as existing on the same scale, but even further past sociology. And in the realm of history, we know that what usually happens is frequently not a reliable indicator of what did happen. Asimov has a similar concept in his Foundation books that he calls psychohistory, an imagined future academic discipline which basically punts on trying to predict individual human choices but predicts broad political and socioeconomic trends by relying on the assumption that the population has gotten so big no single person can have a significant effect. That assumption doesn’t hold in Asimov’s stories, and it doesn’t appear to hold in real history either. As a result, I’m inclined to agree with Polkinghorne that theology is justified in allowing for singular historical events which did happen despite being anything but usual.

The oddest stories ever written

One thing I really appreciate about Polkinghorne is his frank and direct emphasis of Jesus at the center of his theology. Science and faith conversations so quickly run to questions of origins and so much energy is placed on debating the proper interpretation of Genesis and of the fossil record that the actual Gospel message can get obscured. Or one gets into the realm of apologetics and attempts to prove the existence of some abstract God through deductive logic and scientific inference. I find Polkinghorne’s approach refreshing in the way he rests his case for belief on the historical reality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Being able to answer all of the other questions about original sin and God’s relationship to Big Bang cosmology and so on is valuable and necessary; at the same time, seeing Jesus as central is heartening.

As a shorthand, I sometimes like to say that I believe in God because I go to church on Sunday. I imagine many would expect the causality to run the other way, and indeed I do go to church because of my belief. But the fact that I and tens of millions of Christians attend on Sunday specifically is an observable indicator in the present of a significant event in the past. It’s not irrefutable proof of the resurrection by any stretch, nor is it the only reason to believe the resurrection occurred. But it does provide a helpful reminder that the Gospel is rooted in the particulars of history and as such is open to interrogation.


  • What touchpoints does your belief in God connect to?
  • Polkinghorne, with reference to N.T. Wright, lists several ways in which the resurrection accounts are distinctive and likely to be true. Do those lines of reasoning seem reasonable to you?
  • Are there heuristics from your discipline that you think have applications to theology?
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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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