Science Book Club: Quantum Physics and Theology Ch 4

Photo of model trains and buildings

On second thought, let’s not go there. It’s only a model. (Photo by 27707)

Welcome to the fourth 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 (chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3). For those that like more interactive discussion, we’ll have biweekly video chats too; the next one will be tonight, 10/11/17 at 9pm Eastern. Now, on to chapter 4.

Models and Theories

I found Polkinghorne’s discussion of models and theories helpful, although I still find myself processing the distinction. Models seem to be bits of math that are useful, but not necessarily capturing true relationships; perhaps they are accurate but lacking in verisimilitude. Theories on the other hand reflect something true about the world and how it behaves. I can see where a theory should represent causal relationships, whereas a model might simply produce the right numbers by virtue of correlation. We can fall down some pretty deep rabbit holes teasing out the metaphysics of causality, but I’m content for now to accept that we can distinguish correlation and causation and that the distinction can also separate models and theories.

I guess where I’m getting stuck is how to classify formalisms like Newtonian dynamics. Surely it was regarded as a theory while it was the preeminent game in town, and perhaps still is. Yet we now also appreciate the extent to which it is incomplete; does that knowledge change our evaluation of its theory status? If so, can we reliably identify theories among our current formalisms when they may also be incomplete, or revealed as incomplete at a later date?

I also get a little hung up on just what ‘equals’ means in physics equations (which maybe means I’m peaking down the causality rabbit hole a little after all). When we say F = ma, for example, is that simply a numerical relationship that allows us to conclude a value for some quantity (such as Force) based on calculations using other quantities (such as mass and acceleration)? Or does that equation express some more fundamental physical equivalence? Are all equations metaphors, or are some of them meant to be taken literally?

Credal Christology

I’ve written before about the value of negative results, so I found it interesting to see the extent to which credal declarations about the nature of God and Jesus are discussed in negative terms. While some positive assertions are offered, much is made of how the creeds reject various models, in the process consigning some of them to the category of heresy. Ruling out options is an important part of the learning process. As a scientist, Polkinghorne seems reasonably comfortable with this reality, or at least seems to appreciate the necessity of negative results. At the same time, I can understand why the lack of a more specific or detailed description of just how the incarnation works can be unsatisfying. The domain of theology is already more esoteric than the concrete reality which physics studies; doctrines that retain an element of mystery on top of that ephemeral subject matter can give the impression theology has nothing to say.

If we’re meant to believe these things on faith, or really at all, why leave so many open questions? That’s what many wonder. Of course, there’s the relevant question of whether any finite book could contain sufficient detail to answer every possible question to everyone’s satisfaction, not to mention the substantial challenge of communicating across millenia. But that’s theoretical; more practically, I think some of the answer lies in how we humans focus our attention. There are open questions–exercises left to the reader–and so theologians naturally focus their efforts on discussing and exploring those topics. That focus can create the impression only those questions matter. Yet there are plenty of other matters which are more clear and which can be considered settled matters of Christian doctrine. Arguably, given that people have been doing it for 2,000 years, there are sufficient clear details to functionally operate as a Christian even in the face of uncertainty about the remaining open questions.

I’m not saying theologians should change what they do. Exploring open questions is a significant part of the work of theology, and far be it from me to tell them otherwise. We simply need to make a conscious effort to recall that active and lively discussions may not represent the full scope of what theology has to offer, and more personally that the questions and issues which dominate our attention at any given moment are not the full scope of what we believe. A similar phenomenon can affect science as well. Cutting edge results and debates on open topics are newsworthy; education on decades or centuries of existing data and conclusions is not. As a result, science can seem more tenuous and up for grabs than it actually is because what we tend to notice are the active conversations of unsettled matters.


  • What models do you use to wrap your head around theological topics like the nature of Jesus or the trinity? Do you sometimes need to be reminded of the models that have already been ruled out, like fictional St. Patrick does in this video?
  • As we explore conceptual spaces for new scientific or theological models, where can we look for fresh concepts? Are there any sources too far afield?
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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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