Science Book Club: Quantum Physics and Theology Ch 5 & Review

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Snowflakes are similar because the properties of water constrain how the crystals form. (Photo by Alexey Kljatov (ChaoticMind75) )

Welcome to the fifth (and final) 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, chapter 4). Since the final chapter is fairly brief, we’ll cover it along with some overall thoughts to wrap up this discussion.

Common Origin

Polkinghorne’s final thoughts center on inferring a common origin based on similar features. Obviously this is a feature of evolutionary biology, as he notes, where shared ancestors are inferred based on similarity of either genotype or phenotype. This brings us to his notion of science and theology as cousins. Their shared features in terms of process and a search for — and dependence on the existence of — truth are taken as evidence of a shared origin, namely as different forms of revelation from God. As another example, I would add textual analysis of Biblical and other ancient manuscripts. When manuscripts have mostly similar but not perfectly identical contents we generally infer a common source text. At a higher level we talk about the possibility of a precursor to some of the Gospels as a potential explanation for their similarity of structure and content.

Polkinghorne also raises the concept of convergent evolution, ostensibly as an alternative explanation for similarity although it seems to lead him to a similar conclusion about why science and theology are similar (in his accounting, anyway). But it got me thinking in a very different direction. Among those who view traditional religions as human inventions, some are interested in exploring what a modern equivalent might look like. For example, might superhero narratives represent an updated mythology that could serve some of the same functions as the central stories of traditional religions? What interests me is how attempts to reinvent religion or a religion-like object wind up looking very similar to the more traditional versions. There seem to be certain functional constraints on providing the desired benefits of religion — social cohesion, imparting shared values, encouraging community perspective, etc. — which mean there are only so many different ways to achieve those benefits. And if we are going to wind up with something at least broadly similar to what we already had in traditional religions, maybe we don’t need to completely reinvent those wheels after all.


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Chairs are an interesting case; functional requirements constrain design and chair designers are influenced by previous chairs. (Photo by David T Jones )

I have a lot of respect and enthusiasm for Polkinghorne’s perspective on science and theology. I’m sure that’s at least partly due to having read one of his books as a young adult and scientist-hopeful looking to add some depth to my understanding of how the two disciplines relate to each other. In any event, his critical realist perspective, his emphasis on the historical reality and distinctiveness of the life of Jesus, and his commitment to taking both the physical and the spiritual seriously all resonate strongly with me. This book in particular I think is a noteworthy contribution. While I understand why so much discussion about science and religion fixates on whether the facts of science and the facts of religion are the same or at least reconcilable, I really appreciate taking a different tack and comparing the process of science and the process of theology.

My largest criticism of the book is possibly the choice of title. While Polkinghorne makes very plain how he arrived at his choice, and while one can hardly argue with its accuracy or directness, I have come to realize that the title is off-putting for some, perhaps many. Even though this book was the clear consensus choice in our reader poll, after it was chosen I encountered several folks independently sharing that a book about quantum physics probably wasn’t for them. Quantum physics does have quite the reputation for being challenging, which is only a little unfair. Mathematically, the linear algebra involved in quantum physics might actually be easier to understand than the calculus at the heart of Newtonian dynamics, although perhaps less widely familiar because of how high school and college math sequences are designed. Conceptually, the behaviors described by that math are trickier since they differ from what we experience every day.

However, all of that is somewhat besides the point because Polkinghorne does not ask you to do any math and only a little physics. What he is really asking you to understand is the history of quantum physics. The principles he wants you to apply to theology could be derived from the history of many disciplines and fields; he just happens to chose quantum physics because it is most familiar to him, having lived much of it as during his professional career. If the title more clearly indicated the physics elements of the book are really human-centric narratives, perhaps some readers who would find the book helpful would not be turned off before they even got started.

Still, this is a minor quibble and can be remedied with a little reframing. If you sat this book out because you didn’t think quantum physics was for you, I would encourage you to reconsider. I am a biologist, admittedly one curious about quantum physics but with no formal education to make me anything more than a layman, and I find Polkinghorne eminently readable. He is interested in how science works and why it works and what real humans actually do when they practice science, and his insights on those topics are broadly applicable. Certainly any student of the sciences can benefit from stepping back and reflecting on those questions. I am persuaded that anyone interested in how we learn about God and why certain approaches are more fruitful than others will also find this book enlightening.

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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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