Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Has Science made Religion Redundant? by John Polkinghorne

Brief biography

Brief biography

The Revd Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS is a leading exponent of the relationship between science and religion and winner of the 2002 Templeton Prize. Following important contributions to the study of elementary particle physics, he became Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge in 1968 and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974. In 1979 he resigned his professorship to train for the Anglican priesthood. After posts as a parish priest and Dean of Trinity Hall, he became President of Queens' College Cambridge until 1996. He received a knighthood in 1997 for distinguished service to science, religion, learning and medical ethics. He has written a number of books about the compatibility of science and religion including The Way the World Is (1983), his Gifford Lectures The Faith of a Physicist (1994) and Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998).

The limitations of science

I am certainly someone who wants to take science seriously, but I also need to recognize that science has purchased its great success by the modesty of its ambition. It does not seek to ask and answer every kind of question that an enquiring mind might want to address. Instead it confines itself to considering solely the processes by which things happen, without asking whether there is a meaning and purpose behind what is going on. Science limits itself to impersonal experience – reality encountered as an ‘it’ – and it brackets out the personal – reality encountered as a ‘thou’.

There is NO meaning and purpose behind what is going on. Evolution explains why this is possible.

The great secret weapon of science is its recourse to experimental testing, but once one leaves science to enter the realm of the personal, testing has to give way to trusting as the means of gaining true knowledge. We know that in our relations with each other – if you are always setting little traps to see if I am your friend, you will destroy the possibility of friendship between us. Even more is that true of our relationship with the transpersonal reality of God.

Do not start the arguement with the premise that God exists.

The world that science on its own describes is a cold, abstracted lunar landscape, with many interesting objects in it but devoid of persons.

the science of psychology and philosophy talks about persons.

If we are to think adequately about the rich and many-layered world in which we live, science could never be enough to give us that full understanding that it is the instinctive desire of the scientist to attain. Ask a scientist, as a scientist, to tell you all that he or she can about music. They will reply that it is neural response to vibrations in the air. That, of course is true, but hardly the whole story. The mystery of music slips through the wide meshes of the net with which science trawls experience.

Music is pleasing because of chords and keys etc. Science can explain why we like music.

The insistent deeper questions of value and purpose that science brackets out are issues that religion certainly addresses. It could never be made redundant by science’s advance in other areas of human understanding.

A doctrine of creation

One way of seeing how the insights of science and those of theology relate to each other, as complementary rather than conflicting, is to consider the doctrine of creation. One difficulty that I have when I talk to my scientific colleagues about my Christian beliefs is that they almost all think that the doctrine of creation is about how things began. For example, Stephen Hawking supposes that if his highly speculative ideas about the very early universe are correct – so that time then had a very different nature and there was no dateable beginning to the cosmos – then God would be left with nothing to do. It is as if the only thing a Creator was needed for was to light the blue touch paper to set off the big bang. To think that way is to make a terrible theological mistake. God is as much the Creator today as God was fourteen billion years ago, for the real role of the Creator is to hold the world in being.

What is the evidence that God created the universe and continues to run it?

Only the steadfast divine faithfulness rescues the universe from collapsing into nothingness. The doctrine of creation is not concerned with how things began but why things exist. It is the answer to the great question posed by Liebniz, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’

To believe in creation means that there is a divine Mind and a divine Purpose behind what is happening in the world. To believe in creation is to believe that the universe is not just a random collection of atoms, but it is an orderly world whose patterns reflect the will of a Creator. It is to believe that history is not just a meaningless succession of one thing after another, but it is going somewhere because there is God’s purpose behind what is happening.

These are big claims. If they can be backed up, that should appeal particularly to scientists with their natural desire to gain as full and comprehensive an understanding of things as is possible. So how can one go about seeing whether the answer of creation makes sense? People will certainly not be persuaded just by authoritative assertion. Many of my scientific friends who are not religious believers, think that faith is simply a matter of shutting your eyes, gritting your teeth, and believing six impossible things before breakfast,

Lewis Wolpert book - six impossible things before breakfast

just because some unquestionable authority has told you to do so. Of course not! If being religious involved intellectual suicide, I could not be a religious believer either. But it does not. We religious believers have reasons for our beliefs.

So what could be the motivations for believing that the universe is God’s creation? Obviously not because the world is full of objects stamped ‘Made by God’. The Creator is more subtle than that. Nor shall we find God simply lurking in the more obscure and hard-to-understand parts of the physical world. The one God who is well and truly dead – and no-one should shed a tear for him – is the so-called ‘god of the gaps’. This pseudo-deity popped up only as the explanation of last resort. When all other attempts at understanding had failed, people said ‘God did it’. This was a bad mistake. The god of the gaps was a bit like the Cheshire cat, always fading away with the advance of knowledge. Such a poor thing could not possibly be the true Creator who is, so to speak, the God of the whole show, and not just to be found in the murky bits of what is going on.

If we are to find hints of the existence of such a Creator, then it is to the whole show that we shall have to look. In other words, we have to think about the universe and its history, and that means taking seriously what science can tell us about these topics. But we shall also have to think about what science cannot tell us, because we have seen that the questions arising in our minds are not just scientific questions.

Why is science possible?

Interestingly enough, two of these broader, non-scientific questions arise from our experience of doing science itself, but they go beyond its unaided power to answer. One might call them meta-questions. The first of these is very simply: Why is science possible at all? Of course, we have to understand the everyday world in order to survive in it. If we could not figure out that it is a bad idea to walk off the top of a high cliff, we would not be around for very long. But it doesn’t follow from that that clever people, like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, should be able to realize that the same force that makes the high cliff dangerous is also the force that makes the planets circle the Sun, and so be able to help us understand the structure of the solar system, and ultimately that of the whole vast universe in which we live. Our human abilities to understand the world greatly exceed anything that could possibly be related just to mundane necessity. You may recall that when Sherlock Holmes, tongue in cheek, pretended not to know if the Earth went round the Sun or vice versa, he countered Dr. Watson’s horror at such ignorance by saying ‘What does it matter for my daily work as a detective?’ In fact, we all know a great many things that we do not need for daily living.

Indeed, the matter is even stranger than that, for it turns out that the key that unlocks the secrets of these great scientific discoveries is that human way of pure thinking that we call mathematics. Beautiful equations are always found to be the basis of great discoveries in physics. The greatest theoretical physicist I have ever known personally, Paul Dirac, once said that it was more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment! Of course, he did not mean that empirical success was an irrelevance for a physicist, but if the equations did not appear to fit the facts, maybe you had not solved them to the correct approximation or maybe, even, the experiments were wrong. But if they were ugly … there really was no hope. Certainly Dirac made his own very great discoveries by a lifelong and highly successful quest for beautiful equations.

If you stop to think about it, all this is very odd. Mathematics, after all, is just abstract thinking, but it turns out that some of the most beautiful patterns that the mathematicians can think up are not just airy-fairy ideas, but they actually occur, out there, in the structure of the world around us. Dirac’s brother-in-law, Eugene Wigner, (himself also a Nobel prize winner) once called it ‘the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’. He also said it was a gift that we neither deserved nor understood. I do not know about deserving it, but I would certainly like to understand this strange property that makes theoretical physics both possible and greatly rewarding.

The universe is both rationally transparent and rationally beautiful. The first fact makes science possible, the second gives scientists their deepest satisfaction, the sense of wonder at the marvellous order revealed to our enquiry. Science itself does not explain these remarkable properties, of course. Scientists are just glad that this is so and get on with the exciting task of exploring the wonderful and beautiful order of the physical world. But I do not think we should just treat this as an incredibly fortunate piece of luck. With my scientist’s instinct to seek for understanding through and through, I would like to know why we can understand the universe so profoundly, why science is possible at all, why mathematics is so unreasonably effective. Belief in creation offers a satisfying response. I have been describing the universe that science explores as being full of rational beauty – a world shot through with signs of mind, one might justly say. My religious belief says that this is precisely because it is the Mind of God that lies behind the wonderful order of the world. Here we have, I believe, a real sign of the Creator’s presence, given us in the structure of creation. Science is possible because the world is a creation and we, to use an ancient and powerful phrase, are creatures made in the image of our Creator.

A special universe?

A second question of this deeper kind arises from thinking about the character of the laws of nature themselves. Science just takes them for granted, as the basis from which it derives its understanding of the events that are happening. I do not think, however, that we should do so, for we should press on to ask the question, Why is the universe so special? Why are the laws of nature so ‘finely-tuned’ to make life possible? Behind this question lies a very surprising realization that scientists only reached in the last forty years or so. It is that, though life in our universe only developed billions of years after the big bang, the world was pregnant with that possibility from the very start. By that I mean, that the laws of nature had to take from the start exactly the form they do for you and me to have been able to be here on Earth today. Otherwise things would have gone wrong that would have made the history of the universe boring and sterile. I am sure you know that this unexpected collection of scientific insights has been given the name of the Anthropic Principle. (A better name would be ‘the Carbon Principle’, because no-one is claiming that precisely homo sapiens, five fingers and all, had to emerge, but only carbon-based beings of our kind of complexity and fruitfulness.)

Active star formation region (click to enlarge).
To get to the point of the Anthropic Principle, just think about the stars. A fruitful universe has to have exactly the right sort of stars, for the stars have two absolutely indispensable roles in making life possible. One is simply fuelling its development. The three and a half billion year history of life on Earth has only been possible because all that time the Sun has been shining steadily, supplying the energy needed. We understand what enables stars to burn steadily and for long periods like that, and if the forces of nature had been only slightly different from what they are, it would have been impossible. A universe exactly the same as ours except that in it gravity was three times stronger, would have been boring and sterile in its history because its stars would have burnt themselves out in a few million years, long before any life could get going on an encircling planet.
Stellar nucleosynthesis of carbon (the triple-alpha process). Since Beryllium-8 is so short-lived, only a fine-tuned resonance allows significant quantities of carbon to be produced (click to enlarge).
The second role the stars have to perform is to produce the raw materials of life in their nuclear furnaces. The chemistry of life is the chemistry of carbon and there is only one place in the whole universe where carbon can be made, namely inside stars. We are all made of stardust. Once again, this delicately balanced chain of reactions by which the chemicals of our bodies have been made, is only possible because the laws of nuclear physics are just the way they are and no other. When Fred Hoyle saw that carbon could be made in stellar interiors only because there was an enhancement (a resonance) at exactly the right energy to make it possible, he is said to have remarked that the universe was a ‘put-up’ job. Hoyle could not just believe this was a happy accident, with nothing more to be said about it.

So, is all this just our luck, or is there a reason why things are so finely-tuned to the possibility of life? I would find it extremely intellectually lazy just to say that’s the way it is and that’s that. My belief in creation makes all this intelligible for me. Our fruitful universe is the way it is because it is not just ‘any old world’, but it is a creation that has been endowed by its Creator with just those laws of nature that have enabled it to have so fertile a history.

Supernova remnants: we are made from the elements expelled during these stellar explosions (click to enlarge).
One further issue needs to be addressed. Did not Charles Darwin destroy the idea of creation by showing that life developed simply through evolution? Darwin certainly told us something very interesting about the How of life’s development on Earth. We should take his insights very seriously. In fact, from the very publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, some Christians began to do so. The story, so often repeated in a kind of modern myth, that the ideas of evolution were opposed by solid ranks of obscurantist clergymen is historically ignorant. It is simply untrue. At the time there was a good deal of argument for and against Darwin’s ideas, both among scientists and among religious people. Early on, an Anglican clergyman, Charles Kingsley, stated powerfully the right way to think theologically about evolution. He said that God could no doubt have brought into being a ready-made world, but in fact the Creator had done something cleverer than that in making ‘a creation that could make itself’. The world is not God’s puppet theatre in which the Creator pulls every string. It is instead the theatre of Love in which creatures are allowed to be themselves and to make themselves. That is the way in which Christians can understand the scientific insight of an evolving world. It is fully compatible with the belief that that world is God’s creation.


In fact, this recognition brings with it a little help with religion’s greatest difficulty: the problem of the evil and suffering that we see present in creation. A world making itself is a great good, but it is a good that has a necessary cost. The same processes that enable some cells to mutate and produce new forms of life – the very engine driving the fruitful history of evolution – will inevitably enable other cells to mutate and become malignant. You cannot have one without the other. The presence of cancer in the world is not due to divine callousness or oversight: it is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself. Of course, an insight of this kind does not by any means remove all our perplexities about the sufferings of creation, but it does afford us some modest help. We all tend to think that had we been in charge of creation we would have done it better. We would have kept all the nice things (the flowers and the sunsets) and got rid of the nasty (cancers and earthquakes). The more science helps us understand the universe, the more it seems to hang together as an interwoven unity, a kind of cosmic package deal.

A deep question like whether the world is God’s creation, cannot simply be answered in a confident, 2 + 2 = 4, way. There will always be scope for argument. Nevertheless, those of us who believe that the universe is God’s creation have, I believe, substantial reasons for supposing that this is the case. I do not think that my atheist friends are stupid, but I do believe that atheism explains less than is the case with religious belief. I believe that science and religion can live together, not without some puzzles to be sure, but in harmony and mutual benefit. Perhaps the deepest reason why this is so is that in both science and theology the question of truth is paramount. Both disciplines reject any postmodern belief that we are stuck in a slough of relativistic despond. There is truth to be sought and respected.

I am both a physicist and a priest. I want to be ‘two-eyed’, looking through the eye of science and the eye of religion. In that way I believe that I shall be able to see much more than I could with either eye alone.


Fraser Watts

John Polkinghorne and I agree about most things, but nevertheless I will try to indicate the points in his talk where I think it would be helpful to probe more deeply. First, about the relationship between science and religion (or rather theology - the rational reflection of the religious tradition). John pointed to the differences, for example that they are answering different kinds of question. Science generally answers 'how' questions and theology answers 'why' questions. I am convinced this is right, at least as a first approximation, but this kind of distinction is frustratingly difficult to make in an exact way. However you make it, people seem able to think of counter-examples. I don't think we should we too fussed by that. The problem arises from the diversity of what both theology and science encompass, but I believe there is still a difference between what science and theology generally deal with. What intrigues me most here is whether science will always have to bracket out questions about the moral nature of the universe, questions which are central to theology. If so, there can never be any close integration between theology and science, and science will always neglect what, for theology, represent the most important questions. I always assume that we are dealing at present with the very early achievements of science after just a few centuries, and that there is a long way to go. I am not convinced that science will always have to bracket out moral considerations, and hope that an enlarged science will be able to stretch to them. That would, to some extent, erode the current distinction between theology and science.

Next, John went on to discuss two big questions arising from science, the first being why the universe was intelligible to science at all. I am attracted by the answer he suggested that there is a rationality behind the universe that science studies, a rationality that might be called the 'mind of God', and that the human mind has access to that same rationality. Despite the attractiveness of that idea, it is worth our while pausing in our discussion to examine the alternatives. One is that our intelligence has been shaped by the world in which we live, which is why it is well suited to understanding that world. The other is that the world as we know it is shaped and constructed by our intelligence, and that creatures with different intelligence would construct it differently.

After this, John went on to the question of why the universe should be so remarkably fruitful. It is tempting to see that as suggestive of a God who intended that it should be so. The interesting question for me is what the prospects are for a scientific explanation of the remarkable facts about our 'fine-tuned' universe. Before Darwin, people thought the adaptation of species to their environments was so remarkable that it invited an explanation in terms of the purposes of God. Then Darwin provided a scientific explanation in terms of natural selection. Could the same happen with the fine-tuned universe? Inflation theory already seems as though it might perhaps be able to explain the balance between big-bang expansion and gravity. One question is whether there is any reason in principle why, for example, the values of the basic forces are so fundamental that science could never explain them. The other question is whether it would make any fundamental difference if science could explain them. It might just mean that we needed to re-phrase the theological point about the purposes of God.

John Polkinghorne

There are obviously tricky demarcation questions that depend on how one defines science and theology. I am concerned with natural science, whose defining characteristic I take to be the study of impersonal and largely repeatable experience that consequently can be investigated by the experimental method. Theology I take to be concerned with human encounter with the transpersonal reality of God, where a meeting with the sacred comes as gracious gift. If that is the case, the two disciplines are clearly distinguishable though, since God is the ground of all that is, there will be topics of mutual concern, such as the character of the natural world. I believe that the insights of an evolutionary epistemology are significant, but I believe that they are insufficient to explain even science itself. Understanding a remote and counterintuitive realm, such as the quantum world, seems to me to go far beyond what could be warranted by survival necessity or by any plausible spin off from such a necessity. I also resist a constructivist account of human knowledge. In science we frequently find that nature resists our prior expectations, its recalcitrance forcing us to insights that would have been beyond our imagining without the necessary nudge of reality. Quantum theory is again a case in point. This is why the impression of discovery is so central to the experience of a scientist.

My personal opinion – and I believe I say this as a physicist without covert appeal to a theological agenda – is that even a Grand Unified Theory will have some adjustable scale parameters in it. In any case, one would still have to ask why fundamental physics is quantum mechanical and gravitational, both anthropic necessities but neither logical necessities. But suppose it did turn out that the only consistent theory of quantum gravity was essentially scale-free and also anthropically finely-tuned. That would seem to me to be the most remarkable anthropic coincidence of them all.

Donald Broom

John Polkinghorne’s talk and the comments by Fraser Watts emphasise for me the value of an explanation of the relationship between science and religion based on biological science rather than physical science. I shall make two points now about what has been said. Firstly, biologists are accustomed to trying to answer both "how" questions, to which the answer involves explaining mechanisms, and "why" questions, which are answered by explaining how natural selection might have brought about a particular situation. Hence biological and theological answers can usefully be compared. Secondly, I very much support Fraser’s view that science will not "always have to bracket out moral considerations". Indeed my arguments on the subject will be published later this year by Cambridge University Press in a book entitled: "The evolution of morality and religion" which emphasises the value of religion and its biological foundations.

John Polkinghorne

I do not doubt that biologists have a somewhat different perspective on these matters and it is certainly valuable to have their point of view expressed. However, I query biology’s ability to answer the deepest moral questions. The kind of "Why" questions it addresses are functional in character rather than truly purposive. It seems to me that sociobiology casts light on the shape of prudent action but it fails to explain truly altruistic behaviour, such as that of someone risking their life to enter a burning building to rescue an unknown stranger.

Risako Morimoto

Sir John, you have made several points on Science and Theology including the differences between them, how they deal with the same issues differently, and how some natural phenomena can be explained by theology. There are numerous mysterious issues in this world that deserve firm explanations such as the finely tuned properties of the universe. I am a social scientist, and would like to ask you a question more from the social science point of view. Social science is more closely related to human behaviour, relationships, and interaction. I wonder if you could comment on the relationship between the finely tuned universe in which we live and the reality of human suffering, the existence of poverty and of human conflict. How can we reconcile such fine-tuning with the realities of the human condition?

John Polkinghorne

The problem of evil and suffering is the deepest perplexity that faces religious belief. I do not want to suggest that there is some simple ‘one line’ answer to it. Nevertheless, science does offer theology some modest help here. Theologically we understand an evolving universe as a creation that is allowed by its Creator ‘to make itself’, to explore and realize its God-given potentiality in its own way. Such a creation seems a greater good than a ready-made world. It is a most fitting creation of the God of love, whose creation could never be just a divine puppet theatre. Yet such a creation has a cost. The same cellular processes that have driven the fruitful history of evolution through genetic mutation, must necessarily allow other cells to mutate and become malignant. The anguishing fact that there is cancer in creation is not gratuitous, something that a more compassionate or competent Creator could easily have remedied. It is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself. I think this is mildly helpful in relations to the problem of evil and suffering.

Herbert Huppert

John, I wonder if we could talk a little more about these interesting and courageous comments about evil? I think, if I understand your argument, that in order to evolve we need to undergo mutations, and some of those mutations are necessarily disadvantageous - indeed, this is the much-favoured theory at the moment as to why we age. However, it seems pretty clear from research that evil is not genetic, but environmental. I doubt if you would accept the notion that some of us were born evil. Unfortunately, many of us imbibe it from our surroundings. Thus, I was a little unsure about your explanation of how evil is a necessary downside of some of the good things we enjoy.

John Polkinghorne

I think we need to distinguish between physical evil (disease and disasters such as volcanic eruptions) and moral evil (the chosen cruelties of humankind). As far as the latter is concerned, it seems clear that there is something slanted in human nature, something that often turns a country’s liberator into its next tyrant, that tarnishes hopes and promotes shabby compromises. Christian theology understands this as the human environment of original sin, stemming from an alienation from the God who is the true ground of our being. A famous American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once called this the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine – just look around you or within your own heart.

Herbert Huppert

Your example of volcanoes (mentioned during your lecture) is somewhat biased in that the downside of the resulting deaths and destruction is partially mitigated by the advantage of new, fertile soil which the eruption brings to the Earth's surface. Hawaiian agriculture, for example, is almost totally dependent on this. But I cannot see the advantages of hurricanes, tornadoes or long periods of drought.

John Polkinghorne

Yes, positive and negative consequences intertwine in this world. We all tend to think that had we been in charge of creation we would have done it better, kept all the good and got rid of all the bad. Yet the more we understand the process of the world scientifically, the more it seems a package deal, with good and bad consequences inextricably entangled.

Herbert Huppert

John, you have argued very persuasively for the existence of God and you have made your own faith as a believing Christian extremely plain. The question I should like to know your thoughts on is: what lines of argument can you imagine that would shake your belief; make you doubt your lines of argument?

John Polkinghorne

The centre of my own belief in God does not lie in the important questions we have been discussing but in my encounter with the figure of Jesus Christ, as I meet him in the gospels, in the church and in the sacraments. If it could be shown that he was a dubious used-chariot salesman or, more significantly if it could be shown that he was not raised from the dead that first Easter day, then my Christian faith would indeed be shaken. I would probably still believe in a divine Mind behind the universe, but much of the greatest significance and hope would have been lost.

Philip Luscombe

Isn’t there a danger that the whole concept of the anthropic principle will simply turn out to be like the ‘God of the gaps’ argument?

John Polkinghorne

Gaps that appear to be just matters of current ignorance (such as our current inability to understand the origin of life) are clearly vicious and not to be used as bases for argument. However, where there are intrinsic gaps, whether of predictability (as in quantum theory) or of principle (as in science’s self-restricted inability to explain the origin of its assumed laws of nature) then they may properly be appealed to as spurs to seeking a more comprehensive interpretative setting. That is how a certain kind of natural theology can, I believe, arise as an exercise in metascientific understanding.

Philip Luscombe

We can’t predict scientific discoveries before they are made. Isn’t the very fact of this set of remarkable coincidences a spur to encourage scientists and theoreticians to investigate whether they are more than a set of coincidences and in fact hint at some deeper connecting theory which we can’t yet imagine. The fine tuning of the universe may indicate not coincidence but real connection, and thus remove God once again from the physical world.

Paul Shellard

I just wanted to make a cautionary remark about juxtaposing design with the concept of a multiverse, a possibility which is widely discussed amongst cosmologists. There is very good reason to suppose that there is more to the universe than we can observe today. The time since the Big Bang and the speed of light combine to provide a limit on the furthest objects which can be seen at present. However, if we wait patiently then even more distant objects will come into view or, more technically, will fall inside our causal horizon. So what of the rest of the universe beyond the observable horizon and therefore beyond scientific scrutiny today? Well, few cosmologists would venture to suggest that this part of the universe does not exist because their hypothesis could be tested tomorrow when more is seen (in principle, anyway). It is eminently reasonable, therefore, to believe in distant and currently inaccessible regions of the universe. And, so the argument goes, might it not be reasonable for the fundamental physical properties of the universe to be different in some of these distant regions? This is the kernel of the so-called `multiverse', a universe or a set of universes in which the constants of nature and the laws of physics vary from place to place. There are popular cosmological models, such as inflation, which provide a context in which to study theoretical realizations of multiverses, albeit rather imprecisely and speculatively at this stage.

So how does the notion of a multiverse contradict that of design, or does it? The argument continues that, although we see such a wonderful universe apparently fine-tuned for our existence (the anthropic principle), this is merely a selection effect on the infinite set of possibilities available within our multiverse. Of course, the subtext is that the multiverse dispenses with the need for a designer, but there is nothing logically compelling about such a conclusion. Might not the multiverse itself be designed specifically to allow for the existence of a special region in which we could emerge? Human life depends on tiny constrained regions coincidentally overlapping in a multidimensional parameter space (like small regions in a Venn diagram possessing a non-zero intersection). It seems reasonable to suppose that a self-consistent multiverse could be constructed in which these tiny parameter regions missed each other completely, that is, with no intersection and therefore no life. Indeed, would not such a frustrated multiverse be the generic case?

Well I could continue heaping speculation on what is already a speculative idea, but it seems that the concept of a multiverse is actually fairly neutral theologically. Theists can be as comfortable with one universe as with many. Rather, it would seem better to turn the argument on its head because, broadly speaking, the atheist is much the happier with the multiverse. When confronted with the anthropic principle, refuge is sought in the multiverse whether or not it actually solves the problem of apparent design. But the multiverse is unquestionably an additional metaphysical assumption outside the domain of traditional scientific enquiry; no matter how reasonable, it is a step of faith which exposes the incompleteness of the reductionist worldview.

John Polkinghorne

Thank you for an interesting point. I agree that it is entirely credible that spontaneous symmetry breaking may have reduced an initial Grand Unified Theory into currently observable forces in a way that varies between a set of vast cosmic domains. If that was the case, we obviously live in the domain where the reduction gave forces lying within anthropic limits. This modifies but does not eliminate anthropic specificity. One still requires the right kind of initial GUT, to generate suitable forces and to give inflation. Attempts to get rid of anthropic specificity altogether require a much larger and entirely speculative concept of a multiverse. The only motivation for this latter prodigal assumption seems to me to be the desire to avoid the threat of theism at all costs.

Tim Jarratt

I am wondering how scientists who are Christians view the Genesis account of creation and how this fits with what we have been hearing tonight?

John Polkinghorne

When we read the Bible we have to figure out what we are reading for; it is not a book but a library with all sorts of different kinds of writing in it – history and stories, poetry and prose, etc. If you get the genre wrong, you can make some bad mistakes. (‘My love is like a red, red rose’ does not mean that Robbie Burns’ girl friend had green leaves and prickles.) Genesis 1 and 2 are not divinely guaranteed textbooks of science, but deeply theological writings whose purpose is to assert that nothing exists except through the will of god (‘God said Let there be …’). So-called ‘creation scientists’ are actually misusing the Bible and making a bad theological mistake.

Donald Broom

There have been several references this evening to physical events, or even biological events such as a disease outbreak, as evil because they cause harm to individuals. I do not think of anything as being evil unless a malicious intent is involved. Indeed quite a lot of the discussion about events in the universe seems to me to be irrelevant to the central questions. My concept of God is not associated with physical phenomena such as the origin of the universe. For me, God started when there were sentient beings so in a universe with no sentient beings I do not need to consider God. Hence, in the present day, I do not think of God as causing every lightning strike or earthquake. I think that a lot of people have moved away from the Christian churches because they cannot accept a God who is responsible for every physical event.

John Polkinghorne

I certainly could not agree that ‘God started’ when sentient beings appeared. God is neither a human construct nor solely concerned with mental or spiritual reality. That seems to me to be another important message of Genesis 1 and 2, endorsed by a great weight of theological reflection. But I do agree that God is not directly responsible for every physical event. That is because of the freedom that God’s love has given to creatures to be themselves and to make themselves. In consequence by no means everything that happens is in accordance with God’s will. I believe that God wills neither the act of a murderer nor the incidence of a cancer but God allows both to happen in a world which has been given the divine gift of freedom.

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