AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN POLKINGHORNE
by Lyndon F. Harris
"Epistemology models ontology." Polkinghorne's wife heard him say it so
often that she gave him a sweatshirt with the slogan inscribed upon it.
LYNDON F. HARRIS is a doctoral candidate in twentieth-century Anglican theology at the
General Theological Seminary (Episcopal) in New York City, where he serves as Tutor.
Harris was selected as a 1997-98 Fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation, and is
currently the Chaplain and Instructor of Religious Knowledge at Saint Hilda's and Saint
Hugh's Episcopal School.
Recently, the New York Times reported that 40 percent of American scientists
believe in a personal God to whom they pray. A British scientist of similar belief is John
Polkinghorne. Serving for twenty-five years as Professor of Mathematical Physics at
Cambridge, Polkinghorne distinguished himself in the field of elementary particle physics
and in 1974 was named as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
However, just five years later, in 1979, Polkinghorne made a significant career change.
Giving up a lucrative teaching appointment, he again became a student, applying himself to
the study of theology. Having published numerous books and articles in the fields of
science and theology, Polkinghorne has emerged as one of the world's leading thinkers
attempting to correlate the conundrums of quantum physics with the mysteries of the
The following interview took place at The General Theological Seminary in New York
City, where Professor Polkinghorne was a visiting lecturer in the Spring of 1997. It is an
attempt to explore and clarify some of the pressing issues in the science/theology debate.
LH: Professor Polkinghorne, during a distinguished career as Professor of
Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, you made a significant contribution to the
field of elementary particle physics. Then, in 1979, you resigned your position in order
to train for the priesthood in the Church of England. Would you please comment upon this
JP: I very much enjoyed my career in science. I didn't leave science because I
was disillusioned, but felt I'd done my bit for it after about twenty-five years. I was
very much on the mathematical side, where you probably do your best work before you're
forty-five. Having passed that significant date, I thought I would do something else.
Since Christianity had always been central to my life, the idea of testing my vocation and
seeking ordination seemed a suitable second career.
LH: And you've spent some time in the parish as well?
JP: Yes, I was a parish priest for five years. I was a curate in a large working
class parish in Bristol and the Vicar of a village in Kent.
LH: Then the academy lured you back as president of Queens' College, Cambridge.
Your background in science gives you a special vantage point from which to do theology, an
approach that you've described as "bottom up thinking." Please explain that
phrase, and why you think this methodological commitment is important for theology.
JP: Bottom up thinkers try to start from experience and move from experience to
understanding. They don't start with certain general principles they think beforehand are
likely to be true; they just hope to find out what reality is like. If the experience of
science teaches anything, it's that the world is very strange and surprising. The many
revolutions in science have certainly shown that. If that's true of our encounter with the
physical world, it's likely to be even truer of our encounter with God.
LH: In the April 1997 issue of Theology Today, you are described as a
process theologian but you have stated clearly that you are not. What are the major
differences between your thinking and process theology?
JP: I think there are two major differences: one is in relation to the
metaphysics of process thought, which is Whitehead's event-dominated picture of reality,
the idea that the fundamental unit is the event. That's a very punctuated "point
line" way of thinking about the world, and it doesn't seem to me to fit in with the
modern science's account of physical process. There are, of course, discontinuities in
quantum theory, for example, where measurement takes place; but most of the time there is,
in fact, a continuous process. So Whitehead's metaphysics doesn't fit very well on to
physics as we understand the process of the world.
The second difficulty is a theological one, that the God of process thought is very
much a God who is a persuader, a party to everything that happens, but who doesn't really
bring about anything that happens; He's simply trying to lure the world in a particular
direction. And I think that such pleading on the margins doesn't give a strong enough
picture of God's relationship to created reality to make God the ground of hope, or to
give an account of God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who raised Jesus from
LH: How, then, is it that sometimes you are mistaken for a process thinker?
JP: Well, it's because I gladly acknowledge some ideas that are part of process
theology, but which I think are not tied to all the details of process thought, and are
very illuminating and helpful. Whitehead reacted strongly against the idea of God as a
cosmic tyrant, one who brings about everything. I believe that God allows the world to be
itself, but not to the point of simply being a persuader of the process of the world. A
picture of God halfway between tight control of everything, and just a deistic spectator
-- that's the thing that's worth working for. I share that goal with the process
theologians, but I want to achieve it in a different way. Another idea I find helpful is
to take God's involvement with time very seriously. We speak of God as having both an
eternal pole and a temporal pole, so that God is truly engaged with the process of the
world and not just detached from it. I find that a very helpful thought, as have many
twentieth-century theologians who wouldn't describe themselves as process thinkers.
LH: Owen Thomas depicted you as a process thinker because of your concept
"dual aspect monism." Would you briefly explain this?
JP: "Dual aspect monism" is an attempt to wrestle with the persistent
unsolved problem of how mind and matter relate to each other. It differs from classical
dualism, which maintains that there are two sorts of substance: mind and matter. Its
problem was how they relate to each other. I'm sure that we're not simply matter, and I'm
sure that reality is more than just ideas. None of the classical solutions seem to
correspond to our experience. Dual aspect monism tries to take seriously both our mental
experience and our material experience. It says that they're related to each other in a
very deep and complementary way, that there is only one stuff in the world. Dual aspect
monism seeks to avoid devaluing or subordinating one side or the other. Sometimes it might
seem a little like a subtle form of materialism, but I don't think it is, because it
doesn't treat the mental as being just an epiphenomenon of the material.
LH: You've also expressed a deep appreciation for what Teilhard de Chardin
accomplished in his career, but you differ from him as well. Whereas Teilhard understood
the present world to be panentheistic, you prefer to speak of the world to come as
panentheistic. Would you care to address this difference?
JP: Yes. Let me say first of all that I admire Teilhard as someone of integrity
who sought to hold together his science and his religious experience, but the details of
how he did it don't correspond to how I would try to do it myself. I think it's very
important to maintain the classical Christian distinction between the Creator and
creation. Of course, we don't want the rather remote God of classical theology who was
much too transcendent and whose immanence was really rather understated. We want an
even-handed balance between transcendence and immanence, but I think the distinction
between Creator and creation remains crucial for two reasons. One is that, if we don't,
the problem with evil, and God's relation to evil, becomes more intense. And secondly, a
God who is too caught up with creation cannot be the ground of hope for a destiny beyond
death both for creatures and the whole of creation.
I believe that God created this world, this creation, to be other than God's self and
that it is allowed to be itself. However, as the Eastern churches have always maintained,
through Christ creation is intended eventually to share in the life of God, the life of
divine nature. Even now, this world contains sacraments, inklings of God's new creation,
the redemption of this world beyond its death. I believe that the new creation will be a
totally sacramental world, totally suffused with God's presence. That means, of course,
that the world could then properly be described as panentheistic. So I see
panentheism as an eschatological destiny rather than as a present reality.
LH: Let's turn to the subject of cosmology. There's a great deal in the
literature, particularly in such writers as Thomas Torrance, about the extraordinary
revolution presently taking place in human understanding, the shift from a Newtonian to an
Einsteinian cosmology. What are the underlying issues, taking into consideration the shift
from the dualistic thinking of Descartes and Newton to the present understanding of
reality as one?
JP: I think three important things have happened. One is certainly associated
with Einstein, the recognition of the relational character of reality. The Newtonian
picture was that space was there as a sort of container, and there were little independent
particles that whizzed around and banged into each other. That picture has been replaced
by a unified understanding, derived from Einstein's general theory of relativity, that
space and time and matter are all linked together, so that the world is relational in that
sense. That is a very important development, and many theologians have seen in it a
suggestion of the relational thinking of a trinitarian theology.
Then there's been a second revolution, the discovery of quantum theory, which has
brought about a number of changes in our thinking about the world. First, the world is no
longer tightly deterministic and mechanical; there is a probabilistic character to
physical process. And, of course, quantum theory also has its own relational character.
Once two quantum entities interact with each other, they retain a very surprising and
counterintuitive power to influence each other, however far they separate. Quantum theory
also tells us that the world is not simply objective; somehow it's something more subtle
than that. In some sense it is veiled from us, but it has a structure that we can
A third change in our picture of the physical world is in terms of everyday physical
processes -- the so-called chaos theory has told us that intrinsic unpredictability,
nonmechanical behavior is characteristic, not just of quantum theory in the subatomic
roots of the world, but also of its everyday process. There are clouds as well as clocks
around in the physical universe, and that means that the behavior of these systems relies
in a sort of oxymoronic combination of order and disorder -- "on the edge of
chaos," as people sometimes say -- halfway between a totally rigid world that would
be sterile because nothing really would change in it, and a totally random world which
would be sterile because it would be completely haphazard. In between, in the balanced
interplay between a degree of order and a degree of openness, is the fruitfulness of this
LH: Splendid. Does this correlate with chance and necessity?
JP: Absolutely. Another way of expressing this is the description of an evolving
world as due to the interplay between chance and necessity. Chance doesn't mean
meaningless randomness, but historical contingency. This happens rather than that, and
that's the way that novelty, new things, come about. On the other hand, these new things
would just disappear if they weren't preserved by a degree of lawful regularity in
LH: And both of those are essential early on in creation.
JP: Yes, they are essential early on, and throughout. Evolution, of course, is
not something that simply applies to life here on earth; it applies to the whole universe.
After all, the universe required ten billion years of evolution before life was even
possible; the evolution of the stars and the evolving of new chemical elements in the
nuclear furnaces of the stars were indispensable prerequisites for the generation of life.
The laws that we understand as laws of nature had to be finely tuned to make this
possible. The physical fabric of the world had to be such as to enable that ten billion
year preliminary evolution to produce the raw materials of life. Without it there would
not have been the chemical materials to allow life to evolve here on earth.
LH: I'd like to read a quotation from Thomas Torrance's Theology and
Reconciliation, regarding the epistemological shift from Newton to the present:
A very serious problem faces us today, that of the time lag between the inception of
the revolution of foundations of thought and the completion in the restructuring of our
forms of thought and life. For the transitional period is full of chaotic ideas, paranoid
anxieties, hybrid solutions and regressive tendencies. (270-71)
Torrance declares that "we have difficulty making this shift because we are
committed to the science of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries." Do you have any
ideas about how we might navigate these confusing seas?
JP: Tom Torrance is a major theologian who throughout his career has sought to
take the insights of science seriously as part of his theological thinking. I think he's
absolutely right in that quotation. Many people have a very outdated picture of what
science tells us about the world. They think of it as a clockwork world; the sort of
universe that Laplace talked about at the end of the eighteenth century -- his notorious
statement that if a calculating demon knew everything that is happening now, that demon
could predict the total future and retrodict the whole of the past. That certainly was the
idea of physical process then, but it's not now. The universe is more open, more subtle,
and more supple in its character than people in the eighteenth or nineteenth century could
know. Unfortunately, this hasn't really permeated a great deal of theological thinking.
People, and especially theologians, should try to familiarize themselves with scientific
ideas. Of course, science is technical in many respects, but there are some very good
books that try to set out some of the conceptual structure of science. These include Paul
Davies' Superforce [Heinemann Publishing] and About Time [Viking Press], as
well as James Gleick's Chaos [Heinemann Publishing], and my own The Quantum
World [Princeton University Press].
LH: Related to this, in Reason and Reality, you quote the philosopher and
physicist Bernard d'Espagnat who is convinced that philosophy must learn from the
sciences, particularly physics: "we may imagine that to reach the truth, we only need
to come up with brilliant ideas, but that is mistaken, for it remains illusory to hope
that in our day people can still make valid claims on matters such as reality, time and
causality, if these claims are not rooted in the extraordinarily elaborate, factual
knowledge now at our disposal" (44).
In view of this, why is it that many theologians view this science/ theology
conversation as a specialty rather than seeing it as fundamental to doing
JP: Theologians have a great problem because they're seeking to speak about God.
Since God is the ground of everything that is, there's a sense in which every human
inquiry is grist to the theological mill. Obviously, no theologian can know everything. On
the other hand, the nature of the physical world and nature of the history of the physical
world are important factors. Those theologians who are beginning to take the doctrine of
creation very seriously should pay some attention to science's story. At present, too much
theological thinking is very human-centered. Of course, nobody would deny the importance
of human beings for theological thinking, but the time span of history that theologians
think about is a few thousand years of human culture rather than the fifteen billion years
of the history of the universe. And the scale on which they think is also parochial. When
they say "the world" they usually mean our planet earth, rather than the one
hundred thousand million galaxies of the observable universe. They should enlarge their
LH: One who was deeply committed to the Einstein revolution and quantum physics
is Michael Polanyi, a chemist and a philosopher of science. What do you think is the most
attractive facet of his approach?
JP: What I find most helpful about Polanyi is that he describes himself as being
postliberal. We could probably use the word postmodern today. He recognizes that the great
Cartesian program of clear and certain ideas, of foundational knowledge true beyond the
possibility of doubt, is unattainable. Yet he is not driven by that to a relativism which
simply says, you have your opinions, I have mine. He seeks to find a middle way between
the two, greatly aided by his experience of science, where he also recognizes that there
is a certain precariousness in human knowledge. Understanding, he insists, requires a
commitment to a point of view; one's point of view should be open to consideration, but
nevertheless, through our acts of commitment, we have powers of understanding which enable
us to make progress in gaining knowledge of the physical world. He wrote his great book, Personal
Knowledge, to show how it was possible to commit yourself to a point of view, while
knowing that it might be wrong. I find that a very recognizable description of the
scientific enterprise. I also agree that the scientific enterprise is successful, and this
encourages me to think that Polanyi's stance is one that's actually sustainable. And if
it's sustainable within our investigation of the physical world, that is an encouragement
also for other forms of human inquiry including theology, where to an even greater degree,
we have to commit ourselves to a point of view, and where we know our ideas are going to
be only partially adequate. Polanyi's stance is a very helpful way of steering a middle
course between thinking that you can prove things in some logically decisive way, and
thinking there is no truth to be found or knowledge to be gained.
LH: His vantage point seems helpful in doing theology in what we have referred
to as a postmodern period.
JP: I think so. His ideas are one way of articulating what we often call
"critical realism," both in relation to science and also in relation to
theology. If you think about it, Rahner's Rule, which says that "the economic trinity
is the immanent trinity," is a statement of theological realism, that what we know
about God is not misleading. In other words, the economic trinity is the essential
trinity; what we know about God is a reliable guide to the divine nature.
LH: You have stated that "rather than being the first of the new
scientists, Einstein is really one of the last of the ancients." What do you mean
JP: Of course, Einstein was a very great scientist indeed, and I have enormous
respect for him, and great admiration for the discoveries he made. But he was very
committed to a view of the objectivity of the physical world. He wanted the physical world
to be picturable, wanted it to be deterministic, and he wanted these things, I think,
because he believed those qualities would guarantee the reality of the physical world.
Like all scientists, Einstein believed very passionately in the reality of the physical
world, and that we really learn something of its nature in our scientific investigations.
I share that view with him, but I don't think that means we have to commit ourselves to a
purely objective view of the physical world in the classical sense. It's clear to me that
quantum theory (a theory that Einstein hated and never truly accepted), shows us that the
world is more subtle, more veiled than that. Nevertheless, all of us who work in quantum
physics believe in the reality of a quantum world, and the reality of quantum entities
like protons and electrons. The basic reason we believe this is not because they are
objective in the classical sense -- because they're not -- but because the supposition of
their existence enables us to understand, to a great extent, physical experience. Thus,
intelligibility is the guarantee of reality, rather than of objectivity. Incidentally,
that was very powerfully and persuasively put forward by Bernard Lonergan.
LH: Would you say a few words about Paul Dirac, his discovery of the positron,
and the development of quantum physics?
JP: I learnt my quantum mechanics from Dirac, who was one of the founding
fathers of the subject, a sort of scientific saint. He had both great singleness of mind
and great humility. He made very significant discoveries through the pursuit of beautiful
equations, but never emphasized his own part in them or attached his own name to them. One
of the fascinating things about the physical world is that its fundamental structure seems
always to be expressed in beautiful mathematics. To me that suggests that there is a Mind
behind the structure of the world, and that our minds are somehow attuned to that Mind.
One of the great minds of physics in the twentieth century, Dirac was not a conventionally
religious person at all. In his youth he was rather opposed to religion, but became more
understanding -- though not exactly accepting -- of it in later life. He was once asked
what were his fundamental beliefs and he turned to a blackboard and wrote "The
equations of physics are expressed in beautiful mathematics." It was the relentless
pursuit of that mathematical beauty that led to his great discoveries. He discovered
antimatter, and how to put quantum mechanics and relativity together.
LH: Dr. Polkinghorne, you have often expressed your fondness for a
particular phrase, "epistemology models ontology." Would you please say a few
words about it?
JP: I coined the phrase, and my wife heard me say it so often that she gave me a
sweatshirt with the slogan inscribed upon it. For me the phrase is a succinct statement of
a realistic view of the scientific enterprise, or indeed, of the wider human inquiry into
reality: that what we know is a reliable guide to what is the case. We are not misled by
the world. I don't accept the Kantian disjunction between phenomena (things as we know
them) and noumena (things as they are in themselves). The whole effect of scientific
experience is to engender belief that we attain a tightening grasp of an actual reality.
Of course, we make maps of the world, rather than totally describe it; there is always
more to learn. My slogan is just a way of saying that we are not misled by our encounter
with reality. How it appears to us, how we get to know it, is a reliable guide to
reality's nature. The idea comes out of my experience as a scientist, but I think it's
underwritten by the world being the creation of God, for God is not a deceiving demon in a
Cartesian sense. It is the faithfulness of God that allows epistemology to model ontology.
LH: Do different epistemologies have a relationship of verisimilitude? Perhaps
it would be helpful if you discussed the relationship of consonance and assimilation.
JP: I'm a very passionate believer in the unity of knowledge. There is one world
of reality -- one world of our experience that we're seeking to describe. Of course, there
are different aspects and levels of that reality; we can encounter the same event in a
different way. We could describe it in very physical terms, or as a carrier of beauty, or
a moment of moral choice; it could be the moment we encounter God. There are these
different layers. But somewhere they've all got to fit together. I want to put them
together in a way that respects the different characters of each level that I experience,
as well as the fact that the experience is of one reality. I want a consonant
relationship, for example, between science and theology. Science cannot tell theology how
to construct a doctrine of creation, but you can't construct a doctrine of creation
without taking account of the age of the universe and the evolutionary character of cosmic
history. I also think we need to maintain distinctions -- the doctrine of creation is
different from a scientific cosmology, and we should resist the temptation, which
sometimes scientists give in to, to try to assimilate the concepts of theology to the
concepts of science. There is a distinction that needs to be maintained.
LH: Can a scientist pray?
JP: Well, that depends on what you mean by prayer. Scientists, I think, very
often pray without knowing they're praying. A sense of wonder at the beauty and
fruitfulness of the world is a very common scientific experience. Actually, that's a sort
of tacit prayer of adoration to the Creator, but of course many of my scientific friends
wouldn't be able to see it that way. I suppose the real point of the question, "Can a
scientist pray?" is in terms of petitionary prayer: can we actually ask God for
something? I think we've come to see a picture of the physical world that is open, is
subtle and supple. We're beginning to see a picture of the physical world in which we can
understand ourselves as its inhabitants, because we know we have powers to act in the
world; hence the world must really be open for us to act within it. It seems to me likely
also to be open to God to act within it. In other words, God's providential interaction
with history is not ruled out by what we know about scientific process.
LH: In one of your writings you use a curious phrase, "liturgy-assisted
logic." What do you mean by it?
JP: It's a transmutation of a phrase I took from physicist David Park. He was
talking about how science understands the world, but needs the nudge of nature to see
exactly what the pattern and structure of that world is. Often the true pattern of the
world is very much more interesting than we could imagine beforehand. David called that
nature-assisted logic. And it seems to me that a lot of our theological thinking is
"liturgy-assisted logic" in this sense: I think one of the fundamental religious
experiences is the experience of worship. I'm not a person who has had any overwhelming
numinous experience or deep mystical experience. I do have an everyday sort of experience
of worship and prayer. In fact, my spiritual life is sustained by things like the daily
office that I say as a priest, and the eucharistic worship of the Church. It's that
experience, I think, which helps us in our thinking about God.
LH: Do you have any final comments about the future of the science/theology
JP: What I'd like to say about that is that the debate is continuing. The most
discussed topic at the moment is divine action, and that is a sign that the encounter
between science and theology is becoming closer. We're not simply talking about creation
and natural theology (important issues though they are); the two disciplines are engaging
each other in perhaps more central questions, which will continue and expand. Indeed, I
think the conversation needs to be greatly extended. We need more theologians prepared to
participate in it; we need also a wider range of scientists. A great deal has been done by
physical scientists; we need more biologists. And above all, we need more people from the
human sciences. My colleague at Cambridge, Fraser Watts, Starbridge Lecturer in Theology
and the Natural Sciences, holds the first endowed position in the field of science and
theology in Britain. His scientific background is in psychology, and I'm sure some
important consequences will flow from that.
LH: Professor Polkinghorne, thank you very much for the pleasure of this
JP: Thank you, Lyndon. I very much enjoyed the conversation.
Books by John Polkinghorne
The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1996. One of the best introductions to Polkinghorne's thought on classical
Christian doctrines, this publication is the collection of his 1993-94 Gifford Lectures.
Polkinghorne sets before himself the monumental task of exploring the Nicene Creed from
the point of view of a scientist (i.e., a "bottom-up thinker").
The Quantum World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. This concise
volume offers an excellent introduction to quantum theory for the general reader.
Polkinghorne here offers helpful instruction on the basics of quantum mechanics.
Quarks, Chaos and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion. New York:
Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996. This is an introduction to the major questions arising
from the dialogue between science and theology. Polkinghorne grapples with such engaging
questions as "Is anyone out there?" "Can a scientist pray?" "What
about miracles?" and "How will it end?"
Reason and Reality: The Relationship Between Science and Theology. Valley Forge,
Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1991. This volume offers a more detailed account of
Polkinghorne's unique vantage point in the science/theology debate, engaging topics such
as "Rational Inquiry," "Reason and Revelation," "The Use of
Scripture," and "The Fall." Particularly illuminating is his discussion of
"The Fall" from a scientific perspective, considering critically the
difficulties associated with the popular traditional belief that a radical change occurred
because of a grievous ancestral act.
Scientists as Theologians: A Comparison of the Writings of Ian Barbour, Arthur
Peacocke, and John Polkinghorne. London: SPCK, 1996. While it should come as no
surprise as to which of the above-mentioned authors Polkinghorne prefers, this volume is
most helpful in comparing three leading "scientist-theologians." Polkinghorne
honestly assesses both the contributions and inadequacies of each. Helpful here is his
location of each of the three on a "consonance-assimilation" spectrum --
"consonance" being the perspective that science and theology have similar
interests, but remain separate disciplines; and, "assimilation" being the point
of view in which science and theology are completely integrated into one discipline.
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