First Things on Priest, Scientist John Polkinghorne

Former mathematical physicist and now Anglican priest and theologian John Polkinghorne brings a unique perspective to questions of the relationship between science and religion.  First Things gives some background and describes two of his recent books.

A great point here:

The overall message Polkinghorne brings is a crucial one: Science cannot provide its own metaphysical interpretation. As he says with typical precision, “Physics constrains metaphysics, but it no more determines it than the foundations of a house determine the precise form of the building erected on them.” This is especially true in a post-Newtonian world characterized by greater epistemological humility. “The twentieth-century demise of mere mechanism,” he says, provides “a salutary reminder that there is nothing absolute or incorrigible about the context of science.” Some questions lie “outside the scientific domain,” and here “theology has a right to contribute to the subsequent metascientific discourse.” Anyone familiar with the writings of such preachers of scientific atheism as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or Christopher Hitchins will immediately appreciate the very different world in which Polkinghorne dwells. “The tendency among atheist writers to identify reason exclusively with scientific modes of thought,” he notes pointedly, “is a disastrous diminishment of our human powers of truth-seeking inquiry.”

That tendency, as I recently noted, is scientism.

Concerning natural theology,

As an expert in fundamental physics, Polkinghorne likes to advance a modest form of natural theology—not the older kind of argument that places design in direct competition with biological evolution and stresses “gaps” in natural processes, but a newer style of argument based on the very comprehensibility of nature and nature’s laws. The universe revealed by science “is not only rationally transparent,” but also “rationally beautiful, rewarding scientists with the experience of wonder at the marvelous order which is revealed through the labours of their research.” Why should this be so? The laws of nature “underlie the form and possibility of all occurrence,” but science can treat them only “as given brute facts. These laws, in their economy and rational beauty, have a character that seems to point the enquirer beyond what science itself is capable of telling, making a materialist acceptance of them as unexplained brute facts an intellectually unsatisfying stance to take.” The very possibility of science, in his view, “is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore.” In short, “the activity of science is recognized to be an aspect of the imago Dei.”

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