John Polkinghorne — Quarks and Creation
January 13, 2011

Science and religion are often pitted against one another; but how do they complement, rather than contradict, one another? We learn how one man applies the deepest insights of modern physics to think about how the world fundamentally works, and how the universe might make space for prayer.

(photo: Eric J. Heller)

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Selected Readings

Genesis 1

The first chapter of Genesis, as translated by Everett Fox.

Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog

1

A guest contribution from a Christian Scientist on "Splitting Infinity" and the play's balanced depiction of his faith.

Visualizing responses to a Physics World survey on religion and science.

1

A rap from an employee who works with the particle accelerator that actually does a really good job of breaking down the science.

A classic comic on faith in equations. "You take two numbers and when you add them, they magically become one new number!"

1

Breathing some new life into an old conversation.

About the Image

"Transport II" depicts rendered electron flow paths in a two-dimensional electron gas (2DEG). The scale of the image is about the size of a bacterium. The image is based on flow patterns for electrons riding over a bumpy landscape, and the concentrations of electron flow into the branches are recently discovered indirect effects of that bumpy ride. The channeling or branching was unexpected and may have implications for small electronic devices of the future.

(photo: Eric J. Heller)

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Personal reflections as an active participant in the universal creation.

We swim with the fish of the sea through waters that are clouded with oil and waste.
We soar with the birds of the sky through air that is thick with smog.

We struggle with the arctic animals through vast oceans in search of food and shelter.
We run with the fauna of the forest through desolate fields once covered with trees and brush.

We roam with the wildlife of the open plains through dry lands devoid of water.
We climb with the creatures of the rainforest and jungles through sparse strips of trees seeking safety and sustenance.

We wilt with the flora dug up from the ground and buried beneath cement.
We erode with the hills and mountains stripped of the trees that made us majestic.

We hide with the neglected and abused in the shadows that do not offer protection.
We thirst and hunger with the needy and underfed who are too weak to be heard.

We seek shelter with the homeless who sleep in the streets or abandoned buildings.
We question with the uneducated why we cannot read or write.

We ache with the uninsured who are suffering from lack of health care.
We hurt others who are innocent because we were hurt in our innocence.

We view the world through the bars of cages where we fear others as others fear us.
We die with the young and old who are defenseless and viewed as a hindrance.

We have forgotten that we are the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the arctic animals, the fauna of the forest, the wildlife of the open plains, the creatures of the rainforests and jungles, the flora, the hills and mountains, the neglected and abused, the needy and underfed, the homeless, the uneducated, the uninsured, the innocent, the caged, the defenseless.

We have forgotten that we are one in God and all God's creation. We forgot &mdash but now we remember; we know. And in our knowing we are called to action. Who are we? We are God's people; a people of action.

One
We are each unique. We are individuals. We are each one.
We are born at a time and place that is our own.
As our lives progress, our experiences increase our individuality; our oneness.
But it is our uniqueness that makes us the same.
Our differences are our common bond.
A bond that strengthens the ones to become the One.
One in life. One in God. One in each other.
We celebrate our uniqueness. We celebrate our being One.

The question seems a bit loaded. I thought I was going to get an opportunity to react to the Polkinghorne interview. But to briefly respond, I think I experience the universe by making pictures, models as a physicist would put it, of the universe in my mind, on paper and in computers. The pictures are as closely based on my sense experience as I can make them. I often find this quite exhilarating, though sometimes distressing.

Now to turn to Dr. Polkinghorne and your interview, with all respect for his capabilities as a physicist, and as a physicist of modest achievement myself, I find him somewhat embarrassing. It seems to me that science has a distinctly different process for determining what is true than religion does. And in fact, in the most coherent account of the scientific process which I have encountered (attributed to Karl Popper), science never claims to have found a final truth but only hypotheses which are consistent with phenomena which have been observed so far.

If one attempts to treat the hypotheses of religion in this scientific way, by comparing their predictions with observations, then most of them fail. Everyone,including Dr. Polkinghorne, knows this. It is the origin of the "problem of evil" which you briefly discussed: It is contradictory to experience to hypothesize that God is omnipotent in the world and good in the human sense. Polkinghorne talks around such contradictions but in the end they remain. I also think it's disingenuous to suggest that the statistical character of quantum mechanics and the indeterminacy of classical physics in chaotic systems provides much help with the problem of free will.

Finally the remarks about the mathematical beauty in physics are both misleading and quite irrelevant the relation of science to religion: The current "standard model" of elementary particle physics is generally agreed to be a mathematically ugly construction. Nature does not always choose a beautiful arrangement of things, at least to human view. Certainly nature is full of surprises and not easy to understand, but I do not think that Polkinghorne's rather amateurish and clearly theologically biased musings add much to that understanding.

There is a quiet space in time when the universe and I are sharing a joke which is so complete that I become the universe becoming me. And the joke is that it's always been changing so nothing has really changed at all.

Overall, I found this discussion to be highly unscientific, using a lot of fancy verbal acrobatics to justify a lot of unsubstantiated beliefs. For example, Polkinghorne's analogy comparing the alleged dual nature of Jesus (i.e. being both human and divine) to wave-particle duality does not stand up to scrutiny. When physicists talk about wave-particle duality they are not stating that one thing is actually two different things simultaneously. As explained by astrophysicist Victor J. Stenger in his book The New Atheism, "the wave that is associated with particles is not a property of individual particles but the statistical property of an ensemble of many particles...there is no wave-particle duality." In other words, it's not that a particle is also a wave at the same time that it is a particle. It's that a whole bunch of particles sometimes assemble in wave-like patterns. This is not analogous to the duality that some Christians ascribe to Jesus, that he is simultaneously human and divine. Thus, this concept of duality cannot be offered as scientific support for the alleged dual-nature of Jesus.

Perhaps more to the point, when Polkinghorne stated that life after death has been "guaranteed within history by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" I would have liked Ms. Tippett to ask him exactly what historical evidence he was referring to. Outside of the writings of a few people who were admittedly attempting to create a new religion decades and centuries after the death of Jesus, there is no corroborating historical evidence for the Christian mythology.

I'd like to say something about Ms. Tippett's suggestion that the only leap of faith required to reconcile Genesis 1 with evolution is "to say God's days are longer than our days." This is a common argument used by people who want to preserve some claim of validity for the Genesis story. Polkinghorne was wise to sidestep it. The language of Genesis itself, which repeatedly refers to "the morning and the evening" as the definition of a day, seems to negate any claims that the length of a day might equate to anything other than a single rising and setting of the sun. Moreover, nowhere else in the text do the words day/morning/evening carry any other meaning than their usual 24-hour occurrences. So how can we justify making up exceptional definitions for their usage in this context?

I could go on and on pointing out the absurdities contained in this discussion. For example Polkinghorne's vision of a god who can't do things against god's nature. How circular! But what does it mean? What evidence can Polkinghorne cite to substantiate the nature of god? Isn't it intriguing that the nature of god, as described by Polkinghorne, is remarkably human-like? Polkinghorne's god is subject to rationalism, mathematics, and evolution. Let's be honest, this is not the vision of god that most Christians put forth.

Finally, Polkinghorne's answer to theodicy is no answer at all. He says:

"if God is going to bring into being a world in which creatures are allowed to make themselves, and God does that, because that is a greater good than a ready-made world or a magic world in which fire never burns anyone when they put their hands into it, and so on, when deeds, in fact, never have consequences, if that's a better world, then even God, you see, can't create that world without it having its shadow side."

First of all, how does Polkinghorne know that a world with pain is "a greater good" than a world without pain? He just makes this grand assumption, attributing it to god's discretion, without any evidence whatsoever. Moreover, Polkinghorne is saying that god cannot create a world free from pain and suffering and have it still be as interesting as the world we know. This is not only absurd, it's monumentally arrogant. When a hurricane, tsunami, or earthquake lays waste to a city and thousands of people are killed and thousands more made homeless, Polkinghorne would console them with the knowledge that their suffering is the price we pay for the gift of free-will and for living in an interesting world. Nice.

My advice to Dr. Polkinghorne is to stop talking in circles, stop making fancy-worded excuses for unproven theological doctrines, and just follow the evidence.

On Polkinghorn;The Tsunami and the Soul

Deep, deep, under the
river of cold mud lies a shining soul.
God did not order the awful slide,
but knows it's there; His sweep is wide.
...nor is the weeping hidden from Him
The shining cannot be gathered
by me as I the sunlight capture.
All is my Right, His perogative,
and the soul's rapture deep in the mud...

An early morning listener

I liked Krista's question about shadow side and bad things happening in this world.

Aside from natural disasters, bad things don't just happen. Human beings make them happen. Human beings "do" many them. We know even from the Haiti disaster that even earthquakes are made worse by 2 centuries of economic degradation that resulted in poor building materials,codes and deforestation of the island because World Bank told them they had to do that in order to pay their debt services to World Bank loans. All of these troubles can be linked to generations of ruling elites and outside meddling colonial powers outside who refused to acknowledge the democratic freedoms and rights of Haitians to right livelihood and property. The same is true for poverty in Cuba because Boston and NY families who owned plantations there want them back, and so enforce trade sanctions with their bought influence over malleable politicians. They take no responsibility for the failure to uphold democracy in Cuba which led to the revolution against their property and power. The same tricks were used against Haiti for centuries in retaliation for their successful uprising against slave-owners. France made them pay restitution for lost "property" because the slaves freed themselves, and had to repay their value to their former "owners". US slave-owners who had inordinate money from free labor and power over the early Congress enforced these trade sanctions which made Haiti poor. All that re-upped over the years with World Bank loans, which effectively colonized all the countries to whom they were made.

The biggest "natural disaster" so far in the US was caused by human beings failing to pay taxes to maintain levies that were built by an earlier generation. This is the result of daily choices by many many people involved in that chain, and the indifference of the majority who let them get away with their corruption, and now murder and massive property destruction! Before that, the biggest number of deaths from a flood in the USA were caused by human beings failing to maintain a privately owned dam. Human beings' government and courts failed to force them to maintain their privately owned dam. How can God be blamed for any of this?

Much suffering in the world is caused by hording because certain individuals in each society are given rights to horde resources and money, while many more than their number are allowed to be in poverty and misery. Other times, they are given free rein to cause suffering using weapons and agents to create conflicts in other countries rich in natural resources or cheap labor. In the US today, they are even given the power to create the appearances of conflicts using bought media enterprises.

Of course, the fear the few horders have of democracy is what ultimately leads to things like revolutions, communist totalitarians, or capitalist right-wing fascist totalitarians. None of the horders like democracy. Nobody who can get absolute power over a system ultimately has to submit himself to democracy. The horders been working against ours since the Duponts backed their Liberty League and many other tactics to organize themselves against the mass democracy who outnumbered them, but would never come close to the economic power they possessed.

The American Revolution may have worked out well, but had Britain been able to enforce a boycott on the new US, like France and the rest of the slave labor exploiting world enforced on Haiti, our buildings would not be as safe here either! Natural disasters here would be much more destructive like they are now in Pakistan, for many of the same reasons. Unfortunately for Britain, and fortunately for the USA, France used the American Revolution to weaken Britain, and its hording money makers. But, not before Britain and Spain both worked to weaken France clandestinely funding 70 years of Civl War to prevent France from developing the Mississippi Valley. The same meddling tricks are used today by our horders called many many things. In fact, it was an outsider meddling, Catherine the Great, enforcing embargoes against Britain in the Baltic that inadvertently gave France and the 13 colonies the advantage to win that war. It was US outsider meddling in Afghanistan on behalf of US horders and their business interests in oil and minerals that created the Mujahadeen and now al-Qaeda. This meddling is cause of tremendous suffering for many people, including 1000s of American families, while the horders themselves feel no pain and escape any implications in any of this shadow side!

All these shadow side disasters natural, or otherwise can be traced to injustice and thwarted democracy where everyone's rights are not equally defended by governments and courts! I agree with the Physicist that we human beings have creative choice to fix these problems! As we learn more about cause and effect for what ails us, become more honest about it, and less propagandized about it we will discover more that we can do. Like the Physicists learn about new particles to peel away the onion, we can collectively fix these matters! Even the horders had to collectivize and organize themselves and their money by overcoming their own mythologies about individualism and individual liberty. They had to do that to collectively overwhelm democracy over the last 40 years with their money's corrupting political power, and power to seed culture wars! Power to seed culture wars especially is the historical source of terrible disasters including the Holocaust and the Bosnian Genocide! We see this now playing itself out in Arizona...

The question seems a bit loaded. I thought I was going to get an opportunity to react
to the Polkinghorne interview. But to briefly respond, I think I experience the universe
by making pictures, models as a physicist would put it, of the universe in my mind, on paper and in computers. The pictures are as closely based on my sense experience as I can
make them. I often find this quite exhilarating, though sometimes distressing.
Now to turn to Dr Polkinghorne and your interview, with all respect for his capabilities
as a physicist, and as a physicist of modest achievement myself, I find him somewhat embarrassing. It seems to me that science has a distinctly different process for determining what is true than religion does. And in fact, in the most coherent account of
the scientific process which I have encountered (attributed to Karl Popper), science never
claims to have found a final truth but only hypotheses which are consistent with
phenomena which have been observed so far. If one attempts to treat the hypotheses of religion in this scientific way, by comparing their predictions with observations, then most of them fail. Everyone,including Dr. Polkinghorne, knows this. It is the origin of the 'problem of evil' which you briefly discussed: It is contradictory to experience to hypothesize that God is omnipotent in the world and good in the human sense. Polkinghorne talks around such contradictions but in the end they remain. I also think it's disingenuous to suggest that the statistical character of quantum mechanics and the indeterminacy of classical physics in chaotic systems provides much help with the problem of free will. Finally the remarks about the mathematical beauty in physics are both misleading and quite irrelevant the relation of science to religion: The current 'standard model' of elementary particle physics is generally agreed to be a mathematically ugly construction. Nature does not always choose a beautiful arrangement of things, at least to human view. Certainly nature is full of surprises and not easy to understand, but I do not think that Polkinghorne's rather amateurish and clearly theologically biased musings add much to that understanding.

Personal reflections as an active participant in the universal creation.
Teresa Blundell

WHO ARE WE?

We swim with the fish of the sea through waters that are clouded with oil and waste.
We soar with the birds of the sky through air that is thick with smog.

We struggle with the arctic animals through vast oceans in search of food and shelter.
We run with the fauna of the forest through desolate fields once covered with trees and brush.

We roam with the wildlife of the open plains through dry lands devoid of water.
We climb with the creatures of the rainforest and jungles through sparse strips of trees seeking safety and sustenance.

We wilt with the flora dug up from the ground and buried beneath cement.
We erode with the hills and mountains stripped of the trees that made us majestic.

We hide with the neglected and abused in the shadows that do not offer protection.
We thirst and hunger with the needy and underfed who are too weak to be heard.

We seek shelter with the homeless who sleep in the streets or abandoned buildings.
We question with the uneducated why we cannot read or write.

We ache with the uninsured who are suffering from lack of health care.
We hurt others who are innocent because we were hurt in our innocence.

We view the world through the bars of cages where we fear others as others fear us.
We die with the young and old who are defenseless and viewed as a hindrance.

We have forgotten that we are the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the arctic animals, the fauna of the forest, the wildlife of the open plains, the creatures of the rainforests and jungles, the flora, the hills and mountains, the neglected and abused, the needy and underfed, the homeless, the uneducated, the uninsured, the innocent, the caged, the defenseless.

We have forgotten that we are one in God and all God's creation. We forgot - but now we remember; we know. And in our knowing we are called to action. Who are we? We are God’s people; a people of action.

ONE
We are each unique. We are individuals. We are each – one.
We are born at a time and place that is our own.
As our lives progress, our experiences increase our individuality; our oneness.
But it is our uniqueness that makes us the same.
Our differences are our common bond.
A bond that strengthens the ones to become the One.
One in life. One in God. One in each other.
We celebrate our uniqueness. We celebrate our being One.

On Polkinghorn;
The Tsunami and the Soul

Deep, deep, under the
river of cold mud lies a shining soul.
God did not order the awful slide,
but knows it's there; His sweep is wide.
...nor is the weeping hidden from Him
The shining cannot be gathered
by me as I the sunlight capture.
All is my Right,His perogative,
and the Soul's Rapture deep in the mud..

An early morning listener

Overall, I found this discussion to be highly unscientific, using a lot of fancy verbal acrobatics to justify a lot of unsubstantiated beliefs.

For example, Polkinghorne's analogy comparing the alleged dual nature of Jesus (i.e., being both human and divine) to wave-particle duality does not stand up to scrutiny. When physicists talk about wave-particle duality they are not stating that one thing is actually two different things simultaneously. As explained by astrophysicist Victor J. Stenger in his book The New Atheism, "the wave that is associated with particles is not a property of individual particles but the statistical property of an ensemble of many particles... there is no wave-particle duality." In other words, it's not that a particle is also a wave at the same time that it is a particle. It's that a whole bunch of particles sometimes assemble in wave-like patterns. This is not analogous to the duality that some Christians ascribe to Jesus, that he is simultaneously human and divine. Thus, this concept of duality cannot be offered as scientific support for the alleged dual-nature of Jesus.

Perhaps more to the point, when Polkinghorne stated that life after death has been "guaranteed within history by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" I would have liked Ms. Tippet to ask him exactly what historical evidence he was referring to. Outside of the writings of a few people who were admittedly attempting to create a new religion decades and centuries after the death of Jesus, there is no corroborating historical evidence for the Christian mythology.

I'd like to say something about Ms. Tippet's suggestion that the only leap of faith required to reconcile Genesis 1 with evolution is "to say God's days are longer than our days." This is a common argument used by people who want to preserve some claim of validity for the Genesis story. Polkinghorne was wise to sidestep it. The language of Genesis itself, which repeatedly refers to "the morning and the evening" as the definition of a day, seems to negate any claims that the length of a day might equate to anything other than a single rising and setting of the sun. Moreover, nowhere else in the text do the words day/morning/evening carry any other meaning than their usual 24-hour occurrences. So how can we justify making up exceptional definitions for their usage in this context?

I could go on and on pointing out the absurdities contained in this discussion. For example Polkinghorne's vision of a god who can't do things against god's nature. How circular! But what does it mean? What evidence can Polkinghorne cite to substantiate the nature of god? Isn't it intriguing that the nature of god, as described by Polkinghorne, is remarkably humanlike? Polkinghorne's god is subject to rationalism, mathematics, and evolution. Let's be honest, this is NOT the vision of god that most Christians put forth.

Finally, Polkinghorne's answer to theodicy is no answer at all. He says:

"if God is going to bring into being a world in which creatures are allowed to make themselves, and God does that, because that is a greater good than a ready-made world or a magic world in which fire never burns anyone when they put their hands into it, and so on, when deeds, in fact, never have consequences, if that's a better world, then even God, you see, can't create that world without it having its shadow side."

First of all, how does Polkinghorne know that a world with pain is "a greater good" than a world without pain? He just makes this grand assumption, attributing it to god's discretion, without any evidence whatsoever. Moreover, Polkinghorne is saying that god cannot create a world free from pain and suffering and have it still be as interesting as the world we know. This is not only absurd, it's monumentally arrogant. When a hurricane, tsunami, or earthquake lays waste to a city and thousands of people are killed and thousands more made homeless, Polkinghorne would console them with the knowledge that their suffering is the price we pay for the gift of free-will and for living in an interesting world. Nice.

My advice to Dr. Polkinghorne is to stop talking in circles, stop making fancy-worded excuses for unproven theological doctrines, and just follow the evidence.

There is a quiet space in time when the universe and I are sharing a joke which is so complete that I become the universe becoming me. And the joke is that it's always been changing so nothing has really changed at all.

Just curious...John, did your faith come from second hand or first hand (experiential) religion?

I realize I am asking a totally personal question; and do not ask facetiously nor sardonically, but between you and me as a seeking after profound truth human... i describe myself as a non-literalistic and non-exclusivistic Christian and I understand that the Bible is a totally human product; yet sacred product as human responses to experiences with and ponderings about God, a la Gomes...

Voices on the Radio

is Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral in England and author of many books, including Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. He served as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and is a Fellow of The Royal Society.

Production Credits

Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

Managing Producer: Kate Moos

Associate Producer: Nancy Rosenbaum

Associate Producer: Shubha Bala

Associate Producer: Susan Leem

Technical Director/Producer: Chris Heagle

Senior Editor: Trent Gilliss

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