Transport III first heard John Polkinghorne’s voice on the BBC in the late 1980s, at a time when I lived in England. Late one night, he presented a riveting radio essay. It couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes, but it had a tremendous, lasting effect on me.

Polkinghorne spoke about reason and faith, science and prayer — subjects I was pondering deeply at that point, after a good decade in which I had dismissed religion and religious sentiments out of hand. He described connections between quantum physics and theology in inviting, commonsense terms. He applied chaos theory to make prayer sound intellectually intriguing. I was thrilled when I was able, in 2005, to talk with John Polkinghorne about the ideas he inspired in me 15 years ago and about many related questions I have accumulated since.

Just as I found myself speaking with him, of course, the centuries-old debate between science and religion — in particular the flashpoint of evolution versus creation — was taking on renewed energy in American culture. And even as that debate receded from the limelight, figures like Richard Dawkins popularized the thesis that scientific reason and religious faith are incompatible and at odds. But ironically, in this same historical moment, a lively, deepening international dialogue between scientists and religious thinkers has expanded its reach across the rift that developed after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. John Polkinghorne is a leading figure in that development.

Most striking, however, is how John Polkinghorne’s perspective simply transcends the parameters and arguments that drive our cultural controversies.

Polkinghorne takes the Genesis stories, the biblical accounts of creation, seriously. But he points out that these are lyrical, theological writings. They were not composed as scientific texts. The early Christians, he says, knew this, and only in the later Medieval and Reformation times did people begin to insist on literal interpretation. To read a work of poetry as a work of prose, he analogizes, is to miss the point.

John Polkinghorne Receives the 2002 Templeton Prize
The Duke of Edinburgh presents the 2002 Templeton Prize to the Rev. Dr. John C. Polkinghorne at Buckingham Palace. (photo: Clifford Shirley/The Templeton Prize)

Drawing on the best of his scientific and theological knowledge, Polkinghorne believes that God created this universe. But this was not a one-act invention of a clockwork world. God did something “more clever”: he created a world with independence, a world able to make itself. Creation is an ongoing act, Polkinghorne believes, one in which the laws of nature make room for choice and action, both human and divine. He finds this idea beautifully affirmed by the best insights of chaos theory, which describes reality as an interplay between order and disorder, between random possibilities and patterned structure.

I’ll let you hear for yourself how he approaches mysteries like prayer, and the problem of suffering, in this frame of mind. I’ll leave you with two evocative notions from our interview.

First, modern science increasingly suggests that contradictory explanations of reality can be simultaneously true. A scientific puzzle of whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved with the discovery that light has a dual nature as both a particle and a wave. And here’s the key that made that discovery possible: how we ask the questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wave-like question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.”

Second, there is the matter of quarks. Modern quantum physics has come to depend on quarks as a foundational element in understanding the way the world works. But in a very real sense, quarks are an article of faith. No scientist has actually seen one, nor do scientists necessarily ever expect to. They are believed to exist because the idea of quarks gives intelligibility to the whole of observable reality.

These scientific notions give me new, creative ways to imagine the credibility of religious modes of thought. They underscore John Polkinghorne’s personable and passionate message that we need the insights of science and religion together to “interpret and understand the rich, varied, and surprising way the world actually is.”


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Beautiful and goodness are one! Thank you Krista! This is such a good podcast!

As long as you're not saying evolution is ONLY a theory or that only God can cause the climate to get warmer. As long as you are not telling me we don't need to conserve our resources because Jesus is coming back and the Earth will be over anyway.

I'm deeply disturbed by the credence that's leant to particle physicists on all aspects of science. Polkinghorne's statements on evolution aren't just simplified for the layman, they're factually incorrect -- even conceptually incorrect.

It bothers me that you would think that Polkinghorne would have insights in this area, or into topics like geology. Yes, there are questions that are deeply interesting in particle physics, and many of these questions have powerful implications throughout science and philosophy *but you are not asking those questions.* Polkinghorne, like too many physicists, is being treated more as a guru whose loose coupling of other fields is worth consideration. It's as if you had on someone with a role in the creations of the transistor, but rather than dealing with those topics, chose to ask them about the merits of various tax programs.

Please, if you want to deal with these issues in a serious way, stop treating them as if they are the subject of mere conjecture.

You can't put people in boxes. Mr. Polkinghome obviously knows enough to have an opinion. If a part of his opinion seems overtly unfounded , educate us as to which part. Otherwise enjoy the reaching and conjecture of a sincere and gifted mind. If you have a gifted mind with other answers , then share them. This isn't a science show.

Quarks are not only an article of faith but also of hope and love. The inclusion of hope and love as foundational elements will further help us "interpret and understand the rich, varied and surprising way the world actually is." God claims to be Love. God claims to be Hope. God claims to be Truth.

Prayer is a required work. When integrated into all aspects of life it allows more accurate interpretation and fuller understanding.

I think one of the basic problems with both science and religion, as well as how they relate, has to do with our basic concept of time. We think of time as the present moving from past to future, but the physical process is the reverse. The present is the constant and it is the changing configuration of what exists which turns future potential into past circumstance. The earth doesn't ravel the fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow. Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. Time is an emergent effect of motion, not the underlaying basis for it.
Since linear cause and effect is the basis of our rational thought process, this simple explanation can be difficult to intellectually process. Especially in light of the fact that so much of the conceptual basis of modern life is built on the past to future vector. All our religious, national, familial and personal senses of identity are largely based on some form of individual and group narrative. Our very minds are the record of events receding into the past, as circumstances constantly produce new ones.

The reality though, is that any particular thread can be braided into some larger narrative, much as a rope is made of many strands, or it is woven into a non-linear tapestry. While it is practically necessary for societies to have commons purposes and means in order to function as a larger whole, the larger reality is that every action exists in some larger equilibrium, so there needs to be the recognition of that greater balance, for society to maintain a stable relationship with its situation and environment.

Much as we still see the sun moving across the sky, from east to west, but know it is actually the earth rotating west to east, we would still experience time as moving from past to future, but know it is those events coalescing out of possibilities and then replaced by the next. As we think of past as cause and future as effect, think is due to events being viewed in retrospect. Prior to the occurrence, the causes of any event are still in the future and once it has occurred, the result is past, so future potential is cause and past circumstance is effect.

One of the problems raised by time as moving from past to future is the issue of free will. If we exist at this dimensionless point of the present and cannot change the past, or affect the future, what input do we have? On the other hand, if time emerges from motion, our actions are part of that activity, which then becomes those events we recall. Just as outside influences affect us, we affect the rest of our situation.

I've mostly discussed this idea on physics forums and while it is not a particularly popular idea, it does raise interesting debate. If time is an effect of motion, there can be no dimensionless point in time, as that would freeze the very motion which creates reality. It would be like trying to take a picture with the shutter speed set at zero. Reality would effectively vanish. Like a temperature of absolute zero, there would be no motion and no connectivity. For physics, this means a particle cannot be isolated from its motion, whether micro or macroscopic. While this is a generally accepted principle in physics, the logic to reach that conclusion is far more complicated.
Also, since reality emerges from the collapsing probabilities, there is no multi-worlds emerging with every quantum superposition.

As for religion, this idea does have some rather profound consequences. As there is only the present, the process of creation requires the replacement of what came before. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. The spirit sheds old generations like dead skin, in order to move onto new generations. So the reality of time and life is that the thread is constantly being drawn from that which came before. The spirit doesn't have to go to a different reality, as it's constantly renewing this one.

The conventional monotheistic view is that the spiritual absolute is an ideal from which we fell, but the universal state of the absolute is basis, not apex, so the spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. Good and bad are not a metaphysical dual between the forces of light and dark, but the basic biological binary code. Left/right, good/bad, personal/public, birth/death, light/darkness. As biological organisms, we may be attracted to one and repelled by the other, but as thinking beings, we need to see beyond our own immediate circumstances. What is good for the fox is bad for the chicken, yet there is no clear line where the chicken ends and the fox begins. It's all one cycle of creation and consumption.

The fact is that polytheistic religions were elementary abstraction. Those ancient Gods were what we would call memes today. Basic concepts common to society and given anthropomorphic identities. Then the underlaying unity became one larger and final deity. This proved to be a very powerful social concept, as it broke down cultural barriers to create ever larger social organisms. The problem is that it provides no balance. There is no female goddess to mitigate the one explicitly male God. Which served to solidify patriarchal societies and monolithic political structures. It should be noted though, that it was the polytheists who first developed democracy.

We need to reincorporate more of that spiritual tapestry into our views on life and not try braiding all into the one thread. It will provide a far more sustainable culture.

@Mark: I would be interested in what specifically is factually incorrect and some sources for further study.

I enjoyed this interview immensely, but I certainly would like to understand more of the facts that he is misrepresenting.

It seems significant to me that the Bible begins and ends with books about events that were not witnessed by the writer. I am grateful that Moses doesn't begin his story by talking about mitochondrial DNA. Moses was a human being and I believe God's spirit spoke through him but it would have been useless and inappropriate to begin with a scientific theory that hadn't evolved, if you will, yet. Neither to I go to a science book to hear from God. But there is an overlap of truth between these two subjects.

I love exploring this overlap.

The add on reference to the Tuscon shootings as way of setting up a show on civil discourse and the limits of common ground was inappropriate at best.

In response to John Polkinghorne, on today's program on Quarks anc Creation, I enjoyed the seminal thoughts. He reminds me of the Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The difference is that he is not a true pantheist as Teilhard was because he has not yet figured out how to account for 'problem of evil.' Polkinghorne thinks we must accept the dark with the light. He is a quantum physicist and should understand that we are composed of the light--not of darkness. Per Teilhard, God was in nature and was nature. In other words, the laws of physics are God's body. There should never be any separation between spirituality and science. He also does not understand the difference betwee 'freedom' and 'free will.' At the quantum leve of being there is freedom. Within that freedom, each person is a director and has a free will. People can choose even to violate the laws of physics, which are God's laws. And that is where the darkness originates. But because we are beings oflight, we can overcome the darkness. We can get back on track, which is nothing more nor less than a decision to be obedient to law.

If you require a god to make sense of the world, that is a personal preference. However, Polkinghorne's arguments were weak and rather shallow given his beliefs. To say that god exists because light can be explained as being a wave function and a point simultaneously is nonsensical.

Polky is such a naughty boy, trying to sneak his god of the gaps in through the front door and in broad daylight by portraying the god of the gaps argument as a mere obsolete phase of the science vs. religion debate. He brushes it of with: “people could see, in hindsight, that it was in itself a theological mistake”. Well that settles it then, it was just a mistake. Funny that most of the world’s leading scientists and public intellectuals continue to make that very same “theological mistake.” In fact, the scientific elite almost universally rejects the god hypothesis the way it rejects that the earth is flat.

Mr. Polkinghorne gets full points for chutzpah and sophistry, none for intellectual integrity -the unmistakable profile of a Templeton toady.

The Templeton foundation hands out prizes (£700 000 to Mr. Polkinghorne) and funds individuals and organizations that support the views of its late founder, John Templeton. Mr. Templeton not only presumed the existence of his god as established fact; he also presumed as fact that his god not only created the universe but also did so with a purpose! His son, who now runs the foundation, is an evangelical Christian. Funny how the faithful now feel the need to buy former scientists to try to lend credence to their truth claims.

Is Ms Tippett gunning for the Templeton prize? One can’t think of a worthier candidate. She welcomes all sorts of gods except perhaps the –no longer in vogue -Greek, Roman, and Viking gods. She welcomes all sorts of religious beliefs and breathlessly gives them equal credence regardless of the fact that these beliefs all fundamentally contradict each other and themselves at every turn while presenting no credible evidence in their support.

Who she does not welcome, however, are those whom she rightfully fears would point this out and thereby expose the dubious premise of her show. Ms. Tippett has systematically kept off of her show, by dismissing as “secular extremists” any scientist or intellectual known to publicly challenge the theistic position, luminaries such as Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Weinberg to name but a few.

This type of deliberate and willful suppression of views is not what one would expect to find much less tolerate on listener (many of which have raised the same issue) supported public airwaves.

I found godsbuster's comments disturbing and nonsensical. Onbeing is a program for people who try to make more sense of this world and and this life. "Quarks" interview lends insight to both and more. Our existence in this immense universe would be pathetic if we shut our ears to messages that transcends what only meets the eye. Dr. Polkinghorn strides across the chiasm between science and religion and sheds new light onto issues that have been puzzling humans for centuries. He won the Templeton for his search for truth. And God IS truth. Ms Tippett's program is for exploration of humanity. Religions are a big part of humanity. She should be applauded for the boldness to take on such a task. Yes, there are contradictions among different religions. However, "God is above religion". The difference may be more the difference in humans than that in God.
As for the speakers that she does not include in the show, people should be reminded this is not a science show. It takes science as an integral part of human existence but focuses more on humanity which rises above physics or chemistry.

Didn't know where to leave this message...
the ending to Krista's interview with Studs Terkel was so beautiful!
i want to compliment Krista on the courage to go head to head... or, meet heart to heart!.... with such a hero in their field. it's inspiring.

long live Finnegans Wake! and long live a god who creates those who create!

(Insert pompous, venomous post by belligerent religion-basher here.)

Polkinghorne dismissed magic. But I'd like to hear how he reconciles the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as anything but magic.

Revd Polkinghorne's idea that no one has seen a quark is as naive as that no one has seen an electron. Quarks have been seen in Wilson cloud chambers, and many other measuring devices. And he falls on his face with light as wave and particle. Waves are waves of space, as Einstein showed us, and particles are standing waves, they do not exist only as answers to respective questions, but as amazing real phenomena. The man needs to go back and ask more basically, What is god, (1) in distinction from just nothing at all, (2) in distinction from everything in the universe and the universe itself, and (3) in clear relationship to everything in it and itself. My PhD thesis at U Chgo Div Schl in 1972 dealt with those 3 necessary met conditions or else no talk about, or concept of, or even belief in god, is possible. Give me a call if you want more. 603-930-5593 Dr-T@Comcast.net

I would lend a great deal of credence to physicists, just not Dr. Polkinghorne, who is scorned at large in the scientific community. His distortions and misuse of quantum mechanics in order to superimpose sprituality onto physics plays upon people's inadequate mathematical and scientific foundations, confusing them into believing he holds some great truth. I would encourage people to educate themselves, quantum theory is very well established. Shame on you, Krista, for doing this article. Ira should have a rebuttal on SciFri.

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