Serious Talk

This is the name of a 1995 book by the Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS. Quotes from the book are in blue .

Dr. Polkinghorne's official web pages describe him as 'one of the greatest living writers and thinkers on science and religion', so I was naturally curious to know what would persuade a world-class scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society to believe in God. It turns out that the book consists of rationalisations. Clearly, Polkinghorne is a very nice man and he needs to believe that the Universe is as nice as he is. In his preface he writes ' that it is a coherent hope that all shall in the end be well.' . In the book Polkinghorne creates a God to fulfil this hope. The God Polkinghorne has created is very like himself. Polkinghorne's God does not know the future but prepares himself for whatever it may bring, just as we do. Polkinghorne's God suffers like we do and has human values of beauty and truth , order and morals.

Polkinghorne needs a God to make sense to him of the world we live. I am reminded of the people in Ramachandran's book 'Phantoms in the Brain' who rationalise away any evidence which might disturb their world-view. Some people cannot see or have paralysed limbs , yet maintain that they are not disabled in any way. To protect this world view, they must improvise rationalisations. What is surprising is the facility and ease with which they produce explanations on the spot of why their inability to see or move their arm has nothing to do with their blindness or paralysis - after all, they are not paralysed or blind , are they? For example, they might say that they cannot move their arm, not because it is paralysed, but because the arm at their shoulder actually belongs to their brother, not to themselves. These people are perfectly sane, but are an extreme example of how people can fit facts to their worldview, regardless of evidence.

Polkinghorne does very similar things. Faced with a difficulty , he simply invents a new attribute of God to cover that situation. Just like the patients in Ramachandran's book, he need produce no evidence to back up his rationalisation, but it suffices just to produce an answer. Each rationalisation is consistent with itself, but they are hopelessly inconsistent with each other.

For example, in Chapter One, Polkinghorne tries to avoid the problem of evil by saying '...God allows the world to be itself and does not stop tectonic plates from slipping and producing an earthquake, because they are allowed to be themselves just as we are allowed to be ourselves.' But in Chapter Four, Polkinghorne writes ' The open future of the world allows room for God's providential action.' and in Chapter Six, he writes ' The detached God of deism, simply watching it all happen, is another extreme unacceptable to Christian thought.'

So God allows things to be themselves except when he does not. With such a powerful world-view, how can Polkinghorne ever be shaken by facts? If something bad happens, Polkinghorne can (and does) say ' I believe that God neither wills the act of a murderer nor the incidence of a cancer, but God allow both to happen in a world to which he has given its creaturely independence. '

It goes without saying that Polkinghorne thinks his omnipotent God is nowhere to be seen when bad things happen, but is reduced to looking on with pity. It is also worth pointing out that if a child is killed by a murderer or struck by leukaemia, then Polkinghorne's 'creaturely independence' has been bought by the blood of that child. The free-will defence also fails for other reasons, which I shall detail below. Polkinghorne's other defence that God does not know the future is far more successful, but has obvious drawbacks for Christianity, especially for Polkinghorne's coherent hope that in the end all shall be well. Even God does not know the end.

God has nothing to do with the incidence of a cancer, but there is room for God's providential action. This is a typical 'Heads-I-win, Tails-you-lose' argument, of the sort that makes theology so easy. You simply have to select the attribute of God necessary for the particular point you trying to defend. God can either intervene or not, depending upon what you want to defend. I shall be pointing out more 2-way Christian arguments later. As a scientist, Polkinghorne would be repelled by ad hoc explanations designed simply to patch over holes created by other ad hoc explanations. As a theologian however, these are his stock in trade.

Naturally, Polkinghorne disagrees with the position that theology is an attempt to find rationalisations to support and patch up a particular world-view. He writes in Chapter Four - 'Taking Theology Seriously' - ' Theology is concerned with the rational exploration of what is the case.' So is it the case that God can no more have a Son than he can have a Brother or a Cousin or a Niece, as Muslims claim? Is it the case that Mary was a perpetual Virgin, was conceived immaculately , and ascended bodily into Heaven? Is it the case that Hindu gods exist? Is it the case that Joseph Smith was a prophet? If theology is the rational exploration of what is the case, why do theologians differ radically about what is true and what is not true? If theology is rational exploration, how would Polkinghorne get Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs to rationally explore together what is true so that they would agree?

Theology differs radically from science. In Chapter Three - 'Taking Science Seriously' , Polkinghorne writes that 'Science is concerned with the rational exploration of what is the case.' Surely he must see that while all scientists agree that it is the case that there are electrons (to use his example), but that theologians work within the constraints of their different world-views.

Polkinghorne is well aware that there can be no rational exploration of theologies. He writes 'I think that the interrelationship of the world's religions is one of the most urgent and most difficult theological problems that we face today.' , but he makes no attempt to solve it. Polkinghorne may say that 'theology is still the "Queen of Sciences"' , but theology and science differ radically , in that one is based on evidence , while the other is largely determined by your cultural heritage.

Chapter One.

In this chapter Polkinghorne outlines his basic case and arguments for the existence of God. The rest of the book examines these basic arguments in more details.

Mathematical Understanding

His first argument is ' the marvellous power of mathematics to illuminate our understanding of the physical world.'

It is certainly true that mathematics helps us to understand the sub-atomic world of quantum physics. In fact , mathematics helps us understand lots of things very well. In a chapter called 'God's Utility Function' in 'River out of Eden' by Richard Dawkins, Dawkins explains how mathematical modelling of DNA survival explains feature after feature of the natural world. Such mathematical modelling of how animals maximise the inheritance of their genes has also been applied to explain altruistic behaviour , in both animals and humans.

So is this a proof of God?

Does the ability of mathematics to explain things such as animal behaviour and altruism in animals point to a God who has made the world understandable? Just a few paragraphs later, Polkinghorne points out that there are things like beauty , moral choice, religious experience which are very hard to explain in physical, mathematical terms. He points out that a mathematical Fourier analysis of Bach's Mass in B Minor would miss all the beauty in the music. So does the inability of mathematics to explain these aspects of the world point to a God? In Polkinghorne's view they do. In fact, the ability of mathematics to explain things and the inability of mathematics to explain things both point to God. Heads-I-win, tails-you-lose.

Polkinghorne writes ' One of the most striking features of the physical world is its rational transparency to us. We have come to take it for granted that we can understand the universe, but it is surely a highly significant factor about it that this is the case. ' Polkinghorne specialised in quantum mechanics. He writes about quantum mechanics ' We really do not know what the answer is.... The moral, I think, is that explanation and understanding are two different things. We can use quantum theory to explain very successfully a great many things about the world in which we live... But we do not understand quantum theory. '

So is quantum mechanics 'rationally transparent' to us or do we not understand it? As it is a major part of Polkinghorne's case that we can understand the universe , we should be able to understand quantum mechanics.

It should also be pointed out that while Polkinghorne is happy to live with puzzles in his theology about evil, other religions (' I just have to confess my perplexity here. ') and our inability to understand a universe which is also transparently rational, he extends no such leeway to non-believers. He writes ' It goes against the grain for a scientist to be so intellectually lazy. The meta-question of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics insists on being answered. ' Atheists must fully account for everything (consciousness, morality, truth, the laws of physics) or they will be accused of having no grounds for denying God, while believers are allowed to retreat into mystery when the going gets tough.

Can we really understand the universe? Is it rationally transparent to us? Is mathematics 'unreasonably effective'?

If it is, you might expect us to have made progress in finding the true laws of physics. Polkinghorne writes in Chapter Six ' The first question is what one makes of the deterministic equations from which the theory of chaos begins. I believe that they must be treated as approximations to a more supple reality.... ' He also writes ' There may be holistic laws of nature presently unknown to us but capable of scientific discovery..... '

If the universe is rationally transparent to us and we are capable of understanding it, why do we not know what the laws of nature are? If we understand the universe, why have we got things so wrong? How does Polkinghorne know mathematics is unreasonably effective when our deterministic mathematical equations are only approximations to a more supple reality?

It seems surprising to say that our deterministic mathematical equations which express the beauty of the laws of nature are a sign of God's mind, and then turn round and say that they are only approximate and the real laws of nature are of an entirely different kind to the ones we use now.

The Anthropic Principle

His second argument is the anthropic principle. As there are humans in the Universe, then clearly the laws of the universe allow human beings to evolve. If the laws of the Universe allow human beings to evolve, then the Universe must have been designed to allow human beings to evolve.

Basically, the anthropic principle, as used by theists, tries to prove that Nature is not natural and has to be created. It tries to prove that Nature does not behave naturally and has to have its behaviour created by a law-giver.

Polkinghorne illustrates the anthropic principle by a parable. Suppose we have ten sharpshooters aiming guns at us and determined to kill us. They fire and we find to our surprise that we are still alive. We would naturally suspect that there was something going on. In the same way, Polkinghorne argues, we should be astonished that we are here and should assume that something lies behind it.

This is a nice , false analogy. A much better analogy would be if the sharpshooters shot, and the person lived , but was fatally wounded and died shortly later of injuries received. After all, we all live, but we will all die in a short time period from the point of view of an eternal God.

This is a more accurate analogy. If we faced a firing squad, we would not be totally surprised to find ourselves alive, but dying.

One peculiar feature of Polkinghorne's chosen parable is that he denies vehemently that God behaves in this way. In Polkinghorne's chosen examples of cancers, murderers and earthquakes, he states again and again that God does not intervene - he allows objects to behave freely and have creaturely independence.

So in Polkinghorne's theology, the sharpshooters would get their man. Polkinghorne's God is not the sort of God who would save us from the sharpshooters.

There are other flaws in the analogy. We know from experience that bullets kill and sharpshooters hit their target very often. In the parable, it would be natural for us to be killed or dying (and we are all dying....) On the other hand, we have never seen a universe with no life. Our sole experience with Nature is that it is natural for life to exist. Every single universe we have observed has human life in it. Polkinghorne's parable attempts to show that it is not natural for life to exist, yet he cannot produce any example of a universe with no life in it.

Polkinghorne uses the parable to try to prove that God has created universal laws which are analogous to a miraculous preservation from sharpshooters. But these laws are universal , which means that the sharpshooters would always miss. A better parable would be if we saw ten sharpshooters aim at millions and millions of people and always miss. We would naturally conclude that there are universal laws which prevent sharpshooters hitting their target. But we would not be surprised that they missed. After all, we have seen them miss on every single occasion and never seen them hit their target. It would be natural, not surprising, that they missed. After all, the laws of nature, by definition, are natural.

To give a specific example of a law of nature which Polkinghorne claims has been fine-tuned by God, let us look at the law of gravity. If I hold a brick and drop it, it will fall to the ground. Is the law of gravity a proof of God? What would the brick do if there was no God? Would it just float in mid-air? What would the natural behaviour of a brick be if there was no God to create laws of nature? The anthropic principle cannot be used to prove there is a God, as its proponents cannot say why we should expect things not to obey the laws of nature that we do see them obey.

It is true that the particular combination of circumstances which produced us is remarkable and unique. But then, every single universe is remarkable and unique. Indeed, how could there be a universe which is not remarkable and unique? If the world rested on the backs of four elephants, it would be a remarkable and unique universe and Polkinghorne would doubtless say that elephants of that size could not have been placed there except by God. All universes with people in them would be remarkable, unique universes.

In fact, the anthropic principle is another 'Heads-I-win, tails-you-lose' argument. The fact that the Universe allows life is used to prove that there is a God, but you can be certain that if the Universe did not allow life, that would also be used to prove there was a God. Indeed, if life in the universe was impossible and we were here anyway, that would be a very good proof of God. If the world did rest on the backs of four elephants , that could well be a proof of God. It would be impossible for elephants to breathe in a vacuum, yet they exist.

It is also hard to see how God made fine-tuning work. Polkinghorne never explains how God could choose the laws of nature or how physical constants could be varied. Does God use magic to do it?

It is also unclear what sort of fine-tuning is necessary to achieve the goal of having humans on a planet Earth. It is deterministic reductionism on a literally cosmic scale to say that altering the laws of electricity by one part in ten million million million at the time of the Big Bang leads inevitably to the production of Homo sapiens fifteen thousand million years later.

Polkinghorne claims that even with an omnipotent God ' The future is not yet determined .', so we can assume that the emergence of modern Man was not inevitably determined by the conditions at the Big Bang. This means that God must also have been fine-tuning conditions after the Big Bang. But what exactly did God do and why?

Life on Earth consisted of single-cell creatures for three thousand million years. I'm reminded of a famous cartoon featuring a vulture , clearly impatient waiting of something to die so it can have its dinner. 'Hell', it says , 'I'm going to kill something!'. Did God get impatient waiting 3 billion years for single-cell life to evolve and say 'Hell! I'm going to evolve something!'? Why did it take so long when we had an omnipotent God fine-tuning conditions to allow people to emerge who would learn to worship Him?

When multi-cellular life did emerge, it did not take too long for dinosaurs to rule the roost. Why did these appear , only to be wiped out by a comet or whatever disaster struck them? It hardly seems like fine-tuning to create conditions which allow T. rex to emerge and then have to wipe out the results of your fine-tuning with a stray comet or volcano. Fine-tuning or patching up mistakes?

Why did God even need to wipe out dinosaurs? Could he not have given them morality and consciousness? After all he is omnipotent and could easily have given dinosaurs big brains. It could be argued that dinosaurs were not suitable creatures for the gift of morality and consciousness while humans were creatures ideally adapted for developing morality, consciousness, love and altruism. But if humans were ideally adapted for developing morality, consciousness, love and altruism , why did they need an omnipotent God to guide them on their way? If you propose that God has guided the path of evolution, you are presupposing that humans would have been no more able than dinosaurs were to develop by themselves without God the qualities that God wants.

Theistic evolutionists have to explain why human beings exist and not intelligent dinosaurs. What did God have against dinosaurs? Was it part of God's plan that they be wiped out? Indeed, we even have branches of mankind that have become extinct. There are no more Neanderthal men. Was it part of God's plan that these human beings become extinct? Perhaps they were literally genetically inferior Untermenschen who had to be eliminated to create Lebensraum for the genetically and morally superior Homo sapiens.

It is hard to reconcile the history of life on Earth with an all-powerful, all-good God who has been fine-tuning conditions to produce what we see today. Of course, this is only my view. Polkinghorne has a different view. What is important is that he cannot produce evidence that God has acted. Indeed, Polkinghorne writes 'God's action will always be hidden.' . The hidden and the non-existent look very alike.

The Resurrection of Jesus

His third argument is the resurrection of Jesus. Polkinghorne writes 'When I read the Gospels I want to read them as evidence. I want to submit them to some form of critical assessment. I do not believe that they are divinely guaranteed documents that I must not question in any sort of way.' His questioning is , of course, do they seem believable to somebody like me who has become a priest? The answer is naturally yes. He concedes that the story of the watch set on the tomb ' must be a fabricated tale from a Christian source... '. If the resurrection accounts contain clearly fabricated tales ,does that affect their reliability as evidence?

Polkinghorne writes 'These stories differ in details, but they need not disconcert us, We can accept such variation without believing that this casts doubt on the core tradition. Anyone familiar with evidence given in the police courts will recognise that witnesses will differ on various points, while still obviously describing the same incident.'

Actually, the Bible takes a less charitable view of witnesses who differ on details. Mark 14:56-59 explains that witnesses are false, discredited witnesses if their testimony does not agree - a Biblical principle which makes a lot of sense to me.

For what happens with false stories is that witnesses know the basic elements of the story but confabulate additional details. These details seem plausible in themselves, but they do not agree with each other , because they are not backed up by facts. Any prosecution lawyer who has cross-examined people giving false alibis would know this, and it is exactly what we see in the resurrection accounts. If told that women had visited a scene (say, a tomb on a Sunday morning), any competent prosecution lawyer would ask for the women to be named, and would just love to receive four different numbers of women from four different defence witnesses.

It must also not be forgotten that differences in the accounts are often deliberate alterations by Matthew and Luke of Mark's story. Polkinghorne must surely know this elementary result of Biblical scholarship, so why does he use the analogy that different accounts are the result of natural variations among independent witnesses?

Polkinghorne also concedes that Chapter 21 in John's Gospel 'appears to be an appendix added to the Gospel.' I wonder why , as a scientist, he gives so much credence to stories written by an anonymous person and tacked on to a Gospel that originally lacked them.

Polkinghorne writes that the character of Jesus is convincing because he says shocking things like 'If you want to follow me, take up your cross.' (Polkinghorne knows Jesus really did say this, because the Bible says he did). While the idea of Christians being crucified and having to take up a cross during the lifetime of Jesus strikes most people as a blatant anachronism, Polkinghorne takes it as a sign of validity.

Polkinghorne also thinks that Christianity must be true because Jesus, unlike Buddha or Muhammad, died at an early age. To be honest, I don't follow this one. Didn't David Koresh also die at an early age - and Joseph Smith? Perhaps Mormonism and the Davidians have more going for them than I thought?

Polkinghorne also says that the disciples were transformed in a very short time and started to defy the authorities ' in ways that eventually led to the death of many of them.' (Polkinghorne knows that the disciples were transformed , and began proclaiming Jesus in a very short time, because it says so in the Bible). I'm curious how Polkinghorne knows of the deaths of the disciples. There are certainly legends , rumours and myths dating from centuries after the events, but I can guarantee he has no convincing documentary evidence that many of the disciples were martyred.

Polkinghorne says that nobody would have made up stories about women discovering the tomb, because women's evidence was not allowed in court. This might be a decent point if the Gospel writers knew that people in the Middle East would not believe the testimony of women. However, John 4:30 says 'Many of the Samaritans from the town believed in him because of the woman's testimony.' It seems this is yet another mistake in the Bible, as Polkinghorne assures us that women were not considered credible witnesses and their testimony would have been discounted.

The Gospel writers faced the problem that the Jews did not believe, so it seems eminently sensible for them to solve this problem by having the first witnesses as people whose testimony was less than credible.

Polkinghorne concedes that Paul does not refer explicitly to the empty tomb, and points out that this is an argument from silence. In the very next paragraph though, he uses the silence about Joseph and Nicodemus in Paul and Acts to argue that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were not made up.

Polkinghorne writes 'As a bitter polemical argument sprang up between Jews and Christians, it was always accepted that there was a tomb and that it was empty.'

This is not how polemical arguments work. Any polemical claim by the Jews that the disciples stole the body would have been just that - namely, a claim made simply to refute what the opponents were saying. It is hardly 'accepting' an empty tomb. You can imagine the claim and counter-claim.

'Jesus was resurrected'

'No he wasn't'

'He was. His tomb was empty'.

'Means nothing. Somebody could have stolen his body'

'But it was guarded'

'Well then they could have stolen his body and then bribed the guards.'

Without any more information - and Polkinghorne cannot find a single Jew in the first century AD who has written that Jesus's tomb was empty - such claims and counter-claims mean exactly nothing.

Polkinghorne also adopts some very strange arguments. He points out that Christians have Sunday, the first day of the week, as a special day, and not Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. I wonder how he would react if someone argued that Islam must be true because Muhammad changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Friday? Sunday was chosen to be the Sabbath by Constantine in the fourth century AD. Polkinghorne writes that ' from the earliest Christian times, Sunday has been the Lord's day.' How strange that we can't find 'The Lord's day' as being Sunday in the Bible. Admittedly Acts does say once that some Christians broke bread on the first day of the week, but there is no hint that this was the Lord's Day, or that this was a Eucharist, or that this happened every week.

Polkinghorne also writes that there is 'a striking contrast between the early Christian assertion that a recently known figure was resurrected within history and the contemporary expectations of the ancient world.' To be honest, I don't see such a striking contrast between a Christian assertion that a recently known figure was resurrected within history and the claim of Herod (Matthew 14:2) that a recently known figure was resurrected within history. Polkinghorne writes that 'It was a different thing altogether for a resurrection to take place within history.' Why is it a different thing altogether when the New Testament insists that Jews thought precisely that had happened to John the Baptist?

Chapter 6 Providence

In this chapter , Polkinghorne explores how God can act in a world which obeys physical laws.

He points out that at the atomic level, quantum mechanics leads to unpredictable results. He also points out that chaos means that we can never predict what will happen to almost every system we care to look at. However he is far too good a scientist to pretend that chaotic systems are anything other than deterministic and that quantum mechanical effects are other than negligible at the sorts of scales humans use.

His solution is to propose unknown, undiscovered laws of physics. These laws, which are presently unknown to us, will lead to 'the eventual understanding of how human mental intention finds its realisation within the flexible openness of our material bodies.'

Polkinghorne has just spent a whole chapter saying that the laws of physics as we know them are astonishingly fine-tuned and a proof of God, yet he is ready to drop them to solve problems in his theology.

Polkinghorne has just spent a whole chapter saying that God has created the laws of nature to exact specifications, yet he writes in this chapter 'God cannot work against the laws of nature, for that would be for God to work against himself.' Polkinghorne says God has total control of the laws of nature and can vary them with high precision, yet now God is bound by these laws of nature and cannot alter them.

Polkinghorne writes about the world he describes 'I also believe that in such a world even God does not know the future.' This creates huge problems for Christianity. God cannot know if his actions are moral. We judge an action to be moral by seeing if it has good consequences or evil consequences. But God does not know what the consequences of his actions are as God does not know the future.

Polkinghorne wants an indeterminate future so that people can have free will. This allows him to shift the blame for evil from an all-powerful, all-knowing God to other creatures.

However, Polkinghorne's picture of God's interaction is still deterministic. He proposes that God supplies 'information input'. This information would determine the future.

Saying that we only have freewill if the future is open is very strange. It means that we only have freewill if we have absolutely no idea what we will do next. If we know what we are going to do next then the future is not open and Polkinghorne insists that the future is not open.

Is the future open or not? Philosophers have puzzled about this for centuries. There is only one past, one present and we will observe only future. I don't know what will happen in the future, but I know I will only observe one future. There is only one stream of events, past, present and future.

As there is only one future, how does Polkinghorne know that it is not open? For all he knows, it may be a brute fact of nature that I will, for example, make a cup of tea in the next 10 minutes.

This may not be determined by conditions now. It may not be predictable from conditions now. However, for all we know, it may be predetermined that this is , in fact, just what will happen.

In short, Polkinghorne's chapter is very confused. He has to propose unknown laws of physics. He has to solve the problem of whether the future is contingent - a problem which philosophers have never agreed upon. At the end of the that, he still has a totally deterministic universe. It is a universe determined by God's nature , and God's and ours 'information input' .

If the purpose of this information is not to determine what happens, then why does God supply this information? If this information does not determine what happens, then what does decide whether one thing or another happens?

Chapter 8 - The End of All Things

Polkinghorne points out that scientific theories state that the Universe will either end in a Big Crunch or will expand for ever , gradually cooling down and becoming devoid of life.

As a scientist, he says that this will happen.

As a theologian , he says that this will not happen.

How does he reconcile his theology and his science?

He abandons his scientific view of what will happen to the Universe and states that God will create a new Heaven and a new Earth.

Polkinghorne has spent many chapters trying to prove that this Universe is the only one possible (the Anthropic Principle) and that this Universe reflects the mind of God, yet now he proposes that there will be a new Universe run on very different lines and which will truly reflect the mind of God.

Polkinghorne struggles to reconcile his claims that the Anthropic Principle means this Universe is the only one possible with his claim that God will create a new order.

He likens it to a child growing up and compares God to a parent allowing his children to grow and become independent. It should be remembered that Genesis says God had to drown all his children when they turned out bad, so I don't need lessons on parenting from God.

Polkinghorne gives no evidence that this new creation will happen and he does not explain what the new laws of physics will be that allow people still to have freewill, but abolish evil and suffering.


There is very little in Polkinghorne's book to trouble atheists. He states his beliefs, but gives little evidence to show that they are true. They are just a description of what he would like to be true.

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