I just finished reading The Faith of a Physicist and as many know, I am a big big fan of John Polkinghorne. I enjoy reading all of the scientist-theologians’ work, but I resonate the most with him. There are a number of reasons for this, I believe. One reason is that Polkinghorne is the most “orthodox” of the group, which is very important to me.
While science has told us many things about the world (and will continue to do so), Polkinghorne believes that Christianity is still defendable today. While it obviously needs serious amendment, orthodox Christianity to Polkinghorne is the best explanation of the data before us. I agree with him. This term or concept “best explanation” should be noted as both he and I believe that apologetics today is frankly, not all that fruitful. There is no argument that will convince someone to change their minds. But there are arguments that make sense of the data before us. We feel that these arguments explain the world better than the alternatives.
This Faith of a Physicist is subtitled “Reflections of a bottom-up thinker” and is based upon the Gifford lectures that he gave in 1993-1994. In the book, Polkinghorne takes the reader through and defends the Nicene Creed in 10 chapters. (He mentions that it may be surprising that one who “starts” with science and thinks as a bottom-up thinker would end up with the Nicene Creed). Let’s look at the opening of the creed with some chapter titles…
We (Humanity, Ch. 1) believe (Knowledge, Ch. 2) in one God, the Father Almighty (Divinity, Ch. 3), Maker of heaven and earth (Creation, Ch. 4)
This book is wonderful and is deserving of a series of posts in the future. Most of the work on science and religion tends to focus primarily on the science part. This book does the opposite. For those that are unfamiliar with Polkinghorne’s work, he takes science VERY seriously and thinks (like I do) as a scientist because he is a scientist (like me). Thus he looks at theology from a scientist’s perspective. Many others who are popular in Evangelical circles do the opposite.
But today, let’s keep the focus on the science part. I loved his “note on reductionism” at the end of Ch. 1 (pp 28-9) and decided to reproduce it in part. This note is in response to the common view postulated by atheist scientists (usually biologists) that reductionism is the only name of the game in science. I absolutely love it. I also think it is why there are so few scientist-theologians with science training in biology, when compared to physics.
“Our investigation of physical reality can largely be ordered into a hierarchy of sciences whose objects of inquiry manifest an increasing degree of complexity: physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology. Those of a reductionist frame of mind regard the ‘higher’ sciences as no more than elaborations on the fundamental themes of the ‘lower’. In the end, all is physics. Among contemporary scientists, the biologists, flushed with undoubted success of molecular biology, are most prone to make such assertions. Francis Crick proclaims that ‘The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.’ Such a thorough-going reductionism is a kind of neo-mechanical view of reality, and since it is the ‘mechanical’ problems which get solved first in the development of a science (clocks are easier to understand than clouds), it is scarcely surprising the biologists are tempted, in the first generation of their quantitative success, to espouse such opinions. Physicists did the same in the eighteenth century, but they have accumulated more experience since then (for physics is an easier subject than biology) and its practioners, in consequence, tend to be much more wary about making claims that all is within their narrow grasp.
Those who write on science and religion generally resist reductionism. There are a variety of ways in which to do so…”
What do you think? Are biologists correct to think all in science can be reduced to physics and physical explanations? If yes, do you have a better explanation for the major holes in our understanding other than time (i.e we haven’t done enough experiments)? If not, why do you disagree? Do you have an explanation other than there are things we just can’t explain?