Friday, March 26, 2010

The best explanation


John Polkinghorne was a physicist — a highly respected one — the discoverer of the quark and professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge. Since the early eighties he has been an Anglican priest. He is interviewed at In Character. Two of the questions and his answers:
Do science and religion approach reason in different ways? Is the reasoning of faith different from the reasoning of science? Can either help the other to get a more complete understanding of the universe?

I suppose the answer is yes and no. I think both science and religion are concerned with the search for motivated belief. They are not just plucking ideas out of the air but they have reasons from experience to support the ideas they believe to be true. But the way they seek them is somewhat different. Science is looking at the world as an object — as an “it”—which you can pull apart and do with what you want. And with science you can repeat things. You can do the same experiment over and over again until you feel sure you understand what is going on. And that gives science a great secret weapon. But there are great swaths of human encounter with reality where you meet reality not just as an object but where there is a personal dimension. Unlike with the scientific experiment, no personal experience is ever going to be exactly repeated. If we listen to a Mozart quartet, even if we play the same disc twice, we shan’t experience it in quite the same way on each occasion. Similarly, the encounter between persons, even more the encounter with the personal reality of God, has to be based on trusting and not on testing. If I were always setting little traps to test my friends, I would pretty soon destroy the possibility of friendship between us. And certainly religion respects that you shall not put the Lord your God to a test. So there are differences between the two. But the motivation, the search for truthful understanding through well-motivated belief, is a common feature. Of course, religious understanding is much more complex obviously because of its personal character. ....

Is it important to be able to prove the existence of God?

Well, I don’t think it’s possible to prove the existence of God. There are many things I don’t think you can prove in an absolutely cast-iron, logical way. You can prove that two plus two equals four; you can’t prove the foolishness or falseness of ridiculous assumptions. I could maintain that the whole world came into existence five minutes ago and that our memories of the past were created at that moment. I don’t think you could defeat me in logical argument about that, though we all know that would be an absurd thing to say. So proof, cast-iron proof, is pretty limited and not actually a very interesting category of things. I believe in quarks and gluons and electrons. I believe that’s the most intelligible, economic, persuasive interpretation of a whole swath of physical phenomena, but I don’t think I’ve proved their existence in the two plus two equals four sense — just as I can’t prove the existence of God. What we need, I think, is beliefs that are sufficiently well-motivated for us to feel that we can commit our lives to them, knowing that they may be false, but believing that they are the best explanation. I’m very sold on motivated belief but I am not sold on knowledge through proofs either in science or religion, or anything in between. .... [more]
John Polkinghorne's Unseen Realities — Features — In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues by the John Templeton Foundation