Science works like clockwork; religion floats with clouds

ARMILLARY spheres have been with us since antiquity: mechanical models of the universe; planets and moons fixed in brass, plotting trajectories controlled by cogs; everything locked in place, moving, literally, like clockwork.

Such devices showed the wonder of the known universe and so, in its own way, the creation of God. With the maturing of this view of the world as mechanistic during the Victorian era, with the development of evolutionary theory, it could be seen that the seeds of religion’s sidelining were sown.

It is not hard to see the reasoning: if you can prove how something has come to pass and why that was the case, then why look to the mysterious and ineffable for comfort or answers? If you know how weather systems work, then why blame the ravaging storm on a greater power? Science, some argue, has become the secular religion of the modern age, pushing Christianity to the margins of society.

But for Rev Dr Sir John Polkinghorne, physicist and theologian, religion and science have separate and complementary roles: “Science is essentially asking why things happen and of course it’s been very successful in answering that question, but it’s not the only question to ask about what’s going on. You can also ask if there’s any meaning and purpose in what is going and that’s the subject of religion. They’re asking different questions and they’re looking at different types of experience.

“For example, science tends to look at the world and treat it as an ‘it’, as an object; something you can kick around, pull apart and find out what it’s made of – that’s the experimental method, which is science’s great secret weapon. But we also know there is a whole swath of encounters with reality, where we meet it not as an object, as an ‘it’, but as a person. Above all, we encounter God in that way and when we move to that realm, testing has to give way to trusting. If we set traps to see if you are my friend, I’ll destroy the possibility of friendship between us.”

Having been a physicist for 25 years – working on theories of elementary particles, playing a significant roles in the discovery of the quark (one of the two basic constituents of matter), and serving as professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University – Polkinghorne has spent more time than most looking at the world as an “it”. But as a practising Christian, having done as much work as he felt he could usefully do in the field, he departed physics for religious orders, becoming an Anglican priest in 1982.

Since then, he has written widely on the importance of religion in scientific research and vice versa.

He comes to Scotland on 28 February to give the second of the James Gregory lectures at St Andrews University, a series studying the theme of science and religion, with The Scotsman as the media partner. His theme for the lecture is the question: “Has science made religion redundant?” There are many who would argue religion has no place in a world dominated by science, but Polkinghorne says this will never happen: “They have different tasks to do,” he says. “But the way they answer their questions has to somehow fit together. We are very familiar with the fact we can answer the same question about the same event with different replies. I mean ‘The kettle’s boiling because burning gas is heating the water’ and ‘The kettle’s boiling because I want to make a cup of tea’ – you don’t have to choose between those, they’re both true. But if I was to say ‘I want to make a cup of tea’ and I put the kettle in the refrigerator you’d think there was something fishy going on. So science’s answers and religion’s answers have to be consonant, they have to relate to each other so they make sense. But they’re different questions. In that sense science could never make religion redundant.”

Indeed, it is key to his philosophical outlook, dubbed critical realism, that both religion and science address the same reality, but that hard, mechanistic scientific approaches to the universe are at odds with its inherent subtlety, something that religion is capable of encompassing.

“Biologists still have a pretty mechanical view of the world” he insists. “Biology has made tremendous strides in the past 50 years. Finding DNA was probably the most important discovery, but DNA is an essentially mechanical thing. Crick and Watson made a metal model of DNA, you can’t get much more mechanical than that, so there are mechanical components in nature and you always discover them first, because they are the easiest to understand than the clouds, so biology is still at the clockwork stage. I’m sure it’ll come out of the other side, animals are not automata.”

However, it is in that most 20th-century of pursuits, quantum physics, that Polkinghorne has found the consonance of religion and science. For him, the study of subatomic particles has helped the concept of nature as being “cloud-like” rather than “clockwork” and with it the notion of a spiritual aspect in everyday life.

“Up until the end of the 19th century, it was as though that nature looked like clockwork,” he says. “The Newtonian world was very regular, orderly and it seemed to be just ticking away. But in the 20th century it was discovered that there are intrinsic unpredictabilities in nature, we can’t know what nature is going to do. This was discovered in subatomic physics, quantum theory, about probability and uncertainty theory. Even the physics of the every day turned out to be not as clear and as determinant as people thought. The world is more subtle and interesting than people have thought in the past.

“If you study fundamental physics, you’re very struck by the wonderful order of the world. It’s a very beautiful world. And I think one of the most persuasive and liberating understanding is that it is the divine mind that lies behind the world.”

In Polkinghorne’s opinion, while it can show how things fit together, science can’t explain where the structure comes from: “Religion offers a broader and deeper understanding.” He asserts that what may normally appear as a happy accident becomes intelligible if it is seen as “reflective of the mind and the will of the creator. It just explains more”.

But even after more than 25 years as a man of the cloth, addressing both the world of science and religion in his philosophies, there is still a lingering loyalty to his origins: “Not all truth comes from science, some of it does. So when I give talk on science and religion I feel myself as much a missionary for science as I do for religion. I want to share the insights of both with the people I’m talking to. You need both of these perspectives of the truth to see what’s going on.”

&#149 Sir John Polkinghorne will deliver the next James Gregory lecture at St Andrews University’s Younger Hall on 28 February. More details at

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