Modest natural theology and epistemic pluralism

At the suggestion of Andy and Thomas I started reading some John Polkinghorne, the physicist and Anglican priest, this weekend. I picked up his Belief in God in an Age of Science, the only title of his they had at our library. It’s a collection of lectures Polkinghorne gave at Yale in 1996, with some additional material and so far (only twelve pages in) it’s good stuff.

In the first chapter Polkinghorne discusses what he calls the “new natural theology.” There are two aspects of the physical world, Polkinghorne thinks, that provide “hints” of the existence of God. The first is the fact that our minds are fitted to understand the deep structure of the physical universe and that this structure can be expressed in elegant mathematical forumlas. “This use of abstract mathematics as a technique of physical discovery points to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe that we inhabit, and to the remarkable conformity of our human minds to its patterning. We live in a world whose physical fabric is endowed with transparent rational beauty” (p. 2).

Polkinghorne rejects as implausible the view that our ability to comprehend the fabric of the physical world and express it in the language of mathematics is a mere by-product of our evolutionary development:

No one would deny, of course, that evolutionary necessity will have moulded our ability for thinking in ways that will ensure its adequacy for understanding the world around us, at least to the extent that is demanded by pressures for survival. Yet our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life. (p. 2-3)

He likewise rejects any “constructivist” account of knowledge which says that we merely project our preference for mathematical reasoning onto the physical world. “Nature is not so plastic as to be subject to our whim in this way” (p. 3). The great discoveries of physics, however aesthetically pleasing they may be, depend on the belief that it is nature speaking to us in revealing aspects of its deep structure.

The second aspect of the physical world that Polkinghorne holds up as a hint of God’s existence is the purpose displayed in the development of the cosmos as a whole. He concedes that evolutionary biology has seriously undermined the old-fashioned design argument, but points out that the development of the physical world itself seems favorable to the emergence of life at a very deep fundamental level. This is the so-called Anthropic Principle, which refers to the fact that if certain very fundamental physical variables were even slightly different, life, much less intelligent life, would not have developed:

What we have come to understand is that if this process is to be fruitful on a cosmic scale, then necessity has to take a very specific, carefully prescribed form. Any old world will not do. Most universes that we can imagine would prove boring and sterile in their development, however long their history were to be subjected to the interplay of chance with their specific form of lawful necessity. It is a particular kind of universe which alone is capable of producing systems of the complexity sufficient to sustain conscious life. (p. 6)

As with the phenomenon of the universe’s “rational transparency,” Polkinghorne recognizes that there are alternative explanations for the life-friendly structure of our universe. One popular way of avoiding recourse to God is to opt for some version of a many-world hypothesis that posits the existence of multiple – or even infinite – universes originating from a single point. On this hypothesis the existence of life-sustaining universes won’t seem special or noteworthy since every possibility will be realized. Polkinghorne rejects various versions of this account on a variety of grounds, regarding the most plausible versions to be insufficient for the job and the others increasingly speculative and ad hoc (see pp. 8-10).

It’s important to be clear on what kind of status Polkinghorne is claiming for this new natural theology. He writes that “the theistic conclusion is not logically coercive, but it can claim serious consideration as an intellectually satisfying understanding of what would otherwise be unintelligible good fortune” (p. 10). Unlike the older versions of natural theology which sometimes claimed to offer deductive proofs of God’s existence, this more modest version is content to exhibit the “rumors of divine purpose” contained in the physical world. It also, unlike some of the older design arguments, appeals to global, rather than particular, features of the cosmos, on the “character of the physical fabric of the world, which is the necessary ground for the possibility of any occurence” (p. 10).

Polkinghorne also observes an interesting divide here between physical scientists and biological scientists. “Physical scientists, conscious of the wonderful order and finely tuned fruitfulness of natural law, have shown significant sympathy with the attitude of the new natural theology. Biological scientists, on the other hand, have been much more reserved” (p. 11). He cites Richard Dawkins here, and it’s noteworthy that among the “new atheists,” Dawkins and Daniel Dennett prominently make their case against religious belief by appealing to biology.

In fact, Keith Ward, in his Is Religion Dangerous? points out that critics of faith misfire a bit when they treat the traditional design argument as the primary reason for religious belief, thinking that in pointing out its shortcomings they are striking at the very heart of reasonable religious belief:

There is a particular view of the history of European philosophy that has almost become standard, but which is a misleading myth. That is that everybody used to accept that there were ‘proofs of God.’ The first cause argument (the universe must have a first cause) and the argument from design (design in the universe shows that there must be a designer) were supposed to prove that there must be a God. But then along came Immanuel Kant, who disproved all these proofs. After that, belief in God had no rational basis and had to become a rationally unjustifiable leap of faith (where ‘faith’ means belief without any evidence). (p. 92)

Replace “Immanuel Kant” with “Charles Darwin” and you get an account of one seemingly popular view about the status of faith in a post-Darwinian world. As Ward goes on to point out, there have always been a variety of views about the various arguments for God’s existence and what level of support they provide to belief in God. Plato and Kant himself both offered reasons for believing in a Supreme Good that had little to do with the kind of natural theology popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Both Polkinghorne and Ward would, I think, refrain from claiming deductive or coercive certainty for the kinds of considerations they bring to bear in support of the view that the structure of the cosmos as we know it points to the existence of God. I suspect both would agree with Diogenes Allen who argues in his Christian Belief in a Postmodern World that “the fact that nature’s existence is unexplained by our sciences and philosophy should lead a thinking, inquiring person actively to consider the possibility that there is an answer to the question and indeed that God may be the answer” (p. 84).

The thing is that there is rarely going to be a single knock-down argument that is going to convince a person of important, life-altering truths, in religion or elsewhere for that matter. In ethics, or politics, or just in our own personal life decisions and relationships we often rely on converging lines of evidence and consideration rather than a single conclusive line of reasoning. Ward makes this point when discussing the contestability of various worldviews (such as materialism, idealism, theism). Every worldview has advantages and disadvantages over against its competitors in terms of things like clarity, explanatory power, being adequate to our experience, simplicity, consistency with other beliefs, etc. There’s no single algorithm that can demonstrable show one to be superior to all the others. What we should aim for, he says, is to elaborate our worldviews in “a critical and reflective way, using rational criteria for judgment that are always open to diverse interpretations” (Is Religion Dangerous? p. 97).

This isn’t relativism. There’s a truth about the way the world is that our beliefs aim at. But we’re not given a failsafe process for determining what that truth is. All our attempts rely to some extent on personal judgment in weighing different pieces of evidence, as well as value judgments about what is good and beautiful. There does seem to be an irreducible epistemic pluralism in that reasonable people can come to different conclusions on these matters, even though a realist epistemology affirms that there is a single truth about the way things are.

12 thoughts on “Modest natural theology and epistemic pluralism

  1. I heard Polkinghorne say on a podcast that there is a beauty in mathematics and physics that is much harder to discern in the field of biology, and that is another reason that physicists often seem more open to the possibility of God than evolutionary biologists. Another observation he made is that evolutionary biologists are at an earlier stage of development in their field of study, compared to physicists, and they therefore sometimes resemble rebellious (immature) adolescents! Richard Dawkins, for his part, admires Polkinghorne as a scientist, but is absolutely dumb-founded by his strange religious beliefs.

  2. plunge

    I dunno: I think both arguments are profoundly unconvincing, giving us a false sense of understanding about the relation of our intellectual capabilities to the world. What we are capable of understanding is truly wonderous, but we have absolutely no idea what slice of understanding we have. For all we know, the amount of understanding we have of the world around us may be extremely tiny and pathetic compared to what there is out there to understand. And it certainly DOES seem that our senses and reasoning are tuned from our evolutionary history. Our ability to reason is certainly a spectacular development, but giving it an air of mysticism is, I think, unwarranted. We can paint a fairly reasonable picture of how we got from point A to point B in terms of the abilities necessary for primitive human society developing through civilization to where they are today. It is a long story, but a sensible one, and seeing magic in it is, I think at this point unwarranted.

    The fine-tuning arguments likewise fail for a similar “lack of imagination” reason: they extrapolate far far too much from the limited scope of scientific inquiry (say, looking at the constants we find in our universe and how sensitive they might be to being different) to the realm of philosophy (where we must admit that we have no idea what constants could possibly be, how much they vary, and so on). For all we know, our universe is one of the most chaotic and least hospitable to life possible, or wholly unremarkable.

  3. bs

    Maybe I’m reading too much into the first quote, but is this an example of teleological reasoning? Sure, such reasoning has a historical pedigree, but it fails to convince me under these circumstances.

    I understand him to be saying that the use of mathematics points to a “deep fact” about the nature of the universe—namely, that it is rationally beautiful. Why is it important that it is mathematics (or, later in the entry, physics)? Because mathematics, more than other sciences, houses a discursive, relatively simple set of rules [put Godel’s incompleteness theorem aside] that are so analogous to apparent behavior of the phenomena of the universe that they serve as a basis for prediction. These useful, time-tested rules have a character which is “patterned” and “endowed” with “beauty.” The message here—and I would suggest this is what makes it “deep” to Polkinghorne–is that mathematical rules have a special character, one that suggests that they are the byproduct of a rational actor, an intelligent designer. He grants teleological reasoning a foothold insofar as he says that the character of this domain of science, which reflects the universe’s mechanisms, evinces a purposive design to the universe operating for the sake of X. If he is indeed making this kind of statement, Polkinghorne’s X is not entirely clear, but I’ll bet that he wants it to be at least compatible with something sought by God.

    Now, I’m not categorically opposed to teleological reasoning in one sense: I believe that learning the end or “final cause” of something can, under certain circumstances, can serve as the basis for further reasoning and knowledge about that thing. But there are only narrow conditions in which that can occur. For instance, when we discuss things that we already know have been designed for a purpose—these things tend not to be natural kinds, like clocks—it is helpful to learn what that purpose is. It allows deductive reasoning. Suppose we found a clock broken into pieces and we had no familiarity with clocks other than that we know that the pieces form a functioning instrument called a “clock”. We would certainly be aided in our project of putting the objects back together to make a clock by learning that the clock’s end is to tell time. It would eliminate certain combinations of the pieces: we can say, Y is a combination of all the pieces that does not allow us to tell time, a “clock” is a combination of all the pieces that allows us to tell time, therefore Y is not a “clock.” More subtly, and even with a more natural object, like a hand, I believe that I learn something about the hand when I learn that it is often used as a means to grab objects. Whether this latter example is teleological reasoning, I’m not sure. The kind of reasoning that I don’t particularly like is identifying a particular character within an object that would be of a sort that might appeal to a purposive designer and concluding therefore that that designer actually exists or that that end actually is a cause for the creation of the object. Take a silly example: I see from the captivating clarity of my reflection in the hood of this new automobile that it must have been designed to serve as a means of seeing myself. Even worse is when we endow that designer with moral or prescriptive authority. For example: (1) elephants are inferior dancers, (2) all features of elephants are the product of an intelligent infallible designer whom they are obliged to follow, (3) they are obliged not to dance. Aristotle’s discussion of slavery has shown that, unlike the elephant example, teleological reasoning can be very very dangerous. On the other hand, Aristotle was one hell of a thinker, so Polkinghorne has good company.

    Polkinghorne might defend himself on the ground that the qualities he’s looking are not meant to prove God’s existence, only to suggest it or make it probable. Like, if I find a perfectly smooth black rectanglar solid on its end in the middle of a bunch of apes, I can guess that it was LIKELY created by an intelligent being because its features are so unlike objects created by natural processes and so like objects created by such beings. That sleuthing is fair when its guesswork is eliminative–that is, it cancels out possiblities within a limited domain. But the circumstances here are not eliminative. The theoretical possiblities (as well as the actual possiblities, assuming repeated Big Bangs) are endless. Is math a more beautiful system than most other systemic possibilities in all possible universes? Does the ratonality of the patterns in this world better meet the threshold for what a designer would choose than do other possible worlds? And just to play devil’s advocate, what could be more elegant, simple and beautiful than a universe with nothing inside it at all?

  4. Consumatopia

    The story of natural selection is one of how life and intelligence evolved from non-living and non-intelligent things simply by self-replicating patterns emerging from random patterns. If it turns out that the universe is arranged to make this process more likely, that story becomes far less interesting. Especially if that arrangement is done by something intelligent. That’s just intelligence arising from intelligence rather than intelligence arising from randomness. Or rather intelligence arising from lifeless order which itself arose from intelligence. True or not, fine-tuning arguments appeal to the aesthetic sense of physicists and mathematicians, but repulse the dramatic sense of biologists. Order is at the beginning of the physicist and mathematician’s story, but lifeless chaos is at the beginning of the biologist’s story.

    The “rumors of divine purpose” meme is a pretty good one that should be spread around some more, though.

  5. plunge,

    The mystery isn’t so much how natural selection evolved the ability to understand the physical universe as how it is that the physical universe has an intelligible structure in the first place. Dawkins thinks he has an answer to the watchmaker problem because he can say how a duck evolves given fundamental physics. But what if the design of fundamental physics is even more improbable than the design of a duck?


    The story Intelligence1-Order-Natural Selection-Intelligencew is only boring if Intelligence1 and Intelligence2 are basically the same. Otherwise, it could be rather interesting.

  6. plunge

    “The mystery isn’t so much how natural selection evolved the ability to understand the physical universe as how it is that the physical universe has an intelligible structure in the first place.”

    That might be an interesting observation if someone could explain what the alternative would be. Exactly what would an “unintelligible” universe look like? Are you sure such a thing is possible? If so, how are you sure if you can’t make sense of it?

    Furthermore, we all generally agree that we don’t understand everything, and probably ever will. So a far simpler description of things is that we make sense of those things we are capable of making sense of: low hanging fruit and all that. Nothing says that most or even the majority of the universe is intelligible.

    “But what if the design of fundamental physics is even more improbable than the design of a duck?”

    I don’t think the word “improbable” has any meaning when applied to the universe or “brute facts” like fundamental physics. How would we know that? How can we even pretend to know that? Like I said, for all we know, it is amazingly, stunningly improbable that a universe would be SO chaotic and bereft of life as ours is: a circumstance that can really only be explained by the actions of some master designer who wanted it that way. We just don’t know.

    Worse, I think Dawkins is probably right when he points out that additional designers don’t solve problems, they compound them. Either intelligence and wills and whatever have you demand explanations or they don’t. If there’s no explanation for a creator and why it is the sort of being that chose to create the exact sort of universe it did, then it seems like a poor sport to demand explanations or express surprise for the particular state of the universe.

  7. What I take Polkinghorne to be getting at is that, assuming a non-purposive sheerly naturalistic view of how our mental capacities evolved, it’s surprising that we understand as much about the universe as we do, especially its deep structure.

    And, for what it’s worth, it’s not like we have no clue how playing around with the fundamental variables of the physical universe would impact the likelihood of life evolving.

    On the question of a designer: I’m not sure it compounds the problem. Maybe it’s about what kind of explanation you take to be more fundamental, intelligent and purposive or non-intelligent and non-purposive. A designer only creates the need for a further explanation, ISTM, if you assume that there must be a more fundamental non-purposive explanation for everything. Though, in fairness, I’m not sure there’s a straightforward way of determing which kind of explanation we ought to regard as more fundamental.

  8. plunge

    “What I take Polkinghorne to be getting at is that, assuming a non-purposive sheerly naturalistic view of how our mental capacities evolved, it’s surprising that we understand as much about the universe as we do, especially its deep structure.”

    I’m still not sure I see the cause for surprise though. We understand a certain amount, but there is a pretty clear historical story to tell about how we developed that understanding, starting from primitive human capacities in early society: Polkinghorne seems to require simply ignoring that history, a history full of errors, false starts, and thousands of years to come to understand even some pretty basic concepts. None of that story seems to warrant the insertion of magic into the picture to explain how we got from capacities necessary to survive in the wild to a civilization with large hadron colliders. And on top of that, we have no idea at all if we understand the ultimate deep structure of the universe. We still mostly seem to understand the low hanging fruit of existential reality.

    “And, for what it’s worth, it’s not like we have no clue how playing around with the fundamental variables of the physical universe would impact the likelihood of life evolving.”

    Yes and no. We can imagine what things would be like if we changed those variables freely. But again, this is a real lack of imagination on our part. How do we know to what scope they COULD have been different? How do we know which are independent on which? And more fundamentally, how to we know that there couldn’t have been a whole slew of other conditions and variables that our universe turned out to lack, making it chaotic and hostile to life in comparison to all the other possibilities (note that this isn’t a mutliverse issue, but one about the possible “couldas” for our own universe: NONE of which we really have any idea about, since we only have the one to examine and think about)?

    “On the question of a designer: I’m not sure it compounds the problem. Maybe it’s about what kind of explanation you take to be more fundamental, intelligent and purposive or non-intelligent and non-purposive.”

    The issue for me is simply that if “god just is and then creates the universe” is one possibility, then “the universe just is” seems to do just as much with less assumption. Marveling that the universe is one particular way or another seems, well, silly when the alternative is a designer who wants the universe a particular way (and not some other way). Brute facts are all philosophically troubling, but I don’t think, as some theologians do, that god is simply this nice black hole that eliminates all explanatory problems of that sort.

  9. Consumatopia

    The issue for me is simply that if “god just is and then creates the universe” is one possibility, then “the universe just is” seems to do just as much with less assumption.

    If the fine-tuning people are correct, it’s more like “an infinite number of parallel worlds just is and that includes some worlds in which life is possible” versus “God just is and then creates a universe in which life is possible”. It’s a matter of whether you like many worlds or one God. Both have assumptions the other does not.

    One argument I see against the many worlds is that we should expect to live in a world in which life is just barely possible rather than one in which life has the potential to reach complexity far beyond ours. I’m not sure that’s true, as life might just be so hard to evolve that it can only exist in worlds with a great surplus of order.

    But there’s a sort of parallel argument against God’s fine tunings, in that if God created the world, why did he create one with so much lifeless matter, with so much empty space, that spent so many billions of years waiting for life to begin?

  10. plunge

    As I said, I’m not talking about many worlds here: that’s another of an infinite number of possibilities for the nature of universes (since outside of the universe we know, possibility is truly unbounded), but it’s not what I’m discussing in this case. The issue here is merely what “could” be for a universe (even if ours is the only one). Since we do not know, and may never know, talking about the probability of this or that seems de facto invalid.

    A God that chooses to create a very particular sort of universe is no more or less miraculous or surprising than a universe of a very particular sort. It may even be a little more convoluted. BOTH are brute facts. Neither provides any satisfying explanation: I come away from neither one thinking I’ve learned anything about anything, feeling informed about existence and why it is the way it is. All questions I might have had about the universe being the way it is as opposed to some other way simply reduce back to why does there exist a being who wants the particular sorts of things it wants out of a universe, and none of these are to be satisfied, it seems.

  11. “The story of natural selection is one of how life and intelligence evolved from non-living and non-intelligent things simply by self-replicating patterns emerging from random patterns.”

    That’s not the story of natural selection at all. Natural selection ONLY works on things that replicate and that rules out “non-living things.” So the story of NS can’t be the story of life evolved from non-life.


    Have you read James KA Smith’s “The Fall of Interpretation?” He talks about epistemic pluralism in it.

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