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A Meeting With the Grand Master

Hello my brilliant blogging friends,

Today (Friday) was the grand finale of the science and open theology conference, and what a finale it was! Our visiting guest was Sir. John Polkinghorne, the grand master of contempory science and theology (at least according to ME). If you’ve done ANY reading on science and theology, you’ve undoubtedly encountered this man’s work. Polkinghorne was a world reknowned physicist before becoming an Angilcan priest and the most prolific writer on science and theology in the world today. Honestly, he’s written a gazillion or so books on the topic! What makes him particularly signficant to our group is that he argues that both science and the Bible point us to a God who created a dynamic world that is moving into a partly open future. He was a delightful, whimsical, very fast talking, brilliant guest.

His heavy English accent was pretty cool too!

Okay, here are a few highlights.

1. Polkinghorne had a fine section on the implications of Chaos and Quantum theory — which delighted my heart, since I had been a bit disappointed on how little we’d discussed these fields in this conference.

Neither of these fields proves the world is indeterministic, but in contrast to so much of classical science, they at least don’t rule out indeterminism. Quantum Theory in particular can be given either a deterministic interpretation (if one posits “hidden variables” to account for quantum indeterminacy) or an indeterministic interpretation (if one accepts the indeterminacy as an ultimate description). But Polkinghorne argued that the indeterministic interpretation was to be preferred, and is preferred by most physicists. The “hidden variable” explanation is contrived, he argued. (I’d also say it exacts a high price in other areas, but I can’t get into this now).

2. I finally got clear on why a Quantum Chaology (combining Quantum and Chaos theory together) is theoretically difficult, if not impossible. I’ve never quite understood this. Polkinghorne’s brilliance is his clarity. He noted that Quantum physics has a scale to it, while Chaos does not — it’s fractal. You can’t fit a scaled discipline with a non-scaled one. It’s an apples and oranges kind of thing.

3. Polkinghorne outlined his theory that God influences the world by providing “patterns of information” that steer the direction of energy flow without interfering with natural processes. I inquired what sort of causality this “information” might be, if it can’t be detected by measuring instruments. And I wondered precisely how it influences the direction of things. Is it determinative or merely persuasive? If it’s the former, how can the future be open? But if it’s the later, what is there that keeps it from being determinative? His answer to me was not too satisfying, relying on analogies of the mind influencing the brain (which itself is a very mysterious process, as I noted yesterday). Other’s followed up with more questions along these lines, but Polkinghorne (who is a very humble man, by the way) admitted it’s all quite mysterious.

4. One of Polkinghorne’s best sections, as far as I’m concerned, centered on showing why Relativity Theory does not in any way call into question the real temporality of the Cosmos. As I discussed on a previous blog a couple weeks ago, while there is no privileged perspective regarding when “now” is, according to Relativity Theory, each perspective has an unambiguous past and an unambiguous future. There is no conceivable perspective that doesn’t move from the past to the future. While Polkinghorne didn’t say this, I would add that this means that an omnipresent God who is coterminous with each and every perspective would have a “now” that is a synthesis of all the relative nows of all perspectives, thus constituting a cosmic “now” with an unambiguous past and an unambiguous future (consisting partly of possibilities, in my view).

5. Polkinghorne gave a splendidly clear overview of four areas that suggest there is a real “arrow of time” (moving from past to the future). There is a) the cosmic arrow (the unidirectional expansion of the universe); b) the thermodynamic arrow (unidirectional entropy); c) the arrow of increasingly complexity (the cosmic movement from simplicity to complexity — which doesn’t contradict “b” by the way); and d) the psychological arrow (our sense of living in the “now” with a real past and real future). I was surprised that he didn’t mention the quantum arrow, since he’s discussed this in several of his books. When a quantum particle transitions from its “superposition” state (in which it is nothing more than a probability wave) to its measured state (in which it becomes a fixed point), there is a movement forward that cannot be reversed, thus suggesting a real arrow of time.

Following his presentation we had a great time discussing an assortment of things. There was a good bit of discussion regarding the issue of God’s timelessness, flowing largely from a statement Polkinghorne made to the effect that, while he doesn’t believe all future facts are present to God’s knowledge, he doesn’t think it’s a logical contradiction to suppose that they are, and even that we could continue to be free if they were. Many of us tried to help John see that this is infact contradictory, but to no avail.

Personally, I suspect Polkinghorne hasn’t completely worked through the full implications of his dynamic view of creation. For example, at one point he claimed we need to accept “a kenosis (which means, self-emptying or self-limiting) of divine omniscience.” In the span of two sentences he said, “God limits his knowledge of the future” followed by “there’s nothing in the future for God to know.” My question to him was, “If there’s nothing in the future for God to know, why claim that God limits his knowledge not to know ‘it'”? If there’s nothing ‘out there’ for God to know, there’s no ‘it’ for him not to know (though I would say there are possibilities ‘out there,’ and that God knows them). So we should simply say that God creates a world comprised of possibilities, and that he knows it just as it is precisely because God has unlimited omniscience.

The point is that, despite his open theism, Polkinghorne seems to yet have a vestige of the old classical view of the future ‘out there’ as a domain of settled facts to be discovered, rather than a domain of possibilities to be realized. He, like the rest of us, seems to be yet in process — which happens to fit the dynamic world view he espouses very well.



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