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 The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker

FindArticles > National Review > June 27, 1994 > Article > Print friendly

The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. - book reviews

Howard J. Van Till

At least one of these distinguished scientists is profoundly wrong. But which one?

Francis Crick, a physicist and biochemist, a Nobel Laureate known for his work on the structure of DNA, says that science is at the doorstep of comprehending the human soul, thereby making traditional religious accounts of human experience obsolete. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican priest, now president of Queens' College, Cambridge, says that in order to comprehend the whole of human experience one's vision must penetrate well beyond the bounds of the scientific - and into the realm of the spiritual.

Consider first the naturalistic world view of Francis Crick. The Astonishing Hypothesis, he says, "is about the mystery of consciousness - how to explain it in scientific terms": "The message of the book is that now is the time to think scientifically about consciousness (and its relationship, if any, to the hypothetical soul) and, most important of all, the time to start the experimental study of consciousness in a serious and deliberate way." As here suggested, Crick does not find the concept of an immortal human soul credible. Thus the book's subtitle is quite misleading. The word "soul" there has the very restricted meaning of human consciousness; and consciousness is further restricted to visual consciousness. "What I want to know," says Crick, "is exactly what is going on in my brain when I see something."

And just what is "The Astonishing Hypothesis" to which the title refers? "The Astonishing Hypothesis is that |You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Astonishing, indeed. Some of us might even greet this assertion as an "Exceedingly Demeaning Hypothesis." Are we humans really nothing more than marvelous molecular machines? Have the great intellectuals of history been utterly deluded in thinking that they could actually think? Is it the case that what we have traditionally called conscious thought is really nothing more than an amusing epiphenomenon of electrochemical activity that flutters about in the meaty computer portions of bipeds, whose only functional "value" is numerical survival?

Did Crick really intend to advance so rash a proposal? Evidently so. After noting the general agreement among the world's religions that "people have souls, in the literal and not merely the metaphorical sense," Crick soon advances the assertion that "our minds - the behavior of our brains - can be explained by the interactions of nerve cells (and other cells) and the molecules associated with them."

Suppose, then, that one were to grant that all of what we customarily call "personal behavior" or "mental activity" "thinking" is in fact reducible to peculiar patterns of electrochemical impulses in the brain and other portions of the neuronal system. How did we come to be so marvelously equipped? If one takes Crick's approach, then not only must our evolutionary history account for the fact that there are genealogical pathways that connect the human species to earlier life-forms, but it must also account for the particular set of mental capacities that we humans possess. There is, according to such a reductionist perspective, no other source from which these capacities might derive.

Furthermore, if one denies that the formative history of the universe is indicative of the intentions of a transcendent Mind, then the only dynamic value available to drive life-forms along the pathway from watery protozoan to Nobel Laureate is the value of reproductive fecundity. But there is, I think (that is, I experience neuronal activity that leads me to say that there is), more to the story. Our brains do far more than merely promote reproductive success. Even Crick has no choice but to grant this: "Nevertheless, well-trained brains can grasp ideas about phenomena that are not part of our normal experience, such as those of relativity and quantum mechanics."

But why should this be so? If, as The Astonishing Hypothesis holds, conscious human thought is no more than a set of electrochemical impulses in the brain, and if the brain is no more than the meaty computational machine that has evolved to ensure that these impulses promote reproductive superiority for the species, then why is that brain both able and eager to engage in so many other remarkably thought activities? Writes Mr. Crick: "Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendants." What (or Who) is the ultimate source of "the astonishing potentialities" that are achievable by the employment of the capacities exhibited by matter and material systems? Why should such capacities and potentialities even exist? Indeed, why should the universe not only exist but also be so rich with capacities and potentialities that are at once astonishing and entirely unnecessary?

Here is where the uncompromising reductionism of Francis Crick, like that of Richard Dawkins, runs into a brick wall, without the protection of an airbag for either driver or passenger. Crick is entirely right to call our attention to the remarkable array of neuronal mechanisms that facilitate our conscious experiences. But to move from the recognition and description of these mechanisms to the bold assertion that conscious human experience is nothing more than the functioning of these mechanisms strikes me as nothing more than an astonishing non-sequitur. Can we really believe that mind found a way to derive itself from non-mind, following only unthought pathways?

In spite of my strong objections to its thesis, I did find this book to be well worth the read. It deals with remarkably interesting questions and often reads like a tightly structured mystery novel. In all fairness, however, only those readers with the stamina to stay with the mystery as it leads through the labyrinth of technical clues and tentative theories should be permitted the "reward" of reading the last chapter, "Dr. Crick's Sunday Morning Service."

Listen to samples from just one page of this polemical exhortation: "The record of religious beliefs in explaining scientific phenomena has been so poor in the past that there is little reason to believe that the conventional religions will do much better in the future. . . . Not only do the beliefs of most popular religions contradict each other, but, by scientific standards, they are based on evidence so flimsy that only an act of blind faith can make them acceptable." And, lest we miss the point: "If revealed religions have revealed anything it is that they are usually wrong."

Crick's rhetoric is colorful, but are these cannonades even close to credible? For instance, would it in fact be requisite for a highly educated member of modem Western culture first to commit intellectual suicide before accepting the "strange and exciting claims of orthodox Christianity"? Or is it inevitable that an intelligent Christian, after being educated in one of the sciences, would feel compelled to abandon that religious heritage? Contrary to the opinion expressed by Crick and some other vocal members of the modern academy, the Rev. John Polkinghorne gives a negative answer to both of these questions. "Christians do not have to close their minds, nor are they faced with the dilemma of having to choose between ancient faith and modern knowledge."

John Polkinghorne comes to these questions with exceptional credentials. After an active career in elementary-particle physics, he chose, at age fifty, to train for the Anglican priesthood. Since that time he has become widely known for his pellucid writing and speaking on the manner in which contemporary science and theological inquiry might each be constructively informed by the other. Hence the invitation to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures for 1993-94 at the University of Edinburgh. The Faith of a Physicist is the written version of those lectures.

If you are looking for easy and pat answers to difficult questions, you had better look elsewhere. John Polkinghorne's "bottom-up" approach is entirely different from the caricatures of religious thought offered by Francis Crick. Constructing a theistic world view from the bottom up requires, according to Polkinghorne, that one attempt to provide a systematic account of the full range of human experience. That experience is not only of material systems - elementary particles, atoms, stars, planets, molecular colonies, nerve cells, complex life forms competing for numerical advantage, and the like. No, human experience extends far beyond the realm of those things that can be caught in the net of the natural sciences. Especially relevant to the issue at hand is our experience of self-consciousness, and of contemplative thought regarding the purpose and source of our existence, and of moral awareness that some choices for action are right while others are wrong. In other words, the world view of a realistic bottom-up thinker must include a substantive account of the spiritual dimension of human experience.

But where does one find valid data regarding that spiritual experience? That's a question Polkinghorne returns to frequently and with candor. We are all too aware of those persons who beat us over the head with bold claims for knowledge of unassailable spiritual truth read from a canon written by God in a manner as unambiguous as any science textbook. Polkinghorne holds the Biblical text in high regard, but he steadfastly avoids the literalism rampant in North America. "For me," he says, "the Bible is neither an inert account of propositional truth nor a compendium of timeless symbols, but a historically conditioned account of certain significant encounters and experiences."

Polkinghorne argues in favor of a revival of "natural theology" stemming "from the recognition that the physical universe is not satisfactorily self-explanatory, that science by itself will not quench our intellectual thirst for understanding." According to Polkinghorne, the satisfaction of this thirst requires that we consider the possibility that the basis for any ultimate understanding of the universe transcends the limits of the universe's own reality.

"The modern revival of natural theology does not look to occurrences within the process of the world (it does not assert that only God's direct action could cause life to arise from inanimate materials), but it looks to the basic laws which are the ground of that process." Sympathetically informed by his experience as a working scientist, Polkinghorne's approach exposes Crick's caricature of the theistic perspective as being little more than triumphalist bluster. For Polkinghorne, theism is not a retreat from reality into some make-believe world; rather, it is an approach to reality built on the motto, "The way things are is the only reliable basis for the way we should respond to them."

For Polkinghorne, the human experience of "the way things are" points to One Who transcends the material world. Although philosophically it might be more economical to exclude the idea of a Creator, as Crick does, and to take the unexplained existence of the universe as one's starting point, Polkinghorne counts this as a failure to deal realistically with important data. "In fact, the physical universe, by its very rational order and fruitfulness, seems to many to point beyond itself, so that there is more intellectual satisfaction in attributing its existence to the will of a self-existent agent than in treating it as a fundamental brute fact.... The strategy of materialistic atheists is usually to claim that science is all, and that beauty and the rest are merely human constructs arising from the hard wiring of our brains. I cannot accept so grotesquely impoverished a view of reality."

The bulk of Polkinghorne's effort in his chapter on creation is spent on the difficult but crucial questions regarding how a contemporary, scientifically informed Christian theist might speak realistically about the character of divine action in the physical world as we know it. Colorfully articulated, the principal dilemma in this endeavor is that, "One is trying to steer a path between the unrelaxing grip of a Cosmic Tyrant and the impotence or indifference of a Deistic Spectator."

We are well aware that contemporary, natural science is developing a fascinating story of the formative history of the universe. New popularizations of scientific cosmology, such as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, appear in bookstores at an accelerating pace. As Polkinghorne says, "there seems to me to be every reason to take seriously the broad sweep of what we are told. Theological discourse on the doctrine of creation must be consonant with that account."

But how is that to be done? By contriving a Biblical or theological strategy by which one could generate a chronicle of Creation's formative history that is in agreement with the particulars of the scientific story? I believe that Polkinghorne is right on target when he rejects such a concordist approach, in favor of recognizing that the theological doctrine of creation is not at all concerned with the particulars of precisely what happened at what time: "Theology is concerned with ontological origin and not with temporal beginning."

Hawking, in his remarkably popular book, seemed uneasy about that infinitesimally brief period of time after the beginning that appears to be beyond the reach of present scientific theorizing. With a burst of speculative vigor, which included an appeal to the concept of "imaginary time," he attempted to fill that gap, a gap of the sort often filled by appeal to special acts of divine creation, so that there appeared to be an occasion to ask, "What place, then, for a creator?"

Polkinghorne's response is, I believe, one which draws effectively on the strength of the Judaeo-Christian theological heritage: What place? "Every place.... God is not a God of the edges, with a vested interest in boundaries. Creation is not something he did 15 billion years ago, but it is something that he is doing now." Hawking's effort, he says, "is scientifically very interesting, but theologically insignificant."

The second half of the book constitutes Polkinghorne's acceptance of the challenge to articulate his faith, not only as a theist, but as a Christian theist. "A Gifford Lecturer must be a bottom-up thinker. He must start with the phenomena, and the foundational phenomena of Christianity are set out in the New Testament." There is no attempt on Polkinghorne's part to defend the authoritarian Biblicism that characterizes much Christian writing, nor is there any attempt to cover up the fact that there exists a considerable diversity of thought on the issues discussed.

A bottom-up thinker must deal with things as they are, and Polkinghorne proceeds with laudable candor and intellectual integrity as he examines the credibility of major tenets of the Christian faith in the context of a contemporary, scientifically informed world picture. He is engaged in what I consider to be the primary task of theology today - to provide a framework of thought that assists us in making sense of the full range of human experience, and not merely to systematize one's gleanings from a canon written in a culturally and historically distant world.

John Polkinghorne's theism or Francis Crick's naturalism? Can a choice be reasonably made? I believe so. One of them invites us to illuminate our search for meaning with light from the entire spectrum of human experience. The other dismisses our most cherished experiences and insights as nothing more than neural noise. God, what a choice!

COPYRIGHT 1994 National Review, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

some remarks on the work of john polkinghorne
Books in Review: The Faith of a Physicist

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