Is God in the Lab?

Here are two famous scientists expressing their opinions about science and religion. Richard Feynman gave a series of Danz Lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1963. John Polkinghorne gave a series of Terry Lectures at Yale University in 1996. Two characters as different as it is possible to be, Polkinghorne the conscientious academic scholar, Feynman the impulsive rebel. Polkinghorne prepared the text of his lectures carefully for publication, giving us a polished and logically coherent argument. Feynman was invited to prepare a text for the University of Washington Press to publish in 1963, but never did. The University of Washington recorded the lectures and preserved the tapes.

What we have here is a verbatim transcript of the lectures as Feynman gave them, speaking extemporaneously from fragmentary notes. Feynman’s voice and personality come through clearly. He talks about real people and their problems, not about philosophical abstractions. He is interested in religion as a way for people to make sense of their lives, but he is not interested in theology. Polkinghorne has the opposite bias. He is a scientist who is also an ordained minister of the Church of England. To be ordained, he went through formal training in theology. For him, theology is as real and as serious as science. His book has more to say about theology than about religion.

To display the contrasting styles of the two books, I pick out an outstanding passage from each. From Polkinghorne I pick out his second chapter, with the title, “Finding Truth: Science and Religion Compared.” This is a remarkable tour de force. Polkinghorne compares two historic intellectual struggles, one from science and one from religion. From science he takes the discovery and development of quantum mechanics, a struggle that has lasted from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century. From religion he takes the theological understanding of the nature of Jesus, a struggle that lasted from the time when Saint Paul was writing his letters shortly after Jesus’ death to the modern era of diverse views and diminished certainties. He divides each of the two struggles into five periods, and shows how events in each of the five periods in the development of quantum mechanics correspond in detail to events in the matching period in the development of theology. In the first period, the breakdown of classical mechanics, the enigma of atomic spectra, and the discovery of the light-quantum by Planck and Einstein correspond to the death of Jesus, the enigma of his resurrection as experienced by his disciples in Jerusalem, and the new understanding of these events by Saint Paul.

In the second period, confusion reigns both in physics and in theology: classical and quantum pictures in conflict in physics, orthodoxies and heresies in conflict in theology. In the third period, there was the great triumph of quantum mechanics as it emerged in 1925 and solved most of the outstanding problems of physics and the great triumph of Christology in the year 451 …

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Letters

Words and Things July 16, 1998