Science & Religion: No Ends in Sight

John Polkinghorne
John Polkinghorne; drawing by David Levine

Sir John Polkinghorne is a well-known physicist who spent twenty years doing research in theoretical particle physics and then switched to theology. He was ordained as an Anglican priest and has spent the last twenty years as an influential member of the Church of England, serving as a link between the Church and the academic community. This is the latest of many books that he has written about science and religion for the general public. It arose out of a gathering of theologians invited by the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton to discuss the theological implications of the end of the world.

The world here means the whole universe and not merely the planet on which we happen to live. The gathering was called the Eschatology Project, eschatology being the official name for the branch of Christian theology that deals with the end of the world. Polkinghorne was a participant in the project, and was invited to write this book after it was over. The formal proceedings of the project are published in another book, The End of the World and the Ends of God,1 edited by Polkinghorne and Michael Welker. This book is a personal response to the questions that the project addressed, written in a more informal style and for a wider audience.

Polkinghorne begins with two chapters, “Cosmic Process: Past and Future” and “Insights from Natural Science,” that summarize present-day scientific opinions concerning the end of the world. These chapters provide the scientific input for the theological discussions that follow. The scientific input is meager. Very few scientists have spent much time thinking about the end of the world, and those few have reached diverse conclusions. All scenarios for the end of the world are highly speculative. They cannot be tested or verified by observation or experiment. The beginning of the world in the colossal explosion that we call the Big Bang has left many physical traces that can be observed and analyzed. The science of cosmology is largely concerned with collecting tangible evidence of things that happened billions of years ago, going all the way back to the beginning. No such tangible evidence can exist for the ending. For this reason, most scientists consider that the end of the world does not have much to do with science.

At the end of his two scientific chapters, Polkinghorne summarizes their findings in a single sentence: “From its own unaided resources, natural science can do no more than present us with the contrast of a finely tuned and fruitful universe which is condemned to ultimate futility.” He quotes the statement of the physicist Steven Weinberg in his book The First Three Minutes, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” He remarks that Weinberg was “writing within the limited horizon of an atheist physicalism and with science alone as his guide.” According to Polkinghorne,…

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