On Friday, Halley Soc welcomed Dr John Polkinghorne to St Paul’s to talk on how science and religion work together. Lest this post turn into an enormous dissertation I will attempt to digress as little as possible from what he said, and merely restate some of his main arguments (the things that I wrote down) and explain why I think he’s wrong. All quotations are paraphrased since I didn’t write down every word he said. Apologies if I’ve misinterpreted some of the things he said.
He began by stating that religion is a search for truth, and that both science and religion rely to an extent on belief:
Both science and religion are a search for truth, and both rely on motivated belief
In my opinion, while science is a genuine search for truth, religion is in many cases the opposite. Looking at evidence, God seems to be no more than a convenient gap-filler for what humans do not know. When Pasteur turned up, disease was no longer a manifestation of God’s wrath but merely the action of millions of tiny microbes, and was treated with medicine instead of prayer. On the subject of belief, while science relies on believing measurements made by humans and machines, religion relies mostly on what a book full of contradictions is interpreted to say – which seems to be just about everything.
He subsequently said something about religion being a human version of science:
Science treats humans as objects. Humans are obviously not objects, thus need something else: religion
I think humans are objects. Just because we classify ourselves as intelligent life with complex emotions, we are governed by exactly the same laws as everything else. Emotions are simply manifestations of neurones firing and hormones and chemicals being released in the body (I’m no biologist but I’m pretty sure it’s something along those lines). However complicated the brain is, I believe there’s nothing to separate the mind from the brain than a different paradigm – fundamentally the mind is a function of the state of the brain. Humans are objects after all. Saying they are different things are a bit like saying the Newtonian paradigm contradicts the Hamiltonian one.
He used this argument to create an argument about beauty, specifically music:
When we hear music, we hear its beauty, and can appreciate that. This implies there is something other than science, and we call this other thing God
As above, beauty and emotions relating to it are merely functions of the brain, abstractions relating to certain neurones firing. Beauty is not an inherent part of the universe – we merely interpret it to be.
He then said that science and religion help each other:
Science helps religion by telling the world how the world works, about truth
‘Truth’ is the exact word he used (I wrote it down enclosed in quotation marks). If science tells religion the truth, his first statement must be false: religion can’t be told the truth and come up with it at the same time. More importantly and indeed disturbingly, he insists that religion can explain evolution:
God made the world so that creatures can evolve: rather than making homo sapiens with five fingers he created a world in which life can make itself. Life evolved from a ready-made world
Apparently it is more likely that we are living in a computer simulation than in a ‘real’ world (c.f. several New Scientist articles). So God is a computer programmer with a genetic algorithm. In a way I can believe that, after reading the articles. There’s still no justification for practising religion though – merely believing in a probability of there being a form of ‘god’, and only tenuously.
He then said Newton is proof of God:
Evolution cannot explain Isaac Newton: there is absolutely no evolutionary benefit for humans to be able to understand the cosmos
I think he’s made a mistake here. Of course there’s no evolutionary benefit for the ability to understand the universe and invent calculus, just as there’s no evolutionary benefit for a dolphin to be able to jump through hoops (I’m not intentionally comparing Newton to a dolphin). What allowed Newton to discover his laws was his intelligence and a high degree of intuition, undeniably qualities beneficial to an animal; qualities which enable it to survive better.
He fell back again to a beauty argument:
Science and Maths are beautiful: Mathematical equations and the way everything fits together is just so beautiful that it cannot exist without God. Quoting Wigner, ‘Mathematics is so unreasonably effective’. God must have made it that way
Personally I think there are three good reasons why science and maths yield such beautiful equations. The first is statistics. It is statistically likely that there will exist some beautiful equations, and some not so beautiful ones. Beautiful ones include e^iπ+1=0. Not so beautiful ones include the quadratic formula, or indeed the quartic formula. The second reason is that science and maths are based on very simple rules which can themselves be described as beautiful. Simplicity of certain solutions and results stem from the fact that the basis is fundamentally simple – there are many hidden fundamental underlying patterns interspersed throughout the sciences, which means you tend to end up with something quite nice. The third reason is that aesthetics are a human invention. Beauty doesn’t really exist – humans just assign that quality to certain things. So saying beauty proves god is circular: “God made man to invent beauty to prove God”.
The last part of his talk involved a well-known argument for intelligent design:
Life as we know it can’t exist without the parameters of our universe.
I have all sorts of objections to this and could get into the anthropic principle and keep going forever. He said ‘life as we know it’, citing specifically carbon-based life. He also said if those parameters were tweaked just slightly, we couldn’t exist. It’s possible though that a radical change in one or more of the parameters might still yield intelligent life. Who knows, that life might not even need photons.
Someone asked a question about the multiverse theory, a popular method to get round this problem. He replied that this is too speculative an idea. I asked whether he thought, if the idea of multiple universes (a part of many theories such as M-theory and the many-worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics) was too speculative, that God is too speculative. He said something about there being evidence for God and none for multiple universes. I asked him what he thought of David Deutsch’s idea that quantum computing is evidence for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as the computing power is too great to come from one universe. His reply:
I think it’s perverse for David Deutsch to say such a thing. All you need is the Copenhagen interpretation
So multiple universes are ridiculous to even consider, but God is; and spooky action at a distance is fine?
Many things he said contradict things I believe and conclusions I have come up with. I remain no more convinced that religion is worth practising and that God exists. Furthermore, after all this argument why theology in general is maybe a good idea, he became specifically Anglican, a branch of religion that requires him to believe all sorts of ridiculous assertions made by the bible. He said he has his reasons but wasn’t prepared to delve into them with the little time that he had. My suspicion is that he and I will never agree. But to commemorate the occasion (a famous person coming to St Paul’s), I managed to get his signature on my copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in which he is (probably) referred to as a crackpot (image is at top of post, and on my Flickr photostream). Score…