Mark Vernon, writing for the UK Guardian, wants us to believe that John Polkinghorne has found a place for God to live. If you don’t know the name, John is a famous mathematician and physicist who also happens to be an Anglican priest. He has written plenty of books about religion and science, as well.
Physicist John Polkinghorne is often accused of offering up a God-of-the-gaps argument. But his work has subtler shades.
Uh oh. In my experience, whenever the words “subtler shades” appear in an apologetic argument, it’s a lead-in to the classic technique: Throw so much esoteric philosophical doublespeak at the audience that nobody knows what you’ve said, and therefore cannot refute you.
So how is John going to confuse and conquer? Here’s an outline: You see, there is a problem with scientific descriptions of reality. When we describe one “level” of reality, we limit ourselves in our ability to describe other levels. The best known example of this is the “incompatibility” of quantum theory and general relativity. Finding the theory uniting these two systems is considered the holy grail by most theoretical physicists.
Furthermore, there’s a problem with causation. When we start describing causation, we hit a brick wall. It can and does go both ways. Our neurons are certainly the causal agent which gives rise to mind, but it is equally true that mind affects neurons. Causation can be bottom up or top down.
Finally, science has not proven that the universe is “causally closed.” (Hint: This is just a fancy way of saying science hasn’t proven the nonexistence of anything at all outside of our universe.) Combine these three philosophical “dilemmas” and you get a nice little home for God. Whatever it is, it acts upon the universe in a way similar to mind acting on neurons. It is the top level, and is compatible with science.
Anyway, so says Polkinghorne. I happen to disagree, and I’m having a hard time understanding why anyone is taking this claim seriously. How, exactly, is this not a “God of the Gaps” argument? We’ve just been presented with three philosophical gaps in scientific understanding, and told that’s where we need to look for god. That’s…. um… a god of the gaps.
I am actually a bit confused by this variety of theist-scientist-apologist. What do they expect to find? Let’s suppose for a moment that there is some sort of natural intelligence which emerges from the existence we can see at this time. Perhaps we humans are analogous to neurons, and are giving rise to this intelligence, which then performs actions, which in turn influence the universe that we can see. How is this in any way similar to “God,” as understood by any religion?
In the first place, “God” would certainly not be all-powerful, nor would it be the creator of the universe. (How could it have created the things which give rise to its existence?) Furthermore, it’s pretty silly to imagine that this God would care about our behavior. Can you imagine scientists getting mad at atoms and trying to punish them for behaving badly?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, proposing such a god doesn’t actually solve any problems. This has been one of my biggest gripes with apologists — especially “scientific apologists.” The gods they propose aren’t theories designed to solve a scientific puzzle. They’re just attempts to prove the existence of some kind of god. “You see, there’s this… um… thing… that kind of… you know, exists sort of like our mind… and it’s really neat… and it sort of… you know… causes things from the top down… and that’s cool.” Ok… and all the religions of man are still full of shit, and we still don’t know what dark matter is, and we still don’t have a theory uniting relativity and quantum theory.
Let’s be honest. This isn’t a scientific theory. It’s barely a philosophical statement, since it hasn’t proven itself to be anything besides a “God of the Gaps” fallacy. Yes, it would be neat if science found evidence of “top down” causation which strongly implied intelligence at a “higher level.” But there is no such evidence, and no matter how much Polkinghorne wants to protest that this isn’t a god of the gaps argument, it is.