Only the hand of God could have conjured up the mind of mankind

June 15, 2001

John Polkinghorne argues that the study of physics need not preclude a belief in the Almighty.


The belief in the existence of God, as defined by concepts that would be held in common by the three great monotheistic world faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - means that reality makes total sense and that the key explanatory principle needed for understanding is the recognition that the world is the creation of a divine agent. This, in turn, implies four statements that need to be defended: that there is a Mind behind the order of the world; a Purpose behind its unfolding history; that the One thus revealed is worthy of worship; and that God is the ground of an everlasting hope.

A key word in the vocabulary of a scientist is "wonder", the response evoked by the marvellous order of the physical world revealed to our inquiry. For those of us who have worked in fundamental physics, this feeling is particularly intense, for it has been our experience that the laws of nature are always expressed in equations of unmistakable mathematical beauty.

Is it just luck that the universe is both rationally transparent and rationally beautiful - in a word, that science is both possible and deeply rewarding? Personally, I cannot think that this remarkable fact is simply a happy accident. That the world is shot through with signs of a Mind becomes intelligible if there is indeed the Mind of its Creator behind cosmic order. The argument is not a knock-down one, but it is coherent and intellectually satisfying.

The universe as we know it started with the big bang about 15 billion years ago with an almost uniform expanding ball of energy. It is now rich and diversely structured. In the coming into being of self-conscious humankind, the universe became aware of itself, the most astonishing development that we know about in all that 15-billion-year history. These facts alone might suggest that more was happening in that history than just one thing after another. Moreover, while it took 11 billion years for any form of terrestrial life to develop, there is a real sense in which the universe was pregnant with that life from the start.

The scientific insights collected together under the rubric of the Anthropic Principle tell us that the development of carbon-based life was possible only because the laws of nature that define the physical fabric of the world took a specific, "finely tuned" form. For instance, a delicate balance between gravity and electromagnetism is necessary if stars such as the sun are to be able to burn steadily for the billions of years required for fuelling the development of life on an encircling planet. The nuclear forces had to be just right if carbon and the other elements essential to life were to be formed in the interior furnaces of first-generation stars.

Again, one might ask whether anthropic fine-tuning was just a happy accident or the sign that our world is the one prize drawn from a vast bran tub of other unobservable universes, all with different laws of nature? More persuasive for the theist than either of these proposals is the understanding that the anthropically fruitful universe has been endowed by God with those finely tuned circumstances that have enabled its fertile history to express the divine creative Purpose.

Of course, that cosmic potential has been fulfilled through evolutionary processes. It has involved an interplay between "chance" (not meaningless randomness, but contingent particularity) and "necessity" (anthropically fine-tuned law). This shuffling exploration of possibility does not pose a problem for the theist. God's creation is not a divine puppet theatre, for the Creator is no cosmic tyrant. Divine benevolence towards creation implies that there will be due degrees of independence granted to creatures.

To use a phrase that the clergyman Charles Kingsley coined soon after the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), an evolving world, seen from a theological point of view, is one in which creatures are allowed "to make themselves". This is a greater good than a ready-made creation, just as free beings are of greater worth than perfectly programmed automata, but it has a necessary cost in terms of the blind alleys of evolutionary exploration.

Here science provides believers with some modest help as they struggle with their greatest difficulty - the existence of so much evil and suffering in what is claimed to be the creation of a good and powerful God. New forms of life will come about through genetic mutations, but exactly the same biochemical processes also mean that other mutant cells become malignant. One cannot have the one without the other. There is cancer in the world, not because the Creator is indifferent or incompetent, but because it is the unavoidable cost of a creation allowed to make itself. I do not at all suppose that this is a complete answer to the difficulties of suffering, but it does show that the presence of disease is not gratuitous.

Consideration of the One who is worthy of worship turns the argument in the direction of the nature and existence of value. Just as science is to be defended as the investigation of the existing order of the world, so the theist will claim that human culture at its deepest level is discovery and not invention, a response to the nature of reality and not the construction of systems of human-generated meaning. This assertion raises a vast array of issues on which there is much disagreement and the argument cannot be pursued in any detail here. I wish simply to affirm my belief that profound moral principles - such as truth being better than lies, or that persons are always ends and never merely means - are neither disguised survival strategies nor useful social conventions, but discernments of reality.

We have real moral knowledge. In fact, it seems to me that I know that love is better than hate as surely as I know anything. If moral principles are not simply matters of expediency or of our individual choosing, from where do they come and how do they possess their authority? The theist will see them as intimations of the good and perfect will of God. Similarly, aesthetic delight is a dimension of true encounter with reality, which the believer will understand as a sharing in the Creator's joy in creation. The encounter with the sacred, to which the world faith traditions testify, is a meeting with the divine presence.

The coherence and persuasiveness of theism depends partly on acknowledging the rich and many-layered nature of the reality within which we live. The same event can be both an occurrence in the physical world, a carrier of beauty, a challenge to moral decision and an encounter with the sacred. For the religious believer, an occasion of worship will often have all these dimensions. Belief in God ties together these levels of experience. God is worthy of worship because God is ultimately the ground of the good, the true and the beautiful.

But what about hope? We know that we are going to die and cosmology tells us that the universe will eventually collapse or decay. Is cosmic history after all just a tale told by an idiot? I think that there is a deep intuition in the human heart to the contrary, a trust that in the end all shall be well. The Marxist philosopher Max Horkheimer expressed the longing that the murderer would not triumph over the innocent victim. The eternal faithfulness of God is the only possible undergirding of such a hope.

Such a reliance on God raises a whole host of questions about the divine nature and whether the Creator is interested in individual creatures. These issues require a much lengthier exposition, but raising them serves to remind us that almost all who believe in God, do so not in a detached philosophical way, but from within the experience of a living-faith community. In turn, this raises questions about how the faiths relate to each other, with their common ground of encounter with the sacred and their strikingly different descriptions of what that encounter reveals. Here is a problem that theology has only recently begun to treat sufficiently seriously. This is likely to dominate its agenda during the 21st century and probably beyond.

John Polkinghorne was formerly president of Queen's College, Cambridge. His books include Belief in God in an Age of Science , Yale University Press, £7.95.

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