Sir John Polkinghorne and Not Being a Scientific Simpleton

09/14/2011 09:07 am ET | Updated Nov 14, 2011

Einstein once famously said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler." In our drive to understand the world we are tempted to over-simplify, to see less than what is there, and to fail to appreciate the complexity of what is there. We love to toss out the bits of the world that puzzle us; what remains is then so much more manageable.

In the long conversation between science and religion this is an especially pernicious temptation. I am constantly amazed at the confident proclamations of the New Atheists that there just isn't any mystery worth thinking about in the world. I gently suggested a while back that mathematics seemed to have more layers than what meets the eye, but one critic ridiculed this as a bogus apologetic for Christianity, an interpretation that mystified me. Surely, one can wonder about the nature of mathematics without having to be a Christian. Sir Roger Penrose has written several big books doing just that.

In navigating the complexity of the world, we need more than just information. We need wisdom. In "The Tacit Dimension," the great philosopher of science Michael Polanyi expressed this in the provocative phrase: "We can know more than we can tell." Our theories, equations and logical systems capture some of the truth of what they are describing, but they always fall short. In the gap between what is captured in our nets of understanding and the larger reality lies the mystery of the world -- the things we know, in some way, but cannot tell.

Polanyi's insight undergirds the genuinely constructive dialog between science and religion. And nobody embodies the wisdom of this more than Sir John Polkinghorne, the celebrated Cambridge mathematical physicist who shocked his colleagues a few years ago when he abandoned physics to become an Anglican priest. Polkinghorne worked in that exalted stratosphere where quark theory was developed, rubbing shoulders with Nobel prize winners and colleagues (like Steven Weinberg) who have phenomena named after them. As a priest he spent a couple years in a small parish in rural England, preaching and administering the sacraments every Sunday, marrying and burying his parishioners as needed, and drinking afternoon tea with them as they sought his counsel on personal issues.

Polkinghorne, knighted by the Queen for his contributions to England's national conversation on bioethics, embodies a deep harmony between science and religion. As a mathematical physicist, he appreciated the deep mystery of a world that could be described by equations. But he also understood that the full grandeur of that world was not captured by its equations -- that every insight was something of over-simplification. "Facts always come with interpretation," he says. He notes that astronomers at the time of Galileo all had the same facts, and yet only some of them were convinced that the earth moved. Scientific conclusions are not simple summaries of our observations.

Polkinghorne is bothered by the simplistic approach of Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion," which he sees as "full of assertions, not argument," and "incredibly naïve." Known for shooting from the hip, the former physicist says Dawkins is "giving science a bad name," making arguments like "the earth is flat because I can't see the bend in the earth from my window." His advice to Dawkins? "I wish he'd just shut up."

Polkinghorne is also concerned about the confident assertions and over-simplifications of his fellow Christians. His personal journey never took a detour on the side road of atheism, but he understands the motivations of those find themselves on this side road, outside of any faith tradition. "There's an argument for it," he says of the atheist position. He admits that his own faith flourishes in an environment of doubt. Unlike many Christians who treat their faith as a system of certain propositions, Polkinghorne believes that the most authentic faith -- the one he finds in the Bible -- co-exists with doubt. "When you pray through the Psalms, which I do," he admits, "you see a lot of wavering and wondering."

Christianity, for Polkinghorne, is filled with challenging beliefs and things we don't understand. He has no answer to why God seems to ignore the most well-intentioned of prayers. He recalls being angry with God for not answering the heart-felt prayers of his family that his brother Peter make it back from the war. The year was 1942 and, like many families, the Polkinghornes had just received the unwelcome news that their son's fighter plane had gone missing in the North Atlantic. Twelve-year-old John recalls praying and hoping for the best, convinced that his superstar brother would find some heroic way to make it home. It was not to be. Reflecting on such experiences today, including his own near fatal illness a few years ago, Polkinghorne finds himself drawn to his faith precisely because "Christianity speaks to the problem of suffering at the deepest possible level."

Contemporary science and traditional Christian faith co-exist peacefully in Polkinghorne's worldview. There are points of harmony and points of conflict, to be sure; there are mysteries and certainties; there is "wavering and wondering." But neither science nor religion has to be distorted to get all the ideas into the same head.

Polkinghorne let down his quintessential British guard quite a bit recently for Dean Nelson and me, who have just published the first biography of this remarkable thinker, "Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion." In our conversations, as in his many writings, we encountered a profound wisdom, like we were talking to someone who knew more than he could tell.