John Polkinghorne: Wikis


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John Polkinghorne

Polkinghorne in 2007
Born October 16, 1930 (1930-10-16) (age 79)
Weston-super-Mare, England
Residence Flag of the United Kingdom.svg UK
Nationality Flag of the United Kingdom.svg British
Fields Physicist
Institutions Cambridge University
Alma mater Cambridge University
Doctoral advisor Abdus Salaam
William McKenzie
Doctoral students Peter Goddard
Known for Particle Physics
Science and Religion
Notable awards Templeton Prize 2002
Fellow of the Royal Society

John Polkinghorne KBE FRS (born October 16, 1930, in Weston-super-Mare, England) is a British particle physicist and theologian. He has written extensively on matters concerning science and faith, and was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2002.





He was born in Weston-super-Mare and was educated initially in Street and then at The Perse School, Cambridge, where his contemporaries included Peter Hall.[1] Following National Service in the Royal Army Educational Corps from 1948 to 1949, John Polkinghorne read Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge (alongside Michael Atiyah), graduated in 1952[2] and then earned his PhD degree in physics in 1955, supervised by Abdus Salam in the group led by Paul Dirac[3]. In 1955 he married Ruth Martin (d. 2006 [4]), a fellow mathematician, and went to Caltech as a Harkness Fellow to work with Murray Gell-Mann. After 2 years as a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh he returned to Cambridge in 1958, and in 1968 was elected Professor of Mathematical Physics. His students included Brian Josephson and Martin Rees.[5]

For 25 years, Polkinghorne was a theoretical physicist working on theories of elementary particles and played a significant role in the discovery of the quark.[6] From 1968 to 1979 he was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1974. He was Chairman of the Governors of The Perse School from 1972 to 1981.


He resigned his professorial chair to study for the Church of England ministry at Westcott House, Cambridge, becoming an ordained Anglican priest on Trinity Sunday 1982 in Trinity College, Cambridge by Bishop John A. T. Robinson. After five years in parochial ministry – a curate in a large working class parish in Bristol and as the Vicar of a village in Kent [7] – Polkinghorne returned to Cambridge to be Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, 1986-1989. He then became the President of Queens' College, Cambridge, a position from which he retired in 1996. In 1997 he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE); in 1998 he was made an Honorary Fellow of St Chad's College, Durham, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Durham; in 2002 was awarded the Templeton Prize for his contributions to research at the interface between science and religion.[8]

Polkinghorne has been a member of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee, the General Synod of the Church of England, the Doctrine Commission, and the Human Genetics Commission. He is a current Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge and was for 10 years a Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral. He is a founding member of the Society of Ordained Scientists and also of the International Society for Science and Religion, of which he was the first President.[9] Polkinghorne was selected to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1993-4, which he later published as The Faith of a Physicist. He has an official website including a questions-and-answers page where people from all over the world send him questions on science and religion.[10]

In 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Hong Kong Baptist University as part of their 50-year celebrations. This included a public lecture on "The Dialogue between Science and Religion and Its Significance for the Academy" and an "East-West Dialogue" with Yang Chen-ning, a Nobel Laureate in Physics.[11]

He is co-Director of the Psychology and Religion Research Group at Cambridge University[12]

Philosophical outlook

He describes his view of the world as critical realism and believes strongly that there is one world, with science and religion both addressing aspects of the same reality. Because scientific experiments work very hard to eliminate extraneous influences, he believes that they are thus highly atypical of what goes on in nature. He suggests that the mechanistic explanations of the world that have continued from Laplace to Richard Dawkins should be replaced by an understanding that most of nature is cloud-like rather than clock-like. He also regards the mind, soul and body as different aspects of the same underlying reality - "dual aspect monism" - "there is only one stuff in the world (not two - the material and the mental) but it can occur in two contrasting states (material and mental phases, a physicist might say) which explain our perception of the difference between mind and matter."[13] He believes that standard physical causation cannot adequately describe the manifold ways in which things and people interact, and uses the phrase "active information" to indicate his belief that when, energetically, many possible outcomes are possible, there may be higher levels of causation that choose which occurs.[14]

He does not have a totally untroubled faith. Sometimes Christianity seems to him to be just too good to be true, but when this sort of doubt arises he says to himself, 'All right then, deny it' and he knows this is something he "could never do".[15]

On the existence of God

Polkinghorne considers that "the question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality"[16] and quotes with approval Anthony Kenny: "After all, if there is no God, then God is incalculably the greatest single creation of the human imagination." He addresses the questions of "Does the concept of God make sense? If so, do we have reason for believing in such a thing?"

Polkinghorne is "cautious about our powers to assess coherence," pointing out that in 1900 a "competent ... undergraduate could have demonstrated the 'incoherence'" of quantum ideas. He suggests that "the nearest analogy in the physical world [to God] would be ... the Quantum Vacuum."[14]

He suggests that God is the ultimate answer to Leibniz's great question "why is there something rather than nothing?" The atheist's "plain assertion of the world's existence" is a "grossly impoverished view of reality," he says, arguing that "theism explains more than a reductionist atheism can ever address." He is very doubtful of St Anselm's Ontological Argument. "If we cannot prove the consistency of arithmetic[17] it seems a bit much to hope that God's existence is easier to deal with," concluding that God is "ontologically necessary, but not logically necessary."

He "does not assert that God's existence can be demonstrated in a logically coercive way (any more than God's non-existence can) but that theism makes more sense of the world, and of human experience, than does atheism."[18] He cites in particular:

  • The intelligibility of the universe: One would anticipate that evolutionary selection would produce hominid minds apt for coping with everyday experience, but that these minds should also be able to understand the subatomic world and general relativity goes far beyond anything of relevance to survival fitness. The mystery deepens when one recognises the proven fruitfulness of mathematical beauty as a guide to successful theory choice.[19]
  • The anthropic fine tuning of the universe: He quotes with approval Freeman Dyson, who said "the more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming"[20] and suggests there is a wide consensus amongst physicists that either there are a very large number of other universes in the Multiverse or that "there is just one universe which is the way it is in its anthropic fruitfulness because it is the expression of the purposive design of a Creator, who has endowed it with the finely tuned potentialty for life.[21]
  • A wider humane reality: He considers that theism offers a more persuasive account of ethical and aesthetic perceptions. He argues that it is difficult to accommodate the idea that "we have real moral knowledge" and that "statements such as 'torturing children is wrong' are more than "simply social conventions of the societies within which they are uttered" within an atheistic or naturalistic world view. He also believes such a world view finds it hard to explain how "Something of lasting significance is glimpsed in the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the fruits of human creativity."[22]

On freewill and free process

Polkinghorne regards the problem of evil as the most serious intellectual objection to the existence of God. He believes that "The well-known free will defence in relation to moral evil asserts that a world with a possibility of sinful people is better than one with perfectly programmed machines. The tale of human evil is such that one cannot make that assertion without a quiver, but I believe that it is true nevertheless. I have added to it the free-process defence, that a world allowed to make itself is better than a puppet theatre with a Cosmic Tyrant. I think that these two defences are opposite sides of the same coin, that our nature is inextricably linked with that of the physical world which has given us birth."[23]

On kinship between science and religion

It is a consistent theme of Polkinghorne's work that when he "turned his collar around" he did not stop seeking for truth.[24] Many of his books explore the analogies between the truth-seeking enterprises of science and religion, with a unifying philosophical outlook of Critical realism. He believes that the philosopher of science who has most helpfully struck the balance between the "critical" and "realism" aspects of this is Michael Polanyi.[25]

He suggests that there is a cousinly relationship between the ways in which science and theology each pursue truth within the proper domains of their interpreted experience and drawing on his experience of the development of Quantum physics suggests that, in both disciplines, there are five points of cousinly relationship between these two great human struggles with the surprising and counterintuitive character of our encounter with reality:[26]

  1. Moments of enforced radical revision
  2. A period of unresolved confusion
  3. New synthesis and understanding
  4. Continued wrestling with unresolved problems
  5. Deeper implications

Criticism of Polkinghorne

The atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn published a critical review of Polkinghorne's The God of Hope and the End of the World, in which he suggested that Polkinghorne's books show "supreme contempt for philosophical reasoning and historical thinking".[27] Richard Dawkins has said of Polkinghorne that he is one of a number of "good scientists who are sincerely religious", but says "I remain baffled ... by their belief in the details of the Christian religion".[28] Polkinghorne hopes Dawkins will be a bit less baffled when he reads Questions of Truth.[29] A. C. Grayling found "the Beale-Polkinghorne explanation of natural evil ... as disgusting, though it is novel, as any that other apologists trot out".[30]

Polkinghorne on "so-called 'creationism'"

In 2003 Polkinghorne published a critical review of the anthology Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, Robert T. Pennock (ed.), calling it "a massive volume of reprinted articles and lectures" that "will require both stamina and heroic patience." He goes on to state that "the arguments fly to and fro over the 800 pages of the book. It all makes for wearisome reading. Both sides are polemical and sometimes shrill. ... The whole debate of the book is definitely not a fruitful way in which to conduct a dialogue between science and theology." [31] Polkinghorne also noted that there was an "almost complete absence of theological (as opposed to philosophical) argument. ...A lecture by Arthur Peacocke is the only chapter that offers some theological reflection..." [31]

Following the controversy over the resignation of Michael Reiss, Polkinghorne published an article in The Times clarifying the distinction between believing "that the mind and the purpose of a divine Creator lie behind the fruitful history and remarkable order of the universe which science explores", which he considers "creationism in the proper sense", and being "a creationist in that curious North American sense, which implies interpreting Genesis 1 in a flat-footed literal way and supposing that evolution is wrong" which he is "certainly not")[32]

Styles and Honours

  • Mr John Polkinghorne (1930–1955)
  • Dr John Polkinghorne (1955–1968)
  • Prof. John Polkinghorne (1968–1974)
  • Prof. John Polkinghorne FRS (1974–1982)
  • The Revd. Dr John Polkinghorne FRS (1982–1997)
  • The Revd. Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS (1997-)

because Dr Polkinghorne is a clergyman in the Church of England it is not technically correct to refer to him as "Sir John Polkinghorne" even though he has been knighted.[33]


Polkinghorne has written 31 books, translated into 18 languages.[34] 26 of them concern science and religion, often for a popular audience. His science and religion books are:

  • The Way the World is : The Christian Perspective of a Scientist (1984 - revised 1992) ISBN 0-281-04597-6
  • One World (SPCK/Princeton University Press 1987; Templeton Foundation Press, 2007) ISBN 978-1-59947-111-2
  • Science and Creation (SPCK/New Science Library, 1989; Templeton Foundation Press, 2006) ISBN 978-1-59947-100-6
  • Science and Providence (SPCK/New Science Library, 1989; Templeton Foundation Press, 2006) ISBN 978-1-932031-92-8
  • Reason and Reality: Relationship Between Science and Theology (SPCK/Trinity Press International 1991) ISBN 978-0281044870
  • Quarks, Chaos and Christianity (1994; Second edition SPCK/Crossroad 2005) ISBN 0-281-04779-0
  • The Faith of a Physicist - published in the UK as Science and Christian Belief (1994) ISBN 0-691-03620-9
  • Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue (Trinity Press International/SCM Press, 1996) ISBN 978-1563381096
  • Scientists as Theologians (1996) ISBN 0-281-04945-9
  • Beyond Science: The wider human context (CUP 1996) ISBN 978-0521572125
  • Searching for Truth (Bible Reading Fellowship/Crossroad, 1996)
  • Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-300-08003-4
  • Science and Theology (SPCK/Fortress 1998) ISBN 0-8006-3153-6
  • The End of the World and the Ends of God (Trinity Press International, 2000) with Michael Welker
  • Traffic in Truth: Exchanges Between Sciences and Theology (Canterbury Press/Fortress, 2000) ISBN 978-0800635794
  • Faith, Science and Understanding (2000) SPCK/Yale University Press ISBN 0300083726
  • The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis editor, with contributors including Ian Barbour, Sarah Coakley, George Ellis, Jurgen Moltmann and Keith Ward (SPCK/Eerdmans 2001) ISBN 0-281-05372-3 / ISBN 0-8028-4885-0
  • The God of Hope and the End of the World (Yale University Press, 2002) ISBN 0-300-09211-3
  • The Archbishop's School of Christianity and Science (York Courses, 2003)
  • Living with Hope (SPCK/Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
  • Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter With Reality (2004) ISBN 0-300-10445-6 (a particularly accessible summary of his thought)
  • Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science & Religion (SPCK 2005) ISBN 0-300-11014-6
  • Quantum Physics & Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (SPCK 2007) ISBN 9780281057672
  • From Physicist to Priest, an Autobiography SPCK 2007 ISBN 978-0-281-05915-7
  • Theology in the Context of Science SPCK 2008 ISBN 978-0281059164 [35]
  • Questions of Truth: Fiftyone Responses to Questions about God, Science and Belief, with Nicholas Beale; foreword by Antony Hewish (Westminster John Knox 2009) ISBN 978-0664233518[36]

He has also written five science books:

  • The Analytic S-Matrix (CUP 1966, jointly with RJ Eden, PV Landshoff and DI Olive)
  • The Particle Play (W. H. Freedman, 1979)
  • Models of High Energy Processes (CUP 1980)
  • The Quantum World (Longmans/Princeton University Press, 1985; Penguin 1986; Templeton Foundation Press 2007) ISBN 9780691023885
  • Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction (2002) OUP ISBN 0-19-280252-6

and contributed chapters to a number of collaborative books including:

Secondary sources

Notes and references

  1. ^ From Physicist to Priest pp9-11
  2. ^ From Physicist to Priest pp23-29
  3. ^ From Physicist to Priest p34
  4. ^ Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne
  5. ^ From Physicist to Priest pp40-50
  6. ^ "Pneumatology Participants". The John Templeton Foundation. 2005.  
  8. ^ For basic bio-details see Who's Who 2006
  9. ^ ISSR Website
  10. ^ John Polkinghorne Q&A Page
  11. ^ "Diary of Events" (PDF). Hong Kong Baptist University. November 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-02.  
  12. ^ Psychology and Religion Research Group Staff List
  13. ^ Science and Christian Belief. pp. 21.  
  14. ^ a b Sharpe, Kevin (July 2003). "Nudging John Polkinghorne". Quodlibet Journal 5 (2-3).  
  15. ^ From Physicist to Priest p 107
  16. ^ This and (unless noted otherwise) all subsequent quotations are from Chapter 3 ofScience & Christian Belief (also known as The Faith of a Physicist).
  17. ^ A reference to Gödel's incompleteness theorem.
  18. ^ Science and Theology. pp. 71–83.  
  19. ^ A condensed quotation of the last two paragraphs of Science and Theology. pp. 72.  
  20. ^ Science & Christian Belief. pp. 76.  
  21. ^ Science and Theology. pp. 75.  
  22. ^ Science and Theology. pp. 81–82.  
  23. ^ Polkinghorne, John (2003). Belief in God in an Age of Science. New Haven, CT: Yale Nota Bene. pp. 14. ISBN 978-0300099492.  
  24. ^ See, for example, John Polkinhorne. Exploring Reality: the Intertwining of Science and Religion. pp. ix.  
  25. ^ John Polkinghorne (2007). Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. pp. 6. ISBN 978-0281057672.  
  26. ^ Quantum Physics & Theology, pp. 15-22
  27. ^ Blackburn, Simon. "An Unbeautiful Mind". The New Republic. Retrieved 2007-05-14.  
  28. ^ Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.. pp. 99. ISBN 0-618-68000-4.  
  29. ^ Polkinghorne, John (2009). Questions of Truth. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 29. ISBN 978-0-664-23351-8.  
  30. ^ Grayling, A. C. (2009). "Book Review: Questions of Truth: God, Science and Belief by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale". New Humanist 124.  
  31. ^ a b Polkinghorne, John, Review of Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. Philosophical, Theological and Scientific Perspectives, The Journal of Theological Studies, pages 460-461, April 1, 2003
  32. ^ The Times Shining a light where science and theology meet 19_Sept-2008
  33. ^ Official Website
  34. ^ official website
  35. ^ listing
  36. ^ Questions of Truth website

See also

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Ronald Oxburgh
President of Queens' College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
John Eatwell


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Polkinghorne (born October 16, 1930, in Weston-super-Mare, England) is a British particle physicist and theologian. He has written extensively on matters concerning science and faith, and was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2002.


  • Quantum theory also tells us that the world is not simply objective; somehow it's something more subtle than that. In some sense it is veiled from us, but it has a structure that we can understand.

Quarks, Chaos & Christianity (1995)

  • Let me end this chapter by suggesting that religion has done something for science. The latter came to full flower in its modern form in seventeenth-century Europe. Have you ever wondered why that's so? After all the ancient Greeks were pretty clever and the Chinese achieved a sophisticated culture well before we Europeans did, yet they did not hit on science as we now understand it. Quite a lot of people have thought that the missing ingredient was provided by the Christian religion. Of course, it's impossible to prove that so - we can't rerun history without Christianity and see what happens - but there's a respectable case worth considering. It runs like this.
    The way Christians think about creation (and the same is true for Jews and Muslims) has four significant consequences. The first is that we expect the world to be orderly because its Creator is rational and consistent, yet God is also free to create a universe whichever way God chooses. Therefore, we can't figure it out just by thinking what the order of nature ought to be; we'll have to take a look and see. In other words, observation and experiment are indispensable. That's the bit the Greeks missed. They thought you could do it all just by cogitating. Third, because the world is God's creation, it's worthy of study. That, perhaps, was a point that the Chinese missed as they concentrated their attention on the world of humanity at the expense of the world of nature. Fourth, because the creation is not itself divine, we can prod it and investigate it without impiety. Put all these features together, and you have the intellectual setting in which science can get going.
    It's certainly a historical fact that most of the pioneers of modern science were religious men. They may have had their difficulties with the Church (like Galileo) or been of an orthodox cast of mind (like Newton), but religion was important for them. They used to like to say that God had written two books for our instruction, the book of scripture and the book of nature. I think we need to try to decipher both books if we're to understand what's really happening.
    • page 29-30.
  • God is not a God of the edges, with a vested interest in beginnings. God is the God of the whole show.
    • page 51.
  • God didn't produce a ready-made world. The Creator has done something cleverer than this, making a world able to make itself.
    • page 64.
  • There is much cloudy unpredictable process throughout the whole of the physical world. It is a coherent possibility that God interacts with the history of creation by means of "information input" into its open physical process. The causal net of the universe is not drawn so tight as to exclude this possibility. Mere mechanism is dead, and a more subtle and supple universe is accessible to the providential interaction of the Creator.
    • page 89.

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