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John Polkinghorne on the evidence for the Mind behind the universe


John Polkinghorne, Cambridge particle physicist and theistic evolutionist, doesn’t sound like a fan of evolutionary psychology in this 2009 interview, with ABC’s Gary Bryson:

I think it is extraordinary the way in which we are able to understand the world. I mean it’s obvious that evolutionary necessity must have shaped our brain in such a way that we can make sense of everyday experience. If we couldn’t figure out that it’s a bad idea to step off the top of a high cliff, we wouldn’t stay around very long.

No, but the mind of a goat can perceive that as well. We could have stopped there and been just as safe. He goes on:

But something quite different happened when somebody like Isaac Newton came along, and saw that the same force that makes the cliff dangerous, is also the force that holds the moon in its orbit around the earth, to discover the mathematically beautiful law of inverse square law gravity, and in terms of that to explain the behaviour of the whole solar system. We don’t need that understanding for everyday survival, but nonetheless we are given it. The world is amazingly, rationally, transparent to us. We’re able to penetrate its depths. I worked in quantum physics, and the quantum world is quite different from the world of everyday. It’s cloudy and fitful. In the quantum world if you know where something is, you don’t know what it’s doing, if you know what it’s doing, you don’t know where it is. That’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – quite different from the world of everyday. Nevertheless, we can understand it, but we have to think about it in quite different ways. So the world is astonishingly rationally open to us, transparent to us, and it also turns out to be rationally beautiful. Mathematics is the key for unlocking the secrets of the universe; it turns out that the fundamental laws of physics are always expressed in terms of what mathematicians would recognise as being beautiful equations. There is a sense of wonder in doing science, a wonder that Einstein himself of course experienced very deeply about the world. And it does seem a world that is shot through with signs of Mind and I think it’s worth considering the religious insight that it’s the capital M mind of the creator that lies behind the wonderful order of the world.

Fine, but the evolutionary psychologist will simply come up with a theory of how Polkinghorne evolved these abstract ideas in order to spread his selfish genes. And the EP’s theory need not answer the case – or make any sense at all – to qualify as “science.”

Any program called “Bridging the Divide Between Science and Religion” (like this one) attracts this problem in spades: The divide is not between science and religion but between nonsense and religion. The nonsense parades as science, of course. And for good reason. It the nonsense were just shovelled off somewhere, many more thinkers would be compelled by the force of Polkinghorne’s point. So the nonsense lingers on another day.

This is exactly what drives me nuts about vacuous speculation disguised as "science". Pray tell, Dr. Polkinghorne, just how has this extraordinary intellectual comprehension (which I assume you mean beyond the relatively modest intellectual capacity of the average mountain goat) helped humans survive, reproduce, and evolve? Please don't tell me that it just "must have" evolved as proof that it did. After all, mountain goats already can make sense of their ordinary environment, but did not evolve a capacity to understand particle physics. While many humans do have the capacity to understand particle physics, many more can and do manage to reproduce quite nicely without even the slightest inkling of the subject. Or perhaps it's the evolutionary improbability of human intellectual capacity that astounds you. I, for one, am not willing to step off that intellectual cliff. Querius

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