Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Book review: Beyond Science by John Polkinghorne

Beyond Science is a series of nine essays by John Polkinghorne that examines a range of scientific and theological topics. The chapters progress from a discussion of the nature of scientific knowledge, through the process of scientific discovery, to the mystery of the human mind. From this foundation, Polkinghorne offers an argument for a reasonable acceptance of a Creator, and how this revelation influences one's outlook on a range of social and ethical issues. I found it to be a satisfying and enjoyable read, albeit one that is unlikely to be accessible to a wide audience. The themes discussed are thought-provoking, and Polkinghorne delivers them with clarity and a gentle humour. However, their juxaposition tends not to be especially fashionable, and Polkinghorne's scholarly writing does not lend itself easily to readers outside of academia.

In the first chapter, Polkinghorne gives a brief overview of the philosophy of science. He counters the twin extreme views of perception of science proceeding logically and unceasingly towards Truth, or that science is merely a social construction by which we collectively agree to view the world. Polkinghorne's preferred view is that of critical realism, particularly that promoted by Michael Polanyi. He ends the chapter with a paragraph that summarises his point perfectly:

I write as someone who wants to take science absolutely seriously and to accord it its rightful place in the great human search for understanding. In my view, its achievement is a verisimilitudinous telling of what the physical world is actually like, in its structure and its history. Science's method is the pursuit of knowledge through acts of personal judgement within the conviviality of a truth-seeking community and in submission to the inflexibility of the way things are. Its relation to other forms of human inquiry is both comradely and encouraging. Science should be part of everyone's world view. Science should monopolize no one's world view.

The third chapter, entitled "Working together" is an overview of the social dimension of the scientific research environment. Polkinghorne's description is unashamedly focused on the particle physics scene that is his experience, however I was able to see a lot of commonality in his descriptions of the training of students, rivalry and collaboration between research groups, and the recognition that scientists acheive. On this last subject, Polkinghorne makes the following observation, which I find particularly profound:

Our culture makes very little attempt to take a serious interest in matters scientific, regarding them as arcane and inaccessible. The treatment of scientific discoveries in the press and other media is fitful, inadequate, often whimsical, seizing upon a doubtful or trivial incident and neglecting ones of much greater significance. . . . The names of scientists of the greatest distinction are often completely unknown to the public. . . . It is to their peers, therefore, that scientists must look for the appreciation with it is a natural human desire to receive for one's acheivements (p. 30).
The chapter finishes on a poignant note, as Polkinghorne discusses the fact that science is a young person's game, requiring a "certain flexibility of mind". He tells of his sorrow at seeing senior scientists increasingly struggle to remain on top of the field, leading to his decision to switch from particle physics to theological study. He emphasises that this decision was not due to any feeling of disenchantment with the field, but rather because he felt that he no longer could contribute productively to the field. I strongly recommend that all postgraduate students in science read this chapter for its accurate insights into the social dynamics of science, as well as the wisdom of having an exit strategy should it be required.

Polkinghorne defends his belief in a Creator in chapter six. His argument hinges on three pertinant observations. First is the self-organisation of the universe, culminating in the human mind and culture. Polkinghorne accepts that biological evolution forms a significant part of the explanation for this fruitfulness, but considers that additional teleological processes may be operating also. Second is the beauty of our understanding of the world, especially in the realm of mathematical descriptions of how the universe works. Third, the fine-tuning of the universe to support intelligent life is a very strong reason for Polkinghorne's acceptance of a Creator. He discusses the anthropic principle at length, before using a parable from John Leslie:

if there is a single fly on a big blank wall, its being hit by a bullet surely calls for some sort of explanation. Either a marksman has been at work or many shots were fired, one of which by chance hit this isolated target (p. 85).
Polkinghorne points out that both of these explanations go beyond the physical to the metaphyscial. It is no more scientific to argue for a multiverse explanation for the anthropic principle as it is to argue for a theistic explanation. Both Polkinghorne and myself consider that there are sufficient indications from other sources to make the latter option highly plausible. One of the results of this worldview is that "in [our] opinion, science is possible, and cosmic history has been fruitful, because the universe we inhabit is a creation (p. 92)."

Polkinghorne J. 1996. Beyond Science. The Wider Human Context.Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

No comments: