John Polkinghorne

Blean, Kent

September 1985

One World

The Post-Enlightenment World

The practice of religion and a belief in God appear to have been almost universal phenomena, with the exception of the modern Western world. We live in a pluralist society of belief and unbelief. That exception is often attributed to the rise of science. Our enhanced understanding of the physical world is held to have undermined the belief of many in a spiritual reality. Thus baldly stated, the proposition has the air of a logical non sequitur. Are not physical and spiritual matters concerned with different levels of meaning and thus no more in direct opposition than is the character of the page in front of you, discerned as composed of paper and ink, in conflict with the assertion that it is also the means by which its author is attempting to set his thoughts before you? The most comprehensive discussion of its chemical composition could not exclude consideration of its possible intellectual content. To see how science and theology have come to be thought of by many as being in some way in opposition requires a historical, rather than a logical, assessment.

Science first achieved a recognizably modern form in the seventeenth century. Those concerned in its early development were, almost all, people who took seriously the existence of a religious dimension to life. Many of the first Fellows of the Royal Society were of a puritan persuasion. Indeed, it has been suggested1 that the Christian doctrine of creation, with its emphasis on the Creator's rationality (so that his world was intelligible) and freedom (so that its nature had a contingent character which could be discovered only by investigation, rather than by speculation) provided an essential matrix for the coming into being of the scientific enterprise. Of course, some of those early scientists had problems in their relations with the ecclesiastical authorities and with orthodox belief. We cannot feel that the Galileo affair reflects much credit on the church, even if it was not quite the confrontation between a lonely hero, imbued with a simple desire for truth, and the forces of clerical obscurantism, that popular mythology depicts. Newton had his difficulties in accepting Trinitarian belief, but neither he nor Galileo was a skeptic, and Newton appears to have held the mistaken view that his writings on the book of Daniel were of equal importance to the Principia.

Yet in the seventeenth century we can also see the beginnings of what was to become thought of as the conflict between science and religion. Thomas Hobbes eagerly, if inexpertly, seized on the mechanical ideas then being developed to make the Democritean assertion that reality was nothing but a concourse of atoms in motion. That was a materialistic take-over bid, leaving no place for the mental, let alone the religious. Few were inclined to be so dismissive of the claims of mind to its own existence, but the manner in which those claims were defended itself contained the seeds of future difficulty.

Descartes proclaimed the duality of mind and matter. How the thinking substance of mind and the extended substance of matter were related was not so easy to say. Ultimately he had to invoke God as the guarantor of their connection. The Cartesian system, wittily characterized by Gilbert Ryle as the ghost in the machine, had grave problems. William Temple said that he considered that day on which Descartes conceived it ("shut up alone in a stove"—a heated room— as he tells us) was "the most disastrous day in the history of Europe."2 Such a judgment is the pardonable exaggeration of a philosophically inclined person, but there is no doubt that Cartesianism had a dan gerous tendency. Its author's fondness for clear ideas drove him to a total divorce between mind and matter as the only tolerable way of preserving the claims of the former to equal consideration with the latter. Yet if too sharp a separation is made, the tangible nature of matter is liable eventually to promote a feeling of the unreality of intangible mind. Moreover, the Cartesian system is stiffly rationalistic. Clear ideas are excellent when we are able to conceive them, but it may be that at certain times with certain problems it is better to be content with a creative confusion than to strive for an oversimplified solution. Clarity can be purchased at the expense of the complexity of the truth. Even today our ignorance of matters germane to the relationship of brain and mind is such that we can proceed only with modesty and caution.

It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the chill of mechanistic ideas communicated itself widely in a form less crude than that of Hobbes, and so more persuasive. The remarkable success of Newton's ideas in explaining the behavior of physical systems, both terrestrial and celestial, encouraged reliance on a discourse of reason whose paradigm was seen in the power of mathematics. That there might be aspects of reality, intuitively discerned, whose nature was fittingly expressed in the cloudier language of symbol was not taken sufficiently seriously. The thinkers of the Enlightenment sought by cold clear reason to comprehend an objective world of determinate order. They saw themselves as self-sufficient and were confident of their powers and of human perfectibility. Even theology was affected. When it did not lapse into a detached deistic belief in a God who had set the world a-spinning but cared little for it thereafter, it adopted a coolly rational tone, placing great reliance on natural theology's supposed demonstrations from the intricate design of the world. In line with the spirit of the age, God had become the divine Mechanic. There was considerable suspicion of religious experience less ordered and decorous than that provided by attendance at public worship.

The principal role of religion was thought to be the encouragement of morality. In England in the eighteenth century, one of the great theological figures was Bishop Joseph Butler, author of The Analogy of Religion. He warned John Wesley about the dangers of enthusiasm, saying: "Sir, pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing."3 Indeed, it is, if it is a matter of pretense, as Wesley agreed. But it is always possible that what is involved is, in fact, a valid experience which goes beyond the staid limits of conventional expectation.

Wesley and the other great preachers of the Evangelical Revival represent religion's protest against the frigid rationalism of the Enlightenment. Their preaching of human sinfulness may have been unhealthily guilt-ridden, but it took a more realistic view of the flawed condition of mankind than that provided by optimistic ideas of human perfectibility. Other protests were also made against prevailing rationalism. The poets and artists of the Romantic movement intuitively rejected the desiccated analytic method of the Enlightenment which, in Wordsworth's phrase, murdered to dissect. William Blake proclaimed with mystic intensity the preeminence of the symbolic over the scientific: "'What,' it will be questioned, 'when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?' O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.'"4 Blake's vision is powerful and disturbing but too idiosyncratic to have been widely influential.

In fact, as the nineteenth century progressed, the light of reason seemed to shine with ever greater clarity on a comprehensible and determinate world. Clerk Maxwell brought an order into the phenomena of electromagnetism which was fit to stand beside Newton's achievements in mechanics. The principles of physics seemed complete. All that was left was their application to problem solving. Above all, Darwin showed how competitive selection could sift favorable mutations from random variations, creating thereby the appear ance of design without need for the intervention of a Designer. The one apparently convincing demonstration of the existence of God, on which the eighteenth-century theologians had placed such great reliance, was found to be fatally flawed. Paley had compared the likelihood of the intricate structure of the world being the result of chance to the assertion that a watch had been assembled by random causes. However, it now seemed that after all one could find a watch without a watchmaker's having had to put it there.

None of this logically denied the validity of religious experience or the existence of God. Yet it marginalized such claims in the minds of men. Like Laplace, whose demonstration of the inherent stability of the solar system made unnecessary Newton's belief in a divine corrective occasionally applied to stop the planets wobbling apart, people came to feel that they had no need of the hypothesis of God. The Enlightenment attitude had done its acid work, and many people's faith dissolved away.

By a curious irony, as the nineteenth century came to an end, the method and view of the Enlightenment were themselves beginning to dissolve in their turn. We now live in a post-Enlightenment age. The essential character of Enlightenment thinking was to allow the clear light of reason to play upon an objective and determinate world. Scarcely a feature of that description now survives intact.

The insights of depth psychology have modified our understanding of the operation of human reason. We are more than rational egos. The exact nature of the polarities within the psyche is a matter of dispute between Freud and Jung and their successors. Yet it is clear that our conscious minds are counterbalanced by an unconscious component, at once creative, chaotic, and teeming with symbol. These deep levels within ourselves need to be spoken to, and they themselves speak to and influence the ego of which we are aware. There is an element of Blake within all of us.

At the same time that the human psyche has revealed its shadowy and elusive depths, the physical world has denied determinate objectivity at its constituent roots. Heisenberg tells us concerning electrons and other elementary particles that if we know what they are doing we do not know where they are, and if we know where they are we do not know what they are doing. His uncertainty principle proclaims the unpicturability of the quantum world. Naive objectivity is a status inappropriate for its inhabitants. Moreover, the fitfulness inherent in quantum theory breaks the bonds of strict determinism. In general we can give relative probabilities only for differing possible outcomes of an experimental observation, and no cause is to be assigned for obtaining a particular result on a specific occasion. The world known to the twentieth century is a good deal more curious and more shadowy than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could have conceived.

That in itself is no great cause for religious rejoicing. The ancient Hebrews knew well the dangers of the waters of chaos. Our century has seen a recurrent cult of the Absurd which is destructive of true understanding. To acknowledge the limits of rationality, objectivity, and determinism is not to relinquish a belief in reason, a respect for reality, or a search for order. It may, however, lead to greater openness to the variety of the world and our experience of it, an acceptance that beside the insights of science, expressible in the quantitative language of mathematics, there are the equally necessary insights of religion, expressible in the qualitative language of symbol. It is the purpose of this book to explore and defend such a thesis. Our first task will be to evaluate the scientific enterprise itself, for it has not been immune from the threat of a twentieth-century dissolving process.

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