Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Wright: Sir John Polkinghorne was professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University before resigning in 1979 to become an Anglican minister. He served as president of Queen's College at Cambridge until 1996. And in 1997 he was knighted by the Queen. His books include "The Quantum World," "The Faith of a Physicist," and "Belief in God in an Age of Science." I interviewed him at Queen's College. Well Reverend Polkinghorne that you very much for letting us come here to Queen's College in Cambridge and talk to you. Your background is a little different from most people who are called Reverend...
John Polkinghorne: Yea.
Wright: ... for quite some time you were a distinguished scientist, in fact you were a mathematical physicist here at Cambridge.
John Polkinghorne: That's right.
John Polkinghorne: Yes.
Wright: And then at some point you decided to get into another line of work.
John Polkinghorne: Yes. I mean I enjoyed being a theoretical physicist very much and I worked in particle physics and I worked on the subject in a very interesting phase during the period in which he discovered that matter is made of quarks and gluons. But also doing it for 35 years I thought I had done my little bit for physics and I would do something else. And because Christianity has always been central to my own life I in fact chose to be ordained and become an Anglican priest.
Wright: Now you, one enterprise that you been involved in is what some people call natural theology.
John Polkinghorne: That's right.
Wright: Which as I understand is an attempt to find in the natural world not proof of God's existence but evidence of divinity in some sense you might say.
John Polkinghorne: That's right.
Wright: Is that right? What are some of the things you've found?
John Polkinghorne: Yes. I mean if God is the creator of the world one doesn't expect to find things stamped with the words "Made By God," it would be surprising if there weren't certain hints or nudges in that direction. And for me there are two very important things that suggest there is a divine mind and a divine purpose behind the universe: one is the rational beauty and rational transparency of the world. We can understand the world in a very profound way. I mean obviously we have to understand things enough to get by in everyday life. We have to be able to figure out you shouldn't walk off the top of a high cliff. But Isaac Newton can figure out that it is the same force that makes the cliff dangerous also is the one that holds the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun and discover universal gravity and understanding the workings of the solar system and then 100 years later Einstein generalizes that and produces a theory of the whole vast universe, that's a degree of understand that is very far beyond anything we need for everyday survival or indeed as a sort of spin off of that, not only is the universe transparent to us but it's also rationally beautiful. We've found time and time again in fundamental physics that the equations that describe the way the world works are written in terms of what we recognize as beautiful mathematics. There is a aspect of wonder in the organization of the world which is very striking and very rewarding to the scientist as part of discovery. Now we can ask the question is that just our luck or is there a reason for it? And I would say that the universe is rationally transparent and rationally beautiful in other words shot through with science of mind because in fact there is a divine mind, the greatest mind behind the wonderful and beautiful order of the world.
Wright: Ok now what about the universe itself. You've written a little about what's called the anthropic principle.
John Polkinghorne: Right.
Wright: Now is that the ... one of the major the second you were gonna...
John Polkinghorne: That would be the second hint of God that I would look at. We know of course that life here on earth only appeared when the universe was about 11 billion years old and self-conscious life when it was only 15 billion years old. But it's a very real sense that the universe was pregnant with the possibility of life from the big bang onwards. The laws of nature were just exactly finely tuned to allow that to happen. It couldn't happen in just any old world. That's a very striking fact about the world. Again you could ask the question, "Is that a happy accident or is it the sign there is some divine purpose behind the very fruitful history of the universe that's turned a ball of energy into the home of saints and mathematicians?"
Wright: What's an example of a physical constant that had to be kind of just right for life to exist?
John Polkinghorne: Well let me give you two examples, both connected with the stars. If you're going to have a life producing universe the stars are very very important. You have to have stars, for example, that are going to burn for a very long time providing the energy which will fuel the development of life on the planet. now we know what makes stars burn that sort of way, it's a very delicate balance between two of the most fundamental forces of nature, between electromagnetism and gravity. If that balance were disturbed either the stars would burn very feebly and there wouldn't be enough energy to do anything very much or they would burn so intensely they would burn themselves out after just a few million years which is not long enough to support life. So that's one thing. The other thing that's even more striking is that the raw materials of life, the chemistry of life is essentially the chemistry of carbon. Elements like carbon and oxygen and so on which are absolutely essential to life, there's only one place in the whole universe where they are made, it's in the nuclear furnaces of the stars by a very delicately balanced chain of nuclear reactions which just works so to speak, the nuclear forces are just right to piece enough carbon, turn some of that into oxygen but not all of it and so on and so on. And one of the people who unraveled that really fascinating story of how the elements are made was Fred Hoyle here in Cambridge. He's always been rather against religion but when he saw how delicately balanced it was just to work right he said the universe was a put up job, this can't be just an accident that things have worked out that way and I don't think it is either.
Wright: Now one reply you've probably heard is that your argument boils down to saying that the universe we live in was conducive to life and that that is a tautology in this sense our existence implies a universe conducive to our existence.
John Polkinghorne: Right. Yes. Of course, obviously if it weren't that way we wouldn't be here to be astonished and wonder at the fact. On the other hand, the fact that it is so very very special the universe that works in that way is significant. A friend of mine who thinks about these things is a philosopher called John Leslie and he tells, he does his philosophy by telling stories. One of his stories is the following: You are about the be executed. You are tied to a stake and your eyes are bandaged and the rifles of 10 highly trained marksmen are level at your chest. The officer gives the order to fire, the shots ring out and you find you have survived. What do you do? Do you just shrug your shoulders and say "Gee that was a close one?" and walk away. Of course, you wouldn't be able to say anything if you hadn't survived but the fact that you'd survived was so remarkable that it surely calls for an explanation. The fact that the universe is so remarkable that you and I can turn up as its inhabitants seems to me also calls for an explanation.
Wright: Ok. The ... you've... you you you ... being a physicist you are more familiar with quantum mechanics that I am certainly.
John Polkinghorne: I think so, yea.
Wright: Many people are. Most of the world's inhabitants actually understand it better than I do. But it ... to me the upshot of it is that the world is much weirder than what you might imagine.
John Polkinghorne: Yes. Yes.
Wright: And you know to hear some people describe it, by some accounts quantum mechanics implies for example that two contradictory statements can in some sense simultaneously be true. But first you could comment on that but also more generally on kind of the strangeness of of of the quantum world.
John Polkinghorne: Well the quantum world is certainly very strange. It is counterintuitive. It doesn't correspond to our everyday ideas of how things should behave and one of the examples of that is that there's a different sort of logic that works in the quantum world. The quantum world is not irrational but it has it's own form of rationality. In the everyday world, either something is here or it's there. It's one or the other and that's all you can say about it. Now in the quantum world you can in fact mix together things that you can't mix together in the everyday world. In fact, you could have a mixture, we call it the super position, of being here and being there. And that means that the logic of the quantum world is different because it isn't either here or there. It might be some mixture of the two. So quantum mechanics I think teaches us certainly that common sense is not the measure of everything. That the world may be stranger either then we think or indeed in some sense then we can think and if that's true about subatomic physics it might also be true about say the spiritual world. Our knowledge of God... maybe there is a special logic for thinking about the divine just as there is a special logic for thinking about quantum mechanics.
Wright: The and and and quantum mechanics comes up particularly sometimes when philosophers bat it about in connection with the question the whole question of determinacy...
John Polkinghorne: Yea.
Wright: ... whether the universe really is clock-like and and and and everything from here on out inevitable or whether there's room for ... well first of all, human free will...
John Polkinghorne: Yes.
Wright: ... but also I know you've written about whether there's room for divine action...
John Polkinghorne: Right.
Wright: ... in the physical world.
John Polkinghorne: Well I think that there are there are very quite deep interesting problems about how the world works by causality. Now, physics tells us something about that but it doesn't settle every question. There is a role in fact for people called metaphysics which is philosophical reflection upon physics in determining that... what we do know for sure is that the world is full of unpredictability, both at the subatomic quantum level and also actually the everyday level, that's chaos theory, the butterfly effect, the weather will never be totally predictable in the future. Now unpredictability really shows that the world isn't mechanical in the crude sense of being tamed, controllable, predictable as for example Newton's successors certainly thought it was. But what we can know, what the philosophers call epistemology, is not quite the same thing as what is actually the case. The question is what is the connection between the two? What is the case is called ontology. How do the two connect to each other. And that's a decision, it's a metaphysical decision that you have to make and can't be forced upon you. If you're a scientist you are very much inclined to think that what we know is a reliable guide to what is the case. Otherwise we wouldn't do science if we didn't think what we know about the universe didn't tell us what the universe is like why should we bother I mean science is quite hard to do. If you take that point of view then you will see unpredictabilities as being signs of an openness, that the world is not only only not knowing what is going to happen but that in fact there is an openness about what is going to happen. That doesn't mean it is a lottery. But there is room for other principles to be at work and I think ultimately that includes human choice and agency. I think we know I know philosophers contend that we know that we have the power to decide to raise up our arms when we want to do so and if the world's open to us why should it not be open to God as well?
Wright: Do we know whether these are true unpredictabilities, I mean do we know whether the issue is for sure whether the issue is the fundamental unpredictableness of the world or whether it is just a reflection on our own powers of prediction.
John Polkinghorne: Well we know that we are locked in a position to gain knowledge on how the world is going to behave and the question then is is that just that we are ignorant about some things or is it that there is a genuine openness about what's going to happen. And the interesting thing is that that is a decision that we can't we decide simply on scientific grounds. Take quantum theory... conventional quantum theory says the world is undetermined. We don't know when a radioactive nucleus is going to decay but there is an alternative interpretation of quantum theory which has exactly the same experimental results that's due a very clever chap called David Bohm but which is totally determined. The world is running on tram lines but we don't know enough to see where those tram lines are going. So that's a choice we have to make philosophically and and I think myself for reasons I've just said that what we know should be a guide to what the world's like I take the choice the realist choice in saying unpredictabilities are signs of an openness in the world's process.
Wright: Ok. There's one thing in your writing I came across that I hadn't thought about before. Tell me if I've got this wrong... the question you know part of quantum physics I gather is that there's a certain when you're measuring these highly microscopic things there's a certain sense in which they don't really inhabit a state until you measure them. It's the measurement that kind of fixes them...
John Polkinghorne: Yes.
Wright: ... in a certain sense in space and time. And as I understood you you were saying we still don't know ok it's one thing to say measuring them fixes them but why does it fix them one place instead of the other. That is still not a settled matter.
John Polkinghorne: That is a celebrated problem in quantum theory, it's called the measurement problem. Why we might find (()) here we might find it there, why on this occasion do we find it here? Nobody knows how to answer that question at least in a way that is acceptable to all the other physicists who worry about these questions, it's very striking, quantum theory was discovered about 75 years ago, it's been immensely successful explaining all sorts of phenomenon including many things that just weren't known in the 1920s but we still don't fully understand it, how to interpret it. That again is I think a philosophical decision that won't be settled by science alone.
Wright: And is this particular issue in your mind a possible loophole through which either free will or divine action could enter the picture.
John Polkinghorne: Well I myself think that that's not probably the most interesting way of thinking about that problem because after all subatomic events are very small scale events and anything which we would be aware ourselves would involve literally trillions of atomic events to make it up. I think more interesting are the intrinsic unpredictabilities that we find at the everyday level of our experience, that's chaos theory, these which the weather is sort of the paradigm example. I think that's probably more significant and I've been one of the small number of people who has argued that chaos theory should be interpreted in this open way as well as quantum theory.
Wright: Well right in fact the conventional view as I think I had heard it was that the problem when you say a system a chaotic system is indeterminate you do just mean that we don't quite know enough. You're not commenting on the fundamental nature of the system itself. It's just a in other words it's just an extremely complex but deterministic system.
John Polkinghorne: Well that's the case if the equations from which you started really are the proper equations. But when the proper equations lead to to physical behavior that is contrary to what you'd expect them to yield then either you can say "Gee, isn't that amazing?" or you can say maybe the initial equations, good approximations but not actually the fundamental equation which to start from I take that second point of view that opens up the whole interpretive discussion.
Wright: So you mean we just you mean you mean chaos theorists don't quite have the picture yet?
John Polkinghorne: Yea.
Wright: The equations they're using are actually not the right...
John Polkinghorne: Well we know at least the can't completely have the picture.
John Polkinghorne: Because chaotic systems are very sensitive. They will soon depend upon details so small that quantum effects will be irrelevant to those details. It's an unsolved problem and it has very severe technical difficulties associated with it, how to fit chaos theory and quantum theory together. But of course obviously at the end of the day in some sense that must be possible because there's just one physical world and one theory that describes that physical world.
Wright: Natural theology as we've said is an attempt to kind of find evidence of divinity of some sort. I assume that you'd agree that you can only go so far.
John Polkinghorne: Yes. You can only go too far in two senses. First of all I don't think that it's logically coercive. I mean I think there are arguments that say that the rational view to the world points to a mind behind it, the fruitfulness of the world points to a purpose behind it but if you don't see it that way, I can't say to you, "You're stupid."
John Polkinghorne: You just don't see it that way. That's one thing. The second this is that even if you give me the maximum success of my arguments you give me a picture of God which is a very abstracted picture of GOD, it's God as the great mathematician or the cosmic architect or something like that. Now, I'm actually a Christian believer and so I have a much more so to speak detailed and personal transpersonal picture of God and that I'll never get out of natural theology. That will have to come from a more personal religious experience.
Wright: Ok. The ... and what do you have to say to people who have no particular faith. They may be interested in religious issues, may even like to have faith, would like to believe that There is a God, how far do you feel you can take them on logical grounds. In other words if you if you if you inspected the universe and had no preconceptions about God, you came from no particular faith so you would necessarily remain at a fairly abstract level in your... in any conclusions about any divinity... how far could you take a person? How would you describe the God that you think would emerge from that extremely kind of detached analysis?
John Polkinghorne: Well I think that in detached analysis you might reach the view that there is a case for believing that there is a divine mind behind the universe, that's to say a mind that is not just reduced within the universe but is somehow producer of the universe and there is a divine purpose between the unfolding history of the universe. As I ... I say that's not a knock down argument but it seems to me that there are good grounds for putting that on the agenda if you like, something to think seriously about. If that's the case then it seems to me that the inquired should also be interested in... ok if there is such a God, does such a God have any interest in your or in me? Or is this just a just a divine mind behind it all but we're just beneath the notice of so grand a metaphysical being. You can ask that question then you're going to have to look at personal encounter or claimed personal encounter with a reality of God and then I would want to lay out, in fact, in one of my books called "The Faith of the Physicist" I try to lay out very systematically why I adopt Christian belief, to share the motivations for that belief, to share how it arises out of, as I have said, experience of the church and the foundational events which are recorded as far as Israel is concerned The Old Testament, as far as Christianity is concerned, The New Testament.
Wright: But There were foundations in your own life as well. I mean part of your history...
John Polkinghorne: Yes. Of course. Yes. Yes. Yes. Of course. That's right. One of the big differences between the scientific belief and religious belief is ... I mean I believe quite passionately in The existence of quarks and gluons and that's an intellectual commitment of mine. But it doesn't really effect my life otherwise. But my Christian belief in The God and The Father, our Lord, Jesus Christ, has all sorts of implications in my life and arise out of all sorts of experiences. I mean the experience of mean ... I don't ... I do not have any spectacular religious experiences but regular worship and prayer and meditative reflection on scripture is very much a sustaining part of my life. It makes me what I am and gives me what I hope for.
Wright: The ... by the way, have you found, is it my imagination or is it the case that it's more common for physicists to see in their work evidence of divinity than it is for say, evolutionary biologists?
John Polkinghorne: I think that's right. I think that's right for two reasons, one of which is simply that physics does see at his level a universe that is very beautiful in terms of it's order and fruitfulness. Now the biological scene, the ups and downs of evolutionary history, the extinctions, the parasitism, that's a much more messy scene and a more ambiguous scene and religious belief would have to take that ambiguity and that messiness seriously and to grapple with it as I think they can. But I can understand why biologists are not carried away with the sort of intellectual beauty that fires up a physicist. That's one reason. But there is a second reason and that is that biology is in a particularly interesting and perhaps a particularly triumphuluous phase at the moment, for the last 40 years or so, with the discovery of DNA, the molecular basis of genetics, it really has made a stunning big discovery... has come of age in a sense very in the way that physics had came of age with Newton's stunning discovery of universal gravity. Now Newton himself was a very religious man but the generations that followed Newton in the 18th Century, particularly the French, who were the most active people, soon became atheistic. They felt, we've explained the solar system, we can explain anything. "We don't need God, I have no need of that hypothesis," that's what (()) said to have said to Napoleon. Now The biologists are in a similar sort of phase at the moment. They scored a big success and I think they thing, we've explained genes, we can explain everything. I think that's a mistake just as it was a mistake for the 18th Century physicist and I think that the biologist will find that out. But, at the moment, they are rather at the crest of a wave.
Wright: In fact, it's at the Eagle Pub right here in Cambridge...
John Polkinghorne: Absolutely.
Wright: Where Francis Crick walked in the day they discovered the structure of DNA and said "We've found the secret of life." In a some what jocular tone I assume but but you you would suggest that actually they're not quite there yet. There's something deeper...
John Polkinghorne: Yes, of course. I mean yes I mean obviously knowledge of our genes and how genes work is a part of how we work. But it's only a part of how we work. We are more than our genes and certainly we are more than genetic survival machines.
Wright: Now, you've you've written a little about process theology ...
John Polkinghorne: Yes.
Wright: First of all do you have a ... which I think is often taken as as as something that is in some ways more compatible with The modern scientific world that other theologies. First of all do you have a thumbnail definition of it?
John Polkinghorne: Well process theology is based on the idea that ... from Alfred North Whitehead, his philosophical ideas. Whitehead felt that the thing out of which the world is made is events, he called them actual occasions, and the entities like you or me or (()) so that are strings of events so to speak, so his fundamental thing is the event. And he believe that each event had a variety of different outcomes and various things would try to decoy that event in a particular direction including the lure of God. God played an important role in Whitehead's scheme, but a sort of sidelines role, a sort of encourager saying from the sidelines "Come this way, come this way." But the event itself in some sense decided what was going to happen. Well I have two difficulties about that. One is theological one is a scientific-philosophical one. The scientific-philosophical one is that I don't think that Whitehead's picture of physical process fits very well onto our modern picture of the physical process of The world. Quantum theory does have some discontinuities in it but it has an enormous amount of continuity. It unfolds through the (()) equation and so on. It doesn't look like a punctuated series of events as the way that Whitehead thought about it. So I think it doesn't... Whitehead's metaphysics doesn't fit onto the physics very well. The other difficulty I have is a theological difficulty that the God of Whitehead's theology or of process theology which developed out of it is a sort of persuader from the marshes of what's happening and I think the God in whom I believe and put my trust, the God The Father Our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead is not quite so powerless a God as The God of process theology. So though I owe a debt to process theologians for some ideas for example that God interacts with time in a serious way and is not just inhabiting eternity I know that I am not a process theologian. When I come to the United States people often say to me, "You're a process theologian but you don't know it." And I always decline The honor and explain as I have just explained why in fact I am not signed up to that program.
Wright: But I suppose Whitehead might say that too powerful a God is indistinguishable from a completely deterministic world.
John Polkinghorne: Yes. Absolutely. I think that theology, Christian theology, has to steer a course between two unacceptable extremes of or God. One is the cosmic tyrant and Whitehead very much rebelled against the idea of God as the cosmic tyrant and rightly so... the God who does everything, pulls every string, the universe is really God's puppet theater. The God of Love couldn't be so unrelentingly in control, the God of Love has to allow creatures to be themselves, indeed to make themselves, that's what evolutionary theory means in theological terms. That's one unacceptable extreme. The other extreme is the God who does nothing, The indifferent spectator, the God of Deism, who just sets it all spinning away and stands back and wonders what's going to happen. Somehow or other we need to find -- a lot of my own writing and The writing of scientific theologians like me who have struggled with how God acts in the world -- is to find an acceptable middle course between those two. A God who interacts with the world but doesn't over-rule the world. There are lots of of course problems of balance and getting that right but I think that's The right place to look.
Wright: Ok. The ... there ... I found in in talking to theologians that their conception of God is sometimes more abstract that I had assumed. I mean I I I grew up as a, my family was southern Baptist, very specific image...
John Polkinghorne: Yes...
Wright: ... of a God that was you know a man with a beard kind of and often not in a good mood you know.
John Polkinghorne: Yes yes yes...
Wright: But where do you come out... I mean when you think of when you think of God how how abstract a concept is it to you.
John Polkinghorne: Well of course it's extremely difficult to think about God. God is an infinite mysterious being. I certainly want to think of God as ... I mean, God isn't an man in The sky. But it seems to me it is less misleading to speak about God in personal terms than in impersonal or abstract terms. It is better to call God "father" than to call God "force." And so I'm I'm I'm looking in the direction of God who is not only the mind or purpose behind the universe but a God who is concerned with what happens with The unfolding history of the universe. Indeed, to The level of being concerned with what's happening and unfolding in individual human lives. So I believe in the God and Father of our lord Jesus Christ and of course as a Christian I .. central to Christianity is the really stunning mysterious but I think exciting belief that the God who is so hard to think about has acted to make God's nature known in the clearest possible terms, by living The life and dying the death and triumphing over that death in Jesus Christ. So in the Christian belief that God is made known if you like in human terms in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ. That's the God I believe in.
Wright: And and surely you've heard this this kind of objection, but once you start talking about a specifically Christian conception of God such questions arise as "Why did God reveal himself to one part of the world in this specific form and not to to another part of The world?"
John Polkinghorne: Well I think that if God is going to live a human life, God will do that uniquely. God will not keep on the the Hindu picture, avatars, people popping up to represent God at different places and different points of history doesn't seem to me coherent or an attractive idea. I think if God is going to do it there is an unavoidable scandal of particularity, as people say. It's got to happen somewhere sometime. That doesn't mean to say it seems to me that God is left the divine nature without nature at other time and other places. One of The very very big problems that theology faces in The 21st Century and one that really perplexes me is how the different world faith traditions relate to each other. I mean, I'm a Christian and therefore I believe God has uniquely acted in Jesus Christ. But I certainly don't think that God has never spoken through the Jews, no Christian could believe that or indeed through all the great faith traditions. There's a tremendous puzzle. In one sense the world faith traditions are all talking about the same type of experience, it's in the encounter with The sacred. You can recognize the authenticity of that in people from very different religious traditions. But they do say very different things about it. Not only about God but also about humanity, the human person. What's The human person? The Abrahamic faith will say of unique individual importance to God. Judaism, Christianity, Islam will all say that in a slightly different way. Our Hindu friends would see the human person as in some sense recycled through reincarnation. Our Buddhist friends, if I understand them correctly, would in some sense see the human self as an illusion from which to escape release. Now they can't all be right. And there are very big clashes there and I am puzzled by that and I have to say, very frequently, unnerved by that because though science started in a particular place and time really in Western Europe in The 17th Century it has spread throughout The world. But the religious faith traditions still remain in tension with each other. I don't know what The answer to that is.
Wright: But you do think that all the world's great religions are authentic manifestations of divine inspiration in some sense?
John Polkinghorne: I think that they all have some contact with the sacred reality of God and that each of them provides a form of true encounter with the divine through their life. I mean I do think as a Christian I am bound to think the Christian church represents the clearest and best focused account of that but I think we've moved from the point of feeling we know everything and they know nothing. That was the 19th Century view really and one of the reason we moved from that is that people in other faith traditions are no longer funny people in far away countries who believe strange things, they're down the road and you can see there is an authenticity in their lives.
Wright: And and you would expect to see a certain amount of... well of course there are people trying to synthesize the world's religions and so on but you would expect to see perhaps some theological accommodation in a sense and I mean for example there are a number of Christian theologians now I gather who say that actually non-believers don't go to hell. Now isn't that a kind of an accommodation to the existence of people of different faiths in the world?
John Polkinghorne: Yes. I think it's also an accommodation so they pass a rather belated one to the Christian understanding that God is the God of love. That God should say to some devout and pious Buddhist person who has grown up in in in Malaysia, let's say, "Too bad!" Well that person had perhaps no real chance of hearing about Jesus Christ and so on. I mean that that that doesn't seem to me just a theologically credible thing to say about God. So it's... I think we actually made some theological progress...
Wright: So, are you are you not sympathetic to what is called the perennial philosophy which, first of all, you can define better than I can, so maybe you should...
John Polkinghorne: Well I I if the perennial philosophy is understood as a sort of search for what underlies all religious traditions I am not very sympathetic to it because it seems to me that in fact it results in such a lowest common denominator (()) that it describes spiritual experience and the nature of the sacred and the nature of the divine in terms that the adherence of no world faith tradition would accept as being an adequate account. It's so thinly spread that I don't think it works that way. So I think there's a deeper problem that could be met by simply going for the lowest common denominator. And I think it's going to take a long time to find that out.
Wright: And yet if you believe that all religions are all the great religions are in some sense legitimately inspired by the divine, there must be at some level of generality or abstraction, some truth they're all on to.
John Polkinghorne: Yes. but yes there must be but I think that you don't find that by simply writing down all the things they believe and crossing out everything they don't all have in common. When you've done that you've really got very little left. And part of the reason for that obviously is that religion religious traditions involve humanly perceived, humanly expressed encounters with with with God and they are therefore refracted by (()) culture. Now, I don't think that difference of culture explain all The differences between the world faith traditions. But I think that they are a significant permanent in those difference and that's a problem to begin to be sorted out. So I say, I think this discussion has only recently begun. When you think of how difficult The different Christian denominations and traditions have found to sort out how properly they should relate to each other this world ecumenical problem it's going to take I think a long time really a few centuries probably to make real progress with but The sooner we start The better.
Wright: Ok The ... one of the attempt to reconcile religion with the scientific world view is pantheism...
John Polkinghorne: Yea...
Wright: ... which, as I understand it, is the idea that The universe is God.
John Polkinghorne: Yes.
Wright: Is that a fair ...
John Polkinghorne: That's right. Yes, yes.
Wright: Which you don't find satisfying I guess?
John Polkinghorne: No I don't.
Wright: And frankly I don't even quite understand what the value added... I mean what's The difference between saying that and just renaming the universe God I mean right? I mean ... Is ... but but there's another term I think you've used ...
John Polkinghorne: Panentheism.
Wright: Yea, now what is panentheism?
John Polkinghorne: Panentheism is the idea that the universe is in some sense part of God but that God is more than the universe. The trouble is with pantheism is it just ties God too much to the universe, God becomes if you like just a symbol to the order of the universe. I think that's how Einstein, for example, thought about God. But we know for example scientifically The universe is going to die itself I mean it's going to either collapse or decay, very long period of time but in The end it's going to end in futility. If the universe is identified with God or God with the universe then God perishes with the universe and I think a very important aspect about belief in God is a commitment to hope to believe that there is indeed a destiny beyond death that the world makes sense not only now but forever and I think that depends upon a God who is certainly much more than a perishing universe. I don't myself care for panentheism because I think it still makes God too much ... it's very important to me that there is a difference between The Creator and creation. One of the reasons for that is, I suppose the most difficult problem in religious belief, is the problem of evil and suffering in the world. The more you identify God with The world The more intense that problem becomes. I mean I think that many things happen in the world which are contrary to God's will but which are allowed to happen because the Creator is separate from the creation, that allows creation to be itself and to make itself. I think that God doesn't will the act of a murderer, God doesn't, I think, will the instances of a cancer but allows those to happen in a creation that is allowed to be itself. The more you make God identical, connected, intimately connected with creation, The more puzzling that becomes and I think that that would be the center of my objection to even the panentheistic solution.
Wright: And speaking of the problem of evil, what is your ... what do you have to say beyond what you've just said about the problem of evil which is certainly which science in some ways highlights at least evolutionary biology suggests that the price for the existence of the human species was lots and lots of suffering along the way.
John Polkinghorne: That's right and I think that I think that that insight of science is actually quite helpful. I don't suppose for a minute that it removes all The problems. It does help a little bit. You see, we tend to think that if we'd been in charge of creation then frankly we'd have done it better. We would've kept all the nice things, we'd have got rid of the disease and disaster, all the nasty things. The more scientifically we understand the process of the world, the more it seems a sort of package deal, that things are interlaced in a way you can't take out the good and throw away the bad. For example, what has made the development of life so so fruitful in some ways anyway has been genetic mutation, I mean that's driven the development of life. Now, if you're going to have some some cells mutating and producing new forms of life you're inevitably going to have other cells mutating and becoming malignant. So the fact there's cancer in the world is not because the Creator is callus, or incompetent. It's a necessary cost of a world allowed to make itself, to evolve into great fruitfulness. Now you can argue whether that cost is worth paying, that is a tricky problem, but it does at least mean that these problems are not, so to speak, gratuitous, that a creator God would had made a bit more effort or cared a bit more about what was going on could have easily have eliminated them. That's a mild help.
Wright: You're saying this trade off is kind of part of The metaphysical fabric of the universe?
John Polkinghorne: Yes. Well The structure of the universe, yes.
Wright: Well, well couldn't you argue that a that a truly omnipotent God could have redesigned the metaphysical fabric or is God in some sense enmeshed in The fabric?
John Polkinghorne: Well you have to ask what it means what it means for God to be almighty. What it mean is that God can do what God wishes to do. But there are many things that God can't do that God would never wish to do them. I mean the rational God can't decree that 2 + 2 = 5. For example. Now I think that the God of love is not going to create a universe which is God's puppet theater. It's therefore going to be a creation which has a certain degree of independence of God, a certain distance from it's creator, a certain freedom if you like to be itself and to make itself, to explore and to realize it's God-given fruitfulness. And I think that science shows us, evolution in science shows that a world that has those sort of properties is going to be a world that also has other properties like like like like malignancy so God is all powerful but only in a way that is consistent with The divine nature and The key to a divine nature is God is a God of love is not the cosmic tyrant The cosmic puppet puppeteer.
Wright: One one part of Christian belief is the idea that life goes on after death.
John Polkinghorne: Right.
Wright: Which in term entails the notion of the soul which in some circles of modern science and/or philosophy is considered too ethereal or spooky or mystical or something to take seriously. Well what do you say to that kind of criticism?
John Polkinghorne: Well I think that's the there are serious issues to think about there. I think that a sort of dualism picture of human nature, that we are really a spiritual bit that happened to be housed in The physical husk of our bodies and that spiritual bit is released at death and that's the soul and that's the aspect of us that is truly immortal... I think that's very hard to believe today the more we understand how our brains and our minds interact with each other and the more we understand for example our evolutionary history linking us with The animals and ultimately in animal matter long ago, the more we see the psychosomatic unities a sort of package deal. That's not a tremendously upsetting sort to theology, it's the predominate picture you find of human beings in The Old Testament and also in The New Testament, that we are, speaking in a famous phrase: "we are animate bodies rather than incarnated souls." And that's the view that I would talk myself. Then you have to ask the question, "Ok, what's the soul then?" Well the soul is the real me and whatever is the real me it is certainly not simply the matter of body, simply the atoms that make it up because they're changing all the time. We have very few atoms in our bodies that were there ever two years ago. So what is it that links I mean we don't have to talk simply about destiny beyond death you have to talk about this life, what is it links to me now the aging academic to The little boy in the school photograph of sixty years ago? Again it's partly atoms. It's some sense the pattern the information bearing pattern almost infinitely complex information bearing pattern in which that matter is organized. It's not a fixed pattern, it's a dynamical pattern obviously as I my character develops as I acquire new memories but it's some sense the pattern the information carried by the matter of my body ... and that I think is what is the soul. And that is The sort that wouldn't have surprised for example Thomas Aquinas the great medieval theologian who following Aristotle thought the soul was the form of the body and form is exactly The information content. Do we then have a destiny beyond death? Well I think when we die, our bodies decay, and in that sense the pattern that they've been carrying is dissolved. But it seems to me a perfectly coherent hope and belief which I actually have that God will remember the pattern that is me, hold it in the divine memory, and will then reconstitute that pattern in an act of resurrection. The Christian hope, I think, properly understood, has never been simply of survival in a sort of spiritual sense. It has been death and resurrection. Death is real, but it's not ultimate because only God is ultimate. So I believe the soul is the pattern that's me that God will remember that pattern and recreate that pattern in God's act of resurrection.
Wright: So The reconstitution actually would be a physical one?
John Polkinghorne: Yes, not in not not simply not a not a resuscitation not a reassembling in a sense of the matter of this body because if that happens, I'm just made alive again in order to die again so that The I shall be reembodied in the new creation is how Christian thinking expressed it. I live in The moment in The old creation, God's first creation, I shall be resurrected in The new creation. And Christians believe of course that that new creation has begun to grow with The resurrection of Jesus Christ, that's the seminal event, The seed event from which new creation grows. Jesus' risen body was not the same as his dead body. Jesus wasn't made alive again in the sense of reviving a corpse, his body had new properties -- he appeared and disappeared and things like that -- he was glorified, but it was still his body, it still carried the scars of The Passion and so on and that in some sense There will be both continuity and discontinuity for us. I think that's a coherent hope. It's a coherent hope if you believe that there is a God who is faithful and trustworthy, which I do believe.
Wright: Well thank you very much for talking with me.
John Polkinghorne: It's been a pleasure.