Skip to main content
Complementary Stories of the Cosmos Perspectives from Science and Religion
Mar 1, 2010

Where do we come from, why are we here and where are we going to? These are three fundamental questions that have preoccupied many civilizations throughout history. Today more than ever we have become aware of the significance of these questions. We continue our Matter&Beyond talks with Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the former President of Queens' College, Cambridge. A life dedicated to exploring the relationship between science and religion resulted in being awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2002. With his extensive background in both science and theology Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne provides us with valuable insights into cosmic processes, human exploration and the afterlife.

M&B: Your life story is very interesting. You started your journey as a scientist. How did you become interested in science?

As a young boy, I was very good at mathematics; for me it was a very exciting subject. So I went to study mathematics at Cambridge University. And during my undergraduate years, I became very interested in the fact that you can use mathematics to understand the physical world. So when it came time to do a PhD, I did it in theoretical physics, working, in fact, with a very distinguished theoretical physicist, AbdusSalam, who later won the Nobel Prize. That led to a 25-year career working in theoretical elementary particle physics; that is, using mathematics to try and understand the behavior of the smallest bits of matter. It was a very enjoyable, interesting life.

M&B: You chose the study of elementary particles in physics; what was it that fascinated you?

Elementary particle physics, obviously, is a very fundamental branch; it is the study of the constituents out of which the physical world is made. When I entered the subject, it was at a very exciting stage. New experimental material was appearing and the theorists were puzzled at what was being discovered at first. During the 25 years I spent on the subject, we moved from thinking of protons and neutrons as being the constituents of matter to recognizing that they themselves were made up of yet smaller constituents, which are called quarks and gluons; the latter are what make them stick together. It was a very exciting and interesting time to be involved in the subject.

M&B: Why did you resign your position at Cambridge and leave physics?

I don’t think you get better as you get older in mathematically-based subjects. It requires a certain flexibility of mind rather than a depth of experience. You probably don’t do your best work before you’re 25, but almost certainly before you’re 45. I recognized that; I’ve seen it happen with senior colleagues, and I had thought for a long time that I wouldn’t stay in theoretical physics all my life. I had done my bit for it and probably the time had now come to do something else.

M&B: Was there one particular event that triggered your transition from being a professor at the university to being an Anglican priest?

In no way did I leave physics because I was disillusioned with it. I enjoyed it and I still took a keen interest in it. My transition from being a professor to a priest was partly conditioned by the fact that I’d reached that stage in my life where I felt I’d done my bit for physics. Also, the subject was changing. The quantum theory had become very established, the dust had settled, so to speak, on what we call the standard model. Physics was changing its character. String theory was appearing and everything was becoming much more speculative, using a different sort of mathematics; I didn’t know this so well, so it was quite a good time for a change.

That’s why I did it. There was no heavenly voice telling me, John, give up physics and do something else. It was just a natural transition to make. At least leaving physics was. Becoming an Anglican priest was a rather special choice for a further career, but that was influenced by the fact that Christianity had always been central to my life, and I wanted to serve the church.

M&B: If one were to compare scientific inquiry and religious thinking, what are the limits of scientific inquiry?

Well, science is very successful, but its success is the result of the modesty of its ambition. It doesn’t try to ask and answer every question. Essentially, it asks how things happen. Science doesn’t concern itself with a question of why things are happening, whether there is a meaning, or purpose to what’s going on. It considers a limited range of experience and essentially treats the world as an object, as an “it,” something to be kicked around, pulled apart to find out what it’s made of, manipulated. And that gives science, of course, its secret weapon, which is the experimental method. If you don’t believe it, try it for yourself, you can do it again and again and again. We all know, of course, that there is a very wide range of human experience which is quite different from that in which you encounter reality; that is not as an “it,” if you like, not as an object, but as a person, or in the richest case, the transpersonal reality of God. And that regime, which is very central to human life and fulfillment, has to give way to trusting. There’s a different way of finding the truth. So while science is great, it doesn’t tell you the whole story. It needs to be supplemented by other forms of insight.

M&B: There is an understanding that science is based on testing and religion is based on trusting. But do you think there is testing in religion too, and that there is trusting in science?

To a degree that’s true. There is trust in science, in the sense that scientists commit themselves to a belief that the world is intelligible. They will be able to understand it. It may be difficult to find that understanding, there may be a lot of labor involved, but they believe that there is a story to be found and to be told. And we wouldn’t do science unless we had committed ourselves to the expectation that we will find an intelligible structure beneath it.

Equally, in religion, we don’t really have experiments. We can’t put the Lord, your God, through a test, but we do have experiences. We have our own realistic experience, and also we have the record and the foundational religious experiences that lie behind the traditions of different faiths. So there is a motivated belief that arises from experience in religion and there is a commitment to a point of view in science. In that sense, the two are not completely different from each other. They have a certain cousinly relationship to each other.

M&B: You obviously have had religious experiences in your life. Could you give us some examples in order to better understand the difference between experience and experiment?

I think religion has an experiential aspect. I wouldn’t say it has an experimental aspect; an experiment is when you figure out what you think ought to happen and you induce the circumstances in which you think it’s going to happen; then you see whether it does or not. You can’t do that with God. But the outcome is going to be more open and much more flexible in its character. Take a very simple example. Suppose somebody is gravely ill, and their community prays for that person. They’re praying for God to heal that person’s life. Now the word healing comes from the root hale which means wholeness. The people who are praying may be hoping that wholeness will find its expression in terms of some form of remarkable physical recovery. It may, but equally it may not. The wholeness may come; it may come in the form of that person being able to accept the imminent destiny of death in a peaceful and trusting way. So there’s a sort of range of possible outcomes. You can’t lay them down beforehand in the same way that you can in science, and that makes religious experience valid, true, supportive. We have experiences of worship, we feel the presence of God in that sort of way; we have experiences of commitment. Looking back on our lives, I think we can often see what we believe to be the guiding hand of God leading us in a particular direction; I can see that myself, for example, in my change from being a physicists to being a priest. But I didn’t hear a heavenly voice telling me to do that at the time; it seemed more like my own exploration. Looking back, I see God’s hand in it as well. So there’s a richness and a sort of ambiguity, in a way, of religious experience. It makes religion a much more complex, and also, in a sense, a much more satisfying and fulfilling form of human activity.

M&B: Now that we have heard your story, let’s examine with the cosmic story. What are the scientific and religious perspectives behind the story of the universe?

When we think about the history of the universe, we know that it started out very, very small. 13.7 billion years ago it was just an expanding ball of energy, about the simplest thing you could imagine. Now it’s become very rich and complicated; the home of saints and scientists. And that extraordinary story in itself might suggest that something has been going on in what’s been happening with the world. It has not just been one thing after another. There’s some sort of unfolding purpose that’s being fulfilled.

M&B: And human beings also play an important role in the cosmic story.

I think one of the most astonishing things which has happened in the history of the universe that we know about is actually the coming to be of human life and human consciousness here on earth. Something really new emerged in the world with that, because we are able to be aware of ourselves, we are able to understand the world. In human nature, the universe, so to speak, became aware of itself. That was a new development. Obviously on the scale of the universe, we are very tiny creatures, and we inhabit a planet that is just a speck of dust in the great universe, but we are greater than all the stars because we know them and ourselves, and they know nothing. So, I do think there’s a particular value and a particular significance in human life. Scientific ability is part of that; our religious ability, I think, to encounter the reality of God reflects another unique aspect of human nature. So, as small as we are, I think we are a very significant part of what’s going on in the world. Science tells us that story, but I think religion interprets the same story and says, yes indeed, there is something going on. There is a purpose behind the universe. It’s the purpose of the Creator, and it’s not an accident that human beings who are aware of God have emerged; indeed, it was God’s purpose to bring that about.

M&B: That brings us to life after death, to questions about our purpose. As a physicist, what does the cosmic story tell you?

Every story that science can tell ends, eventually, in totality, transience and decay. As far as human life is concerned, obviously, we’re all going to die. It’s even true of the universe itself, although on much greater time scales. Not tomorrow, not for billions and billions of years, but eventually the universe itself is going to end in futility, most likely by becoming progressively colder and colder, more and more dilute. Carbon-based life, wherever it is in the universe, will eventually prove to be just a transient episode in history. That’s all that science can say. It’s the third law of thermodynamics; in the end, chaos always wins over order.

M&B: But there are also conservation laws in science. Do you think conservation laws offer some kind of hope scientifically?

Science certainly knows that some things don’t get lost, the conservation of energy for example. Energy is conserved yes, but what thermodynamics tells us is that energy becomes less and less useful. It transforms into heat and things like that which can’t be used to do footwork or create further forms of order. So that says the universe does run down. Of course, there are bits of the universe that swim against the tide, so to speak; but the emergence of humans, conscious beings, is different from that. But we are going to get caught up in that eventual decay in the end. So I think within what science can say, although there is no conservation of real fulfillment, in the end it is condemned to futility.

You might think, what’s the point of it? It’s going to end in that sort of way. But of course, the scientific story is not the only story to tell. There’s a religious story, so to speak; a vertical story to compliment the horizontal story of science. And the religious story is that God is faithful and God will not allow things of value to simply disappear. And I believe that there is for human beings, both individually, and for the universe as a whole, a destiny beyond our deaths. This is not a story that science can tell, because it depends entirely on the faithfulness of God. But I believe God is faithful, and so I believe that human beings will have a destiny beyond their death, and that our destiny will be linked with the destiny of the universe; the whole of creation matters to its Creator. That’s a big, big story, a story of hope and of fulfillment; science poses the question of eventual futility, but only religion, I think, can provide a satisfying answer to it.

The big issue is, is the universe truly a cast off? Does it truly make sense? It makes a lot of sense now. Science explores that and the wonderful order of the world. But does it everlastingly make sense, or in the end does it signify nothing? I think to a religious point of view it is a cosmos and not a chaos. But it is my religious belief that tells me this, not my scientific understanding.

M&B: As limited as we are, we can somehow strangely relate to that concept of everlasting life. What is the role of human conscious in transcending itself?

Human life is very rich and complex. It operates at a great many levels. There are all sorts of human intuitions, some of which we are not really consciously aware of, but which are a very important part of our humanity. Here’s one way of thinking about it. Suppose a child wakes up in the middle of the night frightened by some dream it has had. The parent goes to comfort the child. What the parent says to the child is: it’s all right. Now stop for a minute and think what that might mean. Is that parent really telling a lie to the child? We live in a world of cancer and concentration camps; we live in a world in which we know we’re all going to die. Is it really all right? On the face of it, you might think the answer is no, but nevertheless, there’s a deep intuition that in the end, all will be well. There’s a deep human intuition of hope that although there is death, there is more than death.

Interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli for Ebru TV for the Emmy Award winning television series Matter and Beyond.