What Science Can’t Do: Part 2 on John Polkinghorne

As I noted in Part 1, “Why We Should Admire Scientists,” John Polkinghorne is very positive about science and scientists. He points out that science is the only field of human inquiry that seems to have reached universally accepted conclusions. Scientific knowledge seems real and dependable, and has led to many of the material improvements in our world. The stuff works! And the people who practice it work communally in (generally) quite admirable ways.

Some conclude that science is the only reliable guide, and they try to apply its methodology to all fields of knowledge. Further, some say that if science can’t grasp something, it must not be real. Polkinghorne calls this the hagiographic view of science, and he (politely) considers it nonsense.

He says science cannot be reduced to a methodology. He is greatly influenced by Michael Polanyi’s careful description of science as personal knowledge—that is, knowledge gained by persons, not by machines, in ways that we cannot fully specify. Scientists work in ways they cannot fully explain, pursuing “beautiful equations,” for example, or “elegant solutions.” The doing of science cannot be learned from a textbook but is only gained by participating as an apprentice in a scientific community.

Polkinghorne points out that “science is not radically different from other forms of human rational inquiry. It too requires the act of intellectual daring, of commitment to a potentially corrigible point of view. It too involves reliable but unspecifiable acts of judgment. Science’s superior power to settle questions lies, not in its invincible certainty, but in the openness to testing that results from its concern with aspects of reality sufficiently impersonal in their character to be open to repetitive investigation and consequent experimental checking.” [Beyond Science, 18, 19] In other words, science succeeds because it works on the easy stuff, the stuff that lends itself to the techniques of science. The same techniques on other subject matter may be perfectly useless.

For instance, science sheds little or no light on science itself.  (Measurements and mathematical calculations on scientists as they go about their work would yield very little information about what goes on inside their minds.) Science sheds no light on beauty, very little on music, art and literature, none on the purpose of human existence, none on the difference between right and wrong (even though the performance of science depends on ethical behavior among scientists). Most importantly (and this will be the subject of my next post), science has shed almost no light on the phenomenon Polkinghorne regards as among the most obvious facts of existence: our consciousness.

So Polkinghorne, while obviously loving science, knows that science has its limits. It doesn’t follow that human inquiry is constrained by those same limits. Instead, science’s success should encourage us to hope we can discover truth in other realms. After all, science is a human invention, working from within a human community. Its success says something about human capacities. Humans invented a way to understand the world that uncovered the astonishing and ornate mysteries of quantum mechanics (to use Polkinghorne’s favorite example.) Why not hope we can learn in other ways, as well?

The success of science also says something about the world: it is the kind of world that is susceptible to truth-seeking. For as Polkinghorne points out repeatedly, it is not a given that the world must be susceptible to our attempts to understand it, nor is it a given that we human beings have the ability to understand. The fact that it is and we do should make us hope that by working in skillful and dedicated communities we really can advance our understanding in realms beyond science. For understanding, impossible for most life on our planet, apparently lies very close to the heart of human nature.

As physicists hope to achieve a unified vision tying all forces together, so Polkinghorne aspires for a comprehensive understanding of life. “I actually believe that the grandest Unified Theory, the true Theory of Everything, is provided by belief in God.” [Beyond Science, 112] But that is a subject I will take up in a later post.

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7 Responses to “What Science Can’t Do: Part 2 on John Polkinghorne”

  1. Paul Vander Klay Says:

    I’m loving this series. I find it incredibly helpful. Thanks so much for taking the time to make some of his stuff digestible for me. I first heard of (and via mp3 heard) Polkinghorne here: http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/china/summerseminar/

  2. Chris Says:

    Thanks for these posts… I have one of his books (Exploring Reality), and you make me want to try to tackle it.

    Love the Student Bible, BTW. Peace to you.

  3. The Divine Conspiracy Blog » Blog Archive » The Split Says:

    […] So far Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. […]

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