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Belief in God in an Age of Science.

John Polkinghorne. Yale University Press. [pounds]14.95. 133 pages. ISBN 0-300-07294-5.

Discussions about science and religion, while often quite interesting, have always seemed to be pointless and unreal. Furthermore, the views of the opposite sides in such discussions are frequently very emotional, much more so than is the case in discussions of other subjects. Even scientists, widely thought to be coldly unemotional people, often become quite heated when discussing religion.

Why do I say that discussions of science and religion are pointless? Simply because they are two subjects that are dealing with different subject matters and it strikes me that the one cannot illuminate the other. I have never been able to understand the notion that science has 'disproved' religion, or that it has 'proved' that God does not exist. According to scientific principles, such 'proof' is impossible.

Saying that science has proved that God does not exist is like saying that science has proved that beauty does not exist. Neither God nor beauty can be defined scientifically, any more than the notions of 'good' or 'bad' can be so defined. In any case, one of the basic tenets of science is that it cannot and does not set out to 'prove' anything; it can only fail to disprove things. The approach a scientist takes to his work is to put forward an explanation for something that he is interested in, such as why an electron behaves in a certain way or why a cell secretes a particular substance under certain circumstances. This proposed idea is termed a falsifiable hypothesis - an idea that could, in principle, be disproved.

If an idea is 'assaulted', so to speak, by observations and experiments and still remains undisproved, then a scientist's belief in its correctness will increase. The more we try and fail to disprove the idea, the stronger our belief in it will become. The trouble many scientists have with the concept of God is that it is not a falsifiable hypothesis, in other words, there is no logical means whereby one could, in principle, set about trying to disprove it. This is true, but the leap of logic that is then made that, because the existence of God is not falsifiable in principle, it must be untrue - is not valid.

It is a fact of life that certain ideas are not amenable to discussion or experimentation in a scientific sense. It does not follow that these ideas are invalid. Scientists themselves, as individuals, subscribe to many notions that cannot be described as being falsifiable, such as good and evil, pleasant and unpleasant, right and wrong. None of these ideas is falsifiable, but science itself cannot possibly function without them. For example, scientists believe that it is 'right' to tell the truth and 'wrong' to do otherwise. If a scientist is dishonest, his avowed conclusions will be untrue and science will not progress. Therefore, there is a good reason for scientists to be truthful, but it does not make the notion of 'goodness' any more falsifiable.

Scientists have no difficulty with non-scientific concepts, such as beauty, goodness, unhappiness and the like, perhaps because they experience these things themselves. But let us look at other notions, such things that scientists might consider to be more 'real'. Take, for example, pain. Everyone has experienced pain at some time or another. But let us pretend, for the sake of the argument, that there is someone who has never experienced pain. Such a person may conclude that pain does not exist and that all those who claim to have experienced it are mistaken. The same applies to one who has never experienced unhappiness. In fact, it is not at all easy to 'prove' that pain or unhappiness exist; they are not falsifiable hypotheses.

The concept of God is very similar to other non-scientific concepts - concepts that are perceived or 'felt', but which cannot be handled scientifically. Professor Polkinghorne's book sets out to support the idea of the existence of God through scientific discussion and much of it is quite ingenious. For example, the notion of a 'causal joint' - an aspect of the natural world in which God can influence the course of events - is discussed at some length. The uncertainty of quantum events is discussed by Professor Polkinghorne as being such a causal joint. In a postscript to the book, the author discusses the nature of mathematics and considers the problem of whether mathematical concepts are 'real' or whether they are merely figments of the human imagination. Mathematical ideas are clearly applicable to the natural world, but are they part of it? Without explicitly saying so, Professor Polkinghorne presents the whole idea of mathematics as being akin to the idea of God. We cannot see, feel or touch mathematics, yet it undoubtedly 'exists' in some form. The same could be said about God.

Discussions such as these make compelling reading and are undoubtedly intellectually stimulating, yet they ultimately fail to satisfy. This is because they are accessible only to very few. If belief in God depended upon the comprehension of such arguments, there would be very few believers indeed. People who believe in God, do so for other, deeper, less easily articulatable reasons.

The book begins with a look at the perceived problems of believing in God in a scientific age. The second chapter is concerned with a comparison of the nature of scientific and religious discovery; here Professor Polkinghorne shows how the nature of discovery in both areas of thought follows a certain evolutionary pattern. The third chapter deals with the question of whether God acts in the real world and it is here that the search for the causal joint is made. The fourth chapter is an appeal for a continuing dialogue between science and religion, while the fifth chapter argues, in the author's own words, that 'the scientist and the theologian both work by faith, a realist trust in the reliability of our understanding of experience'.

There is no doubt that this book is an interesting one and will appeal to those who think deeply about the meaning of life. But it is not, and cannot be, a book that would enable anyone to attain belief where none existed before. I am not suggesting that this was the purpose of the book, but it may appear to many to be yet another attempt to argue that science and religion are compatible. The argument, to me at any rate, is unnecessary, since the door is already open.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Erzinclioglu, Zakaria
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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