John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne

Infobox Scientist
name = John Polkinghorne
box_width = 300px

image_width = 300px
caption = Rev Dr John Polkinghorne, KBE FRS
birth_date = birth date and age|1930|10|16
birth_place = Weston-super-Mare, England
death_date =
death_place =
residence =
citizenship =
nationality =
ethnicity =
field = Physicist
work_institutions = Cambridge University
alma_mater = Cambridge University
doctoral_advisor = Abdus Salaam
William McKenzie
doctoral_students = Peter Goddard
known_for = Particle Physics
Science and Religion
author_abbrev_bot =
author_abbrev_zoo =
influences =
influenced =
prizes = Templeton Prize 2002
religion = Anglican
footnotes = Fellow of the Royal Society

John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS (born October 16, 1930 in Weston-super-Mare, England) is a British particle physicist and theologian. He has written extensively on matters concerning science and faith, and was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2002.



He was born in Weston-super-Mare and was educated initially in Street and then at The Perse School, Cambridge, where his contemporaries included Peter Hall. ["From Physicist to Priest" pp9-11] Following National Service in the Royal Army Educational Corps from 1948 to 1949, John Polkinghorne read Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge (alongside Michael Atiyah and James MacKay), graduated in 1952 ["From Physicist to Priest" pp23-29] and then earned his PhD degree in physics in 1955, supervised by Abdus Salam in the group led by Paul Dirac ["From Physicist to Priest" p34] . In 1955 he married Ruth Martin (d. 2006 [ [ Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne ] ] ), a fellow mathematician, and went to CalTech as a Harkness Fellow to work with Murray Gell-Mann. After 2 years as a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh he returned to Cambridge in 1958, and in 1968 was elected Professor of Mathematical Physics. His students included Brian Josephson and Martin Rees. ["From Physicist to Priest" pp40-50]

For 25 years, Polkinghorne was a theoretical physicist working on theories of elementary particles and played a significant role in the discovery of the quark. [cite_web| url= |date=2005 |publisher=The John Templeton Foundation |title=Pneumatology Participants] From 1968 to 1979 he was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1974. He was Chairman of the Governors of The Perse School from 1972 to 1981.


He resigned his professorial chair to study for the Church of England ministry at Westcott House, Cambridge, becoming an ordained Anglican priest on Trinity Sunday 1982 in Trinity College, Cambridge by Bishop John A. T. Robinson. After five years in parochial ministry, Polkinghorne returned to Cambridge to be Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, 1986-1989. He then became the President of Queens' College, Cambridge, a position from which he retired in 1996. In 1997 he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE); in 1998 he was made an Honorary Fellow of St Chad's College, Durham, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Durham; in 2002 was awarded the Templeton Prize for his contributions to research at the interface between science and religion. [For basic bio-details see "Who's Who 2006"]

Polkinghorne has been a member of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee, the General Synod of the Church of England, the Doctrine Commission, and the Human Genetics Commission. He is a current Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge and was for 10 years a Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral. He is a founding member of the Society of Ordained Scientists and also of the International Society for Science and Religion, of which he was the first President. [ [ ISSR Website] ] Polkinghorne was selected to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1993-4, which he later published as "The Faith of a Physicist". He has an official website including a questions-and-answers page where people from all over the world send him questions on science and religion. [ [ John Polkinghorne Q&A Page] ]

In 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Hong Kong Baptist University as part of their 50-year celebrations. This included a public lecture on "The Dialogue between Science and Religion andIts Significance for the Academy" and an "East-West Dialogue" with Yang Chen-ning, a Nobel Laureate in Physics. [cite_web |url= |publisher=Hong Kong Baptist University
title=Diary of Events |month=November | year=2006 |accessdate=2007-04-02|format=PDF

He is co-Director of the Psychology and Religion Research Group at Cambridge University [ [ Psychology and Religion Research Group Staff List] ]

Philosophical outlook

He describes his view of the world as Critical Realism and believes strongly that there is One World, with science and religion both addressing aspects of the same reality. Because scientific experiments work very hard to eliminate extraneous influences, he believes that they are thus highly atypical of what goes on in nature. He suggests that the mechanistic explanations of the world that have continued from Laplace to Richard Dawkins should be replaced by an understanding that most of nature is cloud-like rather than clock-like. He also regards the mind, soul and body as different aspects of the same underlying reality - "dual aspect monism" - "there is only one stuff in the world (not two - the material and the mental) but it can occur in two contrasting states (material and mental phases, a physicist might say) which explain our perception of the difference between mind and matter." [cite_book| title=Science and Christian Belief |pages=p. 21] He believes that standard physical causation cannot adequately describe the manifold ways in which things and people interact, and uses the phrase "active information" to indicate his belief that when, energetically, many possible outcomes are possible, there may be higher levels of causation that choose which occurs.

He does not have a totally untroubled faith. Sometimes Christianity seems to him to be just too good to be true, but when this sort of doubt arises he says to himself, 'All right then, deny it' and he knows this is something he could never do. ["From Physicist to Priest" p 107]

On the existence of God

Polkinghorne considers that "the question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality" [This and (unless noted otherwise) all subsequent quotations are from Chapter 3 of"Science & Christian Belief" (also known as "The Faith of a Physicist").] and quotes with approval Anthony Kenny: "After all, if there is no God, then God is incalculably the greatest single creation of the human imagination." He addresses the questions of "Does the concept of God make sense? If so, do we have reason for believing in such a thing?"

Polkinghorne is "cautious about our powers to assess coherence," pointing out that in 1900 a "competent ... undergraduate could have demonstrated the 'incoherence'" of quantum ideas. He suggests that "the nearest analogy in the physical world [to God] would be ... the Quantum Vacuum."

He suggests that God is the ultimate answer to Leibniz's great question "why is there something rather than nothing?" The atheist's "plain assertion of the world's existence" is a "grossly impoverished view of reality," he says, arguing that "theism explains more than a reductionist atheism can ever address." He is very doubtful of St Anselm's Ontological Argument. "If we cannot prove the consistency of arithmetic [A reference to Gödel's incompleteness theorem.] it seems a bit much to hope that God's existence is easier to deal with," concluding that God is "ontologically necessary, but not logically necessary."

He "does not assert that God's existence can be demonstrated in a logically coercive way (any more than God's non-existence can) but that theism makes more sense of the world, and of human experience, than does atheism." [cite_book |title=Science and Theology |pages=pp. 71-83] He cites in particular:

* The intelligibility of the universe: One would anticipate that evolutionary selection would produce hominid minds apt for coping with everyday experience, but that these minds should also be able to understand the subatomic world and general relativity goes far beyond anything of relevance to survival fitness. The mystery deepens when one recognises the proven fruitfulness of mathematical beauty as a guide to successful theory choice. [A condensed quotation of the last two paragraphs of cite_book |title=Science and Theology |pages=p. 72]

* The anthropic fine tuning of the universe: He quotes with approval Freeman Dyson, who said "the more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming" [cite_book |title=Science & Christian Belief |pages=p. 76] and suggests there is a wide consensus amongst physicists that either there are a very large number of other universes in the Multiverse or that "there is just one universe which is the way it is in its anthropic fruitfulness because it is the expression of the purposive design of a Creator, who has endowed it with the finely tuned potentialty for life. [cite_book |title=Science and Theology |pages=p. 75]

* A wider humane reality: He considers that theism offers a more persuasive account of ethical and aesthetic perceptions. He argues that it is difficult to accommodate the idea that "we have real moral knowledge" and that "statements such as 'torturing children is wrong' are more than "simply social conventions of the societies within which they are uttered" within an atheistic or naturalistic world view. He also believes such a world view finds it hard to explain how "Something of lasting significance is glimpsed in the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the fruits of human creativity." [cite_book| title=Science and Theology |pages=pp. 81-82]

On freewill and free process

Polkinghorne regards the problem of evil as the most serious intellectual objection to the existence of God. He believes that "The well-known free will defence in relation to moral evil asserts that a world with a possibility of sinful people is better than one with perfectly programmed machines. The tale of human evil is such that one cannot make that assertion without a quiver, but I believe that it is true nevertheless. I have added to it the free-process defence, that a world allowed to make itself is better than a puppet theatre with a Cosmic Tyrant. I think that these two defences are opposite sides of the same coin, that our nature is inextricably linked with that of the physical world which has given us birth."cite book | last = Polkinghorne | first = John | title = Belief in God in an Age of Science | publisher = Yale Nota Bene | year = 2003 | location = New Haven, CT | pages = 14 | isbn = 978-0300099492 ]

On kinship between science and religion

It is a consistent theme of Polkinghorne's work that when he "turned his collar around" he did not stop seeking for truth. [See, for example, cite_book |author=John Polkinhorne |title= |pages=p. ix] Many of his books explore the analogies between the truth-seeking enterprises of science and religion, with a unifying philosophical outlook of Critical realism. He believes that the philosopher of science who has most helpfully struck the balance between the "critical" and "realism" aspects of this is Michael Polanyi. [cite_book| author=John Polkinghorne |title=Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship |publisher= Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge |date=2007 | isbn=978-0281057672 |pages= p. 6]

He suggests that there is a cousinly relationship between the ways in which science and theology each pursue truth within the proper domains of their interpreted experience and drawing on his experience of the development of Quantum physics suggests that, in both disciplines, there are five points of cousinly relationship between these two great human struggles with the surprising and counterintuitive character of our encounter with reality: ["Quantum Physics & Theology", pp. 15-22]
# Moments of enforced radical revision
# A period of unresolved confusion
# New synthesis and understanding
# Continued wrestling with unresolved problems
# Deeper implications

Criticism of Polkinghorne

The atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn published a critical review of Polkinghorne's "The God of Hope and the End of the World", in which he suggested that Polkinghorne's books show "supreme contempt for philosophical reasoning and historical thinking". [cite web | last = Blackburn | first = Simon | title = An Unbeautiful Mind | publisher = "The New Republic" | url = | accessdate = 2007-05-14 ] Richard Dawkins has said of Polkinghorne that he is one of a number of "good scientists who are sincerely religious", but says "I remain baffled ... by their belief in the details of the Christian religion." [cite_book |first=Richard |last = Dawkins |authorlink=Richard Dawkins |date=2006 |title=The God Delusion |isbn = 0-618-68000-4 |pages=p. 99]

Polkinghorne on "so-called 'creationism'"

In 2003 Polkinghorne published a critical review of the anthology "Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics", Robert T. Pennock (ed.), calling it "a massive volume of reprinted articles and lectures" that "will require both stamina and heroic patience." He goes on to state that "the arguments fly to and fro over the 800 pages of the book. It all makes for rather wearisome reading. Both sides are polemical and sometimes shrill. ... The whole debate of the book is definitely not a fruitful way in which to conduct a dialogue between science and theology." Polkinghorne, John, Review of "Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. Philosophical, Theological and Scientific Perspectives", The Journal of Theological Studies, pages 460-461, April 1, 2003 ] Polkinghorne also noted that there was an "almost complete absence of theological (as opposed to philosophical) argument. ...A lecture by Arthur Peacocke is the only chapter that offers some theological reflection..."

Following the controversy over the resignation of Michael Reiss, Polkinghorne published an article in The Times clarifying the distinction between believing "that the mind and the purpose of a divine Creator lie behind the fruitful history and remarkable order of the universe which science explores", which he considers "creationism in the proper sense", and being "a creationist in that curious North American sense, which implies interpreting Genesis 1 in a flat-footed literal way and supposing that evolution is wrong" which he is "certainly not") [ The Times [ Shining a light where science and theology meet] 19_Sept-2008]

tyles and Honours

* Mr John Polkinghorne (1930-1955)
* Dr John Polkinghorne (1955-1968)
* Prof. John Polkinghorne (1968-1974)
* Prof. John Polkinghorne FRS (1974-1982)
* The Revd. Dr John Polkinghorne FRS (1982-1997)
* The Revd. Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS (1997-)

Dr Polkinghorne does not use the title 'Sir', even though he has been knighted, as he is a member of the clergy of the Church of England. If he were not a member of the clergy, he would be titled Dr Sir John Polkinghorne or just Sir John Polkinghorne.


Polkinghorne has written 30 books, and has been translated into 18 languages [ [] official website] . 25 of them are concerning science and religion, often for a popular audience, including:

* "The Way the World is : The Christian Perspective of a Scientist" (1984 - revised 1992) ISBN 0-281-04597-6
* "One World" (SPCK/Princeton University Press 1987; Templeton Foundation Press, 2007) ISBN 978-1-59947-111-2
* "Science and Creation" (SPCK/New Science Library, 1989; Templeton Foundation Press, 2006) ISBN 978-1-59947-100-6
* "Science and Providence" (SPCK/New Science Library, 1989; Templeton Foundation Press, 2006) ISBN 978-1-932031-92-8
* "Reason and Reality" (SPCK/Trinity Press International 1991)
* "Quarks, Chaos and Christianity" (1994; Second edition SPCK/Crossroad 2005) ISBN 0-281-04779-0
* "The Faith of a Physicist" - published in the UK as "Science and Christian Belief" (1994) ISBN 0-691-03620-9
* "Serious Talk" (Trinity Press International/SCM Press, 1996)
* "Scientists as Theologians" (1996) ISBN 0-281-04945-9
* "Beyond Science" (CUP 1996)
* "Searching for Truth" (Bible Reading Fellowship/Crossroad, 1996)
* "Belief in God in an Age of Science" (Yale University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-300-08003-4
* "Science and Theology" (SPCK/Fortress 1998) ISBN 0-8006-3153-6
* "The End of the World and the Ends of God" (Trinity Press International, 2000) with Michael Welker
* "Traffic in Truth" (Canterbury Press/Fortress, 2000)
* "Faith, Science and Understanding" (2000) SPCK/Yale University Press ISBN 0300083726
* "The Work of Love" editor (SPCK/Eerdmans 2001)
* "The God of Hope and the End of the World" (Yale University Press, 2002) ISBN 0-300-09211-3
* "The Archbishop's School of Christianity and Science"(York Courses, 2003)
* "Living with Hope" (SPCK/Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
* "Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter With Reality" (2004) ISBN 0-300-10445-6 (a particularly accessible summary of his thought)
* "Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science & Religion" (SPCK 2005) ISBN 0-300-11014-6
* "Quantum Physics & Theology: An Unexpected Kinship" (SPCK 2007) ISBN 9780281057672
* "From Physicist to Priest, an Autobiography" SPCK 2007 ISBN 978-0-281-05915-7

He has also written five science books:

* "The Analytic S-Matrix" (CUP 1966, jointly with RJ Eden, PV Landshoff and DI Olive)
* "The Particle Play" (W. H. Freedman, 1979)
* "Models of High Energy Processes" (CUP 1980)
* "The Quantum World" (Longmans/Princeton University Press, 1985; Penguin 1986; Templeton Foundation Press 2007) ISBN 9780691023885
* "Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction" (2002) OUP ISBN 0-19-280252-6

econdary sources

* "God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion" ed. by Dr. Christopher Southgate. T&T Clark. [ Relevant extracts] .
* [ abstract]
* Johannes Maria Steinke "John Polkinghorne – Konsonanz von Naturwissenschaft und Theologie" Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2006 – a book investigating Polkinghorne's theory of consonance and analysing its philosophical background.
* Taede A. Smedes "Chaos, Complexity, and God: Divine Action and Scientism" Louvain: Peeters 2004 – a theological investigation of Polkinghorne's (and Arthur Peacocke's) model of divine action.

Notes & References

See also

*List of science and religion scholars

External links

* [ Google Scholar] List of Papers by JC Polkinghorne
* [] - Official website
* [ Some Polkinghorne quotes]
* [ Video interview]
* [ Video interview] by Robert Wright for []
* [,2006 Lecture on "Exchanges of Science and Religion"] at the Royal Society - webcast available
* [ "Reductionism"] an entry by Polkinghorne in the interdisciplinary encyclopedia of religion and science
* [] German Polkinghorne Website
* [ John Polkinghorne talks faith and science with Nigel Bovey, editor of the Salvation Army newspaper "The War Cry"]
* [ YouTube matches for John Polkinghorne]

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