My review in the FT of Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale went through several drafts. The paper found the first two versions had too much of my own views on the subject; was not sufficiently even-handed; didn’t describe the actual contents enough; and was also a bit technical in places. Apart from that, they were perfect!
So I thought I’d share here some of the bits that got away, which I have reassembled into a hopefully coherent whole. (Read the published review to get a better sense of the book as a whole.)
I argued that the authors followed the time-honoured strategy to identify the spaces which science leaves behind and get their God of the gaps to plug them.
This works most effectively with “anthropic fine-tuning”, covered in one of three lengthy appendices, the others being on evolution and the relationship between mind and brain. The laws of physics contain six key numbers, and life could not have evolved anywhere in the universe if they were just slightly different. Currently, the most popular scientific explanation of this “fine-tuning” is that there are an infinite number of universes, and so the variables were bound to be right in one of them. In comparison, the alternative hypothesis that some divine being fixed them deliberately looks simpler and more plausible.
Many find this argument persuasive, including some very good physicists. The problem is that such divine gap-filling just isn’t science. To argue that God typed in the right numbers to allow life to evolve doesn’t even begin to solve the problem, since the mechanism by which this is supposed to have happened is utterly mysterious and can never be known scientifically. The God hypothesis may not contradict science, but the science can never lead you to it.
A truly scientific approach accepts gaps in our knowledge and keeps looking for testable answers. Beale, however, dismisses such intellectual humility, saying “there is a long tradition in atheist philosophy … of saying ‘There is no answer to this question’ when what you mean is ‘There is an answer to this question, but I don’t like it.’” It would be more accurate to say “There is an answer to this question, but it’s not scientific.” Ironically, it is the religious, who criticise “materialists” for lacking a proper sense of mystery, who seem least able to actually live with a real one when they find it.
Questions of Truth vividly illustrates how, if you are sufficiently committed to a belief, it is always possible to interpret other facts to fit in with it. It all depends on which of your beliefs you take to be non-negotiable. “The materialist takes as basic fact the existence of matter,” they say, somewhat caricaturing the atheist position. “The theist takes as basic fact the existence of a divine creator,” they add, accurately describing their own. From this starting point, it is clear there is nothing which could persuade the theist otherwise.
Polkinghorne and Beale’s exercise in apologetics shows how naïve it is to think that reason can lead all rational people inexorably to the same conclusion. Reason is not dispassionate, it is motivated by our prior commitments, and few are as strong as those of Bible believing Christians.
This does not mean that we should become entirely sceptical of reason and truth, however, simply that we must not overestimate the power of the former to illuminate the latter. Even when the truth is staring us right in the eyes, it often does so from the back of a crowd, the front row of which is filled with more seductive faces.