Saturday, 11 April 2009

Polkinghorne's Motivated Belief

John Polkinghorne has written a piece for the regular Credo column in the Times, called Motivated Belief and the Stringent Search for Truth. Polkinghorne is notable for being a physicist *and* an Anglican priest. From what I’ve read of his apologetics, his arguments for a god stem from such things as the intelligibility of the universe and fine tuning. I find these arguments very *unpersuasive*, but it’s apparent that Polkinghorne thinks that a creator god based universe makes more sense to him than no creator. To a limited degree, I think that one could *understand* how someone might arrive at this (erroneous, IMO) conclusion. And not being a physicist, I obviously have to bow to his greater understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. But at best this only gets one to a deist view of reality.

What is more baffling, and, I would say, unforgivable, is how he can be a Christian theist and claim it is based on the evidence. So it is noteworthy that he writes about his ‘motivated belief’ in the article.

He starts:

If being a scientist teaches you anything it is surely that the world is surprising, often behaving in strange ways that we could not have anticipated. Who would have thought in 1899 that something could sometimes behave like a wave (spread out and flappy) and sometimes like a particle (a little bullet)? Yet that is how light has been found to behave, and physicists have come to understand how this seemingly oxymoronic combination is possible.

This sort of experience means that the instinctive question for a scientist to ask is not "Is it reasonable?", as if we knew beforehand the shape that rationality had to take, but rather "What makes you think that might be the case?"

I think this is true; we cannot know what’s unusual if we don’t know *everything*; we don’t have a full knowledge of the workings of the universe, so we cannot judge if something is unreasonable in the sense that it is improbable. Whatever the evidence suggests, should be considered. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying. Then

That is a question at once more open and more demanding. It does not try to specify beforehand the form that an acceptable answer has to take, but if you are to persuade me that some unexpected possibility is true, you will have to offer evidence in support of your claim. Science trades in the search for truth attainable through motivated belief.

I quite like that. One must follow the *evidence*.

So does religion.

Not so much. Many theists *don’t* have ‘motivated belief’, in the sense of *evidenced* belief, for religion, but faith. Still, good to hear that JP has good reason for his belief. Let's hear it:

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Jesus Christ is that we have all heard of Him.

Eh? He puts forward an argument that one should believe in JC because he’s famous. Well, I do think this counts a *little* as evidence for his position (many wouldn’t). But it is *very* little; otherwise one would be obliged to also believe in every other famous religion – an impossible position to put oneself in. But I'm prepared to give them a few brownie points for having a persistent meme.

All the writers of the New Testament believe that what happened was his Resurrection from the dead the first Easter Day. Can we today believe this strange counterintuitive claim?

Hume says 'No'; what does JP say?

Looking for the motivations for this belief requires a careful and scrupulous assessment of the evidence.

Good, I would say so too.

Here I can do no more than sketch the considerations that persuade me to bet my life on accepting the claim.

Never mind, get on with it.

The New Testament offers two lines of evidence. One line is the appearance stories, strangely varied, yet with a surprisingly persistent theme, that initially it was hard to recognise the risen Christ. I believe that this is a genuine historical reminiscence, indicating that these are not just a bunch of made-up tales constructed by a variety of early Christians.

This doesn’t seem to qualify as evidence to me. I can’t go to someone else and say, ‘John Polkinghorne thinks the surprisingly persistent theme of the appearance stories in the gospels means it's a genuine historical reminiscence’ – there’s your evidence. After all, that person might say, hey, Bart Ehrman and others have demonstrated how after the fact adjustments to the texts have tried to enforce some kind of persistent theme. And *Ehrman* has studied the texts more than JP, I would think.

Then there are the empty-tomb stories. If these were just concocted, why make women the discoverers when they were regarded as unreliable witnesses in the ancient world?

Why do they need to be concocted? Bodies can be removed from tombs without resurrection. How many times in history have empty tombs been found? Lots. How many times was it a result of resurrection? None, I would say; JP would say once. I’ve *no* idea why, if one bases it on *evidence*.

Clearly there is much more that needs to be said...


...but I hope I have said enough to show that a scientist, open to unexpected beliefs but stringent in demanding adequate motivation for them, can believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, the fundamental pivot on which Christian belief turns.

No, and one cannot help but conclude that this ‘evidence’ is not why John Polkinghorne believes. Two very sorry looking bits of exegesis do not make a compelling case. A *stringent* search for truth is not at all evident.

I think he’s missed an opportunity here, because it would be nice to know what does lead a brilliant scientist like Polkinghorne to believe in Christian Theism. I guess he wasn’t able to tell us in this short article. Pity.


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