December 5, 2020

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne, Part 4 – Conceptual Exploration

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne (Part 4 – Conceptual Exploration

We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne.  Today we will look at Chapter 4- Conceptual Exploration.  John says continuing conceptual exploration is characterized by increasing subtlety and depth.  The first exploration of a new physical regime often takes the form of theoretical work formulated in close correlation with specific experimental data.  Physicists use models to incorporate what appears to be the principal factors controlling the specific phenomena under consideration.  There is no pretense that the model constructed is totally adequate description of the nature of the system involved; they serve a strictly limited purpose.

For example Einstein’s discussion of the photoelectric effect demonstrated the particle-like behavior of light, without being able to give any account of its wave-like properties.  Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom simply imposed an ad hoc rule (the quantization of angular momentum) on an otherwise Newtonian account.  Because models don’t aspire to ontological accuracy, it is possible to simultaneously employ a variety of mutually incompatible models in order to advance the understanding of the behavior of some physical entity.  But physicists cannot rest content with mutually contradictory pictures of what they are investigating.  Some more integrated account has to be sought.  The clutch of models has to be replaced by a single over-arching theory.

Niels Bohr once said that anyone who claimed fully to understand quantum physics had just shown that they had not begun to appreciate properly what it is all about.  He was echoing, unconsciously no doubt, a similar remark made earlier by William Temple (W. Temple, Christus Veritas, Macmillan, 1924, 1.139) when he said that “if any man says he understands the relation of Deity to humanity in Christ, he only makes it clear that he does not at all understand what is meant by Incarnation.”

In his book on Christology, Donald Baillie (Baillie, God Was in Christ, p.114) pointed to what he called the ‘Central Paradox’ of the Christian life.  He was referring to the convictions simultaneously held, that we bear a responsibility for our lives and actions, and also that ‘never is human life more truly and fully personal, never does the agent feel more profoundly free, than those moments in which he can say as a Christian that whatever was good was not his but Gods.’  Paul expressed a similar thought when he exhorted the members of the church at Philippi to ‘work out your salvation; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13).  Baillie went on to suggest that ‘this paradox in its fragmentary form in our Christian lives is a reflection of that perfect union of God and man in the Incarnation on which the whole Christian life depends, and may therefore be out best clue to understanding it’.

Grand Unified Theories (GUT).  John says one could write the history of modern physics in terms of its being a continuing quest for greater generality and deeper unity in our conceptual understanding of the physical world.  It began as early as Galileo’s conviction, contrary to Aristotle’s thinking, that the heavenly bodies are made of the same stuff as those that compose terrestrial entities.  This insight was triumphantly confirmed by Isaac Newton’s discovery of universal gravity, showing that the force that makes the apple fall is the same force that holds the Moon in its orbit around the Earth.  The next unifying steps occurred in the nineteenth century when Øersted and Faraday showed that there was direct connections between electric currents and magnetic fields.  The character if this connection was made clear in 1873 when James Clerk Maxwell published his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, presenting a unified theory of electromagnetism that has proved of lasting value, and which is one of the most brilliant achievements in the whole history of theoretical physics.

The next step in the great unified advance was the marriage between electromagnetic theory and the weak nuclear forces that are responsible for phenomena such as β-decay, the emission of electrons by radioactive nuclei.  The next desirable step would obviously be a further integration, drawing in the strong nuclear forces, and perhaps also gravitation.  Polkinghorne says such a GUT has so far proved to be difficult to achieve and the attempts to find it have been controversial and not wholly convincing.  John says:

The present favored candidate is superstring theory, but accepting its ideas depends upon believing that theorists, on the basis of mathematical considerations alone, can second-guess the character of nature at a level of detail more than ten thousand million million times smaller than anything of which we have direct empirical experience.  The lessons of history are not encouraging to such a bold venture.  Usually nature has something up her sleeve that only empirical pressure will cause the theorists to think of.

Whatever may eventually prove to be the case, the general hope that some form of GUT will in the end be discovered is one that is entertained by many physicist, myself among them.  A belief in the fundamental unity of physics is one that encouraged by the kind of past experiences that we have reviewed.  It is also supported by a metaphysical conviction of the integrity of cosmic process that is deeply appealing to scientists.  Theologians may well feel that this act of faith by the physicists is a reflection of a trust, doubtless often unconsciously entertained, in the consistency of the one God whose will is the origin of the order of the created universe.

Icon of the Trinity by Rublev

John then says the counterpart in Christian theology of the physicists GUT is the doctrine of the Trinity.  The Christians of the first centuries came to recognize they had known God in three fundamental ways.  There was the heavenly Father, Creator of the universe and the One who had given the law to Moses in the clouds and thick darkness of Mount Sinai.  God above us. There was the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, sharing in and redeeming humanity, and making God’s will known in the plainest and most accessible terms through His life in Palestine.  God alongside us.  There was the Holy Spirit, that divine presence at work in the human heart, bestowing gifts that matched individual personality and need.  God within us.  Yet those early Christians knew that they must hold on to the conviction that they had inherited from Judaism, that God is one.

Polkinghorne says it is important to recognize that belief in the Holy Trinity was motivated by Christian experience and not rash and ungrounded metaphysical speculation.  He says what was predominantly involved was engagement with what the theologians call “the economic Trinity”, and evidence-based argument from below.  He says:

The adjective derives from the Greek word oikonomia, whose root meaning concerns the order of a household, in this case the household of the divinely created world. The experience that the Fathers relied on did not only come from the great revelatory events of Creation, Incarnation, and Pentecostal empowerment, but it also arose from the ordinary worshipping life of the Church, which prayed to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Spirit, and whose characteristic acclamation of praise was, and remains, ‘Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit’.

Reality is relational” is an insight that certainly accords with increasing scientific recognition of the relational character of the physical universe.  The old-fashioned atomism of isolated particles rattling around in the otherwise empty container of space has long been replaced by General Relativity’s integrated account of space, time, and matter, understood to be combined in a single package deal.  The physical world looks more and more like a universe that would be the fitting creation of the trinitarian God, the One whose deepest reality is relational.  John believes that the true “Theory of Everything” is not superstrings, as physicists are sometimes move to bombastically to proclaim, but it is actually trinitarian theology.



  1. Polkinghorne says it is important to recognize that belief in the Holy Trinity was motivated by Christian experience and not rash and ungrounded metaphysical speculation. He says what was predominantly involved was engagement with what the theologians call “the economic Trinity”, and evidence-based argument from below.

    Yes, but patristic theology around the doctrine of the Trinity also and equally talks about the immanent Trinity, which involves not only what God does and who God is in relation to us and creation, i.e., what role God plays in relation to us, but also who God is to Godself. I wonder how if it is possible to have knowledge of God’s experience of Godself, within the subjectivity of the Godhead, on the basis of Christian experience.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Hence Polkinhorne’s assertion that “Reality is Relational“. I suppose its only possible by reasoning from analogy.

      • The audacity of patristic Trinitarianism is that it asserts that God is not only Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to us, but to Godself.

        • Susan Dumbrell says

          Give me a God who in all parts embraces me.
          Covers me with His wings when I feel afraid as I do now..
          I need the God of the now, not tomorrow or the past. whatever His parts.
          I do not care if He is Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit,
          He is One and I need Him now.


    • ” I wonder how if it is possible to have knowledge of God’s experience of Godself, within the subjectivity of the Godhead, on the basis of Christian experience.”

      Hello Robert F

      A priest once told me, concerning the Holy Trinity, that God-the-Father’s knowledge of Himself was God-the-Son (Jesus Christ) and that the love between God-the-Father and God-the-Son was God-the-Holy Spirit.
      That was HIS own concept of the mystery of the Holy Trinity- God.

      I’ve also heard that God is ‘being, itself’. Possibly, this idea comes from the answer: “I am Who am” in the Scriptures. (?)

      I’ve also been taught that God is love. And the forces that bond God-the Father-theSon-the Holy Spirit as One God are the forces of love.
      This is something I believe in myself, but I can’t pretend to ‘understand’ it. . . . . . how can a creature fathom its Creator? A favorite quote: “Si comprendis, non est Deus” (attributed to Augustine)

      I love the theology of the Cappadocian fathers . . . . especially related to ‘who God is’ and to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity

      less and less do I see that evangelical people have a solid grip on the ‘catholic’ concept of the Holy Trinity: example, a comment made to me once that the person believed that ‘Jesus was not God, He was God’s Son’ . . . a little probing there gave evidence of this belief being ‘bible-based’ and further discussion revealed that the person did not have much concept of the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Holy Trinity or the Holy Spirit as God.
      I don’t think this person was raised with the early Creeds of the Church, so that conceptual description of the Holy Trinity wasn’t there for her.

      Glad I was raised with making the sign of the Cross, as the prayer associated with it as well as the motion celebrates the diversity in unity of the Holy Trinity as well as Jesus Christ crucified . . . . for me, it is a centering prayer which brings me to a favorite concept of Christ: as the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the Ending and a favorite phrase ‘all in all’

      in the end, it is a ‘mystery’ of the faith and the more I ‘know’ about the Holy Trinity, the less I comprehend it

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I don’t think this person was raised with the early Creeds of the Church…

        Only the Plain Reading of SCRIPTURE(TM).

        Word Of GOD vs Vain Imaginings of Man, you know the drill.

  2. In the beginning there was God (Creation) in the past there was Jesus(Incarnation), in the present there is the Holy Spirit (Pentacost) but it is always God . Past , present, future God is just there, to us just in different forms like water.

    Like the guys looking at the chalk board, I guess it could have been the traditional parent answer also “because I said so,, when you God you can do it your way.”

    I do not understand quantum physics but I have this theory, If it looks like a quark, walks like a quark and sounds like a quark it is probably a quark, that is what I am quarking about. I am following the good advice of Niel Borhrs and I must really appreciate quantum physics as I can claim truthfully not to understand it.

    • Christiane says

      Hello J.B.
      you wrote this: “In the beginning there was God (Creation) in the past there was Jesus(Incarnation), in the present there is the Holy Spirit (Pentacost) but it is always God . Past , present, future God is just there, to us just in different forms like water.”

      John, if you believe this about God, you might be a MODALIST, did you realize that?
      Take a look at this definition of MODALISM:

      “Modalism states that God is a single person who, throughout biblical history, has revealed Himself in three modes or forms. Thus, God is a single person who first manifested himself in the mode of the Father in Old Testament times. At the incarnation, the mode was the Son; and after Jesus’ ascension, the mode is the Holy Spirit. These modes are consecutive and never simultaneous. In other words, this view states that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit never all exist at the same time–only one after another. ” (Matt Slick)

  3. Burro (Mule) says

    Reading over the “science-y” portions of this posts that there something approaching apophaticism; a reluctance to talk about whether a model can produce an exhaustive description, but rather a talk about its limits, and respect for those limits. The idea that several mutual conflicting models may be necessary to describe everything we can prove about light, gravitiaion, nuclear forces, etc strangely comforts me. It brings me back to what i shared yetreday. I remain astounded that physicists can use instruments composed of electrons to measure the trajectories of electrons, and that networks of neurons composed of strings can formulate string theory.

    It’s all a bit much at times.

  4. Christiiane, thanks for the info but I am certainly not a Modalist . Pretty simple Father is God, Son is God, Holy Spirit is God yet not 3 Gods but one The guys at Nicea got it right, of course I probably know more about Apollo Creed than the three noteworthy creeds. My poorly educated but faithful Grandmother always referenced Isaiah 7.14 if anyone had any doubt who Jesus was or for that matter Mary.