Examining Sophisticated Theology: Questions of Truth

So, I received the book “Questions of Truth” by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale yesterday … and finished it yesterday, skipping the Appendices. So, here I’m going to outline my basic thoughts on the book and address what Coyne thought was stupid in it (and I haven’t re-read that yet, so I don’t know if I’ll agree with it or disagree with it … ooo, suspense, drama … hit counts!). In another post, I’ll pick out a few of the questions and talk about them in more detail, as they had a more direct relation to my own views.

The first thing I’d like to say about the book is that it’s really bad book to read if you’re looking to examine their views in detail. They even admit that this is a collection of responses, not answers, and so they aren’t trying to present fully evidenced positions here, which is good because the book tries to address 51 questions — some of which are massive questions that have been studied in philosophy and theology for hundreds and thousands of years — in about 100 pages. You just aren’t going to be able to write it out in full detail, just like you likely won’t be able to do that in a blog post. So as a book that aims at basically aims at taking these questions and showing that there’s a more or less consistent or logical answer to them from the theist view — even if that isn’t totally convincing — it works fairly well. But for someone who either knows the history and background of the debate or who wants to, there isn’t much here except for the basic outline to possibly generate interest and then the recommended sources to start looking up the details.

Now, do they “make stuff up”? Well, in a sense they do, if you consider hypothesizing making stuff up. A lot of what they say is clearly hypothesizing, and in this work it isn’t always or even often clear how they plan to go about settling the question. For a lot of the questions I will address I will be disagreeing with their take, and so we’ll need a way to settle which of us is right, and I think it is fair to say that this work doesn’t really provide that. However, I also think it fair to say that they didn’t intend that, since they pretty much flat-out say that. Hopefully when I go through the Polkinghorne reader there’ll be a bit more meat there to get at why at least Polkinghorne thinks these views are right and thus a way to settle these sorts of questions.

That being said, they do seem to have an underlying premise to their Christianity that gives an answer to the old question of what it would take for them to abandon it: prove that the Resurrection didn’t happen. In a number of places, they cite the Resurrection as the critical part of what makes Christianity for them unique and believable. Prove it didn’t happen, and chances are they wouldn’t be Christians anymore. That being said, they are clear that the standard naturalist reply of “Natural laws say that it can’t happen because it hasn’t happened before” is not acceptable, as if you think that Jesus is the Son of God then the ability to be Resurrected is clearly part of the concept, and so makes Jesus different from us. But, ultimately, actually prove — and prove does not mean “absolute logical certainty”, but just preponderance of evidence — that the Resurrection didn’t happen, and you’d refute them.

Now, onto Coyne. I can find two posts dealing with this book specifically, and so I’ll address those. There are others referencing Polkinghorne, and I’ll think about addressing them after I read the reader. The first one I’ll address is the one I linked here, where he called out what he’s saying is a stupid theology quote of the day:

It is easy to ‘prove’ that nothing can be both a wave and a particle, or that Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead. Yet deep reflection on physics shows that all sufficiently small objects can manifest both wave and particle properties, and even superficial reflection shows that if Jesus is the Son of God in anything like the sense that Christians claim, then the resurrection is not only possible but in a certain sense necessary.

Interestingly, I just talked about that above. So, what does Coyne find wrong with it?

How many things can you find wrong with that quote?

I don’t know. How many things can you find wrong with that quote, Dr. Coyne? You’re the one saying it’s stupid, so shouldn’t you be the one pointing out what’s wrong with it?

Because I don’t see what’s wrong with it. The idea — and it is clearer in context — is that proving a logical or conceptual impossibility is easy in a lot of cases, or at least seems so, at least from the theoretical level. So, we thought that something could either act like a wave or a particle, but not both. And then we discovered that our theories wouldn’t work to explain the things that actually happened unless things could act both like waves and like particles (light specifically, I believe). And so that theoretical or conceptual impossibility goes out the window.

The same thing, then, applies to our theoretical committment to “You can’t be restored to life after death”. It holds right up until you find a case where it happens, and the claim is that it happened to Jesus. They take one step further and say that it’s obvious from the concept of the Son of God according to Christianity that, as I said above, if Jesus is indeed the Son of God then not only is it possible for Him to rise from the dead, it’s demanded because of the critical nature of the Resurrection to that concept. Now, this doesn’t prove that Jesus really was the Son of God, and so maybe that’s Coyne’s gripe, but I find it a sign of intellectual laziness to simply toss out a quote that you find stupid and expect everyone else to simply nod their heads and laugh along with you. So, please, Dr. Coyne, tell me all the things you find wrong with it. I’m breathless with anticipation. Or perhaps that was just the walk up the stairs this morning.

Note, humourously, that Coyne starts with this:

’ll deserve many encomiums if I make it through the latest theology book I’m reading (John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale. 2009. Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief), but it does contain lots of good stupid bits of theology. Here’s one I found within the first three pages. Of all the science-friendly theologians around, Polkie is the most odious in claiming that theology and science operate in similar ways.

It was about a hundred pages of relatively clear prose. I read it in about an hour to an hour and a half. If you expect encomiums for doing that, you definitely aren’t ready to tackle any sophisticated theology. And shortening Polkinghorne’s name to “Polkie” doesn’t add in any way to the intellectual credibility of what you’re saying, which in this post, so far, is non-existent.

So let’s move on to the next criticism in that post. Maybe he’ll say something there (remember that I’m reading this as I write):

The Creator has not filled creation with items stamped “made by God.” [JAC: They thought he did before 1859.] God’s existence is not self-evident in some totally unambiguous and undeniable way. The presence of God is veiled because, when you think about it, the naked presence of divinity would overwhelm finite creatures, depriving them of truly being themselves and freely accepting God.

(To answer the inset, the answer to that is … they were wrong, which, at least, it is perfectly acceptable to say in theology).

Coyne’s answer:

What is this—some kind of divine game?: “You can’t accept me freely unless you’ve done so without evidence.” And what about those finite Apostles? Were they overwhelmed and prevented from accepting God?

Well, first, he didn’t say “without evidence”, but without completely unambiguous and undeniable evidence. Which, of course, the Apostles didn’t get either; it is quite possible to get those sorts of interactions and claim that there still is not a God.

Looking back in the book — a pain because Coyne doesn’t actually quote where the quote is from, which is not adding to his intellectual respectability on this — the question in my version appears on page 11 and is question 3, “The Existence of God”. The question is:

Do you believe that God has made the evidence for his existence self-evident? If God is self-evident, what do you think are the most compelling self-evident arguments for his existence?

And so, re-reading that paragraph, I would translate the response to “God has not made the evidence for his existence self-evident, and can’t”. The rest of the paragraph says:

A recurring theme in this book is that, out of love, God has self-limited the exercise of divine power to give creatures the space to be themselves and, as we shall discuss when we come later to evolution, even to “make themselves”. This does not mean that there are no signs of the will of the Creator or motivations to believe in God’s existence but that we have to look a little below the surface of things to find them.

Thus: no self-evident and undeniable proof, but evidence, according to them. You can challenge their evolutionary story (I don’t think I really buy it myself, although it’s an interesting take). You can credibly ask how you know when you look below the surface that you’re actually seeing those signs as opposed to imposing them on the criteria. You can credibly ask why even if we can’t get self-evident proof why we can’t get even what the Apostles had. All good challenges. None of them given here. Instead, the counters seem entirely based on ignoring what question they were trying to answer and instead treating the answer as if it was an answer to some other question entirely. Um … yeah, sure, that’ll lead to an understanding of what they’re trying to say …

So, let’s move on to the next post. Coyne quotes this:

Any deep understanding of the fundamental nature of reality is bound to be something of a mystery. Theologians arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity after long and careful reflection on the facts that they observed, in a rather similar way to how physicists arrived at the Standard Model after sixty years of reflection on a whole series of remarkable discoveries and theoretical insights and a great many blind alleys. . . This is not the place to discuss in detail either the reasons behind the doctrine of the Trinity (John’s Science and the Trinity would be a good place to start) or the parallels explored in John’s Quantum Physics and Theology. In the end, in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, pretty well the simplest and most symmetrical model that fits the observations turns out to be the correct one—as far as the official theology of at least 90 percent of Christians is concerned: that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all God but in such perfect loving unity that there are not three Gods but one God.

And Coyne’s explanation of what he doesn’t like about this is …

Nada, zip, zilch, void of content, zippo, zero.

Well, that which can be quoted as gibberish without any explanation can be dismissed … without explanation.

Now, on that post there’s a comment from Beale on it:


Telling your faithful that something is WRONG is great for your flock – ex cathedra statements from a minor prophet, how comforting. But can you actually find a valid argument against it, or is that asking too much?

What’s Coyne’s reply?

Here’s my response: observations that constitute “data” for Christian theologians are not just those in the Bible, but also a post facto decision that they needed to confect a Trinity for political and theological reasons. In other words, this trio came into being not because there were real data, but because people WANTED it to come into being. It’s pure fiction, made up stuff on par with Santa Claus. So no, I do not take those observations as data, but as wishful thinking. It’s another example of religious people fooling themselves. If you really think that there is such a Trinity, I would see you as deluded by wishful thinking and brainwashing by your antecedents.

And if that “data” were so convincing, why don’t even all Christians believe it, much less Muslims, Jews, and Hindus?

What we have is not data, but mythology, and it is shameful that you put it on a par with science, whose observations can in principle be verified by anyone, regardless of their faith.

Translation: It’s all made up, and I don’t have to give any evidence for that or, in fact, to even address your specific arguments and quotes, because all I need to do is say that the Trinity is all made up without evidence and so what you said, regardless of your actual reasons, arguments or even the quote I quoted, is just gibberish.

That’s not a valid argument against they said, which is what was asked for.

On to the next post. Coyne’s quote this time is this:

He [Jesus Christ] is therefore the unique link between human life and divine life, the living means by which our relationship with God can be restored. It has been the witness of the church through the centuries that Christ’s solidarity with us, even to the point of his painful and shameful death on the cross, is central to this process of restoration (atonement). Nevertheless, there has not been one single and universally accepted theory of exactly how this works. In science, we are familiar with the fact that there can be phenomena that cannot be denied but that are not wholly understood theoretically—quantum physics is a good example.

Coyne’s reply is:

My response to this is similar to that I made to Beale’s last plaint (in a comment he made on an earlier post): how do you know that Jesus’s resurrection and our acceptance of him as savior is the means to our salvation and to a one-ness with God? How do you know that you’re right and that the Jews, Muslim, and Hindus are wrong?

I’m not sure they do claim that. I think they kinda argued the opposite, actually. They did talk about Christianity having a unique aspect to it that made it, in their minds, different, but that’s certainly debatable and again I’m not sure I agree with it. But recall that the title of the post is “Still more sophisticated theological gibberish from Polkinghorne and Beale”. Does Coyne’s reply here prove “gibberish”? No. He has a valid criticism that they haven’t — in his mind, at least — provided enough evidence for Christianity being right and the others wrong … but note that their claims about why one should believe in Jesus were covered in question 7 (pg 19), which he doesn’t even reference in making his demand. Sloppy. And that’s even putting aside that he still doesn’t give the reference to the quote so we can see what specific question — yes, Coyne simply doesn’t make it clear that these are answers to specific questions before he contorts them to be answers to completely different questions — and so we have to see what question they were answering. And it was this:

How Does the Death of Jesus Save the World? (pg 88)

Um, yeah, if I was reading a book and saw that as the header I wouldn’t criticize that section for not proving that Jesus existed, since it seems clear that the context there will be “If Jesus existed, what was it about his death that saves the world?”. If I wanted to know the evidence for that, I’d look for the sections aimed at doing that. Like question 7. Coyne here is calling this “gibberish” because it doesn’t answer a question that, in context, it’s not aiming at answering. And he refuses to take the work as a whole, and so comes off as not having read the book at all and so all of his criticisms seem to miss the mark. And the sad thing is that there are a number of valid criticisms here, but Coyne retreats to his old favourites without ever engaging what’s actually being said … wait for it … in the quotes he’s providing!

Last post. Back to the diminutives. He starts with a survey of the “God in nature” arguments, and moves on to a specific one from Polkinghorne and Beale. Are we going to get a real argument here? I hope, I hope …

Consider human mathematical abilities. For survival, we need not much more than counting and a little elementary geometry. Whence then has come the human ability to study noncommutative algebras and to prove Fermat’s last theorem? I think conventional Darwinian theory is unable to explain this capacity, which requires for its understanding the belief that our environment is not limited to the physical and biological but must also include contact with a noetic realm of mathematical ideas, into which our ancestors were increasingly drawn.

(Coyne actually gave the page number (81-82) here, which is nice. I hope I won’t have to use it.)

Coyne talks a bit about Wallace having a similar view, which isn’t interesting for me here, so let’s see here his answer is:

Wallace’s mistake, which should be obvious, is that we have no assurance that the human brain really is larger than it needs to be, even in the so-called “savages” whom Wallace encountered on his travels. Humans aren’t just gorillas: we can speak, learn, and have sophisticated mental programs for sussing out the thoughts of others and figuring out how to relate to others in small groups. We’ve mastered fire, which according to Richard Wrangham freed up our brain to become more complex under real selection pressures.

And once we have a complex brain, capable of learning, speaking, and working out strategies to hunt and to live in small social groups, it becomes capable of doing things beyond what it evolved for. In other words, chess, math, and building spacecraft are what Steve Gould called exaptations: those features that can be used in a beneficial way but evolved for other reasons. Once the brain crossed a certain threshold of complexity, these things became possible, but those abilities are epiphenomena.

With Wallace, Polkie and Beale see the brain’s ability to do math as something inexplicable by natural selection. Ergo Jebus. But lots of animals have abilities that are similar exaptations. We can train parrots and mynah birds to talk. Is their talking evidence for God? In England, blue tits learned to open milk bottles and drink the milk. They didn’t evolve to do that! Their ability to scan the environment for possible food items, and their possession of a nice bill and ability to wield it dextrously, was an exaptation for drinking milk. So it is with tool-using in animals, from chimpanzees to crows to the cactus finches of the Galapagos: animals can put their already-evolved equipment to new uses. And so it is with the human brain. It hasn’t changed much in the last couple million years, but oh what we have done with it!

The reply isn’t bad, but it seems to miss the point. Polkinghorne is basically saying that to get these advanced abstract concepts, we need access to something beyond the environment and our biology because those concepts aren’t read out from there. Coyne’s reply is, if I understand it correctly, that we have abilities that do not evolve for a specific survival purpose all the time. But I fail to see how that answers how we could possibly get abstract concepts from a world where they aren’t. Teaching parrots to talk is activating an ability that may have developed for other reasons but which is still learned from external stimuli, from things in the world. So is tool-use. Is mathematics that way? Hard to say. I’d need to read Polkinghorne’s detailed discussion to see if Coyne hits or misses the mark here. But at least it’s an attempt to answer the charge, even if Coyne takes it as a stronger statement than I think Polkinghorne meant it; I think he sees it as a flaw in at least current Darwinian evolution, but that doesn’t mean that it is really evidence for God. Note that this is in response to a question asking if humans matter more than animals, and this ability is something that distinguishes us from them.

Anyway, this post was a lot longer than I intended it to be, because Coyne had more posts than I’d thought. But most of his strongest objections — ie where he calls things gibberish — are anything but. Where he makes his weakest claim — simply calling it wrong — he actually has a decent reply but one that still reads a lot into the answer. The biggest problem Coyne has in reading “sophisticated theology” is in what he reads into it that isn’t actually there, as this chain of posts proves in spades.


2 Responses to “Examining Sophisticated Theology: Questions of Truth”

  1. Sophisticated Theology: Grayling on Polkinghorne and Beale « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Freelance Philosopher « Examining Sophisticated Theology: Questions of Truth […]

  2. Light Reading … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Jerry Coyne once wanted encomiums for reading Polkinghorne and Beale’s “Questions of Tru… “Critique of Religion and Philosophy” is over 400 pages and isn’t anywhere near as clear or interesting in its prose. Kaufmann spends a lot of time not saying things, but when he does get around to saying things he often tends to get things wrong. And I don’t just mean wrong in the sense that he makes arguments that don’t work, but he seems to interpret the people he’s talking about wrong as well. Throughout the entire work, he seems to have specific concerns but it’s hard to see why he has those concerns, or why we should care about them at all. Being generous, I expect that the problems and authors he takes a lot of time to go after were fairly big and popular at the time, but the way it’s written makes it so that today, with different sensibilities, it’s really difficult to see why it matters. And I don’t mean that in the sense that we wonder why anyone ever cared about it since we obviously know the answer now, but in the sense that we wonder why in such a critique so much space is dedicated to that specific question or author. For example, he spends a lot of time talking about the idea of religion being poetry, but why is that worthy of so much more attention than the theological arguments? And he talks a lot about specific authors that today we’ve barely heard of. […]

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