I had seen books by Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, in my library before, discussing creation, science, and faith. If you’re not familiar with those acronyms after his name, they stand for Knight Commander (of the Order of the British Empire) and Fellow of the Royal Society. His scientific credentials are impeccable. He was a theoretic physicist working with elementary particles and made contributions to our understanding of the quark. He completed his Ph.D. with a thesis in the area of Quantum Electrodynamics. He studied under Salam and Dirac for that graduate degree. He was the Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University. And he is described by Richard Dawkins (in his book The God Delusion) as one of the “genuine specimens of good scientists who are sincerely religious in the full, traditional sense.” Polkinghorne also happens to be an Anglican priest who stepped away from science because he had felt he had done in his part in that arena and pursued a different challenge. Being a former physics major (with the undergraduate degree to boot), I figured I should give one of his books a good read. I wasn’t disappointed.
The first one of his I picked up was Quarks, Chaos & Christianity, which serves as a high level synopsis of a lot of what he has written before. It starts right out of the gate with what science is and Polkinghorne uses a subject near and dear to him, elementary particles, to discuss that science is just about facts. Rather, science is about interpreted facts. That’s a key difference, because sometimes we have the information, but we had to try and make something of it. That means we come up with explanations and models, like what was done with elementary particles like the quark. We see if the facts match our explanations and models. If they don’t, we have to either modify our explanations or discard them entirely and start over. This is the way science is now. It has to be, because we’re delving into areas where we can’t see and touch. And that’s something Polkinghorne makes very clear.
Polkinghorne moves on from there to look at a lot about cosmology and what the state of the Universe has to tell us. For instance, he delves into the anthropic principle and the implications of it, as well as the alternative (multiple universes). He looks at whether it’s logical for us to pray, what the implications there might be in prayer, and why, as a scientist, it is valid to pray. He also takes on miracles, albeit lightly, as it is a short book (100 pages or so). Throughout, Polkinghorne seeks to make the point that science and faith are not incompatible. It’s by no means a treatise on the subject, rather, it serves as a primer for further exploration.
Now on to whether or not I would recommend this book. I’ll use the catch phrase, “It depends.” There’s not a whole lot of science in it. There’s a lot of reasoning, interspersed with science here and there. I think he does a good job of keeping the science light and easy to understand, even for someone without a scientific background. As a physics type, especially one who was interested in physics at the atomic and subatomic level, this was a fun and easy read for me. But if science is not your thing, then some of the things he starts talking about may seem a bit challenging, because they aren’t things talked about by “common” folks and will require a little brain power to work through. Another thing to consider is his view on the age of the universe and on evolution. Polkinghorne is not a youth earth creationist (YEC) and his positions will grate against that position. So if you are a YEC, you likely won’t enjoy this book. Polkinghorne believes in an old universe, formed by the Big Bang and is a proponent of Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the creation of life. From a religious perspective, you get an inkling that he doesn’t support the view of the absolute sovereignty and omniscience of God. Though admittedly, this is towards the later part of the book and is only touched on lightly.
Given all of those things, I enjoyed it, and to those scientifically oriented believers that I know, I would recommend it. For those who have a passion for apologetics, I would also recommend. For the casual Christian reader, there’s probably better faire. For the non-Christian, especially for those who hold to a worldview that says science and faith are incompatible, I would recommend it, with the proviso that it is a primer to get you started.