Sunday, 27 February 2011

Existence of objective morality

Two questions on an unrelated matter if I could beg a slight bit more of your time :

a) With regards to objective morality, could it simply exist in a Platonic sense with no need for a moral law giver (so that it truly could be objective "instead of from a subjective source like God"? (not my point but another poster's))

b) Is there any proof that objective morality exists in someway outside of naturalistic means? I encountered a poster and his two points were...
"Scientist do not consider what the believe is necessarily fact. Facts are empirical evidence. What scientists believe is knowledge based on theories and hypothesis based on falsification and predictive vale, which may change over time.

It is traditional theists are the ones that believe in facts that do not change.

As far as the evidence, it is abundant if you want to look [on the claim that all morality can be explained in a natural way]....One thing that is not available objectively is any evidence morality and ethics has a 'Source' other than natural evolution of behavior."

In the second, he claims that no morals are inconvenient to natural selection and moves on from there:
"It's not. Sometimes it's difficult to imagine how a certain trait or set of traits (e.g. altruism) might benefit a population. But a lack of imagination is no insight to necessity. In any case, no "evolutionary argument" is required to debunk the argument from objective morality.
The determination of the survival value of the nature of the gene pool is in response to natural forces and not human attempts based moral or ethical issues motivated to manipulate the genes pool .For example, (1) homosexuality will always be a small minority of the population by natural selection, because there is no survival value for those with these tendencies. The percentage of homosexuals in any given community does vary significantly, because of human efforts to prohibit or exterminate them. (2) People born with many variations of birth defects will be selected against naturally if they impact reproduction and survival. Actually in most cases their survival would not be a moral or ethical issue, it would be a matter of not successfully being able to reproduce or survive due to natural reasons, and not a deliberate selective process motivated by humans.

On the other hand human technological intervention in the modern world, may weaken the gene pool by encouraging the survival of genetic defects in the population that are unsuited for survival. This is where an artificial technological world creates moral and ethical problems that do not reflect natural morals and ethics.

Where morals and ethics come in survival and natural selection is, like in other higher animals, the need for family and community cooperation for the young to survive to adulthood, and reproduce. Altruism strengthens a population by pooling resources and promoting cooperation for problem solving and community survival"

I finally replied to the thread with a link to an article that deals with Nowak and the subject of morality and evolution and he replied: "Okay article, but the bottom line is morality, ethics and altruism may be explained by science through the natural processes of evolution, therefore it is not a good argument for the necessity of the existence of God."

Nicholas's Response Note the “not a good argument for the necessity of the existence of God”. The atheist tactic is to “raise the bar” for the rigor of the evidence to impossibly high levels and then say “you have no evidence” when what they (should) mean is “you have evidence, but not enough to convince me” (“they have Moses and the prophets”).

It is always logically possible that any observation which is explained by “hypothesis” X could just be a “brute fact”. The apple might just happen to fall to the ground and it could be pure coincidence that the same explanation accounts for the orbit of the moon and the planets. Nevertheless these observations are quite strong evidence for Newton’s hypothesis about gravity.

The morality issue is whether a moral statement (eg “Torturing babies for fun is wrong” – which I’ll call “TBFW”) can be said to be objectively true, and mean something different from statements like:
a. In my opinion TBFW
b. In our society Torturing babies for fun is considered wrong (TBFCW)
c. In most societies TBFCW
d. Evolution favours the emergence of a social norm that TBFW

Science cannot determine this question. It can offer evidence about b, c and d but the question of whether TBFW is a philosophical, not a scientific one. However there are grave problems with the view that TBFW is simply a matter of opinion or social convention. And IF you take the view that there are such things as objective moral statements, then “materialism” and “naturalism” both fall to the ground.

Your correspondent is also startlingly naive about human evolution. This occurs on linguistic and social levels as well as genetic and epigenetic. Human ideas and decisions drive human evolution to a very large extent – one need only mention “sexual selection”, a factor of which Darwin was very aware but which was generally overlooked by mostly male theorists since his time.

Evolution of moral understanding

This is a simple logical point. Even if we could give a completely
correct and exhaustive naturalistic account of why "most people in
society X believe that they ought not to do Y" (which I don't think we
can BTW) that could tell us nothing about whether people ought to do Y,
unless you also had an axiom from which you could infer "if most people
in society X believe that people ought to do Y then people ought to do

Recently, I met another poster who used a similar argument in an online discussion. A "free thinker" responded, most of which was a mindless rant about how atheists can't be bigoted and other nonsense, but he raised an objection I would like to hear your thoughts on.

Namely, the two points (compiled a bit):
a) "Behavior is grounded in evolution and this includes the establishing of societal rules (i.e. morality) long before there was such a thing as a system of moral philosophy. Genetic predisposition towards cooperative behavior is passed on and reinforced within the tribe using words and a system of rewards and punishment. Morality is functional; it exists to maximize survival of the species. You seem to think that morality’ is just a concept."


b) If, as you say, every culture has differences in the details of the “innate concept of morality”, this demonstrates that morality IS relative to the culture and thus NOT absolute. There is some form of morality in all cultures and they all vary slightly. Morality serves a practical purpose, not an ideal to be maintained just to please a deity. BTW: You have yet to prove that there IS such a thing as "innate morality". FUNCTIONAL MORALITY LONG PRECEDED MORAL PHILOSOPHY (emphasis mine).All your talk of ‘universals’ and ‘sensibility’ is pretentious nonsense. It may be helpful in understanding the nature of morality but it is not essential to it. What IS essential to morality is that it enables society to function cohesively and productively. Morality exists for man, NOT man for morality. Your mini-rant about “needing a moral grounding for moral axioms is empty rhetoric."

The fact that our moral sense evolved has nothing to do with whether there are objective moral truths.
Our sense of vision evolved - does that mean that there are no objective truths about things we see?

Equally the fact that there are cultural variations in morality does not show that there are no objective moral truths, merely that not all claims of moral truth are equally valid.

Evolution and Randomness

As a former creationist believer with little science background it seems that:
  1. The only way man could choose God is through randomness of a universe.
  2. Evolution is random
Is 'man' the end result of evolution? If so why is he offered salvation and not apes or cats or dogs?

Roughly:“randomness” scientifically means that the scientific causes do no predict with certainty what will happen. So for us to have freewill there has to be “randomness” in that sense. It doesn’t imply that the randomness is meaningless.

God uses evolution as a fundamental principle for His wonderful creation, like gravity. The aim of His creation is love. As far as we know humans are the only evolved beings that can truly love in a spiritual sense, but other forms of good and true love will surely be preserved in the new creation. How God will do this we don’t know – there seem to be trees in the New Heaven so why not loving animals? Who knows?

Mind existing outside the world of time, space and matter

Does present day science see mind or causation as existing outside of the world of time, space and matter? I am a student of A Course In Miracles which, as I understand it, does see it that way. It sees Spirit as Reality and mind as the creative aspect of Spirit. Mind is then free to create by extending itself as Spirit but is also free to explore other possibilities by making up, for example, our perceived world of time, space and matter.
All of this works for me. I have no problem, for example, imagining a material world emerging from non-material thought or mind. The brain then becomes, in this way of thinking, an effect of a made-up world rather than a cause or the potential explaner of everything. Again, this "metaphysics", as I understand it, works for me but how do you see it?

We can't say that "science sees it" in this way. Certainly in practice fundamental theoretical physics pre-supposes deep mathematical structures which are in a sense antecedent to matter, and most theists will see these as in some sense emanating from the mind of God. However most working scientists would probably say that these arise in some way from a non-mental reality, although there are certainly problems with that view (some discussed on

These are indeed metaphysical questions which are "beyond physics." Fundamentally, you have to choose whether you think matter/energy, mind or love is the most basic principle of the universe. If there is a Loving Ultimate Creator then matter/energy is a creation from His loving mind.

Paradox and Christology

In John's interview with Robert Wright, I heard John use the example of how quantum particles can be in a mixture of two places at once, to point out that our encounter the universe may prove to be "stranger than we can think." He further went on to say that, "if this is true of how we encounter the world, then it maybe truer of how we encounter God." How does this statement relate to an orthodox view of Christ?

I think John’s main points are:
  • “common sense” is a poor guide to deep truth.
  • Although of course the orthodox view of Christ affirms many true and wise things, it is also part of the orthodox view that our human “wisdom” is inadequate to understand God.

Is materialism philosophically questionable

Recently there was a conversation on a website I frequent where one poster insisted that existence is dependent on the fact that it occupies matter, space and time or energy; and so for God to exist, He must fulfill these criteria. Another poster commented that under this criteria, the words had no meaning, as they have no relation to matter/energy. To which a defender replied:
"Information is an arragement of matter or energy! Words are still composed of SOMETHING. The information in your computer, in your brain, in your computer screen, is kept in matter. It is a specific arrangement of matter that gives it its meanings. Without the matter contaning it the information. So information needs a medium to exist in."
I am curious to what relation this has on your assertion that materialism is philosophically questionable.

Well obviously it isn't logically necessary that existence depends on occupying matter/space/time/energy, and since God created all of these concepts and does not exist within them, it begs the question to say that "existence depends on ..."

And when the Materialist says "the information is kept in matter" he seems to be confused. Of course there are material representations of information but these are not the information themselves. The same information can have many different representations. Also that the set of such representations can change without the information changing, which shows that this set is not identical to the information. This if informational objects exist they are non-material

What does someone need to do to become a Christian?

Thank you for providing this questions and answer website and the book, “questions of Truth.” I have a theological question to do with how a person attains salvation or becomes a Christian.

It seems to me that to become a Christian you need faith that Jesus has forgiven you and a decision to stop sinning. I think of belief expressed in John’s Gospel and faith in Paul’s letters.

However there have been things in my experience that have confused me. I once read an Alpha booklet and it said we needed to do an ‘act of faith’ and I wondered if that meant a mental faith or something more. I thought about prayers they suggest you do in evangelistic booklets and prayers speakers at gatherings get people to say if you want to accept Christ. Then you have the possibility that there are Christians who just believe in their mind but have never said a prayer and possibly even some people who don’t even know when they accepted Christ. Even the Bible says “confess with your mouth Jesus Lord” in Romans 10:9 which suggests that this is mandatory.

So what (in very basic terms) does someone need to do to become a Christian? Do they need to do an act of faith or prayer or do they just simply believe in their mind? Perhaps a person should say a prayer just in case it is needed for salvation.

At one level this is like “what do you have to do to love someone” It is about orientation of the will but it has consequences for behaviour – we are after all embodied beings. If you love someone and they want you to talk to them and you don’t it’s an odd kind of love. So prayer is great. It’s also a good idea to get involved in some kind of a church if you can – we have lots to learn from other Christians and even more importantly Jesus commands us to Love God and Love your Neighbour as yourself – and the awkward and imperfect bunch in any church is a great place to start.

consciousness without brain and imperishable matter

I have two related questions which have been recently re-awakened by reading Tom Wright's "Surprised by Hope".

I have never been able to envisage any form of consciousness that doesn't involve neuro/electrochemical activity in a living brain. (Having spent a professional lifetime temporarily suspending consciousness by reversibly poisoning the brain hasn't made it any easier!) I am fully aware that the mechanisms of consciousness are ill understood and the Hard Question of its relationship to brain activity unresolved, but surely something needs to be going on?

Tom Wright seems (if I have understood him) to get round this (and a great deal else) in his assertion that the final resurrection will be "physical" and will involve a new form of imperishable matter which will give us incorruptible bodies which will live in an infinite world. (Though I still don't understand what it is of us that remains of us in the intervening millennia until it is "reawakened" in our new brains if that's what he means). I have to accept the authority of his biblical exegesis in coming to this conclusion, but I must confess that I am constitutionally incapable of imagining it. But if Professor Polkinghorne can, wearing his physicist's hat, assure me that something like this is possible and better still that he can imagine it, it would be of great help towards my endeavour to continue to do my humble best to accept that just because I can't imagine something it doesn't mean it can't be true

I don’t see why in principle we couldn’t have consciousness based on photons being exchanged in some form of optical system rather than electrons and neurotransmitters in a living brain. And although there are serious limitations in the Turing Test it would seem to suggest that the existence of consciousness is logically independent of the specific mechanisms used to deliver it.

If we allow the possibility that our souls (our innermost beings) can be re-instantiated on some other “hardware”, rather as if a performance on a piano can then be transferred to a CD, then I see little difficulty in the idea that God can remember us and then give us “resurrection bodies” of a kind we cannot presently imagine. As for the intervening millennia, no doubt there are important differences between the way that we see time and the way God does, but the traditional image of “going to sleep” seems to cover it fine. What is the difference in principle between being in suspended animation for an hour, a day, a year, a century, a millennium or a few billion years?

Hope for the future and the implications of human extinction

In his book One Final Hour, Martin Rees argues that possibility of the human race becoming extinct by the end of the 21st Century could be as high as 50 percent. This figure has been highly controversial since the book's publication. What is your opinion of this?

He argues that it could happen in a number of ways, such as runaway applications of nanotechnology, for example. What can we do as a society to try to insure ourselves in the midst of many worrying developments? After reading some of this, I'm left with a sense of impending doom for my own future, being only 19 years of age. I'm trying as best I can to retain the hope that I do have, which, being a Christian, naturally comes from my belief in God. And yet, I can't seem to overcome the anxiety that I experience in light of these speculations. So, let's suppose these speculations became true at some point in the future. What would that mean for the Christian hope for the future? Since we generally believe the Last Judgment to be for the living and the dead, how much of a difference would it make on this belief if the human race were eradicated? Can our hope remain valid?

I saw Martin the other day and he pointed out that he’s talking about a major setback to civilisation rather than the extinction of the human race.

Historically disasters to civilisation have been quite common – think of the sack of Rome or the Black Death – and whilst Christians should work to avert them if possible, God is still God even when humanity recedes. “Progress” is not where Christian hope resides.

Evidential Problem of Evil

Regarding the Logical Problem of Evil, originally proposed by Epicurus, I really feel that it can be resolved with Plantiga's Free Will Defense. However this defense falls short of the evidential problem of evil, presented by William Rowe:

1: There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
2: An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
3: (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

How does one counter such an argument?

Mainly by denying (1).

We can never know that (1) is true. Although (2) is also somewhat questionable, since it assumes that intense suffering is necessarily an unmitigated evil.

I have a paper in Think which expands on the relevant section in QoT

When John decided to be a clergyman, why an Anglican?

When you decided to be a clergyman,how did you decide on Anglicanism or does it matter?

John like me is a lifelong Anglican so it would never have made sense for him to train for another denomination.

Can we put theological constructs into mathematical language?

My experience is that theological discussions with average folk are discussions akin to ships passing in the night. Theological discussions among academic theologians are about hair splitting. Mathematical formulas might force discussion participants into viewing and learning a new symbol set/icon that is more precise and focuses the discussion more clearly eliminating many of the emotional and cultural ties to words.

Can we put theological constructs into mathematical language?

John says: Let me respond by asking, Can we express personal relationships in mathematical language? The answer surely is no. Personal and transpersonal (divine) experience needs a different language, in which the precise and quantifiable concepts of mathematics are replaced by something richer and deeper, employing such resources as symbol and story

Is there no way back once faith as been rejected?

Although a convinced Christian quite a few years ago, I fell away entirely as a result of many factors, living also a life that was, frankly, dissipated. Yet all through this period, there was always a consciousness at a very fundamental level that, though I had turned my back, God had not departed, but remained there, ignored, in the background. I could never quite shake that off, even during a period of near atheism.

Now, after much self-searching, study and reflection, I see things in a wholly different way, and am sort of on the threshold of faith. However, considering my earlier rejection of the christian faith I once held, I was hugely depressed by the words of (?) Paul in Hebrews Chap. 6, v 4-6, which seems to state that, once faith in Christ has been accepted, then rejected, there is categorically no way back. Though these are not Christ's words, they are an accepted part of a universally accepted scriptural canon, but they appear to lay a wreath on hope. Is there something I am not grasping?

We know from Jesus himself that God stands ready in open love to welcome back those who return to Him. Think of the Prodigal Son, or of Peter who formally denies Jesus three times. Think of Jesus’ whole life and teaching of unconditional love and repentance (not 7 times, but 70 times 7). And many great Christians have fallen away and come back: St Augustine and CS Lewis to name just two.

It is hard to know exactly what is meant in Hebrews 6:4-6 but it cannot be contradicting the basic message of love and hope for all that Jesus offers. What the writer of Hebrews (almost everyone agrees that it is not Paul) seems to be saying is this: In the first part of this letter I have been dealing with the basics – now I am going on to advanced material and I am not going back over old ground. Bear in mind this was addressed to gatherings of early Christians who were struggling with persecution, but by definition the ones who had fallen away would not be part of the gathering. They must have been very worried about their former fellow-Christians who had fallen away. What can we do for them? How can we convince them?

The writer seems to be saying: I’m going to give you advanced instruction to build you up beyond the basics, but I can’t produce instruction or arguments to convince people who have fallen away. Don’t worry about this (at least for now). It is not in our power (adunaton) for us to restore them to repentance. What he does not need to say, because his readers will already know, is what Jesus says in Matthew 19:26 “With men this is impossible (adunaton) but with God all things are possible.”

From your account it seems clear that it is God working within you – not man. You have not been won back by some earnest people from your former church coming and haranguing you, but “much self-searching, study and reflection” One of the Church fathers (and I’m afraid I can’t find the quotation) says something about the waters of baptism bubbling up within you saying “come to the father”. This is God, working within you, and nothing stands in the way of God’s love.

John adds: Like Nicholas, I am sure that God’s love and mercy is everlasting and that no one who truly and penitently turns to him will be rejected. The only thing that can frustrate return is a stubborn unwillingness to recognise its necessity. I think that this must be what those difficult verses in Hebrews are getting at. It’s a bit like the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29), which I believe is a wilful refusal to recognise the truth. As preachers sometimes say, if you’re worried about whether you have committed this sin, you are sufficiently concerned about God for it to be a sign that you haven’t.

ghosts, séances and so on

I wondered what your views on ghosts, séances and so on are – is it possible to reconcile such ideas with Christian faith (and scientific understanding)?

It seems very unlikely that ghosts exist in the sense supposed by popular imagination. We believe in resurrection, God giving “resurrection bodies” to those whose innermost being is remembered by Him in His love – a bit like playing a beloved tune on a wonderful Steinway that you once heard on a honky-tonk – so we don’t think that human spirits persist “naturally”.

Nevertheless people do remember the departed and there are certainly circumstances in which such memories could cause people to feel that they had seen them. And there is much we don’t understand about the depths of the human psyche – especially when several people are linking their sensitivities in the way that apparently happens at séances.

It is also impossible to ignore the strong biblical references to spiritual beings, both angelic and demonic. Although we cannot take all of it literally and must make allowances for the language of the time it was written in (it would have been hopeless for Jesus to say: “this was not demons, it was chemical imbalances in the brain” there was literally no language to say this in) there are enough reasons to think that there are trans/sub personal evil influences, which may well be involved in at least some of the more disturbing manifestations. I know people who have experienced and grappled with such things. But no demon can withstand the power of Christ.

John adds: “I am more reserved and uncertain than Nicholas about what to believe about subordinate spiritual powers, whether good or bad. For example, both in Hebrew and Greek the word conventionally translated angel is simply the ordinary word for messenger of whatever kind.”

Further comment from Nicholas if I were discussing this with John I’d have suggested he said “I am even more reserved and uncertain than Nicholas” because I’m not trying to be at all dogmatic about this. However there’s no room in Luke 1 or 2 to suggest that these were ordinary messengers, and both Jesus and Paul are very clear that we are not just fighting flesh and blood. But equally this does not mean that the popular images of angels and demons are necessarily valid: the truth in these matters is almost certainly more complex and strange than we are able to understand. The Bible very deliberately does not go into such details and nor should we.

All we know is that, if we walk with Christ, we will be given the strength we need because nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Commandments of genocide in the Old Testament

I have been pondering God's commandments of genocide in the Old Testament. How do you wrap your mind around these issues, and what would you say to people who say "I could never worship a God who told the Israelites to kill innocent people"?

All scripture is to be read in the light of Christ. Therefore whatever the passages that show God as commanding extirpation may mean they certainly don’t endorse it.

John adds: Israel was only able to receive its understanding of God slowly over time. First it realised that there is only one true God but it took longer to see that this did not mean that those who did not agree were to be slaughtered.

If a pregnant woman were to die and her baby lived...

With regards to passing into the next life in your bodily form, if a heavily pregnant woman was to die, but her baby was saved, would she go into the next life as an eternal pregnant body with no baby or not?

God loves and knows us and in the resurrection He endows us with Resurrection Bodies – it’s a bit like a great pianist remembering a tune that he has heard played on a honkey-tonk piano and then playing it on a wonderful Steinway, or if you prefer a computer analogy, taking an algorithm that a mathematician developed on an antiquated and unreliable computer and implementing it on a beautiful state-of-the art machine.

We will be given the bodies that God’s love decides are best to express the essence of who we are. So there is no reason to think that they would be the same in all respects as the state of our earthly bodies when we die

Transhumanism and belief in God

Ever since I learned about the Blue Brain Project (a neural net simulation that has shown great promise - the scientist in charge is predicting an artificial brain in 10 years, though I think it'll take a bit longer than that), I've been thinking a great deal about what it means for man's future.

The simulation of the brain itself doesn't concern me much as a Christian, as I'm a monist already (thanks in no small part to the convincing arguments of you and Rev. Polkinghorne). However, the prospects for what it might mean for the rate of technological change does - particularly the idea of transhumanism.

My question is twofold - first, what do you think of transhumanism in general? Second, assuming a transhuman society is possible, is a belief in God still necessary in such a society? I believe the answer to the second question to be yes, for reasons I'll withhold for now, since I want to see what you think first. However, I'm not absolutely certain of my answer, and a second opinion would be quite helpful.

Since real brains are analog and Blue Brain is digital – and therefore much less subtle and powerful – I’m not worried about it as a threat to humanity at all. But it and similar projects (like SpiNNaker) will probably lead to much deeper scientific understandings, which is great.

I think “transhumanism” is over-hyped but with or without technical enhancements to humanity, the truth of God and God’s ultimate loving creation remain truths.

The Evil God Challenge

God is usually defined as a perfect being. One of God's perfections is considered to be benevolence, ie. God is perfectly good. Is it not the case, however, that one of God's perfections could just as easily be malevolence, ie. God could be perfectly evil. People do not normally think of evil as a perfection but it can be seen as such. Eg. a cheetah is a perfect killing machine. From the point of view of a gazelle, a cheetah could be seen as perfectly evil.

Every argument for the traditional benevolent God can also be used as an argument for an evil God. The argument from design, eg, can be used to show that the Universe is perfectly designed to produce beings who are capable of evil.

Conversely, the argument normally used against God, ie the problem of evil, could, in its reverse form, be used against an evil God. This argument would be the problem of good. Why would an evil God create a world with goodness in it? Again the defence against the the argument would be the same. In order for the world to have true evil, people must be given free will so that they can choose evil. If they have free will then there is the risk that they will choose good instead.

It seems that the possibilities of an evil God and a benevolent God are completely symmetrical. Neither one is more probable than the other and if God exists it must considered just as likely that He is evil as that He is good.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

This is the “Evil God Challenge” of Stephen Law.

My reply to him was:
It seems to me that the most fundamental [problem of this view] can be seen if we consider the following statement:

A(LUC): Belief in a Loving Ultimate Creator is a worldview that is deeply satisfying for its hundreds of millions of adherents, provides richly articulated explanations of many fundamental aspects of their experience, and helps them lead happier, more satisfying and evolutionary successful lives.

Now first of all, whether or not you think that A(LUC) ought to be true in a rational world, it seems clear to me that it is true in this world and encapsulates many of the reasons why people believe in God. It also offers some explanation of why militant atheism is ultimately futile: any worldview of which A is true is likely to prosper. Of course A does not say anything directly about whether or in what sense this worldview is true. But I think it is plausible to argue that if there were a LUC then it is likely that the universe would be such that A(LUC) were true.

However for the present purposes what is notable about A is that every aspect of it is false if made into A(EUC): “Belief in an Evil Ultimate Creator is...”. Not only does the EUC idea have zero adherents, it isn’t a worldview, is in no sense “richly articulated”, offers only parodies of explanations of some aspects of our existence, and it is pretty clear that if anyone really believed it their lives would be miserable, unsatisfying and highly unlikely to encourage the successful raising of children. (Much the same applies to the silly Flying Spaghetti Monster)

Of course I'm not arguing that all ideas with zero adherents must be false or that something must be true because it has so many adherents or such a lot of literature. But I think this does rather squarely meet your challenge, and certainly shows the falsehood of the “symmetry thesis”

How is it possible for someone to not feel as if they have free will?

How is it possible for someone to not feel as if they have free will?

People can have all sorts of delusions. That at least is common ground between those who believe in free will and those who don’t!

People can feel as if they don’t have the capacity for love. Perhaps some people really don’t – but mostly they are mistaken. You could perhaps convince yourself that you didn’t have free will, but even if this were true it would not imply that others did not.

PS I’ve looked at the foreword of The Illusion of Free Will. He is stuck in the obsolete idea that the brain is deterministic. So the book is simply wrong.

what is the predictive potential of computer modeling, both now, and in the future?

As a computer scientist, what's your take on the increasing trend of computer modeling of natural systems? It seems to me that as computers become more powerful, we'll certainly be able to learn more from them. But how much, exactly, do you think it can teach us about complex and chaotic systems? Certainly the supercomputers of the future will be able to handle a great deal more variables than the ones of today - particularly if and when quantum computing is introduced on a large scale.

My fear is that this will lead to an erosion of the notion of uncertainty in the universe and a turn back toward determinism, with more and more variables being introduced and allowing experiments to take smaller variables into account.

In short, exactly what is the predictive potential of computer modeling, both now, and in the future?

We learn a lot from computer models – one of the things we learn is that reality is not a computer.

What makes Christianity so special and different?

Alright so it seems that there is some evidence of God. But how do we know that Christianity is the religion that has the right idea about Him? I was once told that Christianity as a whole is mainly stolen from bits of Zoroastrianism and Judaism and that it's only original and wise contribution was the golden rule.(I personally found this a bit unlikely but I didn't know enough about theology and history to argue.) What makes Christianity so special and different?

This is a huge topic on which much can be said. To over-simplify tremendously, I'd offer three points:
  1. The life, death resurrection of Jesus
  2. The extraordinary growth of the Church, from a persecuted minority to taking over the Roman Empire to the massive worldwide following she has today, not least in countries like S Korea and China.
  3. Philosophically: if God exists He is obviously not incompetent. So one of the major purported communications from God to humanity is likely to be genuine, probably the one with the largest number of adherents spread over all the world, who are not kept in line by threats of violence.

judgment and the resulting existence or nonexistence after death

My question concerns judgment and the resulting existence or nonexistence after death, in particular the necessity, in Christian doctrine as I understand it, for the occurrance of faith, or commitment to God/Christ, or acceptance of/ belief in salvation within a particular person's mind (and of less importance, actions) to determine whether his soul unites with God/’goes to heaven’ or not. How does a frame of mind (eg. Belief/non belief) determine the material (or immaterial) placement of a soul after death? I am assuming here that we are 'not justifid by works' but 'by faith'. If the Creator and creation are one, and God re-unites with his creation, then everything/everyone must by definition be included as part of that unity. If everything is not included , then once this (partial?) unity has occurred within or with God and his created universe, where is there room for all the rest (ie non believers, etc)? If they are included, what do we make of God’s judgment as described in the New Testament by ‘separation’?

We discuss universalism in Questions of Truth. Loving union with God cannot be compulsory, but equally God will save everyone He can – and that is presumably quite a lot!

God's omnipresence

I have begun reading through your books as they become available in our public library and would like to thank you for the many profound sighs of relief I have felt for your invaluable insights and answers to questions and doubts concerning traditional Christian beliefs, which have plagued me for many years. As a committed, life-long member of a small Christian church, it has been a prolonged source of distress to me that I could not accept many of the beliefs that I grew up with and continue to be surrounded by within my church today. As a result of my rejection of simplistic anthropomorphic representations of God with nothing substantial to replace it, I had been struggling to maintain my faith that God exists at all, and if he does, that he intervenes in the lives of men; all this while continuing to act and raise my family as if this were true until such time as I once again can truly believe it to be so.

My first question concerns the nature of prayer, though I suppose it is ultimately concerned with the nature of God. I have enjoyed what I have read so far about the nature and existence of God, and have greater hope than ever before that I am on a path that will lead me back to faith through a clearer vision of God. However, I think I could benefit from your insights on prayer, since it seems that prayer itself could be a means to understand, through experience, the presence, if not the nature, of God. I reach a stumbling block here, though, since I do not have enough faith in the process of prayer itself: I have failed to benefit from it in the past, despite years of daily attempts to pray. Perhaps the idea of prayer which I learnt is insufficient and I need to understand what prayer actually is. If you have written on the nature of prayer, please direct me to your book. If not, I hope you will be able to shed light on this for me today.

I have read, in Prayer as Healing, Questions of Truth, and (I believe) Science and the Trinity, what you have said about the importance of prayer and its benefits. What I would like to know more about is the nature of prayer, how you believe it works. In other words, is this something that needs to travel through time and space to “reach” God? I noted that you mentioned that you have looked back over your life and have seen the hand of God leading in hindsight, but you have not heard a “voice” speaking to you in prayer, leading you through these experiences. I, similarly, have never heard a voice In prayer, but beyond this, I have not experienced a sense of communion (at least not to my knowledge). Nevertheless, I was – and hope to become again – convinced that God’s hand was leading in my life and would ensure what was best for me in his terms.

My greatest doubt is that prayer could be just wishful thinking, self-reflection or meditation, and, as such, may be useful, even good, without God necessarily existing. Or, if he does exist in a non-communicative form, that the answers we feel we get from him could simply be a result of our own conclusions determined by consistent reflection on the subject. In other words, if we consistently think about what we really want and need, about what is good, about what we should do in concordance with God’s word, about being grateful and content, we will be acting in accordance with this, and it is very likely that our lives will lineup with what is “best”, whatever we consider that to be given our understanding of God’s word. We will also accept our tribulations with greater patience, and find and pursue the good in every experience if we believe God is giving us answers or guidance in prayer. We can then take every experience, good or bad, as confirmation of God answering our prayers, because we believe that it is from God or will be resolved by God. It seems to me that all this good can happen whether God exists on the other end of prayer or not, as long as we believe God is speaking in prayer and controlling our lives. I once asked my father, who has prayed all his long life, how God speaks to him in prayer. He said that God puts thoughts in his mind that were not there before. How could we prove this? Aren’t there many people who live good, thoughtful lives without believing in the Christian—or any -- God? Who meditate or reflect on what should be without praying to any particular entity, reach entirely satisfactory conclusions (to themselves at least), and think new thoughts and come up with new innovations on their own?

Perhaps I still believe communication and/or communion must include a physical means of transmission, as it does between organisms (via sound/sight) , so that prayer, as a means of communication to something/someone that “really” exists over and above myself, but which occurs within my head, without sound, without the movement of energy/particles etc. through space, remains baffling.

There is a whole chapter on prayer (ch 6) in Science and Providence.

Since God is omnipresent communications to Him do not have to travel through time and space. And it is perfectly clear, scientifically, that thoughts are “real” – consider fMRI and brain-computer interaction.

Can God intervene and help me in a future situation?

I am a little confused on your idea of God’s omniscience, which I think is a very good view, but I am a little confused by it. Does God know or have some idea what I am going to do in the future or does he not know at all? If I ask God to intervene and help me in a future situation, can he do this?

I think God chooses what He wants to know. Suppose for example that all my daughter's emails were on a Server to which I had free access, and I could easily read her emails. I am in a sense omniscient about any email she has received or sent. Nevertheless as a loving father it would only be in wholly exceptional circumstances that I would exercise that power. It's clear to me that, unless God can choose what He knows, He is not Omnipotent, and thus His Omniscience is voluntary rather than "compulsory"

Does God have a special plan for every individual life?

Does God have a special plan for every individual life? Does God have a specific plan for my life that is specific to me and the gifts he has blessed me with?

God is a loving father to each of us. Do I have a special plan for my children? Not exactly. I love them in a way that is specific for their lives and the gifts God has blessed them with. I want the very best for them. But even if I knew the best answer to a problem that was confronting them about the future course of their lives, unless the alternative was very harmful I would want them to decide. And God loves them even more than I do.

what happens to us immediately when we die before our physical resurrection?

I have read yours and John’s view on the soul and life after death and I a question. If minds are not fully separate from our brains and are ultimate hope is resurrection, what happens to us immediately when we die before our physical resurrection? Is some part of us with God prior to the resurrection? Soul sleep? Could you please elaborate on this?

I think after we die and before our Resurrection we exist in the mind and memory of God. I suspect that the next thing we know after our death will be our judgement and resurrection at the end of time: this makes most sense to me both philosophically and in the light of the New Testament. But I could well be wrong about this. (some philosophical wag once wrote that all dead atheists are former atheists, because either they are right, and have ceased to exist, or they are now better informed!)

What is your opinion on Panentheism and why do you feel theism is superior to this?

What is your opinion on Panentheism and why do you feel theism is superior to this?

I'm not sure panentheism really makes sense - and it is not as far as I can see consonant with the Biblical worldview.

How can we have a single continuous self if the soul is not immaterial?

I have heard that John rejects dualism, and that his answer to the question of an afterlife is the idea that God will remember our bodies and eventually reconstruct them. But how can those reconstructions be considered the same people as us? They would be made out of different atoms and would be more like an identical twin with our memories than ourselves! Furthermore, if the soul is not an immaterial thing, are we truly the people when we where born? For instance a man who was born 50 years ago would have few of the atoms that he was born with, but we still consider him the same person that was born 50 years ago. How can we have a single continuous self if the soul is not immaterial?

John describes his view as “dual aspect monism” – we do not think that matter is the only thing that exists. The soul is something like a pattern of active information. Continuity as a person does not in this view depend on the continuity of atoms but of the pattern of active information. It’s a bit like how a violin sonata can remain the same when played on a different violin.

Is our idea of an "I" illusory?

I am a philosophy student with an interest in the debate between religion and science. I am a big fan of Professor Polkinghorne's books and would like to ask him a question.

I recently read a book called Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction by Dr. Susan J. Blackmore. The book suggests that our sense of a single "self" "I" or "soul" is illusory and that our current knowledge suggests that the feeling of a stream of consciousness, selfhood and free will are illusions resulting from the processes of the brain. The book advocates not thinking too much(and claims that our thoughts are mostly "Daft and Pointless" anyway) and learn to enjoy the lives we have no control over. As a Christian I find that this idea conflicts with my beliefs but I do not know enough about science to judge its validity. Is our idea of an "I" illusory?

To have an illusion presumably means that somebody believes something that is untrue. It is therefore hard to see in what sense the idea of a self really could be entirely an illusion. It’s a bit like saying the idea that we have a body is an illusion because in fact we have arms, legs, internal organs etc...

Blackmore is over-influenced by Dawkins and Dennett.

How do we reconcile the accounts of the virgin birth with the lineage that Jesus shares with David?

I have been mulling over a question that, while obviously not a major barrier for my faith, has definitely stumped me. How do we reconcile the accounts of the virgin birth with the lineage that Jesus shares with David? I've read some internet resources (not scholastic, so everything taken with a grain of salt) that say that Mary's lineage, supposedly recounted in Luke (though it does specify that Heli was Joseph's father in Luke, while specifying that Jacob was Joseph's father in Matthew), is shared with David, making Christ a blood relative of David but not with Solomon since Mary is related to David through David's other son Nathan. Other's have stated that because it wasn't through Solomon, Christ doesn't fulfill the Messianic prophecies. Others have said that lineage is passed through the father, but Christ is an adoptive son and is therefore, in the Jewish sense, considered a blood son of Joseph. It's clearly quite a muddled issue, and I was wondering what you had to say on the matter.

In the ancient world, as now, it was fully understood that your biological and legal fathers were not necessarily the same.

What do you think of memetic attempts to explain religion?

What do you think of memetic attempts to explain religion?

The whole meme-virus trope is just nonsense.
First of all, “mimetics” is a manifest pseudo-science, dealing with non-existent objects.
Secondly, because there is no evidence at all the religious beliefs are harmful, quite the reverse.
Thirdly because these “arguments” can be turned in on themselves. The meme-meme could be a “virus”.
Fourthly because religions just are not simple entities like viruses, let alone genes.

Do we have personal continuity? and if not, how can we have souls?

The objections to our idea of a self (to repeat wikipedia) is that: that the intuitive concept of self is an evolutionary artifact. In the monkey-riding-a-tiger model of consciousness the brain models its own unconscious processes just as it models other people. This modeling makes the assumption that the model will continue to apply through time, and so assumes they are the same person they were yesterday. This leads to the intuitive sense of self. The sense of ‘self’ has also become part of our language, part of our concept of responsibility, and the basis of self based morality.

According to this line of criticism, the sense of self is an evolutionary artifact, which saves time in the circumstances it evolved for. But sense of self breaks down when considering some rare events such as memory loss, split personality disorder, brain damage, brainwashing, and various thought experiments. When presented with these imperfections in the intuitive sense of self and the consequences to this important concept which rely partly on the strict concept of self, people tend to try to mend the concept, possibly because of cognitive dissonance. Critics of personal continuity believe that this leads to extending the concept of self beyond its practical application and justification.

It is logically impossible to have the illusion that you have a mind: because an illusion is a false belief held to be true and only entities with minds can hold beliefs.

No doubt all our ideas are to some extent products of evolution: neuroscience itself is. This has nothing much to do with whether it is true.

The soul is the essence of who we are – not a separate physical object.

I was playing Beethoven’s 10 Violin Sonata (with Ruth Palmer) on my 55th birthday. As it happens her Strad is older than the Sonata, my piano much younger. But it is the same sonata as the one Beethoven wrote. If we were playing it on the violin that was originally used, and from the original MS, it would be amazing, but it would still be the same sonata and would make (intrinsically) no difference to the music. Indeed it could be that my piano and her violin are far better instruments than the ones on which the sonata was originally performed. That is a bit like the Resurrection: our music on better instruments with strings that don’t break or go out of tune.

Or in the immortal words of John Donne: “when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated”

Does free will break the laws of causality

A lot of scientists and philosophers say that given our current knowledge of the world, the idea of human beings havings some kind of "free will" would break the laws of causality. They say that even if non-deterministic quantum events have some kind of effect on the brain, it only means that actions would be random. Does professor Polkinghorne have a response to these suggestions?

Indeed. We have a whole section on this in Questions of Truth.

Daniel Wegner's claims to have disproved dualism and free will?

What do you think of Harvard Psycology professor Daniel Wegner's claims to have disproved dualism and free will?

In short, confused nonsense. You might as well claim show that music is an illusion because if you drill a hole in a violin it makes a different sound.
With the extra confusion that you cannot have an illusion unless you have a will to be deluded.
But this sort of thing sells books and certain people (who seem to think they lack free will) lap it up.

Are selves a delusion?

Recent findings seem to suggest that we have no "self", but phenomenal self models,as argued in this book. How can we have souls if this is true?

This is a bit like saying that we do not have bodies because we have arms and legs, or that a string quartet does not exist because there are 2 violins, a viola and a cello.
You “soul” is the essence of who you are. If it turned out that this essence were in some sense essentially composed of many modules this is not a problem.

However the idea that the self is a delusion raises the question of what/who is being deluded, so it rests on very weak philosophical foundations.

Scientifically it may well be that our idea of our selves is composed through a number of complex and disparate mechanisms, indeed it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. But philosophically it makes no sense at all to describe this as an illusion:
a. The conclusion “the self is an illusion” cannot possibly follow from an observation like “the self arises through the interaction of a number of complex and disparate mechanisms”. With the possible exception of elementary particles, everything arises through such interactions. Metzinger might as well say “the body is an illusion” or “the brain is an illusion”.
b. To have an illusion presupposes that there is a conscious self which holds the false belief. If there were no conscious selves there could be no illusions.
Each of these objections is in my view catastrophic for Metzinger’s philosophical position.

Is the New Testament a pagan myth?

I sent you an e-mail for Rev. Polkinghorne a few months ago, saying that reading "Belief in God in an Age of Science" and "Questions of Truth" had turned me from a person in doubt, intro a person who rather believes than doubts the existence of God.

First of all, I'd like to thank you for your prompt answer on that occasion. In the meantime, I also read "Quantum Physics and Theology" and learned a lot of thinks about Christianity.

I recently watched the documentary "Zeitgeist" and I must admit it is pretty shaking to my beliefs.
In part I it asserts that the New Testament is a pagan myth personifying astronomical events: the birth of Jesus on the 25th December as the first day the sun starts moving north (and so upwards), the resurrection as the spring equinox, the disciples as the signs of the zodiac, etc. It is also claimed that the Old Testament is mostly inspired from the religion of Egypt, which in it's turn is similar to others all over the world (as actually worshiping the sun and stars). Jesus' figure is said to be similar with the figure of Joseph from the OT.
Could you please help me with your views on that?

I haven’t seen or heard of this documentary, but it seems obviously nonsensical.

Of course 12 is a symbolic number in many contexts: Jesus picked 12 special disciples to symbolise the 12 tribes of Israel and it’s ridiculous to pin this on any other 12 (shillings in the pound, semitones in an octave) and the resurrection is linked to the Passover. As for Dec 25th – this is a pretty late tradition which is not in the Bible at all.

Of course all religions contain some truth, and the truth of all religions is one, so Jesus fulfils any truths there are in any religion. But this does not remotely undermine his Gospel. To take a scientific example, astronomy and chemistry grew directly and continuously from astrology and alchemy but this does not remotely undermine the truths that have been found.

Is the soul/self an illusion?

I am a Christian with an interest in the science of the brain. One of the most frighening idea's I've come across is that the soul might be an illusion. To make matters worse it's a source of inefficieny in the human organism. To quote from a recent paper I found on the subject:

"At least under routine conditions, consciousness does little beyond taking memos from the vastly richer subconcious environment, rubber-stamping them, and taking the credit for itself. In fact, the nonconscious mind usually works so well on its own that it actually employs a gatekeeper in the anterious cingulate cortex to do nothing but prevent the conscious self from interfering in daily operations.

...Compared to nonconscious processing, self-awareness is slow and expensive. (The premise of a separate, faster entity lurking at the base of our brains to take over in emergencies is based on studies by, among others, Joe LeDoux of New York University. By way of comparison, consider the complex, lightning-fast calculations of savantes; those abilities are noncognitive, and there is evidence that they owe their superfunctionality not to any overarching integration of mental processes but due to relative neurological fragmentation. Even if sentient and nonsentient processes were equally efficient, the conscious awareness of visceral stimuli—by its very nature— distracts the individual from other threats and opportunities in its environment. The cost of high intelligence has even been demonstrated by experiments in which smart fruit flies lose out to dumb ones when competing for food possibly because the metabolic demands of learning and memory leave less energy for foraging."

It seems that some for of consciousness is necessary for art, but that's basically just the brains way of hacking itself to release pleasurable chemicals. It's unneeded and ultimately a waste.

Is this true? Is the self an unneeded illusion?

Doubtless we all have illusions about ourselves, but the self cannot be an illusion. To have an illusion presupposes that there is a conscious self which holds the false belief. If there were no conscious selves there could be no illusions.

It is not surprising that self-awareness is “costly” in biological terms. And it is limited. But it is simply ridiculous to say that it is non-existent.

Do we have free will?

Some recent theories in Neuroscience (by Thomas Metzinger and Daniel Wegner) would seem to suggest that we do not have, selfs or free will in the sense that we think we do. In fact our brain models our bodies as it models the outside world, and we call this our self. We do not have free will:All our actions are begun long before we consciously decide to do them. Are these conclusions true?

Might as well say that violins don’t play music because they have strings.

However it may well be true that "our actions are begun long before we consciously decide to do them" - there is no reason why our decisions should not originate in our unconscious (and esp in the right brain) with the possibility of a conscious over-ride.

Will neuroscience one day prove that human beings don't have the ability to do otherwise?

I recently picked up a book entitled 'My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility' that sought to defend free will and moral responsibility. Seeing as how I felt I was already well acquainted with the concepts of compatibilism, incompatibilism, determinism and so forth, I skipped towards the last few chapters. They were really well done.

However, later I realized that the author, Eliezer Sternberg, never actually spoke about alternative possibilities in the chapters I had read. I decided to read some of the earlier chapters, and I was met with the revelation that Sternberg feels only conscious control over one's own actions are required to have free will. So long as it is the conscious self that is in control, he says, and not the brain itself, then one has free will. He sees (mistakenly in my view) being able to do otherwise as part of the compatibilist view of things. However, from my experience, compatibilists see free will as simply being free from coercion, while it is incompatibilists (primarily libertarians) who defend being able to do otherwise. As I see it, under this view there is merely a switch from biological determinism to universal determinism; there is no refutation of determinism, just a switching of what kind it is that controls you. This mistake on Sternberg's part really disappointed me.

My question, therefore, is this: Will neuroscience one day prove that human beings don't have the ability to do otherwise?

It's perfectly cleat scientifically that, if there are any non-deterministic systems in the universe, then the brain is one.

Why isn't the Anthropic Principle better known

why the anthropic principle isn't quite known to people who aren't scientists? All of my close friends and acquaintances that I've talked to are aware of the scientific evidence for a Big Bang and evolution, but none of them have heard of, or even have an awareness of anthropic fine-tuning. My atheist friends are even surprised to learn that scientists like Richard Dawkins and Martin Rees are believers in a form of cosmological fine-tuning.

If the scientific community accepts anthropic fine-tuning as fact and takes it very seriously, then why does it seem like everyday people are totally unaware of it? Surely, if more people knew about this, it would give them a better appreciation of their place in the universe.

A very good point.
I think the media (by and large) have a very clear anti-religion agenda so it suits them to play the “science vs religion” theme and this doesn’t fit.
But truth will prevail in the end.

Stephen Hawking on God

what your opinions were on Stephen Hawking's recent personal conclusion that "God did not create the universe". My understanding of basic logic and my very basic understanding of physics tells me that the universe couldn't possibly be self created. It seems intrinsically false and self contradicting. Also it was my understanding that when such a claim is made it stops being science and starts being metaphysics. I would very much appreciate your insight and perhaps clarification of Hawking's claims.

Lots of publicity for Hawking's latest book, with journalists (and possibly Hawking and his co-author) making the elementary fallacies of:

1.If it is not logically necessary for God to exist then God does not exit.
2.If something is an inevitable consequence of the laws of Nature then it does not have a cause.
Clearly you can always transform a pair [L,C] of Laws and Initial Conditions into a set of laws L1 where the initial conditions are built in. But this always leaves open the question, why are these laws the way they are (see eg my paper in Journal of Cosmology)? The theist will answer that God made them this way, the atheist that they are "brute fact".

The Chief Rabbi is very good on this. He points out that "Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean." and that "Hawking II, the good scientist, has brilliantly refuted Hawking I, the poor theologian" concluding "Given a choice between a single intelligent creator and an infinity of self-creating universes, the former wins hands down...But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science. I will continue to believe that God who created one or an infinity of universes in love and forgiveness continues to ask us to create, to love and to forgive."

Belief in the UK

With the pope touring the UK I noticed he spoke on the secularization of the nation. Curious, I looked up some statistics on religion in the United Kingdom and I find myself very confused by some contradictory data. I found that large survey showed that approx. 72% of British people identify as Christians, yet something called the "Eurobarometer" poll reported that around 40% believe in a god and that 40% beliefed in "some sort of spirit or life force" (whatever that means), with the rest saying that they do no believe there is a god. I am confused because all the atheists I know would never identify as Christians, even at the cultural level. If you could perhaps explain to me why such a discrepancy would occur I would greatly appreciate it.

NB Response: The discrepancy between the Census an polls on this topic is strange, and I have never heard or seen a satisfactory explanation. I suspect it that people are more honest in the Census (false answers are in theory punishable by law) but in a poll they are cowed by the “prevailing climate of opinion” which has been is militantly secularist in the UK.

Does God know the future?

Q: First off I'd like to say that I have read many of Dr. Polkinghorne's books and enjoy them immensely. However, not too long ago I was perusing one of them again. and came across an idea that I had had some problems with before. And that was the thought that God does not know the future, and that this does not contradict the idea of his omniscience, since the future would not be there to know as yet.

The problem is, that it would very definitely put a limit on his knowledge and power! While the future is not obvious to beings living within time, for one outside of time, with no limitations on him, the past, present and future would be known. Otherwise, there would be a limiting reality stronger than God! To reiterate, according to most all theological speculations, God is entirely and completely without limits of any kind. I would be interested in your further thoughts on this question.

NB Response: We think God knows everything He chooses to know. He chooses to keep the future undetermined to allow people real freewill. If God could not choose not to know something this would be a limit on God’s Omnipotence.

Continuity after death (and Angels/Spirits)

I very much enjoy your work and also your "come-think-with-me" style. My question concerns the continuity of person on a monist understanding of human nature. If I recall you hold the view that we are dual (or more)-aspect beings made of one stuff and you further hold that our continuity at death is possibly vouchsafed by God's remembering of us and ability to reconstitute us (albeit in a "spiritual body") in the new creation. That seems probably the best monist answer I've heard and an elegant one I'd be happy to embrace but how would it be me that was resurrected and not a clone of me God has made? If I destroyed a painting I'd made but then re-made it from memory would it be accurate to say the painting goes on or a duplictate goes on? Since I don't think personhood is simply constituted by the data/ memories I have or about can the "I" survive death on such a view?

Finally---do you think angels / spirits exist?

NB Response Clearly we can’t know the details of this. But I think that humans are more like musical compositions than paintings (apart from anything else we are dynamic and we are not constituted by material identity since the atoms in our bodies change all the time). If the MS of a composition is lost and the composer writes it down from memory it is the same piece.

Of course a “clone” is not the same person because even if they are identical genetically there is a lot more to personhood.
Surely Angels/Spirits exist. In what form exactly is much harder to say. We discuss this a bit in Questions of Truth.

Defintion of "God"

Before one can debate the existence of the divine ie. god, one must understand the definition of "god". I understand the word "god" to be an abstract like "love" ,"justice" ,etc, therefore, the definition eludes universal clarity and acceptance. With so many people having many definitions of "god", how can anyone come to a universal agreement as to what god is, much less debate whether or not he exists? How is "God" in your understanding defined? and how can it be considered valid, with so much disagreement over what is meant by the word "God"

NB Response: I think the simplest philosophical “definition” of God is The Ultimate Creator.
Christians, and I think almost all theists, believe that anything that exists or has existed and is logically capable of having been caused was created directly or indirectly by God. (as the Bible puts it “through him all things were made, and without him was not anything made that was made”)

It is perfectly obvious that either there is no Ultimate Creator or there is exactly one, and that the question “who created God” is meaningless. Equally God is not an “abstract noun” but the creative ground of our entire being, and that God can hardly be less than a person, though may of course be more than a person. He is certainly not an “abstract noun”!

Are emotion like Love only neurotranmitters in our brains

Recently, I attended a college lecture having to do with the neuroscience of sex and drugs. According to the lecturing professor, love and lust simply amount to the neurotransmitters oxytocin and dopamine, and are simply used for what he calls 'pair-bonding' between males and females. After the lecture, I asked him if he felt his statements were dehumanizing; he stated yes, he did, and that reductionism is a wonderful tool for helping us see the utter predictability of human behavior. Now, about a week later, I've found a new study suggesting that 'love at first sight' is purely neuroscientific, as the human brain is designed to form a base opinion of another person within a few minutes of meeting him or her. Now I don't know about others, but I find these claims to be unsettling; does this mean that my love for others (family, friends, etc.) and vice versa have no real significance, that they just happen because I suddenly experience an influx of oxytocin? I've read 'Questions of Truth' and really appreciated its critique of philosophies like reductionism and scientism, so I ask: how do you feel about those claims that emotions like love only amount to the neurotransmitters in our brains?

NB Response: There is no doubt that our bodies influence our minds and behaviours. But almost nothing about biology or neuroscience is simple, and anyone who tells you that X & Y "simply amount to the neurotransmitters A and B" is either joking, oversimplifying ridiculously, or doesn't know what (s)he is talking about.

All the studies of that kind ever show is that there is a statistical association between X and higher levels of A (etc...) and typically the correlations are quite modest (and the p-values are often not much less than 5%).

It is clearly useful, for both biological and other reasons, to form some kind of opinion about another person very quickly indeed (friend or foe for example) and certainly some aspects of human behaviour can be predicted with a high probability. But even if 99.9% of all human behaviour could be correctly predicted 99.9% of the time (which is nothing like the case) then you would have no way of knowing what individuals people would be doing in a few days.

Lust is certainly influenced by our bodies, but love is by definition an act of our minds, and these can never be predicted with certainty. Mutual love even less so!

God as arificer not Creator

There are those who would argue that Genesis (and other creation narratives in the bible) support the view that God is actually something like an artificer, who organizes and forms the world from pre-existing material. How would you respond to this? I repeat: for me creation means the radical causing of existence of whatever exists and as such creation does not refer to how the world was formed but the fact that there is anything at all rather than nothing. Therefore, my question is really about biblical hermeneutics.

However, I should also like to know what Mr Polkinghorne things about the 'artificer' God from a scientific point of view and particularly the notion of pre-existing matter? It seems to me that this notion confuses the types of questions that science and religion address (the how and the why) and so it is making a category mistake. But what grounds do we have to suppose that in some sense matter did not always exist and God merely invented laws that would organize this material into a self-making universe? Hmmm. Again, I cannot agree with this view, but I am not sure how to respond convincingly to my Mormon friends with respect to this notion of God the creator.

NB Response Philosophically God is the Ultimate Creator: a mere “artificer” would not be God. The Bible is pretty clear about this, and scientifically it makes no sense that I can see to talk about pre-existing matter and God.

Nature of Knowledge

I have recently encountered an interview with you conducted by Krista Tippett, which appeared in her book, Einstein's God.  The interview raised quite a few provocative questions in my mind, and I beg for the liberty to share one of them with you:

I know, with something approaching absolute certainty, that, if A > B, and B > C, then A > C.  I also know, with the same certainty, that, if I substitute a "<" or an "=" sign for the ">", the same kind of relationship holds.  But what is the nature of my knowledge?  I have, after all, only examined a very small percentage of the possible a's, b's, and c's in the universe, and none of them very scientifically.  So is my knowledge of logical relationships different, in any fundamental way, from mystical insight?

When I was much younger, I was quite impressed for a time by the writings of Ayn Rand, who draws a very sharp dichotomy between rationality and mysticism.  But, when I examine the nature of rationality itself, the distinction seems to vanish.  I would be quite interested in your thoughts on the matter, and would be most grateful for any guidance you might give to my perplexity.

NB Response:
Our knowledge of mathematical truths that can be logically proven is in a sense the only “certain” knowledge and does not depend on an examination of instances, but on the consequences of axioms.  And of course if you substitute “is within 1 mile of” for > the deduction does not hold.

However mathematics does show us is that:
a.      Not all truths are empirical
b.      Not everything that is true can be proven.

Sin and missing the mark

Q: While wrestling with trying to understand my Christianity in the light of evolution, it occurred to me that since God is love itself (pure love) and perfection itself, his creation can only reflect that love and perfection, not be it. So by the very fact of having been created, we cannot be perfect or love fully. We are created in the likeness of God, not as God. It seems then, that all of creation, by the very fact that it is not God, is imperfect. We are created in the likeness of God because he has only himself as template. Being like God, we should, therefore, be drawn to the things of God. But our lack causes confusion. We miss the mark. The only human not to miss the mark, was Jesus (though others have come close).

It seems to me that it is we who have created evil. Sin is going with the lack, taking the easy route, rather than with the whole (God), and taking the more difficult road. In my own mind, evolution is the drawing of humanity toward God by God. Our gift is to let him draw us; to recognize his presence with us so that we evolve through, with, and in him.

Response from NB: I would agree with most of what you say, although of course you put it in your own way.  I don’t think though that we can quite say that “we created evil”. Sin is, as you suggest, falling short of the Glory of God, but the possibility of falling short is inherent in the fact of imperfection.

Why should I believe in a loving god?

Q: Given observable fact is there a reason to seek a relationship with god?

What is wrong with the notion of a god that is purely mechanical in nature, that brings the universe in to being but has no other function. I believe that the movement of the watch hands are driven by a mechanism, even though I don't see it. The fact that it is there, and may be wondrous, does not mean that I need to seek a relationship with it.

Before me I do not see a world of beauty, but rather one of extraordinary ugliness, punctuated with glimpses of beauty, that we as humans tend to remember because we are naturally attracted to beauty.

Even if you do not hold the same view as me you must agree that there is ugliness, pain, sin, injustice and despair in this world. So while I don't have a problem with the notion of god (in fact I view god as rather necessary to a coherent understanding of a world with structure) why should anything lead me to believe that it is a loving god that I should try to have a relationship with.

Pain is observable fact. The usual defence to the problem of pain is free choice. Why should we believe that an omnipotent God needs to create a choice between the availability of free choice and lack of sin. We as simple humans may have difficulty in conceiving a world where the existence of choice means the existence of a choice to do bad things, but that is only because we are simple humans and live in a world where bad things are possible. Even we as simple humans can conceive of situations where there are multiple good choices and few bad ones, if god is omnipotent why did he not create a world where we had free choice, but that all the choices available to us were all manifestly good, loving, kind and graceful.

In short, why should I believe that god is loving, and that I should seek a relationship with it? What is wrong with the notion of a god that merely brings the universe in to existence is entirely impersonal, and has no other aspect to it. I would argue that observable fact points the the later impersonal god more than the former.

Response from NB: There can never be any real evidence that "the whole world is just a mechanism" - it's just an assumption. As we say in computing, GIGO.

The only coherent alternative is that the world is ultimately based on Love, not mechanism/matter/energy. If Love is the basis of the universe, then of course we should seek a relationship with the Loving Ultimate Creator.

Pain and love are both observable facts. Pain is clearly necessary to existence. We cannot possibly know what a reasonable level of pain in the universe is. John and I think that Love transcends pain, and that (even though my father and John's wife died of cancer quite young) Love is of infinite value and pain is finite and transitory.

In the end we have to choose. Pure logic cannot get us everywhere (as Godel proved). I believe that the logic points us to a loving God. I know that I would rather live in a loving relationship with God in Christ (and suffer logical possibility that I may be wrong, and that at death there is no Resurrection) than live a futile life in a "machine universe".


I'm afraid I've been very slow in updating the Polkinghorne Q&A pages. They started over 10 years ago and have been uploaded flat files. The more recent questions and responses have simply not got there.

Using blogging software I can keep new ones up to date and hope eventually to get the old responses uploaded (though I may have to migrate to wordpress or another platform to achieve this). In the meantime I can start putting in the recent ones.

I've managed to post most of the interesting ones going back to 9-Apr-2009. Perhaps when I get time I'll be able to go back further - and ideally I'd get all the older questions in. Meanwhile I hope this will be a useful resource.