It’s not common to for an ordained Anglican minister to make a radical particle physics discovery. But Revered John Polkinghorne, a professor at Cambridge University who played a significant role in discovering the quark, has gotten used to incredulous glances.
“When people hear that, they sometimes give you a funny look,” he said. “As if you’ve said, ‘I’m a vegetarian butcher.’”
Polkinghorne delivered a lecture on the relationship between science and religion to a standing-room-only crowd Thursday in the BSLC, drawing on his extensive writings as a member of two scholarly communities. The lecture was sponsored by various campus ministries and student organizations, and received funding from Student Government.
Science and religion “share in a common quest for truth,” he said, and each has gifts it can give the other.
Science can help explain phenomena that are difficult to understand from an exclusively religious perspective. Polkinghorne pointed to cancer as something that seems excessively cruel and difficult to reconcile with belief in a beneficent god. But science has discovered mutation, or sudden random changes in the genetic code, is the driving force behind cancer as well as evolution. Cancerous cells, which multiply out of control and overwhelm the healthy functioning of the human body, arise using the same process.
“It is the shadow role of the greater good of creation,” Polkinghorne said, describing the explanatory role of science.
Polkinghorne said that religion in turn can help us comprehend some of the more
philosophical questions of science, what he called “meta-scientific” questions—questions like “Why is science possible at all?” or “Where do the rules that govern scientific principles come from?”
Polkinghorne pointed out that many scientists, regardless of religious beliefs, see in their equations an innate sort of beauty. Complex situations—the rotation of the planets around the sun, the temperature changes in moving objects, the behavior of a falling rock—all can be explained with a few simple formulas.
“I certainly believe that the fine tuning of our world requires some sort of explanation,” said Polkinghorne, who said he finds that answer in a creator.