Science can’t

John Polkinghorne…

[S]cience tends to look at the world and treat it as an ‘it’, as an object; something you can kick around, pull apart and find out what it’s made of – that’s the experimental method, which is science’s great secret weapon. But we also know there is a whole swath of encounters with reality, where we meet it not as an object, as an ‘it’, but as a person. Above all, we encounter God in that way and when we move to that realm, testing has to give way to trusting. If we set traps to see if you are my friend, I’ll destroy the possibility of friendship between us.

Not so fast. Sometimes, when we meet an object as a person, testing does not have to give way to trusting; on the contrary, trusting is the wrong move. I’m sure we can all think of examples without help. Of course we don’t want to set traps for someone who is already a friend, but we don’t make friends with everyone we ever encounter, either. It’s not the case that in every encounter with an object that is not an it but a person, trust is invariably the only right response. And a second point: the analogy is silly, because we don’t ‘encounter God’ the way we encounter other persons. It’s not at all obvious that when we ‘encounter’ something that we consider God (and what is that something, exactly?) then testing has to give way to trusting – especially not on the risible grounds that God won’t be our friend if we test it instead of trusting it. If God is that huffy, God can go find someone else to play with.

In Polkinghorne’s opinion, while it can show how things fit together, science can’t explain where the structure comes from: “Religion offers a broader and deeper understanding.” He asserts that what may normally appear as a happy accident becomes intelligible if it is seen as “reflective of the mind and the will of the creator. It just explains more”.

What does ‘explains’ mean there? ‘Explains more’ in what sense? It doesn’t explain, for instance, the mind and will of the creator, or the creator. So in what sense does religion offer a broader and deeper understanding? I’m guessing that Polkinghorne means in the sense that he finds it more congenial and comforting, more emotionally satisfying. I say that because it isn’t really intellectually satisfying (because of the infinite regress), yet believers always claim that religion ‘explains better.’ ‘Better’ must mean something like in a more friendly or anthropocentric or familiar way.

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