Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Polkinghorne on the soul and where my comic fiction fits in


(See previous two posts for the context to this)
John Polkinghorne dismisses the idea of the soul as a late divine addition to the evolving human primate. I think he thinks that idea inelegant. He notes the psychosomatic unity of body and soul, and the way that changes in the physical brain seem to affect the soul. He prefers to see this psychosomatic nature as having evolved.

However he still thinks we can use the word 'soul' coherently as the 'information-bearing pattern' or in Greek terms the 'form' of the body. (Aquinas developed this idea of the soul as the 'form' of the person; cf. the body as the 'matter'. The Greek words are eidos (form) and hyle (matter).) This pattern remains and develops through life and gives our lives a unity, even though the atoms in our bodies are forever being exchanged for others. He claims this soul as such is not immortal but after death it is held and even nurtured in the mind of God, until such time as God brings about resurrection. Thus in Polkinghorne's thinking, immortality rests not on a supposed nature of the soul, but on the faithfulness of God.

It is an interesting idea in fiction to see what this 'information-bearing pattern' would look like if incarnated in a completely different body. What would I look like if my soul were given the body of, say, a computer, or a car, or a colony of ants, or a tree or a planet?

My book Paradise - a divine comedy
and its upcoming sequel of course illustrate the 'information-bearing pattern' as landscapes.

Polkinghorne on the future


When we start applying Polkinghorne's idea of science and theology conversing, how does such a conversation apply to the future of people and the universe? Some notes.

Q. What is the Anthropic Principle?
A. This states that the Universe was set up in such a way that, though simple in its start, it was pregnant with the possibility of intelligent life. If the relations between gravity and electromagnetism were slightly different in any direction, stars would not burn long enough for life to arise. If nuclear forces had slightly different values, complex atoms would never have been created. Most presumed initial conditions for the Universe lead to sterile universes. Hence the Universe looks extremely finely-tuned in its initial conditions -- 'primed for life'.

Q. How does this then lead us to a paradox?

Science cannot offer hope, finally, in the light of what is going to happen to the Universe. However brightly the spark of intelligence shines, it must be extinguished eventually as the the stars burn out.

This is a paradox: 'a finely tuned and fruitful universe which is condemned to ultimate futility' (p27).


Q. How can theology help resolve this paradox?
By positing both continuity and discontinuity in the future of people and of the universe, modelled on Christ's resurrection. He got his body back (continuity: people knew it was him); but it was a resurrected body, never to die again (discontinuity, radically different from the old). A seed contains the genetic essence of the future plant (continuity) but it has to fall into the ground and die (discontinuity). So with people and with the whole Universe.

What distinguishes eschatology from secular futurology is this expectation of discontinuity, of resurrection. Science can only extrapolate, it cannot suggest something entirely new. This can only come from theology. Only theology can argue for discontinuity.

Theology can teach us that, though our existence is as temporary as chalk on a blackboard, our essence can be retained in the mind of the one reading the blackboard long after the board has been wiped clean; and whatever was written can have a further existence in quite other, and greater, realms. It is not that the soul is immortal so much that the faithfulness of God is entire.

Q. What might be areas of continuity between this universe and the next?
I suggest:
- diversity
- beauty
- a balance between change and changelessness; as in many parts of the world, seasons change but the fact of changing seasons never changes.
- laughter, joy, creativity, worship, conversation; all these relational joys.

Polkinghorne suggests:
-- process. Creation started simple but pregnant with possibilities and was free to develop under God's hand. It took time. Might New Creation be the same?

-- Relational: everything is part of everything else: matter, time, space; body, soul, community, mind, culture. We might expect New Creation to be similarly holistic.

-- Polkinghorne makes the point that the universe is mathematical. Yet maths (prime numbers for example) exist whether or not anyone has discovered them. Does maths exist in some 'extra noetic dimension' that is 'beyond the flux of time' (p20,21)? If so, what about other things that we humans feel exist beyond us imagining them: goodness, beauty, purity even.

Q. What might the end of the world and the 'four last things' (death, judgement, hell, heaven) look like?

A. Both Polkinghorne and Christopher Wright (who wrote 'The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, excerpted in 'Perspectives on the World Christian Movement' (2009, p 27-33)) quote works by Richard J Bauckham. Bauckham understands 2 Peter 3:10 to mean 'the earth will be laid bare' i.e. exposed, purged, cleansed, stripped down of its evil; but not a completely new creation from nothing.

As for death: Science teaches us that death/rebirth has been going on since the beginning of time. So how does death enter the world due to sin? And when did the Fall of Man happen? Polkinghorne's answer is that the Bible is referring to spiritual death. He asserts that self-consciousness and God-concsciousness grew up among proto-humans, and that there was a turning from the God-consciousness (hence a historic Fall) which led to spiritual death.

Another answer to this might be that the Fall account is a kind of summary of the Christ-less behaviour of the entire 100bn-strong human species, all integrated together into one account.

Heaven: is much as Polkinghorne has already talked about in the sense of a new heavens and earth. As for the 'intermediate state' Polkinghorne speculates that disembodied souls can exist, and even develop, in a sense in the mind of God between physical death and the eschaton.

Judgement, Hell: In view of the long time scales, and slow development, and refining suggested by the original creation, Polkinghorne is unwilling to see judgement as a one-off moment or hell as a permanent state. He is attracted by the idea of further refinement/redemption after the eschaton.

John Polkinghorne on Science and Theology


Just making notes for my own reference.

Polkinghorne is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a priest and theologian, and winner of the Templeton Prize.

Q. How does he compare and contrast physics and theology?
A. He takes a 'critical realist' view of both. So, both disciplines are dealing with truth. (That's the 'realist' bit, and it's a faith stance.)  Both are integrating a way of knowing things: the scientific method is powerful but limited only to that knowledge which can be measured and repeated. Theology deals with a wider range of human inputs and experiences but (I would emphasize, though Polkinhorne doesn't) especially I-thou knowing, relational knowing, which is different kind of knowing from the I-it knowing of science.

Both science and theology posit unobservable things. Physics has confined quarks, never seen but assumed to exist; theology has an invisible God. Each is an invisible keystone in an arch of more accessible knowledge. Postulating the invisible helps us make sense of the visible.

Both science and theology can inform and shape each other, bringing as they do different aspects of the totality of human knowing.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hand-picked book lists

Since there are around 8 million books capable of being catalogued and read, I appreciate some help. This site is rather snooty and exclusive, and all the better for it. It re-introduces what we lose when independent bookshops go the wall: the booklover's loving selection of the best.

Their lists are hand-picked and carefully scrutinized.  I think it will be useful as a source of further reading, or ideas for presents. Among the lists:

Barack Obama's favourite books
A journey through Asian stories
Funniest novels according to the British users of Abe books
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