Monday, August 30, 2010

Polkinghorne on emergence in science and theology

At the end of the month I am speaking at a conference Quantum Theory and the Nature of Reality in honour of the 80th birthday of Sir John Polkinghorne, who has done so much to promote a meaningful and scholarly dialogue between science and theology.

As well as giving the talk I have been asked to prepare a white paper (due this friday), Is emergence the nature of physical reality? Consequently, I am wrestling with a chapter The Nature of Physical Reality, from Polkinhorne's 1991 book, Reason and Reality: The Relationship between Science and Theology, which was reprinted in the journal Zygon. Here are a few extracts I am trying to digest.

Abstract. This account of the dynamical theory of chaos leads to a metaphysical picture of a world with an open future, in which the laws of physics are emergent-downward approximations to a more subtle and supple reality and in which there is downward causation through information input as well as upward causation through energy input. Such a metaphysical picture can accommodate both human and divine agency.
Subatomic particles are not only not “more real” than a bacterial cell, they also have no greater privileged share in determining the nature of reality.
.... If apparently open behavior is associated with underlying apparently deterministic equations, which is to be taken to have the greater ontological seriousness—the behavior or the equations? Which is the approximation and which is the reality?
....epistemology and ontology are intimately connected. One can see how natural this view is for a scientist by considering the early history of quantum theory. Heisenberg’s famous discussion of thought experiments, such as the gamma-ray microscope, dealt with what can be measured. It was an epistemological analysis. Yet for the majority of physicists it led to ontological conclusions. They interpret the uncertainty principle as not being merely a principle of ignorance (as Bohm, for example, would interpret it) but as a principle of genuine indeterminacy. In an analogous way, it seems to me to be a coherent possibility to interpret the undoubted unpredictability of so much of physical process as indicating that process to be ontologically open.....
d’Espagnat [who discussed the philosophical implications of quantum theory] does not go all the way with Kant. He insists that independent reality is veiled rather than inaccessible; it is elusive rather than absolutely unknowable.
I am driven to greater metaphysical boldness .... I believe that his cautious invocation of veiledness is, at the least, not inconsistent with the kind of openness about the nature of reality that I am trying to explore.
.... such a world of intertwined order and novelty is just that which might be expected as the creation of a God both faithful and loving, who will endow God’s world with the twin gifts of reliability and freedom....
The correct lower-level description can only provide an envelope of possibility within which top-down causation will find its scope for realization. 
..... God’s interaction with God’s own world can be expected to respect its freedom (including our own). God’s acts will be veiled within the unpredictability of complex process. They may be discernible by faith, but they will not be demonstrable by experiment.

1 comment:

  1. I love it. The downward input of information and the upward input of energy! And:

    The correct lower-level description can only provide an envelope of possibility within which top-down causation will find its scope for realization.

    Beautifully put.

    That being said it makes me really uncomfortable. On the one hand the ontology of God seems to follow this pattern. If God is pre-existent in any meaningful sense I think this pattern is correct. And it's then no great leap to think of something like the breath of life as incorporating this idea.

    But then I can't shake the (deterministic) microscopic from my thinking (literally).

    In terms of chaos, for example, the analogy seems, to me, to be that constituent parts have potential. They can form this or that. And it's a system that is sensitive to inital conditions. So you're on the very apex of this potential peak. The top-down information, then gives the consituent parts a nudge in the direction they should go, and so determine the outcome. I mean, this is how chaos works right? And in some sense then, the emergent 'thing' is determined by the energy of the constituents, and the direction of the information.

    Sure, DNA works like this, millions of things work like this. But as an epistemology for humanity, it's getting very bold... As the writer says I suppose.

    Also at the end of the day I'm fearful of someone pointing and accusing me of "fill in the gaps" theology.

    Anyway, just thinking out loud. Thanks for the quotes Ross. Ridiculously interesting.