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Polkinghorne, John. “The Laws of Nature and the Laws of Physics."

In his paper, John Polkinghorne defends a version of critical realism in which the process of discovering the laws of nature is interpreted “verisimilitudinously as the tightening grasp” on reality. Yet these laws ought not be reduced to those of fundamental physics; instead our experiences of macroscopic nature are to be taken equally seriously. Polkinghorne accepts a “constitutive reductionism” (in that we are composed merely of fundamental particles) but he opposes “conceptual reductionism” (since the laws of biology cannot be reduced to those of physics). Thus constitutive and holistic laws must be combined in some way.

Polkinghorne’s proposal is that, to our usual notions of upward emergence (which address the qualitative novelty of mind and life), we must add “downward emergence, in which the laws of physics are but an asymptotic approximation to a more subtle (and more supple) whole.” Polkinghorne sees his approach as contextualist: the whole and the environment influence the behavior of the parts. It is guided by the principles of coherence (the need to explain the known laws of physics, given this wider view), historic continuity (the world must permit our experience of free agency), and realism (not only the general claim that the world can be known through science but the explicit claim that “epistemology models ontology”).

The reality thus known must include the phenomena of mind-brain. Polkinghorne admits that no solution to the mind-brain problem is forthcoming, but hopes that his is a “suggestive way of beginning.” Here the dynamic theory of chaos provides a vital clue. Chaotic systems, though governed by deterministic equations, are highly sensitive to environmental circumstances and initial conditions. They represent a form of “structured randomness” whose intrinsic unpredictability, according to Polkinghorne’s form of critical realism, means they are in fact ontologically indeterminate. Thus he concludes that the future is open, involving “genuine novelty, genuine becoming.” This in turn allows for human intentionality and divine action.

Polkinghorne then conceives of the operation of agency as the exchange of “‘active information’, the creation of novel forms carried by a flexible material substrate.” Here Polkinghorne is contrasting agency as the transmission of information with agency as causal influence, which would include the “transaction of energy.” Information transmission thus becomes a very general characteristic of living processes. Quantum physics provides similar insights to chaos theory, but Polkinghorne is cautious about relying on it. We ought not confuse randomness with freedom, and we need to remember both that the interpretation of quantum theory is still in dispute and that quantum equations may not exhibit chaotic solutions.

With chaos theory as a basis, Polkinghorne returns to a suggestion he has previously considered, that the mind/brain problem leads to a “complementary metaphysics of mind/matter.” Here, however, he relates this suggestion to the problem of divine agency. A conception of nature as open allows us to understand God’s continuing interaction with nature as “information input into the flexibility of cosmic history.” This entails a “free-process” defense in relation to physical evil, a hiddeness to God’s action in the world and a limitation on that for which we can pray. Polkinghorne rejects the criticism that his is a “God of the gaps” strategy, since the open character of chaotic processes are intrinsic gaps in nature revealed by science, not flaws in our knowledge of nature. Likewise, he does not see himself making God into a finite causal agent, since God’s interaction with nature is through information, not energy. Finally, in his proposal, God is highly temporal since the world is one of “true becoming.” In this “dipolar (time/eternity) theism,” eternity and time are bound together in the divine nature. God cannot know the future, since the future is not there to be known. The divine kenosis thus includes an emptying of God’s omniscience. But God is “ready for the future,” being able to bring about the eschatological fulfillment even if by way of contingent processes.

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