virus: An Unbeautiful Mind [article]

From: Jonathan Davis (
Date: Thu Aug 22 2002 - 11:37:54 MDT

An Unbeautiful Mind by Simon Blackburn

Post date: 08.02.02
Issue date: 08.05.02

Faith, Science and Understanding
by John Polkinghorne
(Yale University Press, 208 pp., $19.95)
Click here to purchase the book.

The God of Hope and the End of the World
by John Polkinghorne
(Yale University Press, 192 pp., $19.95)
Click here to purchase the book.


According to Boswell, Hume once remarked that "when he heard a man was
religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances
of very good men being religious." The face on both of these books must
surely belong to someone in the small set of counterexamples that even Hume
admitted. Sir John Polkinghorne--fellow of the Royal Society, doctor of
divinity, sometime professor of particle physics at the University of
Cambridge, recipient of this year's $1 million Templeton Prize in
religion--beams out like an Anglican clergyman from central casting,
white-haired, wholesome, and radiant: a one-man Ode to Joy. And on reading
these volumes, one can see why. It is pretty uplifting to be a
scientist-theologian, happy with the universe, confident of the ways of the
Lord. It is especially fizzy to be such a figure in Cambridge, where Sir
Isaac Newton himself, as well as writing Observations Upon the Prophecies of
Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, left nearly a million and a half
words on theological subjects. Admittedly, another Cambridge professor, A.E.
Housman, wrote that "malt does more than Milton can/To justify God's ways to
Man"; but this is not Sir John's view at all. And Housman was not a

Polkinghorne's beam is the more surprising since he holds the belief that
unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire
of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For
science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the
world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some
fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural
laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although
long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by
the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small
fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred
thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of
cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five
million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites
and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True,
we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make
things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so
spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military,
environmental, or genetic disasters.

That, more or less, is the scientific picture of the world. It proves so
disturbing to some people, such as creationists, that they prefer not to
believe it. Yet the scientist-theologian cannot take the stupid option. So
Polkinghorne wishes to reconcile the scientific understanding of the world
with the idea of a guiding intelligence, a designer who put the whole show
together. Alongside science--or, in some passages in Polkinghorne, reigning
over science--goes the quest for theological understanding of the world's
maker and his (or her, or their) purposes. This is Polkinghorne's
unpromising agenda, and it has to be said that he pursues it with a fervid
diligence that few believers can match. His twists and turns have much to
teach those who protect their belief in the divinity mostly by not thinking
the thing through.

Science is firstly supposed to help the theist agenda by showing us how to
frame hypotheses about the nature of the divine. Polkinghorne is a "critical
realist" about science: he believes that the scientific method is adapted
for discovering the truth, although its results are often provisional and in
principle can be overturned by better theories to come. Yet he allows what
is called the "inference to the best explanation," whereby we are perfectly
entitled to hold our theories, albeit in a fallibilist or open- minded
spirit. The point, then, is to show that the hypothesis of divine providence
is really a simple extension of scientific thinking; that religion is really
an extension of science.

Thinking scientifically, what then might be the best explanation of the
cosmos in which we find ourselves? What is the best explanation of the Vale
of Tears in which human life plays itself out? The eighteenth century and
(despite the best efforts of Hume and Kant) the early nineteenth century
seized on the answer: there is a divine architect. It is often thought that
Darwin scotched this answer by providing an evolutionary explanation of the
existence of complex life. On this account, Hume and Kant failed to kill the
argument of the divine architect, the argument from design, and it was only
when Darwin came along that it withered in the popular imagination. Some
scientists, notably Richard Dawkins, have been a little triumphalist about
this. But their exhilaration was premature. For we have only to find some
other fact about the cosmos, one that resists Darwinian or biological
explanation, for the argument to get back into gear.

Polkinghorne's favorite fact is the minute adjustment of the various
cosmological constants and magnitudes without which large atoms and
molecules could not exist. Why do they have these fortunate properties? We
do not know; and in the absence of fairly wild cosmological speculation,
there is no evolutionary story to help us. Most scientists would surely
leave it there. Maybe one day there will be a physical theory explaining the
value of these constants, or maybe not. But Polkinghorne jumps in. The
problem signals the need for a "deeper form of intelligibility, going beyond
the scientific." In other words, it must be due to the divine architect, or
providence, lovingly going to all that trouble to make a universe especially
for us.

Hume and Kant told us that such thinking is natural, but not scientific. It
is extravagant, and it is not falsifiable, since it generates no new
predictions. It merely represents a primitive preference for explaining the
unknown in terms of agency rather than in terms of nature--a tendency that
science had to suppress and to overcome before it could develop. And it
requires truly spectacular leaps of understanding. The minds that we know
about are physically embodied and dependent upon physical brains. But the
mind of the architect is not. Our minds cannot make things without materials
and their abiding properties. But the architect can. Our minds require
physical birth and nurture, language and culture. But the architect requires
none of these things.

We also face a regress of second, third, and upward architects,
meta-designers, each responsible for the previous one. After all, if the
balance and the complexity of the world needs to be explained by a designer,
then the superior balance and the superior complexity of this designer is
also in need of explanation. But no, the divine mind is self-sufficient. The
elephant (the cosmos) has to stand on something, so we suppose it stands on
a tortoise (an architect). And what does the tortoise stand on? Nothing.
Tortoises just stand. So now we need to ask why, if tortoises can just
stand, elephants cannot.

But even waiving these familiar objections, where do the leaps of logic land
us? If all of an architect's buildings use lots of glass, we presume that
the architect is happy with glass. We proportion cause to effect. Similarly,
if all we know about a designer is that he designed a Vale of Tears, the
natural inference, the scientific inference, the economical inference, is to
a mind that gets off on Vales of Tears. Or more cautiously, one might
speculate about a designer, or a design team, that either does not know
about the tearful bits, or does not care about them, or cannot in any case
do anything about them. Hume put the point in his inimitable way. He says of
someone using the design argument:

This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect compared to a
superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity,
who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work
only of some dependent, inferior deity, and is the object of derision to his
superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated
deity; and ever since his death has run on at adventures, from the first
impulse and active force which it received from him....

If we are told, moreover, that after death we go to another world that the
same architect designed, our best bet--thinking scientifically, of
course--will be that this other creation of the same designer will be much
like this one. If the just suffer and the unjust flourish in this world,
that is probably how it will always be. Suffering worlds are what this
architect does, judging from the one sample of his work that lies in view.
Naturally enough, Hume concludes that so "wild and unsettled" a system of
theology is in no way preferable to none at all. Or as Wittgenstein was
later to say, nothing will do as well as something about which nothing can
be said.


The design argument is all you get, or in fact a bit beyond what you get,
when you think scientifically. So to bypass all the devastating Humean
objections, the scientist-theologian has to make a break. The answer,
unsurprisingly, does not lie in scientific thinking. It lies in revelation.
The mind of the architect, read off from the world as a whole, does not do
much for us. We have to cope with the world as it is, whatever we think
about whether it is the creation of someone who creates worlds like this.
But the architect's mind as revealed not by the world, but by what people
say about it: now that is a different story.

Revelation comes in two flavors: your own, or that of others, personal or
historical. Polkinghorne allows for the former. At least he thinks that the
experience of being bowled over by a piece of mathematics, or the awfulness
of moral duty, or the beauty of the morning primrose, gives us glimmerings
of the divine nature of providence. Or as he would put it, they afford
fructifying and salvific multi-leveled encounters with Reality. "Encounter"
is a favorite word in this kind of theology, because it neatly insinuates
success without actually stating it. In this way one can speak of Conan
Doyle's encounter with fairies, referring just to Conan Doyle's experience
when he was duped, but a page later presuppose that since Conan Doyle
encountered fairies, there were fairies there to be encountered.

Polkinghorne prudently concentrates upon history. Personal revelation is not
really for Anglicans, raising on the one hand the Anglican dread of
superstition and Rome, and on the other hand the Anglican loathing of
enthusiasm and low-church anarchy. I approve of this caution: one man's
revelation is indeed another man's lunacy. Better, then, to stick with
established history, and especially with Scripture, the "laboratory
notebooks of gifted observers of God's ways with men and women."

In a fairly typical passage, Polkinghorne writes: "I understand revelation
not as being propositional knowledge ineffably conveyed, but as the record
of the particularly transparent people and events through which God has
graciously shown forth the divine nature." I find the phrasing here
peculiar. You do not have to be an especially gifted observer of God's ways
with men and women to notice that he doles out disease, famine, accident,
parasites, pain, and death in spades. But the gifted see something
different. In particular they see, or saw, events apparently occurring in
first-century Palestine (rather than, say, seventh-century Arabia or
nineteenth-century Salt Lake City). Who were these "particularly transparent
people"? "Transparent" presumably means not so much guileless or gullible,
but somehow receptive or tuned in, so as to be the chosen audience for the
arrival of divinity on Earth.

But that cannot be right either, since the Jews of first-century Palestine
were not particularly receptive to the idea of an incarnation. They may have
been waiting for a messiah, but their theological traditions found the idea
of an incarnate God blasphemous. That is why, twenty years after the event,
Paul had to start proselytizing in Asia Minor and Greece, and even then it
was only gradually that he worked up to the idea of Jesus being divine. All
went well after that, since pagans were much more receptive to his idea.
Indeed, Paul tells us that they were perfectly cheerful about regarding Paul
himself and his companion Barnabas as yet more gods. It was much easier to
make gods in Thessalonia and Corinth than in Jerusalem.

Historically, this makes things all very messy. It is as if a very gifted
orator and politician set about proclaiming the resurrection of Elvis as far
as possible from Memphis, in a place prone to accept this sort of thing, and
at least twenty years after the historical Elvis, pills and hamburgers and
all, left us. A wise strategy, but scarcely a reason for supposing that the
people of Memphis are particularly transparent and open to encounters with
the divine. Of course, given the background theory--a divine creator who for
some reason tends to conceal himself, but then mysteriously decides upon one
revelation to one people in one place at one time--he has to choose some
people, some place, some time. But that is only given the background theory.
If you know in advance that there are to be true reports of flying saucers,
you can deduce that the people of New Mexico who make these reports are the
favored recipients of alien manifestations; but you cannot argue from the
favored transparency of the good folk of New Mexico to the existence of
flying saucers. Nor can you argue from the same premise to the wisdom of
extraterrestrials in exhibiting themselves in New Mexico rather than, say,
in Times Square, where they might have more impact.

In other words, although Polkinghorne is officially using history as
evidence for theology, he is actually using theology to determine how to
read the history. This is always so. Presumably Polkinghorne does not
believe in the Prophet's night flight to Jerusalem, and presumably Osama bin
Laden does not believe in Christ's resurrection, but in neither case are
their minds made up by historical evidence or scientific thinking.

But Polkinghorne seems to lack perfect pitch when it comes to historical
confirmation. He supposes that the literal truth of the Resurrection is well
confirmed by the halting and confused character of the biblical accounts of
how and where the dead Jesus appeared, and how difficult it was to be sure
it was Him:

Such a non-triumphalist indication of the problematic character of
recognizing the risen Christ, so variously expressed, seems to me much more
likely to be the kernel of an historical reminiscence than a feature
curiously common to a bunch of made-up tales.

Would that these were the options! Surely any historian, and for that matter
any scientist who has made a study of our cognitive functions, and certainly
any philosopher, would be a little more sensitive to many other
possibilities of explanation. The Gospel writers were neither independent of
one another nor witnesses to what they wrote about. Delusions are contagious
and emotions are malleable, and they are powerful determinants of belief.
Reminiscences themselves are known to be subjects of invention, since memory
makes up stories and is itself easily assaulted and manipulated.

Self-deception, in short, is the human lot. And one wonders if Polkinghorne
the scientist would take the hesitation and the uncertainty and the lack of
agreement that attended certain laboratory observations to be confirmations
of their accuracy. It is true that there are occasions when agreement is
suspiciously perfect, and many frauds have been detected because of it; but
this does not turn a confusion of witnesses into a reliable indicator of

There is also the innocent tactic of taking the very improbability of a
historical narrative as a reason for placing confidence in it. What could
possibly explain the peoples' acceptance of such wild stories as those of
the biblical miracles except that they are true? Polkinghorne refers
patronizingly to Hume, but he never refers to Hume's quotation from the
Cardinal de Retz that there are many things in which the world wishes to be
deceived. Nor does he reflect upon another of Hume's maxims: that the wise
lend a very academic faith to any report that flatters the passions of the


Polkinghorne believes that the arrival of persons on Earth is "an event of
prime significance for the understanding of what is going on.

Are we to believe that some animals are self-conscious and some are not, and
that's that? To take so dismissive and epiphenomenal a view of personhood
seems to be tantamount to denying that there are any meaningful events in
cosmic history at all. I cannot conceive of an occurrence in the universe's
evolutionary development that is more astonishing and fraught with signs of
fruitful significance than that it should have become aware of itself
through the coming to be of humanity.

This illustrates a pervasive rhetorical device, a tendency to do what
Polkinghorne passes for philosophy by posing false contrasts. (The dilemma
of immortality or futility was another.) On the one hand, our nature as
persons is "fraught with signs of fruitful significance," or some kind of
portent for an infinite life to come; or on the other hand we dismiss it, or
treat it as "epiphenomenal." Treating something as epiphenomenal means
treating it as irrelevant to the way events occur: the whistle on the engine
rather than the steam that moves it, in William James's famous example. But
nobody in their right mind treats the fact that there are persons around as
irrelevant to the way events happen. Our sayings and doings and plans and
intentions make things happen, just as our buses and airplanes and bombs
make things happen. This does not freight us with fruitful significance. It
freights us only with buses, airplanes, and bombs.

Nor would anyone say that some animals are self-conscious and some are not,
and that's that. Self- consciousness is connected with a great number of
capacities: capacities for planning and forming intentions, for the use of
language, for awareness of the gaze of others. We can discern the difference
between self and world even in our knowledge of ourselves as animals with a
point of view, moving around an independent space. But human
self-consciousness is also shown in complex emotions, such as shame or
embarrassment. We would certainly like a better understanding of the
difference between ourselves as clearly self-conscious and other higher
primates as less clearly so, down through the animal world to creatures that
exhibit none of the complex signs of it. Many disciplines and many books are
devoted to elucidating such an understanding. One of the few things that
they agree upon is that it is a dead end to think that mind and body are two
different substances, mysteriously connected. It is Cartesian dualism that
makes the influence of the mind on the world mysterious, and threatens to
treat the mind as epiphenomenal. As Darwin noticed, such a view is refuted
every time we blush.

Polkinghorne is not officially a Cartesian dualist. He says he is a monist,
or a believer in a single substance, and he refers approvingly to
Aristotle's idea that the soul is the form of the body. But he also believes
that agency, our ability to make things happen, requires some kind of
interruption from outside the physical order into what would otherwise be
the causal ordering of events in the universe. Referring to chaos theory,
Polkinghorne suggests that it ushers in the right new kind of causal
process. Only "an extension of causal principles beyond the energetic
exchanges described by a reductionist physics" allows "a genuinely
instrumental role for mind, active in the execution of human intentions."
Mind can get in and push things about only because things are not really set
by physical facts. We can roll up our sleeves and make things happen only
because nature is chaotic, "subtle," and "supple." Similarly, God's agency
within the world occurs when he gets in among the "cloudy unpredictabilities
of created processes." Chaos thus offers a habitat for God's interferences
in the physical processes of nature, his loving little buffets nudging it
toward fulfillment of the divine plan.

Perhaps it was this idea that earned Polkinghorne his $1 million. But there
are scientific problems with it, as he himself admits briefly. The usual
interpretations of dynamical systems offered by chaos theory have them
perfectly deterministic, but indefinitely sensitive to initial conditions.
Chaos introduced no new kinds of causality. And even if some extension of
the science were defensible, it leaves the philosophy of mind completely at
sea. The whole point of the Aristotelian view is that it is absolutely
incompatible with a model in which the mind leaps into what would otherwise
be the unfolding of physical systems, pulling levers in just the gaps where
physics fails to make things happen. For the Aristotelian, the agent is the
animal; and animals do not act in spite of physics, but because of physics.
There is no more of a problem about my agency in the world than there is
about the fact that my computer's capacities make it show letters as I type
them. (Aristotle said that if an eye were an animal, its soul would be
sight.) In fact, it is only a Cartesian dualism of mind and body that
suggests that there is any problem about reconciling agency and physics.

When someone uses the argument from design, they are involved with the idea
of a self-sufficient "mind," requiring no birth, no sustaining brain, no
surroundings, no law-governed physical environment in which to continue to
exist. One hypothesis about why people allow themselves such a bizarre idea
is the evolutionary one: that we are adapted to look for intentions and
purposes whenever we find things around us that we do not understand. But
this is surely only a part of the picture. A much more important source is a
first-person illusion, and the same one that sustains Polkinghorne's
problems with mind and body. When we act and think, we are not conscious of
the multitude of causes in the brain or outside it that make our acting and
thinking possible. The illusion is to project that lack of awareness onto
the universe: to think that instead of being unaware of causes, we are aware
that there are no causes. Our own actions and thoughts then become little
exemplars of divine self-sufficiency. If we can have minds and make
thoughts, just like that, why can't God have a mind and make worlds, just
like that?

It is a melancholy thought that so much of mankind's long affair with
religion springs from an illusion infecting our conception of mind: the
illusion that when we do not know what causes us to act and think, we know
that nothing causes us to act and think. But it is only this illusion that
sustains the argument from design, and it is only the argument from design
that sustains belief in a self-sufficient divine agent. A cloud of religion
can be condensed into a drop of philosophy, and we have another exception
that Hume needed to admit when he said that, generally speaking, errors in
religion are dangerous, but errors in philosophy are merely laughable.

For gods are dangerous things. When the divine architect condescends to
reveal himself to an especially transparent people, you would think that He
or She or They would take a lot of care over the messages the receivers get
from Him or Her or Them. Polkinghorne notices that the biblical record does
not come out too well on this score: "Inevitably it expresses attitudes (to
women, genocide and slavery, for instance) which we cannot endorse today."
Inevitably? Could not omnipotence have gotten in among those cloudy chaotic
processes with a bit more fine-tuning, and gotten some words down that were
a bit clearer and more supportable about women, genocide, and slavery, and
all the other things for which people have been beaten and burned and
drowned and stoned on biblical authority? But Polkinghorne is calm and
unperturbed, because when doing ethics from the Bible "I feel that I can
discern a cousinly relationship between myself and many other Christians as
we seek to bring modern knowledge and ancient experience together in a
consonant combination."

In other words, and thank heavens, we can mix 'n' match. If we do not like
bits of Deuteronomy or Leviticus, we may thankfully junk them. If Jesus's
view of fig trees and pigs and witchcraft and possession by devils, or his
view of Canaanites (or perhaps it was just Canaanite women) as "dogs," no
longer appeals to us, then we may tiptoe past. And if Paul's evident belief
that the world was about to come to an end impugns his status as recipient
of the divine word, we may airbrush it out. In this way we may arrive at "a
consonant combination" and a good night's sleep. Meanwhile our cousinly
fellow-readers in Rome or Riyadh can enthusiastically help the God of love
to persecute those who use contraceptives or like their sex upside down or
back to front, before marriage or in a mirror. According to Polkinghorne,
this is just the price of complexity and plurality. Whereas the truth is
that when you mix 'n' match you only bring back what you already wanted to
bring back. Appeals to biblical authority are pure reader responses,
hermeneutics run riot, postmodernism in action.

 At Princeton, Polkinghorne earnestly assures us, he and an
"interdisciplinary group of scholars" recently spent three fruitful years
making scientific estimates of God's plans for the destiny of the world.
According to Polkinghorne and the Princetonians, the last things, when the
Day of Judgment comes and the tombs are opened, are a bit like what we have
now, but also a bit different: they are an "interplay between continuity and
discontinuity." They do not include real Hell. They include only people who
have not asked for admission to heaven, and these get some kind of
after-life Bible classes. Beyond that, Heaven itself is a bit vague, but it
includes pilgrimage and progress and increasing fullness. Heaven does not
provide endless harps and psalms; nor, I think, does it afford Aquinas's
favored pleasure of watching the tortures of the damned, nor Islam's
seventy-two virgins per male martyr. In fact, I could not discover whether
it included sex at all, but in their three years of deliberations
Polkinghorne's group determined--scientifically, remember--that it may
include some animals, especially domestic pets, although perhaps not too
many of them, since it is permissible for God to "cull individuals in order
to preserve the herd."

In any case, we need not inquire too closely into these details of
Polkinghorne and the Princetonians' eschatological calculations, since we
are assured in advance that all manner of things shall be well. But why,
then, did God not skip the first course, the current Vale of Tears, and go
straight to the Fields of Elysium? We are confidently assured that the
team's work "clearly establishes the value of the old creation, since it
affords the raw material for eschatological transformation into the new
creation." Even God, it seems, cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.

I do not know whether Polkinghorne's position is orthodox; from the outside
it strikes me as somewhat blasphemous. I certainly do approve of a
comfortable, domestic, friendly afterlife, with not too much wailing and
gnashing of teeth, rather like a Cambridge college but even more harmonious.
It confirms one's sense that the Church of England is a docile old Labrador,
toothless and friendly, and nobody need take much notice of it. When schism
erupts and heretics get things wrong, or when agnostics and atheists (such
as myself) lock God out, chaps such as Sir John give us a sherry and a
biscuit on the lawn, rather than burning, stoning, and crucifying, as their
ill-bred cousins love to do.

And yet I did end Polkinghorne's books, with their supreme contempt for
philosophical reasoning and historical thinking, in despair about humanity's
desperate self-deceptions and vanities and illusions. Everything will be all
right in the end, we are washed in the blood of the lamb, we are blessed,
and above all God is on our side. Who could dissent? Fantasy beats reason
every time. People believe what they want to believe. I do not know how it
is at Princeton, but at Cambridge there are eight established chairs in the
Faculty of Divinity, but only two in the Faculty of Philosophy. Hallelujah!

 Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
His recent books include Think (Oxford University Press) and Being Good
(Oxford University Press).



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