Sunday, January 16, 2011

Polkinghorne Interview

… a dark
Illimitable ocean without bound,
Without dimension; where length, breadth, and highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.

Those intrigued by Milton's effort to grapple with the question of scientific authority within a theological frame that posits free will might be interested in this interview with John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist and Anglican theologian.

If working in science teaches you anything, it is that the physical world is surprising. And I was a quantum physicist, and the quantum world is totally different from the world of every day. It's cloudy, it's fitful, you don't know where things are, if you know what they're doing. If you know what they're doing, you don't know where they are.
20th-century science has seen the death of a merely mechanical and merely clockwork view of the world. It came first of all through quantum theory. At the subatomic level, quantum events are not precise and determinate. They have a certain randomness to them. They have a certain cloudiness to them, so that that process isn't clockwork.

. . . So the world is certainly not merely mechanical. And I think, actually, we always knew that because we have always known that we are not mechanisms. We are not automata. We have the power to choose, to act in the world.

. . . 20th-century science has loosened up our view of the physical world. It's no longer a piece of gigantic cosmic clockwork. It's a world in which we can conceive ourselves as the inhabitants and acting in it and helping to bring about the future.

There's a very interesting scientific insight which says that regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven't seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos. They are regions where cloudiness and clearness, order and disorder, interlace each other. If you're too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really new happens. You just get rearrangements. If you're too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It's these ambiguous areas, where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is, if you like. And I think that reflects itself both in the development of life and in many, many human decisions.

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