I have long suspected that John Polkinghorne is a bit of a windbag. He was the subject of a truly elegant demolition by Freeman Dyson in the NYRB a couple of months ago. But listening to him trying to explain a scientific concept of the soul on the Sunday Programme yesterday I became certain of it.
I can’t resist quoting the central passage of Freeman Dyson’s essay because it is so funny and so true: “[Polkinghorne’s] arguments make sense if you accept the rules of theological argument, rules which are different from the rules of scientific argument. The way a scientific argument goes is typically as follows: We have a number of theories to explain what we have observed. Most of the theories are probably wrong or irrelevant. Then somebody does a new experiment or a new calculation that proves that Theory A is wrong. As a result, Theory B now has a better chance of being right.
“The way a theological argument goes is the other way round. We have a number of theories to explain what we believe. Different theologians have different theories. Then somebody, in this case Polkinghorne, declares that Theory A is right. As a result, Theory B now has a better chance of being wrong.”
Essentially, Polkinghorne is a theistic aristotelian. His argument (real audio here) is that the soul is a pattern rather than a substance; that it is gone when we die, but that God will remember and reconstruct it some time in the infinite future. But because it is a pattern, it will have to be reconstructed in something, which explains the idea of bodily resurrection. On the other hand, if these bodies were made of the same stuff as our present ones, then they too would decay, which is why God will have to make all things new. Thus he reconciles the Bible with physics and chemistry.
This is pretty standard Templeton orthodoxy at the moment. I have heard it from Polkinghorne in private seminars, and from Arthur Peacocke. It rescues the idea of a soul at the expense of disconnecting it from what almost everyone in the world means, or has meant, by the word in the past.
Where I started sputtering was when he said that this sort of immortality could not be compared to the immortality offered by DNA, because DNA is an unchanging molecule, whereas our souls develop and change state as we move through life. But if the soul is an information pattern, then it can’t be compared to the DNA itself, but only to the expression patterns of the DNA in the genome, which are constantly changing. At this very moment I have genes expressing antibodies to a nasty little cold which were certainly inactive a week ago, and which I hope will shut up again tomorrow.
So, if we take Polkinghorne’s soul seriously, we can only conclude that DNA is God, since it functions, exactly as his God does, as the unchanging and eternal ground of all transient mortal being. This seems to me an insult to God, DNA, and probably applehood and mother pie as well.