Contrasting the View of the Ultimate Reality in Relation to Science

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 1 December 2016

Contrasting the View of the Ultimate Reality in Relation to Science

What compels mankind to seek unity between, science and religion, two compartmentalized and distinct aspects of our world? John Polkinghorne states, in “Does God Act in the Physical World”, “The demand for an integrated account of both theological and scientific insight impels us to the task” (Polkinghorne 59). Yet Polkinghorne is not alone is his quest; in “Emptiness and Form” Fritjof Capra connects the ultimate reality with the physical world.

While Polkinghorne and Capra agree on certain ideals, such as the man’s inability to fully grasp the ultimate and the incorporation of quantum mechanics in each one’s respective argument, they also contrast in terms of the religions they use to defend their argument. This leads to differences in their views on the ultimate and His interaction with the physical world. While this leads to two distinct and diverse arguments, I believe that both arguments are equally presented in a reputable and successful manner.

At one point in each of their respective arguments, Polkinghorne and Capra clearly state that the understanding of the ultimate reality cannot be fully understood by humankind. Polkinghorne writes, “We are a long way from a full understanding of our own powers of agency, let alone how it is that God works in the world” (Polkinghorne 74). Due to our limited minds and capabilities, mankind will never be able to fully grasp the ultimate reality in its full essence.

It is quite mindboggling, if not impossible, to fully understand the ultimate reality, when it is as an infinite and omnipresent being. “The reality underlying all phenomena is beyond all forms and defies all description and specification” (Capra 211). The professor who taught my freshman Colloquium on Science and Religion once stated that God cannot be put in a test tube. While he did say this statement as a means to refute the existence of an ultimate reality, his assertion is valid; there is only so much we can know about the divine.

It is crucial that both Polkinghorne and Capra affirm this position in order to clarify that while it is possible to unify the ultimate reality with the physical world, we will never fully understand the relationship. In evolution terms, there seems to be a “missing link” that allows us to connect both aspects. Also, both Polkinghorne and Capra use the ideas and concepts of quantum mechanics as premises when connecting the ultimate reality with the physical world. Capra’s discussion of electrons and photons becomes the premise for one of his deductions.

Capra writes, “The full interaction between the electrons will involve a series of photon exchanges…” (216). This leads to the assertion that there are no true forces in the subatomic world but that these interactions are due to the exchange of particles, that according to the quantum field theory are created and destroyed (Capra 217). These two premises lead Capra to state, “The electromagnetic forces are due to the presence of virtual photons ‘within’ charged particles…[and]…the forces between particles appear as intrinsic properties of the particles.

” After deducing this premise Capra goes on to say, “Such a view of forces is also characteristic of Eastern mysticism which regards motion and change as essential and intrinsic properties of all things” (221). In order to clarify this statement he utilizes aspects of Chinese religion and explains how this assumption of quantum mechanics is connected to the ultimate reality. Like Capra, Polkinghorne makes use of the theories and ideas of quantum mechanics as premise to relate the ultimate with the physical. One of the ideas he uses is the chaos theory.

The theory says that events in a chaotic system are random but Polkinghorne employs this theory in his argument in order to show how deterministic chaos is not a valid argument, which will eventually lead to his idea of an open system. He says, “A chaotic system is not totally ‘chaotic’ in the popular sense, corresponding to absolutely random behavior. ” There are certain possibilities known as a “strange attractor” and its limited to a certain extent, but this “detailed future behaviour of a chaotic system is unknowable” (Polkinhorne 52).

Later on in his argument, Polkinghorne discusses the idea of deterministic chaos and consider it from a different viewpoint. He writes: Instead of adopting the conventional strategy of saying this shows that simple determinism underlies even apparently complex random behavior, I prefer the realist strategy of seeking the closest alignment of ontology and epistemology…[which] has the additional advantage of accommodating the notion of top-down causality in a natural way (Polkinghorne 64).

The premise of top-down causality leads to his connection of the ultimate reality with the physical world and that God interacts with the world in a top-down fashion. If the ultimate reality does truly interact with the world, then this will lead to the discussion of an open system in which Polkinghorne also uses the basis of quantum mechanics in order to make a postulation. Another major theories Polkinghorne frequently refers to in his argument is the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that we cannot simultaneously know the position and momentum of any particle (53).

This idea of uncertainty in the physical world is the premise that leads to Polkinghorne’s assumption of the universe as an open system. He writes, “The ‘gaps’ of quantum uncertainty operate only in particular circumstances…to produce an openness at the lever of classical physics” (Polkinghorne 60). While Polkinghorne advocates the idea of an open system, it is evident that his counter partner, Capra, sees the universe as a closed system. One of the major differences between Capra and Polkinghorne is the concept of a closed system versus an open system.

Capra respectively agrees and accepts with the view of the universe as a closed system. Capra explains this concept by first explaining the idea of matter and empty space or the full and the void. He discusses how these are interconnected. “The two cannot be distinguished” (Capra 208). In Eastern religions, this Void “has an infinite creative potential…[which]…like the quantum field, it gives birth to an infinite variety of forms which it sustains and eventually reabsorbs” (Capra 212).

The notion of it sustaining itself and reabsorbing leads to the idea of a system that is set up and is able to maintain itself without the help of an ultimate being. Buddhism expressed this idea of form and emptiness in a single whole entity. Capra quotes, “‘Form is emptiness, and emptiness is indeed form. Emptiness is not different from form, form is not different from emptiness. What is form that is emptiness, what is emptiness that is form’” (215). Also, Capra states that this form and emptiness is elevated into a vacuum diagram that “contains an unlimited number of particles which come into being and vanish without end. ”

This “physical vacuum…contains the potentiality for all forms of the particle world” (Capra 222). This system implies that the relationship between the ultimate reality and the physical world is one where the divine has set up system and does not intervene in our world. This premise eventually leads to the idea that there is no free will and that the universe is determined. This view of the universe completely changes the way we perceive the world. Without free will morals and ethics lose validity and are worthless to society.

It is quite evident that Polkinghorne disagrees with this concept and presents his views of an open system. Polkinghorne would classify the idea of a universe as an closed system under “a minimalist response [which] is to decline to speak of particular divine actions and to confine theological talk to the single great act of holding the universe in being. ” Polkinghorne believes that most scientists do not even consider this notion of a minimalist to be valid. He states that while God did establish the laws and set up the universe, this does not impede his interaction in the universe (Polkinghorne 54).

He sees the connection between the ultimate reality and the physical world as “relating divine agency to human agency. ” Polkinghorne explains, “When we act, we seem to do so as total beings” (57). Therefore God acts in the same as humans do, but it is seen as a God in relation to his creation. This premise leads to the top-down notion of the parts depending on the whole. With this top-down premise, Polkinghorne strengthens his argument of an open system by exhibiting that we are dependent on God, whether through the establishment of the laws or divine intervention in the universe.

Polkinghorne also classifies the closed system as a “block universe”. He writes, “It is sometimes claimed that science endorses the alternative view that the universe ‘is’ rather than ‘becomes’” (Polkinghorne 68). This implies that the universe has a certain determinacy and that God does not act in the universe. Since the universe “is”, then it is conclusive that God must know the future because it is already determined. The view of the open system appears to be more logical and realistic, but at the expense of God’s infinite and omnipresent capabilities.

He says, “…it is the universe of becoming that is the correct picture, then surely God must know it in its temporality, as it actually is. God must not just know that events are successive; they must be known in their succession” (Polkinghorne 69). While I agree that the universe is an open system, it cannot be at the expenditure of God. Say a person is on a roof looking down at an intersection; he can see all and everything laid out before him. He observes two cars coming at the intersection at the same time and foresees an accident. This is analogous to God and the universe, where God is in a position to see all and foretell all.

Obviously, this is not a perfect analogy since the person is constricted by time and therefore could be incorrect in his assumptions. Therefore, if we accept the premise that God is infinite and outside the constricts of time, then we can conclude that God or the ultimate reality knows the future in an open system. The most crucial difference between the arguments of Polkinghorne and Capra is their definition of the ultimate reality. In each of their respective claims, the view of the ultimate reality has a drastic effect on the outcome of each argument.

The belief in certain characteristics of an ultimate reality is important when there is an attempt to connect it to the physical world. Through further analysis of both arguments, it is evident that the difference between Polkinghorne and Capra is basically a Western Religion versus Eastern Religion discussion. It is evident that Capra takes the side of Eastern Religion; his book is titled The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. Throughout his argument he constantly refers to the ideas and beliefs of religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese religion.

He quotes from their texts in an attempt to connect their ultimate reality with the physical world. On the other hand, Polkinghorne utilizes Western religion as a means of connecting the ultimate reality with the physical world. Specifically he uses the values and teachings of Christian traditions. He says that the discussion of the unity of the ultimate reality and the physical world is “a perennial issue on the Christian agenda” (Polkinghorne 48). One aspect of the arguments that I found to be perplexing was the use of the same laws of the physical world as at he basis of each author’s respective argument.

Obviously, Polkinghorne and Capra have their own agenda and argument. Therefore, what does this say about the laws of the physical world; can they simply manipulate to agree with any form of the ultimate? This cannot be valid or then the laws of the physical world can be disfigured in order to fit any belief system or value; either Polkinghorne must be right and Capra wrong, or vice versa. We cannot accept this dualistic view of the world that the universe can be open in some instances and closed in others.

Yet, this view arises when we fail to realize that there is one ultimate reality or truth. If there was one truth, then there would only be one way to connect this ultimate to the physical world. At the same time, we cannot say that Polkinghorne is correct and Capra is wrong, or vice versa. If the premises that they base their arguments off are valid then we cannot deduce which argument is better, but only say that it is a conflict of realities. The success of the arguments lies in the belief of the premises of the religious and physical world.

Faith is the true deciding factor that will allow us to declare a winner in this pursuit of the unity of the ultimate reality and the physical world. If we assume that the premises of the physical world and quantum mechanics in each argument to be the same, then the only significant difference between each argument is the view of the ultimate reality. Since I have Christian traditions and beliefs I would strongly side with Polkinghorne’s argument. Yet, if there is a person who has no solid beliefs, then these two arguments would seem valid and justifiable in their eyes, due to their lack of knowledge of the ultimate reality.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 1 December 2016

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