A few days ago I returned from England, where I attended the “God and Physics” conference at Oxford. The conference was a worthwhile experience. There were about 100 people in attendance, including John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, Keith ward, John Brooke, Robert Russell and many other well-known names in the science/religion field. I had many interesting conversations.
My paper on “God, Chance and Evil” went well and generated a fair bit of discussion. As I noted in my previous post, I argued that in a Christian worldview there can be no such thing as genuine chance (or “ontological chance”) where even God cannot predict the outcome of an event. Rather, there can be only “epistemic chance”, which is just a limit on human predictions. I contended that most arguments for ontological chance were actually only arguments for epistemic chance.
Among other works, I critiqued a paper by Paul Ewart, an Oxford physicist. Ewart argued for the necessity of ontological chance and, hence, for a limitation on God’s knowledge of future events. I contended that his arguments showed the necessity only of epistemic chance, rather than ontological chance. Hence they proved only the limited nature of human predictability. As it happened, Paul Ewart was in the audience. He did, however, concede that he had proven the necessity only of epistemic chance.
Most of the papers dealt with various aspects of Polkinghorne’s works. Almost all seem to believe that God does not know the future. It is contended that God knows all that can be known, but the future does not yet exist, so it cannot yet be known. The main argument is that human freewill requires an autonomy that makes it impossible for God to know the future.
Kenotic theology played a huge role. This is derived from Phil.2:5-8 (“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”). It is claimed that God, too, voluntarily limited his powers in order to make room for human autonomy. They cite other passages, where God is said to repent or change his mind, to support God’s allegedly limited knowledge of the future.
One of the most useful presentations was that of Ian Barbour, who is 87 years old and a pioneer in science/religion issues. Barbour compared the writings of Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke. All three were scientists who later became theologians (Polkinghorne and Peacocke both became Anglican priests). All three accepted a fully evolutionary view of origins: non believed in an historical paradise from which Adam fell. Death is not a punishment of sin but a necessity for evolution. They all re-interpreted "original sin" as the inheritance of unjust social structures into which we are born. Polkinghorne and Peacocke believed in kenotic theology, where God voluntarily limits himself, whereas Barbour adhered to process theology, where God necessarily limits himself. As to Christ, Polkinghorne believed Christ to be the Incarnate Son, the second person of the trinity, born to the virgin Mary without a human father, and bodily resurrected after his death; Peacocke and Barbour both believed Christ to be only a man--albeit a new stage in evolution--who was not born to a virgin nor bodily resurrected.
On the last day, at lunch, I was one of the first to enter the dining hall. I sat at an empty table and was soon joined by John Brooke, and then by John Polkinghorne and Ian Barbour. I asked them whether they believed in an afterlife. Polkinghorne most definitely did but Barbour was less certain—he thought it might be a possibility. I asked what Arthur Peacocke (who died in 2006) believed. Peacocke, whom I met at my last Oxford conference, in 2000, had then seemed doubtful. However, John Brooke related that just before Peacocke died he had sent a letter to his closest friends expressing his hope to meet them in the hereafter.
Regarding eschatology, it is interesting that Polkinghorne notes that here there is a definite contradiction between secular science, which predicts that all life in the universe will eventually die, and Christianity, which predicts the second coming of Christ. Polkinghorne postulates that God will then miraculously change the laws of nature to usher in the new heaven and earth. This, of course, raises the question: if secular science is not be believed regarding its eschatology, why should we believe it regarding origins?