April 3, 2009

Why is the Water Boiling? (A Parable)

Science and faith each claim to be pathways to discovery of ultimate truths. Yet the answers they come up with often seem so different, that one wonders how they can both be observing the same reality. How is it even remotely possible that science and faith could have equal validity as I seem to be claiming?

To address this paradox, Cambridge mathematical physicist and Anglican priest (how’s that for a set of credentials?) Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne often cites the different types of answers that could be given to the question: “Why is the water boiling?” To further illustrate the point, I have embellished the illustration into the form of the following parable:

In the beginning, there was a pot of water. And the water was boiling. And people everywhere had a longing to know why the water was boiling.

The first clue was the discovery of a note. The note simply read:

“I am making preparations to serve tea, and would like to invite everyone to join me at the place I have set for them at my table. With warmest regards, Mr. Withers.”
For many people, this was the answer they were looking for. The water was boiling because Mr. Withers was boiling it. For the people, who began to call themselves “Witherites”, exactly how Mr. Withers boiled the water wasn’t very important. But anyone capable of preparing tea for so many people must have amazing powers, and it was assumed that he simply had to speak to the pot of water, and it would boil.

Some of the Witherites, however, became more curious. They wanted to get to know Mr. Withers better, and decided that the more they learned about the boiling water, the better they would understand Mr. Withers. These people, who began to call themselves “scientists”, studied the water, and learned that at a certain temperature, it makes a transition from a liquid to a gaseous state. Using principles of fluid dynamics, they explained the formation of bubbles and the resulting water currents. Ultimately, they concluded that the observed “boiling” phenomenon is exactly what would be expected, as long as sufficient heat was provided.

The rest of the Witherites didn’t have a problem with this. In fact, it seemed to agree with the note. The “warmest regards” closing obviously identified Mr. Withers himself as a source of heat, which explained how he could make water boil.

But this didn’t satisfy the insatiable curiosity of the scientists (who, by the way, still considered themselves ardent Witherites). Perhaps tracing the source of heat would draw them even closer to the mysterious and wonderful Mr. Withers. So they made more observations, and discovered the existence of a flame underneath the pot of boiling water.

The non-scientific Witherites were upset at this claim. After all, the note said nothing about a flame being used. If there really were a flame, surely the note would have mentioned it. Besides, they had been teaching everyone that Mr. Withers himself was the source of the heat. So they issued a decree that anyone who subscribed to this “flame theory” (for it was, after all, just a “theory”) could no longer call themselves a Witherite. Some scientists continued to consider themselves Witherites in secret. But most of them, being faced with an “either/or” choice, and having seen the flame with their own eyes, reluctantly relinquished the title of “Witherite”.

Eventually, however, the actual existence of a flame became so obvious, that the Witherites relented, and looked for a way to invite the scientists back into their fellowship. So they announced that believing in a flame was now allowed – as long as one believed that the flame proceeded directly from the mouth of Mr. Withers.

By this time, however, the scientists had discovered the existence of a stove, and that it was connected to a source of pressurized natural gas, which they found to have certain combustive properties. At this, the Witherites became convinced that not only were the scientists mistaken, but that in theorizing the existence of a stove, they were desperately trying to find any way they could to prove that Mr. Withers never existed.

By the time the scientists discovered that the flame was ignited by an electrical spark generator, connected by wires to a remote source of electrical current, the Witherites had given up any hope that the scientists could be rehabilitated.

The scientists, meanwhile, found great delight in mocking the Witherites, and their fairy-tale ideas about a fire-breathing Mr. Withers, and this nonexistent tea party. They became concerned, however, that the complexity of the stove would cause some to think that it was designed and that it was purposefully turned on, so they start looking for an intellectually satisfying response to this dilemma.

Eventually, tea time arrives. The Witherites are ushered into the presence of Mr. Withers, and are seated at his table. On the way into his dining room, they pass through the kitchen, where they are surprised to see the pot of boiling water, sitting on a stove, and heated by a flame which has been ignited by electrical spark generators connected to a remote power source.

The scientists, meanwhile, were last seen on their way to a conference, muttering something about "an infinite number of stoves", and completely miss out on the opportunity to have tea with Mr. Withers.


  1. I love the parable!! I also find Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne fascinating. I heard him once on "Speaking of Faith."

  2. I've listened to that particular "Speaking of Faith" episode (Quarks and Creation) several times! I also have a number of Polkinghorne's books — but they are NOT easy reading!

  3. Hi Phil,
    Very nice parable! I agree that polkinghorne is not easy reading, but then again, most of the really rewarding stuff isn't.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Steve, and thanks for finding my new blog. I have read enough of your Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution blog to put a link to it on my own site.

    Most evangelicals seem afraid of such dialogue -- just as church leaders were once afraid to look through Galileo's telescope. But unless the evangelical church really wants to permanently close its doors to all but the uneducated, such dialogue is urgently needed.

    I invite you to continue following my postings, and welcome your further comments.

  5. Hi,

    I like the parable. Not sure if that's just a tongue in cheek ending or an inflammatory one, but I chuckled all the same.

    Keep up the good work!