Prophet of Science-Part Three: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality

Article excerpt

We could, in fact, see the whole great drama of evolution moving toward the making of persons with free intelligence capable of glimpsing God's purpose in nature and of sharing that purpose. In such a case we should not look upon consciousness as the mere servant of the biological organism, but as an end in itself. An intelligent mind would be its own reason for existence.

--A. H. Compton, 1935 (1)

Prophet of Science: Immortality and the "Supernatural"

Simultaneously with his new thoughts on freedom, Arthur Compton was also revisiting his belief in immortality, the subject of his second Terry Lecture at Yale and the final chapter in The Freedom of Man (1935). The two topics were very closely related in his mind. Indeed, the Terry Lectures themselves grew out of a chapel talk that he presented to students and faculty at the University of Chicago, as part of an Easter 1930 symposium on "Immortality."

Four faculty members spoke at this seminal event. Compton and theologian Shailer Mathews favored immortality, while the opposite side was advanced by ethicist Thomas Vernor Smith and the great physiologist Anton Julius Carlson. Smith, who later served in the Illinois Senate and the United States Congress as a New Deal Democrat, was a member of the University Church of Disciples despite his skepticism about eternal life. In constant demand as a lecturer all over the nation, he was also a regular on radio forums, including the University of Chicago Round Table, a half-hour Sunday afternoon program on the NBC-Red Network. Compton, Smith, and Carlson did a Round Table together at least once, in November 1936, although I do not know the topic they discussed. (2)

An immigrant from Sweden, Carlson had served as a Swedish Lutheran minister in Montana for just one year before religious skepticism and a growing interest in nature took him to Stanford University for his doctorate. He began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1904, two years after Jacques Loeb moved to California, but his intellectual outlook was nevertheless shaped substantially by Loeb's reductionist writings. A few years before the symposium, Carlson had been president of the American Physiological Society. In 1941 he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and three years later he was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The American Humanist Association made him the first recipient of their Humanist of the Year award in 1953. (3)

Compton talked about this 1930 symposium on immortality many years later, at a week-long Institute on Religion and Contemporary Civilization, held on the campus of UCLA in November 1944. It was arranged "at the request of a group of students," he recalled, and "the results of this symposium have continued far beyond events of the evening." Mathews "elaborated his thoughts in a little book," Immortality and the Cosmic Process (1933). Smith "became so convinced that the ultimate values are those that can be expressed only in working with people that he left the University halls for politics." And Carlson "was invited to elaborate his thoughts at a public lecture in the University auditorium," probably early in 1931; this longer address, which was printed twice, induced Compton to reply formally in The Scientific Monthly at the end of 1946 (see below). Rounding out the story, Compton said that his own lecture "became the starting point" of the Terry Lectures. (4)


If students had asked for the symposium, others in Chicago also wanted it--especially Shailer Mathews and his associates at the American Institute of Sacred Literature (AISL), a correspondence school for Protestant ministers based at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Founded in 1880 at the old Morgan Park Theological Seminary in Chicago to provide instruction in Hebrew, it had become, by the late 1920s, a very important part of the University of Chicago. …