Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

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

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

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

Article excerpt

The second part of this article discusses Arthur Holly Compton's religious activities and beliefs, especially his concept of God. Compton gave a prominent role to natural theology, stressing the need to postulate "an intelligence working through nature" and using this to ground religious faith. At the same time, this founder of quantum mechanics used Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle against the widespread view that humans are trapped in a mechanistic universe that permits no freedom of action.

Whence then comes our world? Though science does not offer a positive answer to this question, it can point out that an intelligible world in which intelligent creatures appear seems reasonably to imply an intelligence working in the world, a basis on which most scientific men build their approach to religion. This implies that if our God is the God of Nature, we must recognize the laws of nature as describing the way in which God works, and a basis for a theology is found. We find that through the long, hard struggle of evolution men have come to the stage where they are partly responsible for the development of life, even their own life, on the earth. Thus science can lead to the conception of man as a co-worker with God toward making this world what he wants it to be.

--A. H. Compton, 1938 (1)

Arthur Compton's emergence as a public intellectual after winning the Nobel Prize followed directly from a visit to India he had made the previous year. His sister Mary and her husband, C. Herbert Rice, had been educational missionaries together in India since their October 1913 wedding. Rice was heavily involved with Forman Christian College in Lahore (now part of Pakistan), teaching psychology and serving as principal for several years. Supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, Arthur spent the academic year of 1926-1927 in Lahore, at the University of the Punjab, where Rice would later become president after the partitioning of India and Pakistan.

Upon his arrival in Calcutta, Arthur learned that he was expected immediately to lead a cosmic ray expedition to Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas--and that he was supposed to supply the experimental apparatus. Seeking out physicist C. V. Raman, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1930, he got the help he needed to rig an electroscope out of the bowl of a hookah--and it worked. Conversations with the scientists who accompanied him into the mountains, some of whom later held positions of responsibility in India and Pakistan, was something of an epiphany for Compton. "Years later," he recalled in his brief autobiography, "I told my friends that it was the beginning of my education." Seeing a foreign culture close up forced him to examine his own, and "the new values that I found unsuspectedly hidden in Oriental culture were balanced by a new depth of insight into the values of life in my own country." The "active interest in philosophy, especially ontology, as taught by my father," which "had lain dormant" since his student days, was awakening, spurred on by his "broadening culture interests" and by recent "developments of quantum theory that seemed to have interesting philosophical implications." He became particularly interested in determining "whether physical laws are sufficient to account for the actions of living organisms," and he began to consider "the relation of science to religion, a problem with which my father had wrestled, and which we had frequently discussed in my college days." (2)

Compton's View of God, Nature, and Humanity

Arthur Compton had always been a religious man, and some of his personal habits connected him with many conservative Protestants even if his increasingly liberal theological beliefs did not. He abstained from hard liquor and rarely smoked. Author Sherwood Eddy quoted an unnamed friend saying that "his home is a praying home. Above all his life is joyously, radiantly religious, minute by minute. …

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