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

By Davis, Edward B. | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, June 2009 | Go to article overview

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


Davis, Edward B., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


Such a solution of the old dilemma of freedom in a world of law means that when the law of causality is replaced by the principle of uncertainty, Socrates' indictment of science as the underminer of morality no longer applies. Man is left by science in control of his own actions within the bounds set by natural law. Moreover, the powerful argument for morality which Pythagoras saw in a world governed by law is emphasized by every advance of science. Instead of removing the foundation of morality, science now presents new reasons why men should discipline their lives, and supplies new means whereby they can make their world more perfect.

-A. H. Compton, 1935 (1)

Arthur Holly Compton, the third American to receive the Nobel Prize for physics, was among the most visible public intellectuals of his generation. Author of nearly two hundred scientific papers and review articles and an authoritative textbook on x-rays, he also wrote dozens of essays for the best journals of secular and religious opinion, reviewed important books, and spoke often on the radio. (2) Esteemed by reporters "for his ability to get things said without benefit of polysyllables," he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in January 1936, was featured in other major magazines and newspapers, and gave numerous addresses to academics, business organizations, and religious groups-not to mention three books he wrote for the general reader about science, society, and religion. (3)

At the height of his scientific career in the early 1930s, Compton used Werner Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty to defend human freedom and responsibility, paralleling the views of Arthur Eddington and Robert Millikan. During World War II, his central role in the Manhattan Project brought him into constant contact with the highest government officials and powerful industrialists, and his postwar position as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis only enhanced his prestige and widened the audience for his heartfelt pronouncements about morality, education, human dignity, and progress in the atomic age. In all of these activities, Compton sought to bring his religious values to bear on the most pressing problems of the time, while proclaiming his liberal Protestant understanding of God, nature, and humanity to millions of ordinary Americans.

Family Background and Education

Compton belonged to one of the most remarkable families in American history. (4) All three Compton boys-Arthur and his older brothers Karl and Wilson-earned doctorates at Princeton; and all three, together with their sister's husband C. Herbert Rice, served as university presidents at the same time, in the exciting but challenging period following World War II. Education was uppermost in the Compton family, second only to God. It began with Elias Compton, a devout Presbyterian who had graduated first in his class at Wooster University (now the College of Wooster) in 1881, and his Mennonite wife, Otelia Augspurger, who earned the top score on her senior examination on Butler's Analogy at the Western Female Seminary (now part of Miami University) at Oxford, Ohio. They were both planning to be missionaries, and Elias was still enrolled at Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) when he was unexpectedly asked to return to Wooster in 1883--a sudden illness had left the college in need of someone to teach Latin and English. Having been "providentially brought to Wooster," as he saw it at the time, he stayed for forty-two years, teaching mostly philosophy and psychology and eventually serving as the first academic dean. (5)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Wooster had been founded in 1866 by Ohio Presbyterians as their own coeducational university, and from the start it combined a strong evangelical orientation with an open-minded attitude toward science and modern scholarship. This was reflected in its motto, Scientia et religio ex uno fonte, science and religion come from a single source--a motto that Arthur Compton liked and attributed to Thomas Aquinas. …

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