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


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The second part of this essay 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.
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Prophet of Science—Part Two:
Arthur Holly Compton on
Science, Freedom, Religion,
and Morality
Edward B. Davis
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, 19381
Arthur Compton’s emergence as
a public intellectual after win-
ning 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 wed-
ding. 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 Fellow-
ship, Arthur spent the academic year of
1926–1927 in Lahore, at the University of
the Punjab, where Rice would later be-
come president after the partitioning of
India and Pakistan.
Upon his arrival in Calcutta, Arthur
learned that he was expected immedi-
ately 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 elec-
troscope out of the bowl of a hookah—
and it worked. Conversations with the
Volume 61, Number 3, September 2009 175
Edward B. Davis
Ted Davis is professor of the history of science at Messiah College. After
completing a PhD (history and philosophy of science) at Indiana University
in August 1984, he spent the following academic year as visiting assistant
professor at Vanderbilt University, where he was supervised by philosopher
John J. Compton, the younger son of Arthur Compton. Ted’s interests include
baseball, cycling, and watching the Messiah Falcons defend their national
titles in soccer.
scientists who accompanied him into the mountains,
some of whom later held positions of responsibility
in India and Pakistan, was something of an epiph-
any 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, espe-
cially 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 philosophi-
cal implications.” He became particularly interested
in determining “whether physical laws are suffi-
cient 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 increas-
ingly liberal theological beliefs did not. He abstained
from hard liquor and rarely smoked. Author Sher-
wood Eddy quoted an unnamed friend saying that
“his home is a praying home. Above all his life is
joyously, radiantly religious, minute by minute.”3
As a boy and during his undergraduate days at
Wooster, he and his family attended Westminster
Presbyterian Church, which was founded as the
university church in 1874. While a graduate student,
he taught Sunday School at the First Presbyterian
Church (now Nassau Presbyterian Church) in Prince-
ton, where his students included the two sons of the
distinguished physicist Augustus Trowbridge, both
of whom became Episcopalian priests.4
For the next four years, when he lived briefly in
Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and England, his church
activities are not known, but while at Washington
University from 1920 to 1923, the Comptons joined
Grace Methodist Episcopal Church (now Grace
United Methodist Church), located not far from the
university on the west side of St. Louis, where they
sang in the choir. In December 1925, after Compton
succeeded Robert Millikan in Chicago, they joined the
Hyde Park Baptist Church (now Hyde Park Union
Church), just down the block from their ample brick
home at 5637 South Woodlawn Avenue in the leafy
neighborhood bordering the university. He taught
Sunday school for four years and served as deacon
for three years. When the Comptons returned to
St. Louis after the War, they joined the Second
Presbyterian Church in March 1947. Arthur was an
elder there from 1948 until his death in 1962; Betty
became an elder at some point after the denomina-
tion in 1964 permitted women to hold that office.
And each summer starting in 1935, the Comptons
attended the First Congregational Church (now
First Congregational United Church of Christ) of
Gaylord, Michigan, close to the family cottage on
Otsego Lake. They were drawn there, according to
their son John J. Compton, by “a remarkable, Ober-
lin-educated pastor, Rev. [L. Mervin] Isaacs,” who
“inspired my grandparents and parents with his
thinking and prophetic social gospel messages …”5
For understanding Compton’s adult religious
views, the Chicago congregation is by far the most
important of these associations. It was a church of
almost singular significance for its geographical and
theological location at the center of the self-styled
“modernist” movement in American Protestantism,
some of whose leading representatives were con-
nected with the University of Chicago and its
widely influential Divinity School. The university’s
first president, Hebrew scholar William Rainey
Harper, had been a member of Hyde Park Baptist
for many years until his death in 1906, and his schol-
arly example helped to shape the church’s identity.
Harper’s close friend Shailer Mathews, dean of the
Divinity School for a quarter century, was probably
the most prominent member when the Comptons
arrived in Chicago; their colleague, the radical mod-
ernist theologian Gerald Birney Smith, was also an
active member.6So was philosopher and intellectual
historian Edwin Arthur Burtt, a secular humanist
(he signed the “Humanist Manifesto” of 1933)
whose book, Religion in an Age of Science (1930), con-
tains a sharp critique of liberal Protestant efforts to
accommodate modern scientific attitudes and con-
clusions that must be read partly as a highly unsym-
pathetic commentary on his fellow members’ ideas.
Considering the historical “conflict” of religion and
science, he wrote,
176 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Prophet of Science—Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality
“How much can I still believe?” is the question
pathetically asked … Beginning with two score
or more doctrinal articles there ensues a pro-
cess of elimination and attenuation till today,
in liberal circles, the minimum creed seems to
have been reduced to three tenets: belief in God,
confidence in immortality, and conviction of
spiritual uniqueness in Jesus of Nazareth …
Thus the pathetic game of give what must,
hold what can, continues.7
At least a few members of Hyde Park Baptist Church
probably doubted even these three tenets, but
Compton did not. In short, the church was not only
a hotbed of religious liberalism, but also a gathering
place for leading intellectuals who did not necessar-
ily share even a basic commitment to theism. Thus,
Compton’s views were developed and expressed
within a friendly but theologically contentious envi-
ronment that reflected the vigorous intellectual
climate of a major university, with which probably
a large majority of the membership were closely
When the Comptons joined Hyde Park Baptist
in 1925, the pastor was Charles Whitney Gilkey
(whose son, the late Langdon Gilkey, would become
a leading theologian), an inclusive religious thinker
who was already, at forty-three years of age, re-
influential Protestant ministers in the nation.9The
following year he was named professor of preach-
ing at the Divinity School, and his diverse congrega-
tion decided “to receive all serious Christians into
membership without regard for mode of baptism
or other tests of belief.”10 The Comptons and the
Gilkeys soon became good friends, and when Gil-
key stepped down from his pulpit three years later
to assume similar duties as dean of the magnificent
new chapel on campus (later named in memory of
the donor, John David Rockefeller), Compton pro-
vided highly visible, ongoing support. As chair of
a student-faculty committee that gave oversight to
the chapel, he read the dedicatory service in October
1928; short addresses were given by John D. Rocke-
feller, Jr. and Haverford College historian Rufus
Matthew Jones, an influential Quaker mystic who
served as visiting university preacher at the time.11
In 1930, responding to student requests, Compton
organized an Easter symposium on “Immortality,”
at which he and Mathews both spoke—a crucial
event in his intellectual life that will be discussed in
not overlook the importance of this type of public
witness in his own eyes. According to his son,
“my father strongly felt the need to show students
and his often suspicious colleagues that a man of
science could also be a man of religious faith.
So he arranged programs on the campus, wrote
and lectured widely on science and religion,” and
helped plan the chapel programs.12
The decidedly ecumenical stance of Hyde Park
Baptist epitomized the modernist religious attitude:
what mattered most was Christian social action and
moral conduct, not adherence to any specific set
of doctrinal beliefs or even conversion experiences.
The modernists also stressed divine immanence—
the idea of God as dwelling and working “within”
nature and the human heart, not “outside” of nature
as the transcendent God of Christian tradition was
believed to do. In their view, Jesus was not literally
the second person of God become incarnate; rather,
he was the supreme moral example who had trusted
Edward B. Davis
Volume 61, Number 3, September 2009 177
Arthur on an expedition to study cosmic rays, ca. 1932–33,
possibly on Mt. Evans in Colorado. The counting appara-
tus was designed to be carried on the back of a mule.
Courtesy of John J. Compton.
and obeyed his heavenly Father and loved his fel-
low human beings self-sacrificially. The immanent
God was thus immanent in Jesus, and by following
his example, God could also be immanent in us.
Where classical Christian theology understood God
in terms of both immanence and transcendence, the
modernists of the 1920s typically stressed divine
immanence much more than divine transcendence,
often ignoring the question of transcendence and,
in a few cases, perhaps even doing away with it
entirely as an objective category.13
A number of leading American scientists of that
decade were committed modernists, such as Caltech
physicist Robert Millikan (whose Neighborhood
Church in Pasadena was a near duplicate of Hyde
Park Baptist), Harvard geologist Kirtley Mather,
Chicago botanist John Merle Coulter, and Carnegie
Institution eugenicist Charles Davenport. Compton
fits into this group fairly well, although he had a
more robust understanding of divine transcendence
than Millikan or Shailer Mathews; certainly he was
no longer an orthodox Christian.14 According to his
son, Arthur Compton’s religious beliefs
quite naturally evolved away from Elias’ Chris-
tian orthodoxy and philosophical idealism, but
kept their moral and ethical core. He knew the
Bible thoroughly and quoted it often, but there
was little of his parents’ piety and I never heard
any testimony of special religious experiences.
There was nothing about sin and salvation or
about having Jesus in your heart! He had little
sympathy with theological doctrines, sacra-
ments, or creeds. I was sitting next to him in
the Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis
one Sunday morning when I noticed that he
had fallen silent while everyone around us was
reciting the Apostle’s creed. So I asked him
why. His answer was simply that “It’s because
I don’t believe everything in it and I don’t want
people to think I do.”15
With characteristic candor, Arthur Compton had
answered his son’s question directly. What then did
he believe, if not this classic confession of Christian
The main elements of Compton’s religious beliefs
are set down in his book, Atomic Quest (1956),
which, though written near the end of his life, sum-
marizes what he had probably believed for at least
thirty years and perhaps longer. I begin with his
understanding of God. “To me God appears in
three aspects,” he wrote, yet he did not mean
the traditional doctrine of the Trinity even though
his thoughts included the Father, Son, and Spirit.
First, and “universally recognized,” God “is simply
the best one knows, to which he devotes his life,”
including love for others, truth for living, and
“harmony of adjustment that brings beauty and
graciousness and smooth cooperation in every
aspect of human affairs.” The Christian “finds his
is “greater than himself.” The “pre-eminent impor-
tance of what happens to persons,” Compton ob-
served, is the “central point” of agreement among
world religions. With “its insistence on the inherent
value of individual men and women,” he empha-
sized, “Christianity has the key to survival and the
good life in the modern world.” Overall, he con-
fessed that “making it possible for men and women
to grow to their fullest worth as persons can be my
highest form of worship.”16
A second aspect was God’s “conscious Power,”
possessing “a special concern for its conscious crea-
tures who share the responsibility for shaping their
part of the world.” This goes beyond just “the forces
of nature that science recognizes,” to an awareness
of other persons as being like ourselves. “More par-
ticularly,” Compton said, “I follow Jesus’ teaching
that this Power that is the basis of existence holds
toward me and all other persons the attitude of a
wise and loving father.” Thus, for Compton, we
humans are co-creators with God, and “the oppor-
tunity to share with God the shaping of the condi-
tions of life is a tremendous challenge and the great
responsibility that comes with freedom.” Our great-
est task, therefore, “is to make it possible for others
who are equally God’s children to do their responsi-
ble share,” and, in this way, we become “more wor-
thy of God’s companionship.”17
“The third aspect of God that I recognize,”
Compton continued, “is that which shows itself in
fellows, whose unselfish devotion, and whose integ-
rity of spirit have meant much to their community
and have enriched their own lives.” Such persons
were for him “the embodiment of God” and were
Jesus. His life and teaching “form the most reliable
guide that I have found for shaping my own
actions.” It is in following him “that I call myself
178 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Prophet of Science—Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality
a Christian.” Jesus exemplified for Compton, in his
own version of 1 Cor. 13:13, “love of neighbor as
expressed in helpful service, hope for the future that
inspires his followers, faith in God and fellowmen.”
“Based upon the records,” Compton concluded,
“I have so idealized Jesus that he has become for
me the Son of God to a unique degree.” Further-
more, Jesus’ spirit “is an aspect of God, now alive in
men and women,” and it shapes the world through
us. “This is what I mean when I say that Jesus is
God,” and, therefore, also “an aspect of the God
Former Harvard President James Bryant Conant,
a chemist who had worked closely with Compton
on the Manhattan Project and knew him very well,
understood this chapter as “a clear statement of the
doctrine of Unitarianism (though you may not ad-
mit it).”19 Conant had hit the mark. Though happily
a lifelong Presbyterian, Compton understood Jesus
as a unique human being, but not divine, essentially
the Unitarian view. It is not insignificant that his
pastor at Gaylord, Michigan, a very liberal Congre-
gationalist trained at Oberlin, once closed a sermon
by quoting this very part of Compton’s book.20
Science fit into this picture in at least two ways.
First, Compton quite literally saw divine provi-
dence at work in atomic energy. Given that sup-
plies of fossil fuels are dwindling, “atomic energy is
coming just in time to meet a fundamental human
need.” “Is it surprising,” he asked more than rhetor-
ically, “if we should see here working the hand of
Providence?” We needed fossil fuels to reach our
Edward B. Davis
Volume 61, Number 3, September 2009 179
The Compton family—all four siblings, their spouses, and their parents—
at their summer home on Otsego Lake, near Gaylord, Michigan, ca. 1937.
Courtesy of Special Collections, The College of Wooster Libraries.
present level of scientific and technical accomplish-
ment, and if they had been much less abundant,
to use uranium. Likewise, “the fortunate fact” of
half a century’s experience with radium and x-rays
bilities of atomic radiation,” without which we
might face a “human tragedy” with nuclear energy.
There was also a moral benefit, since “this gift of
new power is forcing man toward a higher level of
human development.” We must “learn humanity”
as “the condition for survival in the atomic age.”21
Specialists must cooperate more fully, educational
opportunities must be enhanced, and “we must
find objectives on which we agree.” Compton’s own
objectives were unapologetically democratic—and
for the most part, they probably fell on sympathetic
ears during the Cold War. “In the development of
the inherent value of every person,” he concluded,
“we thus find the fundamental and inspiring goal
upon which we may hope that free men will agree.”
Love for others was the key to reaching this goal,
bridging science and religion: “Life takes on mean-
ing in a technological society if our hearts are in
the human growth of those for whom we work.”
In other words, quoting his father, “Providence
works through people, and we must do what we
can to give Providence a chance.”22
Compton also believed that science strongly
supported the existence of an intelligence behind
nature, a theme he was discussing in public talks by
the late 1920s, including an address to the General
Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1929.23 At
times, he made arguments that might fairly be seen
to involve an early form of the anthropic principle,
arguments that resemble some of those associated
with the modern “intelligent design” movement—
although he saw design as a philosophical and theo-
logical inference from science, not as an explanation
within sciencetobeemployedwhenotherexplana
tions failed. He used the very term “intelligent
design” in a lecture he gave in 1940 at the Church of
our Father, Unitarian (now Unitarian Universalist
Church) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “The chance of
a world such as ours occurring without intelligent
design,” he said, “becomes more and more remote
as we learn of its wonders.” In one of the strongest
endorsements of natural theology that any modern
scientist has ever uttered, he added that “the study
of natural science is the primary source of the raw
material for building our idea of God.” His talk
inaugurated an annual series about immortality and
modern concepts of God, established by the will of
the retail merchant Milton T. Garvin, a founder of
the Lancaster church.24
The two printed editions of Compton’s lecture
have some nicely worded passages—he was an
articulate speaker. However, I will summarize in-
stead the longer, more scholarly version of the same
material, in chapters three and four of a book he
dedicated to his father, The Freedom of Man (1935),
an expanded version of the three Terry Lectures
he delivered at Yale University in November 1931.25
The ideas about God, nature, and humanity ex-
pressed there were crucially important to Compton.
He repeated them (often verbatim) in several other
lectures and publications over the next fifteen years,
including (among others) his Garvin Lecture and
an address he gave to the Jewish Theological Semi-
nary of America in New York in November 1938—
not to mention the prestigious John Calvin McNair
Lectures at the University of North Carolina in
November 1939, which were published the follow-
ing year as The Human Meaning of Science.26
Preparing for the Terry Lectures only reinforced
Compton’s youthful confidence in a divine intelli-
gence. As he told an interviewer four months later,
“The study of physics has changed my conception
of the kind of god, but has strengthened my confi-
dence in the reality of God. I feel surer of a directive
intelligence than I did at 20.” Hydrogen atoms, car-
bon molecules, and living cells were “all built up
out of simple units: electrons and protons. It seems
to the nth degree improbable that such an intricate
and interesting world could have ordered itself
out of particles with random character.” The world
revealed by modern physics “can only be the re-
sult of an intelligence working through nature.”27
Elaborating on this in The Freedom of Man, Compton
began by observing that, while some scientists still
felt “the need for a Creator to start the universe,”
the design argument “has never been adequately
refuted,” and “few indeed are the scientific men of
today who will defend an atheistic attitude.” Faith
in God could even be “a thoroughly scientific atti-
tude,” if “based on the experience that the hypothe-
sis of God gives a more reasonable interpretation of
the world than any other,” and if it enhances the life
of the religious believer. Openness to new evidence
180 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Prophet of Science—Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality
would probably lead to some changes in one’s con-
ception of God, Compton commented, “but a man is
a scientific or religious coward if he is unwilling to
brave the storm in the hope of reaching the firmer
ground on the other side.”28
He went on to show how specific problems in
physics, astronomy, and biology all illustrated the
presence of intelligence in the universe. First, he
considered the characteristics that protons, neutrons,
and electrons needed to have “in order that they
may be capable of massing themselves together to
form a complex and interesting world such as ours.”
Employing various models in which the properties
of these fundamental particles were allowed to
vary, physicists had tried unsuccessfully to produce
a hypothetical world capable of developing into one
of comparable complexity. Compton wondered,
could the formation of our world be just an acci-
dent? “If so,” he suggested a bit sarcastically, then
“chance can choose much more wisely than the best
scientific minds of today.”29
Turning to astronomy, Compton pointed out that
scientific opinion on the age of the universe was
“sharply divided,” but that “the prevailing view at
the moment seems to be that the universe as we
know it had a beginning at a more or less definite
time,” anywhere from a few billion to a few quadril-
lion years ago.30 This reflects early versions of what
would later become known as the big bang theory.
As for the ultimate fate of the universe, some astron-
omers agreed with the great Cambridge astrophysi-
cist Arthur Eddington that the second law of ther-
modynamics ruled out a cyclical universe; others,
such as Chicago astronomer William MacMillan,
Caltech physicist Richard C. Tolman, and Yale phi-
losopher F. S. C. Northrop, defended an eternally
cyclical cosmos.31 But “many of the defenders of
both views,” Compton noted, especially Eddington
and Northrop, “have found it difficult to under-
stand the world as other than the expression of the
activity of a high Intelligence.”32
Finally, echoing views he had held since college,
Compton claimed that many biologists and paleon-
tologists saw evolution not as a purely random
Darwinian process, but rather as a directional pro-
cess taking a direct course. On this particular point,
his views were rapidly becoming passé—it was
during the 1930s that the neo-Darwinian synthesis
came together—but as he saw it, all three sciences
supported the inference that there is an underlying
intelligent power.
What sort of power could this be—friendly, or
indifferent, to humanity? Where Einstein and others
spoke of an impersonal creator, equivalent to
rational order in the universe, Compton wanted
his God to take special interest in human beings.
We are quite special, he believed, and inhabited
planets, like the earth, are of great rarity, even in an
enormous and enormously old universe. Compton
had recently taken such a position in the pages of
Science, only to be challenged by Cincinnati astrono-
mer Jermain G. Porter. Compton had replied by
citing Eddington and James Jeans for support.33
He repeated this claim in the Terry Lectures:
There is reason to believe that we may occupy
at present the highest position in the universe
with respect to intelligent life. Does it seem
then too bold to assume that the intelligent
Creator, whose existence as we have seen is by
far the most reasonable basis for accounting for
our world, should take an active interest in the
welfare of the uniquely intelligent beings he has
created on our earth?34
Granted, the world “is a vast machine,” characterized
by “immutable” natural laws, and “the world plays
[no] favorites by showing partiality toward man.”
Through evolution, however, we have acquired the
ability to learn those laws and live accordingly—
indeed, this is “the great contribution of science
to humanity.” Admittedly there has been “tragic,
apparently ruthless, suffering” at each point in our
evolutionary history, but Compton could not imag-
ine a more effective way of “achieving adaptation to
environment … than the one we see now working
in nature.” What is more, he saw this as a process
of almost unlimited potential, in terms of human
mental development. We are “clearly in the early
stages of evolution. It would be a gross understate-
ment,” he added without blinking an eye, “to claim
that with regard to such attributes as clarity of rea-
son, appreciation of beauty, or consideration of our
fellows, our remote descendants may be expected
to excel us as greatly as we are in advance of the
Java ape-man.”35
There was nothing particularly unusual about
Compton’s evolutionary optimism. Scores of liberal
Protestant scientists and clergy from that period
believed that evolution would, with our active
Edward B. Davis
Volume 61, Number 3, September 2009 181
involvement, bring about moral improvement in
one way or another. For more than a few, eugenics
dence that Compton supported eugenics.36 He did
not hesitate, however, to find biblical support for his
confidence in evolutionary progress, quoting what
he erroneously referred to as “two Old Testament
statements,” when, in fact, both come from Paul’s
letter to the Romans. In his opinion, the friendliness
of natural laws “to the well-adapted organism”
finds an “exact parallel” in Romans 8:28 (“All things
work together for good for him who serves the
Lord”), while the opposite principle is well cap-
tured by Romans 6:23 (“The wages of sin is death”).
With exegesis such as this, it is not hard to under-
stand why Protestant fundamentalists found their
liberal co-religionists so hard to tolerate.37
Compton’s picture of our moral history and
prospect was directly influenced by his colleague
at Chicago, the famous Egyptologist James Henry
Breasted, author of The Dawn of Conscience (1933),
a work that also influenced Millikan. Breasted dated
what he called the “Age of Character” to between
four and five thousand years ago, and he believed
that we still find ourselves only at the dawn of that
era, with a bright noon yet to come in the distant
future.38 Up to that point, Compton asserted, “God
held in his own hands the whole responsibility for
evolution of life upon this planet. Gradually this
responsibility is being shifted to our shoulders,”
leaving us with the challenge “of working with the
God of the Universe in carrying through the final
stages of making this a suitable world and ourselves
a suitable race for what is perhaps the supreme
position of intelligent life in His world!” This led
Compton to conclude as follows:
Science can thus have no quarrel with a religion
which postulates a God to whom men are as
His children. It is possible to see the whole
great drama of evolution as moving toward
the goal of the making of persons, with free,
intelligent wills, capable of learning nature’s
laws, of seeing dimly God’s purpose in nature,
and of working with him to make that purpose
Such a broad vision is not without its difficulties,
as Compton realized. Most of all, he was worried
about theodicy, “God’s undoubted responsibility for
permitting evil to be present in the world, if our view
is correct that the laws of nature represent His mode
of action.”40 Here he was particularly impressed
by the ideas of the English mathematical physicist
Ernest William Barnes, author of Scientific Theory and
Religion (1933). During his tenure as a Cambridge
don, Barnes had been ordained an Anglican minister,
and six years after being elected to the Royal Society,
he left Cambridge for an equally distinguished career
in the church, culminating in his appointment as
Bishop of Birmingham in 1924.41 Compton probably
encountered Barnes’ ideas during the academic year
1934–35, when he was George Eastman Visiting
Professor at Oxford—he cited the 1934 edition of
Barnes’ book, he completed The Freedom of Man in
May 1935, and he added passages borrowed from
Barnes to the typescript on separate handwritten
pages, after the text was all but finished.42
Barnes argued that we could not discern the
reason why God used the struggle of evolution to
produce our higher moral and intellectual faculties,
unexpected result. As Compton put it, “such evils
must be present in order that man’s moral character
shall develop.” At this point, he simply waved his
hands, gesturing at his final chapter (which will be
discussed in part three in the next issue of this jour-
nal), in which he endorsed Barnes’ conclusion that
immortality would ultimately justify the goodness
of God. What about God’s mercy, given the suffer-
ing of all creatures inherent in evolution? Compton
offered only a “very real” mercy that was limited to
“the psychological rather than the physical realm.”
We know that we have done our best; God and our
fellow humans also know this. This suffices to “pro-
tect us from the too keen cutting edge of conscience.
Here it is that a sane well-balanced religion offers
Prophet of Science:
Human Freedom and
Scientific Indeterminism
The Freedom of Man is manifestly about freedom,
and, at that time, freedom was widely perceived
to be under attack from science, especially from
psychology and experimental biology. Jacques Loeb,
a leading physiologist, epitomized this threat in
The Mechanistic Conception of Life (1912). In his view,
the ultimate goal of biology was to explain all
aspects of life in terms of physics and chemistry.
182 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Prophet of Science—Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality
We may wish to believe that we can act freely,
Loeb argued, but in reality, even our higher feelings
and ideals are nothing more than tropisms, involun-
tary responses to external stimuli. “Not only is
the mechanistic conception of life compatible with
ethics,” he wrote, “it seems the only conception of
life which can lead to an understanding of the source
of ethics.”44 Loeb died in 1924, the same year in
which attorney Clarence Darrow invoked psycho-
logical determinism to defend another Loeb, not re-
lated to the first. Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold
were gifted and privileged young college graduates
who had kidnapped and viciously murdered a four-
teen-year-old boy, simply for the thrill of trying to
commit the perfect crime. The Leopold-Loeb trial
was sensational, and the strategy Darrow employed
was not only successful—he persuaded the judge
not to impose death sentences—but it was also
consistent with his personal beliefs.45
The following year, shortly before Darrow went
famous trial, paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn
blamed psychology for the irreligious image of sci-
ence. Writing in The Forum, a prominent national
magazine, he claimed that “psychologists have lost
touch with the soul,” an impression he confirmed
through his friend James McKeen Cattell, the former
Columbia psychologist who edited the journal Sci-
ence. Osborn quoted Cattell as saying,
I can talk more intelligently about any other
subject than the soul. It is well known that
psychology lost its soul long ago and is said
now to be losing its mind. You should inquire of
Descartes and the Catholic Church; it is a good
subject for a paleontologist like yourself!”46
Compton had long rejected reductionist
approaches to psychology. As a deeply religious man
with a moral vision for science, the very possibility of
religion and morality as he understood it depended
crucially on the reality of human freedom: without
freedom, we cannot choose to do what Jesus did.
Even apart from religious considerations, he believed
that freedom was the root of our meaning and worth
as human beings.47 But how could we be free, if scien-
tific study since the time of Galileo and Newton has
so completely established that nature is determinis-
tic? This is how he saw the conundrum of religion
in a scientific age, and he solved it to his satisfaction
by challenging determinism itself. Compton knew
quantum physics as well as anyone in the world—
his own work on the particulate aspect of x-rays
had been a key component of wave-particle duality,
which in turn was central to the new physics—and
he saw in the work of Werner Heisenberg a fissure
in the deterministic wall of classical physics.
I do not know when Compton first met
Heisenberg; it might have been at the International
Conference on Physics at Lake Como in September
1927, which both men attended; they also attended
the Fifth Solvay International Conference on Elec-
trons and Photons in Brussels the following month.
In any case, Compton invited him to give a series of
lectures on quantum mechanics (in German) at the
University of Chicago, and he came for several
months in the spring and summer of 1929. At the
same time, Paul Dirac was visiting the University of
Wisconsin; the previous year, he had turned down
Compton’s offer to appoint him to a new chair at
Chicago and also an invitation to visit Chicago.
Dirac and Heisenberg probably met several times
during this period, including at least once in
Chicago, and they decided to sail together from
San Francisco to Japan, where they had both been
invited to speak.48 (Heisenberg came back to Chi-
cago in 1939 for a conference on cosmic rays. On that
occasion he stayed with the Comptons and played
classical music on the piano in their living room.
Arthur urged Heisenberg to remain in America, but
the German sensed war coming and felt that his
nation would need him.49)
Heisenberg’s lectures were a model of clarity,
notwithstanding the liberal use of advanced mathe-
matics for which he was well known. What stuck
out in Compton’s mind, however, was not the ele-
gant mathematics but a short prose section on Niels
Bohr’s concept of complementarity. As Heisenberg
the resolution of the paradoxes of atomic
physics can be accomplished only by further
renunciation of old and cherished ideas. Most
important of these is the idea that natural
phenomena obey exact laws—the principle of
Having shown the door to classical physics,
Heisenberg advised those physicists still in the room
“to review the fundamental discussions, so impor-
tant for epistemology, of the difficulty of separating
the subjective and objective aspects of the world.”51
Edward B. Davis
Volume 61, Number 3, September 2009 183
Compton quoted the first of these two passages in
a talk about causality and science that he gave to the
Physics Club of Chicago in early November 1930;
his numerous subsequent lectures and writings on
this general topic show that he took the second
passage no less seriously.52
Looking more closely at this talk—delivered just
as Compton was re-examining, at the height of his
career, an issue that had interested him so much as
a student—I am struck by his heavy reliance on
A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy
and Religion (1929), by William Cecil Dampier.
Compton once told a theological educator that this
book was “of great value” for its “appreciation of
the relationships between science and philosophy
and religion.”53 Like many other historians of
science from that period, Dampier wrote about
religion and science from the now-discredited
“warfare” perspective, which consequently colors
Compton’s approach.
Following Dampier, Compton presented Socrates
as an enemy of scientific thought, owing to his skep-
ticism and his opposition to the mechanistic think-
ing of the ancient atomists, which “left no room
for that freedom of choice which is the basis of
morality …” When Socrates placed mind over
184 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Prophet of Science—Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality
Physicists gather in front of the Ryerson Physical Laboratory in Chicago in 1929,
probably in April or May in connection with Heisenberg’s lectures.
Left to right (front row): Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Henry G. Gale, and Friedrich Hermann Hund; (back row): Compton, George S.
Monk, Carl Eckart, Robert S. Mulliken, and Frank C. Hoyt. Eckart had earned the B.S. and M.S. degrees in engineering from Washington
University in St. Louis, while Compton was chairing the physics department there. Eckart and Hoyt translated Heisenberg’s Chicago
lectures into English, with a foreword by Compton, as The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory (1930). Mulliken had worked with
all three European physicists, especially Hund, with whom he developed the Hund-Mulliken theory of molecular orbitals. At the time
this photograph was taken, Compton was the only Nobel laureate in the group, but Heisenberg (1932) and Dirac (1933) would soon join him
in winning the physics prize, and Mulliken was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1966. Max-Planck-Institute, courtesy AIP Emilio
Segre Visual Archives. (Gift of Max-Planck-Institute via David C. Cassidy.)
matter, he put morality against science. Plato’s
idealism did likewise; his followers only denigrated
science and abandoned the idea of natural law,
especially when they imbibed “Chaldean magic,
miracles, and astrology,” leading to “a super-
rational idealism known as Neoplatonism.” In this
analysis, ancient science failed because “its appar-
ent denial of the effectiveness of purpose showed
its uselessness. Science had failed to illuminate
man’s path of life.”54
The rise of Newtonian science two thousand years
later, according to Compton, forced us to accept
a clockwork universe “over whose operation we
have not the slightest control,” raising once again
the question of morality and freedom. This time,
however, “it was no longer possible to laugh science
out of court. Men had too much common sense
to abandon again the great truths that science had
given.” The scientist was content to leave freedom
to the philosopher, Compton commented, ignoring
“the logical inconsistency of his position. He must
have faith that his world is one of law,” but “if his
own actions are ‘with a cause and by necessity’
he cannot in truth ‘make a search’ at all.”55 In other
words, freedom is indispensable to the actual prac-
tice of science—an important insight that Compton
would keep repeating for the rest of his life.
The dilemma evaporated, however, with the
coming of Heisenberg. Perhaps causality still holds
for some unobserved properties of atomic particles,
but for experimental purposes this does not matter:
itisasaphysical principle that the law of causality
must be abandoned,” Compton proclaimed with
evident glee. Einstein might not like it, but “the
younger generation of physicists considers this
principle an inescapable consequence of existing
data …” To this the thirty-eight-year-old Compton
added, “I myself should consider it more likely that
the principle of the conservation of energy or the
second law of thermodynamics would be found
faulty than that we should return to a system of
strict causality.”56
At this point, extending physical uncertainty into
biology, Compton appealed to a prescient article
by the distinguished physiologist Ralph Stayner
Lillie, his colleague at Chicago. Lillie’s paper had
appeared in Science just a few months after the
publication of Heisenberg’s derivation of the uncer-
tainty relation for position and momentum—which
Lillie did not cite, although he did cite a recent
paper on quantum theory by German physicist
Pascual Jordan. In a wide-ranging, philosophically
oriented discussion of nervous activity, Brownian
motion, genetics, and other “ultramicroscopic” phe-
nomena in organisms, Lillie suggested that quan-
tum indeterminism “would conceivably explain the
indeterminism or inner freedom seen in voluntary
action …”57 For his part, Compton noted that in-
determinacy at the quantum level would lead to un-
predictable initial conditions for macroscopic events
within organisms, as a nerve pulse at the molecular
level is amplified many times. “Considering the
complexity of the small-scale events associated with
with assurance that on a purely physical basis the
end result must have a relatively great uncertainty.”
Compton did not believe that he had thereby solved
“the old question of how mind acts on matter,” but
he did maintain that the new physics allows for it,
“and suggests where the action may take effect.”58
What he really sought, we might say, was freedom
to believe in freedom, not scientific proof of it—
an attitude that he later clarified for his critics in
The Human Meaning of Science.59
In the twelve months between his talk for the
Physics Club of Chicago and his Terry Lectures at
Yale, Compton’s views on this topic became increas-
ingly visible. In March 1931, he shared his ideas
with what a reporter described as “a large audi-
ence” in New York. In August, in five short para-
graphs on a single page in Science, he cited Lillie’s
paper against the determinist views of the noted
physicist Charles Galton Darwin, grandson of the
great naturalist. The following month, the Yale
Review publishedarevisedversionofthetalkhe
had given in Chicago the previous November, and
a few months later Compton reiterated his thoughts
in the third and final Terry Lecture.60
The version published four years later as the first
two chapters of The Freedom of Man has the same
overall argument as the others, but develops some
points more fully. Most physicists just ignore the
implications of classical physics, he noted, adding
that “probably most of us have had an ill-defined
idea that in our own actions some influences are
laws.” If nothing in our lives goes beyond electro-
dynamics, then “we are in truth merely complicated
machines; whereas if other factors are significant,
Edward B. Davis
Volume 61, Number 3, September 2009 185
our laws of physics are incomplete descriptions of
the world in that they do not describe our own
actions.” It has to be one or the other, and it is
obviously important for the physicist to “know the
realm within which his laws are applicable, and
how far they are adequate to give a complete
description of the world.” To understand the actions
of a living creature, he argued, psychological factors
such as motives had to be taken into account;
knowledge of the physical circumstances alone
Given the indeterminism inherent in quantum
theory, however, “it is no longer justifiable to use
physical law as evidence against human freedom.”61
What is more, although differences in states of
consciousness are “not detectable by any known
type of physical test,” they must nevertheless exist.
Natural selection has in higher animals “brought
consciousness to an ever higher level of develop-
ment,” something that should not happen “if con-
sciousness were of no value to the life of the
animal,” or if “the animal were incapable of affect-
ing its course of action.”62
A founder of quantum theory, Compton was con-
vinced that the new physics was closely related to
this, since quantum uncertainties affecting micro-
scopic events “may result in an equal uncertainty
in an event of great magnitude.” For example, let
a faint ray of light pass through a very narrow slit,
and put a pair of amplifiers in the path of the
diffracted beam coming out of the slit (fig. 1).
Attach one amplifier to an explosive charge that
would destroy the apparatus, and attach the other
to a switch that turns off the apparatus. If a single
photon comes through the slit, then the apparatus
will either explode or turn itself off. Both events
are equally probable, but the precise outcome is
unpredictable. Suppose now that a physicist sets
up a similar apparatus with two photocells attached
to amplifiers, and then decides to go home for
lunch when the next photon enters photocell A.
“Here is a human action which is definitely subject
to Heisenberg uncertainty,” Compton concluded.
Citing Lillie’s paper, he added “that all deliberate
actions of living organisms seem to be events of
this kind.” Nerve pulses are “presumably electro-
chemical reactions on a minute scale,” and mental
processes are probably similar, in which case the
small number of molecules involved results in “an
appreciable uncertainty.”63
By combining uncertainty in quantum mechanics
with causality in other aspects of nature, Compton
believed that he had solved “the old dilemma of
freedom in a world of law.” In such a world, “man
186 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Prophet of Science—Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality
Figure 1. Diagram of photon diffraction experiment from A. H. Compton, The Freedom of Man (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
1935), 39. Reproduced by permission of John J. Compton.
is left by science in control of his own actions within
the bounds set by natural law,” and “the powerful
argument for morality … in a world governed by
law,” which Compton associated with Pythagoras,
is “emphasized by every advance of science.” Thus
science, rather than overturning morality, “now
presents new reasons why men should discipline
their lives, and supplies new means whereby they
can make their world more perfect.” Furthermore,
he stated, “our physical laws have acquired a new
generality,” since now “we may justifiably assume
that these laws apply equally to living and non-
living matter,” whereas Newtonian physics lacked
universal validity “unless human freedom was con-
sidered fictitious.”64
Significantly, Compton did not, at that point in
time, make a similar case for divine freedom. He
did not argue explicitly that quantum uncertainties
offer a possible locus for divine action in the uni-
verse. He touched on it only implicitly, when he
was asked in May 1930 what the new physics
“has to say about the old problems of free-will,
immortality, and God?” Heisenberg’s uncertainty
principle, he answered, undermines mechanistic
accounts of consciousness and “leaves room for
an effective intelligence behind the phenomena
of nature.”65 He went further than this only in
an address he gave to the American Philosophical
Society many years later in 1956, saying that the
mechanistic universe “not only rules out the effec-
tiveness of an assumed Divine Agent, but rules out
also the effectiveness of the human will in determin-
ing the course of physical events.” The demise of
determinism changed all this:
[T]he physical laws as they are now known,
are not inconsistent with the effectiveness of
purpose in shaping the events in nature. This …
applies equally to one’s own actions with refer-
ence to his responsibility for what he does, and
to events occurring in the external world as
related to other intelligences, either of men or
of God. That is to say, we recognize now that
we cannot call on physics and astronomy to
give evidence for the effective action of free
minds, either human or divine. But at the same
time we recognize also that we cannot, on the
basis of any kind of physical observation, deny
that either human or divine minds may be effec-
tive in determining the course of certain types of
events, in particular the actions of living organ-
isms. Whether mind may participate in deter-
mining the course of events simply cannot be
answered by physical observations.66
Even here, the possibility of God acting on nature
at the quantum level is not stated openly, though
Compton may have had it in mind.
Others did explicitly suggest this possibility in
the 1950s, however, when theologians Karl Heim
and Eric Mascall and physicist William Pollard all
advanced versions of that idea. And in some ways,
as Nicholas Saunders has noted, Compton’s dis-
cussion of human agency in The Freedom of Man
resonates with later efforts to understand divine
agency—especially his point that unpredictable
quantum events can have important macroscopic
Compton understood that his ideas about the
reality of free will and the limits of science would
be controversial, but at least a few other leading
physicists held similar views. Robert Millikan, for
example, believed that the “philosophical determin-
a scientifically unwarranted generalization is now
shown by experimental physics itself to be a false
generalization.” Like Compton, he held that a more
limited “scientific determinism” was “merely a
convenient working hypothesis, certainly no more
difficult to reconcile with free will than are the
wave properties of electrons and photons to recon-
cile with their corpuscular properties.” Applied
mathematician Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller
Foundation, a friend of both Millikan and Compton,
suggested that the conscience plays a role in our
behavior “similar to that played by Schrödinger’s y
function relative to the behavior of electrons.” As
a devout Quaker, Arthur Eddington’s commitment
to human freedom was, if anything, even stronger
than that of Compton, and he, too, stressed the role
of consciousness in amplifying uncertainties at the
microscopic level.68 Indeed, Compton thought that
“there is perhaps nothing better” than Eddington’s
book, The Nature of the Physical World, when it came
to dealing with “the metaphysical implications of
modern physics.”69
Most philosophers, however, have not been very
enthusiastic about Compton’s defense of freedom.
An outstanding exception is Karl Popper, who in
1965 gave the Compton memorial lecture at Wash-
ington University, published the next year as a
Edward B. Davis
Volume 61, Number 3, September 2009 187
booklet, Of Clouds and Clocks (1966). Popper’s argu-
ment resonates with Compton’s: consciousness
evolved from the physical world, but it is not itself
physical, and it can to some extent control things
that are physical.70 As for neurologists, Compton
recognized the possibility, perhaps being realized in
our own day, that “future psychological studies
may inform us” whether a thought in the mind
“may correspond to the formation of a particular
pattern of paths of nerve currents … in the brain,”
which thus determines other currents. However,
he always remained skeptical of deterministic con-
clusions that were “so contrary to the dictates of
common sense.” With Socrates, he felt “that the
knowledge which comes to us intuitively through
direct experience is of a more fundamental kind
than that based upon intricate arguments concerned
with delicate tests,” so he might still affirm free will
if he were living today, despite recent advances in
neurology.71 h
1Arthur Holly Compton, “The Natural Sciences,” in On
Going to College: A Symposium (New York: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 1938), 141–68, on 159. For a similar passage of
comparable eloquence, see Compton, The Freedom of Man
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1935), 118–9.
2Compton, “Personal Reminiscences,” in The Cosmos of
Arthur Holly Compton, ed. Marjorie Johnston (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 3–52, quoting 41–2; this anthology
is cited henceforth simply as Cosmos.
3“Cosmic Clearance,” Time (January 13, 1936): 32; Sherwood
Eddy, Man Discovers God (New York: Harper and Brothers,
1942), 177.
4Compton, “Personal Reminiscences,” 18.
5John J. Compton to Edward B. Davis, June 27, 2007. For
further information, see James R. Blackwood, “Arthur
Compton’s Atomic Venture,” American Presbyterians 66,
no. 3 (Fall 1988): 177–93; the records of Hyde Park Union
Church; “About Westminster Presbyterian Church,”; “History [of
Grace United Methodist Church],”
history.htm; and “A Brief History of Hyde Park Union
(all accessed 28 May 2009).
6Charles Harvey Arnold, God Before You and Behind You:
The Hyde Park Union Church through a Century, 1874–1974
(Chicago: The Hyde Park Union Church, 1974), includes
lengthy discussions of the views of many prominent mem-
bers from the 1920s. For a short summary of Mathews’
theological views, see W. Creighton Peden, “Shailer
Mathews,” in Makers of Christian Theology in America, ed.
Mark G. Toulouse and James O. Duke (Nashville, TN:
Abingdon Press, 1997), 392–8.
7Edwin Arthur Burtt, Religion in an Age of Science (London:
Williams and Northgate, 1930), 122–3.
8According to Arnold, God Before You and Behind You, 65,
“perhaps seventy percent of the members were connected
with the University” during the 1920s.
9Charles Clayton Morrison, The American Pulpit: A Volume of
Sermons by Twenty-Five of the Foremost Living American
Preachers, Chosen by a Poll of All the Protestant Ministers in the
United States, Nearly Twenty-Five Thousand of Whom Cast
Their Votes (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1925).
10This occurred at an unspecified date in 1926; see “A Brief
History of Hyde Park Union Church,”
History/Hist%20-%20History.htm (accessed 1 October 2007).
11“The New University of Chicago Chapel,” Chicago Baptist
News 8, no. 2 (November 1928): 1; Arnold, God Before You
and Behind You, 78. On Jones’ thought, see Matthew Stanley,
Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 37–40.
12John J. Compton, “Ariadne’s Thread—or How It Helps to
Have the Right Ancestors,” unpublished and unpaginated
typescript cited by permission of the author.
13Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology:
Idealism, Realism, and Modernity: 1900–1950 (Louisville, KY:
Westminster John Knox Press, 2003); Kenneth Cauthen, The
Impact of American Religious Liberalism, 2d ed. (Lanham, MD:
University Press of America, 1983); David Henry Koss,
“The Development of Naturalism at the Divinity School of
the University of Chicago with Special Emphasis on the
Doctrine of God” (PhD diss., Northwestern University,
14On Millikan’s idea of God, see Edward B. Davis, “Robert
Andrews Millikan: Religion, Science, and Modernity,” in
Nicolaas A. Rupke, ed., Eminent Lives in Twentieth-Century
Science and Religion, rev. ed. (Frankfurt am Main: Peter
Lang, 2009), 253–74.
15Compton, “Ariadne’s Thread”; cf. his similar comments in
Blackwood, “Arthur Compton’s Atomic Venture,” 191.
16Arthur Holly Compton, Atomic Quest (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1956), 344–5.
17Ibid., 345–6.
18Ibid., 346–7.
19Conant to Compton, January 14, 1957, Arthur Holly
Compton Personal Papers, University Archives, Depart-
ment of Special Collections, Washington University
Libraries, series 6, box 17, folder “C.” Further references
to this collection are given as AHC Papers.
20L. M. Isaacs to Compton, January 10, [1957?], AHC Papers,
series 6, box 17, folder “I.”
21Compton, Atomic Quest, 324–5, 331.
22Ibid., 341–2, 336, 352.
23Compton to George Derby, July 29, 1930, AHC Papers,
series 3, box 1, folder “1929–30.” He told Derby that he
had not yet published anything about this, but that he
was then “writing for publication an article along this
line …” It is not clear to which article he was referring.
24This lecture was printed as a pamphlet, The Idea of God as
Affected by Modern Knowledge (Boston: American Unitarian
Association, 1940), and reprinted with talks by eight more
Garvin lecturers as “A Modern Concept of God,” in Man’s
Destiny in Eternity: The Garvin Lectures (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1949), 3–20; quoting 13 and 5 in the pamphlet or 11
and 5 in the book (the wording of the second quotation is
slightly different in the book). Identical passages appear
in the fourth of five Norton Lectures he gave at Southern
188 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Prophet of Science—Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality
Baptist Theological Seminary in March 1941, under the
title “Some Religious Implications of Science,” typescript
archived at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Library,
Louisville, Kentucky.
25The three lectures became five chapters in the book. For
reports on the second and third lectures, see “Compton
Sees Life Beyond All Science,” New York Times, November
13, 1931, p. 25, and “Compton Says Man Guides Own
Destiny,” November 14, 1931, p. 13.
26Compton, The Human Meaning of Science (Chapel Hill, NC:
The University of North Carolina Press, 1940) consists
almost entirely of material reprinted verbatim from The
Freedom of Man and a related essay, “The Natural Sciences,”
in On Going to College: A Symposium (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1938), 141–68; I will not discuss it further.
He presented similar ideas as the Elliot Lectures at Western
Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, 1931), the Loud Founda-
tion Lectures at the University of Michigan (1935), the
Lowell Lectures (Boston, 1938), and the Norton Lectures at
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, March
1941). Further published versions of these ideas include
a pamphlet, The Evolution of the Soul, a lecture at Plymouth
Congregational Church, Lansing, Michigan, November 10,
1938 (William F. Ayres Foundation, 1938); another pam-
phlet, The Religion of a Scientist, an address at the Jewish
Theological Seminary of America on Monday, November
21, 1938 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of Amer-
ica, 1938) and subsequent printings; “The Religion of a
Scientist,” Sermons in Brief 1, no. 1 (January 1940): 88–95;
“A Scientist’s View of Religion,” The Chicago Theological
Seminary Register 30, no. 2 (March 1940): 5–8; and “Free-
dom,” in Rab Saadia Gaon: Studies in His Honor, ed. Louis
Finkelstein (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of
America, 1944), 107–16.
27George W. Gray, “Compton Sees a New Epoch in Science,”
New York Times, March 13, 1932, p. 20.
28Compton, Freedom of Man, 73–6.
29Ibid., 80–81.
30Ibid., 84.
31For valuable background on cosmology in the 1930s,
see Helge Kragh, Cosmology and Controversy: The Historical
Development of Two Theories of the Universe (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2006), esp. 73–9; and Kragh,
Matter and Spirit in the Universe: Scientific and Religious
Preludes to Modern Cosmology (London: Imperial College
Press, 2004), 88–103. Kragh’s statement in the latter book
(92) that Compton “paid less attention to natural theology”
than Millikan accurately applies to their disagreement
about cosmic rays, but would be incorrect as a broader
32Compton, Freedom of Man, 88–9.
33Porter, “Are Planets Rare?” Science 72, no. 1859 (August 15,
1929): 170; and Compton, “Are Planets Rare?” Science 72,
no. 1861 (August 29, 1929): 219. Porter nevertheless agreed
with Compton, “That a directive intelligence is evident
in the universe is undoubtedly held by a great majority
of scientists …”
34Compton, Freedom of Man, 109.
35Ibid., 110–3.
36For a wide-ranging account of religious views of eugenics
in this period, see Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics:
Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Edward B.
Davis, “Samuel Christian Schmucker’s Christian Voca-
tion,” Seminary Ridge Review 10, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 59–75,
provides a detailed study of a scientist who was at the peak
of his fame in the 1920s as a popularizer of eugenics and
liberal religion.
37Compton, Freedom of Man, 113–4.
38James H. Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience (New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933), esp. the introduction.
Millikan, who belonged to the same church as Breasted,
cites him in The Autobiography of Robert A. Millikan (New
York: Prentice-Hall, 1950), 253, 280.
39Compton, Freedom of Man, 114–5. It is interesting to note
that another scholar from Chicago, theologian Philip
Hefner, has recently advanced a view of humanity that
strongly resembles that of Compton, except for a strong
ecological emphasis. Hefner sees humanity as “created
by God to be a co-creator in the creation that God has
brought into being and for which God has purposes.”
And, “The conditioning matrix that has produced the
human being—the evolutionary process—is God’s process
of bringing into being a creature who represents the cre-
ation’s zone of a new stage of freedom and who therefore
is crucial for the emergence of a new creation.” Hefner,
The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Minne-
apolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 32.
40Compton, Freedom of Man, 116.
41On Barnes, see Peter J. Bowler, Reconciling Science and
Religion: The Debate in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 260–70.
42Preliminary typescripts of chapters from The Freedom of
Man are in AHC Papers, series 6, box 9, folders 6 and 15;
those in folder 15 clearly supercede the others and probably
date from 1932, except for handwritten additions from
43Compton, Freedom of Man, 116–8.
44Jacques Loeb, The Mechanistic Conception of Life: Biological
Essays (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1912), 31.
On Loeb’s scientific work and the interpretation he gave it,
see Garland Allen, Life Science in the Twentieth Century
(New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975), 73–81. The famous
behavioral psychologist John B. Watson studied neurology
with Loeb at Chicago.
45Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and
America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New
York: Basic Books, 1997), 71 and note 26 on 278; Simon
Baatz, “Criminal Minds,” Smithsonian (August 2008): 70–9.
46Osborn, “Credo of a Naturalist,” The Forum 73 (April 1925):
486–94, quoting 487.
47On this particular point, see Compton, “Science and Man’s
Freedom,” Atlantic Monthly 200, no. 4 (October 1957): 71–4
(reprinted in Cosmos, 115–24).
48For details on the itineraries of Heisenberg and Dirac in
America, see Helge S. Kragh, Dirac: A Scientific Biography
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 71–5, and
Laurie M. Brown and Helmut Rechenberg, “Paul Dirac
and Werner Heisenberg—A Partnership in Science,” in
Reminiscences About a Great Physicist: Paul Adrien Maurice
Dirac, ed. Behram N. Kursunoglu and Eugene P. Wigner
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 117–62,
on 132–7.
Edward B. Davis
Volume 61, Number 3, September 2009 189
49Interview of Charles Weiner and Betty Compton, April
1968, cited by Blackwood, “Arthur Compton’s Atomic
Venture,” 184; John J. Compton confirmed this story.
50Werner Heisenberg, The Physical Principles of the Quantum
Theory, trans. Carl Eckart and Frank C. Hoyt with foreword
by Compton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930),
51Ibid., 65.
52Compton, “The Effect of Social Influences on Physical
Science,” in Cosmos, 81–100, on 83. The editorial introduc-
tion to this essay (81) underscores the influence of
Heisenberg on Compton at this point in his life.
53Compton to Georgia L. Chamberlin, May 6, 1931, Ameri-
can Institute of Sacred Literature Records, Special Collec-
tions Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
box 17, folder 2, henceforth cited as AISL Records.
54Compton, “The Effect of Social Influences on Physical Sci-
ence,” 88–90; Dampier, A History of Science and Its Relations
with Philosophy and Religion (Cambridge: The University
Press, 1929).
55Ibid., 94–5.
56Ibid., 96.
57Ralph S. Lillie, “Physical Indeterminism and Vital Action,”
Science 66, no. 1072 (August 12, 1927): 139–44, on 140. Lillie’s
article seems to have gone largely unnoticed, apart from
Compton’s writings. An exception would be Martín López
Corredoira, “Quantum Mechanics and Free Will: Counter-
Arguments,” The Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental
Interactions 1, no. 3 (October 2002), an online journal (accessed 29
January 2008), offering a heated, mainly a priori denial of
all types of top-down causation.
58Compton, “The Effect of Social Influences on Physical
Science,” 97, 100, emphasis his.
59Compton, The Human Meaning of Science, viii–x, 49–50.
60“Sees Deity Ruling World of Chance,” New York Times,
March 27, 1931, p. 27; Compton, “The Uncertainty Principle
and Free Will,” Science 74, no. 1911 (August 14, 1931): 172;
and Compton, “Do We Live in a World of Chance?” Yale
Review 21 (September 1931): 86–94. The outline and pencil
manuscript of this last item are in AHC Papers, series 6,
box 9, folder 6.
61Compton, Freedom of Man, 26–9.
62Ibid., 41–4, 55–6.
63Ibid., 49–50.
64Ibid., 66–7.
65Philip Kinsley, “Antics of Atom Impel Science to Think of
God: Compton Tugs at Veil of Mystery,” Chicago Tribune,
May 25, 1930, pp. 1, 20; cf. “Compton to Offer New View of
Atom,” New York Times, May 25, 1930, p. 25. He repeated
those words to an audience in New York the following
year; “Sees Deity Ruling World of Chance,” New York
Times, March 27, 1931, p. 27.
66Compton, “The World of Science in the Late Eighteenth
Century and Today,” Proceedings of the American Philosophi-
cal Society 100 (August 1956): 296–303, on 301, italics his.
Cf. Compton, “Science and Man’s Freedom.” If he said
something similar earlier, I am not aware of it.
67For details, see Nicholas Saunders, Divine Action and
Modern Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2002), 94–110.
68Millikan, Time, Matter, and Values (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1932), 30, 98–9; Warren Weaver,
“Statistical Freedom of the Will,” Reviews of Modern Physics
20, no. 1 (January 1948): 31–4, quoting 33; Eddington, The
Nature of the Physical World (New York: Macmillan, 1928),
esp. chaps. 10–15. Eddington spoke about this initially in
his Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in the winter of 1927,
a few weeks before Heisenberg published his paper on the
uncertainty relation. On Eddington’s approach to religion
and the limits of science, see Matthew Stanley, Practical
Mystic, 153–68, 194–209, esp. 206–9; and Allen H. Batten,
“A Most Rare Vision: Eddington’s Thinking on the Relation
Between Science and Religion,” Quarterly Journal of the
Royal Astronomical Society 35 (1994): 249–70. For a short
history of efforts to relate quantum mechanics to human
and divine action, see Daniel Patrick Thurs, “That Quan-
tum Physics Demonstrated the Doctrine of Free Will,” in
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion,
ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 2009), 196–205. Saunders, Divine Action and Modern
Science, 94–172, provides a much more detailed account of
several important efforts to relate quantum mechanics to
divine action.
69Compton to Georgia L. Chamberlin, May 6, 1931, AISL
Records, box 17, folder 2.
70Karl Popper, Of Clouds and Clocks: An Approach to the
Problem of Rationality and the Freedom of Man (St. Louis:
Washington University Press, 1966).
71Compton, Freedom of Man, note 9 on 58, 59–60.
190 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Prophet of Science—Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality
The author tackles the problem of debates about free will from the socio-historical perspective that is still largely missing from the literature on free will. In particular, he tests the hypothesis that the belief in free will correlates with one’s religiosity and specific political or worldview concerns by the case studies of the earliest missionaries of “quantum free will,” as he dubs Arthur Eddington in Britain and Arthur Compton in the United States. They were not only the earliest, but also the most distinguished physicists in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s arguing for the “liberation of free will” with the help of Heisenberg’s famous indeterminacy principle. By a detailed analysis of their own writings, but also of the public reception and perception of their work on free will in the English speaking world of the time, especially in light of the struggle between “regressive” and “progressive” political and ideological forces, the author argues for the existence not only of the strong intrinsic religious motivation and specific conservative worldview concerns behind their own work on free will, but also of the similar factors, only of the opposite sign, behind the fierce reaction on their libertarian solution to the problem of free will, which, as he sees it, has never in the history of human thought been a purely scholarly and rational, but in fact always also a heatedly debated ideological and political matter.
Few American scientists have devoted as much attention to religion and science as Harvard geologist Kirtley Fletcher Mather (1888–1978). Responding to antievolutionism during the 1920s, he taught Sunday School classes, assisted in defending John Scopes, and wrote Science in Search of God (1928). Over the next 40 years, Mather explored the place of humanity in the universe and the presence of values in light of what he often called “the administration of the universe,” a term and concept he borrowed from his former teacher, geologist Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin. Human values, including cooperation and altruism, had emerged in such a context: “the administrative directive toward orderly organization of increasingly complex systems transcends the urge for survival.” He was also active in the early years of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, an organization created by his good friends Ralph Wendell Burhoe and Harlow Shapley.
Full-text available
Eighty years ago Samuel Christian Schmucker was one of the most widely known science writers and lecturers in the United States. Born into the most important Lutheran family in American history, he wrote five books about evolution, eugenics, religion, and the environment for major publishing houses, including two titles that were used nationally as texts by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. One of the most popular speakers at the original Chautauqua in New York, he also appeared at summer schools and teachers’ workshops in many states and spoke frequently at prestigious venues in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Philadelphia, and other major cities. In all of these activities, including his teaching at West Chester, the message he brought to a very large audience of ordinary people was one of the fundamental harmony of science and religion–a message whose spirit, though not necessarily its specific content, would have pleased the distinguished Lutheran pastors whose name he bore. In short, Schmucker viewed teaching, speaking, and writing about science as a religious vocation.
Thesis (Ph. D.)--Northwestern University, 1972. Vita. Includes bibliographical references (leaves 243-249). Photocopy. s
Personal Reminiscences
  • Compton
Compton, "Personal Reminiscences," 18.
  • Cosmic Clearance
Cosmic Clearance, " Time (January 13, 1936): 32; Sherwood Eddy, Man Discovers God (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942), 177. 4 Compton, " Personal Reminiscences, " 18.
For further information Arthur Compton's Atomic Venture About Westminster Presbyterian Church History [of Grace United Methodist Church], " history.htm; and
  • J John
  • Edward B Davis Compton
  • R James
  • Blackwood
John J. Compton to Edward B. Davis, June 27, 2007. For further information, see James R. Blackwood, " Arthur Compton's Atomic Venture, " American Presbyterians 66, no. 3 (Fall 1988): 177–93; the records of Hyde Park Union Church; " About Westminster Presbyterian Church, "; " History [of Grace United Methodist Church], " history.htm; and " A Brief History of Hyde Park Union Church, " (all accessed 28 May 2009).