Ted Davis: Arthur Compton's Role as a Public Scientist

On August 12-13, @TedDavis will be holding office hours on Arthur Compton, who was:

  1. Nobel prize winner in physics (@physicists).
  2. Chancellor of my home institution, Washington University in St Louis.
  3. A Christian involved in the public dialogue.
  4. Deeply committed to opposing anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism in the post war period.

Compton at his best, is the best of the WUSTL legacy, and it also is the legacy that PS is aspiring to follow. I may never get a Nobel prize or be chancellor, but scientists have a role in society, to serve the common good.

For this conversation, I recommend participants read at least one of the three following articles. Looking forward to seeing the conversation unfold.


American physicist Arthur Holly Compton (1892-1962), who shared the Nobel prize with C. T. R. Wilson in 1927, was a leading public intellectual in the decades surrounding World War Two. A very active Presbyterian, Compton’s “modernist” Christian beliefs influenced his views on several important topics: evolution and the design argument, human freedom and the limits of science, immortality, anti-Semitism, and the morality of atomic warfare. Considering his seminal contributions to physics and his strong commitment to writing and speaking about science and religion, it is surprising that no one has previously studied this aspect of his career in detail. Compton wrote a great deal about these topics, and this lengthy essay will be published in three parts, continuing in September and ending in December. The opening section follows Compton’s family background, education, and early career, emphasizing the strong influence of his father’s philosophical and religious views on his attitudes and beliefs, especially on his theology of nature and his understanding of free will.


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.


The final part of this essay examines Compton’s views on immortality and the morality of atomic warfare. He affirmed life after death, basing this on his faith in the value that God places on the conscious persons produced by the divinely guided process of evolution; however he did not accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He also used a type of “just war” theory to defend the decision of the American government to use weapons of mass destruction against Japan – a decision in which he himself had a prominent voice. Related to this, Compton suggested that divine providence had enabled a free nation to win the race to develop nuclear weapons. Anti-Semitism drew his opposition before, during, and after the war, as he served as Protestant Co-Chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.


A recent Nature article is highly relevant to this conversation:


The researchers feeling the heat today face different and more varied challenges. That means that any attempt to use a Pugwash-style approach to address today’s pressures should be strengthened by recent understanding of the importance of inclusivity — with a meaningful role for public engagement — and a place at the table for researchers from diverse backgrounds and from across disciplines, not only science and engineering.

This topic was automatically opened after 13 days.

The doctor is in. Who wants to talk about “AHC,” as his son liked to call him?

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IWith PS starting as a WUSTL related effort, what parts of Compton’s legacy should we seek to emulate?

His conviction that science is a human activity that cannot be divorced from ultimate values and faith commitments.

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How did he put that into practice?

My knowledge of his day-to-day activities as Chancellor of WU-StL is minimal, so I will not venture an opinion along those lines. However, as a “public intellectual” starting in the late 1920s, he focused often and sharply on ultimate questions arising out of, or related to, the scientific enterprise. Let me give just two major examples here, both of them discussed at length in my articles.

First, he vigorously defended the reality of human freedom, against the commonplace assumption by many of his scientific colleagues that free will is purely illusory. Classical physics, the narrative went, leaves no freedom for either God or humans to act voluntarily. God is trapped by fixed laws of his own creation, and humans are trapped within a vast mechanistic universe in which all events are caused necessarily by previous events–it’s clockwork turtles all the way down. Compton used the most recent discoveries in atomic physics (Heisenberg) and cellular physiology (Lillie) to argue that physics does not imply that humans have no freedom of action. He didn’t view his argument as a “proof” that we are free, but he did think it was a sound defeater of the received deterministic view.

Second, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, AHC advanced the view that it was providential a free, democratic nation had invented the atom bomb–rather than the Soviet Union. That’s hardly an argument, but it does reflect his conviction that science and human values are intimately bound up. Atomic weapons, in his view, could and should be used to defend human freedom–remember, for him freedom of action and belief was perhaps the ultimate human value. They had been invented by a free people and in the Cold War they could defend free societies against unjust societies.

As I said, two major examples in his public utterances–which were many and far reaching.

Tell us about his role in opposing anti-Semitism? Why did do this? What might have led him here?

I wish I could give you a better answer. I don’t know anything about his views on Jews or Judaism prior to ca. 1940, whcn he began to participate in the religiously diverse Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion started by his friend Louis Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC. He spoke about his faith at the JTS in Nov 1938–the same month in which fission was discovered in Berlin, by a team formerly led by a Jewish scientist, Lisa Meitner. Although I don’t mean to imply a direct connection between those events, I do think that growing anti-Semitism worldwide may have motivated AHC to start speaking out against it. He knew and respected several Jewish scientists; he (like Finkelstein) believed that religion (not simply Christianity) was crucial to democracy. Recall his core value of freedom: people must be free to think and worship according to their convictions. So, Anti-Semitism was evil for that reason, if not also for other reasons.

When Compton published his Terry Lectures (delivered at Yale in 1931), he called the them, The Freedom of Man. He saw all humanity as part of that vision. I can’t cite chapter and verse, but I would bet the ranch that he valued all human beings first of all b/c they had been made in the image of God–they were of great value to God, who would preserve each person’s life after death. He had decided to become a public intellectual only after serving as a Guggenheim Fellow in what is now Pakistan in the 1920s. His encounter with a very different culture set him to thinking about the human side of science in a worldwide context that can only have resonated with his broadly Christian views on the value of individual persons to God.

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For us as readers in our context, what would be the most surprising things about Compton to us? What would we be most likely to misunderstand about him?

It seems like Compton became a “public intellectual” while he was still doing his scientific work, before he took the role of Chancellor.

Can you explain more the trajectory of that public voice?

Why not let those who read my articles answer the first question, and perhaps that will lead me to offer an answer to the second question.

Even in his day, some of his friends were surprised by the intensity of his religious faith, but they did not misunderstand him. He was different from many other leading scientists in this regard, even then. Some resented the fact that he would pray for guidance before making decisions affecting others, and some probably thought his faith was inconsistent with being a scientist (as they understood it).

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Yet he was a modernist Christian too? So he didn’t affirm the Resurrection, but he believed God answered prayers?

That’s a bit confusing for me!

It’s best just to quote (with some edits) my article (part 2, pp. 175-6):

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. Supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he spent the academic year of 1926-27 in Lahore, at the University of the Punjab. Conversations with the scientists 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.”

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In addition, winning the Nobel Prize in 1927 gave him notoriety that he took advantage of–like dozens of other Nobel Laureates over the years. IMO, a big difference between his public utterances on non-science topics and those of some other famous scientists (such as Einstein or Hawking or Crick), is that Compton actually understood religion and philosophy well enough to say things worth saying. He was personally religious his whole life, he had attended a Christian college (that no longer is such), and he had studied quite a bit of philosophy and psychology at college. Another way to say this: he was an American, not a European, and his broad liberal arts education (which one normally does not get at university in Europe) served him very well. A lot of the American scientists I’ve studied in my current research project have similar profiles: they were personally religious and they graduated from liberal arts colleges that were in their day strongly religious. Perhaps I’m just reading into this data my own prejudices–I don’t want to dismiss that possibility–but, I think that type of education actually does broaden people more than other types of education can do that. And, he kept reading serious stuff in religion, philosophy, and other areas (including what passed for history of science then) throughout his life.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that European scientists just couldn’t do what Compton could do. Some of them absolutely could do this, and at some of them were deeply influential on Compton–Arthur Eddington being a case in point. But, Compton was part of the generation that basically made American science the best in the world, and lots of the (mostly) men who did that with him were liberal arts graduates who actually thought quite a bit about the connections between science and other areas of human endeavor.


Well, it’s confusing to lots of Christians today, probably. My research has shown me something I did not previoiusly realize: in the early 20th century, there was substantial group of American scientists who believed in a personal God (who answers prayer) and personal immortality (life after death), but did not believe in miracles, including the Resurrection. Actually, more scientists believed in immortality than in a God who answers prayer–see the famous polling data by James Leuba here James Leuba | Faith Seeking Understanding

That gap has almost disappeared today, but at the time it was significant. One reason for it might be the influence of Kantian idealism on American scientists: they believed in the persistence of the mental world, the personality, but not necessarily continuity at the level of the physical body. As some will know, N T Wright’s book on The Resurrection of the Son of God tackles the notion (false, IMO) that Paul and other disciples of Jesus experienced the “resurrection” only in their own minds, and that when Paul and others mention the “resurrection” in their writings they didn’t actually mean a physical re-embodiment. Notions of that sort were commonplace among American theologians and biblical scholars for most of the 20th century. So, there is some context for understanding AHC’s view on this.

Perhaps the most famous public theologian in the “modernist” category, Harry Emerson Fosdick, was outspoken in his affirmation of prayer and personal immortality, yet he too did not believe in the bodily Resurrection.


That’s really helpful. I’ll have more follow up questions, but wanted to start with this. For all that was being retained in their Christian faith, why did they abandon the Ressurection?

This seems like a non-sequitor. Perhaps I am missing a key “scene” in the story.

Perhaps also @rcohlers might have some thoughts.

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