On August 12-13, @TedDavis will be holding office hours on Arthur Compton, who was:
- Nobel prize winner in physics (@physicists).
- Chancellor of my home institution, Washington University in St Louis.
- A Christian involved in the public dialogue.
- 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.