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Science, philosophy and religion

1935

It is frequently imagined that in scientific writings one deals only with tested facts, and that though mistakes may of course be made, experimental observations make unnecessary the venturing of opinions or guesses. On the contrary, probably not even in art is the imagination applied as effectively as in science. It is by making many hypotheses and testing their consequences that all the important generalizations of science have been reached. It is rare indeed that the first formulations are found to be adequate. In fact, occasionally, hypotheses that have successfully withstood many tests and have led to important advances are found to be wholly false. As historic examples we may mention the Ptolemaic system of planetary motions, the phlogiston theory of combustion, and the elastic ether theory of the propagation of light. Nevertheless, each of these hypotheses encouraged experiments which in turn led to the attainment of a more adequate theory. Thus the man of science is inclined to take a pragmatic view of his own work. Neither theory nor experiment is considered to have much value unless it leads to something previously unknown. Our experiments are designed to test theories or to open up new fields of investigation. Our theories must either help us to correlate data that previously seemed unrelated, or must enable us to make valuable new predictions. Even though the theory may ultimately be shown unsound, if it points the way to valuable new information, it is useful and hence good.

Thus science approaches truth through a series of successive approximations. Even Newton, who, with the insight of genius, proposed a set of laws of motion and gravitation, thus accounting for phenomena previously thought mysterious, has his theories revised by Einstein and Heisenberg before they are adequate to meet the exacting needs of our later observations. Now in our studies of quantum electrodynamics we are attempting to refine even these modifications so as to account for our most recent experiments.

It is in much the same spirit, it seems to me, that the scientist must venture into such related fields as philosophy and religion. He knows that he will very probably make false steps. Yet unless he brings before the educated public those findings which appear to him significant, the philosopher and the theologian have no means of learning of those findings. If the scientist's amateur interpretations are found faulty, these faults and inadequacies can be remedied by those having a more extensive philosophical background. If, however, the scientist for fear of making such errors were to keep to himself his newly acquired knowledge, it would remain unavailable for the guidance of men's actions.

Some of my colleagues wonder how a man who is busily engaged in scientific research can afford the time to try to relate his findings to other fields of human interest. My answer is twofold. In the first place, as Eddington has so clearly shown in his Nature of the Physical World, science represents but one aspect of human experience. I find myself unsatisfied without at least a careful attempt to relate the various aspects of experience with each other in my own mind, thus formulating a philosophy which I can use for guiding my own life. In the second place, I consider it the scientist's clear duty to the society which makes possible his investigations to report his findings to that society in a form that can be understood, together with an effort to show their import in so far as they would seem to affect human life. He must in such presentations take extraordinary pains that the science which he reports shall be accurately stated, for that is where his listeners rely upon him as an authority. It is relatively unimportant if his interpretation of that science is inadequate or even wrong, for such deficiencies can be found and corrected by those more thoroughly versed in the related fields.

Science does not pretend to interpret all aspects of life. Yet few in this age would willingly base their lives on a philosophy which to the man of science is demonstrably false. Science thus takes the place of the foundation on which the structure of our lives must be built if we wish that structure to be stable. The architecture of the building which we erect must conform to this foundation; but great latitude remains in its design. That design, as Pythagoras saw thousands of years ago, can, however, be made more perfect if the form of the foundation is known.

[…] I have been strongly impressed by the way in which science can be interpreted to give a moral and ethical outlook closely parallel with that taught by the highest types of religion. The language and the mode of thought are different, but the correspondence between their conclusions is close. Far from being in conflict, science, as Dean Inge has remarked, has become an ally of religion. By increased knowledge of nature we become better acquainted with the God of nature, and with the part we have to play in his cosmic drama.

A. H. Compton, The Freedom of Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935), “Preface”, pp. vii-xi.