Prophet of Science: Arthur Holly Compton, June – Dec 2009; Contemporary

JH: If we were to take Compton and place him in the early 21st Century faith-science discussion, where would he fit? Would he have something to say today?

TD: Great questions. I’d like to think more about them, but my quick answer to the second question is yes—someone with his intense interest in science and religion and his wide and deep knowledge of science would probably have something to say today. I doubt that it would be identical to what he said in the 1930s, but I also doubt that Bill Terry would hit .401 in the modern game of baseball; conditions change, and players have to adapt to them and find their niches accordingly. The questions of human freedom, purpose, and responsibility haven’t gone away, and some thinkers today (John Polkinghorne and Robert Russell are two examples) still think that quantum mechanics has important implications for the general philosophical and theological issue of freedom—both for humans (Compton’s main interest) and also for God (Polkinghorne’s main interest). Although I don’t know exactly what Compton would say about this if he were writing now, I suspect that he’d be a great deal more sympathetic to Polkinghorne’s views than to those of either Dawkins or Johnson, despite his use of the term “intelligent design” in 1940 (see the second part of my essay). Possibly, Compton would also be a Trinitarian Christian like Polkinghorne and Russell; he apparently was a Trinitarian early on. Certainly the mileu today is more favorable toward that possibility (see above), but I hesitate to suggest this very strongly. More likely, he would identify fairly closely with Ian Barbour or the late Arthur Peacocke, whose very liberal views of scripture and Jesus he shared. Indeed, the more I learn about the modernists of the 1920s, the more similarities I find with some of the more liberal current thinkers. The continuities I see here stand alongside the contrast pointed out above.

(If I can get John Compton to join in the conversation at some point, Jack, this would be an ideal question to ask him.)

Now that I’ve answered Jack’s questions, I’d like to hear from other readers. You need not pose a question for me; it’s perfectly appropriate simply to comment on something you learned from the essay or to add interesting information of your own about Compton or one of the topics he wrote about. In short, this is your space to use. I’ll respond to as many questions as I can, or at least to general kinds of questions if some questions are similar to one another. I might not have time to respond to everything, but please do not take my silence as an indication of inattention or lack of interest: you’d probably be wrong.


2 comments to Prophet of Science: Arthur Holly Compton, June – Dec 2009; Contemporary

  • Jack Irvine

    To what degree was Compton involved in the beginning of the Manhatten Engineering District (Manhatten Project)? Or was he primarily in the “after-the-war” spin off AEC only?

    • Ted Davis


      Compton was heavily involved all the way along. He was actually Fermi’s boss in Chicago, and Compton was the one who appointed Oppenheimer to lead the big team that designed the bomb. For details about Compton’s activities with the bomb project, see his book, “Atomic Quest.”

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