Science in Christian Perspective



Raymond J. Seeger
(NSF Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20816

From: JASA 37 (December 1985): 231-232.

Throughout his life Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), whose uncertainty principle (1927) of quantum mechanics inaugurated the "golden age" (rive years) of atomic physics, basked in the Greek philosophy of his classical education. (His father was Professor of Greek at the University of Munich.) In his last two years at Maximilian Gymnasium, puzzled by a hook-and-eye atomic model in the physics textbook, he found greater satisfaction in Plato's explanation of the perfect solids in terms of simple triangles-a unifying principle behind the universal mutability. His resolve to study mathematics was rebuffed by the disinterest of the mathematics professor in contrast with his warm reception by the theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld (18681961), who became his mentor for the doctorate.

At twenty-one he spent some time at the University of Gottingen, where he became an assistant to Max Born (1882-1970). Three years later he was a Rockefeller scholar at the Neils Bohr (1885-1962) Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. At twenty-five he was made Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Leipzig, where he started his own institute four years later. In 1933 he received the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics for his Uncertainty Principle (1927).

Despite his personal dissatisfaction with Naziism, he decided to remain in Germany. In 1939 he was called up by Army Ordnance to work on atomic energy; he recognized the potentiality of an atomic bomb, but overestimated the technical efforts requisite. In 1941 he became Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics at Dahlem. In May 1945 the British took him captive to Godmanchester, where he was released eight months later. He became Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Gdttingen: renamed the Max Planck Institute in 1947 and transferred to Munich in 1958. Heisenberg died at seventy-five; he had made numerous lecture tours in the U.S.

Heisenberg admitted in his early acquaintance with Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958), "I did not know what was meant by understanding in Physics," His friend replied, "Understanding nature surely means taking a close look at its connections, being certain of its inner workings." He believed "our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language we possess and trying to get an answer from experiments by the means that are at our disposal." Although his quantum mechanics was initially positivistically oriented (a reliance upon observed frequencies and intensities), he himself was not favorable to positivism inasmuch as it does not encourage any theory in its early stages of conception, (e.g., quantum theory). He began his "Physics and Beyond" (197 1) with the statement, "Science is made by man." He was attracted by the simplicity and beauty of the mathematics of idealized nature. (In the Physics Auditorium at the University of G6ttingen is the motto: "Simplex sigillum veri" [the simple is the seal of the true].) A scientific theory has to be true not only to observations, but also to the idea of truth and beauty. "The beauty of nature is reflected in the beauty of science." For him, "In the beginning was symmetry." Hence he was quite pleased with the new physics in which the conservation of matter is lacking and in which there is a limit to the divisibility of the same thirty elementary particles-all being of the same "substance," say, energy, and transformable into one another with similar properties. He looked upon elementary particles as Aristotle's "potential," different kinds being associated with particular fields of force.

He felt that science in the past had often been overly optimistic-probably because it had been over-simplified. Nowadays science limits its understanding more modestly within the framework of experience. Quantum theory, indeed, which has revolutionized all physics, was not initially concerned with a central part of physics.

Heisenberg thought continually about the philosophical implications of science. "It is in quantum theory," he claimed, "that the most fundamental changes with respect to the concept of reality have taken place, and in quantum theory in its final form the new ideas of atomic physics are concentrated and crystallized." "Atomic science has turned science away from the materialistic trend it had during the nineteenth century." He was quite in agreement with the abandonment of the causality principle in order to relate the solution of Schr6dinger's equation to observations. He emphasized the idea of "closed" systems, (definitions, axioms, mathematics), e.g., Newtonian mechanics, heat including statistical mechanics, electrodynamics including restricted relativity, and quantum theory-thus not attempting a single, comprehensive system.

When he was fifty-five, Heisenberg gave the Gifford lectures at St. Andrews on "Physics and Philosophy." He himself was religious, a member of the Evangelische Kirche (Lutheran and Calvinistic mixture), which his family had traditionally attended. As he once wrote me, he obviously did not subscribe to all the tenets of his grandparents. Nevertheless, he and his wife educated their children "definitely along the lines of the Christian religion." He was once asked by Pauli if he believed in a personal God. This was his reply: "Can you, or anyone else, reach the central order of things, or events, whose existence seems beyond doubt, as directly as you can reach the soul of another human being? I am using the term 'soul' quite deliberately so as not to be misunderstood. If you would put the question like that, the answer is yes."

For him "the spiritual pattern of the community [connection between good, beautiful, and true] we call the religion of the community"-it includes culture with or without a god. Religion, he believed, is the foundation of ethics, ethics the prescription of life; it concerns ideals, not norms. It is also the foundation of trust. Faith requires trust; we must believe in-not just about. "If I have found faith, it means I have decided to do something and am willing to stake my life on it." Heisenberg believed one cannot live by distinguishing sharply between knowledge and faith, i.e., science and religion; he felt that modern physics has thrown fresh light on basic ethical and political problems, "Human, philosophical, or political problems will crop up time and again and the author [Heisenberg] hopes to show that science is quite inseparable from these more general questions." He admitted you cannot be a good politician and a good scientist at the same time. He noted with regret Descartes' emphasis upon mind and matter in a world somewhat isolated from God, who became thus more transcendental and less immanent.

This is the fifteenth in a series on scientists and their religion.