Science in Christian Perspective




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

From: JASA 37 (December 1985): 232-233

Max K. E. L. Planck (1858-1947), a conservative, never planned a scientific revolution; he never sought a new general philosophy of physics; he merely tried to solve a particular problem.

Born in northern Kiel, he graduated at seventeen with a classical background from the Maximilian Gymnasium in southern Munich, where his family had moved. Later he expressed his indebtedness to his high school teacher of mathematics, Hermann Mflller, who had "the art of making his pupils visualize and understand the laws of physics. My mind absorbed avidly, like a revelation, the first law I knew to possess absolute, universal validity, independently of all human agency-the principle of the conservation of energy.

At the University of Munich he studied mathematics and experimental physics (there was no professor of theoretical physics), primarily with Philipp von Jolly (1809-1884), who bemoaned the apparent completion of physics as a discipline-except for more accurate measurements. For one year he attended the University of Berlin, where he attended the poor lectures of the versatile Hermann L. F. von Helmholtz (1821-1894) and the too polished lectures of the admirabic Gustav Kirchhoff (1824-1887). His thesis resulted from his reading the stimulating Rudolf J.E. Clausius (1822-1888). whose entropy function (1865) he used to clarify the statement of the second law of thermodynamics-much to the displeasure of Kirchhoff, who never accepted the idea that the entropy increase of an irreversible process can be measured by that of a reversible one. Undoubtedly Planck had this in mind when he wrote, years later in his Scientific Autobiography (1948), "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." After serving as an instructor at the University of Munich, at twenty-seven he was appointed Associate Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Kiel (probably through his father's contacts). Four years later he received the same title at the University of Berlin, where he replaced Kirchhoff, he was made professor in four years. At forty-two, at a meeting of the Berlin Physical Society, he announced (1900) his law for the spectral distribution from a "black body"the birth of the Quantum Theory. He received the 1918 Physics Nobel Prize for this achievement.

At seventy-two Planck became President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute Society. In 1945, at the age of eightyseven, an American car brought him from his estate on the Elbe to Gdttingen, where I met him that fall. He died two years later; a eulogy was given at the St. Albani Church by Max von Laue (1879-1960), a former student. His life was marred by personal tragedy: his eldest son had been killed at Verdun in WWI and his second in WWII; his house had been set afire by a bomb; he himself had been buried for several hours in an air raid shelter in Kossel. Yet he had served his country in peace; he had been President of the Academy of Berlin (a member for more than fifty years) and Rector of the University of Berlin (a teacher there for more than forty years).

In science, his proposal of a quantum of action h was epoch making. It was based upon a simple equation S = k In W, where S is entropy, Wis thermodynamic probability, and k is a constant (ironically later named after Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), whose probability interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics had been initially opposed by Planck). His conservatism, however, compelled him to seek unsuccessfully for years an adjustment of his new quantum theory to classical physics. In 1906 he made a significant contribution to Walther H. Nernsts's (1864-1941) heat theorem, the so-called third law of thermodynamics; he established the positive, absolute value for the arbitrary, additive constant for entropy.

Planck was interested in general principles and the unity of physical theory. "I had always regarded the search for the absolute as the loftiest goal of all scientific activity." He was particularly pleased that the quantum of action retained its significance in relativity because of the relativistic invariance of the Principle of Least Action. He was concerned about the very meaning and limits of "exact science." Physical science, he was certain, indicates the existence of a real world-but he felt it is a "real marvel that we encounter natural laws at all which are the same for men of all races and nations." At the same time, science itself reveals a rational world order; the universe seems to have a universal plan. Planck saw the scientist as a man with imagination and faith, i.e., a working hypothesis. For example, the causality principle in science is neither true nor false, but rather a heuristic act of faith on the part of the scientist.

He gradually crystallized his own attitudes to general questions such as the relation of science to religion and the connection between causality and free will. Planck believed in a supernatural being, omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. "Religion is the link that binds man to God"-resulting from "the respectful humility before a supernatural power, to which all human life is subject and which controls our weal and woe." Questions of ethics are outside the realm of natural science. He believed in the absolute values of ethics, e.g., "truthfulness [except for conventional, social morality] is the noblest of all human virtues."

The existence of God is solely and exclusively a matter of faith-a religious faith. He was favorable to all religions, but he himself chose Christianity. He did, however, regret the Church's demands for unquestioning belief, which served to repel questioners. For example, he believed "the faith in miracles must yield, step by step, before the steady and firm advance of the facts of science, and its total defeat is undoubtedly a matter of time."

Planck regarded the unity and order of religion as similar to that of science. Hence he regarded these as compatible inasmuch as they are logically separated; they both have the same goal, i.e., "recognition of an omnipotent intellect ruling the universe." They agree that there is a rational world independent of man, and that the character of this world can not be known directly, but only indirectly recognized or suspected. On the other hand, they do differ; in the case of religion one deals with a personal God, given directly and immediately, whereas in the case of science one has only sense impressions. Thus science enables man to learn; religion requires him to act. Science operates primarily with the intellect, religion with sentiment. Science is objective in that it is concerned with truth or falsity in the material world; religion is subjective in so far as it deals with values, i.e., what ought or ought not to be-good or evil, noble or base. Yet they both oppose scepticism and dogmatism. In their common, overlapping area, however, they do move toward the same objective-like parallel lines toward the point at infinity. "No matter where and how far we look, nowhere do we find contradiction between religion and science"-there is "complete concordance."

This is the sixteenth in a series on religious scientists.