Remarkable attitude of Max Planck to religion
Adam Roman (18. July 2001)
The view that an important physicist's positive attitude towards a religion proves the truth of that religion, or at least the truth of the statement that there is no contradiction between science and religion, is false. It is the classical (and fallacious) argumentum ad hominem, which is encountered in a vulgar form, for example, if one rejects a view just because the person expressing it is disreputable. However, even a homeless person can be correct about a specific issue while an educated and highly-placed man may be wrong. The truth is reached only by logic and not by a person's reputation. There is a priori no definite correlation between a person's circumstances and the truth of the statements he makes. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know what great scientists thought about religion at different times. Modern readers will be obviously interested mostly in the views of modern scientists.
Even the most famous physicist, Albert Einstein, expressed his attitude to the relation between science and religion, and his views show unambiguously that he was at least agnostic, if not a positive atheist. Despite this, many people continue to harp on the claim that he believed in some god, though these declarations are supported just by his isolated sentences, like "I do not believe that God plays dice with the universe ". Why? Because, those who repeat those claims know too little about science and Einstein. They have heard something somewhere, gladly believed it and are diffusing it further. I would like to help them selflessly: I am drawing their attention to the fact that the equally famous scientist, Max Planck, explicitly said that there is not the slightest contradiction between science and religion. I will analyse this claim in this essay. I hope believers will be grateful to me at least for furnishing them with a more serious argument in support of their belief than the feeble example of Einstein. Maybe they will pray for me in gratitude. The believing anti-Semites (there are still a lot of them who cannot forgive the Jews that "they have killed our savior") may even be delighted by the lucky coincidence that Einstein was a Jew whereas Planck was definitely not.
Max Planck (1858-1947) is one of the "founding fathers" of modern physics. He formulated one of the most important physical theories of the 20th century – quantum mechanics, winning the Nobel prize in 1918. He may not have been as well known by the lay public as Albert Einstein (1879-1955), but unlike Einstein he expressed himself about the topic of science and religion quite clearly. That is why I am always amazed when someone quotes neither fish nor fowl statements of Einstein, originating in such obscure sources as hasty discussions with journalists, or hurriedly written letters, but says nothing about Max Planck, who reached his stand towards religion with deliberation and made it perfectly clear.
Moreover, as I have already noted, Einstein was clearly an agnostic, while one can hardly say the same about Planck. Therefore I will try to elucidate the attitude of Planck to religion and give my critical opininon on it. I will take as my point of departure a trustworthy work published on almost 30 pages, which is definitely more than usually quoted isolated sentences of Einstein. Thirty pages represent already a scope of serious scientific review paper and a scientist of world importance had to be definitely able to express on that number of pages everything he wished to tell. I am speaking about the lecture "Religion und Naturwissenschaft" (Religion and Science), delivered in May 1937.
By way of introduction, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says this about Max Planck:
Planck became permanent secretary of the mathematics and physics sections of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1912 and held that position until 1938; he was also president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (now the Max Planck Society) from 1930 to 1937. These offices and others placed Planck in a position of great authority, especially among German physicists; seldom were his decisions or advice questioned. His authority, however, stemmed fundamentally not from the official appointments he held but from his personal moral force. His fairness, integrity, and wisdom were beyond question. It was completely in character that Planck went directly to Hitler in an attempt to reverse Hitler's devastating racial policies and that he chose to remain in Germany during the Nazi period to try to preserve what he could of German physics.
Planck was a man of indomitable will. Had he been less stoic, and had he had less philosophical and religious conviction, he could scarcely have withstood the tragedies that entered his life after age 50. In 1909, his first wife, Marie Merck, the daughter of a Munich banker, died after 22 years of happy marriage, leaving Planck with two sons and twin daughters. The elder son, Karl, was killed in action in 1916. The following year, Margarete, one of his daughters, died in childbirth, and in 1919 the same fate befell Emma, his other daughter. World War II brought further tragedy. Planck's house in Berlin was completely destroyed by bombs in 1944. Far worse, the younger son, Erwin, was implicated in the attempt made on Hitler's life on July 20, 1944, and in early 1945 he died a horrible death at the hands of the Gestapo. That merciless act destroyed Planck's will to live. At war's end, American officers took Planck and his second wife, Marga von Hoesslin, whom he had married in 1910 and by whom he had had one son, to Göttingen. There, on October 4, 1947, in his 89th year, he died. Death, in the words of James Franck, came to him "as a redemption".
Let me begin with a couple of technical notes. My source represents the 14th stitched edition of the lecture from the year 1958 (Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag, Leipzig). I will identify quotations using German paging (Seite, shortened to S.) according to this edition. I will insert my own remarks inside the quotes into [square brackets]. Since the original does not make use of italics, I will use them to denote what I have deemed necessary to stress. The text of the lecture is written in relatively "archaic" German and that is why I do not exclude minor grammatical errors but I do exclude substantive errors. To minimize errors caused by my – far from perfect – translation, I will occassionally give the original version of some not quite unambiguous expressions in German original (in parentheses).
Let us turn to the Planck's lecture itself. After a short commented quotation from Goethe's Faust the great physicist arrives at an introductory formulation:
The history of all times and nations teaches us that exactly in the naive, unshakable belief, furnished by religion in active life of believers, originate the most intense motives for the most significant creative performance, not only in the field of arts and sciences but also in politics. (S. 5)Max Planck, as logically thinking scientist knows, that this positive evaluation of religious belief should be complemented also by the criticism of its antithesis – atheism:
Under these conditions it is no wonder, that the movement of atheists (Gottlosenbewegung), which declares religion to be just a delibarate illusion, invented by power-seeking priests, and which has for the pious belief in a higher power nothing but words of mockery, eagerly makes use of progressive scientific knowledge and in a presumed unity with it, expands in an ever faster pace its disintegrating action on all nations of the earth and on all social levels. I do not need to explain in any more detail that after its victory not only all the most precious treasures of our culture would vanish, but – which is even worse – also any prospects at a better future. (S. 7)
Would you expect in any preaching, or in any pastoral letter a more clear or sharper formulation? I would not. And that is just the beginning! I hope it is now sufficiently clear that when I have decided to cope with Max Plank's attitude towards religion, I have chosen to tackle probably the most competent apologist. Of course, I have done this deliberately. The argumentation of menial defenders of religion is not worth spending the time to refute. If I must argue, let it be against the views of the most intellectually capable opponent. If I succeed in this case, the disputes with lesser adversaries will be superfluous. Moreover, by succesfully refuting the arguments of a Nobel prize winner will appease me sufficiently; an easy victory over an average scientist would not please me as much. And finally, no one can accuse me of avoiding difficult arguments. No, I am going to take on the highest authority, the only important physicist – to my knowledge – who outspokenly claimed his adherence to a religious belief.
After stating preliminary initial attitudes, Max Planck goes on to a clear and unambiguous formulation of the goals of his lecture:
I would like – from a viewpoint of the scientist, raised in the spirit of exact natural sciences – to elucidate the question whether, and to what extent, an actually religious outlook is compatible with the knowledge furnished by natural sciences. Or more briefly: whether a man educated in natural science can be at the same time a genuine believer.No one will doubt that this last sentence represents an excellent and well formulated program for a good lecture. The latter is divided into four parts and I take the liberty of adding my own titles to the last three of them (the introductory one is just behind us) for the sake of clarity.
To this effect we have to treat fully independently two specific questions. The first of them is: what requirements a religion poses on the belief of its followers and what are the tokens of real religiosity? The second question is: what kind of laws the natural science teaches us and what truths are untouchable (unantastbar) to it?
By answering both questions we will be able to decide whether, and to what extent, the requirements (Forderungen) of religion are compatible with requirements of natural science and if therefore religion and natural science can stay side by side without contradicting each other. (S. 8)
After the first introductory part the author pays attention to answering the first of the above questions, he is thus speaking about religious belief.
Religion represents a bond (Bindung) of man to god. It consists in reverent aw of supernatural might (Macht), to which human life is subordinated [?] and which has in its power (Gewalt) our wellfare and misery (Wohl und Wehe). To remain in permanent contact with this might and keep it all the time inclined to oneself, is the unending effort and the highest goal of believing man. Because only [?] in such a way can one feel himself safe before expected and unexpected dangers, which threaten one in his life, and can take part in the highest happiness – inner psychical peace – which can be attained only [?] by means of strong bond to god and unconditional trust to his omnipotence and willingness to help. As far as here the religion originates in the consciousness of individual man. (S. 9)
Unfortunately, already at this place I begin loosing my confidence whether I understand the author correctly. Is Max Planck claiming that human life is really subordinated to supernatural might or is he just claiming that a believing man thinks so? These are namely very different claims and the author could be more precise with respect to them. I would better accept a more objective definition of religion, e. g. the following one:
Thus I define religion as the awareness – accompanied by the emotions and determined by them – of dependence from something, defined by the tradition, which at the given stage of cultural evolution of man exceeds his cognitive capabilities; this awareness then causes in man, under the action of emotions and tradition, volitive states leading to an endeavor to change somehow the supposed dependence or at least perform some influence on what the man of given cultural stage considers to be the cause of the dependence. (Otakar Pertold, What is religion?, Naše vojsko, Praha 1956, [in Czech]. p. 12)
Of course, Planck was not an ethnographer as Pertold and he expressed himself according to his conscience. Let us, however, continue further.
But the value of religion exceeds the individual. Not only every man has its own religion but the religion requires its validity for larger community, for nation, race ... Since god reigns equally over all countries of the world, the whole world with all its treasures and horrors is subdued to him ... Therefore the cultivation (Pflege) of religion leads its confessors to an extensive bond and puts them before the task to acquaint (verständigen) themselves mutually about their belief and to give it a common expression. This is, however, attainable only by giving certain outer form to the contents of religion which fits by its illustrative power for this mutual acquaintance. Under the conditions of great diversity of nations and their living conditions it is only natural that those forms are largely different in indiviudal parts of the world and that therefore during the times a very great number of religions has appeared. All the religions have, however, a common natural assumption (nächstliegende Annahme), that god can be imagined as a person (Persönlichkeit), or at least as similar to man ... Every religion has its own mythology and its specific rite ... For formation of religious cult follow from this certain symbols which are suitable to influence imagination of wide circles of people (weiter Kreise im Volke), so that they awaken in them interests in religious questions and enabled them certain undarstanding of god. (S. 9-10)
These lines demonstrate, in my opinion, that Planck denotes by the term "god" (which he, unfortunately, nowhere defines) something which represents a source of all religions. I can disclose already now that till the end of the lecture no name of any specific god will appear, especially not the name of Christ. Planck evidently understands the notion of god philosophically, not theologically.
Next the author pays – in my opinion inadequate – attention to the sense of symbol. From this part I choose only a few examples with no effort to create a coherent whole.
The worship of god is thus symbolically manifested in a systematic summarization of mythological tradition (Überlieferung) and in obedience of solemn ritual habits ... The holiness (Heiligkeit) of incomprehensible deity is transferred to the holiness of comprehensible symbols ... A work of art has its meaning essentially in itself (S. 10) ... A religious symbol, on the contrary, points always above itself, its value is never exhausted in itself ... a winged angel was considered from ancient times to be the most beautiful symbol of god's servant and messenger. Nowadays we will find among anatomically educated believers some, which are prevented by their scientifically educated imagination from considering such physiological impossibility beautiful, despite their best efforts. This circumstance, however, does not cause the slightes harm to their religious attitudes ... (S. 11)
But the overestimation of the importance of religious symbols is threatened still by another – much more serious – danger from the side of the movement of atheists (Gottlosenbewegung). One of the most favorite methods of this movement, aiming at undermining of every genuine religiosity, is to direct its attacks against traditional (alteingebürgerten) religious customs and ridiculing or dishonoring them as obsolete institutions. With such attacks against symbols they hope to hit the religion itself, and they have the easier task (Spiel) the stranger and more striking such views and customs look. Many a religious soul (religiöse Seele) has fallen pray to such a tactics.
There is no better defense against such peril than to realize that religious symbol ... does never represent an abolute value but is always only a more or less imperfect reference to something higher which is not directly accessible to our senses. (S. 12)
The simplest (but indecent) standpoint to these statements would be to denote them as views of a bigoted believer because they actually look so. But perhaps nobody would expect today from a Nobel prize winner what follows. To elucidate the meaning of symbol Max Planck chooses rather unusual example, and this choice reveals, in my view, all sort of things.
Symbol of pride and honor of a famous regiment is its flag. The older it is, the higher counts its value. And its bearer considers to be his highest obligation not to let it under any conditions in lurch (im Stich), he is ready to cover it in the case of need with his body and if necessary to sacrify even his life for it. And nevertheless, the flag is just a symbol, a piece of motley cloth (ein Stück buntes Tuch). Enemy can steal it, dirty or tear it. But he will not in any case destroy the higher, which the flag stands for. The regiment will save its honor, acquires a new flag and maybe will revenge for the dishonor. (S. 13)
I do not know how do you like this, but to me the Prussian militaristic spirit of this example is simply disgusting. I namely think that human life represents, as a rule, the highest value, and to accept the militaristic ideology, as represented in these words of Max Planck with utter platitude, is not worth a self-confident free man. There is nothing which one could denote as a pride and honor of a regiment – those notions are absolutely vacuous and void!! And a Nobel prize winner speaks about them as about something meaningful. The mere fact, that he has chosen precisely such an example, cannot be pardoned. A banner does not represent anything, it is really just a peace of rag! Planck evidently mentions this example since he considers it for self-evident that everybody is willing to sacrifice his own life for a piece of rag. I recommend you reading on this topic a much better (pacifist) novel: Dalton Trumbo, Johnny got his gun (Lyle and Stuart, New York 1979), or All Quiet on the Western Front by E. M. Remarque. Already as a child I hated for the same reason the novel Son of the Regiment by Valentine Katayev as well as all those Soviet movies in which soldiers, before a fight, were not just kissing, but actually sucking the regiment banners.
What view would probably Max Planck give on burning of the American flag in Palestine or Iraq, which symbolically represents hate against American imperialism? Would he consider the flag as the symbol of USA? Definitely. But would he consider hateful burning to be an understandable human act of the same category and value as the reverence for religious symbol? Both these acts actually represent the behavior of the same essence because irrational reverence and hate differ only in their "mathematical sign". In my view both are disgusting.
Try now to transfer the insuitability of the above example to the following text, for the sake of which – to its "propedeutic" elucidation – this disgusting example had been chosen.
And equally as in army, or in any society challenged by important tasks, also in religion, symbols – and church rites adapted to those symbols – are absolutely indispensable (völlig unentbehrlich), they represent the highest and the most respectable what the imagination, directed towards the heaven, had created; it is just necessary never to forget that even the saintest symbol is of human origin.
In the previous remark about flag I wanted to suggest that one can speak meaningfully about relation between an object and its symbol only under the condition that the existence and value of an object is proved, verified or at least probable (plausible). But nothing like this Max Planck has demonstrated till now for religion. And I am not going to accept the analogy between army and religion, as something challenged by important tasks, even from a Nobel prize winner. In the same way as I do not see any meaning of symbols in army, I do not see it in any religion either. Of course, it is just my personal view which I do not force on anyone. I only entertain a secrete hope that the appeal to analogy between belief and army will not fall into good soil even among present-day believers. But let us continue with the immediately following paragraph.
If people would take this truth to heart at all times, the mankind could spare immense suffering and sorrow. Horrifying religious wars, cruel victimization of heretics with all their mournful accompanying outcomes, can be namely explained ultimately by the clash of some contradictions, which both had certain grounds and which originated only in that some common invisible idea, as the belief in omnipotent god, was substituted by its disparate tokens, as are e. g. religious creeds (Bekenntnis). There can be probably nothing more somber than when one sees how each of the two mercilessly exterminating rivals feels himself obliged to sacrifice to the fight his best forces, even his own life, with the fullest persuasion about the justice of his case and with the feeling of righteous enthusiasm. What good could be done if such precious forces would unite in the field of religious action instead of annihilating each other. (S. 14)The clue to the success in constructing scientific theories lies in ablility to reveal in observed phenomena their deepest essence, to simplify the phenomena to this essence and to explain essential properties discovered by the simplification. In physics such simplification is all the time watched by the mathematical apparatus which will not allow to make oversimplifications which would lead to losing the essence of the phenomenon in question. When the genius of Max Planck flung himself to simplification in explaining the essence of religion and its diversity – because that is the topic of previous paragraphs – he had not found support in mathematics and that is why, as it seems to me, he simplified the situation excessively. It would be really suscpiciously simple if the blame for religious wars could be reduced to substitution of the essence with its different symbols. If we would even accept for a while such an explanation, we would be immediately facing the question, why should people immediately kill or burn each other for the sake of difference in symbols? Let the "symbols" of creeds be different as much as possible, they agree on the command "thou shalt not kill" and both sides violated this common order. If Max Planck is complaining that the cause of religious wars was the interchange of belief in omnipotent god by its manifestations, I would suggest a much more effective solution: not to believe in any unproven claims, not to believe in omnipotent god. I am not going to analyze this question further, I just want to remark modestly that outside physics the common sense failed even Max Planck himself.
We are now approaching the crucial paragraph which stupefied me at the first reading 20 years ago to the extent that I felt disgusted even with the Nobel laureate. At that time I made a note in the margin: "What was then the purpuse of all the talk before?!" Let us have a look at the paragraph which challenges everything told before.
But by admitting this state of affairs, the signs of genuine religious outlook are on no account exhaustively clarified. Because now still another question comes forth, actually the fundamental one: Has the higher power, standing behind the religious symbols and conferring on them their essential contents, its seat only in the spirit (Geist) of man and vanishes at his death or does it represent something more? In other words: does god live only in the soul (Seele) of the believer or does he govern the world independetly of the fact whether one believes in him or not? That is the point on which people diverge fundamentally and definitely. It can never and in no way be explained by scientific methods, i. e. by logical reasonings based on facts (Tatsachen). Response to this question is exclusively (einzig und allein) matter of belief, the religious belief [and why not the belief of an atheist?]. (S. 15)
Actually, what was the sense of 15 pages of explaining (almost half of the lecture) what is the essence of belief, what is its significance for an individual, why in different countries religions are different, what is the relation between belief and its symbols? What was the purpose of serious warnings against atheists and their tactics, if ingenious physicist concedes after all that bluntly that belief has nothing in common with facts, logic, nor reason?
But a kind of one-sided attitude of the author is immediately conspicuous here. He does not pay the slightest attention to the possibility that god could reside only in the soul of man. In case of scientific undecidability of the question, the view of nonbeliever is perfectly equal to the view of believer and it would be proper to consider both alternatives equally. Strange is also the statement that the question can be answered only by believers but not by infidels. Why should it be so?
Note, however, what is Max Planck actually saying, what follows from his statements. Max Planck does not suppose that there are philosphical arguments in favor of god's existence, he does not mention arguments of Thomas Aquinas, he does not make the slightest allusions to the effect that "from motion and causal effects, from randomness, order and beauty of the world one can recognize God as the origin and goal of the universe" (Katechism of Catholic Church, § 32). Who else should recognize god "from randomness" if not the creator of quantum mechanics, the discipline which introduced into physics the wave function with the help of which one can predict quantum states only with certain probability. Really, Einstein and Planck were the right ones who could with certainty "recognize God as the origin and goal of the universe" – but as it seems – they did not recognize Him. The "smaller scientists" however recognize Him without the slightest hesitation and actually at the first sight. Of course, everyone has right to any belief but not the right to claim that this belief is true, since the truth must be proved, it is not sufficient just to declare it.
Believing person answers this question by saying that God existed sooner than man was on the earth, that he keeps from eternity in his allmighty hand the whole world, believers and nonbelievers alike and that he will remain throning without any change at the height unaccessible to any human possibilities of comprehension even when the earth with everything on it will be for a long time in wrecks. All those, but only those, who confess this belief and who are penetrated by it, who feel in awe and devoted trust under the guard of the allmighty be protected from all dangers of life, can consider themselves to be genuinly religiously thinking (Gesinnten). (S. 15)
To summarize, Planck speaks so far only about the question, who can be considered a believer. It is, however, quite clear to him that in the case of belief one cannot speak about truth: one just believes in religion. As far as this, his attitude is honest. He does not concoct pseudoproofs of God's existence, he does not claim that he has stumbled upon God's tracks, he is not saying that science needs God. But one has also to see that the God he is speaking about, is not the God of Abraham nor Isaac, he is not the God who handed The Ten Commandments to Moses, he is not the father of Jesus Christ. One has to realize that in his concept of belief there is no place for the the history of exodus of Israel from Egypt, for messianic prophecies, for resurrection of Christ, there is no room for salvation, nor forgiveness of sins after confession. In the very beginning Planck namely has deprived his conception of religion of all the miracles. I have intentionally concealed the fact that already in the introduction, after the very first cited paragraph, he says:
We must, however, not deceive ourselves – this naive belief does not exist nowadays even among common people, and it cannot be revived by backwards oriented (rückwärts gerichtete) considerations and measures. Since to believe means to consider something true (fürwahrhalten), and the growing knowledge of the nature, proceeding forwards incessantly along incontestably reliable path, had led to the result that for a man educated at least slightly in natural sciences it is entirely (schlechterdings) impossible to consider as reliable many reports about extraordinary events contradicting natural laws, about miracles (Naturwunder) which used to be generally accepted as essential support and confirmation (Bekräftigung) of religious teachings and which people considered formerly as facts without critical examination (Bedenken). (S. 5)
The one who takes his religion really seriously and cannot tolerate that it gets into contradiction with his knowledge (Wissen), is facing the question of conscience whether he can still honestly consider himself to be a member of religious community which in its confession (Bekenntnis) contains belief in miracles.
For a certain period of time many a believer could find a kind of reconciliation in an effort to take the middle way and to restrict his belief to acceptance (Anerkennung) of few miracles, considered to be extremely important. However, such a position is not tenable for a long time. The belief in miracles must retreat step by step before relentlessly and reliably progressing science and we cannot doubt that sooner or later it must vanish completely (zu Ende gehen muss). (S. 6)
I think that the resurrection of Christ belongs also to the above mentioned extremely important miracles and that it cannot be defended for a long time either. If we consider Planck as believer, then he is a believer which does not believe in miracles. I am not sure whether the majority of believers agrees with such restriction of their belief. So that believenig scientists, if you agree with Planck, you should decide whether you will believe in miracles and will thus be excluded from the community of people "educated at least slightly in natural sciences", or you will not believe in them any more and you will not believe in resurrection of Christ either. Planck does not seem to see another alternative. He is, however, somehow reluctant in leading this dilemma to the close in the rest of the lecture, despite the above clear formulation. That is why I hold his attitude for "remarkable", for full of contradictions.
The next part of the lecture, in which Max Planck is going to explain the laws of nature, is introduced by stating that
our task will be simplified and for our purposes it will be sufficient if we stick to the most exact of all natural sciences – physics. The contradiction with the requirements of religion could namely always be expected from the latter. We have thus to ask what kind of knowledge is furnished by physical science up to the most modern time and what boundaries it eventually prescribes to the religious belief.
I hope it is not necessary to stress that from the overall historical perspective the results of physical research and the views ensuing from them are not subject to aimless changes but are ... all the time perfected and refined so that the results obtained up to the present can be viewed with highest certainty as permanent. (S. 16)
The following explanation of the essentials of the measurement process and a fierce dispute with positivists, especially what concerns the interpretation of quantum mechanics, will be probably of no deep interest for a common reader. A summary will be sufficient:
Summarizing we can say that physical science requires an assumption of a real world independent of us, which we, however, never know directly but always only through the spectacles of perceptions of our senses and with the help of measurements mediated by them. (S. 19)
The undoubtable result of physical research consists in that elementary building elements of the world do not occur in isolated groups, lacking mutual relations, but they are all connected according to a uniform plan, or in other words, that in all natural processes a universal, to a certain extent knowable, regularity (Gesetzlichkeit) rules. (S. 20)
The formulation and explanation of energy conservation law follows, interwoven with critique of its positivist interpretation. The author then goes over to explanation of the principle of the least action.
There exists, however, still another, more comprehensive law, which is rather special in that it gives to any meaningful question, concerning the course of physical processes, a unique answer and this law has, as far as we can see, exact validity even in the most modern physics, equally as the energy conservation law. What we, however, have to view as the greatest miracle (allergrösste Wunder), is the fact that the adequate formulation of this law makes in any unprejudiced man an impression as if the nature would be governed by a reasonable, purposeful will (vernünftigen, zweckbewussten Willen). (S. 22)Max Planck illustrates the principle using the example of light bending in inhomogeneous medium:
When a beam of light emitted from a glowing star reaches an eye of an observer, its path – if the star is not exactly in the zenith – will show a more or less complicated bending, resulting from the different refractions in different air layers. The bending can be fully explained by the following law: from all the paths, leading from the star to the observer's eye, the light uses (benutzt) always exactly the one, the traversion of which requires, under consideration of different velocities of light in different air layers, the shortest time. Photons, which form the light ray, thus behave as reasonable creatures (vernünftige Wesen). They choose from all possible trajectories which they have at their disposal, always such ones, which will lead them to the goal in the shortest time. (S. 23)
The author generalizes those, already too anthropomorphic descriptions, still further in an excessive and unadequate way, using the statements, from which I choose only fragments:
It is certainly not surprising, that the discovery of this law, the so called principle of the least action, ... , has led its discoverer Leibniz, equally as soon afterwards Maupertuis, the follower of the latter, into euphoria, since those scientists believed that they had discovered in it a palpable sign of the reign (Walten) of a higher, the nature supremely governing, reason.
Actually, the principle of the least action introduces into the notion of causality a new idea: causa efficiens, the cause which acts from the present into the future and due to which the later events look like conditioned by the earlier ones, is supplemented by causa finalis which, on the contrary, makes future, the desired goal, a precondition and from this it derives the course of processes leading to that goal. (S. 24)
... theoretical physical research has led in its historical evolution strikingly to formulation of physical laws which have definitely teleological character (S. 25)
In any case, we can say in summarizing, that according to what exact sciences teach us, the whole nature ... is governed by certain laws, which are independent of the existence of thinking humanity, but which nevertheless ... admit formulation which corresponds to a purposeful behavior. This then represents a rational world order (vernünftige Weltordnung), to which nature and mankind is subject, the actual essence of which is, and will remain unknowable for us, since we learn about it only by means of our specific sense perceptions (S. 25) ... Really rich results of scientific research, however, entitle our belief in ... steady deepening of our outlooks into the reign of allmighty reason (allmächtigen Vernunft) ruling over the nature. (S. 26)
I do not have any reason nor right to interpret the words of famous physicist in the same figurative way as Catholics are interpreting the Bible, so that I can simply state that Max Planck has overdone it a bit. The formulation that "photons behave as reasonable creatures" could be saved by pointing to the word "as", which admits that photons are, nevertheless, no reasonable creatures, but the statement that photons "choose" their trajectories, is really overexaggerated even (or right) for a popular lecture. The truth is such that any physical law can be expressed also in the so called variational form. This represents a trivial fact, known to any physicist, which should be actually known also to any engineer. It means nothing more than that for any law we can find certain quantity, which will be kept by this law minimal (or maximal). Usually those quantities do not have any immediate physical meaning. Max Planck had here chosen an example in which the quantity has the immediate meaning – namely the time.
To be able to derive from this the conclusions about something like a free will of a photon, he should prove that the quantity must be, for some physical reasons, really minimal. But it is minimal only "by coincidence" and there is no real reason why it should be such. This interpretation had been defended by Planck quite seriously even before physicists, but he encountered a severe criticism of all of them, including, e. g. Max Born. Today, every physicist knows that here the grandmaster committed a mistake. It is not my duty to judge to what extent he made the mistake because he wanted to find at least a feeble support for the belief in "a certain" god. For me, this represents a part of his struggle against positivism, which he had lost. The present day physics is entirely positivist, and it was precisely Planck's quantum mechanics which had been the starting impetus for the emergence of serious positivism. It is the irony of fate that in this fight Max Planck stood at the same side of the barricade as the marxist-leninists (the Lenin's Materialism and empiriocriticism represents a frantic attack at the positivism, which comrade Lenin hated even more than Max Planck).
Only last four pages are devoted to the real goal of the whole lecture, the analysis of interrelations between religion and science.
Having discovered what requirements religion and sciences put on our attitude to the uppermost questions of the world view, we are now going to investigate whether, and to what extent, those two kinds of requirements can be brought into mutual agreement. It is primarily evident that this investigation (Prüfung) can concern only such laws in which religion and sciences meet each other. There are namely many fields in which they do not have anything in common. For example, all questions of ethics are irrelevant for natural sciences, equally as the values of natural constants are of no meaning for the religion.
The religion and science meet, on the contrary, in the question about the existence and essence of the supreme power (Macht) governing the world, and here the answers they both furnish, are at least to a certain extent mutually comparable. They are in no way, as we have seen, in contradiction (Widerspruch), but they agree in that firstly, there exists a reasonable world order (vernünftiger Weltordnung) independent from man and secondly, the essence of this order is never knowable directly, but only indirectly, or it can be only intuitively guessed. Religion uses to this effect its own specific (eigentümlichen) symbols, exact sciences use measurements based on sensual perceptions. In this sense nothing prevents us – and our instinct of knowledge, demanding a unified world view, even requires it – to identify the world order of natural sciences with the god of religion (Gott der Religion). According to this, the deity (die Gottheit), which believing man strives to approach using his visual symbols, is in its essence identical (wesensgleich) with the power of natural laws (naturgesetzlichen Macht), about which the researching man learns to a certain extent with the help of sensual experiences. (S. 26-27)
I think this is the proper place to pose my favorite question: what had to have happen to the Nobel prize winner in order that he made such an incredible thought jump? At first he just modestly admits that science and religion give "at least to a certain extent mutually comparable" answers but in a moment he considers them to be completely identical. I take it for granted that two different people can give different answers to the same question. I cannot conclude that the answers are equal just because they answer the same question, or because they are "comparable". For the same reason I cannot identify religious symbols with the results of measurements (in what sense are, for god's sake, religious symbols and measurements comparable?!). The statement that the world was created by the devil, having the most evil intentions with it, is also quite a good answer to the question about the essence of the power reigning over the world. The devil's order would also be a reasonable world order and it would be maybe even less comprehensible by human reason.
How could the Nobel prize winner utter the statement "nothing prevents us to identify the world order with the god"??!! In order to prove a specific equivalence, is it sufficient that nothing prevents us in doing this?? But nothing prevents us in identifying whatever with whatever! In logical thinking the question is not whether anything prevents us, but whether something forces us ! Ingenious Max Planck commits here a trivial logical fallacy: if one has to prove that A = B, one has to prove that A => B (A implies B) and that at the same time B => A, i. e. equivalence is proven as a two-way implication. Equivalence has really to be proved, not waved aside by stating that nothing prevents us in postulating it willfully. If Planck would ask a question what forces us to admit the above identification, he would definitely had to answer: nothing at all.
Let us dwell for a while on the statement expressing in Planck's view the similitude between science and religion: "the essence of this order is never knowable directly, but only indirectly, or it can be only intuitively guessed". I think the difference between religious and scientific unknowablility is immense. Religion says nothing reasonable about nature, whereas science managed to predict even the bending of light in gravitational field. Planck knew definitely a lot about scientific predictability, but here he made voluntarily a "divine fool" (1 Cor 1, 25) of himself. But let him continue, even if he will evidently not tell us anything new.
In this identification, however, we have to take into account also one essential difference. For a religious man the god is given immediately and primarily. In him, in his allmighty will, originates all life and all happenings in bodily as in spiritual life. Though he cannot be grasped by reason, he is, nevertheless, directly perceived through religious symbols and he puts his holy message in the souls of those who give up to him in faith [here Planck does not consider god to be a world order, since the latter, as far as I know, does not send any holy messages]. On the contrary, for a scientist, the only primarily given facts are the contents of his sensual perceptions and the measurements following from them. Scientists use the latter to approach, as close as possible, god and his world order, as the highest, eternally unattainable goal, with the help of inductive researches, [is this actually the sole goal of any scientist?]. If then, both religion and science, need for their activities the belief in god [does the science really need god – this is stated here for the first time, with no justification], the god stands for the former in the beginning, for the latter at the end of the whole thinking. For the former, god represents the basis, for the latter the crown of any reasoning concerning the world view. (S. 27)
This difference corresponds to different roles played in human life by religion and science. Science needs man for gaining knowledge, religion, however, needs him for action [aha, and I had no idea at all till now, what is the religion good for!] ... Since we find ourselves amidst life and must ... frequently make instant decisions, ... in which we are not helped by long deliberation but only by a safe and clear guidance (Weisung), which we will gain from immediate contact with god [here again god cannot be identical with the world order, because the latter does not provide anyone with quick guidance] ... and if besides omnipotence and omniscience we ascribe god [we really can ascribe god anything at will?] also the attributes of good and love [I thought all the time that god has properties independent of us, but here I see that they are given him by people], then resorting to him (Zuflucht zu ihm) guarantees a man, who is in search for consolation, higher measure of reliable feeling of happiness. One cannot object anything against such an idea from the standpoint of science, since the questions of ethics, as we have already emphasized, do not belong at all to its competence. (S. 28)
Are those words spoken still by a scientist or already by a theologian? Science is treated here already as a footrag, it is used to any imaginable purpose. But the claim that science is not qualified for questions of ethics, is really bold. It is really a pity that Max Planck has not recalled here the incompetence of religion in questions of truth. The belief, as he himself noted, has nothing in common with reason and thus neither with truth.
Those two paragraphs confirm as well that frequently made declarations – like the following one of Lise Meitner (1878-1968), Swedish woman physicist of Austrian origin, being told evidently in an effort to save Planck's reputation – are also not true: "It is certain that Planck did not believe in any specific form of religion; but he was religious (in the sense of Spinoza and Goethe) and repeatedly pointed it out. And since he was one of the most truthful of persons, there must have been a profound feeling behind his words that was a strong aid to him in the tragic vicissitudes of his life" (Lise Meitner, 1958). It is also not true what Planck himself told later: "I have always been deeply religiously disposed, but I do not believe in a personal God, not to mention a Christian God. You would find more about this in my essay on 'religion and science'." In the above citations Planck speaks about god endowed with attributes of good and love, to whom people are resorting. Those are, however, not the properties of impersonal god of Spinoza nor Goethe. Told in plain language, in the questions of religion Planck was neither flesh nor fowl: in public lecture he expressed himself so as to cause the listeners think that he is exactly such believer as they are, but in a private letter he confessed that nevertheless he was in a sense different.
We have arrived at last to the end of the lecture. Since Max Planck decided to conclude it in the same nice way as a priest his preaching, we will not disturb him and will give the full translation of the last paragraphs without interruption. The comments will follow afterwards. Read this text carefully, please, because very serious things are treated here rather carelessly.
As far as we can see, between religion and natural sciences we find nowhere contradiction (Widerspruch), in decisive points, on the contrary, we see even complete agreement (volle Übereinstimmung). Religion and science do not exclude each other, as many think or fear today, but they complement and condition each other. Maybe the most direct proof of compatibility (Verträglichkeit) of religion and natural science represents, even under detailed critical scrutiny, the historical fact that exactly the most important scientists of all ages, men as Kepler, Newton, Leibniz were penetrated (durchdrungen) by the deep religiosity [does anybody know for sure, what was the contents of their devotion?]. In the beginnings of our culture [in the Ancient Ages?], those who promoted natural sciences [natural sciences appeared only somewhere in the 17th century] and those who protected religion, were even joined in personal union. The oldest applied science, medicine [application of leeches and bloodletting were applications of science?], was in the hands of priests and scientific research was even in the Middle Ages conducted in monastery cells [does one speak here still about natural science?]. Later, under continuing refinement and branching of culture, their paths began diverging in accordance with the diversity of tasks the religion and science served.
But so little as knowing can be substituted by world view insight (weltanschauliche Gesinnung), even less the correct attitude to moral questions can be derived from purely rational knowledge [but it can be, see Paul Kurtz!]. But both paths do not diverge but continue in parallel and meet in the distant infinity in the same goal.
In order that we can understand this correctly, there is no better way than a steady effort, to grasp constantly deeper the essence and the tasks: on the one side, of the scientific knowledge, on the other one, of the religious belief. Then it will appear with always greater clarity that even though the methods are different – because science works mainly with reason and religion mainly with insight (Gesinnung) – the sense of their work and the direction of their progress coincide perfectly.
Religion and science wage together an incessantly continuing, never slackening fight against skepticism and dogmatism, against disbelief (Unglaube) and superstition (Aberglaube) and the guiding slogan in this fight is from times immemorial and into the whole future: Up to God! (Hin zu Gott) (S. 29-30)
With this stirring exclamation the lecture concludes. It probably made a great impression on the audience in 1937. In the time of Hitler's successful rise to power and clearly disappearing democracy, the Nobel prize winner appealed to moral and thus he indirectly called against Nazi dictatorship. Let us remind that at that time he was 79 years old, three of four of his children were dead and he certainly did not suspect that thanks to Hitler he will outlive also his last son. But, unfortunately, we cannot be interested in the circumstances of the lecture, nor in Planck's motives, we have only to ask the question whether the author had fulfilled the goals proclaimed in its beginning, whether he actually reliably demonstrated what he promised.
I would denote the vocabulary of those last paragraphs as careless. The author just proclaims the majority of his statements and gives no precise meaning to the notions he uses. He claims e. g that there is no contradiction between religion and science. Of course, if we identify god with natural laws and forbid him to do miracles, then we actually cannot expect any great contradiction. This statement could be much better understood in the sense that science and religion treat so disparate topics that they even cannot get into any contradiction perhaps as the history of ancient Rome cannot contradict the zoology of Amazon basin since they do not have a single object in common. But the statement that "they complement and condition each other" can nobody take for serious without hesitation. Mutual conditioning means that one cannot exist without the other. I could ironically concede that religion needs science in the sense that priests need television to transmit their masses and the television could not appear without the knowledge of properties of electromagnetic field, but I cannot imagine what could science need religion for.
Let us now notice the sentence: "Maybe the most direct proof of compatibility of religion and natural sciences represents ... the fact that exactly the most important scientists of all ages ... were penetrated by the deep religiosity". Certainly, if we define compatibility as meaning that even a scientist can be religious, then religion is compatible with science. But this is not the only possible and not the most widely used "definition" of compatibility. But to prove compatibility defined differently, such an argument is no more sufficient. For example, religion is methodologically not compatible with science, because the latter is in search only of proved truth and does not believe in anything else, whereas religion accepts for true also "revealed", and thus umproven (and unprovable) statements.
"In the beginnings of our culture, those who promoted natural sciences and those who protected religion, were even joined in personal union". What significant does follow from this statement even if we disregard the important fact that in the beginnings of our culture (in the Ancient Ages) natural sciences did not exist at all? What is prooved by the fact that Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), who at the age of 29 was appointed Professor of chemistry at the St Petersburg Academy of Medicine and during his whole lifetime professionally devoted himself to chemistry, is (despite that) best known as romantic composer? Surely, chemistry and music do not exclude each other as two fields of activity of one and the same person, but musical work of Borodin had nothing in common with his activity as a chemist. And what is the most important, this "personal union" in case of Borodin does not say anything at all about the interrelation of music and chemistry in general, in the same way as nothing is implied about the interrelation between Swahili and English by the circumstance that there are thousands of people who speak perfectly both languages. I think, everyone should understand by now, that the "argument" about "personal union" is completely irrelevant. If you still do not understand, think about the question, what is implied about the interrelation between music and chemistry by the case of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), the author of deeply touching Stabat Mater, who certainly did not hear about chemistry till his death of tuberculosis in Capuchin convent in Pozzuoli in the age of 26.
Invoking personal union represents a fallacious argumentum ad hominem, mentioned already in the introduction. The fact that a scientist is a religious person, does not prove that religion does not contradict science; it just demonstrates that the given person is indifferent to the eventual contradiction, and this is just a problem of emotions, not the problem of truth. Man does not represent a logically consistent system. One and the same man can hold conflicting views and positions: he can be Secretary of Communist Party and at the same time have baptised his children (I had known such one very well). A wealth of examples of such selfcontradictory behavior of individuals offers everyday immoral life of most Christians: they believe that by committing sins they insult their god but despite this they are sinning continually. If god would not pardon them their sins, the majority would die in morally really desolate state. Do their lives prove that there is no contradiction between immorality and Christian belief? The only mystery remaining here is, how a genious could not notice such a fallacy. Maybe he just did not want to see it, since the "social demand" was asking of him to face Nazism, to emphasize Christian values in defense before the dictator.
I have one essential objection against the whole lecture: the author was changing the contents of the title notion of religion in relatively broad span according to what just suited him. He began by characterizing religion as a bond of man to god, he warned listeners before the horrible fate facing the society without religion, but immediately he declared quite possible that god lives only in souls of believers. Then he expelled from religion the belief in miracles, pronounced god identical with natural laws and at last he ascribed god even the attributes of good and love. By this loose use of the fundamental notion of the religion he demonstrated that he has not even defined it unambiguously, which is rather unusual for a scientist.
Maybe it is worth mentioning that in the whole lecture the auther systematically uses the sequence of words "religion and science" and not in a single case we encounter the opposite sequence "science and religion". I think that even this trivial and really formal detail speaks about something: for Planck religion was more important than science – or he just wanted to make such a seeming?
He has, however, committed still another gross error against logic: he has not noticed that in order to prove consistency of two sets of statements it is not sufficient to prove the consistency of one couple of statements but it is necessary to prove this property for all possible couples. Only to prove contradiction it is sufficient to give one argument only (as I have already demonstrated). Planck was quite satisfied with being able to "prove" consistency of views of science and religion about the world order and that this order is "equally" incomprehensible in both.
This lecture of Planck makes me deeply sad. The renowned theoretical physicist, who – among others – devised brilliant hypothesis about quantization of radiation emitted by a black body and so buried the "ultraviolet catastrophe" of James Jeans, humbles himself here for unknown reasons to the level of a country bumpkin whose brain is able to digest the single philosophical sapience: "god exists".
The lecture teaches us also the depressing lesson: how deep can even a Nobel laureate fall when he decides to offer his services to demagogy, when he decides to be conformist, to toady to those who are not worth that. Let us finally bring to an end the medieval argumentum ad hominem, let us stop believing celebrities just because they are renowned. If we have sound brain, let us use it, but let us admit also that we can fall in error, have ourselves corrected, advised, do not think that we are the only ones who are right, but do not think this ever more, for god's sake, about anybody !!!
In this lecture Planck expressed himself in such a contradictory way as probably never before in his life. We can ask, WHY did he do this? I do not know the answer, I can just guess. In principle there are only two possibilities. Maybe he believed in what he was saying and he had not noticed the embarrassing consequences. Then he had to lose judgment, what could be explained by his old age. But I am not inclined to believe that even if it cannot be excluded. The second possibility is that he felt the need to face the increasing inhumanity of Nazism and therefore he reached for an equivalent of morality understandable for the common people: religion, god. He has not succeeded in it much, since science has really nothing in common with religion.
I understand that in order to fulfill this goal he had to reduce science extensively: if science has to stand for comparison with religion, it cannot contain almost anything – indeed the whole contents of religion (at least of the Christian one) is being exhausted by credo and The Lord's Prayer. But it is noteworthy that he needed to curtail also religion – he expulsed from it belief in any miracles and thus also the basic dogmas of Christianity, based on resurrection of god's son. The conscience of scientist has not allowed him to believe in violation of natural laws even by god. And so he made a cripple out of religion, the sole god od which is just a nameless might of natural laws. But he was left with two words: science and religion and only about these words he claimed that they are not in contradiction. That is all. But it is really desperately little.
I am no psychologist nor Planck's biographer so that I am not interested in his reasons for such a remarkable behavior. I know only one thing: the vast majority of noted scientists, contributing to the progress of science by clearly visible undertakings, has not accepted such a farce and declare themselves as agnostics or atheists. I will give just two examples of Nobel laureates for physics: Richard Feynman and Steven Weinberg.
Keywords: Max Planck, Religion und Naturwissenschaft, lecture, 1937, science, natural science, physics, religion, reasonable world order, knowability, belief, god, contradiction, miracle, symbol, flag, spirit, soul, rite, atheism, Nazism, moral, existence, nonexistence, definition, theist, atheist, proof, logic, causa efficiens, causa finalis, argumentum ad hominem, Hin zu Gott
(since 15. 11. 2001)