James Clerk Maxwell and the Christian Proposition


James Clerk Maxwell and the Christian Proposition

Ian Hutchinson

MIT IAP Seminar: The Faith of Great Scientists, Jan 1998, 2006

1  Introduction

Two great British scientists dominate the intellectual landscape of electrical science, and indeed all of physics, in the nineteenth century, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. It would be hard to imagine two more contrasting personalities.

Faraday was English; Maxwell Scottish. Faraday was the son of a poor blacksmith; Maxwell’s father had inherited a substantial estate and hardly needed to practice the law in which he had been trained. Faraday had no formal education; Maxwell had the finest education available. Faraday never held a university position; Maxwell held professorships at three of the major British universities. Faraday was one of the most popular scientific lecturers of his day; Maxwell gained a poor reputation in the class-room. Faraday knew practically no formal mathematics; Maxwell was one of the finest mathematicians of his time. Faraday’s research dominated electromagnetic experiments; Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory. The contrasts between these men could be multiplied on and on. Yet they had one experience in common. Both were committed Christians. It is the purpose of this brief study to outline how the faith of James Clerk Maxwell and his science were combined and how they may have influenced one another.

We should recall Maxwell’s major contributions to science. They extend over a wide variety of fields, including optics, color vision, elasticity, and the behavior of the dynamical top. The work that established him as a foremost natural scientist was his analysis of Saturn’s rings, in which he showed that they could not be rigid but must be made up of swarms of particles whose stability he analysed. Perhaps inspired by this earlier work, Maxwell was also the first person to apply the methods of probability to the analysis of the properties of gases. He invented the idea of a “distribution function” governing the velocities of the individual molecules of the gas, and proposed the “Maxwellian” (or sometimes “Maxwell-Boltzmann”) expression for its equilibrium form. Maxwell went on to work out concrete predictions that could be obtained from this kinetic theory of gases, for example concerning the behavior of the viscosity, and he performed experiments to confirm the predictions. However, the work by which he is most remembered is his formulation of the equations that govern electromagnetism: Maxwell’s equations. These led immediately to the prediction of electromagnetic waves and the consequent unification of electromagnetism and light. Maxwell’s formulation of electromagnetic theory in differential form and his championing of the fundamental nature of the field in contrast to the action-at-a-distance theories of his day is, of course, the basis of essentially all of modern physics.

Besides his personal contributions, Maxwell founded and built the Cavendish Laboratory of experimental physics at Cambridge University, which was to be arguably the most prolific physics department for at least the next fifty years.


2  Family and Youth

The reason why the normal reference is to James Clerk Maxwell, as opposed to just James Maxwell, is bound up with a highly complicated inheritance of James’s father, John. The early Maxwells, owners of the enormous estate of Middlebie had attempted to protect the estate from dismantlement by their subsequent heirs through a variety of legal entanglements (entails), including the requirement that it could only be inherited by someone bearing the name Maxwell. Despite these extreme measures, in the eighteenth century, George Clerk [Maxwell], by an act of parliament, succeeded in selling off all but a relatively small part, the 1500 acre estate in Galloway (southern Scotland) to cover debts incurred in mining speculations his geological interests had led him into. So it was a much more modest estate that John Clerk inherited in the early nineteenth century, but one for which it was still well worth changing his name to John Clerk Maxwell. Thus, when in 1826 James’s father, at age 36, married Frances Cay, they settled at the estate, to become known as Glenlair, and determined to build a grand manor house and revive its fortunes – an ideal outlet for John’s scientific and technical interests. (He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh).

A daughter born to the Maxwells did not survive. But James was born on 13 July 1831 at 14 India St in Edinburgh.


Figure 1: Birthplace of Maxwell, 14 India St, Edinburgh. [It now houses the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation]

For the first eight years of his life, spent at the estate, a day’s journey from the nearest city (Glasgow), his education was entirely in the hands of his mother. He seems to have shown an astonishing memory even in these early years. At eight he could recite long passages of Milton and the whole of the 119th psalm (176 verses). Indeed his knowledge of scripture was already very detailed; he could give chapter and verse for almost any quotation from the psalms. Clearly, from this early age, a devout Christian faith and demanding mental discipline were, for Maxwell, part of the same experience.

He also showed intense interest in the workings of everything. His standard question was “What’s the go o’ that”, which would be followed up immediately, if the answer did not satisfy him, with “But what’s the particular go of it”. This inquisitiveness found many outlets in the various outdoor activities that went on in the estate, particularly as his father worked at its continual improvement through numerous projects. Undoubtedly his father’s patient informal tutoring was an abiding formative influence. For example, his mother wrote about him (aged two and a half)

He has great work with doors, locks, keys, etc, and “Show me how it doos” is never out of his mouth. He investigates the hidden course of streams and bell-wires … and he drags papa all over to show him the holes where the wires go through. [1]

Or, as his Nanny relates about a new tin plate,

It was a bright sunny day; he held it to the sun and the reflection went round and round the room. … He said, “It is the sun, papa; I got it in with the tin plate.” His papa told him when he was a little older he would let him see the moon and the stars, and so he did”. [1]

By his own later testimony, James felt deeply the loss of his mother to cancer when he was eight. Undoubtedly one effect of her death was to draw James and his father even closer together, a bond of love and duty that defined much of Maxwell’s early character.

3  Edinburgh Academy and University

A local tutor was hired to continue James’ education, but this was completely unsatisfactory. The tutor tried unsuccessfully to obtain his pupil’s attention and obedience through various physical forms of coercion. We may surmise that the harassment was not all one way. A drawing by James’ cousin Jemima Wedderburn shows James paddling his floating washtub across the pond away from an unflatteringly portrayed tutor, who is vainly trying to catch him.


Figure 2: Maxwell escaping his tutor in a washing tub.

This regime continued for two years until James’ aunt Jane (Cay), on a visit to Glenlair realized what was going on. The tutor was dismissed and in November 1841 Maxwell was sent to the Edinburgh Academy, lodging with his father’s widowed sister Mrs Wedderburn, at 31 Heriot Row.

The Academy had been founded in 1824 by a group including Sir Walter Scott, to teach all the “branches of study which are essential in the education of a young gentleman”. It was certainly one of the most successful Scottish schools of its day (as has been detailed by Goldman[2]) with an emphasis on Latin, Greek and Mathematics. By all accounts, however, the science teaching was extremely weak. The star pupils seemed to know more than their teachers, perhaps in part as a result of the the `Philosophical Society’ they formed to educate themselves.


Figure 3: Edinburgh Academy, 1828.

Maxwell seems to have been a misfit during his early years at the Academy. He suffered a serious ragging when he first arrived wearing rather original clothing designed by his father. His rustic Gallowegian accent and stutter marked him out, and he early acquired the nickname `Dafty’, perhaps in reference to his quirky humor, (evident in letters) which must have rendered much of his conversation unintelligible to boys of slower wit.

After two years of indifferent scholastic performance, Maxwell began to show his mettle. He gained friends. Lewis Campbell, future Professor of Classics at St Andrews University and his eventual biographer, moved in a few doors away (27 Heriot Row). P.G.Tait, future Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University, struck up a lifetime’s friendship, the pair working together through mathematical problems, which they referred to as propositions, or “props” for short. He rediscovered for himself the perfect geometrical figures. He invented a method for drawing “ovals”, mathematical figures more complicated than ellipses, and through his father’s influence at the Edinburgh Royal Society, saw the work published under the sponsorship of Prof James Forbes, of Edinburgh University.

At age 16, in October 1847, Maxwell himself entered Edinburgh University. There, for three years, he would learn not only Physics under Forbes’ lecturing (and also through more informal participation in the lab), but also the dominant theme of Edinburgh’s course: Philosophy. In this latter subject, the most powerful influence seems to have been the “common sense” philosopher Sir William Hamilton, professor of Logic and Metaphysics (not to be confused with the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, whose name is perpetuated in Hamiltonian Dynamics). By all accounts, students at Edinburgh had substantial liberty for leisure or private study. From his letters to Campbell we can tell that Maxwell took advantage of both.

… So I get up and see what kind of day it is, and what field works are to be done; then I catch the pony and bring up the water barrel … Then I take the dogs out, and then look round the garden for fruit and seeds, and paddle about till breakfast time; after I that take up Cicero and see if I can understand him. If so, I read till I stick; if not, I set to Xen. or Herodt. Then I do props, chiefly on rolling curves … After props come optics, and principally polarized light. Do you remember our visit to Mr Nicol? I have got plenty of unannealed glass of different shapes … [3]

This industry, and the breadth of this education are a critical part of Maxwell’s greatness, especially his philosophical sophistication. Maxwell was by no means the narrow scientific technician portrayed in many images of modern scientists. Nor was he the shallow “generalist” produced by much modern Liberal Arts education of today. When he read Xenophon or Herodotus, it was in the original languages.

Maxwell stayed longer than some of his contemporaries at Edinburgh, perhaps because it took those three years for his father to reconcile himself to James’ desire for a scientific rather than a legal career. But in 1850 Maxwell departed Scotland for the foremost British institution of scientific education, Cambridge University.


Figure 4: Young James Clerk Maxwell holding his color top.

4  Cambridge Undergraduate

Maxwell started his Cambridge career at Peterhouse, the oldest college. Cambridge University had and still has a collegiate system of living and tutoring, in which there is substantial independence for the individual college foundations (which date back many centuries) while exams and lectures are centralized for the university as a whole. Despite substantial breadth of studies in classics and beyond, the chief objective of ambitious undergraduates was to become a “Wrangler”, that is, to obtain first class honors in the mathematical tripos (examination series). It is remarkable how dominant mathematics was in the educational system of the time, but it should be remembered that Newton was Lucasian professor of mathematics in his day, just as Steven Hawking is today. Mathematics at Cambridge for Maxwell encompassed all of physics as well. Maxwell soon moved to Trinity College for competitive reasons. His contemporary, E.J.Routh, at Peterhouse was his equal at mathematics and so a clearer field to a college Fellowship after the tripos was advisable. There was no such formidable competition at Trinity.

Maxwell seems to have settled to this regimen with some restlessness. Early on, he wrote to his father on one occasion:

Man requires more. He finds x and y innutritious, Greek and Latin indigestible, and undergrads. nauseous. He starves while being crammed. He wants man’s meat, not college pudding. Is truth nowhere but in Mathematics? … Must Nature as well as Revelation be examined through canonical spectacles by the dark-lantern of Tradition, and measured out by the learned to the unlearned, all second-hand. [4]

What Maxwell seems to be complaining about here is the emphasis on technical mastery, especially of mathematics, characteristic of the Cambridge education. But also, he is feeling intellectually constrained by the tradition he is required to study. In referring to the scriptural canon he seems to take for granted that Revelation (meaning God’s revelation to man) is to be examined by reference to the Bible, but is questioning whether tradition’s directed (dark-lantern) attention is the right approach to the study of nature. We see here in the youthful Maxwell his wrestling with the balance between discipline and innovation. He longs to progress past the traditional studies to propound new “propositions”. At the same time he does not discount the value of traditional study. He immediately goes on to say,

I am also persuaded that the study of x and y is to men an essential preparation for the intelligent study of the material universe … That few will grind up these subjects without the help of rules, the awe of authority, and a continued abstinence from unripe realities.

Then Maxwell launches into a rambling philosophical justification of academic study in the context of this declaration,

I believe, with the Westminster Divines and their predecessors ad Infinitum, that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”.

This is, of course, the keystone of the Presbyterian statement of faith.

Maxwell’s intellectual understanding of his Christian faith and of science grew rapidly during his Cambridge years. He joined the “Apostles”, an exclusive debating society of the intellectual elite, where through his essays he sought to work out this understanding.

Eighteen months into his Cambridge education, Maxwell gives us an insight into his views of Christianity and academic research in a letter to Campbell[5]

Now my great plan, which was conceived of old, … is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. All fallow land is to be ploughed up and a regular system of rotation followed. … Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. … Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground which any man has set apart. … Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. … I do not say that no Christians have enclosed places of this sort. Many have a great deal, and every one has some. But there are extensive and important tracts in the territory of the Scoffer, the Pantheist, the Quietist, Formalist, Dogmatist, Sensualist, and the rest, which are openly and solemnly Tabooed. …

Christianity – that is, the religion of the Bible – is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. …

The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be “Tabooed” by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections … which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us follow the light.

One reason for including so extensive (though still incomplete) a quotation here is that Tolstoy, one of Maxwell’s modern biographers, and clearly someone with little sympathy for religion, grotesquely misinterprets this letter, calling Maxwell’s conviction that only a Christian can purge his land of these holy spots, “a profession of faith which it seems isgoing to be `wilfully left unexamined’! Maxwell’s religious convictions were clearly so deeply imbedded he was unconscious of the inconsistency”[6]. Tolstoy is plainly assuming, from his own materialist position, that religious convictions cannot be held once `examined’, and that Maxwell is therefore bound to be inconsistent. But this is the exact opposite of the more direct reading of Maxwell’s statements. Maxwell believes that Christianity is true and is indeed the one true “scheme”, and because of that status can afford to open itself to the most complete examination, even of the most sensitive tabooed spots, in a way that no other system of belief can.

The extent to which Maxwell in fact “ploughed up” his Christian beliefs and put them to the intellectual test, can be judged only incompletely from his writings. But there is plenty of evidence, especially from his undergraduate days, that he did deeply examine his faith. Certainly, his knowledge of the Bible was remarkable, so his confidence in the Scriptures was not based on ignorance.

In the summer of his third year, Maxwell spent some time at the Suffolk home of the Rev C.B.Tayler, the uncle of a class-mate, G.W.H.Tayler. The family impressed Maxwell, himself an only child, who later said it gave him a glimpse of the Love of God, albeit in “a well-regulated family” in which “There was plenty of willing obedience but little diligence: much mutual trust, and little self-reliance”[7]. He fell ill whilst there – the illness subsequently being attributed to overwork – and was nursed for two weeks by the minister and his wife. As his class-mate later recounted concerning the experience[8]:

It was then that my uncle’s conversation seemed to make such a deep impression on his mind. He had always been a regular attendant at the services of God’s house. … Also he had thought and read much on religious subjects. But at this time (as it appears from his own account of the matter) his religious views were greatly deepened and strengthened.

On his return to Cambridge, Maxwell writes to his recent host a chatty and affectionate letter including the following testimony[9],

… I have the capacity of being more wicked than any example that man could set me, and … if I escape, it is only by God’s grace helping me to get rid of myself, partially in science, more completely in society, – but not perfectly except by committing myself to God …

This is a thoroughly orthodox Christian affirmation of dependence on God’s grace for salvation from sin, but notice how Maxwell identifies his science as part of God’s plan for this salvation. We can only speculate about what thoughts along these lines he and Rev Tayler had discussed during the days of his recuperation.

Despite the extreme-sounding confession, Maxwell was, by habit, a very kindly person. A contemporary recounts how, when he was unable to read because of eye strain, Maxwell helped him and “often gave up an hour of his recreation time to read out to me some of the book-work I wanted to get over”[10].

Maxwell was strongly influenced by Frederick Denison Maurice, a former “Apostle” and the founder of the Christian Socialist movement. Maurice became a cause célèbre in 1853 by being deposed from his position at King’s College London for heresy. (To do with the meaning of the word eternal and whether religion must of necessity be obvious to the unlearned as well as the learned.) Maxwell did not adopt Maurice’s theological positions as a whole[11], but he did become convinced of one of Maurice’s key tenets, that the dehumanization of the working class in an industrializing society was to be prevented by a cooperative approach in which workers were given greater influence though education. Maurice and his friends set up Working Men’s Colleges, and Maxwell, seeing this as a vital Christian service, taught Working Men’s classes weekly till at least 1866.

It was thus as a young man of remarkable commitments that Maxwell passed his final exams as Second Wrangler, ceding the first position to his friend Routh but sharing with him the prestigious Smith prize.

5  Trinity, Aberdeen, London

The year 1855 brought appointment to a Fellowship at Trinity, the cares of nursing his father through illness (though John was to die the following year), and, at its end, the publication that launched Maxwell’s electromagnetic researches: “On Faraday’s lines of Force”. This paper, by drawing extensive mathematical analogies with hydrodynamics, helped to make respectable Faraday’s “field” approach to electricity, and showed how to express magnetic induction in the differential form1 that was later to prove the key to electromagnetic waves and indeed all of field theory.

His Fellowship at Trinity was brief. On 30 Apr 1856 Maxwell heard from his sponsor, Forbes, that he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen.

One of the most important of Maxwell’s experiences at Aberdeen, where his research was dominated by Saturn’s rings, must have been meeting and eventually marrying Katherine Mary Dewar, the principal’s daughter. Not much is known about Katherine herself, and Maxwell’s later biographers conclude from the reticence of Campbell that she was not well liked by Maxwell’s friends. However, James’ relations with Katherine give some useful insights into his spiritual life. Campbell gives us a few extracts from letters during the last few months of their engagement in which, despite protesting his lack of skill in scriptural exposition, Maxwell writes insightful explanations of passages from Galatians, Ephesians and Philipians that are almost miniature sermons[12]. He refers to a Sunday school class he taught while visiting Lewis Campbell. Plainly Katherine and James’ common Christian faith was an important bond from the beginning of their marriage. Tolstoy, from his materialist viewpoint, is unable to understand that such spiritual discourse might be a natural aspect of the continuing relationship of Christian man and wife, but it clearly was for the Maxwells[13].


Figure 5: Maxwell and his wife, Katherine, 1869.

Another aspect of Maxwell’s character that is revealed in his marriage is the kindness and compassion with which he nursed his wife through frequent indispositions. By the sound of it, she was something of a hypochondriac, but James was ever the caring husband and frequently sat up all night to tend her, even during his own final illness. She in turn nursed him through a dangerous attack of small-pox, and later participated in some of his experiments on color vision and on measurements of the temperature dependence of gas viscosity, apparently acting as coal stoker for the higher temperatures required!

In 1860 the two Aberdeen colleges were merged, and despite his seniority, Maxwell was out of a job. This was all to the good because he was almost immediately appointed to the chair at King’s College London, where he remained till 1865.


Figure 6: Maxwell at King’s College London.

In the inaugural lecture, which new professors traditionally gave, Maxwell discourses on various philosophical aspects of science, for example “whether the fundamental truths of Physics are to be regarded as mere facts discovered by experiment, or as necessary truths, which the mind must acknowledge as true as soon as its attention has been directed to them.”[14] [On balance, Maxwell implies the latter, but as in much of his philosophical writing, he is far from clear about it.] He also refers to an idea that he would later develop in more detail, “that every atom of creation is unfathomable in its perfection”.

Taking this point somewhat out of order we may quote from the version of this idea that was eventually published in Nature [15] (and elsewhere) in 1873, where from astronomical observations of characteristic wavelengths of radiation from atoms he concludes,

We are thus assured that molecules of the same nature as those of our hydrogen exist in those distant regions, or at least did exist when the light … was emitted. …

Each molecule, therefore, throughout the universe, bears impressed on it the stamp of a metric system as distinctly as does the metre of the Archives at Paris, or the double royal cubit of the Temples of Karnac. None of the processes of Nature, since the time when Nature began, have produced the slightest difference in the properties of any molecule. We are therefore unable to ascribe either the existence of the molecules or the identity of their properties to the operation of any of the causes which we call natural.

On the other hand, the exact equality of each molecule to all the others of the same kind gives it, as Sir John Herschel has well said, the essential character of a manufactured article, and precludes the idea of its being eternal and self-existent.

Thus we have been led, along a strictly scientific path, very near to the point at which Science must stop. …

This is a somewhat unfamiliar inverted form of argument from design. Maxwell is saying that molecules are perfectly identical to one another and this suggests that they are, as it were, manufactured according to an intelligent plan. Maxwell explained himself in more detail later in a letter “What I thought of was not so much that uniformity of result which is due to uniformity in the process of formation, as a uniformity intended and accomplished by the same wisdom and power of which uniformity, accuracy, symmetry, consistency, and continuity of plan are … important attributes…”[16]. This was not an original idea of Maxwell’s and he gives the original Herschel reference, dated 1851, but it is interesting to realize that Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was first published in 1859, a year before Maxwell’s first oblique reference to molecular perfection. Clearly, he was well aware of the extent to which the fashionable liberal academics’ argument from design, based on the perfection of biological adaptation, was undermined by discoveries pointing to evolution. And though Maxwell was no theological liberal but accepted the revelation of God through Jesus Christ, he is pointing to a different perfection in creation, one which he emphasizes cannot be attributed to evolutionary adaptation. It is an intriguing thought, not that Maxwell was strictly correct that atoms are immutable, but his approach is more to appreciate the ordered uniformity rather than the peculiarity and complexity of nature, as signs of the creator. Beyond that, Maxwell’s modest claims for the idea are, in my mind, a model for how a scientist could and should draw attention to the aspects of his science that point to matters beyond his scientific competence.

Maxwell’s breadth of appreciation of Christianity grew still further during his time in London. To his background of Presbyterianism (in the Scottish kirk of his father’s tradition) and the Anglicanism of his mother and Cambridge, he added an experience of the Baptists. In a letter to Rev C.B.Taylor he criticizes obtuse sermons he had heard at Cambridge and goes on[17],

There is in this street a Baptist, who knows his Bible, and preaches as near it as he can, and does what he can to let the statements in the Bible be understood by his hearers. We generally go to him when in London, though we believe ourselves baptized already.

This confession of Maxwell’s willingness to go where the Gospel is clearly preached apparently embarrasses Campbell, who speculates (gratuitously) that the habit was a concession to Mrs Maxwell’s “simple Presbyterian” experience. This seems an unlikely explanation. The tone of Maxwell’s remarks leaves little doubt that his only awkwardness about attending the chapel arose from the doctrinal differences concerning the validity of infant baptism. That Maxwell did not allow this to discourage him is another indication that in spiritual matters he followed his own conscience above all.

6  Laird of Glenlair, First Cavendish Professor

In 1865 Maxwell “retired” from his London position. It had been an extremely productive tenure, seeing much of his experimental work on gases to its fruition and the publication of “On Physical Lines of Force” (in three parts 1861-2, introducing the displacement current and predicting electromagnetic waves travelling at the speed of light) and his equations in 1865, but he wanted to complete the building of the house at Glenlair, as a “sacred trust” to his father. His independent wealth permitted him to resign from the fairly heavy burdens of teaching and devote his time to the estate, to some continental travel, to an extensive correspondence, and to writing his masterly Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873).


Figure 7: Glenlair as Maxwell left it (ca 1884). [More recent information about Glenlair can be found at http://www.glenlair.org.uk/.]

The house was finished in 1867, but was just one aspect of being “Laird” of the estate. Other aspects that were pursued assiduously, by both James and his father before him, were the nightly reading of the Bible for the servants, and an almost proprietorial sponsorship of the church at Corsock, the nearby village.

His correspondence was most notably with William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and his school friend P.G.Tait. Thomson and Tait published their textbook Treatise on Natural Philosophy in 1867 and were henceforth referred to in their letters as T and T¢. By a later notational coincidence, in a work of Tait’s, Maxwell’s initials appeared in the equation JCM = dp/dt. Thereafter, in the arcane insider language of their abbreviated correspondence, often conducted on postcards, Maxwell became dp/dt.


Figure 8: Postcard concerning mathematics, from Maxwell to Tait.

Another running gag, based on the coincidence that the Archbishops of York and Canterbury at the time were also called Thomson and Tait, transformed T and T¢ into “The Archepiscopal Pair”. A quicksilver wit was characteristic of Maxwell’s correspondence, showing his fertility of imagination and convoluted, often poetic, sense of humor.

The time at Glenlair enabled Maxwell to put in order and publish his electrodynamic theories in their most comprehensive form. It also saw the introduction of his since famous “Demon”[18]. The retirement came to an end eventually when Maxwell was persuaded to accept (in 1871) the newly created Cavendish professorship of experimental physics at Cambridge – only after Thomson and Helmholtz had turned it down.

The job was, for the first few years at least, predominantly administrative. The Duke of Devonshire’s bequest funded the building of the Laboratory, but Maxwell had to manage the construction itself. Probably his Glenlair experience was an ideal background for this task. Certainly his conscientious attention made it a great success, and his organizational abilities more than made up for his weakness as a lecturer. Perhaps he felt it a duty of the position also to spend much of his time on editing the scientific papers of Henry Cavendish – a major work of scientific and historical scholarship.

Maxwell had become a public figure, even though his science was still greatly under-appreciated, and so it was not surprising that he was consulted for example by the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, about his ideas relating his faith and science[19]. The Bishop is wondering whether the creation of the sun after the creation of light in Genesis 1 can be harmonized by regarding the latter as referring to “primal vibrations” [i.e. the aether]. Maxwell replies to this rather naive question with politeness and great wisdom.

… there is a statement printed in most commentaries that the fact of light being created before the sun is in striking agreement with the last results of science.

I have often wished to ascertain the date of the original appearance of this statement, as this would be the only way of finding what “last result of science” it referred to. It is certainly older than the time when any notions of the undulatory theory became prevalent…

If it were necessary to provide an interpretation of the text in accordance with the science of 1876 (which may not agree with that of 1896), it would be very tempting to say that the light of the first day means the all-embracing aether… But I cannot suppose that this was the very idea meant to be conveyed by the original author to those for whom he was writing.

But I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis … The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.

At the same time I think that each individual man should do all he can to impress his own mind with the extent, the order, and the unity of the universe, and should carry these ideas with him as he reads such passages as the 1st Chap. of the Ep. to Colossians (see Lightfoot on Colossians, p.182), just as enlarged conceptions of the extent and unity of the world of life may be of service to us in reading Psalm viii, Heb ii 6, etc.

Thus Maxwell penetratingly criticizes the misuse of partial scientific knowledge to interpret scripture, let alone to shore up faith by supposed harmonization with the latest science. He has no need of scientific `proofs’ of Christianity. Instead, his expressed concern is that ill-judged linking of specific scientific theories with religion will be an impediment to the growth of science. And his emphasis, in relating science and faith, is in science’s enhancement of our wonder at the glory of creation. Certainly a much more enduring theme than the aether, which has long since been discarded!


Figure 9: Maxwell in his later years.

In his sixth year as Cavendish professor the first symptoms began of his last long and painful battle with abdominal cancer. He bore it without complaint, his kindness never soured, his faith never dimmed. The minister who regularly visited him in his last weeks was astonished at his lucidity and the immense power and scope of his memory, but comments more particularly,[20]

… his illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man: his firm and undoubting faith in the Incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficiency of the Atonement; in the work of the Holy Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy, and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying – “unworkable” was his own word about them – and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Saviour.

As death approached Maxwell told a Cambridge colleague[21]

I have been thinking how very gently I have always been dealt with. I have never had a violent shove all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.

Fall asleep he did on November 5th 1879, and after services of remembrance at Cambridge was buried in the churchyard of Parton, near his beloved Glenlair. But his scientific work has proven enduring far beyond serving merely his own generation, marking him as a genius of the first rank – one formed and sustained in thought and life and death by the Christian faith.

A  Bibliography

Of the biographical materials about Maxwell’s life the predominant source is the work published by his close friend Lewis Campbell and colleague William Garnet, The life of James Clerk Maxwell London 1882, which was reprinted as recently as 1969 by the Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York. The references “C. & G.” below are to the first edition. The second half of it, on Maxwell’s scientific contributions, is less useful, except as an example of the poor understanding of his work by his contemporaries. A selection of Maxwell’s poetry is also included. (Through the efforts of James Rautio, an electronic version is now available on the world-wide-web athttp://www.sonnetsoftware.com/bio/maxwell.asp.)

Martin Goldman, The Demon in the Aether, The Story of James Clerk Maxwell (1983) Paul Harris Publishing, Edinburgh, is the most recent full length biography, and also the most scholarly. It explores substantial background material about Edinburgh Academy and the philosophy of Edinburgh University in Maxwell’s day, and provides an excellent modern summary of Maxwell’s science.

Ivan Tolstoy, James Clerk Maxwell, a Biography (1981) University of Chicago press. Engagingly written and very readable, it attempts (excessively) to counteract the “hagiographic” tendencies of Campbell and Garnet. Contains a helpful annotated bibliography.

C.W.F.Everitt, James Clerk Maxwell, Physicist and Natural Philosopher 1975, Charles Scribner’s, New York, devotes three quarters of its text to a summary of Maxwell’s science, but contains previously unreported discussion of an attachment James had to his cousin Lizzie (gleefully taken up by Tolstoy as a potential scandal).

E.Garber, S.G.Brush, and C.W.F.Everitt, (Eds) Maxwell on Molecules and Gases (1986) MIT press, Cambridge Massachusetts. A collection of sometimes hard-to-find Maxwell writings specifically on molecules.

Paul Theerman, Am. J. Phys. 54, 312 (1986) James Clerk Maxwell and Religion is a paper focussing specifically on Maxwell’s religion, which draws together most of the material in Campbell and Garnet, relating to the specific topic.

The year 2006 is the 175th anniversary of Maxwell’s birth, and a web site http://www.maxwellyear2006.org/ has been set up with a variety of events and information.


Michael Faraday: Scientist and Nonconformist

Michael Faraday: Scientist and Nonconformist


The Faith of Great Scientists,

MIT Independent Activities Period, 14 Jan 96


The purpose of this brief essay about Michael Faraday is to examine how Faraday’s Christian faith and his scientific career influenced one another. Our intention in this IAP series on the Faith of Great Scientists is to put into perspective some practical historical examples of people for whom both faith and science were of great personal significance. In so doing, we are seeking to understand how these areas of human thinking and endeavor may be part of a truly integrated life. Faraday is a fascinating subject for such an investigation both because he is one of the outstanding scientists of the nineteenth century and because he, like many other great scientists down the ages, had a very significant and distinctive religious perspective.
A few words ought to be said at the outset to recall the immense contribution of Faraday to science. Some measure of that contribution can be gained by noting that no less than five different phenomena in science bear his name.
In his early career, Faraday assisted Humphrey Davy as a “research assistant” (to use perhaps the nearest present-day parallel) in establishing the elementary nature of the recently discovered substance iodine (1813). But his first really important personal discovery was to demonstrate in a beautifully elegant experiment (1821) that the effect of a magnetic field on an electric current is to cause it to move perpendicular to both the current and the magnetic field.
He was the first person to liquefy chlorine (1823), he first isolated benzene (1825), and he did important practical research on the alloying of iron (1826). But it is, of course, his researches into electricity for which he is best known. Foremost and first (1831) was his discovery of electromagnetic induction: that varying magnetic fields induce currents to flow in electric circuits that they link. [VG]
The close relationship between electricity and chemistry in his researches (and in all the science of his day) is best exemplified by Faraday’s law(s) of electrolysis (1833) which state(s) that equal equivalent weights of chemicals are electrolysed by equal quantities of electricity.
Of particular interest to me, since I work in plasma physics, it has been said that Faraday was the first plasma physicist. Certainly, his studies of the passage of electricity through ionized gases led him to identify the particular phenomenon of glow discharges now known as Faraday’s dark space (1838).
Perhaps the discovery that shows most clearly both his complete command of experimental technique and also his persistence (one might say stubornness) in pursuing, over a twenty year period, an effect he felt “had” to be present, is his discovery of Faraday rotation (1845). This observation of the rotation of the polarization of light by a magnetic field was a critical demonstration of the link between light and electromagnetism.
Finally, in this abbreviated summary of Faraday’s scientific achievements, one cannot omit his extremely influential, and initially highly unconventional championing of the signficance of fields. Physics today sees the field of force rather than the material substance as the underlying reality. Faraday’s theoretical and philosophical intuition, growing over twenty years or more throughout his experimental researches, and culimnating in his paper “On the physical character of lines of force” (1852), was, in the opinion many, his most influential legacy. A young James Clerk Maxwell certainly took him seriously. His mathematicization of Faraday’s ideas led directly to what we now call Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism.
Throughout his long and productive life, Michael Faraday was also a committed Christian. Not a social church-goer – although he spent more hours in a pew than any of us are likely to; not just a conforming member of a “Christian” society – although he lived in a society which saw itself as Christian; on the contrary, he belonged to a distinctly nonconformist denomination, which demanded from its members an extremely high level of commitment and devotion: the Sandemanians. Moreover, in addition to his lifelong lay involvement, he acted for significant periods of his career as co-pastor (strictly `Elder’) of the London congregation of which he was a member. During those periods he preached (or rather, exhorted) in the services and undertook the spiritual oversight and pastoral care of the people in the congregation.
As we shall see, Faraday kept these two dominant aspects of his life – his religious faith and his scientific research – distinct. Actually this separation was mostly one way. He rarely entered into religious discussions with his fellow scientists, but, to judge by his voluminous correspondence, he did enter into lively scientific discussions with his Sandemanian friends. Moreover, despite his scrupulous focus on natural phenomena in his scientific profession, there is ample evidence that Faraday’s faith had a strong influence on his own practice of science. We shall see two ways in which this influence is manifest. First, in the philosophical framework which was the context in which he approached the study of nature, and second in the social and ethical principles which he believed should underlie the pursuit of the scientific enterprise.


Though he lived well into the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), Michael Faraday came to manhood at a time when Britain was preoccupied with the Napoleonic wars. He was born in 1791, during the turbulent times of the french revolution. His father, James Faraday, a blacksmith in failing health, had moved earlier that year with his family to London from Kirby Stephen, in the north of England. Michael’s youth was poor and his formal education was practically nonexistent. `My education’, he is quoted as saying, `was of the most ordinary description, consisting of little more than the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic at a common day school’.
At age 13 he began to work as an errand boy for a bookbinder and bookseller, Mr G. Reibau, and the following year Faraday became his apprentice. [VG] His real education had begun. Not only did the young Michael develop, through the manual tasks of bookbinding, the physical dexterity that was to be the hallmark of his experimental investigations, but also he read. Here we come to the first critical influence of Christian thinking on this lively mind. Certainly the opportunity for eclectic learning must have existed in the Riebau bookshop, but for someone with no mental framework or study skills, more was eventually needed for the formation of an acute intelligence: a system. Faraday found this system in a book called “The Improvement of the Mind” by an author whose name practically any Christian today still knows: Isaac Watts (1674-1748).
Watts was probably the most prolific author of evangelical Christian hymns of the early eighteenth century. He wrote more than 600 in all. I opened the (1965) Anglican hymnbook and discovered from its index 29 hymns by Watts still in use, second only to the great Charles Wesley himself (38), and well ahead of `Anon’. These hymns are glorious and moving celebrations of Christian faith and include such staples as `O God our help in ages past’, `Joy to the World’, and `Jesus shall reign where ere the sun’, although my own favorite is `When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the prince of glory died…’. Besides his Christian vocation as a one of the most influential dissenting ministers in London, Watts was also something of a philosopher (in the empiricist tradition) and his book on logic became a standard text at Oxford. In 1809 a new edition of his `Improvement of the Mind’ was published. In it Faraday found a common-sense guide to learning, with detailed advice on how best to benefit from lectures, reading, conversation, and observation. Watts advised that a `commonplace’ notebook be kept. In 1809, Faraday began to keep one. Watts recommended attendance at lectures, exchange of letters with persons of similar interests, participation in discussion groups. Faraday began to do all these things. Perhaps more important, Watts gave a philosophical framework for learning that emphasised the importance of observed facts and warned against being `too hasty to erect general theories from a few particular observations …’. Faraday was true to that philosophy throughout his scientific career.
Faraday had adopted the habit of making elaborate and complete copies of lecture notes from the lectures he had begun to attend (1810), notably at the City Philosophical Society, a sort of self-help intellectual club. [VG] His notes were shown by Mr Riebau to the father of a friend, who, as a result, gave Faraday a ticket to a lecture by Sir Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution (1812). As his apprenticeship neared its end, Faraday hoped to find a position of any sort in science, and wrote to the president of the Royal Society, receiving no reply. As fortune would have it, Davy suffered an eye injury, when an experiment he was working on blew up, and Faraday served as his amanuensis for a few days. Later Faraday wrote to Sir Humphrey begging for a position and sending the bound volume of notes which he had taken of Davy’s lectures. A few months later, Faraday became a lowly laboratory assistant at the Royal Institution (1813), [VG] himself emerging not altogether unscathed from the continuing investigations of explosive chmicals! After only six months, Davy was leaving on an eighteen month tour of Europe, and Faraday was engaged to accompany him as an assistant. What better finishing of his unconventional education could a student have than to go on tour with the most popular scientist of his time!


By 1821 Faraday’s place at the Royal Institution was secure and he was accepted in the scientific circles of the day. On the 21st of June, Faraday entered into the marriage to Sarah Barnard that would endure to his life’s end. The following month he entered into an equally enduring commitment; he made his `profession of faith’ before the Sandemanian church, and thereby entered into full membership of the congregation.
The Sandemanian, also know as Glasite, church, arose from the experience of a scot, John Glas (1695-1773). A thoughtful and popular minister in his Church of Scotland parish near Dundee, Glas found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his understanding of the scriptures with the political, and national, role of the established (covenanting) church. In 1725 he and nearly 100 members of his congregation joined together to found their religion on the Bible alone and reject the political covenant. This stance within the church challenged its organizational structure, and thereby (in the minds of its leaders) the social order. Eventually, through a process whose duration speaks a remarkable restraint on the part of the authorities, Glas was deposed in 1730.
Robert Sandeman (1717-71) was attracted to the independent congregation that Glas subsequently founded in Perth, and eventually married one of Glas’s daughters. A partner in a successful weaving firm, Sandeman spent a great deal of time in work for the church, and became its most influential spokesman through the publication of his `Letters on Theron and Aspasio’ (1757), which became a key source for Sandemanian teaching. By the way, Sandeman came to America, visiting Boston in 1764, and promoting the Sandemanian church in the colonies. (Where it died out early this century).
The Sandemanian church expanded only to a total of about forty meeting houses in Britain and a handful in America. At its peak it had only perhaps 1000 full members, but there were undoubtedly many more adherents who had not made their `profession of faith’. In Faraday’s day the church had begun its slow decline. The last meeting house, in Edinburgh, was closed in 1989.[VG]
There has been a tendency by some writers to portray the Sandemanians as a peculiar and unorthodox sect of Christianity. Indeed, this impression is enhanced by a much quoted remark by Faraday himself that he belonged to `a very small and despised sect of Christians’. However, this implication is largely unwarranted. What the Sandemanians wanted to do was to live out a Christian life based purely on New Testament patterns and Biblical teaching. In this sense they were, or intended to be, faithful to orthodox, primitive Christianity, unencumbered by the political accretions of the established churches. Their teaching is predominantly consistent with what C.S.Lewis has dubbed `Mere Christianity’: that God has made possible a reconciliation between himself and fallen humans through the death on the cross of his own son, confirmed by his subsequent resurrection, and that this salvation is a free gift, to be received by faith and not earned by good works.
Here is an example of Sandeman’s writing:

As Jesus came into the world not to suffer for any sin of his own, being without sin, but, as he declares himself, to give his life a ransom for many; so God, in raising him from the dead, gave the highest demonstration of his being well pleased with the ransom which he gave; And as Jesus put the truth of all that he said, upon the issue of his being raised again from the dead, which you see his enemies also were apprised of; his resurrection, by this means, turns out to be the the highest proof of the divine assent to everything he spoke.


This is straightforward teaching of Christian doctrine from Paul’s letter to the Romans (1:4). Or again, here is a passage concerning a Christian’s works as a response to his salvation through the crucifixion:

This leads him to love God and keep his commandments. His motives to his deeds of greatest self denial arise directly from this. His persuasion, that the character of Jesus was so amiable in the eyes of God, as to procure his favour to the guilty, draws him to imitate that character; for ’tis plain, he that says he believes this, and does not make conscience of imitating Jesus, tells a lie.


This is a summary whose spirit most believing Christians today would readily assent to.
Yet the Sandemanians were peculiar in one notable sense, harking back to the roots of their dissent. They tried to live out a New Testament pattern for the church as literally as possible. The New Testament knows no formal ordination or clergy; neither did Sandemanians. There are just two recognized offices in the New Testament, Elders and Deacons; these were the pattern of the Sandemanian’s leadership. As expressed by John Barnard (an early London Sandemanian and probably a forebear of Faraday’s wife), the church is to be

a select society of CHRIST’s disciples united by the truth, and observing all the commands of CHRIST, in the closest fellowship with each other, and therefore of necessity separated from the world, whatever form it may assume, and exposed to its hatred; and especially so, to the hatred of that part of the world which shall take the lead in popular and pharisaical devotion.


The unity of the brethren was of critical importance to the Sandemanian congregation. They took with the utmost seriousness Paul’s plea (1 Cor 1:10) `I appeal to you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement.’ This unity was not at all the universal tolerance that is the politically correct doctrine of today. On the contrary, Biblical moral standards and discipline were to be enforced by the elders, while avoiding any strife, division or ill-feeling. If, in the face of this overwhelming challenge, any division did arise, the only remaining Sandemanian recourse was to exclude the adversaries from participation in the Lord’s supper and the full spiritual benefits of the congregation. They were to be `put away’. And this happened quite frequently, both with individuals and between and among congregations as a whole. Thus, paradoxically, the most distinctive feature of Sandemanian church practice – their emphasis on complete unity – was the primary cause of repeated splits and splinters in the church. Not without reason did our Lord pray on the night of his betrayal that his followers might be one (John 17:11).
Faraday himself suffered exclusion from fellowship for a brief period in 1844. He had been an Elder in the London congregation for four years and, contrary to normal expectations, was absent one week from the service. He apparently showed little remorse, even though the brethren considered inadequate his reasons for absence, namely that the queen had `commanded’ him to dine at Windsor! Although he was restored to fellowship after a few weeks, he was not to act as Elder again for another fourteen years. Such was the seriousness of congregational discipline.
Faraday grew up within the orbit of such a congregation. His father was a devoted Sandemanian, and though his mother never entered into full membership, she was, like many others, a faithful adherent and regularly attended the services. Faraday’s confession of faith, at age 29, was then, so far as we know, not a conversion, but a formal and, in view of the strictness of Sandemanian discipline, a carefully weighed acceptance of the responsibilities of membership in a demanding spiritual fellowship, which he well understood.

Philosophy and Nature

There was another aspect of Sandemanianism that was peculiar, and ultimately fatal, to the sect, namely, its lack of evangelistic effort. Sandemanians placed no emphasis on proselytizing. [In view of their Biblical emphasis I am at a loss to explain why.] This characteristic relieved Faraday of any commission to argue religion with those outside the fellowship, his colleagues or acquaintances for example, and it helps to explain why he was perfectly comfortable maintaining an official separation of his faith from his profession. It would be incorrect, however, to suppose that this separation meant that his faith had no influence on his science. Faraday believed that in his scientific researches he was reading the book of nature, which pointed to its creator, and he delighted in it: `for the book of nature, which we have to read is written by the finger of God’.
One example of the influence of his theological perspective on his science is Faraday’s preoccupation with nature’s laws. `God has been pleased to work in his material creation by laws’, he remarked, and `the Creator governs his material works by definite laws resulting from the forces impressed on matter.’ This is part of the designer’s art: `How wonderful is to me the simplicity of nature when we rightly interpret her laws’. But, as Cantor points out, `the consistency and simplicity of nature were not only conclusions that Faraday drew from his scientific work but they were also metaphysical presuppositions that directed his research.’ He sought the unifying laws relating the forces of the world, and was highly successful in respect of electricity, magnetism, and light. His program was less successful in attempting to unify gravity and electricity, for which failure he may readily be forgiven, since 150 years later we still don’t know how to do that!
Another guiding principle of much of Faraday’s thought finds its motivation in a conception of creation as a divinely planned economy. It is the principle of `conservation of force‘. This rather unclear concept appears at times to be about conservation of energy (remember that this predates Joule’s demonstrations of the mechanical equivalence of heat) at others it appears to be about the divergencelessness of lines of force. Despite Faraday’s lack of clarity, the concept was a driving ideal behind his championing of the reality of lines of force, and hence of the foundations of field theory.
In the common terminology of the day, there was no essential distinction between science and philosophical thought. Faraday always referred to himself as a `philosopher’, not a `scientist’. He was nevertheless at pains to draw the distinction between his scientific `philosophizing’ and his Christian commitment. This must be understood in the context of a society in which the predominant approach to theology was a rationalistic one, exemplified by the liberal Anglicans. They sought to base their religion not on revelation or history – which higher criticism had begun cast doubt upon, in their minds – but on intellectual theorizing, centering around the argument from design. Faraday disavowed their approach, as he stated explicitly in his lecture `Observations on mental education'(1859):

Let no one suppose for a moment that the self-education I am about to commend in respect of the things of this life, extends to any considerations of the hope set before us, as if man by reasoning could find out God. It would be improper here to enter upon this subject further than to claim an absolute distinction between religious and ordinary belief. I shall be reproached with the weakness of refusing to apply those mental operations which I think good in respect of high things to the very highest. I am content to bear the reproach.


For Faraday, intellectual authority could never reside in the products of pure reason, or ungrounded human imagination. He remarked that he was a very `imaginative person, and could believe in the Arabian Nights as easily as in the Encyclopaedia, but facts were important to me & saved me’. He kept this imagination in check by turning to `facts’. A `fundamental fact … never fails us, its evidence is always true’. Primarily, in science, this meant experiments. `Without experiment I am nothing’, he said, and saw all of science as founded on carefully observed facts, distinguished from opinion or conjecture. As his own publications show, this did not mean that science excluded imaginative insights or interpretations, but what remained essential was that the distinction between the experimental facts and the theoretical interpretations should always be scrupulously maintained. Modern philosphers of science would, in the main, regard Faraday’s conception of experimental facts as hopelessly naive. They would insist that all observations are `theory-laden’ and that there is no such thing as a bare fact. However, they are not in Faraday’s privileged position. He was able almost immediately to verify for himself in the laboratory essentially all the the scientific reports he read. `I was never able to make a fact my own without seeing it’, he wrote. Perhaps if today, experimental verification were as immediate as it was in Faraday’s time, the philosphers’ outlook would be closer to his. As an experimentalist myself, I tend to be more in sympathy with Faraday than with them. Moreover, many a modern scientific paper would be greatly improved by maintaining a clearer distinction between experimental observations and their interpretation.
In parallel with this reliance on a direct reading of the book of nature, Faraday, along with his fellow Sandemanians, saw spiritual authority as flowing from a direct reading of God’s other book, the Bible. He saw this as an anchor against the influence of emotion, superstition, and spiritual or political domination. In response to a question about revivalism, he writes,

` … the Christian who is taught of God … finds his guide in the Word of God … and looks for no assurance beyond what the Word can give him …

The Christan religion is a revelation, and that revelation is the Word of God. … No revival and no temporal teaching comes between it and him. He who is taught of the Holy Spirit needs no crowd and no revival to teach him; if he stand alone he is fully taught …


Thus, just as in science the direct access to experimental observations is Faraday’s guarantee of trustworthiness, so in matters of faith, his direct access to God’s word in the scriptures is his spiritual foundation.

The Brotherhood

The difficulty with Faraday’s reliance on a direct reading of God’s book, whether nature or scripture, is, of course, the question, whose reading? Faraday was not so naive as to be oblivious to the factional interests that so readily govern the practice of science – and of religion. Faraday’s solution in the realm of science again paralleled his religious views. He saw factionalism, patronage, and politics within science as essentially an aberration, to be avoided whenever possible. His ideal of the pursuit of science was that scientists were to be members of a true fraternity, and if differences of scientific opinion should arise, they were to be resolved in a spirit of friendship and brotherhood. In a letter about scientific controversies he says

These polemics of the scientific world are very unfortunate things; they form the great stain to which the beautiful edifice of scientific truth is subject. Are they inevitable? They surely cannot belong to science itself, but to something in our fallen natures. How earnestly I wish, in all such cases, that the two champions were friends.


Faraday’s colleague at the Royal Institution, John Tyndall, reported that in one of their numerous scientific disagreements, Faraday accepted their differences by saying to him `you differ, not as a partisan, but because your conviction impels you’. Tyndall returned the compliment on another occasion, saying that Faraday’s `soul was above all littleness and proof to all egotism’.
Faraday sought to pursue his research in conformity to this idealistic vision of science as brotherhood. But he recognized that his ideals, which were based on his spiritual commitments, were out of step with much of the practice of science in his day. For this reason he strictly limited his political involvements. He felt ill-equiped to undertake positions of leadership that would demand excessive involvement in the political intriguing that he so deplored. He therefore refused the presidency of the Royal Society, when it was offered to him in 1857, and of the Royal Institution in 1864.
The scientific brotherhood that Faraday envisioned was not a closed communion. He was no elitist, whether socially or intellectually. Instead, he committed himself to bringing the results of science to the public. Most notably this took the form of public lectures and scientific demonstrations. His position at the Royal Institution was ideally suited to this objective [VG]. The Royal Institution was itself founded in 1799 by Ben Thompson (Count Rumford) and Humphrey Davy for the dissemination of practical knowledge to the artisan class. But financial difficulties and Humphrey Davy’s genius and social charisma had turned it into a center for chemical research and popular scientific lectures. Such lectures, as well as representing a stimulating evening’s entertainment, were the primary means for the interested public of the day to learn of scientific matters. Today the Royal Institution is still in existence and still organizes annual Christmas Juvenille Lectures. These juvenille lectures, now broadcast very successfully on television, were introduced in 1825, and presented nineteen times by Faraday himself, starting in 1827, as part of his duties.[VG]
Faraday was also concerned to disseminate the results of science in practical ways that brought material benefits to his fellow man. He saw the powers of nature as intended `always for our good’ and therefore the understanding of nature as an opportunity for material improvement. Although this was not his primary motivation, which was to display the structure of the Creation and thereby glorify the Creator, it was, nevertheless, a worthy undertaking, on a par perhaps with his frequent ministrations to the sick and needy of his congregation. So, for example, he spent considerable effort in consultations on the development of improved light sources for light-houses.
Finally, in a more speculative vein, one cannot help but feel that Faraday’s lifelong religious nonconformity lent a certain color to his psychological make-up that enabled him comfortably to champion unorthodox scientific positions. Especially in the matter of his highly influential ideas about the physical reality of lines of force, his views were, at best, tolerated by the scientific establishment of the day, and then only because of the reputation that his experimental research had won. The condescending attitude he faced did not deter Faraday in science any more than it did in religion. His personal conviction, based on his key sources of authority, was sufficient for him. In scientific matters, the judgement of history is unequivocally in his favor. In respect of his religious faith, a more personal assessment is essential. My own is that he was not far from the truth.


For Faraday, then, despite his self-avowed separation of religious and scientific vocations, there was not really the `absolute barrier’ between these different facets of his character that some of his biographers have supposed. While rejecting natural theology as a route to spiritual truth, he nevertheless saw the hand of God in nature and allowed his spiritual perception of the lawful, intelligent, creation to guide his deepest and most influential theorizing. Within the restraining structure imposed by the experimental facts of creation and the teachings of scripture he permitted his active imagination and his joyful heart their productive freedoms. And in his scientific endeavors as much as his spiritual service he understood and lived out the importance of personal character and moral standards in the search for truth.
In his late sixties, but still eight years before his own death, Faraday gives us a detailed insight into his views of mortality, in a letter to his niece packed with scriptural references. Here is a fragment.

… the saying that separation is the brother of death; I think that it does death an injustice, at least in the mind of the Christian; separation simply implies no reunion; death has to the Christian everything hoped for, contained in the idea of reunion.


Among the many tributes to Faraday, I have found none so telling as that with which his first biographer summarizes his life. It is with this that I end.[VG]

That one who had been a newspaper boy should receive, unsought, almost every honour which every republic of science throughout the world could give; that he should for many years be consulted constantly by the different departments of the Government, and other authorities, on questions regarding the good of others; that he should be sought after by the princes of his own and of other countries; and that he should be the admiration of every scientific or unscientific person who knew anything of him, was enough to have made him proud; but his religion was a living root of fresh humility, and from first to last it may be seen growing with his fame and reaching its height with his glory, and making him to the end of his life certainly the humblest, whilst he was also the most energetic, the truest, and the kindest of experimental philosophers.

To complete this picture, one word more must be said of his religion. His standard of duty was supernatural. It was not founded upon any intuitive ideas of right and wrong; nor was it fashioned upon any outward expediencies of time and place; but it was formed entirely on what he held to be the revelation of the will of God in the written Word, and throughout all his life his faith led him to endeavour to act up to the very letter of it.


I have depended chiefly upon three biographical studies of Faraday to which I am deeply indebted.
L.Pearce Williams, Michael Faraday, Basic Books, New York, 1965, is an eminently readable general account of Faraday’s life and work.
Geoffrey Cantor, Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist, MacMillan, London, 1991, is a more recent scholarly work focussing on the religious aspects of Faraday’s personality, and drawing on some previously inaccessible Sandemanian sources.
H.Bence Jones, The Life and Letters of Faraday, 2 volumes, London, 1870, is the first and most indispensible biographical source.

Johannes Kepler and the Christian Calling

Johannes Kepler and the Christian Calling


IAP: Series explores faith of scientists

Sasha Brown, News Office

January 19, 2006





Astronomer Johannes Kepler was a man for whom science and faith were not mutually exclusive, an expert on the 17th century German told a standing-room-only audience gathered in Room 24-107 on Jan. 12.

“(His faith) was, within him, so fundamental, it was unquestioned,” said Harvard University Professor Emeritus Owen Gingerich, the first lecturer in a series of four IAP lectures exploring “The Faith of Great Scientists.”

The series, sponsored by the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, runs Thursdays at noon through Feb. 2.

The series was born out of a desire to debunk myths, said Professor Ian Hutchinson, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, who is giving the Feb. 2 lecture on Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. “Science and faith are often put in enmity with one another,” he said. But for many of the great scientists throughout history, faith was an integral part of their work, he said.

“Kepler is certainly a person who believed in design in the universe,” said Gingerich during his hour-long lecture, “Johannes Kepler: Cosmology as a Christian Calling.”

Kepler, famous for his laws of planetary motion, was born in 1571 and was a practicing Lutheran throughout his life.

Prior to dedicating his life to astronomy, Kepler was interested in becoming a Lutheran clergyman. He never saw a conflict between his faith and his work, said Gingerich.

“The idea of the unity of the cosmos was a religious idea,” Gingerich said. “He had to put his eyes above to the heavens and work on his calculations.”

Kepler saw much of his work as searching for a physics of the heavens, said Gingerich, who called Kepler, “my favorite astronomer.”

In addition to Kepler and Maxwell, the series will explore the work and faith of Nobel laureate in medicine Sir John Carew Eccles and chemist Robert Boyle.

Neuroscience and the Soul

The Dualism of John Carew Eccles 

By: J. Allan HobsonM.D.

Although it was not always so, today the investigation of the relationship between the brain and the mind—the “problem of consciousness” —is reckoned by many to be neuroscience’s ultimate question. What happens, then, when a brain scientist, a consummate investigator awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, comes to the brain-mind question with an unshakable faith in what the answer must be? Will science and the experimental method prevail? This is the question raised by the career of Australian-born physiologist John Carew Eccles, who grew up in a religious tradition that dictated faith in an immaterial, immortal mind and spirit. Several times, Eccles’s path crossed that of Harvard University researcher J. Allan Hobson, whose discoveries about sleep and dreaming clashed head-on with belief in a mind that exists independent of the brain. Hobson reflects on the wider implications that this conflict may have for neuroscientists as they go about their work. Cerebrum will welcome, for its letters section, comments up to 500 words on any of the issues raised here.

– See more at: http://dana.org/Cerebrum/2004/Neuroscience_and_the_Soul__The_Dualism_of_John_Carew_Eccles/#sthash.KFJPakhl.dpuf


Scientific knowledge is often at odds with religious belief. An obvious and problematic conflict is between the Darwinian theory of natural selection and the Bible’s account of creation. Here, the doctrinal clash is sharp and clear-cut. Darwinian theory’s threat to religious belief was immediately perceived, leading in 1860 to fierce debates between the Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce and the English biologist Thomas H. Huxley. For his performance in those and other encounters, Huxley became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” A century and a half later, tension still runs high, as creationists seek equal time with evolutionists in teaching U.S. public school children.

A conflict not yet public or political, but potentially even more contentious and far-reaching, arises in the investigation of the brain basis of human consciousness. As consciousness is increasingly well explained in neurobiological terms, objections are sure to be offered by those whose religious beliefs include the divine origin, nature, and destiny of the human soul. In philosophical terms, this conflict is expressed as the debate between monists, who hold that all human experience and awareness, including our spiritual longings, are brain based, and dualists, who hold that our spirits are God-given and, while usually operating in harmony with the brain, are separable from it. At stake here is nothing less than how we conceive our ultimate fate. For the monist, the death of the brain is the final and complete end of the person. For the dualist, life after death is possible. There are, as always, intermediate positions, but they only serve to blur the essential issue raised by the extremes.

As a rule, scientists try to keep their experimental work separate from whatever religious beliefs they hold. But what happens when the distinction between science and faith becomes blurred, leading to a confrontation between divergent views of human origin and fate? The issue and its implications are raised in dramatic, sometimes provocative, fashion by the life and career of John Carew Eccles. As Christof Koch asserts in The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach: “The most famous modern defenders of dualism are the philosopher Karl Popper and the neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate John Eccles.”1

Although Eccles’s views of consciousness were embraced by few scientists, he is credited with having had a scientific interest in the problem of consciousness at a time when most of his colleagues ignored it. This article examines how Eccles’s dualism influenced his thinking about the brain and suggests that the conflict between brain science and dualism may become more acute as progress is made in this still-difficult area of research.

For Eccles, as for such famous scientists as Sir Charles S. Sherrington and Santiago Ramòn y Cajal before him, mind and brain were radically different entities. Seeing spirit as part of mind, these giants of modern neuroscience were committed to the notions of the transcendence and immortality of the soul, two postulates that most scientists believe are incompatible with evidence- and logic-based science. Eccles was a great scientist, but his most fundamental views of the world were rooted in faith, and, as a consequence, he ignored discoveries in neuroscience that challenged dualism. Some telling examples of these advances come from my own field, the neurobiology of sleep and dreaming, which offers a relevant subset of mind-brain and consciousness problems.


Eccles’s life neatly spans the 20th century. His Nobel biography, 2 on which I lean for this brief sketch, reports that he was born in Melbourne, Australia, on January 27, 1903, and graduated from Melbourne University with first-class honors in medicine. As a Victorian Rhodes Scholar, he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1925. Awarded first-class honors in natural science in 1927, Eccles became research assistant to Sherrington, studying reflexes and publishing eight papers with him. Fast forwarding to a story I will tell later, it is notable that the first successful recording of the human EEG was reported in 1928.

In 1929, Eccles was awarded an Oxford D. Phil. degree for his thesis on neural excitation and inhibition. He later held a series of appointments at Oxford. During this period, he studied synaptic transmission in the central and peripheral nervous systems, using new techniques of electrophysiology, such as amplifiers and cathode ray oscilloscopes. This was a period of controversy between exponents of rival chemical and electrical theories of synaptic transmission, and Eccles resisted many aspects of the chemical transmitter theory that would eventually become accepted.

In 1937, Eccles returned to Australia to direct a small medical research unit at Sydney Hospital and, from 1937 to 1943, focused on electrophysiologic analysis of the neuromuscular junctions of cats and frogs. He became professor of physiology at the University of Otago, New Zealand, in 1944, where he returned to the study of synaptic transmission in the central nervous system. In 1951, he and his colleagues succeeded for the first time in inserting microelectrodes into nerve cells of the central nervous system and recording the electrical responses produced by excitatory and inhibitory synapses. While in New Zealand, Eccles met the philosopher Karl Popper, from whom he learned what is called the “logical positivist philosophy” of the scientist’s relationship to his hypotheses, including the idea that all hypotheses must be susceptible to rigorous testing but at most can be proven false (in whole or in part), never confirmed with finality. The Nobel biography reports Eccles’s view that positivism freed him as a scientist to “rejoice even in the falsification of a cherished theory, because even this is a scientific success.”

Moving to the Australian National University, where he remained from 1952 to 1966, Eccles concentrated on the biophysical properties of synaptic transmission, work that eventually garnered him the Nobel Prize. He (Eccles) organized energetic square dance parties at his homes in Sydney and Canberra, and there fostered marital unions between three European colleagues and three young Australian Catholic women. Those colleagues, Steven Kuffler, Paul Fatt, and Bernard Katz, helped Eccles establish his reputation as a world leader in cellular neurobiology and earn a richly deserved share in the Nobel Prize. In turn, Eccles trained them and other students, including Rudolfo Llinás, as future leaders in the flowering of 20th-century neuroscience.


In 1951, Eccles published a now-famous essay in Nature on “Hypotheses Relating to the Brain-Mind Problem.” To his lasting credit, he asserted that the purpose of his article was to specify and test the hypotheses that arise from the dualistic position, writing that:

The Cartesian dualism of mind and matter necessarily involved the problem of how mind and brain could interact in perception and in willed acts. Most philosophers now argue that the hopeless difficulties of this problem have rendered untenable both dualism and the interactionist view of brain-mind liaison. On the other hand, many men of science find in dualism and interaction the most acceptable initial postulates in a scientific approach to the problem of mind and brain. In such an approach the question arises: What scientific hypotheses may be formulated that bear in any way on the hitherto refractory problem of brain-mind liaison?

Eccles hypothesized that the liaison of brain and mind occurred only in the cerebral cortex, when that part of the brain was activated. In particular, he ascribed dreaming to “bursts of activity in the electroencephalogram,” as if he believed (as I do) that dreaming was a kind of consciousness. Eccles also held that every perceptual experience was a function of a specific pattern of neuronal activation and that memory was caused by an increase in synaptic efficacy. Given these reasonable assumptions, it is difficult now to see why Eccles felt that experience and memory were “unassimilable into the matter-energy system.” Because of this conclusion, he felt it useful—and even necessary—to postulate that the activated cortex had “a sensitivity of a different kind from any physical instrument” and that “mind achieves liaison with the brain by exerting spatio-temporal fields of influence that become effective through this unique…function of the active cerebral cortex.” But to the monist, a simpler and more elegant explanation is that subjective awareness is an intrinsic, emergent aspect of brain activation.

To justify his hypotheses, it was necessary for Eccles to assume that contemporary physics could not detect, measure, or predict the supposed mental forces.

To justify his hypotheses, it was necessary for Eccles to assume that contemporary physics could not detect, measure, or predict the supposed mental forces. In his Nature essay, he suggested that, while waiting for physics to improve, we should take note of “well-controlled experiments that give evidence that there is a two-way traffic between mind and the matter-energy system,” and went on to assert that “psychokinetic experiments leave little doubt that very slight changes can be produced by some minds on moving physical objects such as dice.” To support his hypothesis of nonphysical causation, Eccles also added the claims of extrasensory perception (ESP).3 In retrospect, these arguments seem weak; well-controlled experiments with ESP have repeatedly failed to support the claims of its exponents.


In 1963, the same year that Eccles won the Nobel Prize, an up-and-coming brain scientist, Rodolfo Llinás, arrived at the Australian National University to begin work on his Ph.D. thesis. The first thing Eccles asked him during his initial interview was, “Do you believe in psychokinesis?” In other words, did Llinás think that mental activity was capable of having effects at a distance, as Eccles had suggested in Nature? This was exactly the question that C. C. Jung put to Sigmund Freud in a conversation, famous in psychoanalytic circles, during which Jung was convinced the furniture in Freud’s office had moved under the influence of some non-physical power. Jung, the son of a Protestant preacher, believed in psychokinesis; Freud, the atheist, did not. We know that Eccles believed in psychokinesis and, as a practicing Roman Catholic, certainly believed in mystery and miracles.

From the 1920s through 1960s, when Eccles performed his remarkable research on the biology of nerve cells, other scientists made long strides in understanding the neurophysiology of mind. Their discoveries would eventually confront Eccles with uncomfortable evidence of the brain basis of consciousness—evidence that Eccles would ignore or reject despite his avowed interest in that topic.

In 1928, Hans Berger pioneered the electroencephalogram (EEG), a recording of electrical impulses from the head. By 1932, he had convinced even skeptics such as Edgar Adrian that the voltage changes recorded from the human scalp originated in the brain, not the scalp muscles, because the changes correlated with sleep and waking. By 1936, other neuroscientists reported that the sleep EEG changed periodically from high voltage/slow to low voltage/fast every 90 minutes. Eccles, of course, was aware of this work, which set the stage for Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman’s 1953 discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and its correlation with dreaming. Coming on top of earlier discoveries, the discoveries about REM sleep called for a new brain-state paradigm, one that would complement, but go far beyond, the doctrine of reflexes that had so successfully guided Eccles’s work.

It should be emphasized that both Eccles’s Oxford mentor Sherrington and the Russian experimental psychologist Ivan Pavlov believed that sleep was caused by a cessation of brain activity when there was a drop in external stimuli. None of these great scientists anticipated the remarkable paradigm shift that would accompany recognition that the brain never turns off, that its activation is largely independent of stimulus drive, and that “offline” auto-activation of the brain in sleep results in the conscious experience of dreaming.

Taken together, these discoveries, accumulating over several decades, constituted virtually inescapable evidence that consciousness is an intrinsic function of the brain and inseparable from it. That Eccles ignored these advances, or failed to see their challenge to his dualism, was brought home to me when I attended his 1966 lecture on “The Cerebellum as a Neuronal Machine” at Harvard Medical School. I was as shocked as everyone else in the audience when Steven Kuffler introduced Eccles as the individual who had “made more mistakes than any other neurophysiologist.” After a long and agonizing pause, Kuffler added that Eccles had also gotten more things right.

By the time of this lecture, Eccles had become interested in the organizational aspects of the brain, including the dorsal columns, thalamus, hippocampus, and cerebellum. Given this interest, one would expect Eccles to be knowledgeable about important discoveries from sleep research, such as the inhibition of the spinal cord motor neurons that renders them unresponsive to excitatory stimuli during REM sleep. The important implication of this work was that reflex spinal activity, so carefully studied by Sherrington and Eccles, was as dependent upon brain state (sleep or waking) as was consciousness itself. In fact, motor-neuronal inhibition is the basis for the paralysis that prevents us from moving during even our most animated dreams. 

In 1965, I had presented my work on hypothalamic lesions at the Tokyo Physiological Conference, in a sleep session chaired by none other than Eccles. I was surprised, and a bit hurt, at how little interest Eccles took in the evidence that sleep—and, by implication, dreaming—was actively controlled by the brain. At that time, however, I did not know he was a dualist. During the question period after his 1966 Harvard lecture, therefore, I asked Eccles to comment on the significance of the sleep-dependent inhibition of spinal reflex activity. To my astonishment, which continues to this day, Eccles went to the blackboard and drew this diagram:


Eccles’s revealing performance at the Harvard lecture started me thinking that even great intellects like Sherrington, Cajal, and Pavlov might be unable to distinguish clearly between their religious beliefs and their scientific philosophies. No one knows exactly how widespread this conflict may be among scientists, but one intriguing bit of evidence is available. During my active teaching days at Harvard, in the early 1980s, I met Jeffrey Saver, a medical student. After graduating from Harvard College, Saver used a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship to interview scientists around the world about their religious beliefs. He found that, on Sundays, the vast majority of them embraced convictions that were completely incompatible with their Monday-through-Friday scientific principles.

Even great intellects like Sherrington, Cajal, and Pavlov might be unable to distinguish clearly between their religious beliefs and their scientific philosophies.

Eccles’s friendship with the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, is also worth a few more comments because of Popper’s fame as a proponent of rigorous hypothesis testing. As previously mentioned, Eccles was a strong adherent of the electrical theory of neural transmission and, as such, an opponent of the soon-to-be prevailing chemical model. When his intracellular recording experiments produced unequivocal evidence in favor of the chemical theory, Eccles was at first upset. He was comforted by Popper, who praised him for the most essential scientific achievement: the falsification of a hypothesis. Eccles’s pride was preserved, and he and Popper became lifelong friends and collaborators.

One product of this relationship was Eccles’s philosophical book, Facing Reality, published in 1970. Another was the book that he and Popper wrote together, The Self and Its Brain (1977). The title suggests that both Eccles and Popper believed in something more than material causality. But even Eccles and Popper’s third (or social) world, including written words, can be fully described in terms of information. Because all information enters the nervous system as a physical stimulus, it follows that, to enter or arise from a brain, information must also be physicalized. As I read or write, the words are rendered by my visual brain or the motor cortex, and my writing hand, as physical objects. The meaning that arises from them or the associations they inspire are all emergent properties of my brain. There is no requirement for dualism in accounting for sentience, the sense of self, or the written word. Materialism is sufficient.

Eccles, however, could not accept that the defining characteristic of the brain-mind is its intrinsic capacity for information processing. He introduced extra-physical forces, which he called the “vis externa,” to act on the brain to cause mental life and zeroed in on specific neurons (more precisely, the apical dendrites of cortical neurons) as the sensors of his putative external force. This hypothesis (and the implied quest for a demonstrable link between God and man) echoed the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, the 17th-century natural scientist, philosopher, and mystic who thought he would see God if only his microscope were sufficiently powerful. Indeed, so successful was the microscopic paradigm that it still beguiles some scientists, who think they will find a consciousness widget in some sub-cellular neural gadget.

When Swedenborg failed to find God at the end of his microscope, he turned to more meditative methods. In particular, he learned to intensify his dreams by sleep deprivation. The natural result of sleep deprivation is called a “REM rebound.” After losing REM sleep, we normally pay back the debt by longer, and stronger, REM periods. Dreaming duration and intensity then increase. In due course, Swedenborg experienced one of these rebounds, in which he said he met God’s angels in person and received from them instructions for the founding of the Church of the New Jerusalem. Interpreted through the lens of modern neuroscience, the Swedenborg story confirms that no vis externa is necessary to account even for this apparently miraculous revelation. It is sufficlient to tilt the brain’s own REM sleep system in the direction of hallucinatory overdrive in which people can meet whomever they want and accomplish whatever bit of carnal or spiritual business appeals to them.

Thus direct manipulation of one’s physical neural system can possibly open the way to spiritual enlightenment.  MR


I saw Eccles for the last time in 1969, at the first meeting of the new Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC. At age 66, he was still a bundle of energy. I have a vivid recollection of him walking rapidly up and down the corridors, basking in his fame and celebrity.

At that same meeting, Vernon Mount-castle told me about Floyd Bloom’s work on the brain’s locus coeruleus. “There’s a brain within the brain,” said Mountcastle, meaning that the control of consciousness could at last be assigned a chemically specific neuronal mechanism. The full import of Mountcastle’s statement did not hit me until 1975, when Peter Wyzinski, Robert McCarley, and I showed that the metronome-like firing pattern of locus coeruleus neurons that occur in waking give way to sporadic discharge in non-REM sleep and to a complete cessation of firing in REM sleep. This same REM-off property is shared by other chemically coded modulatory neurons, the serotonergic and histaminergic neurons of the brain stem. We proposed that it was these changes in chemical activity in the brain that determined the difference between dreaming and waking consciousness. It was clear that the mind was not separated from the body in sleep, as Eccles had claimed only 10 years earlier. The mind just changed its conscious state as the brain changed its neuronal firing pattern—a conclusion amply supported by recent brain-imaging findings.

The mind changes the brain’s neuronal firing pattern producing a difference between dreaming and waking consciousness. 

In the same way:

Changes between dreaming and waking consciousness are the result of the mind’s actions upon these physical systems.  Mush as the change of three thousand RMP automotive engine activity while idling or in gear driving is a change induced by the driver of the vehicle.  MR

Now no reasonable doubt exists that we sleep because the brain changes its state, and we dream when that change in state assumes certain physiological dimensions. The consequences are both profound and far-reaching for science as well as for religion. All available evidence is that consciousness, including what we might call spirit or soul, is a brain function. [Again the relativistic perspective can and must be asserted by saying, “ll brain functions are the result of one’s individual soul/spirit acting upon matter.” MR] Presumably, die-hard dualists, like Eccles, could still retreat to the position of René Descartes, [“I think therefore I am.”] insisting that the relationship of mind and brain we observe in every instance is best understood as two perfectly synchronized watches set in parallel motion by God [I AM therefore I think.”] and evidencing God’s remarkable creative powers. The problem is that no evidence whatsoever exists to favor this hypothesis over the integrationist view that mind and brain are two levels of a unified system.

What does the Eccles story tell us? On the positive side, it says that great science can be done by people who have strong religious beliefs. The human mind is a many splendored thing, whose multiple compartments can contain isolated and internally incompatible ideas—although, as I believe I have suggested, at the risk of short-circuiting the free flow of thought. Eccles’s story tells us, too, that scientific evidence alone can never overcome assumptions based on faith, simply because faith is a claim to a nonsensory, nonrational form of knowledge and, therefore, explicitly insulated from scientific evidence and the claims of reason. In the end, when facts contradict our cherished beliefs, each of us decides, with only intellectual honesty to guide us, whether our beliefs or the facts are dispensable.


1Koch C. The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Englewood, CO. Roberts and Co. Publishers, 2004.

2Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1963-1970. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1972.

3Eccles, JC. “Hypotheses relating to the brain-mind problem.” Nature 1951; 168:53.

– See more at: http://dana.org/Cerebrum/2004/Neuroscience_and_the_Soul__The_Dualism_of_John_Carew_Eccles/#sthash.KFJPakhl.dpuf