The science and Christianity of James Clerk Maxwell

The science and Christianity of James Clerk Maxwell

Maxwell is usually regarded as the third most influential physicist in history, behind Newton and Einstein. Einstein wrote that Maxwell’s work was “the most profound and fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

Maxwell saw no conflict at all between science and religion. In fact, the two complimented each other. For Maxwell the spiritual life was best lived as a life of work, or more specifically of service. This service was service of the world, through both scientific investigation, and through working for the improvement of others. Maxwell explicitly stated this intention in a letter to a friend written in his early twenties, “Happy is the man who can recognise in the work of today a connected portion of the work of life, and an embodiment of the work of eternity.” When studying his life you get the impression that Maxwell would have been as happy to contribute to society in anyway at all, simply by living an ordinary life nobly, as he was to contribute as a scientific great.

Maxwell is less well known than many other great physicists. The reasons for this are probably just that he was a less flamboyant character, and attracted less attention in the popular science press. Many other well-known scientific figures went out of their way to make themselves appear eccentric, or at least to make sure there were memorable stories for reporters and biographers to work with. Maxwell still made an unforgettable impression on nearly all of his acquaintances – but this was for the extreme virtue of his character, his cheerfulness, sensitivity, and selfless kindness.

Science and religion

Maxwell was noted for unrelenting inquisitiveness as a child, and the sense of childlike wonder about the world never really left him. Like many who have achieved intellectual greatness he was initially no more than average at school, and even manged to acquire the nickname “dafty” from his classmates, for a perceived intellectual slowness. Biographers have suggested that this might have been because of bullying he initially received due to his accent. By the age of fourteen things had changed for the better, and Maxwell had written his first published scientific paper, which rediscovered a geometrical method relating to the construction of curves that had been initially found by the French mathematician Rene Descartes, but corrected some of the mistakes that Descartes had made.

Maxwell irreversibly shaped science. His lasting contributions were to begin the revolution in the philosophy of science in which scientific theories were viewed as models of an impenetrable underlying reality. This reality can never be known to us directly but can nonetheless be described by mathematic models. These models can help us to understand the world, even though they remain models, and not reality. This approach had begun with Newton, but took on its modern form and with Maxwell, who had always understood the significance of philosophy for scientific investigations.

Maxwell was the father of field physics, an approach which now dominates physics on all scales. He invented statistical mechanical methods, the first step beyond the Newtonian world, which eventually gave birth to chaos theory. He characterised light in wholly electromagnetic terms and realised its speed could be calculate through the relationship between electromagnetic and electrostatic charges. His field equations of electromagnetism inspired and made possible Einstein’s special relativity. His kinetic theory of gases made possible Plank’s discovery of the energy quantum and the birth of quantum physics. Such common place technologies as the radio, the television, and radar were all made possible through Maxwell’s discoveries. The Cavendish laboratory, which he envisioned, organised, and partly funded, was the location of the discovery of the electron and DNA.

Certainly Maxwell’s scientific quest was also a spiritual one. For Maxwell good work of any kind was service of God, and scientific work was no different.

 

Certainly Maxwell’s scientific quest was also a spiritual one. For Maxwell good work of any kind was service of God, and scientific work was no different. Like the far more flamboyant Isaac Newton, Maxwell believed that his life was in some sense a quest he was completing as service to God in order to uncover knowledge. His final reflection as his life drew to a close: “What is done by what I call myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.”

Yet for Maxwell the spiritual quest and the scientific quest were not the same thing. Spiritual development was something that must take place through traditional methods of inner work, contemplation, and reflection. He did not believe that scientific work uncovers spiritual knowledge, although science could be undertaken in the service of spirit. Maxwell stated simply in a letter in 1875 that “I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ.” The two pursuits, science and religion, were quite different undertakings.

But different as they were, science and religion were compatible and involved no conflict. Maxwell’s Christianity was the typical pre-twentieth century Christianity which embraced science rather than fighting against it. In the spirit typical of the Church of England, he felt that every aspect of Christianity should be examined and tested, and found evidence in support of all of it. “Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative,” wrote Maxwell. And this statement applied to science as well as to religion. He realised that there are certain questions that science simply cannot answer. Science being the investigation of specifics, it can offer no explanation for existence as a whole. This is typical of the relationship that Christian scholars have forged between theology and science throughout history.

We can logically infer the existence of the infinite and eternal, on which finite space and time must rely, both as its initial cause and for its moment to moment duration. We can do this quite simply by contemplating the inherently incomplete nature of all finite things, and that the totality of finite things must also be finite, and therefore incomplete. Or we can approach the issue by analysing the process of causation and finding that all finite things which exist in space and time are reliant on some other finite thing to exist. This process, which necessarily cannot be unending, must at some point imply the existence of a timeless and infinite cause or essence which is complete in itself, which is therefore uncaused, and which fulfils the traditional characteristics that theologians have ascribed to God. Otherwise there could be nothing at all.

These arguments have been made my Christian theologians for centuries and can be discerned in the teachings of the sages of all spiritual traditions. It is in this spirit that  Maxwell acknowledged in his philosophical reflections the fundamental insufficiency of science as an ultimate explanation, and the subsequent need for religious knowledge. This was the intellectual conclusion at which Maxwell had arrived at an early age and maintained throughout his life.

Although this conclusion concerns science it lies outside the bounds of scientific investigation and therefore can never be arrived at through science. Science is an investigation of specifics and so can never produce knowledge of the whole. This is what Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote that “we feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

We cannot arrive at this conclusion by doing experiments. We can only arrive at it through philosophical analysis of what scientific method actually is. Yet it is an entirely rational conclusion for it is one necessitated by logic alone. We do not need to conduct an experiment in order to derive a feel for the fact that no collection of finite thing can be complete in themselves. All we need do is contemplate the logic behind the statement.

Although the arguments described here are the arguments of theologians around the world and not Maxwell’s original arguments, they are sufficient as summaries of his views on theological matters and sufficient to define the relationship between science and religion as he saw it.

Character

There is no consistency in the character of great scientists. Maxwell certainly falls on the side of those who have been balanced individuals. In fact he was noted for balance in every aspect of his life.

Newton and Einstein both worked themselves to the point of ill health. Maxwell, during the most productive period of his life in which he wrote his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (probably the second most influential book in the history of physics), still found the time to spend each afternoon horse riding with his wife.

The stories of eccentricity that can be created around many leading figures in the history of science are simply not there with Maxwell. He has not captured the public imagination in the way that some other scientists have. Yet he could have done if he had wished. Maxwell was a keen fitness enthusiast and walked, rode, ran, or walked every day. There are stories of him getting up at 2AM to take exercise by running around the corridors of his Cambridge college. But Maxwell did nothing to embellish these stories in the way that others have.

Einstein, for example, set the rumour going that the idea of relativity came to him when he saw a workman fall off a ladder, and attending the scene to help, asked the workman what it had been like to fall. The story goes that the workman replied that it had been as if he remained stationary and the world rushed up to meet him, and at this moment, apparently, the idea of relativity in which object, space, time, and motion were all relative to particular viewpoints was born as a possibility in Einstein’s mind. In reality Einstein had been compiling detailed notes on relativity for the previous five years.

Authors are advised to concoct these kind of stories by their agents, and most oblige, which is one reason why the histories of all academic subjects are full of such apparently eccentric personalities. But Maxwell’s character would allow none of this, he was simply too humble to try to mythologise himself. His story is consequently less marketable.

Many of those who knew Maxwell commented that he was as noteworthy for his admirable character traits as he was for his scientific theory. According to reports from all periods of his life, Maxwell exuded something of a saintly presence. A large number of people who knew him were moved to comment on this:

  • “Everyone who knew him at Trinity can recall some kindness or some act of his which left an ineffaceable impression of his goodness on the memory,” commented one student who had known him at Cambridge.
  • “His presence had by this time fully acquired the unspeakable charm for all who knew him which made him insensibly become the centre of any circle, large or small,” writes Lewis Campbell, one of Maxwell’s biographers.
  • An acquaintance from the Glenlair area described him as “of a serenely placid temper, genial and temperate in his enjoyments, and infinitely patient when others would have been vexed or annoyed.”
  • Maxwell’s local doctor in Glenlair wrote, “a greater merit than his scientific achievements is his being, so far as human judgment can discern, a most perfect example of a Christian Gentleman.”

At Cambridge there are many stories of him helping those who were struggling with their studies and encouraging those who were down. When an acquaintance was suffering from eye trouble and could not read Maxwell spent an hour each evening reading out from text books to prepare the student for the next day’s classes.

He contributed generously to the restoration of the church in the village of Corsock, near to Glenlair, and went on to become an elder of the church. He supported a local school financially in a time of difficulty and offered pay for a move to a new site, a project that was cut short by his death.

He spent time nursing his ill wife himself, often staying up all night to do so. At one time he spent three weeks sleeping in a chair by her bedside at night while continuing his work during the day. Maxwell was devoted to her. Some of Maxwell’s colleagues appear to have judged her to be a hypochondriac. We will probably never be sure if this was justified or not.

Mysticism

Maxwell’s view of theology was the classical Christian view, that science and religion are quite harmonious, but should not work outside of their respective jurisdictions. Science can tell us the truth about the way the natural world is, but it is not an exhaustive discipline or the exclusive route to truth. In fact there are areas of knowledge that science cannot engage at all. Spiritual knowledge exists quite apart from scientific knowledge. While science can explain every detail of the physical world it cannot explain the existence of the universe as a whole. Pure logic, however, can demonstrate the necessity of a transcendent and infinite source which makes possible all finite things. Like all aspects of Maxwell’s life, his religion and science were perfectly harmonious.

There is little direct evidence of mysticism per se in Maxwell’s writings that I am aware of. If he had powerful direct experiences of that infinite source we do not hear of them. His spirituality seems to have been based around logic. This is in contrast to Maxwell’s successor in the line of the world’s very greatest physicists, Albert Einstein.

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