Tracking the Transcendent: Four Physicists Open to Its Possibilities

“Most educated people are not religious,” a friend remarked to me the other day when the subject of faith came up in conversation.

What troubled me most about his comment was its case-closed lack of curiosity about the transcendent realm.

Whatever his source for adopting such a stance, if this bright young man allows the argumentum ad populum fallacy to squelch his natural open mindedness, he’ll limit his own pursuit of truth and its access to levels of happiness available outside the purely material realm.

Robert Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D. is out to help smart seekers move forward. He’s written a richly documented quartet of books developing reasons intelligent people may entertain the possiblity that the measurable, material world is not all there is.

The quartet’s first volume, Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts is a well-developed invitation for curious minds to remain open to the possibility of the transcendent.

Why remain open if “most educated people” aren’t?

For starters, there’s no reason to cling to the fallacy as if it proves the point. In fact, some of the most brilliant minds in science and mathematics blow the assumption that transcendence is for dunces out of the water. (That too is not proof, but we’re only making a case for openness to the possibilities here.)

In chapter two of Finding True Happiness, Spitzer offers five examples worth sharing with anyone whose curiosity seems closed to more hopeful possibilities. Four are physicists whose relentless pursuit of truth in the theoretical realm changed our conception of the universe and made possible revolutionary advances in scientific discovery.

If these brillant men were open to transcendence, then whatever “most educated people” may or may not think, it seems reasonable to maintain an open mind. Here are Spitzer’s four physicists in the order he offers them, with additions from my own research.

Albert Einstein: “I am not an atheist.”

Albert Einstein

Einstein is the most famous name on Spitzer’s list. The theoretical physicist and “father of the general theory of relativity, the comprehensive theory of the macroscopic universe” possessed such an exceptional mind that his name is synonymous with “genius.”

Einstein did not believe in a personal God, but he did believe in a “superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience.”  Einstein called this superior mind “my conception of God.”

“I am not an atheist,” Einstein said, preferring to call himself a “deeply religious nonbeliever” or an agnostic, one who remains open to as-yet undiscovered or unproven possibilities.

To be clear, Einstein’s religious/philosophical journey is wide-ranging and studded with quotable one-liners both religious believers and agnostics could employ in support of their position.

But embracing atheism by excluding the possibility of God because “most educated people” allegedly do so lacks depth and awareness of the openness to transcendence many brilliant minds, including Einstein’s, possessed.

Max Planck: “Respectful humility before a supernatural power.”

Max Planck

Theoretical physicist Max Planck received the Nobel Prize for his work as the originator of quantum theory, which, Spitzer notes, “completely revolutionized our view of the microscopic world–the domain of atomic and subatomic fields and particles.”

Planck was among the first scientists to support Einstein’s general theory of relativity and contributed to its extension and application.

Like Einstein, Planck rejected atheism, but he went further. Planck was tolerant of all religious views and favored Christianity for much, if not all, of his life. “Religion is the link that binds man to God–” he wrote, “resulting from the respectful humility before a supernatural power, to which all human life is subject…”

There are mixed reports about Planck’s beliefs in old age (some have him converting to Catholicism while others quote him as embracing deism). This much is consistent: the groundbreaking physicist’s public statements reveal a lifelong reverence before the supernatural. Planck engaged religious questions with openness and seriousness all his life.

Werner Heisenberg:
“I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking.”

Werner Heisenburg

In 1928, Albert Einstein nominated Pascual Jordan, Max Born and Werner Heisenberg for the Nobel Prize in physics. Heisenberg received the prize in 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”

Heisenberg was the father of the matrix forumlation of quantum mechanics and also of the uncertainty principle.

But Heisenberg, a man of advanced theoretical science, also “believed in a transphysical soul and a transcendent domain to which we are called.”

Heisenburg affirmed this faith in accepting the Romano Guardini Prize in 1974, saying:

Although I am now convinced that scientific truth is unassailable in its own field, I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking as simply part of an outmoded phase in the consciousness of mankind, a part we shall have to give up from now on. Thus in the course of my life I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of thought, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.

Sir Arthur Eddington: “We all know there are regions of the human spirit untrammeled by physics.”

Sir Arthur Eddingon

Sir Arthur Eddington, the last of our four physicists, was “the first astrophysicist responsible for the early confirmation of Einstein’s general relativity theory, as well as other theories integral to the conception of the modern universe.”

In The Nature of the Physical World, a work in which he integrates the general theory of relativity with quantum theory, Eddingon includes a chapter entitled “A Defense of Mysticism.”

“We all know there are regions of the human spirit untrammeled by physics,” the British astrophysicist wrote. “In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in the yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfillment of something implanted in its nature.”

“Eddington intuitively recognized that the human spirit could not be reduced to the structures and constituents of physics,” adds Spitzer. The implication is that our minds cannot be reduced to our brains, indicating the possibility that the human soul is something beyond mere bodily existence.

Spitzer continues this line of reasoning in offering a fifth example for our consideration: Einstein’s colleague and friend, mathemetician Kurt Gödel. Unlike Einstein, Gödel was a theist who positively affirmed the soul’s existence.

Examining the phenomena of the human mind, the American-Austrian logician developed a theorem concerning the human’s capacity to transcend rule-based thinking which “points, at least incipiently, to the existence of a transphysical dimension of human beings.”

Surely, given these examples, it’s not unreasonable for educated people to remain open and even to hope for more.

How easily we can come to use the bad examples of ignorant, unscientific Christians (and there are many) to stifle our curiosity about ultimate truths!

Spitzer’s short list is sufficient to show we need not let either examples of ignorance or a logical fallacy about educated people thwart our pursuit of transcendence.

On the other hand, nobody should drop the names of Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg and Eddington as if their openness to the transcendent justifies every tenet of faith any more than enlisting the names of prominent atheists proves God does not exist.

The list of educated people who’ve found reasons for faith is star-studded if one is impressed by such things, but ultimately that’s not the point.

I am hoping my friend might consider these four physicists’ spiritual openness as grounds to hope for more in his life than a closed approach to transcedent quests offers.

It’s simply untenable to maintain an unbending atheistic position in light of possibilities that await further investigation in realms our instruments cannot measure.

The words of the ancient psalmist before the night sky still resonate in hearts open to the numinous:

When I consider the heavens…the moon and the stars…what is man that You are mindful of him?

The question remains inviting and filled with possibility. Given the vastness of the undiscovered, openness of mind and heart seems an eminently reasonable option.

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Related posts: The Truth is in the Stars…or Is Faith the Final Frontier? and Galileo’s Daughter meets God and the Astronomers: When Faith and Science Confront Infinite Mystery.

Stephen M. Barr, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, is another example of an educated man open to transcendence. He writes in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith:
“The conflict is not between religion and science, it is between religion and materialsm. Materialism is a philosophical opinion that is closely connected with science. It grew up alongside of science, and many people have a hard time distinguishing it from science. But it is not science. It is merely a philosophical opinion. And not all scientists share it by any means.”

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Photos by Hugo Kemmel  and Iulia Mihailov on Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Tracking the Transcendent: Four Physicists Open to Its Possibilities

  1. Bingo. The ‘educated/intelligent people aren’t religious’ belief is, most likely, in one form or another, ancient.

    The current version seems to have gotten traction in the Enlightenment – – – which probably seemed reasonable at the time, to folks who had gotten fed up with the religion-themed propaganda of Europe’s turf wars.

    Maybe the ‘religion is for the unschooled’ idea gets support partly from the fact that there aren’t all than many Albert Einsteins and Max Plancks – and many Goober Pyles and Archie Bunkers.

    And unless American academia has changed since I did time there, the younger cardres of diploma-holders may be less openly-religious than the general population.

    At least some very bright – and now self-educated – Americans decided that they wouldn’t let getting an education interfere with learning. I’ll admit to a bias there, based on my run-ins with political correctness. And that’s another topic.

  2. Too many Goober Pyles and Archie Bunkers indeed. They quash curiosity for sure. Spitzer is doing wonderful work assembling evidence for the open minded. Thanks!

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