Testing Faith

First colour photopgraph, Maxwell, 1861

As I write, the Faraday Institute summer course is in full swing. On Tuesday  I attended a lecture by MIT physicist Professor Ian Hutchinson on James Clerk Maxwell. A text of the talk, given at MIT, is here.

James Clerk Maxwell was quite a character. He grew up in the country, running away from his tutor by sailing a washtub across a pond, and finally being sent to school in Edinburgh. He published his first scientific paper when he was still at school (he invented a method for drawing ovals, and published it in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh). He later went to Edinburgh University, and I love this extract from a letter around this time.

… 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 …

Here is someone working hard at something he enjoys so much that it feels like playing. Maxwell then moved to Cambridge, where he devised a scheme to test his Christian faith.

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… Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. …

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.

Maxwell’s idea was that if Christianity was founded on something true, it should withstand proper scrutiny. I come across this approach again and again among scientists of faith, and it doesn’t see the light of day very often in media discussions of science and faith – I hope this small contribution helps…

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