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Science and Faith

by Max Planck

 

A vast volume of experiences reaches each one of us in the course of a year; such is the progress made in the various means of communication that new impressions from far and near rush upon us in a never-ending stream. It is true that many of them are forgotten as quickly as they arrive and that every trace of them is often effaced within a day; and it is as well that it should be so: if it were otherwise modern man would he fairly suffocated under the weight of different impressions. Yet every person who wishes to lead more than an ephemeral intellectual existence must be impelled by the very variety of these kaleidoscopic changes to seek for some element of permanence, for some lasting intellectual possession to afford him a point d'appui in the confusing claims of everyday life. In the younger generation this impulse manifests itself in a passionate desire for a comprehensive philosophy of the world; a desire which looks for satisfaction in groping attempts turning in every direction where peace and refreshment for a weary spirit is believed to reside.

It is the Church whose function it would be to meet such aspirations; but in these days its demands for an unquestioning belief serve rather to repel the doubters. The latter have recourse to more or less dubious substitutes, and hasten to throw themselves into the arms of one or other of the many prophets who appear preaching new gospels. It is surprising to find how many people even of the educated classes allow themselves to be fascinated by these new religions -- beliefs which vary from the obscurest mysticism to the crudest superstition.

It would be easy to suggest that a philosophy of the world might be reached from a scientific basis; but such a suggestion is usually rejected by these seekers on the ground that the scientific view is bankrupt. There is an element of truth in this suggestion, and, indeed, it is entirely correct if the term science is taken in the traditional and still surviving sense where it implies a reliance on the understanding. Such a method, however, proves that those who adopt it have no sense of real science. The truth is very different. Anyone who has taken part in the building up of a branch of science is well aware from personal experience that every endeavor in this direction is guided by an unpretentious but essential principle. This principle is faith -- a faith which looks ahead. It is said that science has no preconceived ideas: there is no saying that has been more thoroughly or more disastrously misunderstood. It is true that every branch of science must have an empirical foundation: but it is equally true that the essence of science does not consist in this raw material but in the manner in which it is used. The material always is incomplete: it consists of a number of parts which however numerous are discrete, and this is equally true of the tabulated figures of the natural sciences, and of the various documents of the intellectual sciences.

The material must therefore be completed, and this must be done by filling the gaps; and this in turn is done by means of associations of ideas. And associations of ideas are not the work of the understanding but the offspring of the investigator's imagination -- an activity which may be described as faith, or, more cautiously, as a working hypothesis. The essential point is that its content in one way or another goes beyond the data of experience. The chaos of individual masses cannot be wrought into a cosmos without some harmonizing force and, similarly, the disjointed data of experience can never furnish a veritable science without the intelligent interference of a spirit actuated by faith. . . .

A Survey of Physical Theory,
by Max Planck



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