Max Planck: Father of Quantum Theory, Believer in a Rational God

Related imageMax Planck (1858-1947), the German theoretical physicist who came to be known as the father of quantum theory[1], is one of my intellectual heroes. He was a brilliant man of science who clearly saw the theistic implications of a mathematically comprehensible universe.

Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his discovery of energy quanta.[2] Simply put, Planck postulated that electromagnetic energy exists in individual units he called quanta instead of continuous waves, and he devised a mathematical equation that could be used to represent the relationship between the energy of a quantum and its frequency:

E = hv

E represents energy and v (the Greek letter nu) represents the frequency of the emitted waves. The result is that the constant h (now known as Planck’s constant) is the product of energy multiplied by time.[3] The implication of Planck’s discovery was that the laws of classical physics do not apply at the subatomic scale of physical reality. As a result of this work, the new field of quantum mechanics emerged and physics was radically transformed.

Throughout the remainder of his career as a professor at the University of Berlin, Planck continued to make important contributions to theoretical physics, but in his later years he became increasingly interested in philosophical and religious questions. During the final decade of his life, he penned a series of essays that were collected and published posthumously under the title Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers. He opens the first essay, “Scientific Autobiography,” with these words:

My original decision to devote myself to science was a direct result of the discovery which has never ceased to fill me with enthusiasm since my early youth—the comprehension of the far from obvious fact that the laws of human reasoning coincide with the laws governing the sequences of the impressions we receive from the world about us; that, therefore, pure reasoning can enable man to gain an insight into the mechanism of the latter. In this connection, it is of paramount importance that the outside world is something independent from man, something absolute, and the quest for the laws which apply to this absolute appeared to me as the most sublime scientific pursuit in life.[4]

Planck recognized the congruence between the mathematical, law-governed structure of nature and what he calls the “laws of human reasoning.” He considered it a “far from obvious fact” that there should be such a fortunate (and scientifically productive) resonance between the fundamental workings of the natural world and human rationality—that the universe is comprehensible.

Later in the same essay, Planck discusses the precise mathematical measurements that are used in physics and the significance of the constants of nature (such as his h) which are discovered through investigation. He writes, “These minute numbers, the so-called universal constants, are in a sense the immutable building blocks of the edifice of theoretic physics.”[5] Then he asks a penetrating question: “What is the real meaning of these constants? Are they, in the last analysis, inventions of the inquiring mind of man, or do they possess a real meaning independent of human intelligence?”[6] Planck discards the positivist view that the mathematical constants of nature are merely useful fictions devised and employed by the physicist; he says that such an idea “disregards a circumstance which is of a decisive importance in the extension and progress of scientific knowledge”: the reproducibility of physical measurements, which are independent of the individual experimenter and of when and where the measurements are taken.[7] For Planck, this is an indication that “the factor which is decisive for the result of the measurement lies beyond the observer, and that one is therefore necessarily led to questions concerning real causal connections operating independently of the observer.”[8] In other words, the consistency and objectivity of the mathematical constants that appear in the laws of nature are saying something about the very nature of material reality. He goes on:

Of course, even today a consistent positivist could call the universal constants mere inventions which have proved to be uncommonly useful in making possible an accurate and complete description of the most diversified results of measurements. But hardly any real physicist would take such an assertion seriously. The universal constants were not invented for reasons of practical convenience, but have forced themselves upon us irresistibly because of the agreement between the results of all relevant measurements and—this is the essential thing—we know quite well in advance that all future measurements will lead to these selfsame constants. To sum it all up, we can say that physical science demands that we admit the existence of a real world independent from us, a world which we can however never recognize directly but can apprehend only through the medium of our sense experiences and of the measurements mediated by them.[9]

Clearly, Planck sees the constants of nature as legitimate discoveries about nature’s mathematical structure rather than artificial, human-imposed ordering principles.

In a remarkable passage, Planck expresses his astonishment at the fact that man, tiny as he is in comparison with the whole wide universe, has the ability to comprehend it:

In fact, how pitifully small, how powerless we human beings must appear to ourselves if we stop to think that the planet Earth on which we live our lives is just a minute, infinitesimal mote of dust; on the other hand how peculiar it must seem that we, tiny creatures on a tiny planet, are nevertheless capable of knowing though not the essence at least the existence and the dimensions of the basic building blocks of the entire great Cosmos![10]

This is quite an interesting statement. Despite man’s smallness in comparison with the vastness of the cosmos, his scientific abilities suggest that he has great significance.

Planck remarks that the natural laws the physicist uncovers give “the impression in every unbiased mind that nature is ruled by a rational, purposive will.”[11] He articulates his expectation that the progress of the natural sciences will advance mankind’s insights about “the omnipotent Reason which rules over Nature,” and adds that “the deity which the religious person seeks to bring closer to himself by his palpable symbols, is consubstantial with the power acting in accordance with natural laws for which the sense data of the scientist provide a certain degree of evidence.”[12] Planck’s meaning seems to be that the rational laws of nature, which man devises symbols to signify, are dictated by a Law Giver.

It is well worth noting that Planck denies any inherent conflict between science and religious belief; in fact, he argues that “both religion and natural science require a belief in God for their activities.”[13] Planck’s conviction is that there is concord between theism and the natural sciences, that they have the common goal of illuminating reality, and that the ultimate truth towards which these parallel streams are flowing is God. He writes:

No matter where and how far we look, nowhere do we find a contradiction between religion and natural science. On the contrary, we find a complete concordance in the very points of decisive importance. Religion and natural science do not exclude each other, as many contemporaries of ours would believe or fear; they mutually supplement and condition each other. The most immediate proof of the compatibility of religion and natural science, even under the most thorough critical scrutiny, is the historic fact that the very greatest natural scientists of all times—men such as Kepler, Newton, Leibniz—were permeated by a most profound religious attitude.[14]

Planck describes the joint effort of science and religion as a crusade against both skepticism and superstition; he ends his essay with the battle cry, “On to God!”[15]


[1] Quantum theory deals with how matter and energy behave at the atomic and subatomic levels.

[2] Planck’s discovery was made years before, in 1900.

[3] Frequency is measured in waves/second, which is how time figures into the equation. Planck worked out the numerical value of his constant (h) to a degree of accuracy that is close to the value employed in physics calculations today. See “Biographical Note: Max Planck, 1858-1947,” in Great Books of the Western World 56 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 73.

[4] Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers in Great Books of the Western World 56 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 77.

[5] Planck, 113.

[6] Planck, 113.

[7] Planck, 113.

[8] Planck 113.

[9] Planck, 114.

[10] Planck, 114.

[11] Planck, 115.

[12] Planck, 116.

[13] Planck, 116.

[14] Planck, 117.

[15] Planck, 117.


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