Millikan's work and faith

Millikan’s research through the "Oil drop experiment"  proved the particulate nature of electrons, and thus electricity. It was for this work that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1923. His research caused him to conclude that the design of everything, from the atom to the universe, was the work of God, who Millikan called the “beneficent creator” and the “Great Architect” in recognition of His creative powers and His role in creation.11,12

Millikan, religion and science

 Although a physicist and not a biologist, he was very aware of the conflicts between orthodox Darwinism and theism. He often acknowledged that scientists are far too dogmatic about Darwinism, cautioning “we have only just begun to touch the borders of the ocean of knowledge and understanding.”13 One topic he mentioned repeatedly in his publications was that one of the greater blunders that “science” has made was over generalizing claims “with undue assurance into fields in which they have not been experimentally tested” and

“ … treating these generalizations as fixed, universally applicable principles instead of as essentially working hypotheses. This has led in the past to a dogmatism in science which is at bottom indistinguishable from dogmatism in theology or in any other field; for dogmatism in any field is merely assertiveness without knowledge. But the physicist has recently, through his blunders and his new experimental findings, learned a lesson of open-mindedness which cannot fail to influence other fields of thought. Philosophy and theology, as well as biology and psychology, are sure to profit from it.15
Millilkans's "oil drop experiment

Millikan was especially critical of naturalism (the worldview that teaches only the material world exists). He wrote that the eighteenth-century French philosophers

“ … forgetting that the essence of the scientific method lay in sticking close to the observed facts and not asserting knowledge beyond the range of observation, yielded to the lure of such inclusive generalizations as had rendered Greek philosophy impotent and proceeded to convert Galileo’s and Newton’s science into a mechanical philosophy in which the whole of the past and future was calculable from the positions and motions of inert material bodies and man became a machine.”31

He concluded that although materialism was sometimes called scientific, it was “in its very method and essence unscientific” because it was “universally assertive and dogmatic”, and that “clear-thinking minds in all countries refused to be stampeded by it, realizing the limitations of the scientific method.”31

Millikan realized that the newer discoveries of science documented that, for science to progress, scientists must stick “close to the scientific method and avoid extending generalizations into fields beyond those in which experimental observations have demonstrated their validity.”32 Science must be guided only “by brute facts” regardless of whether they fit into our worldview. Millikan explained how 18th and 19th century materialism assumed that our universe consisted

“ … of a fixed number of unchangeable atoms, and then brute facts were found which showed that some of these atoms were changing continuously into other atoms and the dogma of the immutable elements was gone. Then materialism assumed that the universe could be accounted for in terms at least of the motions of ‘material’ particles of some kind, and then brute facts were found which showed that matter could disappear into radiant energy or ether waves, and the dogma of the conservation of matter was gone, and with it the excuse for the very name materialism.”33

Another example is that materialism had assured us that the entire universe could be explained by

“ … Galilean and Newtonian mechanical laws, which in large-scale phenomena had always been found to work. Then brute facts were found having to do with specific heats at low temperatures for example, where the laws of Galilean and Newtonian mechanics simply did not work at all and the dogma of the universality of the mechanical laws was gone.”34

He continues, “materialism assumed the universality of the electro-dynamic laws” and soon a

“ … region was found having to do with spectroscopic and X-ray phenomena in which these did not work and another dogma blew up. Then materialistic philosophy asserted that light must be ether waves or corpuscles. It was inconsistent or unintelligible that it could be both, and again brute facts appeared which showed that, whether it was intelligible or not, light acts at one and the same times like both waves and corpuscles, and now every physicist is accepting these apparently contradictory facts … Then materialism assumed that because the laws of interaction of bodies at slow speeds had been verified they would also hold for high speeds, and brute facts appeared which denied the validity of this generalization and in the denial gave birth to the theory of relativity.”35

He concluded that the result of these discoveries is that “dogmatic materialism in physics is dead” and if “we had all been as wise as Galileo and Newton it would never have been born, for dogmatism in any form violates the essence of the scientific method, which is to collect with an open mind the brute facts and let them speak for themselves untrammeled by preconceived ideas or by general philosophies or universal systems.”36

Robert Andrews Millikan, scientist, professor, and college administrator. This picture was taken around 1917 at the height of his career. When he became president of Cal Tech he was forced to move more into an administrative role, a role he only reluctantly assumed because his first love was the lab.