Skip to comments.'Explore as much as we can': Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes on evolution & intelligent design
Posted on 05/16/2007 6:54:51 AM PDT by SirLinksalot
Charles Townes is the Nobel Prize Physics winner whose pioneering work led to the maser and later the laser.
The University of California, Berkeley interviewed him on his 90th birthday where they talked about evolution, intelligent design and the meaning of life.
I thought this would be good to share...
BERKELEY Religion and science, faith and empirical experiment: these terms would seem to have as little in common as a Baptist preacher and a Berkeley physicist. And yet, according to Charles Hard Townes, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physics and a UC Berkeley professor in the Graduate School, they are united by similar goals: science seeks to discern the laws and order of our universe; religion, to understand the universe's purpose and meaning, and how humankind fits into both.
Where these areas intersect is territory that Townes has been exploring for many of his 89 years, and in March his insights were honored with the 2005 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. Worth about $1.5 million, the Templeton Prize recognizes those who, throughout their lives, have sought to advance ideas and/or institutions that will deepen the world's understanding of God and of spiritual realities.
Townes first wrote about the parallels between religion and science in IBM's Think magazine in 1966, two years after he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking work in quantum electronics: in 1953, thanks in part to what Townes calls a "revelation" experienced on a park bench, he invented the maser (his acronym for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission), which amplifies microwaves to produce an intense beam. By building on this work, he achieved similar amplification using visible light, resulting in the laser (whose name he also coined).
Even as his research interests have segued from microwave physics to astrophysics, Townes has continued to explore topics such as "Science, values, and beyond," in Synthesis of Science and Religion (1987), "On Science, and what it may suggest about us," in Theological Education (1988), and "Why are we here; where are we going?" in The International Community of Physics, Essays on Physics (1997).
Townes sat down one morning recently to discuss how these and other weighty questions have shaped his own life, and their role in current controversies over public education.
Q. If science and religion share a common purpose, why have their proponents tended to be at loggerheads throughout history?
Science and religion have had a long interaction: some of it has been good and some of it hasn't. As Western science grew, Newtonian mechanics had scientists thinking that everything is predictable, meaning there's no room for God so-called determinism. Religious people didn't want to agree with that. Then Darwin came along, and they really didn't want to agree with what he was saying, because it seemed to negate the idea of a creator. So there was a real clash for a while between science and religions.
But science has been digging deeper and deeper, and as it has done so, particularly in the basic sciences like physics and astronomy, we have begun to understand more. We have found that the world is not deterministic: quantum mechanics has revolutionized physics by showing that things are not completely predictable. That doesn't mean that we've found just where God comes in, but we know now that things are not as predictable as we thought and that there are things we don't understand. For example, we don't know what some 95 percent of the matter in the universe is: we can't see it it's neither atom nor molecule, apparently. We think we can prove it's there, we see its effect on gravity, but we don't know what and where it is, other than broadly scattered around the universe. And that's very strange.
So as science encounters mysteries, it is starting to recognize its limitations and become somewhat more open. There are still scientists who differ strongly with religion and vice versa. But I think people are being more open-minded about recognizing the limitations in our frame of understanding.
You've said "I believe there is no long-range question more important than the purpose and meaning of our lives and our universe." How have you attempted to answer that question?
Even as a youngster, you're usually taught that there's some purpose you'll try to do, how you are going to live. But that's a very localized thing, about what you want with your life. The broader question is, "What are humans all about in general, and what is this universe all about?" That comes as one tries to understand what is this beautiful world that we're in, that's so special: "Why has it come out this way? What is free will and why do we have it? What is a being? What is consciousness?" We can't even define consciousness. As one thinks about these broader problems, then one becomes more and more challenged by the question of what is the aim and purpose and meaning of this universe and of our lives.
Those aren't easy questions to answer, of course, but they're important and they're what religion is all about. I maintain that science is closely related to that, because science tries to understand how the universe is constructed and why it does what it does, including human life. If one understands the structure of the universe, maybe the purpose of man becomes a little clearer. I think maybe the best answer to that is that somehow, we humans were created somewhat in the likeness of God. We have free will. We have independence, we can do and create things, and that's amazing. And as we learn more and more why, we become even more that way. What kind of a life will we build? That's what the universe is open about. The purpose of the universe, I think, is to see this develop and to allow humans the freedom to do the things that hopefully will work out well for them and for the rest of the world.
How do you categorize your religious beliefs?
I'm a Protestant Christian, I would say a very progressive one. This has different meanings for different people. But I'm quite open minded and willing to consider all kinds of new ideas and to look at new things. At the same time it has a very deep meaning for me: I feel the presence of God. I feel it in my own life as a spirit that is somehow with me all the time.
You've described your inspiration for the maser as a moment of revelation, more spiritual than what we think of as inspiration. Do you believe that God takes such an active interest in humankind?
[The maser] was a new idea, a sudden visualization I had of what might be done to produce electromagnetic waves, so it's somewhat parallel to what we normally call revelation in religion. Whether the inspiration for the maser and the laser was God's gift to me is something one can argue about. The real question should be, where do brand-new human ideas come from anyway? To what extent does God help us? I think he's been helping me all along. I think he helps all of us that there's a direction in our universe and it has been determined and is being determined. How? We don't know these things. There are many questions in both science and religion and we have to make our best judgment. But I think spirituality has a continuous effect on me and on other people.
That sounds like you agree with the "intelligent design" movement, the latest framing of creationism, which argues that the complexity of the universe proves it must have been created by a guiding force.
I do believe in both a creation and a continuous effect on this universe and our lives, that God has a continuing influence certainly his laws guide how the universe was built. But the Bible's description of creation occurring over a week's time is just an analogy, as I see it. The Jews couldn't know very much at that time about the lifetime of the universe or how old it was. They were visualizing it as best they could and I think they did remarkably well, but it's just an analogy.
Should intelligent design be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in schools as religious legislators have decided in Pennsylvania and Kansas?
I think it's very unfortunate that this kind of discussion has come up. People are misusing the term intelligent design to think that everything is frozen by that one act of creation and that there's no evolution, no changes. It's totally illogical in my view. Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it's remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren't just the way they are, we couldn't be here at all. The sun couldn't be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here.
Some scientists argue that "well, there's an enormous number of universes and each one is a little different. This one just happened to turn out right." Well, that's a postulate, and it's a pretty fantastic postulate it assumes there really are an enormous number of universes and that the laws could be different for each of them. The other possibility is that ours was planned, and that's why it has come out so specially. Now, that design could include evolution perfectly well. It's very clear that there is evolution, and it's important. Evolution is here, and intelligent design is here, and they're both consistent.
They don't have to negate each other, you're saying. God could have created the universe, set the parameters for the laws of physics and chemistry and biology, and set the evolutionary process in motion, But that's not what the Christian fundamentalists are arguing should be taught in Kansas.
People who want to exclude evolution on the basis of intelligent design, I guess they're saying, "Everything is made at once and then nothing can change." But there's no reason the universe can't allow for changes and plan for them, too. People who are anti-evolution are working very hard for some excuse to be against it. I think that whole argument is a stupid one. Maybe that's a bad word to use in public, but it's just a shame that the argument is coming up that way, because it's very misleading.
That seems to come up when religion seeks to control or limit the scope of science. We're seeing that with the regulation of research into stem cells and cloning. Should there be areas of scientific inquiry that are off-limits due to a culture's prevailing religious principles?
My answer to that is, we should explore as much as we can. We should think about everything, try to explore everything, and question things. That's part of our human characteristic in nature that has made us so great and able to achieve so much. Of course there are problems if we do scientific experiments on people that involve killing them that's a scientific experiment sure, but ethically it has problems. There are ethical issues with certain kinds of scientific experimentation. But outside of the ethical issues, I think we should try very hard to understand everything we can and to question things.
I think it's settling those ethical issues that's the problem. Who decides what differentiates a "person" from a collection of cells, for example?
That's very difficult. What is a person? We don't know. Where is this thing, me where am I really in this body? Up here in the top of the head somewhere? What is personality? What is consciousness? We don't know. The same thing is true once the body is dead: where is this person? Is it still there? Has it gone somewhere else? If you don't know what it is, it's hard to say what it's doing next. We have to be open-minded about that. The best we can do is try to find ways of answering those questions.
You'll turn 90 on July 28. What's the secret to long life?
Good luck is one, but also just having a good time. Some people say I work hard: I come in on Saturdays, and I work evenings both at my desk and in the lab. But I think I'm just having a good time doing physics and science. I have three telescopes down on Mt. Wilson; I was down there a couple nights last week. I've traveled a lot. On Sundays, my wife [of 64 years] and I usually go hiking. I'd say the secret has been being able to do things that I like, and keeping active.
'Faith is necessary for the scientist even to get started, and deep faith is necessary for him to carry out his tougher tasks. Why? Because he must have confidence that there is order in the universe and that the human mind in fact his own mind has a good chance of understanding this order.'
-Charles Townes, writing in "The Convergence of Science and Religion," IBM's Think magazine, March-April 1966
Who created us? U.S. vs. UC Berkeley beliefs
A Nov. 18-21, 2004 New York Times/CBS News poll on American mores and attitudes, conducted with 885 U.S. adults, showed that a significant number of Americans believe that God created humankind. UC Berkeley's Office of Student Research asked the same question on its 2005 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, results for which are still coming in. As of June 8, 2,057 students had responded.
CLICK ABOVE LINK FOR THE TABLE THAT SHOWS THE RESULT
Seems to me that some scientists today take the "observation and articulation of what has been observed" (to quote Bohr) under methodological naturalism - and then promptly turn around and present it as "explanation".
That would be like removing the leg of man, subjecting it to rigorous research and then turning around and declaring that the observations made on the leg explain the whole man.
Nature is but a part of "all that there is."
This is an observer problem in an epistemological sense, which is other than the observer problem as described earlier where the behavior of phenomena is passive to the act of observation itself. I see two unique issues--or do I have that wrong?
Examples of the one include the tendency to anthropomorphize God - and the tendency to project methodological naturalism as reality.
Examples of the other include the uncertainty principle - and that one cannot say something is random in the system when he doesn't know what the system "is."
Except for divine revelations, the observer is "in" space/time.
I don't think so, cornelis. In the first instance you cited, we are dealing with the expectation that a thorough analysis of parts (singly or in any combination) is capable of revealing the structure of the whole of which they are the parts. I think it's safe to say that neither A-G nor I puts much stock in such an expectation.
The second instance has to do with the supposition that somehow, reality is being conjured forth -- so to speak -- by an act of observation.
A-G and I have both been studying an interesting essay by Robert Lanza that seems to suggest that the latter case prevails. That somehow, reality is somehow "constructed" by human minds.
Certainly these are two different, and unique issues.
For myself, I think there's something to what Lanza is saying. But I don't think it can be "the whole story." So I take a page from Bohr here, and simply suppose that what Lanza is saying is "one half" of a complementarity; then go look for the "other half." (If that makes any sense.)
Am still looking!
Your thoughts, dear cornelis?
Little wonder that God cautioned to stay away from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.. For what is the observer observing but good and evil.. Good in degrees and Evil in degrees and a mix of them both.. How wise it is that, that Tree is warned against at the very git go in Genesis.. Before the drama of men started and is the very focus of Satans attack on mans testimony..
Neils Bohr seemed to see that for every good there was an evil and for every evil there was a good.. reciprocal logic.. Could even be that the "good" was/is timestamped as well the "evil" was/is timestamped.. Meaning whats good may not be good tomorrow.. Could take a observation/view of eternity(God) see good and evil in its time.. and watch good progress to evil and evil progress to good.. in real time.. Judging good from evil may be a game for God to play.. Mankind just cannot see far enough..
I must confess however that everytime I think about Lanza, the old "Life is but a Dream" melody sticks in my brain. LOL!
LOLOL dear A-G! I can certainly understand why!!! :^)
Still, if there's a complementarity here, it seems it would likely go to the essential difference of Being and Knowledge. That's basically the "angle" I'm working with the Lanza paper (with further insights from Wiliam James and Bohr)....
It's been a real struggle so far! :^) LOL!
Thanks for your kind words of encouragement, my dearest sister in Christ! At present this is just an hypothesis to try to track down....
As you know, I've been reading William James in connection with research on "God and the Observer Problem." I came across some very striking lines that evoke some of the things that Lanza is saying. The truly striking thing to me, however, is the fact that The Principles of Psychology was originally published in 1892 (IIRC), and yet in these passages seems to capture insights that would seem to be before their time -- in the sense that Planck's quantum of action, and Einstein's photon, and the elaboration of quantum theory (let alone the existence of Lanza) had not yet been discovered/occurred.
Here are the excerpts I find so "striking": They hit the foundation of the "observer problem" dead-on IMHO.
Out of what is in itself an undistinguishable, swarming continuum,devoid of distinction or emphasis, our senses make for us, by attending to this motion or ignoring that, a world full of contrasts, of sharp accents, of abrupt changes, of picturesque light and shade.Or of Robert Lanza's glow worm....
If the sensations we receive from a given organ have their causes thus picked out for us by the conformation of the organ's termination, Attention [selective observation], on the other hand, out of all the sensations yielded, picks out certain ones as worthy of its notice and suppresses all the rest....
Helmholtz says that we notice only those sensations which are signs to us of things. But what are things? Nothing, as we shall abundantly see, but special groups of sensible qualities, which happen practically or aesthetically to interest us, to which we therefore give substantive names, and which we exalt to this exclusive status of independence and dignity. But in itself, apart from my interest, a particular dust wreath on a windy day is just as much of an individual thing, and just as much or as little deserves an individual name, as my own body does....
...[P]erception involves a twofold choice. Out of all present sensations, we notice mainly such as are significant of absent ones; and out of all the absent associates which these suggest, we again pick out a very few to stand for the objective reality par excellence. We could have no more exquisite example of selective industry.
That industry goes on to deal with the things thus given in perception. A man's empirical thought depends on the things he has experienced, but what these shall be is to a large extent determined by his habits of attention. A thing may be present to him a thousand times, but if he persistently fails to notice it, cannot be said to enter into his experience....
The problem with the man is less what act he shall now choose to do, than what being he shall now resolve to become [which is implicit in his choice].
Looking back ... we see that mind is at every stage a theatre of simultaneous possibilities. Consciousness consists in the comparison of these with each other, the selection of some, and the suppression of the rest by the reinforcing and inhibiting agency of attention. The highest and most elaborate mental products are filtered from the data chosen by the faculty next beneath, out of the mass offered by the faculty below that, which mass in turn was sifted from a still larger amount of yet simpler material, and so on. The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone. In a sense the statue stood there from eternity. But there were a thousand different ones beside it, and the sculptor alone is to thank for having extricated this one from the rest. Just so the world of each of us, howsoever different our several views of it, all lay in the primordial chaos of sensations, which give the mere matter to the thought of all of us indifferently. We may, if we like, by our reasonings unwind things back to that black and jointless continuity of space and moving clouds of swarming atoms which science calls the only real world. But all the while the world we feel and live in will be that which our ancestors and we, by slowly cumulative strokes of choice, have extricated out of this, like sculptors, by simply rejecting certain portions of the given stuff. Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone! Other minds, other worlds from the same monotonous and inexpressive chaos! My world is but one in a million alike embedded, alike real to those who may abstract them. How different must be the worlds in the consciousness of ant, and cuttle-fish, or crab! [All boldface added for emphasis.]
This stuff definitely takes some getting used to!!! LOL!
Anyhoot, it seems to me that Being is that which does not change. Knowledge is that which changes, based on human observations and experiences which, once articulated, must (it seems to me) bear some truthful relation to Being, or they cannot be "true." Note also that James suggests that getting knowledge "right" is an intergenerational project: we and our ancestors together do this work of "constructing a common universe" in thought and language.
Possibly we could take a next step and say that Being and Life are identities. That could lead to all kinds of interesting speculations, such as cosmological theories of a living universe, astrobiology, etc. But my ideas at this point are still fairly preliminary. I'd love to hear your thoughts, A-G!
Granted that is a misrepresentation of ID, namely in claiming that ID holds that everything was "made at once" with no further change. However you also misrepresent ID, at least to any extent that you imply this claim is rejected by or inconsistent with ID.
The truth is that any and all assertions or suppositions about when things were made are equally consistent with ID.
The accurate representation of ID is that is completely vacuous wrt to any claim about when creation or "design" events occur[ed]. Likewise as to whether or not they occur[ed] all at once or in some temporal sequence, to what extent if any they are supplemented by natural (non-design, evolutionary) change, how they occur, etc, etc.
Basically on absolutely every substantive, empirical claim ID is silent, vacuous and embraces self imposed and intentional ignorance and incuriousity, excepting exclusively the "inference" that certain features are the result of "intelligent design". But of course we don't know anything about what such "design" actually is, and even less what it means for something to be the "result" of it.
This state of affairs is an entirely intentional feature of Intelligent Design, which itself was designed not with a scientific mission but with a political/activist function: i.e. to serve as a kind of umbrella organization/ideology for antievolutionists. It's vacuousness is aimed at avoiding the fate of all previous such efforts at unifying antievolution activists: their tendency to fragment and schism over questions such as the age of the earth, progressive versus fiat creation, the origin of entropy, the global or local extent of the flood, the nature of the biblical "canopy" or "firmament," and other such questions invariably treated as matters of dogma rather than rational and potentially soluble scientific dispute.
The main activity of "Intelligent Design advocates" is to conduct and endless song and dance act aimed a making the casual observer think that it has something substantive to contribute.
That's news to me. HOW are they equivalent?
Prima facie ID is equally consistent with any amount of evolution and common descent, and equally so with no evolution. After all there are "design advocates" holding both position, i.e. those like Behe who have no problem with common descent, even with (at least potentially) univerisal common descent, and those like Jonathan Wells who seem to be thoroughgoing antievolutionists and quibble even with sub-species microevolution like industrial melanism in Peppered Moths.
It seems to me that -- since ID is consistent with any amount, or no amount, of evoluiton (see also my message just upthread on the vacuousness of ID) -- the question of whether or not "design events" occured is, logically, completely independent of evolution.
There is a connection but it has to do merely with the instrumental matter of detecting "intelligently designed" structures: i.e. the methods of detection suggested by IDers all amount to claiming that this or that structure couldn't have happened "naturally" (by a stepwise evolutionary process) so it must have been "design". However in this very message you explicity reject such logic (saying it couldn't have been that so it must have been this), at least when (you think) evolutionists do it, so this question of detection can't be the reason that proving ID and disproving evolution are "equivalent endeavors".
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The very purpose of ID is to identify which features are designed and which features are not designed.
"This state of affairs is an entirely intentional feature of Intelligent Design, which itself was designed not with a scientific mission but with a political/activist function: i.e. to serve as a kind of umbrella organization/ideology for antievolutionists."
Exactly why evolution is defined merely as 'change'. This intentionally vacuous definition of evolution gives politically-active naturalists the perfect 'bait-and-switch' tactic to get their agenda implemented under the umbrella of deceptive 'science'.
"The main activity of "Intelligent Design advocates" is to conduct and [sic] endless song and dance act aimed a making the casual observer think that it has something substantive to contribute."
The main activity of 'naturalist' advocates is to conduct an endless song and dance act aimed at making the casual observer think it has something substantive to contribute.
Wrong how? That's exactly what I said in the message you quote. All they do is infer design (say that this or that structure is the result of "intelligent design"):
Basically on absolutely every substantive, empirical claim ID is silent, vacuous and embraces self imposed and intentional ignorance and incuriousity, excepting exclusively the "inference" that certain features are the result of "intelligent design".
My point was that IDers refuse to say anything else about "intelligent design" structures, such as how, when, where, etc, the design is actually instantiated, and therefore we don't know anything useful about what it actually means to say something is the result of "intelligent design". We might as well say something is the result of "yarp" or "yada, yada". All I'm gonna tell you is that "yada, yada" is not "evolutionary naturalism," but as to what it actually is I ain't gonna say nothin'.
Your attempt, via bald assertion, to claim intellectually equivalency on this ground for evolutionary theory is amusing. Anyone who's actually read even a small sample of the relevant scientific literature knows that there is nothing remotely like the IDers' systemic incuriousity as to mode and mechanism on the evolution side. Indeed most dramatically the opposite. The literature is filled with discussions of specific mechanisms.
Or, the being of the universe is living, an organism. But why the caps? Do they make the organism a necessary being?
I agree that “proving ID” and “disproving evolution” are not necessarily “equivalent endeavors.” I got a bit sloppy with that claim.
The truth of that claim depends on how “evolution” is defined. As you point out, there are many variations in the meaning of that word.
However, the claim *is* true for a particular meaning of the word “evolution:” The purely naturalistic meaning. The purely naturalistic meaning explicitly rules out any and all ID, so by definition, “proving ID” is equivalent to “disproving (purely naturalistic) evolution.”
Amen.... it's so cool being a child of God..
Imagination is pregnant with possibilities in children..
Children are so comfortable with "observing" metaphorical entities but are made to enforce "observing" literal entities as they are assimilated into rational adult life..
Observing the literal and observing the metaphor must be very important factors in the study of "Observation".. Because thats the difference of what we are talking about with the observations of science and the observations of metaphysics.. When metaphysics students lose their childlike wonder they become serious scientists.. but unimpaired scientists can love metaphysics..
For the metaphor is far deeper in meaning and scope than any measly literal definition.. of anything.. The literal entity is bound by language but the metaphorical entity is released by it.. The Study of "Observation" MUST take into account the observation of the literal with the naked eye and the observation of the metaphorical with microscope and telescope..
When you jump from complementariness to the being of a living universe, why does this conjure the Ghost of Hegel with a smile? Chase him away, won’t you? Otherwise it scares me overmuch into thinking this living being is what unifies the complements of being and non-being.
An artist once told me that the sculptor removes the stone which does not belong in order to reveal the masterpiece that was always there. I hadn't thought of it in terms of the observer problem, but it does make sense. The masterpiece was "real" in the mind of the artist and in the stone, though only he perhaps knew it.
I'll be meditating on your speculation that Being and Life could be seen as identities.
Your attempt, via bald assertion, to claim intellectual superiority for evolution as a theory is amusing. Anyone who's read a sample of the relevant scientific literature knows that there is nothing remotely like the evolutionists systemic story-telling on the ID side. Indeed most dramatically the opposite. The literature is filled with the wild imaginations of naturalists desperately proposing unobservable mechanisms to explain clear design in biological systems.
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