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
LOL consider them nervous tics if you like! One does not confer necessary being on anything by capitalizing its name. :^)
To me, the complementaries refer to the knowability of the universe, not the "beingness" of the universe. It seems to me the complementaries are dualistic in that they are seemingly "mutually-opposed" to one another; but they are not the "thesis" and "antithesis" terms that sum up as a totally abstract "synthesis," and so aren't dialectical in their form or relations. And if they sum up to anything at all, it would not be to any kind of abstract being, but only a (hopefully) truthful description of reality, not reality itself.
I confess to being a little nervous that you would find me doing metaphysics here WRT the principle of complementarity, when all I think I'm doing is epistemology....
Jeepers!!! I wasn't aware that I'd invited Hegel to this party -- did you really see him? Yikes!!!!!!!! LOL!
Thanks so much for writing, cornelis!
Bohr with his complementary logic is a bull in many China Shops.. Thank God.. All them idols "needed" "re-arraigning" anyway.. When logic comes to a "Y" in the road going one direction is what science does well.. following BOTH directions is what is intended.. according to Bohr.. Does this mean "scientists" are generally lazy?...
I don't think Bohr is saying that scientists are supposed to follow both roads for the simple reason that their methods and tools are suitable to only one of the roads -- natural science -- and not to the other road -- philosophy. Therefore, it is the job of scientists to make descriptions of what they can observe, not to tell us what the "nature" or "how" of Reality is, let alone the "why." In short, it seems he would like to see science purify itself of all philosophical tendencies....
Which really, is a very hard thing to do. As Alamo-Girl has pointed out, everytime a scientist puts a quantity into a mathematical formula, he is already dealing with universals -- which is the province of philosophy, not science. The physical laws themselves are said to be universals. And anytime a scientist tells you he is looking for a "grand unified theory" or a "theory of everything," he is hopelessly enmeshed in philosophical (metaphysical) presuppositions. For the idea of "unity" is a philosophical idea, not a scientific one, strictly speaking.
Many people regard Bohr as being a pretty obscure thinker. So who's to say "my" interpretation is the correct one?
Thank you so much for writing, dearest 'pipe!
(a) observation yields limited knowledge, such that what we know is but knowledge in part. This is obvious. If our knowledge were exhaustive, we would no longer discover anything. But it is easily forgotten. If the observer problem has a problem it is that we often take what have discovered to hold for what we haven't discovered, or don't care to know, often by applying principles in one area of thought to stop the gaps elsewhere. All the -isms suffer from this, logicism, marxism, legalism, scientism.
(b) observation cannot fix the subject of study, such that "the act of observation itself disturbs the observed object, and thus changes the total system."
(c) observation results in concepts abstracted from existence, such that further theoretical speculation yields conclusions that may not hold true for the thing in the real. Thought is a world of its own. The $100 in my mind, for all its worth, is not a $100 in my pocket. A useful theory, as Ortega puts it, must "mate happily with reality" to become knowledge.
Ortega puts the problem very well indeed.
I'm not entirely sure what you intend by the word "fix" in (b). But it does seem clear to me that the observer can be seen "disturbing" and thus modifying that which he observes. Consider the case of a cultural anthropologist, for instance, who travels to a tribe of primitive people for the purpose of studying it. His very presence as a complete "outsider" of obviously different culture than their own disturbs the behavior of the people he's come to study. Or what of the claim by a literary analyst, that such-and-such book will have wide appeal among a variety of different readers, for each will find in it perspectives congenial to his own outlook.
More to cover but I must stop now: Dinner is served! And I'm hungry!!! I hope to be back later.
Thanks so much for writing, cornelis!
I meant no more than the citation (in your words) afterward explains.
Here's a tidbit from Gilson in Being and Some Philosophers.
The world of Aristotle is there whole, in so far as reality is substance. It is the world of science, eternal, self-subsistent and such that no problem concerning existence needs nor can be asked about it. It is one and the same thing for a man in it to be "man," to be "one" and "to be." But while keeping whole the world of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas realizes that such a world cannot possibly be "metaphysical." Quite the reverse, it is the straight "physical" world of natural science, in which "natures" necessarily entail their own existence . . . physics is that very order of substantial reality in which existence is taken for granted. As soon as existence no longer is taken for granted, metaphysics beings. In other words, Thomas Aquinas is here moving the whole body of metaphysics to an entirely new ground. In the philosophy of Aristotle, physics was in charge of dealing with all "natures," that is, with those beings that have in themselves the principle of their own change and of their own operations . . .But tell me, how could you be talking metaphysics when it concerned the the natural world?
As soon as existence no longer is taken for granted, metaphysics begins.
Because there's more to "the natural world" than physics, cornelis. Plus even the physicists and biologists can't seem to avoid doing it. As a case in point, much of modern day science is firmly premised in the philosophical doctrine of materialism. I've recently mentioned other examples hereabouts.
I mean, human beings are a part of nature; they are thus "natural." They also seemingly happen to be more than the sum total of the cells and molecules and the astronomical number atoms and sub-atomic particles and atomic quantum states that compose their bodies. It's not even possible to make a "full description" of a living organism or a human being based on the methods of present-day physics: Who knows, for example, how to gather and collate information about a virtually astronomical number of quantum states, affected by quantum events continuously triggered from "outside" the organism, which would also need to be quantified, which would be necessary for a full description of a living organism in physical terms?
The biologists have basically taken the position that life must be taken as an irreducible, foundational "given," and then just go on from there, happy as clams. To ask 'what life is?' is a foolish question from the standpoint of methodological naturalism: You do not have to know the answer to this question to do first-rate science. Similarly physicists take the quantum of action as irreducible to anything that could be further detected by science. Life and the action principle are both taken axiomatically.
I am fascinated by, and honor, the findings of state-of-the-art theoretical developments in the sciences. But to the extent that there's "more to man (and the world and society) than mere matter," neither physics nor biology has the complete answer to the questions that matter most to most thinking human beings -- and they are likely unable to produce one, on sheer methodological grounds.
So I admit I do see philosophy as fully "complementary" with the natural sciences. You don't get to do both at the same time, and possibly no one person can effectively do both equally well anyway; but you do need them both to make a "full description of the system" that includes living beings and especially man. :^)
Thank you so much for Gilson's statement RE: Aristotle's attitude toward his own philosophizing -- "In the philosophy of Aristotle, physics was in charge of dealing with all 'natures,' that is, with those beings that have in themselves the principle of their own change and of their own operations." Obviously, this attitude is founded on the premise that "nature" (or "natures") is to be defined as what bears within itself the principles of its own change and operations. Living beings, however, are finite and contingent; so it appears they cannot wholly be responsible for their dispositions themselves; they do not completely reduce to the expectation of the physicial sciences that once you know the initial conditions, then the laws of physics do all the rest.
Rather than the term "metaphysics" (incorrectly credited to Aristotle), I'd really prefer to use the more generic term, "philosophy" instead. Metaphysics has become identified with particular schools and doctrines; philosophy (as practiced by Plato and Aristotle) gives us a chance to return to "realist" models of exploring and understanding reality.
It seems the fundamental prejudice of a certain contemporary scientific attitude that no causes of things can arise outside the familiar four-dimensional space that we normally experience. And yet curiously I note that no "universal" seemingly can arise there either -- at least if you believe in the law of cause-and-effect as the lawful result of the actions of real bodies in close proximity on each other. Universals do not appear to be the products of four-dimensional spacetime "nature", but somehow as "ulterior" to it; but that nature appears to depend on and be governed by them. The physical laws of science themselves are universals.
Thank you so much for writing cornelis. Truly I value your comments. Obviously, I am still struggling to put my ideas into cogent order here, and to find adequate language to express them clearly.... It's good to have a highly well-qualified interlocutor.
Is it possible there are "no words" to adequately "explain the whole system"?..
Meaning mere language is insufficient to describe the physical and metaphysical reality..
If so, we humans are/may be in a maze.. we cannot fully understand.. to describe..
How intelligent would be the rat that made a nest in a Cul D'Sac instead of running the maze?....
Yep, I think that is possible, dear 'pipe! But we humans have to do the best we can.
Don't forget, God reveals Himself to us through His creation also, and evidently wants us to understand it to the best of our ability, as aided by His Spirit.
I hope this doesn't sound too "anthropocentrist," not to mention heretical; but it seems clear to me this whole show was put on for our benefit in the first place. It behooves us to appreciate the divine Gift by contemplating it and its meaning....
Thanks so much for writing, my very dear brother in Christ!
To me it seems the ULTIMATE complementarity is expressed in the Person of Jesus Christ, Who is simultaneously (and eternally) fully human and fully divine. This tells us (among other things) that God the Father dignifies the human in such measure that He would sacrifice His only-begotton son to physical incarnation as a human. I gather our Good Lord, in the Person of Jesus, was trying to draw our attention to His Spirit of Truth, His Logos, from which the beginning of creation was made, and which forever sustains it, in addition to His soteriological action in the Life of the Spirit which He commends to us, as befitting our created human nature as the image, the reflection of the divine nature, in the Name of, and by means of, His Son.
Give all thanks and praise to our Lord God, our Source and Sustainer from the Alpha to the Omega!
Truth be told every thinking person I know or have known and respect is a little heretical.. The others rely on dogma and others opinion like a "christian talmud"..
The purpose of this Donkey and spirit show is a Donkey Rodeo with clowns and everything.. Humans do indeed often take themselves too seriously.. A Rodeo is a SERIOUS TEST but it is entertainment also.. The shows producer(s) should be honored for such a "believeable" plot.. don't you think?.. ;) After the last curtain the conversation between us about the show should be stimulating..
Religion meets Science, ping!
Dear brother 'pipe, I hardly think that God intends us humans to fulfill our divinely-given natures as clowns in a Donkey Rodeo. To say such a thing is to cast in doubt His righteousness and purpose in creating man in His image in the first place.
The whole point and purpose of His Revelation, it seems to me, is to preclude such a ridiculous outcome. Or so it seems to me.
I'm really tuckered out dear brother, so am turning in early tonight. But I hope to see you again on the morrow! Meanwhile, may God bless you and fulfill all your needful requirements!
Good night, dearest 'pipe!
A God that can speak flesh into being so easily boggles the mind.. The harmonics of that speach should be a downright bodacious study.. Spiritual Telekinesis really.. Wonder if some of the Angels can perform spiritual telekinesis?... There could be levels of spiritual telekinesis.. Gifting in "heaven" could involve spiritual telekinesis in some form(s)..
Kinda makes you go..... Hmmmmmmm... know what I mean?..
The biblical metaphor of the Talents comes to mind..
I'm more of an announcer but I do know some clowns.. I see you as a proper lady with some kind of hat, commenting on the bull riding..
True enough. But this doesn't even nibble at what I was fishing for on this identity of Being and Life as applied to the universe. But hey, I'm not the greatest at fishing and get skunked all the time.
In the original article, this guy is all over the map on the multiple meanings he’s using the rubric “intelligent design” to stand for. Is he talking about the creation of the universe? The origins of life? Behe’s laundry list of things Behe can’t explain and so concludes they must be explained by miraculous intervention by some “unspecified” supernatural entity? I doubt he even knows where he’s wandering. There is a long history of scientists getting funny in their old age and signing on to odd things that catch their fancy. I had one prof once who had a picture of Osborne Reynolds (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osborne_Reynolds ) in his old age tacked up, showing him holding a bowl of marbles, apparently toward the end of his life he latched onto some theory about the whole universe working like a bunch of packed together spheres. The prof was worried about going out like that, clutching on some nutter theory at the end of his life. It’s an occupational hazard I guess.