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
You have no clue what education is about.
Thanks for the ping, Betty. It’s good to see a scientist with enough humility to know that we don’t knew everything and never will. It is a realization that clears the way for seeing beyond ideological molds and mantras.
Amen, my lovely sister.
There are "biology-friendly" cosmologies being constructed by physicists and astrophysicists right now, e.g., Lanza, Grandpierre, others, some of which advance the notion that the entire universe is a living being. It's fascinating to me -- so reminiscent of Plato. At the very least, they claim there is a "biological priciple" more fundamental than physics in the universe; that there are biological laws that work to set up the initial and boundary conditions of biological organization and processes first, and then the laws of physics can go to work.
Grandpierre, an astrophysicist whose specialty is the Sun, avers that he has seen evidence of biological behavior in our star. He has a book in the works: The Book of the Living Universe, already published in Hungarian by Springer-Verlag (2000), which is now being translated into English, with substantial revisions. Grandpierre believes that the theoretical biologist Ervin Bauer, a Hungarian employed in Soviet science until Stalin had him killed in 1947, discovered the key biological laws. (I can look them up for you if you're interested, cornelis, and report back.)
Mostly these ideas are hooted at by mainstream science. I find them interesting nonetheless; and so I'll get hooted at too, for sure! :^)
Guess that must make me an empty blowhard, too, omnivore; for I was a double major in literature and philosophy. (I hope my minor in history might improve my "rep" a little in your eyes....)
Goodness, I find it amazing that you would find the humanities "dehumanizing." I'm simply speechless....
But I'm over that now: If I might make a "humanities" recommendation: Boccaccio's Decameron, a fourteenth-century collection of 100 short stories. It is a celebration of universal humanity that is by turns hilarious, ribald, scatological; serious, profound, tragic, noble. It presents man as he is, warts and all; saints and sinners, heros and villains, etc., etc. Everytime I read this work, I am struck by the thought "I KNOW these people! They are just like the people you meet everyday!" -- a testimony to the constancy and durability of human nature, down the ages.
Plus the book gives a fascinating account of the Black Plague in ~1350 A.D. Florence: the horrors, the social transformations it caused, etc. (Recommend the Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella translation. Their language is very modern and fresh -- which is most fitting; for Decameron was among the very first works of literature to be published in the vernacular: It was "the height of modernity" in its own time. The book was deplored and condemned by the religious authorities practically everywhere it went. :^) Up to quite recent times! Go figure....)
You wrote that most college-bound students have a good handle on the basic skills of reading and writing "by the end of the third grade." Simply amazing, that they could begin their college career "literate," and yet manage to graduate as illiterates -- and not just in reading and writing skills, but also in terms of knowledge of their own culture and history.
If you believe that writing doesn't require the most painstaking thinking -- well, I guess I should stop myself now, otherwise I'll surely say something I'd regret....
You wrote: "If philosophy were actually so all-fired 'fundamental' and important, philosophers would be at the leading edge of finding new knowledge...."
omnivore, philosophy is the MOTHER OF SCIENCE. As late as the 19th century, science was still called "natural philosophy." Philosophy is the historic source of mathematics (Pythagorus, Euclid), psychology (Plato's specialty), biology (Aristotle), physics (Democritus, Leucippus) -- the list can be easily extended, but I hope you get the picture.
Both Einstein and Bohr -- you know those guys who radically transformed all of physics in the twentieth century -- had a consuming interest in the philosophy of science, and Bohr was probably one of the greatest epistemologists who ever lived. Einstein was (IMHO) a frank Platonist; and his thought was strongly influenced by Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher.
For me, reality starts where we leave the words behind, and the weird stories and primitive beliefs that we construct with words, and deal with the physical world physically, in its own language, which is mathematical.For me, reality starts before there are words to describe it. And that is why our articulations about it are so important -- they are the only means we have for grasping knowledge and communicating it to others.
We -- you and I -- are parts of the physical world; but neither of us is reducible to mathematics in the sense I gather you to mean.
Guess we just have different points of view, omnivore. Thank you so much for sharing your observations with me!
Thanks for the ping, and for continually asking the unaskable, and attempting to answer the unanswerable.
(and for dragging the naturalists out of their comfort zone)
The search for truth is a divinely-drawn, unending quest.
Strange that anyone who would reduce our existence to the merely mechanical level of the physical world would consider the humanities *dehumanizing*.
And sadly, that's where most high school graduates stay. But it's not the fault of the humanities.
And no contact with the real (physical) world is required, that's strictly optional.
The same could be said for most *scientists*. Getting stuck in the lab all the time conducting experiments for a living tends to warp ones view, which is likely where the absent-minded professor stereotype comes in. Totally useless in the real world.
Of course there are philosophers and then there are philosophers. Some are engaged in trying to explain or identify truth, and these are the greats, there are the ones who even after a hundred generations we can still read with profit, because the questions are still current, even with all of the water under the bridge since then.
To read these guys, and to attack the same problems with modern eyes is to become part of a 3 thousand year old conversation that is still ongoing.
Others seem to be engaged in building their own reality, and in this I am in agreement with people who refer to it as empty wordplay (as would Socrates, who spent most of his time going after such people). Foucault is a good example of this, and a host of others like him.
When you think of philosophers, you think of the classic thinkers, and of the war of ideas that we deal with every day, and there is nothing more necessary, nothing more interesting, civilizations rise and fall on the outcome of these debates. These debates are not really fought out in college classrooms by the clueless boobs assigned to teach them, obviously, they are fought out in peoples souls.
To be ignorant of the big questions is to be just one more of the herd, unaware of your destination and purpose, unaware of who is directing your steps and with what motive.
You arent a philosopher because you have a PHD and tenure, you are a philosopher if you have a clue, and are engaged in the war of ideas. In other words, you, my friend, are a philosopher in the best sense of the word, I say that having read you for years now. I know you. But if your college philosophy professor was one, it was a lucky accident.
There is another class of philosophy as it relates to science. Philosophy in this context is both pre-science and post-science, in a way. Science operates at the edge of knowledge, and when our scientist stares out into the dark past the ring of campfires and asks the unasked question, he is engaging in philosophy. He may be a scientist on his day job, but at that moment he is doing philosophy. The scientist sets about doing the research that sheds light on the question, and as the data is uncovered, it is again the scientist wearing his philosophers cap that tries to make sense out of what he is seeing.
And then there are guys like me, looking over his shoulder, I cant do the science but I can do opinion all day long.
I didnt always have a high opinion of philosophy because I didnt have a high opinion of most of the empty nonsense that pours out of the pens of people who are usually being lauded as great thinkers. They remind me of the kind of guy your school system hires as this years poet laureate, who pays for his years stipend with some awful and endless verse that the kids have to be forced to listen to at some school assembly, or the guy who is this years resident composer who comes up with some awful symphony that will be mercifully forgotten as soon as everyone files out of the auditorium and can get to their MP3.
The ones we love to hate are precisely the guys like Derrida and Foucault, and why leave out frauds like Chomsky, guys only a college professor could love, and will be forgotten as soon as the current crop have retired and been replaced by the next crop of walking clichés.
Real philosophy is precious when you find it. Most of its would-be practitioners are not only wrong but laughably wrong, or dangerously wrong, ranging from the too-dumb-to-know-theyre-wrong to transparently evil to conmen, and if you have the stomach for it you study them so you can defeat them before their ideas become headlines in your morning paper or whole chapters in a history book. And the few philosophers who are capable of divining truth, doing battle on its behalf, and refuting the rest, these are the guys you are looking for. These are the guys we aspire to be.
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?
He may not realize it, but his sense of all that there is will guide his understanding. Ditto for what he accepts and how he values knowledge how sure he is that he actually knows something. Likewise for the mathematician who discovers a formula with universal application and substitutes a variable for a constant to accomplish that end.
Even so, scientists generally speaking do not have the necessary toolkit of methods to do philosophy or theology even though they choose and apply it (perhaps unawares.)
Thus I strongly agree with Bohr that science should limit itself to what it can say about the physical and phenomenal world using its own methodology and resist the urge to speak about the essence of any thing.
Oboy! Another opinion on Evolution. Six billion to go.
Thanks for the ping, betty. Like you, Im amazed.
Im amazed that anyone but a Liberal would think that most college-bound students are at an acceptable level in the basic skills of reading and writing. On this very forum have we not heard, from almost every side, that Americas reading & writing skills are in a miserable state? Is this not the case? Correct me if Im wrong. I would be very glad to hear that I am mistaken.
Im amazed to read that Bill Bennett is an empty blowhard. I didnt know there was any other kind of blowhard save an empty one, but its shocking to learn that friend Bennett is to be found among them. But, then, again as usual, we read the accusation stripped of any attempt to make the case, as though the accusation proves the fact. Of this latter I am not at all amazed, for it is a standard Liberal schtick.
I am amazed to read that the humanities are "dehumanizing." I wasnt aware that there was anyone of discernment left in America incapable of making the distinction between the humanities and what in most universities is quaintly identified as the Humanities Department (more often some bastardized title being substituted). Anyone who has followed the battles of Dr. Mike Adams with the University of North Carolina surely must understand the distinction without a need for coaching. And, of course, there are many on this forum who have no need for the example of Dr Adams either, being themselves participants in the battle.
We all know who is in charge of our universities and our public schools. It is not Conservative Christians. Yet we learn that it is the fault of Conservative Christians that our universities and schools are overflowing with Socialist/Marxist garbage. I am not merely amazed to hear this; I am astounded.
And then once again I am propelled well past mere amazement to learn that self-evident truths and the consent of the governed are but pointless words and useless philosophy.
This would be a result dearly to be desired, dearest sister. But it is also a devilishly difficult thing to do. It cuts across the very grain of how human beings actually live their lives -- which usually involves trying to integrate their knowledge and experience with a view to the future, by drawing on the past. This seems to be the general condition of most intelligent human beings, whether they be great scientists, or just plain folks like you and me.
According to Niels Bohr, the very thing that ought to be avoided in science is exemplified by his dear friend, colleague, and (sometime) adversary, Albert Einstein.
To put this into perspective: As earlier suggested, Einsteins thought tended to the platonic. That is, he assumed an eternal universe, without beginning or end; and he thought that at the root of the cosmos, a fundamental mathematics, or logic, or geometry would be found to specify the implicate order (to use David Bohms term without permission) that governs the unfolding (or evolution) of the universe in space and time.
Then in my reading of late along comes the eminent physicist John A. Wheeler, a friend of Einstein, and friend and close colleague of Bohr, with his intriguing insight that Einsteins continuing rejection of complementarity [i.e., the uncertainty/indeterminacy relations of quantum physics], and 19171929 rejection of the big bang [theory], were influenced by his youthful admiration for the thought of Benedict Spinoza, implacable advocate of determinacy and of a universe that goes on from everlasting to everlasting. [J. A. Wheeler, Physics in Copenhagen in 1934 and 1935, in Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume; Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985; p. 224.]
Plato and Spinoza seem to be in agreement with respect to the eternal-universe model: That is, a universe that subsists forever, with no beginning or end, for the reason that God subsists forever, without beginning or end. Moreover the two thinkers seem to be in accord on the conjecture that the universe is, at root, mathematically or geometrically founded and ordered.
But where it seems Plato and Spinoza part company is over the question of determinism.
For Spinoza, there is no free will in the universe: Even God creates by necessity; it is His nature; and it is by, through, and from His (immanent) substance that all other natural things are the reifications. In effect, Spinoza has created a fascinating pantheism on the basis of seemingly ineluctable rational principles.
Yet for Plato, the universe is not ordered deterministically, but by persuasion. Persuasion leaves room for free will, which Spinoza absolutely denies. The unknown god of the Beyond, Plato's Epikeina, draws us unto his everlasting truth by persuasion, not by force.
Anyhoot, much more can be said on this topic, and probably will be said in time. But for now, lets leave it this way: Einsteins philosophy was his lifelong guide to his scientific judgment. Which is hardly unexceptional. For who can make any judgment at all, if he lacks criteria of meaning, and a standard for his judgment?
I read Spinoza in my college years, and found him fascinating. I still do. Having revisited him recently at Wheelers suggestion, from what I know about Einstein (which is exceedingly partial in two senses), I conjecture that, if you can understand the thought of Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, you just might gain insight into the workings of one of the greatest minds of all time, the guy who discovered the photon and gave us relativity theory.
And then spent the rest of his life arguing with Niels Bohr. :^)
To be continued sometime. Hopefully. :^)
Thank you oh so much for writing, my dearest sister in Christ!
Indeed YHAOS. Thanks you so much for your observations!
To read these guys, and to attack the same problems with modern eyes is to become part of a 3 thousand year old conversation that is still ongoing....
To be ignorant of the big questions is to be just one more of the herd, unaware of your destination and purpose, unaware of who is directing your steps and with what motive.
So beautifully said, marron! Human beings are still asking the same questions about themselves and their place in the universe that they have been asking since the dawn of recorded history. The essential questions do not change. This is the irreducible core of the humanities, especially including philosophy.
Thank you so much for your very kind words, dear marron, and for your beautiful essay/post!
Humans are born totally needy.. as a parasite..
Some may never stop being a parasite.. but grow up as takers..
To become a "giver" maturity is required..
What is maturity?.. A Sacrificing of self centeredness to everything else..
The "Center of the Universe", then, is other than personal and becomes timeless..
Thoughts of "God and/or Eternity" can become relevant..
And questions about each can be interesting and not boring..