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
Well and truly said, dear 'pipe!
Then I'm sorry I left him off my list!!! But in his own time, Archimedes would have been classified as a philosopher. Actually the words "science" and "scientist" did not enter into common usage until rather late in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, what we now call scientists were called "natural philosophers."
So the ultimate expression of maturity is socialism?
No... Socialism is Slavery by Government created by the social disease of democracy(Mob Rule)..
A primitive tribal scructure for dysfunctional smart asses..
No ... Socialism is giving up your wealth and means of producing wealth to the masses.
Sort of like the folks in Acts?
True that didn't last long though.. Socialism is Satanic..
Yes, Satan is in Acts, people in those days were not prepared for socialism..
Many still to this day are confused and "tricked"..
Capitalism creates wealth, Socialism uses it up..
I just said that..
Me... Capitalism creates wealth, Socialism uses it up..
Now, you confess that most kids read and write poorly (and do math badly as well); a point that departs from your earlier remarks. The point being . . . what? That they really dont need to read and write better than poorly (although one might wish they would do better in math)?
The astonishment just doesnt end. In your latest epistle you also confess that you stuck in the dehumanizing humanities bit just to be provocative. Word-manipulation, you call it, which you describe, including your own manipulations, as a fairly low level of human thought. Yeah, I think youre right; spin is about as low as you can get, at least in terms of human communication. Dr Goebbels was its most ardent practitioner, although he has many equally ardent rivals today. Spin might sometimes actually require a fairly high level of thought, but only to produce the same very low product. Then, you recant and again describe the humanities as dehumanizing. More spin? It looks like I wasnt very far off when I questioned your sincerity. Outside the natural sciences and math, you apparently can conceive of no communication above spin, including your own.
May we take you at your word and assume everything you have to say is essentially spin?
I don't know what it is about these evolution things that cause people to go all nonlinear and start making snide insinuations about one's bona fides as a normal patriotic American.
I dont know what it is about these discussions with science-types that they seem to think its always exclusively about them and evolution. Maybe its because they can conceive of nothing else that could possibly be of some degree of importance. Do you have a context? Might it have anything to do with a statement something like, in the absence of experimental proof science can accept nothing.? If that is the case, the response had nothing to do with being nonlinear or snide. Try to think of some other possibility. Thats all the help you get.
I wish js1138 would explain to me how he gets from personal maturity to the question of socialism. I think the very idea of "altruism" gives our friend a rash. I don't know why!
Somebody once said that if someone is focused entirely on himself, then he is a problem. If he is focused on something greater than himself, and sees himself within that context, then he is a person. FWIW.
Thanks so much for your hilarious observation, dear 'pipe!
Best I can remember, my main point was that Einstein did indeed cling to the steady state model to the point that he "klugged" a cosmological constant. Afterwards, he regretted that - and yet today, many believe a constant is needed.
The other point was that Einstein's theories support the Platonist paradigm but he took the Aristotle paradigm (mathematics) in his debates with Godel. How strange!
Thank you so much for all of your wonderfully informative essay-posts!
Good afternoon omnivore! RE the above:
All words are, are articulations of reality as we have experienced it. They allow us to fix our experiences in consciousness (memory), and to communicate them to others. Do not disparage words: Even scientists use words to think and communicate. True, the physical world does not heed them directly. But thats not the point: Humans hear them. And words can be enormously powerful in transforming the way people think about reality, and engage in it which certainly has an impact on human cultures, and beyond that, may affect the way people relate to the physical world in ways that can actually affect it. This is hardly the same thing as the disputations of lawyers.
You referenced witches incantations, the magic words that supposedly can change reality. Its clear that the German transcendental idealist philosopher Hegel put great stock in the die Zauberworte, the magic words that can transform reality. He basically wanted to end history as we know it, and start over with a new history in which man would save himself, who would therefore have no further need of God.
Here's a sample of Hegelian "magic words": Every single man is but a blind link in a chain of absolute necessity by which the world builds itself forth. The single man can elevate himself to dominance over an appreciable length of this chain only if he knows the direction in which the great necessity wants to move and if he learns from this knowledge to pronounce the magic words (die Zauberworte) that will evoke it shape.
Well guess what Even though this statement strikes our ear as preposterous, Hegel was right: His system of dialectical science was taken over and improved by Marx, to become the system of dialectical materialism. Which in turn gave rise to communist ideology. And that has certainly had a profound effect on human societies and on the physical planet itself.
You wrote that words dont settle anything between people. If [they] did, these threads would come to some sort of agreement. They don't. They just spin endlessly.
So am I to gather that it is impossible for human beings to reason together, using words? How else could they reason together? What causes the spin you notice is the fact that people are using words to speak past each other, because the participants to the discussion do not share a common perspective, or worldview.
The worldview of science is methodological (metaphysical) naturalism. The scientific method is predicated on observation and measurement it depends on direct observables, or things which sense perception directly perceives. It is an amazing tool in its proper sphere of inquiry. But outside its sphere, in areas of experience that cannot be directly observed, measured, and quantified, science really has nothing to do.
Which is why it troubles me to see so-called scientific methods being used for subject areas outside the competence of science. As Christophe Cardinal Schoenborn has written,
If the Darwinist, taking up Descartes and [Sir Francis] Bacons project of understanding nature according only to material and efficient causes, studies the history of living things and says that he can see no organizing, active principles of whole living substances (formal causes) and no real plan, purpose or design in living things (final causes), then I accept his report without surprise. It is obviously compatible with the full truth that the world of living beings is replete with formality and finality. It comes as no surprise that reductionist science cannot recognize those very aspects of reality it excludes or at least, seeks to exclude by its choice of method .An example of an obvious truth about reality obvious to me at least is that there is more to nature than material and efficient causes. (We may have to agree to disagree about this, omnivore.) There are also formal and final causes, just as Aristotle said. But formal and final causes do not seem to be within the reach of the scientific method.
[T]he modern biologist is free to define his special science on terms as narrow as he finds useful for gaining a certain kind of knowledge. But he may not then turn around and demand the rest of us, unrestricted by his methodological self-limitation, ignore obvious truths about reality .
With formal and final causes, we are dealing with the why (ultimate cause) and the wherefore (ultimate purpose) of things. And these are philosophical, religious, i.e., spiritual questions. Not all scientists are blind to questions of this nature; but some nowadays do seem to deny their validity. I suspect in certain hard cases, the questions are being denied for the precise reason that science cannot treat of them (e.g., Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, Lewontin, et al.). Still, the fact that science cannot deal with them does not make the questions go away: Human beings have been asking precisely this type of question from the dawn of recorded history, and probably before. It is our nature to ask such questions!
Nowadays, it is commonly thought that there is a great divide between faith and reason, between the humanities and the natural sciences. I consider this the most persistent illusion of our time.
As Albert Einstein wrote in 1941: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. This was in answer to a person who asked him what spiritual or religious views Einstein actually held. He said, A religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance of those superpersonal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation. Einstein recognized himself as a deeply religious person in this sense. For Einstein, faith and reason were not separable, let alone mutually exclusive.
A hundred years after Einsteins pioneering work on the light-quantum (for which he won the Nobel prize) and special relativity, his sense of the inseparability of faith and reason has been almost entirely lost, supplanted by materialist, positivist, and rationalist dogmas that together comprise a doctrine of philosophic materialism that has penetrated to the very heart of modern-day science, which is particularly evident in orthodox Neo-Darwinism. The essential complementarity of faith and reason that Einstein recognized has been recast as the triumph of the rational (reason) over the irrational (faith).
Yet if Einstein is right, there really are superpersonal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of foundation by means of reason alone. Any attentive student of human history can tell you that such objects and goals have informed the conduct and progress of human life from time immemorial. Indeed, these objects and goals refer primarily to nonsensory modes of human experience that are superior in rank and worth to the objects of sense experience the domain of the scientific method. As Ellis Sandoz put it, Inasmuch as such nonsensory experiences are constitutive of what is distinctive about human existence itself and of what is most precious to mankind a purported science of man unable to take account of them is egregiously defective.
As we said, such nonsensory modes of experience lie entirely outside the reach of the scientific method as presently constituted: methodological naturalism. But the fact that science cannot reach them does not mean they do not exist in Reality.
Anyhoot, FWIW, I consider faith and reason, philosophy and the natural sciences to be complementarities. They appear to be mutually-exclusive contraries, yet the fact is both are necessary to the life of man and to his exploration of the natural world.
Evidently this was something that Einstein and Bohr could agree on (though Bohr was scrupulous to avoid philosophizing in his science, in a way that Einstein was not).
Late in his life, the Danish government conferred the Order of the Elephant on Niels Bohr an honor normally reserved for royalty and heads of state. So he had to create a coat of arms. The coat of arms he chose featured the famous Yin-Yang symbol of the Far East, the Tao, denoting the essential complementariety implicit in the structure of the reality. He chose as his motto the statement contraries are complementary.
For Bohr, the complementarity principle had profound ramifications outside the physical sciences (e.g., in the humanities) as well as within it (e.g., superposition, indeterminacy, the correspondence principle, etc.). You dont get a complete description of the system -- variously in nature, the universe, reality -- without both terms of the complementarity.
Well Ive probably run on too long, omnivore, but I just wanted to make clear my own view WRT these so-called evo-crevo debates, which seem to leave us spinning to no fruitful purpose.
Then again, it might be useful for people to understand where their debate partners are coming from (this ought to be mutual IMO), hopefully to be able to speak with each other in ways that are meaningful to both partners. People who are hermetically sealed within a particular worldview often have difficulty understanding others, whose worldview is different. Thats where all the spinning endlessly comes from, IMHO, FWIW.
Thanks so very much for your thoughtful essay/post!
Truly I am humbled by the wisdom and eloquence of so many of you.
And I sympathize with you, omnivore those of us who are drawn to math and physics (and engineering) tend to be more comfortable with formulae than verbiage. But that highly structured language cannot respond to the deepest questions of life. The humanities are vital.
On the main point of this sidebar: our entire public education system imperils the liberties for which this country was founded. Publicly funded education has become the primary platform of indoctrination to selected ideologies, politics and morals.
All I can think to add is to underscore the point you were making about Einstein, with this quote in his own words:
Albert Einstein, My Credo, presented to the German League of Human Rights, Berlin, autumn 1932, in Einstein: A Life in Science, Michael White and John Gribbin, ed., London: Simon & Schuster, 1993, page 262.
Oh, don't you just HATE IT when that happens! (It's happened to me more than once....)
I'm oh so sorry this happened! I was wondering why you hadn't replied to my post!!! LOL!!!
You think it strange that a "platonist" like Einstein would take the "aristotelian" position in his debate with Godel. I just think that Einstein is this splendid, magnificent, walking-around "complementarity" in his own self! He's an absolutely fascinating personality....
Thank you ever so much for writing, my dearest sister in Christ! I'm so very sorry your first attempt has been lost.
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