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
Let me elaborate a bit on my previous post.
The reason you do not understand that you have a “philosophy of science” is probably that your philosophy is essentially the following: Intelligent Design is not and cannot be science because it implies a Designer, and science cannot possibly study the Designer. In other words, you and many of the other pro-evolution participants on these threads simply reject ID a priori because you do not like the religious *implications.*
In other words, the reason you do not recognize that science is defined by philosophy is that your own philosopy of science is in essence nothing more than an arbitrary assertion backed by nothing more than a personal bias. To put it more colloquially, it’s baloney. But that particular baloney is very popular these days, and you mistakenly think that popularity justifies it.
Conversely, many statements made by science cannot be received as objective truth, i.e. methodological naturalism is the reduced boundary of the scientific method.
The epistemic divide must be respected from both sides, or if it isn't then "methodological naturalism" must be trashcanned.
Scientists like Dawkins, Singer, Pinker, Lewontin and Monod do not respect the epistemic divide when they posit the theory of evolution as objective truth which by definition cannot be subjected to the scientific method (observer problem.) When they do this, these scientists reflect poorly on other scientists.
This is a great analogy, Alamo-Girl! Classical physics is thought to be (certainly by Niels Bohr) a special, "limited case" of a more general, comprehensive theory, quantum theory. Newtonian mechanics "works" perfectly well in our ordinary experience, which is confined to a certain range of scales and velocities that are . Yet we know that what appear as bodies in classical physics at the quantum level are not simple "bodies" as all. Also classical physics is predicated on a certain notion of determinism, which the quantum theory shows is not the actual case at all, that uncertainty is built into the very base of the system (so to speak).
Not to say that classical mechanics has at all been obviated by quantum theory: It is eminently valuable in making descriptions/predictions within the range of "normal" scales where the effects of the quantum of action are too small to notice, and where velocities do not approach the level where relativistic effects begin to kick in. Still the "Newtonian universe" fits into a wider, more comprehensive descriptive framework that includes both quantum and relativistic effects.
Thank you so much for your excellent observations!
First of all, science was originally called natural philosophy. Although we have a shorter name for it now, we could just as well still call it by that name.
Secondly, philosophy itself is what defines science. To put it another way, what you and I call science is defined, either implicitly or explicitly, by a philosophy of science. Your philosophy of science is apparently somewhat different than mine, but it is a philosophy nonetheless.
The main difference between you and me on this matter is that I recognize that I have my own philosophy of science, whereas you dont even recognize that science is defined by philosophy. You think that science somehow stands above philosophy, which is profoundly wrong. And that is why so much of what you write on these threads in also profoundly wrong.
What I have said any number of times on these threads is that philosophy has been left in the dust by science.
Philosophy can..., well, philosophize, all it wants, but unless it can link its methods and results to something real, it is all just a mental experiment, with every practitioner having his/her own opinion, most of which disagree with one another. But philosophy does not and can not bring concrete evidence (e.g., the natural world) into the discussion because such evidence is no longer a part of philosophy.
You say, "philosophy itself is what defines 'science.' Sorry to have to break this to you, but most scientists pay no attention to the ramblings of philosophy. Philosophy has been saying this and that for millennia, to little effect, but the scientific revolution a couple of hundred years ago took place largely because folks started ignoring philosophy and a lot of the other fuzzy subjects and started relying on the rationality and scientific method. You might say that science defined itself as a vastly different field from philosophy, and that has made a world of difference.
But philosophy and philosophers always seem to be whining, "But, but... we were here first! Pay attention to us. Please. Pleeeeeeease! Just a little! (Sob!)"
You have a very mistaken notion of what “philosophy” is. The post you just wrote is philosophy, for example. Bad philosophy, but philosophy nonetheless.
If scientists don’t pay any attention to philosophy, then they cannot possibly be good scientists. What we call the “scientific method” is itself a philosophy. If scientists don’t understand that, they are lost.
To say that science has passed up philosophy is a bit like saying that your shadow has passed you.
And as I said earlier, until you understand this, you have no hope in the world of understanding that your naturalistic premise is bad philosophy *and* bad science. Naturalism as a hypothesis is fine, but as a premise it is nothing more than a dogma.
Sorry, but dogma does not belong in science — whether it makes you feel good or not.
Thanks so much for your kind words, dear A-G! Unfortunately, there’s a “gap” in what I wrote, text missing probably because I messed up an HTML tag. LOL, but I can’t remember exactly what the missing text was! Jeepers.... But you “got it” anyway! Thanks.
LOLOL! It all seemed to flow perfectly to me. I would have never guessed anything was missing.
Leibniz has the third take and was probably right, as Herder suggested. James was on that track a century later. Now, yet another century later, the consciousness seems to be lodged in the claustrum and chooses whether to go ahead with motion the body suggests. Usually it says 'not,' which makes free will more of 'free won't.' That is, the consciousness decides to not do or lets the motion proceed. Cartesian duality is out.
Sounds heuristic if not dogmatic itself. Kind of a logic loop going there.
Excellent insight, RussP! IMHO You really hit the bull's-eye here....
Thank you so very much!
If you cannot see that dogma does not belong in science, then you must be ... an evolutionist!
Simply asserting that something is true does not make it true. And that includes naturalism, whether you worship that cow or not.
That’s just common sense, which seems to be in short supply these days.
Well, thanks. I certainly appreciate your insights too.
Most hard-core evolutionists don’t understand the difference between a hypothesis and a premise. Then they have the hubris to claim that “philosophy” is obsolete when if fact they simply fail to understand its most basic principles.
I don't know what you mean by saying "started naturally." What is the principle or cause that gives dumb matter a kick-start to get the evolutionary process going? Are you saying that atoms are "intelligent," and therefore "know" how to do such a thing?
It's much easier for me to understand (2) and (3).
(2) is an hypothesis that excites certain people, but not me. I surmise the "panspermia" theory of seeding by "space aliens" is advanced primarily for the reason that it would obviate the need of a divine creator-god. For that reason alone it would have irresistible attraction for certain people.
But you know, the panspermiasts really do not "obviate God" by taking this position. I mean, the space aliens had to come from somewhere, too. The panspermia theory does not moot the problem of a beginning of space and time out of nothing.
As for (3), what you refer to could not be a "divine intervention," for until the moment of the beginning, there was nothing to "intervene" in. God had to create "the whole ball of wax" first -- space, time, matter, laws; which is what I believe actually happened.
And there's nothing in science that falsifies this belief. Indeed, if anything, it is recent discoveries in science itself that appear to validate it (i.e., the big-bang/inflationary universe model, which is a science of ORIGINS. It stipulates a beginning of the universe in space and time; it does not identify the cause of this beginning. But that's not science's job to do. It is there to make physical descriptions of nature, not make metaphysical observations that cannot be supported by direct observation and replicable experiments.)
Coyoteman, you wrote: "It leaves me still advocating for science and the scientific method. (But its getting pretty lonely in these here parts lately!)" But all means, continue to do that, Coyoteman. But don't get yourself trapped in "silos" of thinking. FWIW, truly I miss many of the recently departed "evos" -- you must be feeling like the "Lone Ranger" around here lately. Some of those people are first-rate thinkers and they were wonderful "adversaries" in debate.
Thank you so much for writing, Coyoteman!
My claim that dogma does not belong in science is not a scientific claim. It is a claim *about* science. It is a philosophical claim. Philosophical claims often cannot be proved. As the great mathematicial and philosopher Kurt Goedel said, “In any non-trivial axiomatic system, there are true theorems which cannot be proven.”
By the way, genius, are you saying that dogma *does* belong in science? Just what is your point?
Hi GourmetDan! Great post!
WRT to the above caption: To my way of thinking, the WAP is a cavil and a cop-out -- a rationalization to explain the universe without reference to a beginning in space and time, presumably caused by a divine creator. So we postulate multiworlds and infinite numbers of universes -- which is such a joke, because nobody has ever observed any of them nor is ever likely to, making the WAP completely impervious to actual scientific analysis.
So give me the SAP -- and give it to me full strength!!!! LOLOL!
Thanks so very much for your excellent essay/post!
What difference would you have in evolution if life started 1) naturally, 2) seeded from outer space, or 3) by some divine intervention?And this led you to debate the three choices.
The actual answer is that evolution could proceed as described with any of these three origins -- because evolution involves change, not origins.
FWIW, truly I miss many of the recently departed "evos" -- you must be feeling like the "Lone Ranger" around here lately. Some of those people are first-rate thinkers and they were wonderful "adversaries" in debate.
Its ironic that you miss some of the recently departed, as you and a number of others helped to run them off. You see mysticism and religious belief as equals with science; that might be acceptable in philosophy, but it doesn't cut it in science. But what was particularly galling was the number of times those supporting the theory of evolution were told by a few posters that they were going to hell, compared with Hitler and Stalin, or their years of study and research were denigrated on the basis of something quote mined from the web or lifted from some silly anti-science website like AnswersInGenesis. Then, a year or so ago when the admins and management started playing games and banning pro-science posters, many others took the hint and left. That is when Darwin Central was formed -- as a refuge.
Finally, I am certainly not feeling like the "Lone Ranger" (Hi Dave!). I have science on my side, so I have you outnumbered and outgunned! ;-)
The thing that bugged Polanyi and that initially drove his intellectual work in this area was that his experience with scientific discovery was very different from the systematic kind of process that's conventionally held to be the way discoveries are made. He found making discoveries to be an art, that it was not systematic in the strict sense, that it involved more than just being reasonable but also being creative. You can't just follow a set of steps to a new discovery; there's a leap involved and reason and the scientific method aren't enough to span the gap.
Anyway, he took this seed and branched out from it and wound up arriving at some very interesting conclusions that have powerful implications in the area of science/religion and evolution/design -- and also politics (Polanyi was a classical liberal, strongly anti-communist). He has a novelty and an importance that reminds me of Godwin. He's one of those guys that more people ought to be aware of.
Highly recommended if you get the chance:
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