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
Good article. Good thread. Good. Life is good.
Justin Martyr certainly thought Plato was the best school of philosophy for anyone seeking God. And then of course, he heard the Master's call and became Christian. In retrospect, he noticed some Christian symbolism in Plato's writing. That would not surprise me at all since God is certainly able to work such things together according to His will, e.g. language and concepts.
For me, each time the concepts of "being" and "becoming" are brought to mind, I find myself drawn to a Name of God, I AM, and our part in creation, this heaven and earth - and the heaven and earth to come.
He says Kant tries to bracket existence, but what quickly happens after the existence of the cosmos is taken for granted is that nature is made one with existence. That's a divine cosmos.
It's a real pickle. Gilson cites Hume: "the will of God is the sole real foundation for the existence of the world. The divine will is something. The existing world is something quite different. Yet the one is posited by the other." Gilson asks, "How can such a relation be conceived?
. . . If the order of existence is radically other than that of essence, no essence can entail its own existence, not only in things, but even in God. Had any one of these philosophers remembered what another philosopher, now lost in the darkness of the Dark Ages, had said on the question, it might have altered their whole outlook on the problem. But they could not remember that, while no essence entails its existence, there might well be such an existence as is both its own essence and the source of all other essences and existences. They could not remember it because the very men who were supposed to hold that truth in trust had themselves very long ago forgotten it.
Nobody from Plotinus to Heidegger let that slip by. Not even Kant the physicist. Being, though, that's another matter.
Does Plato think this Beyond exists?
Evidently Plato had (cognitive) experiences of this Beyond. In terms of purely human language, we then could say that this Beyond must be said "to exist" in some fashion. But if it "exists," it does not do so in the same manner that creaturely nature exists.
Unless you want to say that the "Unknown God," the God of the Beyond, is self-caused and totally self-subsistent, and is therefore the complete cause and ground of itself, just as it is the complete cause and ground of all of nature.
But we understand causation as contingent on space and time, and God, being eternal, is not in space and time. So to me, such a formulation -- that god is self-caused -- is really pretty senseless. It would be natural for us to ask, "caused out of what, and when?", which questions would be unanswerable. So I don't know what it gains one to think of God in such terms.
In any case, it seems Plato does not take this route. The problem for Plato seems to have been that he could sense the presence and have "contacts" with the god; and on the basis of reason alone could recognize the goodness and truth of the god; but discover that any adequate description of him in purely human language is impossible, for the simple reason that no adequate concepts exist. So Plato in his wisdom provides no details of the god, but only of his relations with it (i.e., the helkein -- the "drawing" or "pull," of which we also hear in the Gospel of St. John -- and the resulting zetesis -- the search for god).
Plato lived well before the Incarnation of Christ, manifestly a self-revelation of God, wherein He freely tells us about Himself. Of course the Holy Scriptures also provide a self-revelation of God. But these were evidently unknown to Plato because, by and large, they were compiled after his own time.
It is extraordinary to me that Plato could get so far on the basis of reason alone, ultimately to find reason insufficient; and (it seems) to tacitly acknowledge this.
Well, that's how I'd answer your question cornelis, FWIW. Thank you ever so much for writing!
Indeed! Lanza's got a piece of the puzzle, IMHO. What we observe -- and just as importantly, choose not to observe -- affects the information we have about the world. We choose what we observe, and in so doing obscure the reality of what we chose not to observe, which becomes information unavailable to us, not only in the present moment, but forever after (i.e., the information "lost" at the time of the collapse of the wave function is irretrievable).
Now we make a description of what we have observed as if "the missing information" did not exist; we communicate our experiences to others with a false confidence that we really know what we're talking about. Thus we "reduce" reality to a partial description. In effect, this is a falsification of reality; if it becomes socially effective, the way we think about the world, and the way we act within it, may actually have the power to transform it.
Marxists, social progressives, and all other constructors of Second Realities actually depend on this process in order to make a new world that is "better" than the one God made for us. Their faith in this possibility has already changed the world in innumerable ways, including having effects, not only on human societies, but also on physical nature (e.g., through the destruction of war, and the exceedingly high rates of environmental pollution in communist states, for examples).
It seems very clear to me that human consciousness can actually have an impact on the world at the macrolevel, just as it certainly does at the microlevel.
It's strange; that's all I can say for now. Thank you so much for your elegant essay-post, my dearest sister in Christ!
Thank you so much for writing!
Revelation is revelation, the only kind there is.
No, not necessarily. But don't forget, I put great stock in the complementarity principle.
Notwithstanding, I must also mention that of the two saints, Anselm is closer to my heart.
Where it seems (to me at least) that Aquinas was "constructing a [rational] system," Anselm simply said: "Speak to my desirous soul what you are, other than what it has seen, that it may clearly see what it desires." And again, "O Lord, you are not only that than which a greater cannot be conceived, but you are also greater than what can be conceived."
That is certainly true, RightWhale. On the other hand, there's nothing in this acknowledgement that precludes one from inquiring into the source of the relevation. It seems to me that the quality and truth of the relevation is dependent on the quality and truth of its source. FWIW
Heidegger came in the wake of Hegel and Nietzsche as a type of existentialist who wanted to do without a metaphysics, whose experience of the world was always and ever an experience of space-time existence and nothing but. He’s one of those characters who are willing to shift the old meanings. Transcendence, if anything is an arch-epoch of human existence in time.
Kant, who said he finished what Plato began, is really an Aristotle who works inside after declaring the outside inaccessible. But his reasons are different for finding things inaccessible. It isn’t a practical consideration as it was for Aristotle. It is more logical and conceptual. Like Aristotle, Kant accepts the givenness of the world, but it is through conceptualization whereby the contradictions or paradoxes are resolved. Such is the hallmark of a scientistic “metaphysics.” The nous has become the fully revealing god of a phenomenal kingdom. Who cares about noumena after that?
In short, three different socks that don’t match.
I simply don't know enough even to know what it is that I don't know. I am interested, but don't know where to start.
I read Kierkegaard on Don Juan in 10th grade. It kind of turned me off on philosophy for awhile--just as Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Years kept me from enjoying Gulliver's Travels...
Or, to quote science fiction author Keith Laumer:
"I didn't know you read Kant."
"Can't read, you mean."
If cornelius, RightWhale, Alamo_Girl, & Betty Boop could give me a couple of 3rd grade level primers to start with, I'd promise to put them on my ever-burgeoning "to read" pile. :-)
(Full Disclosure: Just had a very successful job interview in Minneapolis yesterday...might have to put off the reading until I've relocated...)
Now that was funny ... and worthy of my College Philosophy teacher who thought the discipline to be the only subject deserving of college status outside of science and math classes. He was always hungover.
This has been the mystery of painters and poets as well as string theorists and other inspirationalists all along. James was on the right track, as was Whitehead, as was Vico, and Leibniz should be read so. Claustral permission appears to be the locus. That is what we call revelation, satori, inspiration. Everything we attribute to creativity is from sensation, which is all from Nature. Of course we create nothing, not even our society (all attempts are doomed), that is the baliwick of the Divine.
I am aware that none of this makes any sense at present.
I approach the quandary from a different perspective, i.e. what a beginning means.
In the absence of time, events cannot occur.
The origin of space/time is a more fundamental issue in every discipline than is the origin of energy, the origin of information and the origin of life v. non-life/death in nature.
In making a beginning of all that there is both spiritual and physical, God created space, time, causality, events and things - i.e. existence.
Which is to say, existence has no meaning apart from space/time, which is geometry. Even spiritual beings and eternity itself cannot "be" apart from time.
Moreover there is nothing of which any of these can be made but God Himself or more specifically, Gods will whether His creative will or His permissive will or some other type of will of which I am unaware.
No God, no existence; no Beyond, no here. To that extent, they are complementary but the reverse does not hold. God is (I AM) when every other existence is not, i.e. in the absence of time, God is. He is the only possible uncaused cause of "all that there is."
Those philosophers and scientists who formed their theories and systems before the measurement of cosmic microwave background radiation in the 1960s could appeal to a steady state universe and thus rationally justify a reduced sense of reality that all that there is is that which can be perceived by physical senses or mental reasoning, i.e. rationalize their atheism and politics or ideologies based on it.
Since then, the ever consistent, accumulating evidence is that space/time is created as the universe expands. And it is not just expanding, but accelerating. IOW, there was a beginning of real space and real time and therefore, physical causality, energy/matter, things and events. At the very minimum, there had to be an uncaused cause of the geometry, i.e. God.
Nowadays, all the atheists can do to justify their hope that God does not exist, is to theoretically push the beginning backwards to prior universes, prior causations. This is the plentitude argument, that anything that can happen, did. However, the plentitude argument requires an infinite past (space/time) and thus, these theories are merely obfuscations because whether brane theory or something else, all cosmologies rely on geometry for physical causation!
In sum, without an infinite past, no one can rationalize denying God the Creator. And there can be no existence - spiritual or physical - apart from God's will.