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
Neither time nor space exist. There are no patterns in nature. Also, information is inessential. Makes no sense, for sure, but in claustral philosophy, also called organic philosophy, it begins to.
I am so glad for being pinged to your worthy post, and grateful most of all for this perfect (precise and concise!) conclusion. Amen!
And thank you for the kudos, but truly when cornelis and betty boop get into a brisk discussion of philosophy - or when RightWhale asserts a new theory - I have to spend a lot of time researching the word concepts and thinkers before I can even comprehend much less respond. So I'd greatly benefit from one of the primers, too. LOL!
I would, but believe me this is evolved far from my own starting point. I was merely looking for the origin of rights and the state. There is darned little on that of any use, and I have even read Hegel and some other names including Aristotle, which is possibly a translation from Latin, which was from Arabic, which was from Aramaic, and who knows if he wrote it in Aramaic to begin with.
Plotinus was quite the jokester and sometimes it is easy to forget that he was pre-Christian. He apologized every day for presenting himself in corporal form.
Which is probably one of the silliest statements imaginable. As others have said, it leaves you with both feet planted firmly in the air. Every statement you make about science is rife with philosophical presuppositions. The problem is that "science" today operates in an overwhelming presupposition of naturalism, so that when you challenge those presuppositions, you get the same tired old cant about putting up the lab equipment and "praying about it" or other such rubbish.
Not at all. Science is a branch of philosophy descended from street-smart Aquinas. Thomists.
That's almost as bad as Kierkegaard...
Have you considered reading any of the enlightenment French, or nosing about among the Federalist papers to find *their* cited sources?
Which is probably one of the silliest statements imaginable. As others have said, it leaves you with both feet planted firmly in the air. Every statement you make about science is rife with philosophical presuppositions.
Sorry you disagree. But that's OK; you go ahead and make whatever philosophical statements you want about science. Science, on the other hand, will keep on doing what it does whether philosophers say yea or nay. We'll see where each is in fifty or a hundred years. (I'm betting on science.)
The problem is that "science" today operates in an overwhelming presupposition of naturalism, so that when you challenge those presuppositions, you get the same tired old cant about putting up the lab equipment and "praying about it" or other such rubbish.
Science works with the natural world, that is, with things that can be measured or observed in some manner. Things that cannot be observed or measured are left to philosophy, religion, and other fields. I see this as a strength, not a problem.
Philosophy, theology, and other fields are free to take whatever assumptions they want and run with them. Knock yourselves out! But when you claim results, you need to make sure they can be verified in some manner, and that they are not just the product of somebody's fevered imagination.
I am currently reading Lessing and Herder, who were reacting to the French revolution. Also, I am reading Ockham and Bacon, Roger, having read Bacon, Francis a couple years ago. There is a lot of reading. The trail became clear not long ago when I finally stumbled across a book in the Public Library and found that the author actually appeared to know what he was talking about. Fom there I followed his cites, and then the cites of those cites. After a while it starts to make some sense. Since I have been power reading for effect I have been doing what I can to preserve my eyes, which are still functional—that is important. I do not spend much time reading articles on the PC monitor since that will ruin the eyes. I find most of the modern writing on these topics is silly and may be disregarded without missing anything. Read the AntiFederalist papers, which is the stenographers note of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, there being no journalists reports allowed. Closed-door, bipartisan, secret, rushed through—sound familiar?
Not at all. Science is a branch of philosophy descended from street-smart Aquinas. Thomists.
Science may be descended from philosophy, but the greatest advances came when science divorced itself from the shackles of philosophy and theology and began to look for answers on its own, using its own assumptions and methods.
Currently, working scientists pay almost no attention to philosophers and their mumblings.
That's true since the colleges don't require philosophy except possibly an Ethics for dummies course, however, many scientists dig into philosophy when they are more mature and not working so hard on making their nut. Many of the best and most influential philosphers were scientists before. Kant was a physicist.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm 1646-1716
Whatever it is, it is older than both ID and the Rapture.
Is that how you can tell when senility sets in? ;-)
Positivism is dead. Has been since the 1930s.
For one thing, youve been speaking of Whitehead for several threads, so if you are resting in his view of organic philosophy a reconciliation of math/science and theology/philosophy - I must hasten to note that he was born in 1861 and thus, like Hegel (born 1770) and Nietzsche (born 1844) to whatever extent they address the physical, none of them had the insights of modern physics, cosmology, et al.
That of course doesnt mean the philosophers were ipso facto in error in whole or in part, but rather that they were not as informed as we are today and thus it falls to us or modern thinkers to put their insights in context.
There is also some dispute in the interpretation of Whitehead vis-à-vis theology as we can see here: Process Theism
Nevertheless, those who maintain that all that there is is an illusion or a dream (e.g. I am a figment of your imagination) have no basis for correspondence with math or science at all. It is a statement of faith much like the statement that God created all that there is last Thursday. Indeed, if Lanza's speculations were taken to the extreme, it would suggest that "reality" comes into existence as a result of the observation itself.
Einstein famously said that reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one but he was speaking of local realism in physics.
It seems we are always coming back to the epistemic divide. If all of science and math would adhere to Bohrs counsel, then it would limit itself to what it can say about the physical and nothing about the meaning of it. That would leave the broad reach to the philosophers who have the toolkit including the wisdom over the ages, to address the essence and to the theologians to put all of the knowledge in context with revelation, doctrine or tradition, i.e. systematic theology.
But of course that only works if the philosophers and theologians make an effort to understand modern math and science, e.g. Wolfgang Pannenberg.
I had to look that one up. One definition I found was:
the form of empiricism that bases all knowledge on perceptual experience (not on intuition or revelation)No wonder the philosophers dumped it! It was about to put them out of business!
Whitehead explained relativity to Einstein. Philosophy was a second career for Whitehead, after he retired from mathematics. He is hard to read, but he has to be read first hand since translations suffer from the usual failure to transmit meaning.
Indeed, whatever is not observed has as much significance as whatever is observed. And, truly, the observation - or ommission - is causal to what happens next and thus contributes to the unfolding of reality.
Lanza's speculations are very useful to us in our research of God and the Observer Problem - but I still hesitate on quoting him directly because his speculations are often applied to the extreme which would lead to the "reality is illusion" deadend.