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
I have worked in nursing homes for many years, and have seen many people having hallucinations, very often a result of a reaction to a drug, or a problem with getting the right dosage of the drug...some of those halluciations were as you describe, dark, and troubling and frightening...but that was not the only type of hallucination that I witnessed...I witnessed hallucinations where the residents was happy, and joyous, and actually believed that they were in the company of loved ones that had passed on...it was only when that they came out of the hallucination, that they were sad, and troubled, and frightened...
Hallucinations run the gamut...it is not at all true that hallucinations are necessarily as you have described them, as being dark and troubling and frightening...
I took care of my own mom for many years at home, with Alzheimers...in the late stage of her disease, she was also prone to hallucinations...some were quite troubling, as when she thought robbers had burst into the house, and were trying to rob her...yet she had hallucinations which gave her seemingly great joy, such as when she thought she was fishing with my dad at the Mississippi River, and we kids were just little kids running around and having a swell time...in truth, my dad had died, my brother had died, and I was all grown up...but to mom, in her hallucination, all was well, dad and my brother were stil alive, and I was still a little girl...you could hear her talking in bed, in her room, talking and laughing and seemingly having a swell time with her hallucination...
It was only when she came out of it, that she realized that dad was gone, my brother was gone, I was grown up, and she was ill and bedridden...
So not all hallucinations are as you describe them..perhaps given that those people you spoke of, were already in a psychiatric hospital, and therefore obviously already had grave mental problems, is the reason why their hallucinations were so grim...
I am sure, just as in real life, hallucinations run the gamut from delightful to horrid...
You are seeking an objective display of a subjective confirmation. By definition that is an absurdity. Start asking for a square circle instead.
Note to self: Enroll in coherency class before instructing others to square their circles.
That is between you and Him. But you are in my earnest prayers.
Notwithstanding all of that however, as an obviously intelligent person you should realize that God cannot be subjected to the scientific method, logic or any other such analytical tool known to man.
To do so is to anthropomorphize God - to create a small "god" the mortal mind can obtain. A lot of people have done exactly that over the years - and among them were some theologians, sad to say.
God is not a hypothetical. He is. That has been our theme throughout this sidebar.
Consider this: every measure that we use to judge another person will be used in judging us and we will be found guilty. (Matt 7, Romans 2) Judging God is even more perilous. (Job 38-42)
Perhaps this is why these people were hospitalized. But I know people, some very closely, who have hallucinations that do not require hospitalization. One such person accepts them in the same way you might accept seeing spots due to a medical condition. Another person has spent hours arguing that his reality is true, and I am missing out on it.
There are several large offshoots of Christianity in this country based on revelations. I'm curious what you make of them and why.
Then the part that is authenticated is not the part that conflicts with reality.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I see two kinds of believers: those who think the message of God is to love others as we love ourselves, and those who enjoy threatening others with hellfire if they deviate from doctrine. And of course, the threateners have the one true doctrine.
Exactly. This is a subjective experience and cannot be proven to be true or false. That makes it just a bit arrogant (funny, from reading your past posts I would have thought you would object to rank arrogance such as you’ve shown) to say that other people experience other revelations because they are seeking lies and utterly corrupt. You can’t even provide a reason why we should accept your experience as true, yet you insult others with experiences that are equally grounded.
It is good to hear this from you. Now as soon as theists in general quit pretending that they can find God in the laboratory, the better off will be both science and religion.
Of course not. But then one would have to define "part(s) that are authenticated" and "conflicts with reality." I believe that God, who is that author of all reality, cannot make or speak something which conflicts with that, because "God is truth, and in him is no darkness...."
At the risk of oversimplifying, I see two kinds of believers: those who think the message of God is to love others as we love ourselves, and those who enjoy threatening others with hellfire if they deviate from doctrine. And of course, the threateners have the one true doctrine.
There is a lot of truth in that. I prefer to let God threaten with hellfire (and He does). I try to remind the threateners (and myself) that GOD, not me, has the "true doctrine." I believe in propositional truth in a book, but as I have grown older, I am convinced that there are fewer things I know with certainty, and yet those things I do know are the core and most important.
The definition of loving truth is hating lies. I believe in a God who is love, but not love which is God. In other words, God is a God of justice, truth, righteousness, and is committed to drive evil completely out of His presence. He began that by suffering the penalty for it (If you could wrap hell up into a pill, then Christ swallowed that pill on the cross). The rest is mopping up (no matter how excruciating that "mopping up" appears to us) and will result in a great division of creation between those who say "thy will be done" and "my will be done." May we both be on the right side of that divide on that happy and awful day.
So, nobody has a monopoly on dogmatism. Count me in with the respectable posters here who recognize that religious dogmatism and scientific dogmatism are equally stifling. And since we are not surprised that both shows up, I’m not ready to use dogmatism as a cudgel against either religion or science.
Some information about me: I was saved at 4, witnessed to my friends at school, memorized Bible verses galore, have read through the Bible multiple times, have worked with children and prayed the sinner's prayer with them, wept and prayed for my father and grandmother's salvation, thought about going to Bible college, and chose to go to a Christian college. I never experienced any miracles, surprising answers to prayer (sure, I got A's on occasion when I prayed for them, but I wouldn't call that a miracle), or life-changing emotional spiritual experiences. You've said I'm very logical, and I tend not to trust my emotions. I know they are fleeting and easily engaged by certain things (dim lights, pretty pictures, and repetitive melodies) that may not be of divine origin at all. My faith was built chiefly on loyalty and stick-to-it-iveness, not evidences.
I did not quench the Spirit, forget, get distracted, or reject Jesus. My counter-conversion was a lengthy and troubling process, and at the end what bothered me the most was that I did not want to believe that Jesus and the disciples were not as they were depicted in the Gospels. There's a lot of flippancy by Christians about my experiences--I must not have been truly saved, I never actually "experienced" God at all, I am sinful and decided to selfishly go after lies--which I find very insulting and arrogant. But I understand people get defensive when they find their worldview threatened, and tend to assume someone like me must not have had the same experiences they had, or I could not have reached my conclusions.
That's simply not so.
I never suggested getting rid of religion.
Good. So how do you resolve competing claims?
I don’t. I figure if God wants to tell me something important, he’ll give me a revelation personally. He seems to be handing them out like candy to everyone else in the world.
Science goes wherever the methodology leads to results. Bohr may have been good, but then so was Newton (and on the subject of quantum theory, so was Einstein).
Science is not axiomatic or bound by rules derived from axioms.
Having said all that, I have no idea what you are trying to say. By "peace" do you mean giving up on the search for regular processes in living things, or assuming that there are some things we just weren't meant to know?
Oodles of them, but I don’t attempt to resolve them.
But to my brothers and sisters in Christ, some of whom I am pinging to this post, it is only obvious! We share in the same Spirit. We are dead and yet alive with Christ in God. We have the mind of Christ. We are different.
Amen. AG! By the grace of God alone.
I tried to find a couple paragraphs from this essay to excerpt but found it difficult to narrow my choice. Every word is golden. Every sentence speaks to God's glory, much as your post does, AG. I hope you all read Van Til's argument and enjoy it as much as I do. Here's just a small part of Van Til's discussion with an unbeliever...
"...Take now the four points I have mentioned -- creation, providence, prophecy, and miracle. Together they represent the whole of Christian theism. Together they include what is involved in the idea of God and what He has done round about and for us. Many times over and in many ways the evidence for all these has been presented. But you have an always available and effective answer at hand. It is impossible! It is impossible!...
Van Til concludes...
And if my unity is comprehensive enough to include the efforts of those who reject it, it is large enough even to include that which those who have been set upright by regeneration cannot see. My unity is that of a child who walks with its father through the woods. The child is not afraid because its father knows it all and is capable of handling every situation. So I readily grant that there are some "difficulties" with respect to belief in God and His revelation in nature and Scripture that I cannot solve. In fact there is mystery in every relationship with respect to every fact that faces me, for the reason that all facts have their final explanation in God Whose thoughts are higher than my thoughts, and Whose ways are higher than my ways. And it is exactly that sort of God that I need. Without such a God, without the God of the Bible, the God of authority, the God who is self-contained and therefore incomprehensible to men, there would be no reason in anything. No human being can explain in the sense of seeing through all things, but only he who believes in God has the right to hold that there is an explanation at all. So you see when I was young I was conditioned on every side; I could not help believing in God. Now that I am older I still cannot help believing in God. I believe in God now because unless I have Him as the All-Conditioner, life is Chaos. I shall not convert you at the end of my argument. I think the argument is sound. I hold that belief in God is not merely as reasonable as other belief, or even a little or infinitely more probably true than other belief; I hold rather that unless you believe in God you can logically believe in nothing else. But since I believe in such a God, a God who has conditioned you as well as me, I know that you can to your own satisfaction, by the help of the biologists, the psychologists, the logicians, and the Bible critics reduce everything I have said this afternoon and evening to the circular meanderings of a hopeless authoritarian. Well, my meanderings have, to be sure, been circular; they have made everything turn on God. So now I shall leave you with Him, and with His mercy."
"...Looking about me I see both order and disorder in every dimension of life. But I look at both of them in the light of the Great Orderer Who is back of them. I need not deny either of them in the interest of optimism or in the interest of pessimism. I see the strong men of biology searching diligently through hill and dale to prove that the creation doctrine is not true with respect to the human body, only to return and admit that the missing link is missing still. I see the strong men of psychology search deep and far into the sub-consciousness, child and animal consciousness, in order to prove that the creation and providence doctrines are not true with respect to the human soul, only to return and admit that the gulf between human and animal intelligence is as great as ever. I see the strong men of logic and scientific methodology search deep into the transcendental for a validity that will not be swept away by the ever-changing tide of the wholly new, only to return and say that they can find no bridge from logic to reality, or from reality to logic. And yet I find all these, though standing on their heads, reporting much that is true. I need only to turn their reports right side up, making God instead of man the center of it all, and I have a marvelous display of the facts as God has intended me to see them.
And if my unity is comprehensive enough to include the efforts of those who reject it, it is large enough even to include that which those who have been set upright by regeneration cannot see. My unity is that of a child who walks with its father through the woods. The child is not afraid because its father knows it all and is capable of handling every situation. So I readily grant that there are some "difficulties" with respect to belief in God and His revelation in nature and Scripture that I cannot solve. In fact there is mystery in every relationship with respect to every fact that faces me, for the reason that all facts have their final explanation in God Whose thoughts are higher than my thoughts, and Whose ways are higher than my ways. And it is exactly that sort of God that I need. Without such a God, without the God of the Bible, the God of authority, the God who is self-contained and therefore incomprehensible to men, there would be no reason in anything. No human being can explain in the sense of seeing through all things, but only he who believes in God has the right to hold that there is an explanation at all.
So you see when I was young I was conditioned on every side; I could not help believing in God. Now that I am older I still cannot help believing in God. I believe in God now because unless I have Him as the All-Conditioner, life is Chaos.
I shall not convert you at the end of my argument. I think the argument is sound. I hold that belief in God is not merely as reasonable as other belief, or even a little or infinitely more probably true than other belief; I hold rather that unless you believe in God you can logically believe in nothing else. But since I believe in such a God, a God who has conditioned you as well as me, I know that you can to your own satisfaction, by the help of the biologists, the psychologists, the logicians, and the Bible critics reduce everything I have said this afternoon and evening to the circular meanderings of a hopeless authoritarian. Well, my meanderings have, to be sure, been circular; they have made everything turn on God. So now I shall leave you with Him, and with His mercy."
"...the circular meanderings of a hopeless authoritarian."
"Don't use your circular logic on me. I work for the phone company." -- the guy from the phone company to Elaine on "Seinfeld" who later "disappeared."