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
There you go again. As I said, you simply reject ID by fiat because you don’t like its religious implications.
And what does “study of the designer” have to do with it? Science is the study of the design, not the study of the Designer.
The distinction here is very simple. Suppose someone sends you some software, and you have no clue who wrote it. Would you claim that it was not intelligently designed because you know nothing about the designer? I hope not. But that is the logical equivalent of your nonsensical claim.
I suppose one could consider the fact that oxygen will bind with hydrogen and not helium shows intelligence on the part of oxygen.
No, but I would believe that whoever ran the that software on the their computer whould lack intelligence. In a similar manner I would attribute to any scientist a similar lack of intelligence if she decided that something was so complex that only God could have put it together and thus stopped searching for the truth.
“I would attribute to any scientist a similar lack of intelligence if she decided that something was so complex that only God could have put it together and thus stopped searching for the truth.”
“This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” —Sir Isaac Newton, The Principia
I guess the greatest scientist who ever lived “stopped searching for the truth,” eh.
“The Darwinian theory has become an all-purpose obstacle to thought rather than an enabler of scientific advance.” —Robert B. Laughlin, Nobel-laureate physicist
Congratulations, you got it exactly backwards!
Here’s more insight from Prof. Laughlin:
Much of present-day biological knowledge is ideological. A key symptom of ideological thinking is the explanation that has no implications and cannot be tested. I call such logical dead ends antitheories because they have exactly the opposite effect of real theories: they stop thinking rather than stimulate it. Evolution by natural selection, for instance, which Charles Darwin originally conceived as a great theory, has lately come to function more as an antitheory, called upon to cover up embarrassing experimental shortcomings and legitimize findings that are at best questionable and at worst not even wrong. Your protein defies the laws of mass action? Evolution did it! Your complicated mess of chemical reactions turns into a chicken? Evolution! The human brain works on logical principles no computer can emulate? Evolution is the cause! —Robert B. Laughlin, Nobel-laureate physicist
Newton has passed on. He now knows the truth that you and I can only speculate about right now. However, since his death other great scientists have carried the torch of learning to newer and greater heights. If Dr. Richard Feynman, one of those great scientists, had read your postings he would repeat his famous quote, "Surely you jest."
If Dr. Richard Feynman, one of those great scientists, had read your postings he would repeat his famous quote, “Surely you jest.”
I quoted Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist ever, and Robert B. Laughlin, a Nobel-laureate physicist. Which one is jesting?
Surely you can cover for your lack of an argument better than that.
As far a Newton goes, one can only speculate about how he would revise his quote if he lived today. I suspect he would be a tad less dogmatic about creation.
Oh, so Newton would bow to political correctness, eh? How nice of you to speak for him.
For the record, Newton studied the Bible daily and “religiously.”
As for the Laughlin quote being “out of context,” that’s a canard. Whenever evolutionists don’t like a particular quote from a respectable person, it is “out of context.”
I did not claim that Laughlin advocates ID. I actually don’t know where he stands on the matter. But his quote stands perfectly well on its own, whether you like it or not.
After our discussion yesterday, I sent Dr.Laughlin and email. I asked him directly how he felt about using his quote for this purpose. This is a direct quote from his response:
"No, I don't like having my words used for ideological purposes. Unfortunately, there isn't much I can do about it. The deeper subject matter of UNIVERSE is belief systems and how they color perceptions even when they shouldn't. You have to expect that people will misread a perfectly clear statement that beliefs corrupt perceptions as supporting their own particular beliefs. In other words, you hold a mirror up to show how ugly the queen is and she sees only how beautiful she is! "
Truth in ID FYI ping. Start at post #58.
“After our discussion yesterday, I sent Dr.Laughlin and email. I asked him directly how he felt about using his quote for this purpose. This is a direct quote from his response:”
I’d like to know what you told him before he replied. If you told him that I was using his quote for “ideological purposes,” then you misrepresented me. In fact, I used his quote to discredit the “ideological purposes” of evolutionists. If you told him that I used it to indicate that he advocates ID, then you lied. I specifically said otherwise in plain English.
I don’t have any special reverence for Laughlin other than to acknowledge that he won a Nobel Prize. I read his book and found it interesting but very confusing in many places. If he “denies” ID in any way, I really don’t care. But if he is going to deny what he said in plain English about the Darwinian Theory, then he should make it clear that he is retracting his statement. If not, then he should shut up.
This reminds me of the time when some Republicans quoted MLK on the ideal of colorblindness, only to be scolded by his wife. Apparently only bona fide liberals or leftists are allowed to quote MLK — even though we have a national holiday named after him.
Have no fear. you were not mentioned. I referred Dr Laughlin to the essay written by the the IDer from whom you got the quote:
But if he is going to deny what he said in plain English about the Darwinian Theory, then he should make it clear that he is retracting his statement.
He has nothing to retract. He said what he said and meant it within the context of his scientific philosophy - which has nothing to do with ID.
If not, then he should shut up.
If you think he should shut up then maybe you should consider removing his quote from your Great Quotes web page on your web site.
I think Laughlin’s quote is worth repeating:
“Much of present-day biological knowledge is ideological. A key symptom of ideological thinking is the explanation that has no implications and cannot be tested. I call such logical dead ends antitheories because they have exactly the opposite effect of real theories: they stop thinking rather than stimulate it. Evolution by natural selection, for instance, which Charles Darwin originally conceived as a great theory, has lately come to function more as an antitheory, called upon to cover up embarrassing experimental shortcomings and legitimize findings that are at best questionable and at worst not even wrong. Your protein defies the laws of mass action? Evolution did it! Your complicated mess of chemical reactions turns into a chicken? Evolution! The human brain works on logical principles no computer can emulate? Evolution is the cause!” Robert B. Laughlin, Nobel-laureate physicist
Why don’t you email him again and ask him which part of this quote he would like to retract or revise.
I said nothing about his quote except that it contradicts what you are claiming about evolution, which it clearly does. For you or him to claim that I am using his quote for “ideological purposes” simply by quoting him is ridiculous.
Newton saw not just “evidence,” but *proof* if ID in the mechanics of the solar system. The simplest living cell is arguably far more complex than the equations of motion of the solar system, and that complexity was completely unknown in Newton’s time, so I have no reason whatsoever to believe that Newton would change his views on ID. I just wish more scientists these days would have the guts acknowledge that the anti-ID emporer has no clothes.
If I recall correctly, that quote came from his book. I suggest you re-read it a few times, then tell me what part of it you disagree with.
I’ll keep it on my website until Laughlin personally tells me that he retracts it.
"You have to expect that people will misread a perfectly clear statement that beliefs corrupt perceptions as supporting their own particular beliefs." - Dr. Laughlin
I borrowed his book A Different Universe from a library about a year ago (in fact, I needed an inter-library loan). I posted the quote on my website months after I had returned the book, and I can’t remember specifically where I got it from, but I know he said something like that in the book. If you have the book handy, why don’t you tell us exactly what he wrote. Just look up “evolution” in the index.
I agree that his statement was perfectly clear, but I think *you* are the one who is “misreading” it. Actually, I get the impression that you are simply *ignoring* it because it doesn’t fit well with your outlook and your ideological agenda. Please tell me what part of it I am misreading!
Perhaps you are referring to this part:
Evolution by natural selection, for instance, which Charles Darwin originally conceived as a great theory, has lately come to function more as an antitheory, called upon to cover up embarrassing experimental shortcomings and legitimize findings that are at best questionable and at worst not even wrong.
Not even wrong? What do you suppose that means?
Oh, one more thing. You are quoting his response to someone else’s use of his quote as if it applies to me. Your “logic” escapes me.