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 noticed that.
It demonstrates intelligence on the part of the designer to create atoms to consistently behave in such a way. You might as well say an automobile has intelligence because it you start it and put it in gear, it will move on it's own whether someone is in the drivers seat or not.
1. It has no defintion of "something real"; and
2. It is a statement of faith.
1. If by "something real" you mean "those things that can be perceived by the senses", then that is fine, but please realize that sensory perceptions are entire subjective in nature. There is no way to demonstrate that the figures displayed upon a gauge, measuring rod, or scale you may be reading bear any relation to anything "real" at all. There is similarly no way to demonstrate without a doubt that anything you may see, hear, smell, touch, or taste has any existence outside of your own mind. For all you know there is no physical world "out there". For all you know this is all a dream.
2. Your criterion for "truth" seems to be "only those statements demonstrable via the scientific method are True". Unfortunately for you, however, the statement "only those statements demonstrable via the scientific method are True" is itself not demonstrable via the scientific method. Therefore, your own definition of Truth is self-refuting and meaningless. You may believe that only those statements demonstrable via the scientific method are True, but you cannot demonstrate the truth of that statement via the scientific method; therefore, the statement "only those statements demonstrable via the scientific method are True" is a statement of faith, not of objective truth.
All worldviews proceed from undemonstrated and undemonstrable axioms. The scientific worldview proceeds from the axiom that "a material reality external to the human mind exists and can be postively known through observation". This is a commonsense axiom, and one I share, but make no mistake: it is an axiom. I happen to believe that a material reality external to the human mind exists and can be postively known through observation, but the truth of that statement cannot be demontrated. I take the existence of the physical, knowable universe on faith as do you.
If one cannot rely on the evidence of the senses as the criteria for Truth, how then can we know Truth? We can know it through logic. We can know one thing for certain our own existence because we do not apprehend our existence via our senses. We do not "see" ourselves, "feel" ourselves, "taste" "touch" or "hear ourselves". We are ourselves. We experience our own existence directly, immediately, without recourse to the senses. Anesthetize a man, drop him in a sensory deprivation tank, and otherwise cut him off from all sensory input, and he may come to doubt the existence of the outside world but he continues to exist. We need no ear to hear ourselves think; we can see with our mind's eye even in a pitch-black room. Thus the basic truth of philosophy as formulated by Réne Descartes becomes obvious: cogito, ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am".
For the Christian, the fundamental axiom of thought might be stated as "God exists, and sent His Son, Jesus, to save mankind from destruction". We can demonstrate the existence of Jesus and His miracles using historical, eyewitness documentary evidence, but of course we have no way of "proving" the Christian faith via science. One cannot put God under a microscope, after all; He transcends space and time, matter and energy. The Christian worldview, however, does not depend entirely upon an unprovable axiom, for we can know the Truth behind it in an absolute way the same way we can absolutely know the Truth of our own existence. We can know God exists through direct experience not by means of our senses, but directly. We do not see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or otherwise sense the existence of God; we can join with Him and experience His presence directly. Not every believer has experienced God in this direct way, of course; for most, God is known via reason (i.e. via the evidences of His existence, intellectual faith, and logical necessity). A select few humans, however, are permiitted to contact the Divine Presence directly, intimtely, knowing Him in the same way they know themselves. We call such people "saints".
If quantum physics proves anything, it proves that the universe is not a blind clockwork, a deterministic machine made of dead matter. At their most fundamental level, space, time, matter, and energy are impossible to quantify precisely, and are thus "real" in a way that is more than merely the sum of their physical descriptors. Just as the universe is real at a level beyond our ability to observe, so too is the human mind. The brain may be the organ by which our consciousness contacts physical reality, but the brain is not the mind. The map is not the territory. Human consciousness has its foundation somewhere beyond all this somewhere outside of nature and, therefore, so does Truth.
Quantum physics tells us not that the world is real but that the world is probably real. :-)
I’m always amused by atheists who refuse to believe in God until they get “proof.” If they are consistent, shouldn’t they also refuse to believe that any other conscious being exists until they get “proof” of that too?
Think about it. There is no way to prove, scientifically or otherwise, that any conscious being exists other than yourself. How could you possibly know that anyone or anything else is conscious unless you were them?
So why don’t Dawkins and Hitchens go around preaching solipsism? Because they would make fools of themselves? I have news for them: they are already doing that.
Thanks for the ping.
Youve given us a direct quote from Dr. Laughlin. Now perhaps you would be so accommodating as to give us a direct quote of how you put the proposition to Dr. Laughlin that elicited his response.
Jeez Louise. Surely you can’t be that dense.
You’re not alone. I enjoy reading your posts whenever these threads sprout.
It all boils down to one thing. I prefer to do science, and argue from the rules and evidence of science. I am not arguing "Truth" but rather what can be perceived by the senses and deduced from logic.
You appear to believe in something outside of science, "Truth" or the equivalent. That's fine, but its not science.
Your criterion for "truth" seems to be "only those statements demonstrable via the scientific method are True". Unfortunately for you, however, the statement "only those statements demonstrable via the scientific method are True" is itself not demonstrable via the scientific method.That might be true if I were seeking "Truth." I will leave that to philosophers and theologians. I prefer data and well-supported theories. Show me the evidence and we can go from there.
Therefore, your own definition of Truth is self-refuting and meaningless. You may believe that only those statements demonstrable via the scientific method are True, but you cannot demonstrate the truth of that statement via the scientific method; therefore, the statement "only those statements demonstrable via the scientific method are True" is a statement of faith, not of objective truth.You are arguing for religion or philosophy here. I have proposed no definition of "Truth." There is no quest for "Truth" in science. "Truth" is not something that can be verified by observation; it is based on belief.
Science seeks to work with facts, and to organize those facts with hypotheses, then theories. Hypotheses seek to organize the multitudes of facts; when a hypothesis has matured, and withstood the tests of data and time, and shown that it can make accurate predictions, it can be classified as a theory. Not "Truth," but a well-supported theory.
And this is where your argument breaks down. I need not take anything on faith. Science works with facts and theories--things that can be observed and documented.
Philosophy and religion rely on faith because their subject matter can't be observed and documented.
This is where we begin to part company.
The rest of your post deals with your personal beliefs, which I choose not to dispute.
Perhaps you had best halt any further elaboration. Otherwise one of our Darwinian friends might get an idea, start thinking real hard and cause all us Jesus Freaks to go poof!
Thanks! You put it much better than I did. Kudos!
You have been famously quoted as saying, “The Darwinian theory has become an
all purpose obstacle to thought rather than an enabler of scientific
The primary example of the use of this quote can be found here:
Your quote is now widely used by many to support the theory of Intelligent
Design. I have the distinct feeling that your quote is being used out of
context to back up a theory which you would not or do no support. I came to
this conclusion after reading your essay, “Reinventing Physics: The Search
for the Real Frontier.” I believe that you would find the idea of
Intelligent Design as limiting as you did “The End of Science”
I am wondering how you feel about the use of your name and reputation in
supporting the ID theory.
Thank you for your time,
In his reply, did he actually say anything against ID? If he did, I must have missed it.
"Last year I got invited to a conference on a related subject at Baylor University. The organizers lost enthusiasm for inviting me, however, when they discovered that I would talk about primacy of experiment. I'm reasonably confident that they wanted to use me as a fall guy for the Theory of Evolution - i.e. as a supporter of the theory that they could then pillory in public. Thus I get grief from both sides of the evolution conflict. "
This seems more than a bit unusual. They wanted to “pillory him in public” for *supporting* the ToE? Isn’t the “pillorying” usually done for the opposite reason? Was it an ID conference? If so, why would he attend if he is offended by ID? Just wondering.
Thank you for your time. I appreciate your courtesy.
I fail to see where the Professors quote is being used out of context. It certainly isnt being represented as an endorsement of ID. Just to be unequivocal about the matter, RussP has stipulated that he does not represent the Professors quotation as an endorsement of ID. If you propose that any fair use quotation can only be cited by someone who is in total agreement with everything the person quoted has ever asserted, then you raise an impossible standard. Good Lord man! I quote Jefferson all the time and I find myself in the rare disagreement even with him.
But, congratulations on your skilful elicitation of precisely the sort of quote you wished from Professor Laughlin to use against RussP. A most novel and innovative form of quote mining. Salute!
If you Google Dr. Laughlin's quote you will each and every reference to it is using it to support ID. (Every one except the stand alone reference on RussP's Great Quotes page and now RussP's repeat of the quote on FR).
Maybe he wanted to talk about the "primacy of experiment" just like he said?
"you hold a mirror up to show how ugly the queen is and she sees only how beautiful she is!" - Dr. Laughlin.
If you Google Dr. Laughlin’s quote you will each and every reference to it is using it to support ID. (Every one except the stand alone reference on RussP’s Great Quotes page and now RussP’s repeat of the quote on FR).
When a Nobel-laureate in physics blasts the Darwinian ToE, you can expect it to be used to support ID. If he hadn’t anticipated that, then he apparently doesn’t follow the online debates over evolution.
Actually, I think the Nobel Prize is often overrated. People tend to think it confers a god-like infallibility, but it doesn’t. What it does is shield the recipient against being labeled a crank, which is why I used Laughlin’s quote.
I am curious, however, about Laughlin’s actual position on evolution. He obviously has problems with the ToE, but yet he does not seem to accept ID. I’d like to know what he thinks the alternative is.