Q & A with Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Charles Townes
Question: Would you like to comment on the limits of scientific knowledge versus the limits of spiritual or religious knowledge?
Townes: “Both are limited. A set of assumptions are made and we use logic to try to derive things from that; but we can never be sure that these assumptions are consistent. Now, in addition we know that there are many puzzles in science. We are finding fantastic things. For example, many scientists, including Einstein, didn’t think the universe could have a beginning. Of course how could it possibly have a beginning; it couldn’t have started from nothing. Now we have the discovery of the “Big Bang.” The universe did indeed have a beginning. That was previously a religious view, but not a scientific view. Now suddenly we learn it had a beginning and this shows that science can shed some light on religion.”
Q: What can science learn from religion and what can religion learn from science?
T: “I think some religious people have been too absolutist. Some scientists are too absolute as well. They think: science really understands that, this is all there is and nothing else. I think in both cases we should recognize that we don’t understand everything and must be ready to change our views to some extent. Maybe in general we know what is approximately right, but we must recognize that we don’t understand everything. Actually, religion has helped science and vice-versa at various times.”
Q: Could you give us some examples from the past about how religion and science interacted?
T: “I would have to say that I believe science was a result of religion, and religion was monotheistic with a single God who created this universe and planned it. This has substantially affected early scientific views. The Greeks, for example, felt they could figure out what the world was like just from logic – they thought that it had to be a certain way and they thought about it using logic, trying to figure out what the world was like. Now, if there’s a God who created the universe, then God created the universe and made it the way He wanted it. so, let’s find our what it’s like; if God created the world, then it should be consistent and reliable. So that, I think, was the background for the beginning of basic science. What is this universe really like and is it consistent, can we rely on it and predict it? So the religious idea of a single God that created the universe was basic to the beginning of science, or at least European science.”
Q: So that’s how religion inspired scientific questions. And how does science shed light on religion?
T: “The Greeks, as I said, thought they could figure out everything form logic, without observations. Now we have observations, we have to see what the world is like. As we learn what it is like this will shed some light on its purpose and meaning. I’ve already mentioned that we have discovered that there was a beginning of all things. We are able to understand more and more over recent years. The laws of science have to be almost exactly as they are if we are to be here. Atomic forces and electromagnetic forces have to be almost exactly the way they are for the chemicals that we need for our bodies to be here. Nuclear forces and gravitation have to be almost exactly the way they are for the stars to be here and to last so long. The sun, for example, is here for billions of years, shining on us and keeping us alive. Our life depends on the laws of science; they have to be almost exactly the way they are. We recognize that now; but why are they this way? Well, that’s the origin of the expression “intelligent planning.” Somehow it was planned to make it come out this way, why else would it be otherwise?”
Q: But still, there are some alternative explanations as well.
T: “Some people think that maybe there are billions and billions of different universes and each one is a little different. Well, that’s a possibility, but why would the laws of science differ from one universe to the other and so on? That’s an arbitrary assumption, but maybe. Otherwise one has to say: gee, maybe it was planned. For everything to come out exactly this way will shed some light; perhaps this was a planned and created universe. Science and religion interact and shed some light on one another; and I think as we learn more about each they will interact more.”
Q: In addition to the Nobel Prize you have also won the prestigious Templeton Award. How did you become interested in this dialogue between science and religion?
T: “Firstly, I’m both religiously oriented and scientifically oriented. In spite of many apparent conflicts between the two, in my mind there is no actual conflict. They are much more consistent with each other than people think; in fact they help each other. Each can learn something about one from the other, and I felt it was time to point this out to people and emphasize it.”
Q: Some people are making the leap, suggesting that because of the laws in quantum mechanics one’s thoughts somehow interact with the macro world. How would you respond to that?
T: “There is no evidence of that at all. I don’t think quantum mechanics allows that. I know people have thought: well maybe this will allow some new things of that type, but it doesn’t. One of the great problems is free will. How can we have free will and what is consciousness and what is free will? Science doesn’t allow free will, but that doesn’t mean that science is complete. Our present science doesn’t allow free will and we should recognize that. if we have free will then there is something new and different that we have yet to understand.”
Q: Well, when you say that science doesn’t allow free will, my first thought is “So what? As a human being can I not decide that I want to live my life this way as opposed to that way?
T: “A present understanding is that science doesn’t allow free will. There has to be some new laws, something new, perhaps a new dimension somehow, a spiritual dimension or some new dimension. Something has to be happening if we have free will. Maybe we don’t have free will; however, if we really believe that we have free will, there must be something completely new that we don’t understand. This is an example of science and religion interacting and shedding light on one another. Our belief that we are able to decide this way or that is just an illusion; we merely think that we’re making a decision. There is also the question of what is it that leads us to make a decision, where is this thing? Where is the human you envision? How do you define a human, where and what is this thing that has free will?”
Charles Hard Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on July 28, 1915. He is the inventor of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) which led to the laser, something that has changed our world in profound ways. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Townes has received the Templeton Award, for contributions to the understanding of religion, and a number of other prizes as well as 27 honorary degrees from various universities
Extracts from an interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli, for Ebru TV for the Emmy Award winning television series Matter and Beyond. For more information and the full episodes visit http://www.ebru.tv. Published also by The Fountain magazine, July/August 2010, pages 7–12.
Darwin's single source assumption is limited to biology and based on observations of physical facts.
The Biblical assumption scopes everything they knew of at the time and that DIDN'T include galaxy clusters, molecules or even the most important living thing on Earth: bacteria. Their single source is both preposterous and illfounded.
It is fundamentally useless as an explanation while Darwin's has given rise to an incredible body of knowledge.
That is because you are looking in the Genesis’ story something that is not there. In a sense, atheists are not different from religious conservative-fundamentalists who look in the Bible for signs of a God that somehow has engineered mutations in the evolutionary process.
Not only have you both seen what it has not been written but, more importantly, what it has never been the intent of the Biblical author to proclaim.
Oh, by the way, the Bible has also given rise to an incredible body of knowledge.
Davy, You are kidding, aren’t you?
Example: A philosophy of history is clearly discernible in Hebrew Scripture even where it is not explicit. Much more than Greek or Roman tradition, these theological principles in their Protestant form are responsible for the nature of Western democracy and its insistence on individual dignity, freedom of expression, tolerance, equality of rights, communal autonomy, social justice, government by consent, national self-determination.
Similarly, Jewish theology in its Catholic form was responsible in larger measure for the mediaeval interpretation of world history which in turn constituted the foundation of modern historical consciousness. History has always been regarded by the Hebrews as another manifestation of a superior mind that calls upon man to take up its cause. Hence it is impossible for a person to be neutral in the face of historical events.
There is always a choice between a “good” and an “evil” road. Event’s, therefore, assume a meaning which transcends the immediate circumstances. They reveal a master-plan and thus contain not only the past but also elements of the future. The past-future character of Hebrew thought and its theological nature, have, indeed, colored the Jewish interpretation of history and developed the following ideas:
1. The unity of history, a corollary of the idea of the unity of mankind.
2. The directiveness of history as opposed to the idea of history as a cyclical process, history being the fulfillment of a superior purpose fully known to the master alone but visible in part to man.
3. The existence of a goal of human endeavor and of man’s divinely appointed destiny, such as universal peace and just government.
4. Prophetic direction exercised by spiritual leaders and their ability to guide the people in their choice between good and evil by means of a past-future interpretation of history and prediction.
5. Historical activism demanding man’s co-operation with God in the attainment of the goal, the path to which may be lost or blocked through human aberration.
The theological dynamism in its original or secularized form inspired all the major historical developments of the Western world from the Christianization of the Roman Empire, to the opening up of the New World (America) and Africa, and down to the struggling against Communism across East Europe and the Former Soviet Union. The Judeo-Christian tradition has given great force to social movements in the past on account of its theological philosophy of history.
This is one of many branches of knowledge that the Biblical authors have generated throughout human history.
So Chinese did not have these things. They had civil servants and a government system that was well ahead of the west , they had inventive engineers and their society did not flourish.
The Japanese society did not flourish, Nor the Koreans, nor the civilisations of the Indian did not flourish. Nor any of the South East Asian societies did not flourish then? The Aboriginal people of Australia did not have a society that till the coming of the European was more caring of each other than the so called christians that came?
Because that is exactly what you are saying. Only with a mutilated book of a Jewish sect that man can go forward.
But they did and without the bible that has been so mutilated because when people questioned it they removed sections and anything that the believers questioned and books left out!
BTW. Jehovah had a wife! But she was utterly but not entirely as there are one or two oblique references to her.
What is the use for a Book called Genesis that doesn't talk about the factual origins of existence?
What is it talking about then?
What do you read that is supposedly in there?
Yes, by being so opaque and cryptic it generated an incredible body of knowledge about itself.
It did not help nor preserve any other history than its own, and that of its sheep. The kind of knowledge generated by the Church was useful mostly to the Church itself and its political backers. Like doone says, a drag not a boost.
And like Davy said, what about the history of the Chinese or the Indians?
The late judeo-christian expansion in Asia was not even about acknowledging their ancient civilization, the purpose was to re-write their history.
Custodian of history they are definitely not.
I'm still reading, (late to the discussion), but the first comment seems disingenuous. What limit is there on science? That man can know everything, or never know anything? Either way, I would disagree that the statement makes any sense.
And this biography is relevant for this discussion because … I don’t get it.
Alfred Russel Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, He also came up with same idea independently of Natural Selection. Wallace was a completely different character to Darwin.
When two men can come up with the same idea with two different sets of data and both were not trying to say that the biblical story of genesis was fact but the complete opposite!
The only reason that Darwin got the credit for it was because he published his theory before Wallace otherwise everyone today would be talking of Wallace's theory of evolution.
I will leave it to Neal & Michel to make the decision whether this is relevant or not!!
What biography? If you are talking about my comment, it references the first paragraph of your post, what don't you get?