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.
Please explain what you mean by this phrase?
theological philosophy of history.
Going on your last sentence that according to you my thinking should be the same way.
I belong to a civilization created by Judeo-Christian mode of thought whether I like it or not.
but believe me it ain't! Why?
Because I read the histories of other peoples and cultures, I read accounts of their personal lives with documentary films I am able to see the landscapes, their cities and their ways of life and what I read, what I see leads me to one conclusion the aims in life of the other people on this planet are no different from the my countrymen's aims in life! They love, they hate, they make friends they make enemies, they marry, the have children and they grieve over the lose of a loved one, a friendship. I see Humanity and I am one of them.
Please explain what you mean by this phrase?
theological philosophy of history.
I still await!
It maybe an idea if you read the book that is at this site http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21112
In truth, those who entertain extravagant notions on the subject of the Gospel’s supposedly “corruption” are guilty of selective reading of texts that had been promoted with misleading and sensationalist titles. Those are also very convenient ignoring of remarks contrary to their point of view. In the end, the path of doubt and denial is not a realistic one. I’ve concluded long time ago. To make peace with the tradition and an omnipresent institution is the only viable alternative and certainly the only psychologically tenable one.
Yet I am puzzle by your recommendation. John William Burgon was an English Anglican priest (1813 – 1888) who became the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1876. Burgon was a vigorous opponent of the English Revised Version of the New Testament (1881) and ceaselessly vilified the Greek text of Westcott and Hort. In part because he believed in the virtual infallibility of the Church, he favored the so-called "traditional" Greek text of the New Testament.
It is interesting to note that Burgon not only pointed out what the Word of God said, but also defended the Word of God against all errors within his own church. He is remembered for his passionate defense of the historicity and Mosaic authorship of Genesis and of Biblical inerrancy in general.
I didn’t read his book yet. But you may be entirely in the wrong as what Burgon really believe about the King James Version and the textus receptus, (Latin: "received text") which is a succession of printed Greek texts of the New Testament. These texts constituted the translation base for the original German Luther Bible, the translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale, the King James Version, and for most other Reformation-era New Testament translations throughout Western and Central Europe.
In truth, those who entertain extravagant notions on the subject of the Gospel’s supposedly “corruption” are guilty of selective reading of texts that had been promoted with misleading and sensationalist titles.
Those who entertain the notion of god are guilty of selective reading, the thought that the written word of a few nutcases wandering the desert means anything is ludicrous.
I'll go for Phillip Pullman, at least his fiction isn't as distasteful as the bible.
Why is it that God has to go through an intermediatary to let the people know what is his desires when we are supposedly all wicked?
A collary question to that is "Why has he, himself not written down the codes of conduct that he wishes man to follow on some indestructible material for all the people to read themselves?"
God has a fucked up plan, simple as that.
What I meant by Theological Philosophy of History
Jewish interpretation of historical events is derived from the central concept of God. Thus a Jewish philosophy of history will always remain a branch of theology. Stated in contemporary terms, the main theological principles which have nourished and shaped the Jewish outlook on history are:
1. The existence of one master mind as the ultimate explanation of the unity and order found in the universe and of the wealth of ideas realized in nature.
2. Human existence as a potential vessel capable of containing a portion of the divine spirit.
3. The unity of mankind based on social justice, good will, and acts of kindness as a hallowed goal of human endeavor.
My history revolves around the central concept of Asimov. So much more intelligent and reasonable than god.
Isaac Asimov was a Jew. He was rooted in the identity of the people of Israel. Neal, you are not certainly aware that the central concept of Asimov (regarding History) sprang from a theological tradition which had its origin in Judaism. Although, for an external observer, Asimov had two mutually exclusive views of history. However, he was just speculating in both directions.
Psychohistory looks very much like a scientific evolution of Marx's Historical Materialism: social and economic forces shape the history, and the action of single persons just can't affect so much its outcome, even if that person is the Emperor of the Galaxy himself.
This historical analysis, presented by Asimov as a strong mathematical theory, was a response to secular Zionism when one of its representatives, N. Rotenstreich, undertook to examine historical events from the point of view of contemporary critical philosophy. As a result he arrived at the conclusion that the future was not a dimension of historical knowledge, which only contained unique happenings of the past.
Asimov attacked this belief, attempting to demonstrate that strong forces could direct the course of human history, and no single action can actually divert them from their path, unless some mutant guy with psychic powers gets involved. On that assumption, Asimov argued – contrary to Rotenstreich – for a causal explanation which implies the working of historical laws and patterns.
Such a statement, for example, as “The children of Israel sinned and the Lord gave them into the hands of their enemies” really implies the existence of an historical law of causal connection and also a prediction. It means that Israel’s sin was the cause of the defeat but it also implies that each time the children of Israel sins, the Lord gives them into the hands of their enemies.
That is why, in The End of Eternity, Asimov presented the exact opposite view: every single action is important; every single moment could become the point of divergence of an alternate history. Killing Hitler, for example, would have avoided WWII, or at least directed it in a very different direction.
Sounds like you are trapped in it as well.
I recalled a scene from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, in which she and Pa discover a muskrat house in autumn. Its walls are very thick. This, Pa says, means the coming winter will be long and vicious.
“Pa, how can the muskrats know?” She asked.
“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said, “but they do. God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”
“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” Laura wanted to know.
“Because,” said Pa, “we are not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”
Laura said faintly, “I thought God takes care of us.”
“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”
“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.
“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t.”