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Religion and Science

Religion and Science

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Transcript of an interview by Steve Inskeep of NPR Radio with physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Charles Townes, March 10, 2005

Steve Inskeep: Even as some Americans debate teaching evolution or creationism in schools, one scientist says religion and science do not have to disagree. Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize winner and co-inventor of the laser, and in 1966, he wrote that religion and science should converge. Yesterday, he was awarded $1.5 million, the annual Templeton Prize, for work in the field of religion.

Charles Townes: Let's consider what religion is. Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science? It's an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there's a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works. So those two must be related. In addition, we use all of our human abilities to understand both. Science has faith. We call them postulates and we believe in them but we can't prove them. And sometimes these postulates are wrong. For example, most scientists in the past thought, well, the universe could not have had a beginning. It had to always be here, always be the same; Einstein felt that very strongly. And now scientists discovered, yes, there was a beginning to our universe, of all things.

SI: You also write about the fact that it's presumed that religious knowledge is revealed as opposed to unearthed in an experiment. Scientific knowledge, you think, is sometimes revealed in a similar process.

CT: Yes. I think there are even revelations in science. We don't generally call them that, but as I think of my own recognition of how to amplify light and microwaves, discovery of the maser and the laser, I'd been working on this some time. I sat on a park bench and thought and suddenly I had the idea. A lot of it was a revelation. I say it's a little bit like Moses wondering about how to help his people and so on. Then in front of a burning bush one time, he suddenly said, "This is what ought to be done."

SI: As you've been trying to figure out the way the universe works, do you find yourself sometimes wondering about the nature of G‑d?

CT: Yes, certainly. I have a very personal feeling that, yes, there's a spiritual being there and it interacts with me and that's important for me and so on. On the other hand, exactly what it is, I don't know. I don't picture him as some old man with a long white beard. I can't describe it. I don't think anyone can appropriately.

SI: In this famous essay, Charles Townes, in 1966, you wrote that science and religion should at some time clearly converge. It's been almost 40 years since you wrote that.

CT: Yes.

SI: Seen much sign of convergence?

CT: I think there has been, yes. Within the last few decades in particular, I think more and more science has noted the really very special nature of our universe. The laws of physics have to be certain particular ways in order for us to be here at all. And if it changed just a little bit, then we couldn't be here. Unfortunately, if we start labeling that intelligent design, then that kind of a label is just fundamentalist or something like that, but many scientists recognize, "Well, gee, maybe there's been some systematic thing here that's been affecting us and planned and so on," and it is very suggestive.

SI: If we were just going to give a thumbnail definition of intelligent design, we might say it's the idea that the universe is so complicated that somebody must have designed it, it couldn't have happened by chance.

CT: It's not just that it's complicated, but, in fact, that it comes out in just such a way that we can be here.

SI: It sounds like you're deeply skeptical of the debate over intelligent design as it's been presented in the public. But when it gets right down to the way that things have worked out, you really are filled with a sense of wonder.

CT: There is a sense of wonder, and it's very peculiar that we come out this very special way and what did it. And maybe there was something that kept directing us or planned it or something, and that's very striking. And many scientists are impressed with that now.

SI: Charles H. Townes, congratulations, and thanks very much.

CT: Thank you.

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Anonymous January 14, 2014

Not only science and religion are not opposites, they both are a different aspect of the truth about the Universe. The immensity of the beauty and perfection of the Universe can only even be known as G-d allows us to know it, through our minds and the minds of all the humanity. We neither comprehend completely the Universe, neither the mind of G-d. Reply

daniel ny, america May 1, 2012

If you say that scientists are skeptic about it, why does the big bang theory still exist in science books? Shouldn't they bring down saying that there is a wonder to this world, that every thing was planned out for us in a systematic way so we could survive on this earth? Reply

Anna Teaneck, NJ December 4, 2008

This is a very interesting comment. I must personally say, that if someone who knew nothing of the hebrews were to come across such a page on religion, they could "become jewish" per-say..


I admire this article very much..This whole website is fantastic! Reply

eli federman milwaukee, wi April 13, 2005

Jack: "I don't see any mention in Mr. Townes words about
"neurotransmitters" "

The word neurotransmitter (related to the process of thinking) was a metaphor, I used, for Mr. Towens sudden revelation he received during a stroll in the park. But I can see how the meaning could be misunderstood.

Jack: "or anything about natural explanations for biblical miracles. Why are you assuming words in his mind/mouth?"

Please re-read the quote taken directly from the article where Mr. Townes compares his natural thinking to Mosess supernatural communication with G_d; something described, in the Torah, as a miracle explained through divine inspiration, not mirages or insightful thoughts, as Mr. Townes put it.

Also, thank you for pointing out that Mr. Townes opinions dont necessarily reflect Chabad.org's Reply

Pesach Newmark Bet Shemesh, Israel April 13, 2005

Mr. Jack raises a good point, that our understanding of the interview as quoted here is affected by it being on Chabad.org. Perhaps the editors could give an introduction to articles like these stating the purpose of posting them. That may help aviod misunderstandings as to the meaning of the content and give readers an opportunity to follow-up on the subject in different ways. Reply

Anonymous April 12, 2005

I think the most important statement in this interview is that religion is about explaining the meaning and purpose of reality, while science tries to describe how it works. People need to realize the limitations of science, instead of assuming that if science can't/hasn't proved something, it can't exist. In fact, religion picks up where science leaves off, explaining that which our senses can't grasp. Additionally, since science has very specific methods and goals, there are necessarily areas where science has nothing to say. Reply

Jack NY, NY April 10, 2005

1) I don't see any mention in Mr. Townes' words about
"neurotransmitters" or anything about natural explanations for biblical miracles. Why are you assuming words in his mind/mouth?

2) Mr Townes, obviously, is not an orthodox Jew. Nor do I think that the editors of chabads.org meant to present his "take" on revelation as their own. They simply wanted to bring to our attention views of a leading physicist on G-d and the (non-) conflict of religion and science -- a view, which though shared by many leading scientists, is notoriously unrepresented in the popular press. Reply

eli federman milwaukee, wi April 10, 2005

*Yes. I think there are even revelations in science....I sat on a park bench...and suddenly I had the idea...it was a revelation...like Moses wondering how to help his people.* Dr. Towne’s suggesting that revelations can, on some level, be explained as the firing of *neurotransmitters* in the brain, not as a vicarious form of thought from G-d through Moses, as tradition explains it.

Many things once considered metaphysical and beyond reason are able to be proven through the scientific method (observation, hypothesis, & testing predictions), but can religion ultimately be phenomenologically understood, not only supported, through science?

Is this compatible with notions of miracles that were said to have overridden the natural order, such as Kriyas Yam Suf, the burning Bush, manna for 40years, plagues in Egypt, and others?
Reply

Rabbi Baruch Myers Bratislava, Slovakia April 10, 2005

I would like to add to this something that was said on a BBC World Service science program. The discussion was the concept of multiverse. This is a theory that says that our universe is not the only one that exists. Of course, there is no proof of this, being that if we know something of this other universe, than it is, by definition, part of our universe and not another one. Why the theory? It is all a matter of statistics: the chance that the only universe that exists would develop in such a manner that it can support life like ours is infinitesimal. Conversely, if we asume that there a thousands of universes, possessing varying degrees of life-supporting qualities, then the chance that one of them could be like ours grows. Having said that, there is absolutely no proof of other universes, nor could there be. The clincher is a line at the end of the program, wherein one scientist comments as follows: "If this is the only universe that exists, than it is a great mystery." Reply