The Convergence of Science and Religion – Prof. Charles Townes

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One Sunday morning, a staff member of IBM’s Think magazine turned on the radio to hear Dr. Charles Townes discussing the relationship of science to religion with a Bible class. Townes was already distinguished for inventing the maser and co-inventing the laser. (Masers are to microwaves what lasers are to visible light). Intrigued, they asked him to put his thoughts down in writing.

Soon after the news came from Stockholm that Townes had been awarded the Nobel Prize. This delayed things, but eventually he published “The Convergence of Science and Religion”. Here are some excerpts.

SCIENCE SEEKS ORDER, RELIGION SEEKS PURPOSE AND MEANING

The goal of science is to discover the order in the universe and to understand through it the things we sense around us, and even man himself. This order we express as scientific principles or laws …

The goal of religion may be stated as an understanding (and hence acceptance) of the purpose and meaning of our universe and how we fit into it. Most religions see a unifying and inclusive origin of meaning, and this supreme purposeful force we call God.

Understanding the order in the universe and understanding the purpose in the universe are not identical, but they are also not very far apart.

FAITH

The essential role of faith in religion is so well known that taking things on faith rather than proving them is usually taken as characteristic of religion, and as distinguishing religion from science. But faith is essential to science too, although we do not so generally recognize the basic need and nature of faith in science.

Faith is necessary for the scientist even to get started, and deep faith 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.

Without this confidence there would be little point in intense effort to try to understand a presumably disorderly or incomprehensible world. Such a world would take us back to the days of superstition, when man thought capricious forces manipulated his universe. In fact, it is just this faith in an orderly universe, understandable to man, which allowed the basic change from an age of superstition to an age of science, and has made possible our scientific progress.

The necessity of faith in science is reminiscent of the description of religious faith attributed to Constantine: “I believe so that I may know.” But such faith is now so deeply rooted in the scientist that most of us never even stop to think that it is there at all.

PROOF

Another popular view of the difference between science and religion is based on the notion that religious ideas depend only on faith and revelation while science succeeds in actually proving its points. In this view, proofs give to scientific ideas a certain kind of absolutism and universalism which religious ideas have only in the claims of their proponents. But the actual nature of scientific proof is rather different from such simple ideas….

In the natural sciences, we “prove” it by making some kind of test of the postulate against experience. We devise experiments to test our working hypotheses, and believe those laws or hypotheses are correct which seem to agree with our experience. Such tests can disprove a hypothesis, or can give us useful confidence in its applicability and correctness, but never proof in any absolute sense.

EXPECT PARADOXES

We must also expect paradoxes, and not be surprised or unduly troubled by them. We know of paradoxes in physics, such as that concerning the nature of light, which have been resolved by deeper understanding. We know of some which are still unresolved. In the realm of religion, we are troubled by the suffering around us and its apparent inconsistency with a God of love. Such paradoxes confronting science do not usually destroy our faith in science. They simply remind us of a limited understanding, and at times provide a key to learning more.

After his Nobel prize, Townes moved to Berkeley and changed careers midlife to astronomy, becoming the first to detect complex molecules in interstellar space and to measure the mass of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. (His office was on the same floor in Berkeley where I did my Ph.D. He would hum in the lift – one of my colleagues called it the “Nobel hum”). He was chairman of the NASA advisory committee for the Apollo moon landing.

He won the 2005 Templeton prize, given to someone who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works,” saying “I believe that science and religion have much in common and should interact strongly. If we look back in history, I think it arguable that the growth of modern science owes much to the Jewish and Christian religions. Monotheism indicated a consistent and reliable universe and the creation an interesting one that should be examined. These were viewpoints out of which Western science could grow.”