UC Berkeley News


What is it we are missing?
Excerpts from a statement by Professor Charles Townes at a Templeton Prize news conference in New York on March 9.

Science and religion have had a long history of interesting interaction. . . .

My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other. They certainly can appear quite different but basically, I believe, they are closely related. Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives. If the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science. In addition, to best understand either science or religion, we must use all of our human resources - logic, evidence (observations or experiment), carefully chosen assumptions, intuition, and faith. A former scientist-philosopher, when asked to define the "scientific method," said, "It's to work like the devil to get the answer, with no holds barred." I believe the same is true for our understanding of spirituality.

Many people don't realize that science basically involves assumptions and faith. But nothing is absolutely proved. For example, the mathematician Gödel showed logically that to prove something, there must be an overall set of assumptions, but that we can never prove that the assumptions are even self-consistent. We must make the best assumptions we can envisage, and have faith. And wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith, and logic.

There are many mysteries in science. We seem to know only about five percent of the matter in our universe - this is such a small fraction, and what is the remainder? We are convinced the other matter is there, but it's not stars, light, or gas. What is it? It's clearly there according to cosmological behavior, but we don't know what in the world it is.

We assume the laws of physics are constant, and have faith in that, but could they suddenly change? And if not, why not?

Quantum mechanics and general relativity are wonderful, and tell us a lot. But it appears they are not consistent with each other. What is it we are missing?

Science is so successful we are enthralled and believe it, but there are profound mysteries. Another mystery facing us in human life is free will. According to present science, we individuals really can have no freedom of choice, yet we think we do. And there is the question as to what really is consciousness, or a conscious being. Intuitively we think we can make some free choices, and know what consciousness is, but our present science and logic simply do not fit our ideas very well. Are there completely new phenomena and laws of science to be discovered, or can we never understand fully?

Recently, scientists have become more and more aware of the special nature of our universe, a special nature which allows us to exist, and we are wondering more and more about why. If relations between electromagnetic and nuclear forces were not very close to what they actually are, then the wealth of chemical elements, including carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen which humans depend on so much could not exist. If the gravitational and nuclear forces were not very close to what they are, the generation of heat by stars and our long-lasting and steady solar source of energy could not be.

Why did the laws of physics turn out to be so special that we can be here? We can assume it was just accidental, but that seems extremely unlikely. Another possibility is that there are an almost infinite number of universes, each with different laws, and ours turned out to be just the right one. But we can't test this assumption, and even if there are a multitude of universes, we do not know why the laws of physics would vary in such a way from one universe to another.

Increasingly, science is showing how special our universe and we are, which has raised questions about whether it was indeed planned or influenced - one of many examples where science and religion naturally interact. The British physicist Fred Hoyle, who was skeptical that there was any creation of the universe, nevertheless wrote, after he discovered how remarkable nuclear properties produced important chemical elements, "Would you not say to yourself, 'some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom?' Of course you would. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that some super intellect has monkeyed with physics - and there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature."

We must continuously pay deep attention to such basic questions - the meaning of our universe, of life, and how to fulfill it. And we need to be open-minded. I believe our present views have an important reality. But they may be modified, just as classical or Newtonian physics was radically modified in principle by the advent of quantum mechanics. And yet, classical physics is still remarkably close to many realities, and we rely on it in many ways. As we progress, I'm hopeful that new understandings will deepen our perceptions. And they may well change our views, but I believe present understandings will still be important.