Physicist Charles Townes and the Convergence of Science and Religion

In a three-part video presentation called “Exploring the Convergence of Science and Religion: Following in the Footsteps of Charlie Townes,” Rev. Dr. Robert Russell (photo right) discusses the thinking of renowned physicist and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Charles Townes (photo left).

Charles Townes was an internationally distinguished physicist and a devoted member of First Congregational Church of Berkeley. He was Professor of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley for almost 50 years. In 1964 Charlie shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the maser/laser, an instrument which has forever altered the global technological landscape. And although he deeply enjoyed physics—physics is fun!—Charlie was a person of deep Christian faith who would often say that he’d rather be known for his faith than for his science. In 2005 Townes won the auspicious Templeton Prize for progress in religion, based on his work in religion and science. He died in 2015 at the age of 99.

Bob Russell is also a First Church member. He is the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) and the Founder and Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS). Bob received a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and an M. Div. and M. A. from the Pacific School of Religion. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he is in 4-way covenant with First Congregational Church.

Townes served on the CTNS Board of Directors for over two decades. CTNS honors Townes’ life of faith and science through its creation of the annual Charles H. Townes Graduate Student Fellowship. It is awarded to GTU doctoral students whose research represents excellence in theology and science.

Part 1: Faith, Science, Intuition and Paradox

array of telescopesView the video of Part 1....

In the first video presentation, Russell focuses on a groundbreaking essay written by Townes called “The Convergence of Science and Religion,” published in MIT’s THINK magazine in 1966. He covers four points made in the article:

• How faith is necessary in doing science;
• That intuition—akin to revelation—is part of scientific research;
• That scientific theories can be disproven but never conclusively proven; and
• That they are intrinsically paradoxical.

Part 2: Cosmology and Creation

diagram of expanding universeView the video of Part 2....

The second presentation focuses on “Cosmology and Creation: what the beginning of time (t=0) and the fine-tuning of the universe (‘Anthropic’ Principle) tell us theologically.” Scientists like Townes have discovered two extraordinary facts about Big Bang cosmology: i) the universe began some 13.7 billion years ago at a “singularity” termed “t=0” for the absolute beginning of time, and ii) the fundamental constants of nature, like the speed of light, have precisely the numerical value that is a prerequisite for the biological evolution of life. Russell lays out three views on the potential relevance of t=0 to faith in God the Creator. He shows why Townes tended towards a moderate view that while faith is based on scripture and religious experience, discoveries like the beginning of the universe play a supportive role in that faith.

Part 3: Free Will and Quantum Physics

NIODA diagramView the video of Part 3....

The focus of the third presentation is “Free will: does quantum physics make it possible and why does it matter theologically?” The problem of free will was one of Townes‘ favorite topics: how can we act freely if nature is causally closed, governed by lock-step, deterministic causes? And can God act in nature without intervening in natural processes and violating the laws of nature? Classical physics portrayed the world as closed and deterministic, raising enormous conceptual challenges to the claim that we have free will and limiting God’s action in nature to interventionism. Russell will suggest that quantum mechanics, the physics of the subatomic realm, points towards a very different picture of nature, one in which nature is open not closed, shot full with chance events and fundamental indeterminacy. Such a world is one in which humans can freely chose their paths in life and make morally responsible decisions that make a difference in the world. And such a world is open to divine action, one which shapes the way nature and history evolve while in no way over-riding, intervening in or violating natural processes.

This series was organized by the chair of the Ministry of Adult Education, Charles Taylor, and filmed and edited by Media Assistant Tucker Bennett.