Wednesday, March 4, 2009


A response to Charles H. Townes on the relationship between science and religion.

If you don't know who Charles H. Townes is he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964 for his work in quantum electronics. He is also an outspoken Christian and proponent of the idea that science and religion are more similar than traditionally thought and that they will inevitably converge.

First let me say that the man is in his 90's (born in 1915) and I'm sure that he was much sharper in his early days. Unfortunately now his age does negatively affect his oratory and I hope that my criticism originates from what he said and not a reflection of who said it or how it was said (Basically I'm trying to say that even I don't like going after an old man).

What I understood about Townes's ideas about the convergence of science and religion can be summed up as follows

Science is full of unknowns and unknowables and as a result to make any headway in science one must make great assumptions and accept postulates that we know not to be entirely true, something Townes would consider tantamount to faith. To demonstrate this Townes uses examples such as the inability for scientists to connect the quantum world with the classical world but despite this disconnection physicists continue to work with each of these theories in specific circumstances. Townes goes further by seemingly implying that in science every answer we find comes with additional questions. Based on this principle it seems he believes that science can not provide all the answers and is in need of something to fill in the gaps. He sees this filler as religion and as a result sees the two, science and religion, as inseparable.

As I see it this is WRONG. I accept the idea that scientific discovery often leads to new questions. I accept the idea that science may not be able to provide all the answers. But I wholeheartedly reject the idea that any of this leads to the existence of gods. Superstition is not a suitable substitution for ignorance. This common substitution is reminiscent of the tricks we play on our children. Our children don't know where the gifts under the Xmas tree came from and we suggest that some supernatural being did it and they accept without question at least for a while. We hide candy eggs in the yard and explain to our children that some supernatural being did it. We exchange teeth under our children's pillows for money and explain it by stating that some supernatural being did it. In all of these cases our children (hopefully) eventually discover the falsehood often by producing evidence to the contrary such as catching their parents in the act or finding target price tags on gifts under the tree.

Now what Townes and many of the faithful (not limited to Christ followers) have done is exactly the same. They questioned where everything came from. They questioned what is the answer to the unknowable. What is the filler in our incomplete scientific theory? And they relied on their preachers and their religious writings to answer these question just as the child looked to his parents and were given the same answer, that some supernatural being put did it.

Well science as a whole is no longer a child. Science does not just incorporate anything without reason from questionable sources. It's theories and methods, logic and reason are in adulthood and it is no longer acceptable to substitute "the gods did it" for "I don't know." Because of this science and religion will never merge.

Please do not misunderstand my statements. Scientists can be religious or spiritual. Of course it may be difficult for the scientist to avoid contradiction between what they know as scientist and what they believe spiritually. They also must set aside their spiritual beliefs when doing their duty as a scientist so as not to introduce bias. Both of these issues can be extremely difficult and I believe result in the disproportionate number of unfaithful in the field of science.

In conclusion, science does not support the existence of the supernatural but it also does not refute the existence of the supernatural. Science is inherently agnostic and science must stay separated from religion.

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