Faith Within Reason: Charles H. Townes on Faith in Scientific Thought

So I’m currently reading Science and Theology: The New Consonance which so far has proven to be an amazing read. It’s a collection of essays written by theologians, physicists, Nobel Prize winners, evolutionary theorists, a former president of the “American Association for the Advancement of Science”, and even Pope John Paul II himself. Seriously though if you want a good intellectual read pick this book up. I’ll post a book review as soon as I’m done, but I can already tell you that this one’s a keeper.

The book deals with the relationship between Science and Theology from various points of view and is really a profound collection of works. I bring it up because today’s post was inspired by one of the essays found in the book: “Logic and Uncertainties in Science and Religion” by Charles H. Townes (a physicist). In it his essay Townes contributes a very interesting perspective on the notion of “Faith”, that being that even the most coldly logical human beings rely on faith at some point.

“Science and religion not only share common logic; they also share something else, namely, uncertainty. We must recognize that we do not know things for sure. Knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is less than absolute.”

– Charles H. Townes

The above quote came form the man who helped revolutionize the study of light and laser theories. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture:

Charles-Townes1

I told you he was smart!

All joking aside that’s a ballsy thing for a scientist to say considering you make a living based on the assumption that you can understand the universe around you and figure out how things work. He openly admits though that most of what he does as a scientist has grounds in faith at some point.

“The mathematician Godel proved that uncertainty is inherent even in the nature of our logic…. [He] proved that we can never be sure that the assumption with which we started are even self-consistent, let alone true. The only way we may show that they are self-consistent is to appeal to a new set of assumptions…. but of course these assumptions are subject to the same uncertainty regarding consistency, and so on. Logic and uncertainty come together in a single package and to take them seriously, there must be faith”

Charles H. Townes.

For those of you who don’t know Godel was the father of modern mathematics who also supposedly proved the existence of God using math.

url

This somehow proves that God exists, but for the life of me it just looks like a bunch of numbers and squiggles. There’s a reason I didn’t major in math.

I don’t get it either, but the point made is that if we question everything, then we eventually reach a belief in nothing at all. Eventually no matter how deep down your thought goes it will eventually have to reside in an assumption. Nothing exists or can be possibly known unless an act of faith is taken at some level, even if it is simply to take on your own words that you are real. Trippy right?

For successful science of the type we know, we must have faith that the universe is governed by reliable laws and, further, that these laws can be discovered by human inquiry. The logic of human inquiry is trustworthy only if nature is itself logical…. This is the faith of reason”

– Charles H. Townes

Have you ever wondered why things always work in the same way over and over. Whether it is subatomic particles or the expansion of the universe itself science seems to be fairly reliable. Do you ever stop and wonder why that is? We assume that because gravity, for instance, always works that it always will work. This isn’t really a reason to believe other than we have no reason to think otherwise. We believe the universe is bound to certain laws and that these laws can be studied, comprehended, and understood by the human mind. If you are religious then you probably attribute the existence of these laws to designer or creator. If you are of the atheist opinion then I guess you assume these just exist because they do (I’m not an atheist so I don’t know what they think). It might just be me but I love thinking about this kind of stuff, the more I learn about the universe and the world around me the more I can see God’s handiwork in even the tiniest details.

[The scientist] must have faith that the problem is solvable, and that there is an inherent logic in nature which his or her mind is capable of reading.”

Charles H. Townes

We are all questing for truth. Some of us choose to look deep inside ourselves and other look outward. There are philosophers, scientists, theologians, logicians, mathematicians, day dreamers, poets, and deep thought thinkers but all of them have faith in something. Faith ties us all together and it is only by having faith in something that we are able to move forward.

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2 thoughts on “Faith Within Reason: Charles H. Townes on Faith in Scientific Thought

  1. I can really relate to your post. This is one of the reasons why I decided not to pursue further education in physics. There certainly is much to be learned and discovered about how and why the universe is as peculiar as it is but I believe that the biggest stumbling block mankind has in its way is humanity in general. We are an arrogant species. I feel that the saying goes that “If humans can’t do it, it can’t be done or it is not possible.” I do not consider myself very religious but I do have a profound admiration and respect for nature and the funny quirks that have yet to be explained. Call it a divine being or random chance if you will, but I think that for whatever reason we are all here, it is in our best interest to make the most of our experiences and learn to appreciate, respect, and love life for all the opportunity it has to offer.

  2. Chesterton: “It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) NECESSARY that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—dawn and death and so on—as if THEY were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.”

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