|From the March-April 1966 issue of THINK, published by IBM ...
Sunday morning two years ago, a staff member of THINK flicked on the
radio and, by chance, tuned in on a provocative discussion. Dr. Charles
H. Townes, the distinguished scientist, was talking with a Bible class.
The subject was the relationship of science to religion, and Dr. Townes
was urging that scientific and religious thought, far from conflicting,
are today finding more and more in common and are destined ultimately
so intrigued by Dr. Townes' ideas that we asked him if he would develop
them in an article for THINK. He said he would consider it, but the
path from that Sunday discussion to an article proved more tortuous
than either Dr. Townes or THINK anticipated.
Townes rewrote his talk and was still dissatisfied with it when word
came from Stockholm, that he had been awarded a Nobel Prize in physics
for his work in developing the maser.
trip to Stockholm and subsequent demands delayed his return to the
manuscript. Then he felt, as did we, that publication so soon after the
international recognition might be misunderstood.
not until last winter that Dr. Townes again returned to his manuscript
on science and religion. In rewriting it, he brought a force and
clarity to his ideas which, we feel, fully justified the slow
The ever-increasing success of science has posed many challenges and
conflicts for religion-conflicts which are resolved in individual lives
in a variety of ways. Some accept both religion and science as dealing
with quite different matters by different methods, and thus separate
them so widely in their thinking that no direct confrontation is
possible. Some repair rather completely to the camp of science or of
religion and regard the other as ultimately of little importance, if
not downright harmful.
To me science and religion are both universal, and basically very
similar. In fact, to make the argument clear, I should like to adopt
the rather extreme point of view that their differences are largely
superficial, and that the two become almost indistinguishable if we
look at the real nature of each. It is perhaps science whose real
nature is the less obvious, because of its blinding superficial
successes. To explain this, and to give perspective to the
non-scientists, we must consider a bit of the history and development
The march of science during the 19th century produced enormous
confidence in its success and generality. One field after another fell
before the objective inquiry, experimental approach and the logic of
science. Scientific laws appeared to take on an absolute quality, and
it was very easy to be convinced that science in time would explain
This was the time when Laplace could believe that if he knew the
position and velocity of every particle in the universe, and could
calculate sufficiently well, he would then know the entire future.
Laplace was simply expressing the evident experience of the time, that
the success and precision of scientific laws had changed determinism
from a speculative argument to one which seemed inescapable.
This was the time when the devout Pasteur, asked how he as a scientist
could be religious, simply replied that his laboratory was one realm,
and that his home and religion were a completely different one.
There are today many vestiges of this 19th-century scientific
absolutism in our thinking and attitudes. It has given Communism, based
on Marx's 19th century background, some of its sense of the inexorable
course of history and of "scientific" planning of society.
Towards the end of the 19th century, many physical scientists viewed
their work as almost complete and needing only some extension and more
detailed refinement. But soon after, deep problems began to appear. The
world seems relatively unaware of how deep these problems really were,
and of the extent to which some of the most fundamental scientific
ideas have been overturned by them. Perhaps this unawareness is because
science has been vigorous in changing itself and continuing to press,
and has also diverted attention by ever more successes in solving the
practical problems of life.
Many of the philosophical and conventional bases of sciences have in
fact been disturbed and revolutionized. The poignancy of these changes
can be grasped only through sampling them, For example, the question
whether light consists of small particles shot out by light sources or
wave disturbances originated by them had been debated for some time by
the great figures of science. The question was finally settled in the
early 19th century by brilliant experimentation which could be
thoroughly interpreted by theory. The experiments told scientists of
the time that light was unequivocally a wave and not particles. But
about 1900, other experiments turned up which showed just as
unequivocally that light is a stream of particles rather than waves.
Thus physicists were presented with a deeply disturbing paradox. Its
solution took several decades, and was only accomplished in the
mid-1920s by the development of a new set of ideas known, as quantum
The trouble was that scientists were thinking in terms of their common
everyday experience and that experience encompassed the behavior of
large objects, but not yet many atomic phenomena. Examination of light
or atoms in detail brings us into a new realm of very small quantities
with which we have had no previous experience, and where our intuitions
could well be untrustworthy. And now in retrospect, it is not at all
surprising that the study of matter on the atomic scale has taught us
new things, and that some are inconsistent with ideas which previously
had seemed so clear.
Physicists today believe that light is neither precisely a wave nor a
particle but both, and we were mistaken in even asking the question,
"Is light a particle or is it a wave?" It can display both properties,
so can all matter, including baseballs and locomotives. We don't
ordinarily observe this duality in large objects because they do not
show wave properties prominently. But in principle we believe they are
We have come to believe other strange phenomena as well. Suppose an
electron is put in a long box where it may travel back and forth.
Physical theory now tells us that, under certain conditions, the
electron will be sometimes found towards one end of the box and
sometimes towards the other, but never in the middle. This statement
clashes absurdly with ideas of an electron moving back and forth, and
yet most physicists today are quite convinced of its validity, and can
demonstrate its essential truth in the laboratory.
The Uncertainty Principle
Another strange aspect of the new quantum mechanics is called the
uncertainty principle. This principle shows that if we try to say
exactly where a particle (or object) is, we cannot say exactly how fast
it is going and in what direction, all at the same time; or, if we
determine its velocity, we can never say exactly what its position is.
And so, according to this theory, Laplace was wrong from the beginning.
If he were alive today, he would probably understand along with other
contemporary physicists that it is fundamentally impossible to obtain
the information necessary for his precise predictions, even if he were
dealing with only one single particle, rather than the entire universe.
The modern laws of science seem then, to have turned our thinking away
from complete determinism and towards a world where chance plays a
major role. It is chance on an atomic scale, but there are situations
and times when the random change in position of one atom or one
electron can materially affect the large-scale affairs of life and, in
fact, our entire society. A striking example involves Queen Victoria
who, through one such event on an atomic scale, became a mutant and
passed on to certain male descendants in Europe's royal families the
trait of hemophilia. Thus one unpredictable event on an atomic scale
had its effect on both the Spanish royal family and, through an
afflicted czarevitch, on the stability of the Russian throne.
Einstein and Chance
This new view of a world which is not predictable from physical laws
was not at all easy for physicists of the older tradition to accept.
Even Einstein, one of the architects of quantum mechanics, never
completely accepted the indeterminism of chance which it, implies. This
is the origin of his intuitive response, "Herr Gott wurfelt nict"--the
Lord God doesn't throw dice! It is interesting to note also that
Russian communism, with its roots in 19th century determinism, for a
long time took a strong doctrinaire position against the new physics of
When scientists pressed on to examine still other realms outside our
common experience, further surprises were found. For objects of much
higher velocities than we ordinarily experience, relativity shows that
very strange things happen. First, objects can never go faster than a
certain speed, regardless of how hard they are pushed. Their absolute
maximum speed is that of light--186,000 miles per second. Further, when
objects are going fast, they become shorter and more massive--they
change shape and also weigh more. Even time moves at a different rate;
if we send a clock off at a high velocity, it runs slower.
The Cat-Kitten Concept
This peculiar behavior of time is the origin of the famous cat-kitten
conceptual experiment. Take a litter of six kittens and divide them
into two groups. Keep three of them on earth, send the other three off
in a rocket at a speed nearly as fast as light, and after one year
bring them back. The earth kittens will obviously have become cats, but
the ones sent into space will have remained kittens. This theory has
not been tested with kittens, but it has been checked experimentally
with the aging of inanimate objects and seems to be quite correct.
Today the vast majority of scientists believe it true.
How wrong, oh how wrong were many ideas which physicists felt were so obvious and well substantiated at the turn of the century!
Scientists have now become a good deal more cautious and modest about
extending scientific ideas into realms where they have not yet been
thoroughly tested. Of course, an important part of the game of science
is in fact the development of laws that can be extended into new
realms. These laws are often remarkably successful in telling us anew
things or in predicting things which we have not yet directly observed.
And yet we must always be aware that such extensions may be wrong, and
wrong in very fundamental ways. In spite of all time changes in our
views, it is reassuring to note that the laws of 19th century science
were not so far wrong in the realm in which they were initially
applied--that of ordinary velocities and of objects larger than the
point of a pin. In this reality they were essentially right, and we
still teach the laws of Newton or of Maxwell, because in their own
important sphere they are valid and useful.
We know today that the most sophisticated present scientific theories,
including modern quantum mechanics, are still incomplete. We use them
because in certain areas they are so amazingly right. Yet they lead us
at times into inconsistencies which we do not understand, and where we
must recognize that we have missed some crucial ideas. We simply admit
and accept the paradoxes and hope that sometime in the future they will
be resolved by a more complete understanding. In fact, by recognizing
these paradoxes clearly and studying them, we can perhaps best
understand the limitations in our thinking and correct them.
With this background on the real state of scientific understanding, we
come now to the similarity and near identity of science and religion.
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,
striving to state them in the simplest and yet most inclusive ways. The
goal of religion may be stated, I believe, 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. It is interesting that the Japanese word for physics is butsuri,
which translated means simply the reasons for things. Thus we readily
and inevitably link closely together the nature and the purpose of our
What are the aspects of religion and science which often make them seem
almost diametrically opposite? Many of them come, I believe, out of
differences in language used for historical reasons, and. many from
quantitative differences which are large enough that unconsciously we
assume they are qualitative ones. Let us consider some of these aspects
where science and religion may superficially look very different
The Role of 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
characteristics 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
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,
Einstein affords a rather explicit example of faith in order, and many
of his contributions come from intuitive devotion to a particularly
appealing type of order. One of his famous remarks is inscribed in
German in Fine Hall at Princeton: "God is very subtle, but he is not
malicious." That is, the world which God has constructed may be very
intricate and difficult for us to understand, but it is not arbitrary
and illogical. Einstein spent the last half of his life looking for a
unity between gravitational and electromagnetic fields. Many physicists
feel that he was on the wrong track, and no ore yet knows whether he
made any substantial progress. But be had faith in a great vision of
unity and order, and he worked intensively at it for thirty years or
more. Einstein had to have the kind of dogged conviction that could
have allowed him to say with Job, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust
For lesser scientists, on lesser projects, there are frequent occasions
when things just don't make sense and making order and understanding
out of one's work seems almost hopeless. But still the scientist has
faith that there is order to be found, and that either he or his
colleagues will someday find it.
The Role of Revelation
Another common idea about the difference between Science and religion
is based on their methods of discovery. Religion's discoveries often
come by great revelations. Scientific knowledge, in the popular mind,
comes by logical deductions, or by the accumulation of data which is
analyzed by established methods in order to draw generalizations called
laws. But such a description of scientific discovery is a travesty on
the real thing. Most of the important scientific discoveries come about
very differently and arc much more closely akin to revelation. The term
itself is generally not used for scientific discovery, since we are in
the habit of reserving revelation for the religious realm. In
scientific circles one speaks of intuition, accidental discovery, or
says simply that "he had a wonderful idea."
If we compare how great scientific ideas arrive, they look remarkably like religious revelation viewed in a non-mystical way.
Think of Moses in the desert, long troubled and wondering about the
problem of saving the children of Israel, when suddenly he had
revelation by the burning bush.
Consider some of the revelations of the New Testament.
'Think of Gautama Buddha who traveled and inquired for years in an
effort to understand what was good, and then one day sat down quietly
under a Bo tree where his great ideas were revealed.
Similarly, the scientist, after hard work and much emotional and
intellectual commitment to a troubling problem, sometimes suddenly see:
the answer. Such ideas much more often come during off-moments than
while confronting data.
A striking and well-known example is the discovery of the benzene ring
by Kekule, who while musing at his fireside was led to the idea by a
vision of snakes taking their tails in their mouths. We cannot yet
describe the human process which leads to the creation of an important
and substantially new scientific insight. But it is clear that the
great scientific discoveries, the real leaps, do not usually come from
the so-called "scientific method," but rather more as did
Keckule's--with perhaps less picturesque imagery, but by revelations
which are just as real.
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.
Proving a Set of Postulates
Mathematical or logical proof involves choice of some set of
postulates, which hopefully are consistent with one another and which
apply to a situation of interest. In the case of natural science, they
are presumed to apply to the world around us. Next, on the basis of
agreed-on laws of logic, which must be assumed, one can derive or
"prove" the consequences of these sets of postulates.
How can we be sure the postulates are satisfactory? The mathematician
Godel has shown that, in the most generally used mathematics, it is
fundamentally impossible to know whether or not the set of postulates
chosen are even self-consistent. Only by constructing and using a new
set of master postulates can we test the consistency of the first set.
But these in turn may be logically inconsistent without the possibility
of our knowing it. Thus we never have a real base from which we can
reason with surety, Godel doubled our surprises by showing that, in
this same mathematical realm, there are always mathematical truths
which fundamentally cannot be proved by the approach of normal logic.
His important proofs came only about three decades ago and have
profoundly affected our view of human logic.
There is another way by which we become convinced that a scientific
idea or postulate is valid. 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 an hypothesis, or can give us useful confidence in
its applicability and correctness, but never proof in any absolute
Can religious beliefs also be viewed as working hypotheses, tested and
validated by experience? To some this may seem a secular and even an
abhorrent view. In any case, it discards absolutism in religion. But I
see no reason why acceptance of religion on this basis should be
objectionable. The validity of religious ideas must be and has been
tested and judged through the ages by societies and by individual
experience, is there airy great need for them to be more absolute than
the law of gravity? The latter is a working hypothesis whose basis and
permanency we do not know. But on our belief in it, as well as on many
other complex scientific hypotheses, we risk our lives daily.
Science usually deals with problems which are so much simpler and
situations which are so much more easily controllable than does
religion that the quantitative difference in directness with which we
can test hypotheses generally hides the logical similarities which are
there. The controlled experiment on religious ideas is perhaps not
possible at all, and we rely for evidence primarily on human history
and personal experience, But certain aspects of natural science, and
the extension of science into social sciences, have also required
similar use of experience and observation in testing hypotheses instead
of only easily reproducible experiments.
Suppose now that we were to accept completely the proposition that
science and religion are essentially similar. Where does this leave us
and where does it lead us? Religion can, I believe, profit from the
experience of science where the hard facts of nature and the
tangibility of evidence have beaten into our thinking some ideas which
mankind has often resisted.
First, we must recognize the tentative nature of knowledge. Our present
understanding of science or of religion is likely, if it agrees with
experience, to continue to have an important degree of validity just as
does Newtonian mechanics, But there may be many deeper things which we
do not yet know and which, when discovered, may modify our thinking in
very basic ways.
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 the key to learning more.
Perhaps there will be in the realm of religion cases of the uncertainty
principle, which we now know is such a characteristic phenomenon of
physics. If it is fundamentally impossible to determine accurately both
the position and velocity of a particle, it should not surprise us if
similar limitations occur in other aspects of our experience. This
opposition in the precise determination of two quantities is also
referred to as complementarily; position and velocity represent
complementary aspects of a particle, only one of which can be measured
precisely at any one time.
Nils Bohr has already suggested that perception of man, or any living
organism as a whole, and of his physical constitution represents this
kind of complementarity. That is, the precise and close examination of
the atomic makeup of man may of necessity blur our view of him as a
living and spiritual being. In any case, there seems to be no
justification for the dogmatic position taken by some that the
remarkable phenomenon of individual human personality can be expressed
completely in terns of the presently known laws of behavior of atoms
and molecules. Justice and love may also represent such
complementarity. A completely loving approach and the simultaneous
meting out of exact justice hardly seem consistent.
These examples could be only somewhat fuzzy analogies of
complementarity as it is known in science, or they may indeed be valid
though still poorly defined occurrences of the uncertainty principle.
But in any case, we should expect such occurrences and be forewarned by
science that there will be fundamental limitations to our knowing
everything at once with precision and consistency.
Converge They Must
Finally, if science and religion are so broadly similar, and not
arbitrarily limited in their domain, they should at some time clearly
converge. I believe this confluence is inevitable. For they both
represent man's efforts to understand his universe and must ultimately
be dealing with the same substance. As we understand more in each
realm, the two must grow together. Perhaps by the time this convergence
occurs, science will have been through a number of revolutions as
striking as those which have occurred in the last century, and taken on
a character not readily recognizable by scientists of today. Perhaps
our religious understanding will also have seen progress and change.
But converge they must, and through this should come new strength for
In the meantime, even today, with only tentative understanding and in
the face of uncertainty and change, how can we live gloriously and act
decisively? It is this problem, I suspect, which has so often tempted
man to insist that he has final and ultimate truth locked in some
particular phraseology or symbolism, even when the phraseology may mean
a hundred different things to a hundred different people. How well we
can commit our lives to ideas which we recognize in principle as only
tentative represents a real test of mind and emotions.
Galileo espoused the cause of Copernicus' theory of the solar system,
and at great personal cost because of the Church's opposition. We know
today that the question on which Galileo took his stand, the
correctness of the idea that the earth rotates around the sun rather
than the sun around the earth, is largely an unnecessary question. The
two descriptions are equivalent, according to general relativity,
although the first is simpler. And yet we honor Galileo for his
pioneering courage and determination in deciding what he really thought
was right and speaking out. This was important to his own integrity and
to the development of the scientific and religious views of the time,
out of which has grown our present better understanding of the problems
The authority of religion seemed more crucial in Galileo's Italy than
it usually does today, and science more fresh and simple. We tend to
think of ourselves as now more sophisticated, and science and religion
as both more complicated so that our position can be less clear-cut.
Yet if we accept the assumption of either one, that truth exists,
surely each of us should undertake the same kind of task as did
Galileo, or long before him, Gautama. For ourselves and for mankind, we
must use our best wisdom and instincts, the evidence of history and
wisdom of the ages, the experience and revelations of our friends,
saints and heroes in order to get as close as possible to truth and
meaning. Furthermore, we must be willing to live and act on our