Monday, March 16, 2009

Physicist wins £1m Templeton gong

source: highlights comments

Bernard d'Espagnat
d'Espagnat is troubled by the scant attention paid to philosophy of physics
Bernard d'Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher, has won the annual Templeton Prize with a purse of £1m.
The prize honours "an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension" and has been awarded to scientists and theologians.

Professor d'Espagnat, 87, worked with great luminaries of quantum physics but went on to address the philosophical questions that the field poses.

The award will be officially presented by the Duke of Edinburgh on 5 May.

The prize is consistently the largest annual award given to an individual.
A professor emeritus from University of Paris Sud, d'Espagnat told BBC News that he would use one-third of the prize money to fund the kind of research he has pursued, and will donate a further third to charity.
The Templeton Foundation award is largely designed to honour work that finds a common ground between science and religion, with the award going more often to scientists than theologians or philosophers.

Professor d'Espagnat's scientific pedigree put him at the centre of the growth of quantum mechanics, working with Nobel laureates in the field including Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr.

But he was troubled by how little the field was addressing the philosophical questions raised by the theory - which for the first time suggested that experiments were not measuring an absolute reality and that the experimenter could influence the result. 

While Professor d'Espagnat's work is not explicitly religious, he aims to delineate what science cannot definitively rule out.

Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated
Bernard d'Espagnat
His concept of an ultimate reality - as he terms it, "the ground of things" - is only glimpsed, not explicitly described, by science.

Science, he said, "is aimed not at describing 'reality as it really is' but at predicting what will be observed in such-and-such circumstances".

"What science really teaches us is that it's not with ordinary concepts that we shall ever reach 'the ground of things'," he added.

The spiritual, he argues, cannot be ruled out by scientific endeavour. However, for him, the existence of something inexplicable does not create an uncomfortable sense of mystery.

"Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated," he said. "On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being."
From New Scientist:

Concept of 'hypercosmic God' wins Templeton Prize

Today the John Templeton Foundation announced the winner of the annual Templeton Prize of a colossal £1 million ($1.4 million), the largest annual prize in the world.

This year it goes to French physicist and philosopher of science Bernard d'Espagnat for his "studies into the concept of reality". D'Espagnat, 87, is a professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the University of Paris-Sud, and is known for his work on quantum mechanics. The award will be presented to him by the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace on 5 May.

D'Espagnat boasts an impressive scientific pedigree, having worked with Nobel laureates Louis de Broglie, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr. De Broglie was his thesis advisor; he served as a research assistant to Fermi; and he worked at CERN when it was still in Copenhagen under the direction of Bohr. He also served as a visiting professor at the University of Texas, Austin, at the invitation of the legendary physicist John Wheeler.
But what has he done that's worth £1 million?

The thrust of d'Espagnat's work was on experimental tests of Bell's theorem. The theorem states that either quantum mechanics is a complete description of the world or that if there is some reality beneath quantum mechanics, it must be nonlocal – that is, things can influence one another instantaneously regardless of how much space stretches between them, violating Einstein's insistence that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

But what d'Espagnat was really interested in was what all of this meant for discerning the true nature of ultimate reality. Unlike most of his contemporaries, d'Espagnat was one of the brave ones unafraid to tackle the thorny and profound philosophical questions posed by quantum physics.

Third view

Unlike classical physics, d'Espagnat explained, quantum mechanics cannot describe the world as it really is, it can merely make predictions for the outcomes of our observations. If we want to believe, as Einstein did, that there is a reality independent of our observations, then this reality can either be knowable, unknowable or veiled. D'Espagnat subscribes to the third view. Through science, he says, we can glimpse some basic structures of the reality beneath the veil, but much of it remains an infinite, eternal mystery.

Looking back at d'Espagnat's work, I couldn't help but wonder what the Templeton Foundation – an organisation dedicated to reconciling science and religion – saw in it that they thought was worth a £1 million.

Then, scanning the press release, I found it:
"There must exist, beyond mere appearances … a 'veiled reality' that science does not describe but only glimpses uncertainly. In turn, contrary to those who claim that matter is the only reality, the possibility that other means, including spirituality, may also provide a window on ultimate reality cannot be ruled out, even by cogent scientific arguments."

But even if there is a partially unknowable reality beneath reality, I'm not sure how that implies that spirituality is a viable means to access it. I have a suspicion that this still comes down to good old-fashioned faith.

Unconventional 'God'

So what is it, really, that is veiled? At times d'Espagnat calls it a Being or Independent Reality or even "a great, hypercosmic God". It is a holistic, non-material realm that lies outside of space and time, but upon which we impose the categories of space and time and localisation via the mysterious Kantian categories of our minds.

"Independent Reality plays, in a way, the role of God – or 'Substance' – of Spinoza," d'Espagnat writes. Einstein believed in Spinoza's God, which he equated with nature itself, but he always held this "God" to be entirely knowable.

D'Espagnat's veiled God, on the other hand, is partially – but still fundamentally – unknowable. And for precisely this reason, it would be nonsensical to paint it with the figure of a personal God or attribute to it specific concerns or commandments.

The "veiled reality", then, can in no way help Christians or Muslims or Jews or anyone else rationalise their specific beliefs. The Templeton Foundation – despite being headed up by John Templeton Jr, an evangelical Christian – claims to afford no bias to any particular religion, and by awarding their prize to d'Espagnat, I think they've proven that to be true.

I happen to believe that drawing any spiritual conclusions from quantum mechanics is an unfounded leap in logic – but if someone out there in the world is willing to pay someone £1 million for pondering the nature of reality, that's a world I'm happy to live in.

No comments:

Post a Comment