Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cosmic God and Templeton Prize 2009

Bernard d'Espagnat
There was no report of the Templeton Prize recipient in today's (3/17) newspapers in Japan. It may appear tomorrow... At any rate, I was drawn to the news about the award since the recipient, Bernard d'Espagnat, happens to be a top-class scientist, a Catholic by upbringing ("he was brought up a Roman Catholic but did not practice any religion and considered himself a spiritualist," according to Reuters), and a bold thinker who reflects on the limits of science.

My interest in the award was also provoked by a Science and Religion Symposium that I watched on the Internet. This International Symposium was attended by leading atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, & Sam Harris, and a few pro-religion members including a representative from the Templeton Foundation. Several atheistic scientists criticized the Templeton Foundation and accused it of bias. There was even a proposal from one of the atheists that the award must be given to Richard Dawkins for his 'great' contributions questioning the very need for religion. The Templeton representative gave a soothing reply denying bias; however, he was in a rush and departed soon after his short talk, leaving the crowd to boo him behind his back and to continue complaining about the Templeton Foundation. Overall it looked like the atheist crowd didn't see any point in trying to link religion/spirituality and science. They were all out to have religion mercilessly 'executed' or at least put away among nonsensical superstitions.

In this context, it's interesting to see that the award this year (2009) was given to a practicing scientist and philosopher of science, especially since last year (2008) the Templeton Prize was awarded to a Catholic priest cosmologist, Prof. Michael Heller of Cracow, Poland.

D'Espagnat, 87, is French and professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Paris-Sud university. He studied or collaborated with some of the greatest scientists of the last century, including Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, and John Bell. His special research interests are quantum physics and its implications to philosophy. He wins one million UK pounds in prize money.

What does he say relating science and religion? Reuters gives the following summary:
Classical physics developed by Isaac Newton believes it can describe the world through laws of nature that it knows or will discover. But quantum physics shows that tiny particles defy this logic and can act in indeterminate ways.

D'Espagnat says this points toward a reality beyond the reach of empirical science. The human intuitions in art, music and spirituality can bring us closer to this ultimate reality, but it is so mysterious we cannot know or even imagine it.

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

In a sense, what d'Espagnat says seems identical to what ancient religious philosophers like Sankara of India [8th century]or Thomas Aquinas of Italy [13th century] have said. That God defies science, human knowledge, and human grasp is an essential theme of most religious thinkers. That's what led Sankara to posit Nirguna Brahman [the Brahman/God-without-attributes, i.e., God of whom we humans can say little or only in the negative] and Saguna Brahman [the Brahman/God-of-attributes, i.e., God as we humans try to understand and formulate, using inadequate language]. The "mystery" is simply the inability of a finite being trying to grasp the infinite being, or analogically of a cup trying to hold all the water of the sea, or of a well-frog trying to grasp the wonders of the world outside the well.

The following, also from Reuters, elaborates on d'Espagnat's thinking:
Some baffling discoveries of quantum physics led him to believe all creation has a wholeness and interrelatedness that many scientists miss by trying to break problems down into their component parts rather than understand them in larger contexts.

One of these is entanglement, the way that paired subatomic particles remain linked even if they move far apart, so that experimenting with one automatically effects the other without any apparent communication between them.

This view clashes with the materialist outlook widespread among scientists.

"Materialists consider that we are explained entirely by combinations of small uninteresting things like atoms or quarks," said d'Espagnat, whose latest book in English -- "On Physics and Philosophy" -- was published in 2006.

"I believe we ultimately come from a superior entity to which awe and respect is due and which we shouldn't try to approach by trying to conceptualize too much," he said. "It's more a question of feeling."

Although they cannot be tested, the intuitions people have when they are moved by great art or by spiritual beliefs help them grasp a bit more of ultimate reality, d'Espagnat said.

"When they hear very good music, people who like classical music have the impression they get at some reality that way. Why not?" he asked.

It looks to me that d'Espagnat's observations are very traditional and compatible with the views of religious thinkers. What's significant is perhaps that he, as a scientist, espouses and buttresses them with science-speak, encouraging the average believer who may be overawed by scientists who pooh-pooh religion, God, and faith.

Amanda Gefter, writing in the New Scientist, quotes the following lines of d'Espagnat as representative of the science-religion bond that he espoused and that drew the attention of Templeton Foundation:
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.

Gefter points out that d'Espagnat calls the "veiled reality" a Being or Independent Reality or even "a great, hypercosmic God".

Although Gefter believes "that drawing any spiritual conclusions from quantum mechanics is an unfounded leap in logic," she seems satisfied that the Templeton Foundation is not biased since d'Espagnat's views don't add much weight to any institutional religions.

It seems that d'Espagnat's views, like most philsophical views, are subject to numerous qualifications, modifications, refinements, and interpretations. It may be an error to take him as an advocate of institutional religions. However, religions are ultimately pointers to God--not an end in themselves--and in this broad view believers of all religions may find something inspirational in d'Espagnat... as they will also in Sankara and Thomas.

Here are the references for further reading

*Gefter, Amanda. "Concept of 'hypercosmic God' wins Templeton Prize."

*Times Online

*Reuters Report

*The Templeton Foundation

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