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.
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.
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.