The physics of God

This week the Templeton Foundation awarded the planet’s largest annual prize ($1m) to French physicist and philosopher of science Bernard d’Espagnat for his “studies into the concept of reality”.

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.

…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.

See the full article in the New Scientist.