2009 Templeton Award goes to physicist/philosopher for proving . . . um, what?

March 17, 2009

The John Templeton Foundation   announced today the winner of the 2009 Templeton Prize, a £1 million ($1.4 million) award founded by the late US multi-millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir John Templeton to honor scientists who make "   an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. "  (For those not in the know, the amount of the award is adjusted each year to exceed the Nobel Prize.)  This year’s award goes to physicist/philosopher Bernard d’Espagnat, whose work on the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics proved . . . well, proved what?

Dr. d’Espagnat’s main work on the foundation of quantum theory occurred from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s when he carried out experiments testing the famed "Bell’s inequalities" theorem.  The best known of these experiments, carried out by Alain Aspect and others in the early 1980s, demonstrated that quantum particles behave in ways that seemed impossible under our pre-quantum understanding of the world.  By way of background, quantum theory famously predicts that you cannot simultaneously measure two "noncommuting" physical characteristics of a particle with unlimited accuracy.  The most famous examples of noncommuting observables , à la Heisenberg, are a particle’s position and momentum.  If the uncertainty in a measurement of the particle’s position is tiny, the uncertainty in the particle’s momentum must be large; the product of the two uncertainties cannot be smaller than a certain constant.

This feature of quantum theory yields some strange results.  When two quantum particles (e.g., electrons) interact, measurements of one particle’s properties (e.g., the electron’s spin parameter) become correlated with measurements of the second particle’s properties. But the correlation acts in a way that prevents us from accurately measuring both noncommuting properties of a given particle simultaneously; the measurement of one particle "poisons" the other, in an apparent conspiracy to keep us ignorant of the particle’s noncommuting properties.  Oddly, quantum mechanics predicts that the conspiratorial correlation will hold even when the previously-interacting particles are subsequently separated by vast distances. 

Einstein and other critics thought this quantum weirdness was absurd.  Einstein thought that in reality, each particle has definite physical properties that we should be able to know, in principle, with unlimited accuracy.  He posited the existence of "hidden" physical phenomena, unaccounted for by quantum theory, that would allow one particle to send instructions to the other about how to "poison" its measurement.  He then argued that because nothing can travel faster than light—according to his special theory of relativity, the fastest speed there is—then separating the two particles by a sufficiently large distance would prevent one particle from signaling to the other in time to "poison" its measurement.  Einstein thought that quantum theory would be proved wrong, because it wrongly predicts that particle measurements will "poison" one another when the particles are vastly separated.

Experiments by Aspect, d’Espagnat and others proved that Einstein, not quantum theory, was wrong.  Quantum theory’s prediction is right: measurements of "entangled" particles are poisoned, even when the particles are separated by large distances.  Allow the particles to travel to opposite ends of the galaxy; still, measurements of one particle’s attributes will poison measurements of the other particle, such that we cannot know both of the second particle’s noncommuting properties simultaneously.  Many physicists saw these experiments as proof that we cannot explain weird quantum behavior by assuming the existence of unknown, "hidden" physical properties, unless we are willing to stomach faster-than-light signaling (which itself gives rise to insuperable difficulties with our understanding of causality).  (For good further discussion of Bell’s inequalities and the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, click   here and   here .)

All well and good.  But d’Espagnat goes well beyond this already immodest (if experimentally supported) conclusion.  He is enthralled by the thought that quantum weirdness prevents us from knowing ultimate reality in itself.   In his words , this shows that "[t]here 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."  This is the kind of attitude that gets the Templeton Foundation very excited.

Not everyone agrees with d’Espagnat’s conclusions about quantum theory’s philosophical import.   There are multiple interpretations of the meaning of quantum theory, some of which do not entail the existence of a "veiled reality" beyond our grasp .  But even if we take d’Espagnat’s interpretation as given, this would not constitute evidence for the existence of a spirit realm that contains a God (much less the benevolent, personal God of d’Espagnat’s faith). Nor would it constitute evidence that spiritualist musings yield knowledge about that realm.  At best, d’Espagnat’s work shows that we are ignorant about aspects of ultimate reality.  We cannot derive knowledge from our ignorance. Even if we cannot rule a spiritual reality out, quantum weirdness certainly doesn’t allow us to rule it in. A hidden realm might contain the God that d’Espagnat yearns for.  Then again, it might contain the lost island of Atlantis, or ham sandwiches, or (   to borrow from Douglas Adams ) all the missing ballpoint pens we have bought over the years.

This is not the first time that spiritualists have sought refuge at the fringes of scientific knowledge.  In the 19th century, mathematical speculations about the possibility of extra spatial dimensions led some to argue that heaven and hell reside at opposite ends of a fourth spatial dimension.  In our own day, some physicists have speculated that black holes provide doors to parallel universes.  Perhaps they, too deserve Templeton prizes, because - who knows? - angels might be in there.

Dr. d’Espagnat deserves to be recognized for his significant contributions to our understanding of quantum theory.  Too few physicists ponder deeply and at length about quantum mechanics’ meaning.  Too many treat it instead as a mere computational tool, with the hope that troublesome questions will not bother us if we choose not to think about them.  Surely we ought to encourage physicists like d’Espagnat to examine the foundations of quantum theory.  But we ought not to skew research by awarding large sums of money for pseudo-demonstrations of religious doctrines.  Too often, the result is to reward mere wishful thinking.



#1 Dan Riley (Guest) on Wednesday March 18, 2009 at 7:06am

Great article, Derek.  I, too, hope to find hidden ham sandwiches and all those missing ballpoint pens one day.

#2 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday March 18, 2009 at 4:18pm

“Nor would it constitute evidence that spiritualist musings yield knowledge about that realm.”

That’s the leap that always gets made, and it drives me nuts. Ooooooooh, spoooooooky, there’s a mystery; therefore, God exists. Eh? How do they get from ‘We Don’t Know’ to ‘Therefore we know that the mystery=God.’ Other than by jumping. Quantum jumping, at that. (Google it…)

#3 Humans2Singularity (Guest) on Thursday March 19, 2009 at 5:40am

Mr Derek,
The bottom line of Espagnat’s point was that Science has boundaries. Those limits are in continuous evolution depending on new discoveries or theories but there’s always something new to understand. So, there’s always something that Science cannot explain and remain in the field of intuition or the unknown.
I think you will agree with me that Science just explains at the moment a very small number of phenomena compared to the enormous complexity of nature and human mind itself.
So I think Scientist have to learn to be honest and modest people and keep an open mind to human nature that is larger than their field of work.
People that understand Spirituality as a human field that starts where Science ends is a very respectable people as there’s room to debate and discussion on it (if not CFI would not even exist).
I don’t think your sentence “This is not the first time that spiritualists have sought refuge at the fringes of scientific knowledge” shows an open minded approach. This shows not the limits of Science but maybe your own limits.
We can call it intuition, we can call it Spirit, it’s not a matter of words (Chomsky and other linguists put more light on this) but the structure of these ideas it selves is in our human brain. Of course you’re free to avoid listening to it but you’re then renouncing to one dimension of human nature that has been the inspiration for some many beautiful human Art operas. Let’s respect it.
I modestly advice you not to renounce to this dimension it as it could be the first step to a fundamentalist approach to Science, and this would not be good for people like you and me that defend it’s big potential.


#4 Ophelia Benson on Thursday March 19, 2009 at 8:08am

Hang on -

“People that understand Spirituality as a human field that starts where Science ends is a very respectable people…We can call it intuition, we can call it Spirit, it’s not a matter of words (Chomsky and other linguists put more light on this) but the structure of these ideas it selves is in our human brain.”

But that’s an empirical claim, not a claim coming from a realm “where Science ends” - so what exactly is this field that starts where Science ends? What is this claimed knowledge that is radically different and separate from science yet that it is nevertheless possible to make truth claims about?

That’s trying to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work. Either a field is open to inquiry, in which case it’s not a field where science ends, or it isn’t, in which case no one knows anything about it and all is guesswork. It doesn’t work to say ‘Here is this field which science can’t investigate but I can make all sorts of truth claims about it, which are intuitive and untestable but nevertheless true.’

#5 Humans2Singularity (Guest) on Friday March 20, 2009 at 1:20am

Hi Ophelia,
I understand your points but we have different approaches here.  Of course mine is “empirical”, because, as I said, I’m also a defender of science but we have to take into account that people with different opinions have to be listened to and respected as we expect to be respected.

If we put it in terms of knowledge, there cannot be another field that claims knowledge, and I agree if we think in Science as the owner of all the knowledge possible. But it’s not. For example, my father and grandfather transmitted me a lot of knowledge in terms of moral values, judgment, emotions management, etc. that were based on their experience of life. And those values were not coming out from a scientific experiments but from life itself, and you cannot judge them in terms of true or false, you just listen to them and use them to create new judgment and values for yourself. You cannot put them in formulas, you cannot give to them an empirical property but they are there and they are a big part of our knowledge.
Science does not give me an answer to many questions that are part of my culture (and I would also say knowledge): what kind of job should I, as Raul, take? To what University should I go to? Where will I go on vacation next?... and putting it in a more metaphysical way…  why is world knowledgeable? What will actually die when I’ll die?
Of course, we have to even take care of the questions we make ourselves and it could be a non-sense question, but let’s keep my dissertation simple.

Yes, all is guesswork, I agree, and what is the problem?, even when we do “science” we do a lot of guesswork. Guesswork is as human as laughing or crying… we have to guess new things and try them before we come with a new explanation of a phenomena. That guesswork exists and is a fact, and I think we have to give the importance it has. Many actions in our lives are based on guesswork. One can save his or others live, even a civilitation (let’s look a history events) in many situations (in war, politics, etc.) based on what he guesses. I think that guesswork is very important and has to be respected.
Of course, humans are not always good people, and we have to be careful and look at the intentions of the others when they are guessing as demagogy, manipulation, etc… are dangerous tools. Well… again let’s stop here or I would start writing about sophistry and things would become too complex for my purpose ... I guess
I hope my points are more clear now.

Do you know what I’m going to do after writing this article? Guess it as I won’t tell it to you

#6 Ophelia Benson on Saturday March 21, 2009 at 12:25pm

“One can save his or others live, even a civilitation (let’s look a history events) in many situations (in war, politics, etc.) based on what he guesses.”

The odds are very much against it though if it’s purely guesswork and nothing else. People often confuse educated guessing with guessing pure and simple, and I think that may be what you’re doing. Of course there is always some guessing but guessing is pretty useless unless it is joined to testing, further investigation, etc. And in areas where we simply have no idea, it’s best to say we simply have no idea.

#7 Humans2Singularity (Guest) on Sunday March 22, 2009 at 3:16pm

Hi Ophelia,
Why do you guess my guessing is pure and simple and not an educated one? Are you trying to insult me? Do you think this just because my ideas are different from yours or maybe you (I guess you dconsider yourself an educated guesser) has some good areguments on this, based on the few lines I have written?

Let’s be more serious Ophelia, if you want arguments form me to demonstrate what I have written, no problem I can give them to you.

#8 Ophelia Benson on Sunday March 22, 2009 at 5:40pm

No Humans2etc, I’m not trying to insult you, as I think should be pretty obvious. The reason I said I *think* that *may be* (please note the careful qualifications) what you’re doing is because that’s what I get from your comments: that seems to be what you mean, as far as I can understand you. Since your point is what ‘science’ can’t help you guess, which seems to cover all sorts of things that I would think science could indeed help you guess (what kind of job to get, what university to go to, what happens when we die, etc), I conclude that you think guessing must mean uninformed, wild, random guessing. Otherwise I simply don’t see why science is excluded.

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