The scientist who leaves room for spirituality

March 17, 2009


(Photos: Bernard d’Espagnat, 13 March 2009/Charles Platiau)

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote that he “had to deny knowledge to make room for faith.” The French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat hasn’t denied knowledge in his long career developing the philosophy that won him this year’s $1.42 million Templeton Prize. He was pursuing knowledge to better understand what we can know about the ultimate reality of the world. But just like his philosophy echoes that of Kant’s with its conviction that there are limits on knowing reality, his work leaves some room — he would say for spirituality — by saying that human intuitions like art, music and spirituality can help us go further when science searching to understand the world reaches the end of its tether.

D’Espagnat’s prize was announced at UNESCO in Paris on Monday. The quantum physics at the core of his work presents baffling insights about reality, but his philosophical conclusions from them sound like common sense. Science is an amazing discipline that opens vast areas of knowledge but cannot go all the way to explaining ultimate reality. There’s a mystery at the core of our existence that we can get a little closer to through the untestable but undeniable intuitions we have. That “little closer” still leaves a large black hole in our knowledge, but it is more than we have if we only rely on empirical science.

As often happens in cases like this, d’Espagnat was available for embargoed interviews several days before the prize was announced. I had the pleasure of meeting him on Friday at the Lutetia, a five-star hotel only a short bike ride from my more modest digs in Paris. Now 87 years old, d’Espagnat can look back on a long and illustrious career as a senior physicist at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, professor at the University of Paris (at its science hub in the suburb of Orsay) and guest lecturer at universities and conferences abroad. His latest book in English, On Physics and Philosophy, came out in the United States in 2006.

At the end, I asked what he would do with his prize money. After paying the taxes on it, he stressed as he started his answer, he would divide it into three equal parts. One would go to promote the study of “negative theology,” a theology that he says fits his spiritualist outlook and conviction that we can only describe God by concepts that say what God is not. The second part would go to associations helping the homeless. And the last third he and his wife would use to make their home more senior-friendly. “My wife is handicapped and she would very much like to remain at home as long as possible,” he said.

You can read our story here or consult the prize website for more information and an extensive collection of links about his work. Some excerpts from my interview with d’Espagnat are on the next page. Taking a page from Paul Krugman’s economics blog, let me put a health warning on it right away — (wonkish).

bde-sitting-1Edited excerpts from the interview with d’Espagnat:

Why is physics important for philosophy?

“The reason why physics is important for philosophy is essentially because there is a philosophical notion that plays a very important role in physics. This is the role of objectivity. The point — which I think is the main one and has not been stressed by many people — is that there are two kinds of objectivity. A statement is objective when it speaks of things that are independent of ourselves. Newton’s statement that between two massive bodies there exists a force that is proportional to the masses and inversely proportional to the distance is a statement that bears on these things but it doesn’t bear on us in any way. We are not involved in it. That is one form of objectivity and I call it strong objectivity. But in science, not all statements are of that form. There are also statements that are perfectly scientific ones and which do involve us, but in such a form that they are valid for any one of us. A statement, for example, of a predictive kind — if one does something, one will observe something. This “one” is therefore you or me or anybody else in America or Europe or China. These statements are considered completely objective and in science there are some statements of that kind. I call them weak objectivity. Of course, when a statement is strongly objective, you can always put it in weakly objective form. Instead of saying that this object is red, you can always say that if you or anybody else looked at that object, you would see it is red. But the converse is not true. Some statements that are weakly objective can be transformed into strongly objective, but not all of them.

“Many physicists still believe, like the later Einstein, that we really can — with much effort — reach a description of reality as it really is, quite independent of ourselves. And they meet difficulties because it’s very difficult to transform standard quantum mechanics, which is weakly objective, into something strongly objective. But still they had some arguments for implicitly defending a strongly objective approach because they said the strange predictions seem to come from quantum mechanics that, if they were taken in strongly objective form, were not testable. They were metaphysical or philosophical, but not testable. A big change came in 1964 when John Bell published his inequalities, because these inequalities are derivable from very commonsense and general notions that we all have. They are of the strong objectivity type. And still they are violated by experiment. That was borne out when the Bell inequalities were tested in 1982 by Alain Aspect and his team. It was found that quantum mechanical predictions are obeyed quantitatively and the Bell inequalities are violated. So that apparently the strange predictions of quantum mechanics turned out to be right and among these predictions there are the notion of entanglement at a distance, which means that in a sense that’s difficult to understand, once two particles have interacted and go far apart, they still remain linked. There is a kind of holism there. This link cannot be used for transmitting orders or information. The particles remain related in some obscure way but you cannot use this link in order to transmit information.

“If you remain in the strongly objective realm, you have a kind of incompatibility between quantum physics and relativity, which is of course very worrying. This is much discussed in some circles in physics and people still have not arrived at a fully definite conclusion. But there is still a major difficulty in reconciling quantum physics and relativity when you try to interpret them in strongly objective terms. But if you give up strong objectivity and keep weak objectivity and if you decide that relativity theory can be expressed only in weakly objective terms, then the difficulty disappears. Since then, what relativity says is essentially that you cannot transmit orders faster than the speed of light, this is quite compatible even with the violation of the Bell inequality. These are interesting limitations as to the way we can represent reality to ourselves.

bde-head-turned“In the time of classical physics, before quantum mechanics, it was quite normal and rational to understand physics as a description of independent reality. So you could at that time entertain the hope that, sometime or other, physics would really describe reality as it is, independently of ourselves. And the discovery I just described shows that this is by now much more problematic. If you try to do that seriously, and not just by making vague statements, you arrive at very strange ideas…”

How much of ultimate reality can we describe?

“Quantum physics is extremely general. It’s considered now by most physicists to be a universal theory. It has already conquered chemistry. Biologists are also beginning to make use of it. So I think that … Kant was not completely wrong when he said you can get only at phenomena, not at what he call the “thing in itself.” The difference between my point of view and Kant’s is that he considered the thing in itself is absolutely and completely unreachable by any means, whereas I think that still there is some faint hope of getting at it — but not essentially by conceptualising things, such as science likes to do, but by intuitions. We have no means to prove that they are correct. But still we believe it. When they hear very good music, people who like classical music have the impression that they get at some reality that way. Why not? In classical physics, the scientist would say there is a rule on how to get to this knowledge and what you believe you find when you hear music is just something inside you. But now they can’t say that. So the idea I told you regains some plausibility. Not anything that’s proved, of course. But plausibility in some way and it’s accepted.

Once you acknowledge the fact that that its impossible to describe this independent reality, then you consider that the science does not have that for an objective. The real objective of science is to describe empirical reality. That was already Kant’s point of view reality as it appears to us, considering the limitations and sensibility intellectually.” The rest is left for the arts, like music? “Yes, and also for spirituality. I put spirituality in the same category. What I derive from that is that we must be careful and not try to conceptualise that ultimate reality. There is a quite natural tendency to conceptualise it but I think we should refrain from it. In English there is a word we don’t really have in French awe, awe and wonder. The attitude of saying oh!”

So you reject the materialist outlook so widespread among scientists?

“Materialists consider that we are explained entirely by combinations of small uninteresting things like atoms or quarks. With this notion of an ultimate reality that is unaccessable, it seems more natural to consider that we owe our existence to something that is higher than us. The notion of ‘high’ is difficult to define, but still this is a I really believe and that’s what makes me a spiritualist. But as far as going into one definate religion … (pauses). I admire the notion of faith very much. I interpret it as follows. When you have a friend, a real friend, you really believe in what he says. This is a virtue to be able to really believe what a good friend has told you, even if you cannot check for yourself. I think faith is a transposition of that. The good friend is now the scriptures or what you read in the scripture of this or that religion. You adhere to it and you trust its sayings. That’s faith. But I separate it from spirituality in the sense that the spirituality I adhere to doesn’t need this notion of faith. Not every body has faith. Myself, I will certainly not swear that Christianity is true or that Buddhism is true and so on.”

Do you have a religious background?

“I have a religious background in the sense I was born a Catholic and still have many sympathies, it’s my family, in a sense. But that doesn’t go further than that. The main point is that 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 conceptualise it too much. It’s more a question of feeling. This I adhere to completely. The rest … ” (trails off).

Do you express your spirituality through any practice?

“I don’t find it necessary for myself but I can very well understand that it should be necessary for others. Perhaps its a lacuna in my own mind. It’s possible that I still have some progress to make.”

What do you think about the debates about science and religion in the United States?

“I share the concern of my scientific colleagues when I see the propagation of ideas such as creationism. I think these views can be rejected simply by scientific fact. I would say they’re typical of what I said should not be done, that is trying to conceptualise, in this case in a very naive way, something that cannot be conceptualised.”

What message do you want this prize to send?

“The message would be that the purpose of life is not to eat and drink, watch television and so on. Consuming is not the aim of life. Earning as much money as one can is not the real purpose of life. There is a superior entity, a divinity, le divin as we say in French that is worth thinking about, as are our feelings of wholeness, respect and love, if we can. A society in which these feelings are widespread would be more reasonable than the society the West presently lives in.”

Where does this idea of wholeness come from?

“What comes from my understanding of physics is that this concept of wholeness is finally the most reasonable one. This wholeness goes together with greatness and such attributes, grandeur, majesté.”

Do you draw any political conclusions from your scientific and philosophical work?

“No, because political affairs are always short term affairs and I am thinking about the long term.”

FULL DISCLOSURE: D’Espagnat is a fascinating thinker whose work is of interest to anyone trying to understand the big issues of life and posting his answers is natural for a blog like this. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I participated in the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge in 2006 and won the Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year Award in 2007.

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At points in the history of the western world, science has been viewed as an opposition to the religious establishment, and people with new ideas censored. An example being Galileo, who was put under house arrest for reasserting previous claims that the earth went around the sun.

Another German scientist, Nietzsche also commented upon similar affects upon thought and the scientific community in “Beyond good and Evil”.

Science is observation, and being able to make accurate predictions based upon what is learned. A healthy curiosity and desire to learn exists no matter what a person believes, but in that frame of reference beliefs would evolve and change with time as more is learned.

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