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).