Reading a recent issue of New Scientist last night, I came across a brief mention of Bernard d'Espagnat winning this year's Templeton Prize for "arguing that quantum physics implies that reality must be partially unknowable, or 'veiled.'"
Sounded intriguing. And right up my interest alley, since I've done a lot of reading and writing about how quantum physics relates to mysticism and spirituality.
Here's a longer New Scientist piece about d'Espagnat's views (he's a physicist and philosopher of science). Excerpt:
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.
Absolutely. I don't see how assuming that reality is partially veiled from us offers any support to religiosity, since what is behind the veil is, obviously, unseen and unknown.
I've argued before, and will undoubtedly do so again, that science is incapable of grappling with the primal question of existence: Why does anything exist at all? And so is religion. Or mysticism. Or any attempt to know the unknowable.
Of course, this might not even be a real question. The "why" above presumes a creator, or reason. Yet existence may be simply a given, not to be reasoned about, never to be fathomed.
This seems to be close to what d'Espagnat is saying. I read the statement he gave on accepting the prize and agree with his basic stance (but not all of the particulars). See what you think.
Download D’Espagnat Statement
I like that he mentioned Plotinus, the subject of a book I wrote, "Return to the One." This long-dead Greek philosopher doesn't come in for much attention these days, though he should -- being one of the few truly non-religious mystics.
For indeed – and this is nothing else than the second consequence I just mentioned – this “ground of things,” this Real, quite obviously is not a thing. Clearly it is not imbedded in space, and presumably not in time either. Let us call it “Being” if you like. Or “the One,” following Plotinus. Since science cannot tell us anything about its nature, clearly it cannot tell us what its nature is not. And, similarly, it cannot rule out the possibility that also other forms of mind activity yield imprecise glimpses on it.
Note the "imprecise" and "glimpses." It's important to keep in mind that d'Espagnat is very much a supporter of science, and doesn't equate a partial intuitional unveiling of the One with the clarity scientific knowledge provides of the Many.
I do not claim for a moment that, just because he/she feels such an emotion, the listener to a Beethoven symphony or the beholder of Vermeer's View of Delft acquires a knowledge comparable in nature to scientific knowledge. Moreover, artistic emotions essentially imply the impression of a mysterious realm which we may merely catch a glimpse of. Manifest is the difference with science, which, within its domain proper, does really dispel mysteries.
A BBC news story listed five ways scientists look upon their field's relationship with religion. (1) The Atheist, (2) The Sceptic, (3) The Platonist, (4) The Believer, (5) The Pantheist.
Aside from The Believer, I've got a bit of each of the others in me. Which goes to show, as one would expect, that there's no single way to look upon the veiled mystery of ultimate reality.
Mystery is mystery. Why not leave it at that?
Some religious believers will seize upon d'Espagnat's views as justification for their dogmatism above divinity. However, they need to pay attention to what he said at the end of his acceptance speech. I find the last sentence to be a leap of faith, but the rest makes good sense.
Sure, it is not for a scientist such as me, who spent his whole life juggling with equations, to speak on spirituality. I stand outside the temple, so to speak. Still let me state once again that I feel myself deeply in accordance with the Templeton Foundation’s great, guiding idea that, even in this domain, science does shed light.
In my view it does so mainly by rendering unbelievable any intellectual construction – of whatever nature – claiming to yield access to the ultimate ground of things with the sole use of the simple, somewhat trivial notions everybody has. In particular, it reminds us that, even though images are needed, the letter kills, so that in this particular field science finally incites us to primarily resort to personal mental deepening.
Ultimately therefore its message there is not so very different from the one we get from the most beautiful and inspiring Romanesque cloisters. Of course I don't forget that in the world at large spirituality takes up many different forms and that some of them are quite definitely to be brushed aside, either because they went astray into fanaticism and apology of violence or just because they indoctrinate and overuse simplistic images of the type that stir up the crowds.
The worse, in that realm, verges the best. But the best exists. I consider I have sound reasons to believe in the ground of things I mentioned, lying beyond our ability at conceptualizing and which from time immemorial thinkers, less naive than was often thought, called “the Divine.” I like conceiving it to be infinitely lovable and am therefore convinced that those among our contemporaries who believe in a spiritual dimension of existence and live up to it are, when all is said, fully right.