2009 Templeton Award Goes for Proving … Um, What?

Derek C. Araujo

The Templeton Foundation recently announced the recipient of the 2009 Templeton Prize, a £1 million ($1.4 million) award founded by the late U.S. multimillionaire, 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 value of the Nobel Prize. (For more on Templeton, see Alexander Saxton, “‘Sir John’ Templeton’s Foundation and the New Trinitarianism,” Free Inquiry, June/July 2007.) 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 physicists carried out experiments testing the famed “Bell’s 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. Most important for d’Espagnat, Aspect’s experiment confirmed that knowledge of some physical properties of quantum objects will be forever beyond our grasp. It is in this dark corner of human understanding that d’Espagnat’s theological speculations flourish.

Understanding d’Espagnat’s contribution to physics requires a digression into the strange world of the quantum. (For a lengthier treatment of these topics, see Paul Quincey’s article “Quantum Weirdness” in Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2008.) By way of background, quantum theory famously predicts that you cannot simultaneously measure two “noncommuting” physical characteristics of a particle with unlimited accuracy. The best known examples of noncommuting observables, á 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. As a result, a physicist who knows a particle’s exact location can know nothing about its momentum.

Although this feature of quantum theory is puzzling in itself, it yields yet stranger results. When two quantum particles (e.g., two electrons) interact, separate measurements of each particle’s properties (e.g., the electrons’ spin parameters along a given axis) can become correlated. Measuring the first particle’s property can allow us to predict the measurement of the same property in the second particle. But the correlation always occurs in a way that prevents us from accurately measuring both noncommuting properties of a given particle simultaneously; the measurement of one particle “poisons” the measurement of the other particle’s noncommuting property in an apparent conspiracy to keep us ignorant of the particle’s noncommuting characteristics. 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 scoffed at the apparent absurdity of this quantum weirdness. 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 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” each other instantaneously when the particles are vastly separated. But some bold physicists, d’Espagnat among them, predicted that quantum theory would pass Einstein’s test.

Experiments by Aspect and others proved that Einstein, not quantum theory, was wrong. D’Espagnat’s prediction was 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 will poison measurements of the other particle, such that we cannot know both of the second particle’s noncommuting properties simultaneously. Many physicists see these experiments as proof that we cannot explain weird quantum behavior as Einstein wished to do—by assuming the existence of unknown, “hidden” physical properties—unless we are willing to stomach faster-than-light signaling. (Notably, faster-than-light signaling gives rise to insuperable difficulties with our understanding of causality.)

All well and good. Aspect’s experiments strongly suggest that the universe works counterintuitively and that there are some physical properties we simply cannot know. But d’Espagnat goes well beyond this already immodest, if experimentally grounded, conclusion. He is enthralled by the notion that our ignorance about ultimate reality opens the possibility of a spirit realm.

In d’Espagnat’s words, quantum weirdness 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 talk that gets the Templeton Foundation very excited.

Is the Templeton Foundation’s enthusiasm justified? 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. Moreover, even if we accept d’Espagnat’s interpretation, 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 only that we are ignorant about aspects of ultimate reality.

D’Espagnat’s line of reasoning suffers a conspicuous breakdown upon his leap, at once gleeful and audacious, from ignorance about the physical world to claims of knowledge about a spirit world. We cannot derive knowledge from our ignorance. Even though we cannot rule out a spiritual reality, quantum weirdness certainly doesn’t rule it in. The hidden realm d’Espagnat’s work hints at might contain the God he 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 and mysteriously lost over the years.

In short, the mere possibility of a spiritual realm cannot justify our belief in one. But a bald statement of mere possibility, it seems, is sufficient to pass for an “exceptional contribution” to religious understanding.

This is not the first time that spiritualists have sought refuge at the fringes of scientific knowledge. In the nineteenth 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 the last century, quasi-informed religionists seized upon Gödel’s incompleteness theorem as supposed proof of a divine spark in the human mind. 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.

D’Espagnat deserves to be recognized for his significant contributions to our understanding of quantum theory. Few physicists ponder deeply and at length about the meaning of quantum mechanics. Too many treat it unthinkingly as a computational tool, with the hope that troublesome questions will cease bothering us if we choose to ignore 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.

Further Reading

  • Aspect, Alain, and Dalibard, Jean and Roger, Gérard. “Experimental Test of Bell’s Inequalities Using Time-Varying Analyzers.” Physical Review Letters 49: 1804 (1982).
  • Bell, John S. “On the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky Paradox.” Physics 1:195 (1964).
  • d’Espagnat, Bernard. On Physics and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Einstein, Albert, Podolsky, Boris, and Rosen, Nathan. “Can Quantum-mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?” Physical Review 47: 777 (1935).
  • Esfeld, Michael. “Review of Bernard d’Espagnat, On Physics and Philosophy.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 38B:989 (2007).
  • Herbert, Nick. Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics. Norwell, Mass.: Anchor Press, 1985.
  • Quincey, Paul. “Quantum Weirdness: An Analogy from the Time of Newton.” Skeptical Inquirer 32, No.6 (November/December 2008): 42–46.
  • Stenger, Victor J. The Unconscious Quantum. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995.


Derek C. Araujo

Derek Araujo, president of the Campus Freethought Alliance, has organized a new humanist group at Harvard University where he is a student.

The Templeton Foundation recently announced the recipient of the 2009 Templeton Prize, a £1 million ($1.4 million) award founded by the late U.S. multimillionaire, 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 …

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