Bojan Gorjanc on March 20th, 2009
Bernard d’Espagnat

Bernard d’Espagnat

The 2009 Templeton Prize was awarded to Bernard d’Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher of science whose explorations of the philosophical implications of quantum physics have opened new vistas on the definition of reality and the potential limits of knowable science.

From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, d’Espagnat, 87, was a philosophical visionary in the physics research community. He not only played a key role during this revolutionary period of exploration and development in quantum mechanics, but also explored the philosophical importance of these new physics-based insights into the nature of reality. Much of his early work on the subject centers on what he calls “veiled reality,” a hidden yet unifying domain beneath what we perceive as time, space, matter, and energy – concepts challenged by quantum physics as possibly mere appearances.

Since early 1980s d’Espagnat has written and lectured extensively on the philosophical significance of the universal truths of quantum mechanics. He notes, however, that quantum physics merely predicts observational results. As far as describing reality, it suggests that not only our plain, everyday concepts of objects but also our scientific concepts refer only to phenomena – that is, to mere appearances common to all.

Still, d’Espagnat warns, experiments often falsify theories and so there must exist, beyond mere appearances, something that resists us and lies beyond the phenomena, 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, d’Espagnat insists, by cogent scientific arguments. Although he concedes the theological implications of the term “veiled reality,” he guards against using it as justification for specific religious doctrines which can be falsified by reason and fact.

Bernard d’Espagnat has constructed a coherent body of work which shows why it is credible that the human mind is capable of perceiving deeper realities. These perceptions offer, d’Espagnat has said, “the possibility that the things we observe may be tentatively interpreted as signs providing us with some perhaps not entirely misleading glimpses of a higher reality and, therefore, that higher forms of spirituality are fully compatible with what seems to emerge from contemporary physics.”

In a statement prepared for the news conference on Winning the 2009 Templeton Prize, d’Espagnat pointed out that since science cannot tell us anything certain about the nature of being, clearly it cannot tell us with certainty what it is not. “Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated,” he said. “On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being.”

D’Espagnat stressed the role of science in grasping empirical reality, that is, the reality of experience or observation. He went on, however, to note that other methods of insight, including the arts, provide windows on understanding the true realities that lie behind things, what he described as “the ground of things.” “Artistic emotions essentially imply the impression of a mysterious realm which we may merely catch a glimpse of,” he said. “Science and only science yields true knowledge. On the other hand, concerning the ground of things, science has no such privilege.”

He concluded his speech with these words: “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.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,