Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Templeton Prize won by epistemic structural realist

The Templeton Prize for 2009, worth a cool £1 million, has been awarded to French philosopher of physics, Bernard d'Espagnat.

D'Espagnat accepts that there is a world which exists independently of experience, observation, and measurement, and in philosophical terms he is therefore a realist. He believes, however, that whilst science enables us to "glimpse some basic structures of...reality," it cannot provide complete knowledge of the world which exists beyond the empirical data; rather, it is a 'veiled' reality. D'Espagnat therefore endorses a version of what is referred to in modern philosophy of science as epistemic structural realism. (In contrast, an ontic structural realist holds that the structure of reality is the only thing which exists).

In theological terms, D'Espagnat's epistemological structural realism then enables him to advocate a pantheistic, noumenal concept of God. In other words, God is equated with the noumenal world, the unknowable world beyond our empirical experience and observation. Such a proposal is distinct from pantheistic notions which equate God with the natural world, because D'Espagnat relegates the natural world - the world of space, time and matter - to what Kant referred to as the 'phenomenal' world, the world produced by the modus operandi of our minds upon the noumenal world.

Last year's winner of the Templeton Prize, Michael Heller, can perhaps be classified as an ontic structural realist, hence it seems that all the philosophical bases are being covered here.

New Scientist's very own embedded philosopher of physics, Amanda Gefter, concludes:

It would be nonsensical to paint [D'Espagnat's God] 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.

I happen to believe that drawing any spiritual conclusions from quantum mechanics is an unfounded leap in logic – but if someone out there in the world is willing to pay someone £1 million for pondering the nature of reality, that's a world I'm happy to live in.

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