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The 2009 (not prestigious) Templeton Prize Winner is....

"Misguided interpretations of quantum physics are a classic hallmark of pseudoscience...."--Amanda Gefter

March 16, 2009. The Templeton Foundation has announced the latest winner of the biggest cash prize in the world for scholars whose work can be used to dupe the world into believing that scientists and philosophers are hard at work showing how science supports "spiritual realities." The lucky tool this year in the ongoing propaganda war started by Sir John M. Templeton is 87-year-old French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat. He will be looking at a check for 1,000,000 pounds sterling.

Templeton, born in 1912 in Tennessee, became a billionaire in the mutual fund business. He was about 60 when he started using his wealth to promote religion. In 1972, he established the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which, in 2001, became the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities. He stipulated that it should pay more than the Nobel Prize. Templeton died in 2008 at the age of 95. His son "Jack", a retired pediatric surgeon, has been running the show since 1995. Here's what Jack had to say about this year's prize winner:

[He has] explored the unlimited, the openings that new scientific discoveries offer in pure knowledge and in questions that go to the very heart of our existence and humanity.

He went on to say that d'Espagnat's work in quantum physics has revealed a reality beyond science that spirituality and art could help to partly grasp. Actually, what d'Espagnat has argued is that quantum physics shows that ultimate reality cannot be described. Why something as nebulous as "spirituality" could succeed where physics can't remains a mystery. "Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated," said d'Espagnat. "On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being." How one is to know whether one's spiritual or aesthetic insights are any more accurate than quantum physics in understanding "ultimate reality" (whatever that might mean) is left for the rest of us to figure out for ourselves.

D'Espagnat worked with such luminaries as Louis de Broglie, Enrico Fermi, and Niels Bohr. New Scientist writes:

The thrust of d'Espagnat's work was on experimental tests of Bell's theorem. The theorem states that either quantum mechanics is a complete description of the world or that if there is some reality beneath quantum mechanics, it must be nonlocal – that is, things can influence one another instantaneously regardless of how much space stretches between them, violating Einstein's insistence that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Templeton’s endowment is estimated at $1.1 billion; $60 million is given away each year to promote its goals.* The Templeton Prize is awarded in Buckingham Palace each year and even ex-convicts are eligible as long as they’ve found God. Charles Colson, Nixon’s chief counsel during Watergate who went to prison for his troubles, was the winner in 1993. Colson got religion while in prison and it has provided him with a source of purpose and income ever since. John Barrow, a cosmologist and mathematician at the University of Cambridge, won the prize in 2006 for his work defending the anthropic principle, the idea that it is unlikely the universe came about by chance. Or, as physicist Bob Park put it: “If things were different, things would not be the way things are.”

D'Espagnat told Reuters he was brought up a Roman Catholic, practices no religion, and considers himself a spiritualist. He says that the baffling discoveries of quantum physics, such as entanglement, led him to believe all creation is an interrelated unity. The Templeton folks consider it a great philosophical insight to have noticed that the idea of the universe as an interrelated unity, however satisfying, is of little value for scientific investigation. They consider his notion enlightening that many scientists miss this unified vision by trying to break down problems into their component parts rather than understand them as part of the Big Picture. The Templeton folks are also quite impressed with d'Espagnat's idea that quantum physics is inconsistent with naive materialism: that, in d'Espagnat's words, "we are explained entirely by combinations of small uninteresting things like atoms or quarks." He seems to have been comforted by the fact that the spiritual cannot be ruled out by scientific endeavor.* (Naive materialism, by the way, is a classic strawman: it is a position few hold these days. In any case, it is not inevitable that materialism is inconsistent with quantum physics, anymore than it is the case that quantum physics proves free will.)

In the end, d'Espagnat admits that his "spiritual" viewpoint is not derived from quantum physics, but from his gut:

 I believe we ultimately come from a superior entity to which awe and respect is due and which we shouldn't try to approach by trying to conceptualize too much. It's more a question of feeling.*

"When they hear very good music, people who like classical music have the impression they get at some reality that way. Why not?" he asked. For more details of this exciting way of thinking, see his masterpiece On Physics and Philosophy. For an alternative view, one might read Danton's Death by Georg Büchner. When you take the mask off of reality, maybe you will take off the face too.

The award will be officially presented by the Duke of Edinburgh on 5 May. Giving very little hope to greedy relatives who may be thinking of a new reality for themselves, the professor emeritus from the University of Paris Sud told BBC News that he would use one-third of the prize money to fund the kind of research he has pursued, and will donate a further third to charity. France must have nicer tax laws than we do in the U.S. if the French government will only take one-third of the prize money. Also, since d'Espagnat has been retired for over two decades, one wonders what kind of research he plans to fund.

Moral of the story: do your physics, then offer up some drivel about science not being able to rule out the existence of ultimate reality or that non-scientific activities might be windows into that reality, then let the Templeton folks sort it out to justify awarding you their annual Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities.

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