Friday, March 27, 2009

Physics, ultimate reality, and an awful lot of money

[A dramatically truncated version of this comment appears in the Diary section of the latest issue of Prospect.]

If you’re a non-believer, it’s easy to mock or even despise efforts to bridge science and religion. But you don’t need to be Richard Dawkins to sense that there’s an imbalance in these often well-meaning initiatives: science has no need of religion in its quest to understand the universe (the relevance to scientific ethics might be more open to debate), whereas religion appears sometimes to crave the intellectual force of science’s rigour. And since it seems hard to imagine how science could ever supply supporting evidence for religion (as opposed to simply unearthing new mysteries), mustn’t any contribution it might make to the logical basis of belief be inevitably negative?

That doesn’t stop people from trying to build bridges, and nor should it. Yet overtures from the religious side are often seen as attempts to sneak doctrine into places where it has no business: witness the controversy over the Royal Society hosting talks and events sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. Philosopher A. C. Grayling, recently denounced as scandalous the willingness of the Royal Society to offer a launching pad for a new book exploring the views of one of its Fellows, Christian minister and physicist John Polkinghorne, on the interactions of science and religion.

The US-based Templeton Foundation has been in the middle of some of the loudest recent controversies about religion and science. Created by ‘global investor and philanthropist’ Sir John Templeton, it professes to ‘serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions, ranging from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity.’ For some skeptics, this simply means promoting religion, particularly Christianity, from a seemingly bottomless funding barrel. Templeton himself, a relatively liberal Christian by US standards and a supporter of inter-faith initiatives, once claimed that ‘scientific revelations may be a gold mine for revitalizing religion in the 21st century’. That’s precisely what makes many scientists nervous.

The Templeton Foundation awards an annual prize of £1million to ‘outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to those aspects of human experience that, even in an age of astonishing scientific advance, remain beyond the reach of scientific explanation.’ This is the world’s largest annual award given to an individual – bigger than a Nobel. And scientists have been prominent among the recipients, especially in recent years: they include cosmologist John Barrow, physicist Freeman Dyson, physics Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes, physicist Paul Davies – and Polkinghorne. That helps to explain why the Royal Society has previously been ready to host the prize’s ceremonials.

I must declare an interest here, because I have taken part in a meeting funded by the Templeton Foundation. In 2005 it convened a gathering of scientists to consider the question of whether water seems ‘fine-tuned’ to support the existence of life. This was an offshoot of an earlier symposium that investigated the broader question of ‘fine tuning’ in the laws of physics, a topic now very much in vogue thanks to recent discoveries in cosmology. That first meeting considered how the basic constants of nature seem to be finely poised to an absurd degree: just a tiny change would seem to make the universe uninhabitable. (The discovery in the 1990s of the acceleration of the expanding universe, currently attributed to a mysterious dark energy, makes the cosmos seem even more improbable than before.) This is a genuine and deep mystery, and at present there is no convincing explanation for it. The issue of water is different, as we concluded at the 2005 meeting: there is no compelling argument for it being a unique solvent for life, or for it being especially fine-tuned even if it were. More pertinently here, this meeting had first-rate speakers and a sound scientific rationale, and even somewhat wary attendees like me detected no hidden agenda beyond an exploration of the issues. If Templeton money is to be used for events like that, I have no problem with that. And it was rather disturbing, even shameful, to find that at least one reputable university press subsequently shied away from publishing the meeting proceedings (soon now to be published by Taylor & Francis) not on any scientific grounds but because of worries about Templeton involvement.

So while I worry about the immodesty of the Templeton Prize, I don’t side with those who consider it basically a bribe to attract good scientists to a disreputable cause. All the same, there is something curious going on. Five of the seven most recent winners have been scientists, and all are listed in the Physics and Cosmology Group of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), affiliated to the Graduate Theological Union, an inter-faith centre in Berkeley, California. This includes the latest winner, announced on Monday: French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat, ‘whose explorations of the philosophical implications of quantum physics have’ (according to the prize announcement) ‘cast new light on the definition of reality and the potential limits of knowable science.’ D’Espagnat has suggested ‘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.’ (See more here and here.) Others might consider this an unnecessary addendum to modern quantum theory, not so far removed from the vague and post hoc analogies of Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (which was very much a product of its time).

But why this preference for CTNS affiliates? Perhaps it simply means that the people interested in this stuff are a rather small group who are almost bound to get co-opted onto any body with similar interests. Or you might want to view it as an indication that the fastest way to make a million is to join the CTNS’s Physics and Cosmology group. More striking, though, is the fact that all these chaps (I’m afraid so) are physicists of some description. That, it appears, is pretty much the only branch of the natural sciences either willing or able to engage in matters of faith. Of course, American biologists have been given more than enough reason to flee any hint of religiosity; but that alone doesn’t quite seem sufficient to explain this skewed representation of the sciences. I have some ideas about that… but another time.


Unknown said...

Science needs religion. It needs to understand and examine religion if it wants to explain the emergence of societies in the first place, see here

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