A prize-winning quantum physicist says a spiritual reality is veiled from us, and science offers a glimpse behind that veil. So how do scientists investigating the fundamental nature of the universe assess any role of God, asks Mark Vernon.
The Templeton Prize, awarded for contributions to "affirming life's spiritual dimension", has been won by French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat, who has worked on quantum physics with some of the most famous names in modern science.
Quantum physics is a hugely successful theory: the predictions it makes about the behaviour of subatomic particles are extraordinarily accurate. And yet, it raises profound puzzles about reality that remain as yet to be understood.
WHAT IS QUANTUM PHYSICS?
Originated in work conducted by Max Planck and Albert Einstein at start of 20th Century
They discovered that light comes in discrete packets, or quanta, which we call photons
The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle says certain features of subatomic particles like momentum and position cannot be known precisely at the same time
Gaps remain, like attempts to find the 'God Particle' that scientists hope to spot in the Large Hadron Collider. It is required to give other particles mass
The bizarre nature of quantum physics has attracted some speculations that are wacky but the theory suggests to some serious scientists that reality, at its most basic, is perfectly compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things.
Some suggest that observers play a key part in determining the nature of things. Legendary physicist John Wheeler said the cosmos "has not really happened, it is not a phenomenon, until it has been observed to happen."
D'Espagnat worked with Wheeler, though he himself reckons quantum theory suggests something different. For him, quantum physics shows us that reality is ultimately "veiled" from us.
The equations and predictions of the science, super-accurate though they are, offer us only a glimpse behind that veil. Moreover, that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine. Along with some philosophers, he has called it "Being".
In an effort to seek the answers to the "meaning of physics", I spoke to five leading scientists.
1. THE ATHEIST
Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg is well-known as an atheist. For him, physics reflects the "chilling impersonality" of the universe.
He would be thinking here of, say, the vast tracts of empty space, billions of light years across, that mock human meaning.
He says: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."
So for Weinberg, the notion that there might be an overlap between science and spirituality is entirely mistaken.
2. THE SCEPTIC
The Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, shows a distinct reserve when speculating about what physics might mean, whether that be pointlessness or meaningfulness.
He has "no strong opinions" on the interpretation of quantum theory: only time will tell whether the theory becomes better understood.
"The implications of cosmology for these realms of thought may be profound, but diffidence prevents me from venturing into them," he has written.
In short, it is good to be humble in the face of the mysteries that physics throws up.
3. THE PLATONIST
Oxford physicist Roger Penrose differs again. He believes that mathematics suggests there is a world beyond the immediate, material one.
Can science explain all of life's meaning?
Ask yourself this question: would one plus one equal two even if I didn't think it? The answer is yes.
Would it equal two even if no-one thought it? Again, presumably, yes.
Would it equal two even if the universe didn't exist? That is more tricky to contemplate, but again, there are good grounds for a positive response.
Penrose, therefore, argues that there is what can be called a Platonic world beyond the material world that "contains" mathematics and other abstractions.
4. THE BELIEVER
John Polkinghorne worked on quantum physics in the first part of his career, but then took up a different line of work: he was ordained an Anglican priest. For him, science and religion are entirely compatible.
The ordered universe science reveals is only what you'd expect if it was made by an orderly God. However, the two disciplines are different. He calls them "intellectual cousins".
"Physics is showing the world to be both more supple and subtle, but you need to be careful," he says.
If you want to understand the meaning of things you have to go beyond science, and the religious direction is, he argues, the best.
5. THE PANTHEIST
Brian Swimme is a cosmologist, and with the theologian Thomas Berry, wrote a book called The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era.
It is avidly read by individuals in New Age and ecological circles, and tells the scientific story of the universe, from the Big Bang to the emergence of human consciousness, but does so as a new sacred myth.
Swimme believes that "the universe is attempting to be felt", which makes him a pantheist, someone who believes the cosmos in its entirety can be called God.
Mark Vernon is author of After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life
A selection of your comments appears below.
As a Hindu I can agree with them all. There is a (centuries old) western short-sightedness approach to science that is generally backed up Abrahamic beliefs. Science is being polarised or is seen in that manner ie if A is right B must be wrong, rather like the concept of heaven and hell. In Hinduism and other 'Dharmic' beliefs it has always been said that we live in the age of "maya" or illusion or even 'veil' and that what we see is made from 'cosmic vibrations'. Nothing that we see is how it is, it is our eyes that can only take in limited information which our brain processes to fill in the gaps. Is a rock just a rock or is it billions of particles resonating at a certain frequency to make the 'image' of the rock 'seen' by our eyes. The answer is both! Seeing may be believing, but it depends on whether you see with your eyes or an electron microscope.
I am a physicist and evangelical Christian, so I think Penrose and Polkinghorne are closest to the truth. I'm pleased to hear that people are beginning to look again at the foundations of quantum theory. In recent decades physics has been dominated by what I call 'quantum mechanics' (like 'garage mechanics') - people who can do the sums but don't think about what they mean. The deeper questions in physics are bound to interact with the religious/philosophical assumptions of the physicist.
Dave, St Neots
I agree with Weinberg. The maths might show up the complexities in nature and point to some profound conclusions, but the whole idea of something supernatural pulling the levers of the universe just escapes me.
Dan Wildsmith, Barnsley
When my ego is flaring I'm with the atheist simply because all thoughts, perceptions and concepts come from that wonderful delusional and often ignorant creature we call the mind. When the self is in check I'm with the sceptic...for the same reason! Only mankind's arrogance, brought about by that delusional self, has to believe they exist for some "special" purpose.
Billy, Garnerville, New York
Obviously the great Martin Rees, but for more detail and a lot of work on the scientific view [eg, ch.6 in "Exploring Reality"], I go with Polkinghorne. My own view is '99% Dawkins' - but what a difference 1% Christ makes. Your equation should be something about exobiology, or evolution of altruism: the Price equation, or just rB > C. Biology describes the world; physics is a special case.
Valerie Jeffries, Faversham, England
As a Christian I would agree with John Polkinghorne. Science just reveals how awesome the world is, a world which God created and designed. It is ironic that many scientists try and disprove God but in many instances only demonstrate just how complex and wonderful the world is. There had to be an author of creation. We are not here by chance.
Nathan Goodearl, Guildford
I most agree with Martin Rees. He seems to accept that we are not currently in a position to understand the universe in it's entirety. I would be interested to hear his views on the so-called 'God Particle' (Higgs Boson). I fundamentally disagree with the view that science and religion are compatible and fail to see why some people who choose to exercise faith in a religious belief choose to do so via science. Religion can exist without science, and science without religion.
Rachael Amato, Bristol
I agree with the Atheist. For as long as anyone can remember the things we don't understand have been given the explanation 'God', or 'Gods' and throughout history science, little by little, provides non-God explanations for things (suns, stars, comets, animals, plants etc.). This pattern looks set to repeat itself ad infinitum. In time we will be looking at our current religious theories and thinking how primitive and quite frankly wrong they look in the context of modern knowledge. But belief seems to be a need for many humans and I have no doubt their beliefs and Gods will move on in to the future gaps in our understanding.
Julian Harrison, Shrewsbury
4. THE BELIEVER is correct InshAllah. Many scientific facts have been found to be consistent with The Quran. Science is the rational study of creation, and its facts are consistent with revelation.
Saqib Pervaiz, Wolverhampton
The Atheist makes the most sense. The Universe is full of mystery that Mathematics and Physics will, in time, unravel. However, I don't understand why Steven Weinberg needs to believe that the Universe should have a personality and why he deems it as pointless. Everything in life is pointless from that point of view, experiences - my enjoyment of living is my spirituality, for me there is no God and why does that matter?
David Hunt, Cambridge