Glimpses of Ultimate Reality
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
“To honor a living person who has made an exceptional contribution affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works,” the Templeton foundation awarded its 2009 prize to a French physicist.
Bernard d’Espagnat, 87, is a theoretical physicist and philosopher of science at the University of Paris-Orsay. He was recognized for his pioneering contributions to the nature of physical reality and making the daring suggestion that matter everywhere is caught in a web of “veiled reality” that lies beneath time, space and energy.
What has “veiled reality” got to do with spirituality? In simple terms, it means that there are limits to what science can explain. Once we acknowledge this, it opens the door to the mysterious and the transcendent.
There is an abundance of writings on spirituality and faith. What sets apart the work of scientists like D’Espagnat is that they use science to show the limits of science, thus allowing for the possibility that there is more to life than the acceptance of only that which can be seen or measured and rejection of that which cannot.
D’Espagnat’s quest was driven by a single, profound question: “What insight does science reveal about the nature of reality?” His research tool consisted of quantum physics, a subject he learned from one of its founders, another Frenchman named Louis de Broglie, winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize in physics. Broglie showed that matter had wave-like properties and waves had properties that classical physics attributed only to matter. What this meant was that reality was different and more subtle than what it appeared to be. D’Espagnat devoted seven decades of his creative life trying to figure out the deepest aspects of this reality.
His research showed that “veiled reality” could be glimpsed through quantum mechanics. (An analogy from art: Pablo Picasso used cubism to paint his view of reality). In a series of famous experiments performed in 1981-82 on the polarization of photons (a massless particle associated with light waves), it was found that a change in the polarization of a photon (think of it as the direction in which it oscillates) far removed from another photon could be detected in both. What’s more, this change traveled faster than the velocity of light, a violation of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. They also tested “Bell’s Theorem,” named after the Irish physicist John Bell, which states that nature is composed of objects whose behavior can be understood “locally,” that is, influenced directly only by their immediate surroundings. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, predicts that nature is non-local, that is, the behavior of an object is influenced by objects far removed from it. D’Espagnat predicted that quantum mechanics was right, and experiments have borne him out. Physical reality turns out to be non-local, leaving open the possibility of invisible realms, the “veiled reality.”
Understanding the implications of these rigorous experiments can be daunting for the non-scientist but as D’Espagnat explained: “It’s not that science will explain the ultimate reality of certain objects or events. Rather, it is that the concepts we use, such as space, time, causality and so on … are not applicable to ultimate reality.” In other words, it is arrogance to suggest that science can have the final word on the true nature of reality. What science can best do is to describe reality as it appears to us, taking into account limitations of our own mind and our own sensibilities.
This leads to a humbler understanding of our place in the universe. We are not its master, and its “veiled reality” can point to something larger than ourselves. To some, this may come as a disappointment; to scientists like D’Espagnat, it is a source of awe and inspiration. Matter is not the only reality. According to D’Espagnat, “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 … Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated. On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being.”
One scientist influenced by D’Espagnat’s work is Bruno Guiderdoni, a Muslim convert who is the director of research at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and co-founder and director of the Islamic Institute for Advanced Studies in Paris. Attending one of D’Espagnat’s lectures as a graduate student in 1980, he wrote: “I was deeply impressed by the philosophical implications of what he was addressing. One has to understand that these issues were completely absent from the usual courses in quantum physics … he helped me understand that there were actually a very deep question in this issue of the nature of reality.” Guiderdoni is widely recognized as an expert on galaxy formation and evolution as well as a prominent interpreter of Islam. He has written numerous papers on both topics and has emphasized his own work in astrophysics as a fulfillment of God’s command to seek knowledge and understand His creation.
It is a pity that the media always portrays religion and science as a battle between inflexible creationists and arrogant atheists. But between these two extremes dwell the vast majority of us – scientists, theologians, laypersons - who find no conflict between faith and reason. This is evident from the homage paid by today’s leading scientists to Bernard D’Espagnat. William D. Phillips, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics said: “Entanglement is one of the key features of quantum mechanics, one that most sets it apart from classical physics. Bernard D’Espagnat was a key figure in providing a mature understanding of both the scientific and philosophical implications of entanglement, a phenomenon so counterintuitive that it continues to intrigue 21st century physicists. D’Espagnat appreciated that entanglement not only changed our view of how physics works, but also our concept of the very nature of reality.”
D’Espagnat’s scientific work suggests not just that science cannot fully describe reality but more importantly, that scientific research can encourage spirituality. Those who believe in the unseen and whose lives are animated by faith are not irrational; they are only acknowledging the presence of the mysterious and the ineffable in their lives. As Charles Townes, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1964 and the Templeton Prize in 2005 said of the convergence of science and religion: “I believe this confluence is inevitable. For they both represent man’s efforts to understand his universe and must ultimately be dealing with the same substance.”