Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Prof. Martin Rees Wins the Templeton Prize

This is a post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
Martin J. Rees, the renowned British astrophysicist, has won the Templeton Prize for this year, it was announced today.
I would like to keep this post to mainly factual information, keeping my personal views and comments to my regular Monday post. I should, however, point out that I have, for several years now, had a rather close connection to the John Templeton Foundation, which administers the prize and sets its philosophy, as per its late founder, Sir John Templeton, who wanted the Prize to recognize a living individual who will have made substantial contributions to the “spiritual progress” of humanity. In my next post, I will comment on this concept of “spiritual progress”, but suffice it to say now that, contrary to what some observers understand, this is not a prize for work on ‘Science and Religion’, nor for people who promote cozy relations between religion and science. Indeed, Sir Martin Rees is not a believer; he views religion as merely culture, which in some of its manifestations (music, liturgy, architecture) can be quite beautiful and uplifting.
So, in this post, I wish to simply explain who Martin Rees is and why, as I understand it, he was awarded this prestigious prize. 
Indeed, the monetary value for the Templeton Prize is £ 1 million (about $1.6 million), making it the largest of any prize in the world. Its intellectual value is no less important, judging by the list of luminaries who have won it since its inception in 1972, including: a number of world-class scientists (Bernard d’Espagnat, Charles Townes, John Barrow, George Ellis, Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, von Weizsacker, etc.), philosophers (Charles Taylor, Ralph Wendell Burhoe), and religious leaders (Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, Inamullah Khan, Lord Jakobovits, Nikkyo Niwano).
Martin John Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow, is, first, one of the most important astrophysicists and cosmologists of today, and secondly, a tireless public figure who has worked hard at both promoting science and warning of the dangers that we humans have produced for Earth and for the future of our species. As a scientist, he has published over 500 research papers, many of them seminal and visionary, often picking on some new developments that would later turn out to be hugely important. Indeed, he was one of the first cosmologists to pick on the idea of the multiverse, and one of the first to investigate various aspects of black holes, quasars, dark matter, gamma-ray bursts, and other such topics that are now at the forefront of astrophysics. He has also authored/co-authored several books, with one coming out in a few months and another one next year. From 2005 to 2010 he presided over the prestigious Royal Society, of which he had been a member for more than 25 years. And he has given countless lectures and interviews.
Most recently, Rees has been sounding an alarm over the dangers and risks that our careless lives and policies have produced for our planet and our species. In his 2003 book ‘Our Final Century’ (published in the US as ‘Our Final Hour’) he says that the human civilization has only a 50-50 chance of surviving until 2100 without suffering a severe setback. He has also predicted that by 2020 we will have a “bioterror” or a “bioerror” accident that will claim a million casualties. 
Now, was the Templeton Prize given to him because he has been a great scientist and/or because he has been actively trying to raise public awareness and to affect changes in policies that will reduce the risks of catastrophes? I don’t think so. 
In my view, to understand the awarding of this “spiritual progress” Prize to Martin Rees, who (softly) admits to being a non-believer who “culturally” goes to church, I think it is important to realize that the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) now puts emphasis on research in “Big Questions” instead of “Science and Religion”. What is meant by “Big Questions”? Check out this page, where a series of essay collections was produced by JTF, on topics such as: “Does the universe have a purpose?”; “Does evolution explain human nature?”; and “Does moral action depend on reasoning?”. Check out also Templeton’s online e-zine: Big Questions Online.
So how does this apply to Sir Rees? In both the press release from today’s announcement and the text of the speech given by the winner, strong references are made to the “big questions” that his work has raised, including “how large is physical reality?” (a reference to the uni/multi-verse), “How did our complex cosmos emerge” (alluding to quantum gravity, superstrings, etc.), and “What is the role of life in the cosmos?” (a hint to the anthropic principle, on which Rees had written the popular and successful book ‘Just Six Numbers’).
Venturing further into philosophical avenues, Rees today asked: “Are there special perspectives that cosmologists can offer to philosophy?” He says yes, first stressing the “interconnectedness of cosmic processes” (life and human’s stellar origins and subsequent dependence on light and energy from the sun/stars), and secondly reminding us how our existence could only have come after the billions of years that constitute the age of Earth, the solar system, and the universe in general, and the billions of years that life – if not humans – has (have) in front of it (us).
As I will explain in my next post, I believe that by awarding Sir Martin Rees its prestigious prize, the Templeton Foundation has made a bold statement that puts contemporary science, even its speculative aspects (Rees freely admits that the multiverse is mostly speculations), at the center of our human endeavors and interests and calls that “spiritual progress” – even from someone who regards religion as mere culture.


Ali said...

A brilliant scientist. I love his writing. Too bad he does not have the time to produce a lot of books. I probably must have read all of the few books he has written. I must agree that i do not like it when he co-authors with science writers.

Not the type of person I would expect to win the Templeton Prize. But lets hope that Rees is 'changing'. He may be a churchgoer because of tradition but his views and ideas are not those of an atheist. In fact, I would say he is a fence sitter. (I am tempted to say, 'not unlike emre' but I think emre is different.) :) The prize can topple him over the fence to our side, I hope. Who knows? :)

emre said...

Of course I'm different. I'm special.

Sola Ratione said...

The Templeton Foundation achieved its religion-promoting aim as soon as it publicised the fact that Martin Rees agreed to accept the prize. How so? Because Rees thereby gave a public endorsement of the Foundation's stated purpose, along with all the supernatural claims assumed therein (i.e. the 'spiritual dimension' or 'the Divine') - whether he acknowledges this or not.

Sola Ratione

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Sola Ratione,
Your statements imply that Martin Rees is either a fool, who could not see the Templeton Foundation’s “religion-promoting aim”, or a morally corrupt man, who played along such an agenda just to get his million pounds (PZ Myers’s and the staunch atheists’ thesis). My response is:
1. Martin Rees is a very smart, well-read, and well-informed man; he is no fool. Moreover, that claim of a “religion-promoting aim” by Templeton has been examined and found overly simplistic and erroneous; read, for instance, Nature’s recent article “Faith in Science” (, which deals directly with Templeton.
2. Martin Rees does not need that money; he can make loads from lectures (honoraria) and by writing popular books; he certainly would not want to tarnish his sterling reputation at the end of his life.
3. I don’t know what you mean by “promoting religion”; which religion? If you mean Christianity, then please first review the makeup of the Templeton Foundation (JTF) and its projects. Briefly, JTF, following the views, philosophy, and directives of its founder, believes that there are “spiritual realities”: humans have a spiritual dimension, in addition to their physical/material one. This belief is shared by the overwhelming majority of humans, past and present. One of Templeton’s main ideas (that one may or may not agree with) is: we know very little about those “spiritual realities” and we should try to help humans make progress in this realm. I will explain the concept of “spiritual realities” and “spiritual progress” in my next post.

So, to conclude, I think it helps no one to demonize people that we may disagree with. One should try to remain objective, accurate, and fair when arguing with one’s opponents.

Sola Ratione said...

Hi Nidhal,

Thanks for your response. The basis for my statements can be found in a lengthy post for which there is a link at the end of my previous comment (a post which includes an assessment of the Nature article to which you refer).

I agree, Rees is no fool, at least in his field of academic expertise. And I have no doubt that, in general, the man has moral integrity. One could hardly succeed to the degree that he has if this were otherwise. But it is surely possible, even for Rees, to have made an error of judgement in this instance. And that is my only claim here - hardly a basis for the accusation that I have 'demonized' the man.

Why Rees might have accepted this prize is anyone's guess. It is not the kind of 'honour' to which scientists, in general, aspire (in contrast to the Nobel prize, for instance). That is why I offer a few alternative possibilities in my blog - one of which is, of course, that Rees, in the end, was swayed by ulterior motives, such as the enormous prize money.

On that issue, it is no doubt true, as you say, that Rees did not need the million pounds. But who does? Surely the attraction of such a vast sum of money is about avarice, not the alleviation of poverty.

Or perhaps you are suggesting that the man is so saintly as to not have been in any way influenced by such a massive increase in his bank account? Is it so remarkable that someone might be tempted in this way, and that, as a consequence, they might find rationalisations for accepting a prize that they would, on principle (or even simply to preserve their reputation), have otherwise resisted? Martin Rees is, after all, a human being, is he not?

Finally, as you will see in my post, it seems to me that there are good reasons to take the terms 'spiritual dimension' and 'the Divine', as used in the Foundation's statement of purpose, to refer to the supernatural realm. (Indeed, you yourself appear to confirm this reading by saying that this 'dimension' is "in addition to", and so distinct from, the "physical/material".)

At any rate, this is the central reason why so many have objected to the Foundation's work. It attempts to use its enormous wealth to promote the idea that scientific methods can both affirm and increase humanity's understanding of the supernatural realm - an idea which the critics take to be seriously misleading and corrosive, given that science, by definition, can only investigate the natural realm. (Incidentally, I used the term 'religion' generically, in my previous comment, to refer to any system of belief that presupposes the existence of that realm).

But I am open to being persuaded, by your next post, that the Foundation does not have this objective. For example, you might have some evidence that it intends us to read the terms 'spiritual' and 'Divine' as mere metaphors that refer only to natural phenomena.

Best wishes,
Sola Ratione