International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

On Physics and Philosophy

by Bernard d'Espagnat

Introductory Essay by George Ellis

Our views of the nature of reality have been profoundly challenged by the development of quantum physics. This counter-intuitive theory of the nature of the very small relates to the “ground of things” – the nature of the material reality that underlies our physical existence. Through the uncertainty principle, quantum duality, and the concept of entanglement, quantum theory has undermined any simple view of reality in a way that is deeply unsettling and has major philosophical implications. What if any physical reality is left to us in the aftermath of this conceptual change? Views on this theme have potential implications for our views on the nature of existence which, of course, has been a longtime spiritual and theological concern.  

Bernard D'Espagnat is a deep-thinking quantum physicist who won the 2009 Templeton Prize for his work which acknowledges that science cannot fully explain the nature of being. His key philosophical idea is “veiled realism”, which acknowledges the hidden nature of physical reality on the one hand, but on the other insists that there is indeed an objective reality in existence despite the ambiguities in our interaction with it that are highlighted by quantum theory.

This book carefully lays out the grounds for his view in a systematic text that avoids mathematics but does not shrink from the central puzzles raised by quantum theory about the nature of existence. The thorough and systematic nature of the text may make it heavy work. The reader may struggle to keep track of the overall argument in the midst of the details of the development, so it is worth noting that the core of the Veiled Reality hypothesis is laid out in pages 236 to 241. Essentially the previous chapters lay the ground for making this hypothesis,based in the quantum feature of non-separability and tested via Bell’s theorem.

The second part of the book develops its philosophical implications, looking at the various forms of materialism, the nature of explanation, and the nature of mind. Chapter 17 defends the author’s view against various criticisms. The climax of the book, in the last two chapters, develops the relation between objects and consciousness, on the one hand, and concepts of the ground of things on the other. Here, the author revisits the idea of veiled reality in light of all that has gone before.   

Following the detailed argument will take considerable dedication. The reward will be a clear understanding of some of the most mysterious aspects of physical reality. The book’s blurb summarizes D’Espanat’s thought as follows: “His overall conclusion is that while the physical implications of quantum theory suggest that scientific knowledge will never truly describe mind-independent reality, the notion of such an ultimate reality – one we can never access directly or rationally, and which he calls `veiled reality’ – remains conceptually necessary nonetheless.”