Click here to support the Daily Grail for as little as $US1 per month on Patreon

Sir Martin Rees Wins Templeton Prize

Britain’s Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees has been announced as the recipient of the 2011 Templeton Prize, an award that “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works”. The £1 million prize is the largest in science, and has often been the subject of scathing criticism by anti-religion campaigners and scientists.

The selection seems an odd one – Rees has, on a number of occasions, made clear that he is not religious, and that he doesn’t see a place for dialogue between science and religion as they cover fundamentally different areas of life. Nevertheless, the Astronomer Royal is certainly not anti-religion – he has in the past been described by Richard Dawkins as a “compliant little quisling” for his moderate views on the subject, and one would suspect this award won’t endear himself further to the “militant atheists” – and has a cosmological viewpoint that leads him to view with suspicion any person who believes “they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality”.

According to the Templeton Prize website

Martin J. Rees, a theoretical astrophysicist whose profound insights on the cosmos have provoked vital questions that speak to humanity’s highest hopes and worst fears, has won the 2011 Templeton Prize.

Rees, Master of Trinity College, one of Cambridge University’s top academic posts, and former president of the Royal Society, the highest leadership position within British science, has spent decades investigating the implications of the big bang, the nature of black holes, events during the so-called ‘dark age’ of the early universe, and the mysterious explosions from galaxy centers known as gamma ray bursters.

In turn, the “big questions” he raises – such as “How large is physical reality?” – are reshaping crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize has long sought to recognize.

This Guardian interview with Rees regarding the Templeton Prize hammers on the point about science vs religion, but Rees steadfastly refuses to become involved (“I try to avoid getting into these science and religion debates”) – making the interview a rather awkward affair, until he opens up more when the topic turns to astronomy and cosmology. But there are a few pearls in there nevertheless, such as this quick riposte:

I think just as religion is separate from science, so is ethics separate from science. So is aesthetics separate from science. And so are many other things. There are lots of important things that are separate from science.

Personally I’ve always found Rees’ thoughts to be cogent and thoughtful – and, coincidentally (or was it…?!), I had turned to him for my “quote of the day” for my news briefs last Monday and the Monday before.

Update: Quelle surprise! P.Z. Myers calls Martin Rees a mediocre “slice of soggy toast”. Also, Richard Dawkins says it won’t look very good on Rees’s C.V., and Professor Sir Harry Kroto says accepting one million pounds will no doubt be “very bad for Martin“, and he should donate it to the British Humanist Association. Meanwhile, Jerry Coyne labeled it a travesty, saying it continued the Templeton Foundation’s “serious corruption of science“. So there.

You might also like…

  1. They remind me of early
    They remind me of early church dogmatics who tended to sweep vast swathes of potential reality under the rug just because they so heartily embraced the geocentric universe. Once you box yourself into one corner with unreasoning vehemence ego pride then dictates that you must attack to the death any ideas that smack of heresy either in their style of presentation or their logical system. It is sort of like saying that beacause one dislikes the Japanese one will never drive a Japanese car. Thus we see the Randians disintegrating into hubris and recalcitrance – they have become pouters and grouchers.

  2. Er.
    [quote]I think just as religion is separate from science, so is ethics separate from science. So is aesthetics separate from science. And so are many other things. There are lots of important things that are separate from science.[/quote]

    I’ve never understood this point of view. If it was true shouldn’t we expect them to actually be separate? Rather than just separate when it is useful.

    I’m not saying its not possible to design a religion from the ground up so it is in a different sphere to science, just that an honest look at the history of ours really makes it hard to argue that they are honouring that.

    1. I don’t agree with him
      Personally I disagree with Rees in his assessment that science and religion are separate entities. How could they, when they are both human disciplines, born out of the same hunger to make sense of the world, and find our place in it?

      We could then argue about the differences and validity in their approaches and methodology, but that’s another topic 😉

      1. from the Canal-Passing-Dept.
        [quote=red pill junkie]Personally I disagree with Rees in his assessment that science and religion are separate entities. How could they, when they are both human disciplines, born out of the same hunger to make sense of the world, and find our place in it?[/quote]

        Very poetic of you.

        That’s one of the reasons why I chafe at words like ‘theist’ and ‘atheist’…we’re all Believers, we are all story machines, we all seem to have the same makeup to process reality, we just have differing stories (interpretations)…and all this sturm n’ drang where various ‘atheists’ or ‘theists’ or whatever amounts just to ‘My stories are BEST!’

        I’ve come to regard Religion as art (and it should never be science) and I really enjoy looking at science as an ethics (where it’s practitioners agree to a set of behaviours).

        So, Einstein’s quote makes sense, one is blind, the other is lame, without the other. Complementary.

      2. Hmmm
        I think in a grand sweeping sense you are right. Then we could just unify the entire lot, science, paranormal, religion, everything etc as simply ‘questions’.

        Everything is just questions ‘man’!

        Assuming the aim is to sit around a camp fire and take lots of drugs then we can have an existential moment.

        Of course, that is ignoring the enormous part of the equation – the relationship between questions and answers! The holistic approach to knowledge, rather than the lopsided. Now I know you are not just arguing that answers are not a very important part of the whole subject of questioning, else we could all just sit and sway and ignore ever finding another one – be it about Higg’s bosons or Atlantis.

        There is power in questions to be sure, but we could have a good debate about whether the real power, when available, lies in the answers.

        This is why I have to respectfully disagree – that their ‘differences and validity in their approaches and methodology’ is second to the fact that they are unified by the fact that they like to ask questions. Tell me honestly that Christianity isn’t concerned with answers that do not include Jesus, or that Islam can really look outside Allah and Mohammed should it be required.

        Strict Newtonian physics may have been the science of it’s day before Einstein changed it all, but if physicists had carried on believing that Newton was correct, building totems to his greatness, insisting that Einstein never be taught to students, starting Sunday Newton schools, arguing for Newtonian Morality, and amassing wealth to affect global politics for the ‘Light of Newton’ then that would be a religion.

        Science and religion are exactly the same in that they ask questions. Science and religion are exactly the same as every other thing in the world that asks question – it is one of the things they have in common.

        But to stop thinking right there is to say that the philosophies of pacifism and destruction are the same because they start with a question. They land on very different answers, and by very different routes.

        I do agree with you that they are not different sphere’s though. That’s a load of nonsense. Though theologians will place them in different sphere’s whenever it is useful to them; moulding them to whatever best suits them winning their argument on that day. the endeavour to make religion invulnerable to scientific criticism is after all a human undertaking.

        1. from the Dada-Did-It-Dept.
          Just had to have fun mind-riff with this bit of yours:

          …the endeavour to make religion invulnerable to scientific criticism is after all a human undertaking.[/quote]

          …the endeavour to make science invulnerable to religious criticism is after all a human undertaking? Hmm.

          Science can try to analyze my choice of “The best artist of all time,” but…it still wont be able to ‘answer’ that (asides from categorizing it as ‘trivial’)? Hmm.

          Maybe we’re looking through a protestant lens, where the importance of a thing is metric’d by its usefulness? Where Catholicism isn’t afraid of the numinous, ‘spirits’, then protestantism came along and said ‘ok, what is IMPORTANT?’ and tossed out the ‘spirits’?…hmm.

          Thank you for helping knock loose s’more thoughts.

        2. It’s just the questions, maaaaaan 😛
          I can already see myself around that campfire.

          The point I was trying to raise is that it annoys me when people are desperately train to draw a line in the sand so that religion and science stay in their own side. Every time someone tries to draw that line in the sand, in comes a wave that erases it (and it might bring a new sea-shell for us to contemplate).

          Hmm… I think I did get up from the poetic side of my bed this morning 😉

          So I guess that’s the whole point of the Templeton prize: to show people that those lines are just that: lines that WE are drawing in the sand rather arbitrarily.

          Now, with regards of answers: sure, you might think that in that sense science has the upper hand when compared to religion. But then again I feel that with those comparisons we’re not really talking about religion, but of dogma. And although every religion may end up developing a certain amount of dogma over time, that sure isn’t the way religions originate.

          No, religions originate and acquire a certain amount of knowledge through tools that are (apparently*) outside the toolbag of science: illumination.

          Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Bodhi. Whatever term we wish to apply, they all refer to the same state of mind of ‘knowing’ something that was previously unknown, without any rational explanation.

          As a friend with whom I used to discuss such things, why are we so quick to dismiss the possibility of revelation?

          Now obviously I’m not dismissing the fact that often times revelatory information can be inaccurate, filtered by personal bias, or downright delusional. But personally I’m still fascinated by the fact that so many times it can be right, and if we ascribe that to mere chance or coincidence, I think we’re missing a hell of an opportunity.

          That’s what fascinates me: the possibility that somehow the human mind can enter a state of mind in which many important answers can be found. Whether those answers are being whispered by God’s voice, or passed along by angels or spirits, or the mind is just tapping into a reservoir of knowledge that’s been there all the time, it’s besides the point. What should remain is acknowledging that there is such an avenue, and that if we explore it with open-mindedness and honesty, we might discover things that would take a lot more effort if we stuck solely on the accepted tools of science.

          And that’s probably the reason why of all the myriad of religious explanations that have been conceived over the history of our species, there are some that yet linger even in our modern age: because they somehow ring true. And I’m not talking about trivial and pedestrian ideas that fanatics tend to fight about; I’m talking about the all-encompassing notions that appear again and again in the religious thinking of man –that there’s much more to life than what we see with our eyes or feel with our touch; and most importantly, that we’re not alone.

          Those ideas do not speak to our rational side. They are intended to go deeper 🙂

          (*)And I do mean apparently, because I’m always fascinated by all those examples in the history of Science, when a discovery was made or an understanding was reached through pure intuition or non-rational approaches.

          1. Yup Yup
            That campfire does sound good doesn’t it.

            I think your points are valid. Perhaps what they suggest is that, like you say, the line can be a little blurry.

            I feel like we’re getting closer to discussing NOMA than templeton, which is fine.

            Obviously science and religion at their heart are just philosophies. We can compare science to any other philosophy of knowledge, or any I can make just sitting here, especially if we are willing to put aside the idea that the functional output of the philosophy is a measure of it’s internal validity.

            Like you say though, that’s just about the philosophies of knowledge. Putting them aside the question of where idea’s come from is still valid. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to see a thousand years into the future to see what they think?!

            It would be my personal preference to place religion in the humanities and class it as an art, alongside painting and perhaps philosophy itself. Then make the section of science that relates to making hypothesis also understandable as an art, but the process that happens thereafter is what we call science.

            So the feeling of universal knowledge, transcendence, intuition, etc remain in the arts and humanities as imaginative constructs (which I mean in the sense that they are untested, rather than imaginary). Then the line that is NOMA rests in the quality of the process that is applied to ideas. (and an important part rests on the idea that most ideas generated in that are only retrospectively identifiable – hence the fun statement ‘if it wasn’t right, then it wasn’t true intuition’)

            This free’s ideas around campfire’s to be understood in terms of their artistry and humanity, but those same ideas can also move into the sphere of science through testing. With each sphere being important and linked in it’s own way. Literature can bring imaginative expansion and emotional liberation, but so can reading about time-dilation or the fusion in a star – again the line can appear blurred. There are aspects where science is an art and a humanity in the sense that there is no difference in stories of nuclear fusion and atoms or zeropoint energy, ethers, warp drives and the human fly other than their functional aspects, and obviously in human culture they are functional in different ways.

            So, as is often seen, it is things on the border – imaginative constructs that have had a little testing, but perhaps not very much or of experimental design that lacks control groups or randomisation that blur the line because they are beginning to cross it, but are not fully over it. Or at least they genuinely start to blur the line, there are obviously other things that actively try to smash the line, propaganda campaigns by dictators, hidden test results by drugs companies, mis-education to tell people something has backing when really it doesn’t.

            Then when philosophies blur the line, they can be looked at to see in what way they do, and indeed whether they are or are just claiming to do.

            Dealing with the notion of dogma is an interesting one. Probably the most useful definition of dogma to this debate is ‘a specific tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down’. Now, obviously everything is dogma in a sense, everything that is being claimed using authority. Dogma in that sense is highly inescapable. We are always being told by people what their version of things is, and in a sense we rely on their authority. I guess this is why to institutions like Churches authority, such as ‘moral authority’ are so important – their pronouncements survive based on their various authorities.

            So is science different? Many would say not. Superficially, in terms as scientists making claims, one pronouncement by a human might seem very similar to another. One scientist standing up and saying cold fusion hasn’t been achieved and one getting up and saying he has (after they have looked at each others data) may look very similar to various church leaders standing up and saying Jesus was God, or Zeus was one, or Mohammed ascended on a winged horse; I think the important question is whether there are any differences and where they lie – else we might just be redefining dogma to mean something else.

            Can you authoritatively say you live in Mexico without it being Dogma? And if so why? Is your claim you live in Mexico on the same standing as Jesus being God, or is Jesus being God on better standing? And then what of Mohammed?

            I guess what I mean is that before we start using the word dogma we have to come up with a philosophy of knowledge that is able to separate out were someone is being dogmatic and someone isn’t (or at east meaningful gradations of it) – otherwise we don’t even need the word – everything would be dogma.

            So to compare my statement that Plate Tectonics is a theory that both includes and explains all know geological features of the surface of the earth, and other planets, with both proven explanatory and predictive power and hence should be believed as being ‘factually’ reasonable, and that my faith and belief that the alien species of Gartuantua have inserted mind probes into all humans and control the shadow world government and hence should be believed as being ‘factually’ reasonable – well, these should have two different meanings, dogmatically. So I don’t disagree with you that both are dogma, but obviously then we need to start adding meaning to the word dogma, since it then fails to provide enough meaning to distinguish one thing from the other.

            As for the idea that there is more to life than seeing and touching: I think this is another area where NOMA might be rightfully blurred. Science might be saying things people don’t like, but the idea that there is more to life than atoms and energy states is obvious enough to all and dealt with well within subjects as broad as evolution, psychology and neurology. As ever, it is more to do with whether you like the meaning or not, not whether it is in any certain sphere. Humanness is everywhere after all.

            I dont know’ I think really what happens factually is that ideas generated in the arts get tested, go through a process and get declared as possible, impossible, factual or non-factual etc – all depending on the understanding of the day. Dogma then looks very momentary in science, but less so in the religions and especially at their cores. It is quite easy to imagine science dropping quantum mechanics or evolution when a really challenging answer that does not fit comes along (rather than just philosophical objections – which by my definition here still reside in the arts) – a constuct like Christianity certainly does change (though arguably there is a core it cannot, no matter the evidence – it would simply lose belief instead), though as pointed out it is important that it changes slowly enough that believers do not notice – hence I guess why it has big problems with sudden breakthroughs in science, even if in 200 years time we all know it will be saying that it predicted and affirmed it. Generally though I am left thinking that rather than large changes to dogma religions lose adherents, though too that has parallels in science as well.

            I think that is the thing. Questions provoke thought and possibly change in the arts, but questions do not provoke change in the sciences. That change comes as a response to answers that are incompatible with current frameworks. (there are obvious questions in Quantum Mechanics for example, but they will not bring it down until they lead to incompatible answers).

            So somewhere in all of that is the start to my argument. That difference between questions and answers and how they make dogma behave.

            How archaeology has affected Historical Jesus studies, for example, and how that has affected frontline pulpit preaching and Sunday School teaching (it doesn’t seem to have affected the ‘dogma’), compared to how measuring the bending of star positions during an eclipse brought down the 400 year old ‘dogma’ of Newton.

            Somewhere there is a difference in how they behave in response to answers, not simply questions – and somewhere in that is how I prefer to perfectly define ‘Dogma’.

            Arguably we are in an imperfect world though, so answers do not seem to be perfectly affecting established thought. For example, I still do not really believe in the psychic ability of Dogs. Some of it is just human psychology playing out no doubt, belief tends to self reinforce for example, inspite of anything coming from outside.

            Perhaps we should remind ourselves that it isn’t as bigger thing as all getting along. Stone age man would have had philosophical debates that are as silly and meaningless to us as ours will be to our descendent’s in 2000 years time. The only way it might matter is when it affects politics, contributes to fighting, or if we really might spend eternity in hell. I am sure that after any good debate we all simply relax and go back to our families safe in the knowledge that we will never really know for sure.

            Crossing the sphere’s (I think i’m thinking ghostbusters at this point), backwards or forwards, can be a serious thing, but equally sometimes it is meaningless.

          2. Science as Art /Truth is Truth

            Like you I also agree that science can sometimes convey the same type of emotion than an artistic work. Isn’t that what happens whenever we look something like this?

            And isn’t also true that one of the resons String theory has so many advocates, it’s because of the ‘beauty’ it displays in its mathematical form?


            Personally i don’t understand why people want to separate science from the arts. The inherent principle in both those fields is the search for an inherent structure that conveys harmony. We as a species are wired to react to harmony in a positive way, whether we observe it in the shape of a sea shell, or in the behavior of a star or geologic formations.

            I guess scientists don’t want to see themselves as artists because they are expecting their results NOT to agree with their aesthetic expectations. And yet the search for the truth is fueled by an aesthetic yearning! Knowledge is more beautiful than ignorance, and the more you know about an object, the more you appreciate it for what it is.

            So getting to the thorny issue of dogmas, I can understand why it can make you uncomfortable, because it’s the same with me! John Keel used to say "Belief is the Enemy". I probably wouldn’t put it in such a negative way, but i do acknowledge that Belief is like a wine: you should always take it with moderation 😉

            If I write that I live in Mexico 99% of the people who read it would have no problem taking that claim at face value. And yet if then I write that sometimes I’ve experienced what could be described as spontaneous altered states of consciusness, then there’s a natural expectation of providing some sort of evidence. Problem is that with many experiences of what could be categorized as of ‘religious’ nature, no evidence whatsoever can be provided; but that shouldn’t stop a sensible person to take such claims with an open mind balanced with a healthy degree of uncertainty. In fact, maybe we should all learn to live with a high degree of uncertainty… about everything!

            You say that dogmas in faith or religion have a higher proliferancy because they are upheld unilaterally by authority. My personal view is that dogmas persist in any given situation by two reasons:

            a) Enforcement by an authority figure of a given kind; AND

            b) A reluctance to question said dogma.

            This issue of reluctance is often overlooked. Many people assume that this is borne out of fear, or conformity to the opinion of the status quo. But it’s not always the case. Many times a tenent of faith is preserved because it never occurs to people to question it! Before Galileo, nobody bothered to TEST whether heavier objects were more influenced by gravity than lighter ones, because it was plain common sense. Before Einstein, nobody bothered to question the nature of Time because everybody ‘knew’ Time is an absolute.

            Sometimes answers are accepted mindlessly because we haven’t progressed enough to make the right questions.

            Take stuff like ‘cold fussion’ or ‘antigravity’. I guarantee you that 99% of the members of the scientific community that scoff at those concepts have never bothered to make the experiments themselves. They just parrot what they read in the pages of ‘Nature’. Yes, nobody is going to burn them at the stake if they chose to try, but why should they waste their precious time in such nonsense anyway, right?

            Sure, there might come the day when those weird phenomena are acknowledged by the mainstream, and scientists will trumpet it as proof that they are not the subjects of dogmas; but that won’t change the fact that many of them never bothered to entertain themselves with those questions, and what is that if not a self-perpetuating dogma?

            Does science mold religion and viceversa? Sure they do and have. Who can really deny the possibility that someday in the future someone will create a Time machine and finally prove whether Jesus resurrected from his tomb or not? Likewise, who can be so cynic as to deny that religion doesn’t plant some questions in the mind of scientists, that they might later try to direct their research to some specific areas. And maybe the result of the research will later disprove a religious doctrine, but if the research was fueled by the doctrine, does that give or take value from it?

            In closing, now that I’m having a major headache from the mental workout 🙂 maybe we should take what’s valuable from the religious side of questioning. We should probably dump all sense of dogmas and authority, that’s why people nowadays are more comfortable with the notion of spirituality: being your own teacher and guide, instead of following someone else’s doctrine.

            In the end, as we’ve been saying, those are just tools to learn the truth. And why is it that we do it in the first place? because Truth is Beauty, and that’s why we can recognize it, no matter its origin or variations in interpretation.



  3. from the Dancing-Wit-universe-Dept.
    Sir Martin Rees has *such* a wickedly dry, impish sense of humour. I hope some of it rubs off on sombunall sentients who are in dire need of a humour and play refill before they drag too many people down with their seriousness and gloom.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Mobile menu - fractal