2022 Templeton Prize goes to Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek

May 13, 2022 • 8:00 am

The Templeton Prize, now worth $1.3 million, was initiated by the hedge-fund magnate Sir John Templeton (1912-2008) to award accomplished people of faith.  As its Wikipedia entry notes, the prize originally went solely to religionists like Mother Teresa (now a saint) and Billy Graham, but has recently morphed more and more into a prize given to those who unite spirituality and religion with science (Sir John’s view was that the more we learn about science, the closer we get to God—not to some apophatic and abstruse deity like “love” or “nature”, but to a real personal-type god.) Here’s a bit about the annual prize from Wikipedia:

The Templeton Prize is an annual award granted to a living person, in the estimation of the judges, “whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” It was established, funded and administered by John Templeton starting in 1972. It is now co-funded by the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and Templeton World Charity Foundation, and administered by the John Templeton Foundation.[1]

The prize was originally awarded to people working in the field of religion (Mother Teresa was the first winner), but in the 1980s the scope broadened to include people working at the intersection of science and religion. Until 2001, the name of the prize was “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion”, and from 2002 to 2008 it was called the “Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities”. Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims have been on the panel of judges and have been recipients of the prize.

The monetary value of the prize is adjusted so that it exceeds that of the Nobel Prizes; Templeton felt, according to The Economist, that “spirituality was ignored” in the Nobel Prizes. As of 2019, it is £1.1 million. It has typically been presented by Prince Philip in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

The list of prizes at the Wikipedia site shows this morphing, and the latest recipient: theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, continues the trend (last year’s recipient was Jane Goodall). As far as I can see, Wilczek is basically an agnostic who pays lip service to “God” as meaning “everything in the world.” Wikipedia notes, “Wilczek was raised Catholic but later ‘lost faith in conventional religion’. He claims no religious tradition, and has been described as an agnostic but tweeted in 2013 that ‘pantheist’ is ‘closer to the mark’.”  In other words, he’s a “none.”

Well, that’s good enough for me so long as he isn’t engaged in promulgating any kind of faith (belief without evidence), which he isn’t (see below for more).

Wilczek was born in 1951 and is listed as “The Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Founding Director of T. D. Lee Institute and Chief Scientist at the Wilczek Quantum Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), distinguished professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and full professor at Stockholm University.. That’s a lot of positions! But the big deal is that he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004 for work on the strong nuclear force, but he also has distinguished accomplishments in other areas of physics. He’s somewhat of a physics polymath.

You can see a collection of videos about Wilczek and the Templeton Prize on the JTF site. They don’t show any visible strain of religiosity, conventional or otherwise, and a Scientific American interview with him, though playing up the “God” angle in its title, has nothing to say about a deity (click to read).

I’ll give just two Q&A’s  from the interview here:

Congratulations on receiving the Templeton Prize. What does this award represent for you?

My exploratory, science-based efforts to address questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious are resonating. I’m very grateful for that, and I’ve started to think about what it all means.

One kind of “spiritual” awakening for me has been experiencing how a dialogue with nature is possible—in which nature “talks back” and sometimes surprises you and sometimes confirms what you imagined. Vague hopes and concepts that were originally scribbles on paper become experimental proposals and sometimes successful descriptions of the world.

Well, when you read on, those “questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious” turn out to be questions about science. The rest of his answer says nothing about a god, but defines Wilczek’s spirituality as the feeling he gets when his squiggles on paper that turn out to be correct representations of reality. But in that sense many theoretical physicists, like Dirac, Schrödinger, and Einstein, were “spiritual” too. The word is emptied here of any of its numinous significance.

One more.

You don’t now identify with any particular religious tradition, but in your 2021 book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, you wrote, “In studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” What did you mean by that?

The use of the word “God” in common culture is very loose. People can mean entirely different things by it. For me, the unifying thread is thinking big: thinking about how the world works, what it is, how it came to be and what all that means for what we should do.

I chose to study this partly to fill the void that was left when I realized I could no longer accept the dogmas of the Catholic Church that had meant a lot to me as a teenager. Those dogmas include claims about how things happen that are particularly difficult to reconcile with science. But more importantly, the world is a bigger, older and more alien place than the tribalistic account in the Bible. There are some claims about ethics and attitudes about community that I do find valuable, but they cannot be taken as pronouncements from “on high.” I think I have now gathered enough wisdom and life experience that I can revisit all this with real insight.

If “God” means “thinking about how the world works and how that conditions our actions”, then we’re pretty much all religious.! I can live with that definition. His second paragraph not only disses the Bible, but touts a form of humanism as well as downgrading Earth, much less humans, as a special locus of God’s concern and action.

The rest of the interview is about Wilczek’s science, and is by far the most interesting bit.


21 thoughts on “2022 Templeton Prize goes to Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek

  1. This isn’t an instance of what the Templeton folks claim to want. This is a hijacking of a scientific reputation to polish up a theistic worldview. Full circle: Religion used to occupy the entire explanatory field. Now that it’s obvious that it explains nothing about the world, adherents enlist scientists to justify religious belief, doing not a little violence to their own concepts.

    1. Maybe. They could be dropping in some mainstream winners to burnish their reputation.

      But the current slate of prize judges is new, and has some pretty mainstream science type people on it.* So this could be a case where some of the judges are departing from previous judges about the sort of work the prize should go to. Maybe we need to consider Hanlon’s un-razor: do not attribute to malice what can be explained by latecoming competence. 🙂

      *To compare, use the drop down list to look at past judges: there were fewer scientists and more journalists and priest-types in past years.

  2. The danger is how the award to a scientist is interpreted, rather than what the scientist actually believes. We can be pretty certain that this award will be presented as evidence that science and religion are not only compatible, but science provides evidence for the validity of religious worldviews. Are scientists who accept such awards knowing how they will be used completely innocent in the possible undermining of science … that is, promoting the view that science is just one way of knowing along with religion, which opens the door wide for Maori, Indigenous, and other ethnocentric ways of knowing.

  3. But in that sense many theoretical physicists, like Dirac, Schrödinger, and Einstein, were “spiritual” too.

    Not so sure about Paul Dirac, who was so vocal about his atheism that Wolfgang Pauli was moved to tease him at the all-star 1927 Solvay Conference with the wisecrack, “There is no God, and Dirac is his prophet.”

  4. I assume that there is an NDA, and a “pre-Award” phase where the Templeton Foundation vets potential recipients and gets their agreement (under NDA, of course) to not reject the award, or discuss the vetting. Because it would just be too bad for God to be rejected publicly by someone chosen by God’s Chosen Choosers.
    Mind you, someone seems to think the NDA isn’t exactly strong.
    Templeton Inc are going to have to beef up their procedures, if a chosen “influencer” is this wishy-washy about their central tenet.

    1. Yep on the last. They change (some of? All of?) the prize judges every year. So yeah if the board is unhappy with the direction the prize has been going the past two years, they could “fix” that by inviting more goddy types for next year.

      But it’s also possible that the longer Templeton is dead, the less pull his wishes have and the more pull things like “best financial interests” and “what gets us future donations” will have on their choice of judges. I guess we will have to wait and see whether the last two years is a trend or an outlier.

      1. And the direction will change for better or worse. For all we know, the committee might shift to embrace a more Matauranga Maori-style intersection of religion and science. We are living in interesting, but depressing, times. So far, Kurt Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron seems to be the most prescient.

  5. “My exploratory, science-based efforts to address questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious are resonating. I’m very grateful for that, and I’ve started to think about what it all means.”

    Seems like Wilczek is bending over backwards not to bite the hand the fed him a cool $1.3 mil.

  6. …though playing up the “God” angle in its title, has nothing to say about a deity (click to read)

    I am absolutely sure Sir Humphrey Appleby would say that one should always take care of the awkward bit in the title. People will always assume what follows is about what the title says it is about. (He did say something similar about open government.)

  7. I read “Fundamentals” last year. Highly recommended if you’re interested in foundational questions. Not once did I get a “God” vibe. His single reference in the book was obviously in the same vein as Einstein’s. He didn’t take pains to point out how aspects of physical law run counter to religious/spiritual beliefs, but that simply wasn’t his focus.

  8. One of the more interesting comments Wilczek makes in his interview is “I like to say that God is a ‘work in progress.’” This is a notion of creationism that I, as both a pantheist and a poet, have long subscribed to: the world in the process of being created.

    It’s a form of improvisation and, like any improvisation, is a microcosm of evolution. It grows from seemingly nothing, from what appear to be random elements of the environment, and self-organizes into a distinctive event with its own shape, exchanging signals of give-and-take, stimulus and response, mutual respect and playfulness. As Shakespeare put it:

    The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

    Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven,

    And as imagination bodies forth

    The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

    Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

    A local habitation and a name.

    If we would start thinking of God not as an “intelligent designer” but as an improviser, adjusting to the moment, learning as he goes, the conflict between creationism and evolution would self-destruct.

    1. If we would start thinking of God not as an “intelligent designer” but as an improviser, adjusting to the moment, learning as he goes, the conflict between creationism and evolution would self-destruct.

      That is unremarkable. As long as one is sufficiently vague, one can think of god in such a way as to make it trivially consistent with scientific knowledge.

      Would you make your statements more concrete? What do you mean by ‘adjusting to the moment, learning as he goes’? Does a concept of existence apply to your god? If so, what does it mean to say your god exists?

      Do you need your god hypothesis? If so, why? Is there a sense of right or wrong to it? In what ways can you change your hypothesis while still having it be ‘consistent’ with evolution? Could there be a natural phenomenon with which your notion of god is inconsistent? If not, why not?

      I can make the Thirteenth Great Deity of Vidanagamapalassa ‘consistent’ with evolution as well. That is, I can make that sequence of words ‘consistent’ with scientific knowledge in a trivial way. I am not saying you are wrong — the concept may not even apply. I merely want to find out if you are doing anything that is not trivial.

      1. The major defect of this view is that it posits a personality, one that chooses to improvise, one that learns. Without the personality, it’s just Nature, doing what comes “naturally”. That sort of undirected improvisation is pretty well laid out in “Origin”. So either not even wrong, or very old news.

  9. Be proud of the fact you are particularly ineligible for this “prize”, PCC (E)
    Congratulations. 🙂

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