2011 Templeton Prize

This years $1.6 million dollar Templeton Prize has been awarded to astronomer and cosmologist Sir Martin Rees. The Templeton Foundation has traditionally been largely devoted to promoting the intersection of science and religion, so one surprising aspect of this choice is that, while Rees is a very accomplished scientist, he doesn’t believe in God (although he likes the music and architecture in churches):

In fact, Rees has no religious beliefs, but considers himself a product of Christian culture and ethics, explaining, “I grew up in the traditions of the Anglican Church and those are ‘the customs of my tribe.’ I’m privileged to be embedded in its wonderful aesthetic and musical traditions and I want to do all I can to preserve and strengthen them.”

Rees does seem to believe in something that the Templeton people are willing to take as a replacement for belief in God: belief in the Multiverse. He has been one of the leading figures promoting the Multiverse and anthropic explanations, even before the recent string theory landscape pseudo-science made this so popular. For more about his views, see a 2003 interview In the Matrix, which leads off with:

All these multiverse ideas lead to a remarkable synthesis between cosmology and physics…But they also lead to the extraordinary consequence that we may not be the deepest reality, we may be a simulation. The possibility that we are creations of some supreme, or super-being, blurs the boundary between physics and idealist philosophy, between the natural and the supernatural, and between the relation of mind and multiverse and the possibility that we’re in the matrix rather than the physics itself.

Something for future Templeton candidates to keep in mind: no need now to believe in a Christian God, belief in “The Matrix” is good enough.

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23 Responses to 2011 Templeton Prize

  1. CarlH says:

    If this world is the ultimate reality, then I am all for finding an alternate universe and getting the heck out of here! Plus I admire Rees’ honesty regarding religion. Almost everyone is a product of their culture which includes religion, so why pretend to be a stout atheist when we’ve all been indoctrinated since birth about the Big Man Upstairs and His Kid who we tortured and killed.

    BTW, go back to taking about physics. Bike riding in NYC isn’t why I come here. There’s enough of those kinds of blogs anyway. Do you want to hear about what I had for breakfast this morning? Neither do I.

  2. Bobby says:

    Peter, why not put a lid on the negativity and simply congratulate Rees on his achievement? Imagine how you’d feel if you just won 1.6 million dollars and some blogger was sniping at you from across the pond. Not cool. If you want to take on the substance of Rees views at an appropriate time and place then go ahead. But what you’re doing now is not much different than slagging off a colleague at his funeral.

  3. Peter Woit says:


    If you read the posting, my description of Rees was “a very accomplished scientist”. His accomplishments as a scientist deserve recognition, but the Templeton Prize is not a prize given for scientific accomplishment. It’s given for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” I do find it remarkable that Templeton is now giving this prize to atheist scientists, as far as I can tell that’s the first time they’ve done this. If they turn it into a prize for purely scientific achievement that will be great. In the past it was a prize for bringing God into science, which personally I think is a bad thing, not worth encouraging. Replacing the God part though with the Matrix isn’t an improvement.

    I don’t see the analogy to “slagging off a colleague at his funeral”. He’s not my colleague, and getting $1.6 million dumped on you is not really like a funeral. Amidst all the adulatory praise and all the money he’s getting this morning, I don’t think a bit of sniping from a blogger across the pond is going to ruin his day.

  4. The Cosmist says:

    I don’t understand your equating of “the Matrix” with monothestic notions of God — I certainly consider a multiversal Matrix of simulations an improvement over an omnipotent bearded guy in the clouds who takes a personal interest in human beings! And it’s just strange enough that might even be true…

  5. DB says:

    I think Rees is a particularly good example of what happens when a top-flight physicist goes off the boil and enters his dotage. For reasons not very well understood, it tends to happen rather early in life to theoreticians, usually by the age of 45.

    They lose their hard edge and begin to wallow in intellectual mush. Giving out to them is like criticising granpa for his senior moments. They really can’ t help it.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    The Cosmist,

    My interest in either the bearded guy or a “multiversal Matrix of simulations” is pretty much nonexistent. I just wish people would keep them out of science I care about, instead of encouraging bringing them into it with large cash prizes.

  7. Allan Rosenberg says:


    I live in New York, too, so I’m always looking for recommendations for good bakeries. BTW, if you ever visit, you have to try the cupcakes from Baked by Melissa, they’re awesome. Seriously, these are the best cupcakes you’ll ever eat. Keep the NYC blog entries coming, Peter!

  8. Peter Woit says:


    The postings about bikes and bakeries were a local April 1 phenomenon. No more. At least not in this particular branch of the multiverse…

  9. Roger Aune says:

    Congratulations. Thanks for getting some of our money back! M theory and similar science are certainly welcome compared to the unfunny joke that is religion. The fact that the templeton group is is honoring this is very suspect, though. Enjoy the $ indeed!

  10. Guillaume says:

    I went to a talk Martin Rees gave just a couple of weeks ago in London. The traditional Ouroboros cosmological kind of talk, nothing original but I remember being very annoyed by its distinctive Kantian flavour, which fits nicely within the Templeton framework. I find it sad that Rees does not have enough common sense to reject such an “honour”…

  11. honour says:

    Wait till someone slaps you in the face with a wad of unmarked $100 bills (or sterling) with random serial numbers to the tune of > $1M, and then see what you do!

  12. Bobito says:

    “Peter, why not put a lid on the negativity and simply congratulate Rees on his achievement? Imagine how you’d feel if you just won 1.6 million dollars and some blogger was sniping at you from across the pond. Not cool. If you want to take on the substance of Rees views at an appropriate time and place then go ahead. But what you’re doing now is not much different than slagging off a colleague at his funeral.”

    This is wrong-headed in so many ways.
    1. Winning a prize is not an ‘achievement’. Perhaps some ‘achievement’ led to the prize being awarded, but let’s not confuse the two.
    2. What is ‘not cool’ about criticizing someone who just won 1.6 millions dollars? What would be ‘not cool’ would be criticizing some guy publishing ridiculous things that no one paid attention to, ever. It’s not at all like ‘slagging off a colleague at his funeral’ – there’s not a good analogy between dying and winning the lottery (which is, to some extent, what winning such a prize is).
    3. The misuse of millions of dollars is something that merits criticism. It’s reasonable to debate whether this is a misuse, but if it is, it certainly merits criticism, because the misuse of millions of dollars is socially indefensible. The libertarian sort will say – it’s their money, they can do what they want with it – but beside being an indefensibly self-centered anti-communitarian point of view – that’s just oblivious to the social context of money.

  13. miss use says:

    Will it be a misuse if Rees endows a scholarship(s), for example?

  14. oracle says:

    You Guys here are just unbelievable, really!

    While it is obvious that the US Governement ist just giving up on all science like particla physics, cosmology, space research and other more fundamental than applied stuff (Fermilab will close, LISA canceled and surely more such good news will follow soon…) people on this blog are complaining about a non-governemental organization giving some money to a scientist!

    There`s no need for being that impatient and trying to accelerate the process of dissipation of science. If all goes well, the US will continue to put all their money into war games pulling it out from science in particular and hopfully Europe and the rest of the world will follow their example as they usually do …

    Be assured that You Peter, and all the others here, will soon be put out of the misery to smash everything down that is going on in particle physics and related subjects while pretending to care in the slightest for or being interested in science.

    The april 1. change of direction of this blog was indeed a unusually wise and very clear-sighted moment. It seems time has come to look out for other things; soon there will be nothing left for You to fight. So why not write about things like politics, culture, food, cycling, etc …?

    Have fun and enjoy youself as long as You can


  15. Paul says:

    There are some similarities between the status of monks and priests in the past, and the status of professors of fields that use technical jargon today. They have a claim to be purveyors of truth. But what is exactly the extent of this claim?

  16. Peter Woit says:


    Please note that (unlike other blogs, e.g. Cosmic Variance and Pharyngula, have you written to them?) I’m not complaining about Templeton giving money to Rees, or him taking it. If I were him, I’d take the money, and it’s their money, they can give it to whoever they feel like. I’m just reporting that they did it, and offering some commentary on how their choices seem to be changing (belief in God no longer necessary). We report, you decide… In this new world order where particle theory is more and more going to be funded by private sources, I don’t see why I shouldn’t point out that one side-effect is that going on about Multiverse pseudo-science is the sort of thing some private funding sources really love.

    Sorry, I don’t feel any personal responsibility for Nasa’s budget problems that led to the cancellation of LISA, or the shutting down of the Tevatron. As you might have noticed from an April 1 posting, I share your opinions about the dreadful current state of the US government and its budgetary priorities. If this blog instead were devoted to how wonderful the multiverse idea is and how well string theory is doing, that would have no effect on those issues.

  17. oracle says:

    Ok, Peter

    yes You just reported it, maybe I`ve overdone it a bit yesterday 😉

    But I agree with Bobby that it would be god if You could hold yourself back a bit and stay generally more fair than is often the case.

    These are really dreadful times for particle physics and all of the other sciences not providing results which can be turned immediately into money or weapons…
    In principle we have the knowledge and technology to make progress in our scientific understanding as never before but it is all in vain as it seems now 🙁

    It would just be cool to see that You can avoid kicking (almost) dead horses lying on the floor already

    On the other side it would be interesting if You could invest more time into understanding the mathematicel topics You announced to not report about some time ago than in “dead-horse-kicking” which is uncool 🙂

    best wishes

  18. Tim van Beek says:

    oracle wrote (with a hint of sarcasm):

    …hopfully Europe and the rest of the world will follow their example as they usually do…

    There is no indication that European countries will cut the funding of CERN, DESY or other projects. There have been no cuts to funding of universites, no cuts of tenured positions either. Business as usual, for both string theorists and people interested in different approaches. While there are many controversial topics discussed in European politics, cutting funding to science, education, universieties etc. is not one of them.

  19. Giotis says:

    I wrote the following to another blog but I repeat it here because I think it fits perfectly with Rees’ quotation in Peter’s post too.

    I wonder, why whenever the multiverse is discussed people start talking weird all of a sudden mixing various philosophical/metaphysical Mumbo Jumbo? There are so many beautiful physical concepts within the multiverse that someone could discuss; from quantum cosmology, eternal inflation and the dynamics of the landscape to the properties of the underlying fundamental theory. Why not focusing on these concepts for a change? The conditions for the appearance of the multiverse/landscape and its ability to explain measurements in *our* universe are highly non trivial with hard physics at their core.

    Of course I understand that Peter choose the above excerpt to discredit the multiverse idea but still Rees should have known better.

    PS. I bought Greene’s book but I skipped all the “crazy” stuff regarding computer simulations etc. I’m only interested in the physics of the landscape/multiverse which is quite elegant, robust, theoretical motivated, mathematical consistent and with enormous explanatory power. These are enough I think to take the framework seriously. Regarding experimental (even circumstantial) evidence; well you never know where research, technological breakthroughs and the deeper theoretical understanding of these concepts may lead you in 10, 50 or 100 years from now. Even tomorrow some clever guy may come up with an extraordinary proposal that could put some of these ideas to the test.

  20. oracle says:


    would it not be better to constrain the number of solutions of the hard physical core further mathematically and physically to a reasonable value?
    To just say now we have a multiverse gives one a good giggle; but to stop at this point and being happy with that looks like some kind of a lazybones-approach 😛

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Sorry Giotis, but you’re just putting forward over-the-top hype and wishful thinking. Many people thought the initial 1984 models for string theory unification were elegant, hardly anyone thinks that about the complicated mess you get out of a conjectural anthropic string theory multiverse. “Enormous explanatory power” doesn’t really go with “can’t predict a single f—ing thing”….

  22. Phil says:

    I think it is a mistake to rely on the Big Bang or anthropic coincidence or any particular theory of physics as “proof” for the existence of God. In the same way, it would be foolish to use the multiverse theory as “proof” against God. While the Big Bang or anthropic coincidence may offer something like a hint about God’s existence, the philosophical argument about God’s existence is much older than those findings. The proper idea is not that God just started the big bang and moved on to something else. In this sense, perhaps the idea of a “first cause” is misleading. In Christian theology(Catholic theology, anyway), God is the underlying cause of the creation and the continued existence of all things, regardless of whatever physical theory happens to be true. St. Thomas Aquinas famously argued that the universe would still need an ultimate cause even if it had no temporal beginning. The debate about all this will continue, but it would be more helpful if people on both sides framed it in a better context.
    Christian belief is not dependent on the Big Bang.

  23. milkshake says:

    A large cash prize given to famous senior people is probably harmless. I would be concerned about Templeton directly-sponsored research – even modest grants can induce people in fledgling groups to spend their time on explaining how their research connects to mystic-friendly universe…

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