On Templeton

A few recent events, including the launch of Nautilus and this interesting thread on Brian Leiter’s blog, have brought the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) back into the spotlight. As probably everybody knows, the JTF is a philanthropic organization that supports research into the “Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality,” encourages “dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians,” and seeks to use science to acquire “new spiritual information.” They like to fund lots of things I find interesting — cosmology, physics, philosophy — but unfortunately they also like to promote the idea that science and religion are gradually reconciling. (As well as some projects that just seem silly.) They also have a huge amount of money, and they readily give it away.

I don’t think that science and religion are reconciling or can be reconciled in any meaningful sense, and I believe that it does a great disservice to the world to suggest otherwise. Therefore, way back in the day, I declined an opportunity to speak at a Templeton-sponsored conference. Ever since then, people have given me grief whenever my anti-Templeton fervor seems insufficiently fervent, even though my position — remarkably! — has been pretty consistent over the years. Honestly I find talking about things like this pretty tiresome; politics is important, but substance is infinitely more interesting. And this topic in particular has become even more tiresome as people on various sides have become increasingly emotional and less reflective. But I thought it would be useful to put my thoughts in one place, so I can just link here the next time the subject arises.

In brief: I don’t take money directly from the Templeton Foundation. You will never see me thanking them for support in the acknowledgments of one of my papers. But there are plenty of good organizations and causes who feel differently, and take the money without qualms, from the World Science Festival to the Foundational Questions Institute. As long as I think that those organizations are worthwhile in their own right, I am willing to work with them — attending their conferences, submitting articles, whatever. But I will try my best to convince them they should get money from somewhere else.

I’ve had various opportunities to get money from Templeton, and I certainly don’t come running to blog about it every time the possibility arises. Once I even got a call from a corporate head-hunter who wanted to inquire about my interest in a job with JTF. (Someone had clearly not done their homework.) But it’s not, as many people argue, because I am worried that Templeton works in nefarious ways to influence the people it funds. That is pretty unclear; there are some dark murmurings to that effect, with this piece by John Horgan being perhaps the most explicit example, but little hard evidence. It wouldn’t be utterly shocking to find that a funding agency tried to nudge work that it supported in directions that it was favorable to; that’s the kind of thing that funding agencies do. But there are plenty of examples of people receiving money from JTF and swearing that they never felt any pressure to be religion-friendly. More importantly, I don’t see much evidence that the JTF is actively evil, in (say) the way the Discovery Institute is evil, deliberately lying in order to advance an anti-science agenda. The JTF is quite pro-science, in its own way; it’s just that I think their views on science are very wrong.

And that’s the real reason why I don’t want to be involved directly with Templeton. It’s not a matter of ethical compromise; it’s simply a matter of sending the wrong message. Any time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability — even if only implicitly — to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth. That’s not something I want to do. If other people feel differently, that’s for them and their consciences, not something that is going to cause me to shun them.

But I will try to explain to them why it’s important. Think of it this way. The kinds of questions I think about — origin of the universe, fundamental laws of physics, that kind of thing — for the most part have no direct impact on how ordinary people live their lives. No jet packs are forthcoming, as the saying goes. But there is one exception to this, so obvious that it goes unnoticed: belief in God. Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work. The shift in perspective from theism to atheism is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last five hundred years. And it matters to people … a lot.

Or at least, it would matter, if we made it more widely known. It’s the one piece of scientific/philosophical knowledge that could really change people’s lives. So in my view, we have a responsibility to get the word out — to not be wishy-washy on the question of religion as a way of knowing, but to be clear and direct and loud about how reality really works. And when we blur the lines between science and religion, or seem to contribute to their blurring or even just not minding very much when other people blur them, we do the world a grave disservice. Religious belief exerts a significant influence over how the world is currently run — not just through extremists, but through the well-meaning liberal believers who very naturally think of religion as a source of wisdom and moral guidance, and who define the middle ground for sociopolitical discourse in our society. Understanding the fundamental nature of reality is a necessary starting point for productive conversations about morality, justice, and meaning. If we think we know something about that fundamental nature — something that disagrees profoundly with the conventional wisdom — we need to share it as widely and unambiguously as possible. And collaborating with organizations like Templeton inevitably dilutes that message.

There’s no question that Templeton has been actively preventing the above message from getting across. By funding projects like the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, the JTF has done its best to spread the impression that science and religion get along just fine. This impression is false. And it has consequences.

So I won’t directly work with or take money from the JTF, although I will work with people who do take money from them — money that is appropriately laundered, if you will — if I think those people themselves are worth supporting or collaborating with in their own right. This means that approximately nobody agrees with me; the Templeton-friendly folks think I’m too uptight and priggish, while the anti-Templeton faction finds me sadly lacking in conviction. So be it. These are issues without easy answers, and I don’t mind taking a judicious middle ground. It’s even possible that I’ll change my mind one way or another down the road, in response to new arguments or actions on the part of the parties involved.

And if anyone is tempted to award me the Templeton Prize, I will totally accept it! And use the funds to loudly evangelize for naturalism and atheism. (After I pay off the mortgage.)

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124 Responses to On Templeton

  1. Gizelle Janine says:

    Mmmmmhmmmm. Praise the lord! You go with your morgage-paying-self! *grins*

  2. Tim Martin says:

    Well said! Yours seems like a reasonable position, imo.

  3. I agree completely. I’m always disappointed on the fortunately rare occasions when I see people whose work I respect taking money from Templeton. I would never do so.

  4. Jerry Coyne says:

    Hey, you said

    a. “In brief: I don’t take money directly from the Templeton Foundation. ”

    and

    b. “And if anyone is tempted to award me the Templeton Prize, I will totally accept it!”

    I’m sure you know that accepting the Templeton Prize (and paying off your mortgage with it) is taking money from the Templeton Foundation. Which is it?

    This is, of course, a purely theoretical issue since the chance that you’ll get the prize is only marginally greater than that of Richard Dawkins getting the prize. :-)

  5. Gart Valenc says:

    The world will be a better place the moment we all accept that religion should enjoy the same protection and privileges…mythology does. No more, no less!

    Gart Valenc
    Twitter: @gartvalenc

  6. Sean Carroll says:

    Jerry– Yeah, that’s my loophole. “Accepting the Templeton Prize” is an ethical compromise I don’t ever expect to be faced with.

  7. Ian Durham says:

    First, let me say that I am not religious nor do I necessarily believe in God. But I think the point needs to be made that there is a difference between “religion” and “a belief in G(g)od(s).” Science can (and indeed routinely does) prove most religious dogma to be false. This is precisely because so much of religious dogma, particularly for scriptural literalists, deals with aspects of the natural world. Religion arose in a more primitive time precisely to “explain” the things science now explains. The advantages of science are self-evident to any rational person, i.e. if religion was all there was, we wouldn’t have cell phones, computers, cars, medicines, etc.

    But that fact — that science is self-evidently better than religion at explaining how the world works — does not imply that atheism is superior to theism. It is precisely because a divine being, by definition, isn’t natural or physical that science really doesn’t logically lead directly to atheism.

    In other words, science could prove that, say, the Hebrew God of Judeo-Christianity isn’t real or at least isn’t what is manifest in scripture. But it can never prove that there is not some “being” that somehow transcends the universe in some hitherto unthinkable way since the very definition of such a being is so slippery.

    Really, the most scientifically honest stance on “G(g)od(s)” is agnosticism. Further elucidation of the fundamental nature of reality can only disprove religion because, by definition, any “G(g)od(s)” is outside of said reality.

  8. Wakalook says:

    “I don’t think that science and religion are reconciling or can be reconciled in any meaningful sense”

    Buddhism Meditation Neuroscience

  9. Wakalook says:

    (I had put arrows between those three words but they don’t show up)

  10. Pseudonym says:

    I was going to say pretty much what Ian Durham’s said, but he said it better, so I won’t.

    I say “pretty much”, because there’s one statement in there:

    Religion arose in a more primitive time precisely to “explain” the things science now explains.

    To the extent that this statement is true, it’s not relevant, and to the extent that it’s relevant, it’s not true.

    That which we call religion grew out of something that was much more amorphous. This is a time in pre-history when there was no distinct concepts of “culture”, “art”, “medicine”, and “religion”. They were all one thing, which split over time into distinct areas of human endeavour. While it’s true that religion (and art and culture and music, for that matter) did give us workable explanations for which we now have better tools, that’s not the “precise” reason why it arose.

    This is important, because it highlights a common misconception in the way that evolution works in practice. Every single week you hear a new piece in the popular press about how scientists have “discovered the reason” why some human trait evolved, as if nature had a goal that it was trying to achieve, and eventually found just the right way to do it.

    It’s the same with the history of human culture. It’s highly unlikely that religion arose to “do” anything in particular. That it was used to provide explanations for things that we now have science, and to help us organise as a super organism, and to inspire monumental buildings and great artworks, and any number of other things (good, bad and neutral) is irrelevant to any reason why it arose. There probably was no reason.

    Religion provided explanations for the natural world because religion was what we already had, and nothing else was up to the job. Today, religion is not up to the job. That doesn’t mean that religion isn’t up to any job, unless you think that science is the only job we have that’s worth having.

  11. Daniel says:

    Sean,
    I love philosophy but seriously; philosophers are not experts in the fundamental nature of reality :) Also, if someone say they are an atheist it doesn’t necessarily mean they have concluded God does not exists. Some atheists would agree it’s possible to reconcile spirituality with science, and I assume that’s what some theists believe about their religion. I dunno though, it’s a mess.

  12. Dmitry Chernikov says:

    Sean, science and regilion are perfectly reconciled: they both are in search of low energy solution. You know way better than most of us why science is in search of low energy solution and how important the search of this solution is in science. So, I’m not going to waste time with this
    I’m not a religion representative in no way, but by nature of things I’m dealing with I have a lot of concerns in respect to human logic and behavior, so I have something to say on where religion belives come from, which is exactly what I’d love to do here to reconcile science and religion in understood – I hope – by scientists terms
    Obviously, humans – as a part of nature – consciously or not, are permanently after low energy solutions. However, in day-to-day life humans often expect more than they actually provide. Or at least “equal”: equal is the minimum humans are comfortable with in exchange to what they provide, “more” they would always hope and prey for.
    Also, humans often do things they’d love to have undone then. Getting things “undone” could be very difficult, therefore it may require “a lot of energy”. However, since humans are naturally comfortable only with at least equal in terms of “provide (energy) – get (energy)” basis, energy hungry “undone” would always make people extremely uncomfortable. Indeed, NODOBY likes get things undone: because low energy function gets violated there in a most howling manner.
    That all is the basis where religion comes from. The following eternal hopes of human beings are the (only) basis for religion:
    – getting something for literally nothing
    – getting done things undone at no cost
    Now, please have a look at these 2 statements from scientist point of view. Aren’t they anything that any true scientist would apparently die for? :-)
    So, a search for solutions in the cheapest possible (in terms of energy) way definitely reconciles scientists and spiritualists. The only difference between them is their outcome

  13. John Merryman says:

    The problem is that religion is equated with its western monotheistic features. Religion is a society’s vision of itself, as government is how it manages itself.
    In western culture we focus on the node side of the equation, while eastern cultures are more concerned with the network side. I find the effects of this far more pernicious than whether or not we assign simplistic anthropomorphic paternalism to our singular view of everything. Considering the ways this bias forms our atomized view of society to our atomized view of nature, there are far deeper issues here than appear in these surface territorial disputes.

  14. James Cross says:

    “One of the great mistakes Dawkins and other zealous atheists make is thinking religion is about belief. Religion is about community and making sense of things, such as death and loss. Science may explain death in biological terms but it cannot make sense of it in human terms. The atheists in this mistake are aided and abetted by the creationists and the literalists who misunderstand the words they speak to be the essential part of their religion, whereas in reality the words are only superficial parts of it.”

    http://broadspeculations.com/2013/03/23/beyond-belief-divine-knowledge/

  15. Doc c says:

    One reason science and religion might reconcile is that science may be incapable of telling us how to integrate the subjective experience we have of the deep abyss that presents itself to our conscious awareness every day, and so we must use our gift of imagination to create solutions. Religion of a variety of forms represents one of those solutions. It is imagination that links science and religion. We are subjective creatures but capable of sharing our thoughts, and that sharing creates a larger imagination for each of us.

    The real question is how to build a culture that all people can use to help them imagine how to conduct their lives together in an unpredictable universe. Religion and science should get along, because acting together they are stronger than always fighting each other. But to get along, they must accept their own limitations, and accept the gifts the other brings.

  16. Gizelle Janine says:

    @Jerry: HAHAHAHAHAHA. I think I woke my neighbors. No joke. 😀

  17. Ian Durham says:

    Pseudonym is correct. Religion obviously did not arise solely for explanatory purposes. Like any other human-related endeavor, its origins and history are muddled and complicated. My main point was simply that the question of the existence of “G(g)od(s)” is unrelated to the validity of religion and, by definition, is unrelated to science.

  18. David says:

    There are few things in the sphere of critical thinking that are as painful to experience as the mental gymnastics that so many of you engage in when attempting to rationalize a mixing of good and bad ideas.

  19. Paul Wright says:

    > But it can never prove that there is not some “being” that somehow transcends the universe in some hitherto unthinkable way since the very definition of such a being is so slippery.

    This is true, but means we’re agnostics about an attenuated theism that pretty much nobody cares about, and which most theists would thing of as near-as-dammit atheism. It’s all in Hume: http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/~swb24/PAPERS/Humedial.htm has a good summary.

    We’re also agnostics about a bunch of other hypotheses that haven’t even raised themselves to our attention. Perhaps there is an immaterial society of undetectable My Little Ponies. We must, in fairness, be agnostic about it, mustn’t we? Seeing as the beings we encounter are made of stuff, it’s not even clear what we mean by “beings” which are “outside the universe”: perhaps colourless green ideas sleep furiously, for example. We must, in fairness, be agnostic about that.

    Ridiculous examples multiply, but the response to all of these hypotheses must be “well, maybe, but why would anyone think that?” This includes claims about gods. Yet you don’t find believers, or people with some sympathy to believers, who will tell you that a-Ponyism is arrogant and we should properly call ourselves a-Pony-gnostics. I think this happens because hypotheses about gods have improperly raised themselves to our attention, that is, the error here is what the Less Wrong crowd call privileging the hypothesis.

  20. Gizelle Janine says:

    @David: I always thought you considered me funny AND dumb!!!

    *crosses arms and sneers* 😀

  21. Tom Clark says:

    “Understanding the fundamental nature of reality is a necessary starting point for productive conversations about morality, justice, and meaning. If we think we know something about that fundamental nature — something that disagrees profoundly with the conventional wisdom — we need to share it as widely and unambiguously as possible. And collaborating with organizations like Templeton inevitably dilutes that message.”

    We may never understand the fundamental nature of reality to its innermost parts, but we have very good reason to believe that empiricism has no rivals for investigating it. It’s the epistemic superiority of empiricism that Templeton and various accomodationists (including various science organizations unfortunately) are either actively or passively working to obscure, lending credence to “other ways of knowing.” Were the AAAS, NAS, National Science Teachers Association, and the National Center for Science Education to share widely and unambiguously the positive case for empiricism, as applied to *all* factual questions (including the existence of God, the soul, libertarian free will, and other unevidenced phenomena attested to by conventional wisdom) that would really help the cause of naturalism and naturalistic approaches to morality, justice and meaning. But I imagine that coming out on this would put public support and funding for science too much at risk.

    http://www.naturalism.org/epistemology.htm#concessions

  22. L. A. Paul says:

    I understand your position. It’s nicely put. But I think you should distinguish between natural science and social science when you say “Any time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability — even if only implicitly — to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth.” Templeton funds a lot of very good sociology and psychology, and I don’t see the same tension there, because the focus is not on the ultimate origin of the universe, but on, say, how to live one’s life.

  23. Ian Durham says:

    “I think this happens because hypotheses about gods have improperly raised themselves to our attention, that is, the error here is what the Less Wrong crowd call privileging the hypothesis.”

    Sure, that’s fine. I’m just trying to be intellectually honest. There are theists who will seize at any opportunity to allow for the existence of some kind of transcendent being and so, taking a cue from Feynman, I think arguing over something that is inherently unprovable distracts us from the real issues that face science that we can address.

  24. simpleasthat says:

    The reason why scientifically minded atheists face such an uphill battle against religious or spiritual belief systems is not because of an increased credibility that Templeton may gain by associating itself with serious thinkers. The real reason is that most human beings have some psychological need to feel part of something larger than them, something from which they can somehow derive meaning for their lives. Scientific evidence or rational argument will never prevail as long as it aims to take that away from people without providing some alternative to address that psychological need.

  25. mtraven says:

    Most people will grant that stupid, literal forms of religion are incompatible with science. Are these the only forms of religion? Obviously not. So why talk like that is the case?