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. Meh says:

    When I talk about inciting: genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism; I mean things like how you can be put to death for being homosexual in Nigeria thanks to the hard work of many missionaries bringing the word of god to their poor population. Ignorant and uneducated people distort religion, just like Nigeria and like so many throughout history have done and still do every day.

  2. Atheism Sucks says:

    Plenty of atheists have engaged in genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism.

    It is going on as we speak.

  3. Ant says:

    “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.”

    OK. So this explains why you’re cool with being on the Board of Advisors of the Templeton-funded Nautilus. I think…

    /@

  4. Ant says:

    @ James Cross

    “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.”

    But is religion the best way of making sense of things, such as death and loss?

    To make sense of such things in human terms, do you actually need to have the supernaturalistic underpinnings of theistic religions*? Do you actually need to follow the dogma and traditions of Bronze-Age, Iron-Age, and mediæval texts? Do you actually need to privilege faith in the certainty and truth of these things over a science-based understanding the fundamental nature of reality?

    /@

    * Arguably (see Alan Watts, Anthony Grayling, and others), any non-theistic religion isn’t a religion per se; call it philosophy, world view or life stance.

  5. Ant says:

    * texts » thinkers

  6. James Cross says:

    Ant,

    I am not defending the supernatural underpinnings of religion. Religion should leave explanation to science. Religions today, of course, are caught up in a literalist frenzy that tries to compete with science.

    Science offers nothing for understanding with core human experiences – birth, death, loss, and love.

    If religion could lose its literalist bent – accept its stories as stories, not fact – it could coexist compatibly with science and science with it.

  7. Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) says:

    Yeah, I disagree with Brett that it’s particularly meaningful that atheists are poorly represented among criminals. I think education is the confounding variable here – criminality correlates with lack of education, and atheism correlates with education.

    I refrain from speculating on what Hitler’s secret innermost thoughts about the existence of god were. By his actions, it seems clear that god-belief was acceptable and useful to him.

    The whole discussion is silly anyway. There’s about zero correlation between content of beliefs about the supernatural and the capacity for ethical, compassionate behavior. Which is a point in favor of atheism, since if religious claims were true, you’d see the members of whichever sect was the real true religion behaving better than everybody else. It shows that ethical behavior transcends sectarian beliefs. Our common ground is that we are all human, and our humanity, not supernatural beings, is the source of our moral sense.

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  9. Sally Strange (@SallyStrange) says:

    Science offers nothing for understanding with core human experiences – birth, death, loss, and love.

    Really? Because to me, the scientific fact that there’s almost certainly no afterlife really helps me figure out how to approach death, and, as a result, life.

    The scientific fact that cooperation and love have been spectacularly successful as an evolutionary strategy for humans adds historical depth to my appreciation of community and cements how important it is to work together to create the kind of world I want to live in.

    My understanding of genetics has helped me get over my irrational desire to give birth to a child myself and enjoy being an aunt to my nephew and two nieces, because evolutionarily speaking, three siblings’ kids are as good as 1.5 of my own. And to appreciate the health benefits of not being pregnant and being able to get an abortion.

    Such statements betray a depressing lack of appreciation for the value of truth, which is what science gives us.

    The truth is that we create our own meaning. The scientific fact that there are no creators, that we just happened, means that there’s nobody watching over us, and nobody besides us who cares what happens to us.

    All of these things have huge implications for what you call “core human experiences” – and they’re much more interesting and useful implications than anything you could get from the Bible or the Baghavad Gita.

  10. Brett says:

    I have to agree with Sally on that last comment; the lack of any supernatural being makes life far more meaningful and precious. As in young adulthood, there is a certain maturity that comes with realizing that you are on your own and will reap the rewards and punishments of your actions in life.

  11. Ant says:

    @ James Cross

    But you are, implicitly. Without the supernatural (and doctrinal) underpinnings, on what basis can religion find meaning, if not, as Sally notes, the (best approximation to the) truth that science tells us about the world (for ex., as Sean told us in his Skepticon 5 talk, that there can be no afterlife)? And then it becomes essentially humanism (albeit with some unnecessary rituals). Universal Unitarianism comes close already, but, per Adam Lee, it seems that some of the UU folks see robustly atheistic life stances as beyond the pale.

    /@

  12. James Cross says:

    Ant, Sally, and Brett

    I have discussed many of the points you bring up in some detail. I find it particularly interesting that you, Sally, bring up evolution. One of my posts is on Julian Huxley. Let me quote a little from it:

    There is one place in science, perhaps one of the most problematic areas, that could connect science with the divine. Huxley even alludes to it:. “When we look at biological evolution as a whole, we find that the most notable improvement is the improved organization of mind; in other terms, a higher organization of the capacity for awareness.” Consciousness itself is the bridge. Consciousness is at the nexus of our ability to experience the divine and our ability to understand the world. Huxley goes beyond the sterile, unproductive debate whether mind is reducible to matter. “Human beings are organizations of – do not let us use the philosophically tendentious word ‘matter’, but rather the neutral and philosophically non-committal term translated from the German Weltstoff – the universal ‘world stuff’. But our organization has two aspects a material aspect when looked at objectively from the outside, and a mental aspect when experienced subjectively from the inside. We are simultaneously and indissolubly both matter and mind.”

    With mind back into science, the new religion of Huxley looks like a very old religion – animism. The divine can be restored to the universe now it can be seen as invaded by consciousness. Even animistic explanations for life and death can take on new truth. Life is a conscious process that has form in a universe that is ever generating new forms. In terms of the new scientific animism, “the computational capacity of the universe means that logically and thermodynamically deep things necessarily evolve spontaneously.”

    A core focus of this new religion necessarily becomes the expansion, enhancement, and modification of consciousness. Its technology is the technology of the shaman and modern-day neuroscience. New rituals built from old rituals. New beliefs from old beliefs. Religion back in touch with science while retaining divinity.

    http://broadspeculations.com/2012/07/22/julian-huxley-and-a-new-animism/

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

  13. Ant says:

    @ James Cross

    Oh, for a moment there I was under the impression that you were saying something that deserved a thoughtful response. But after “devine” … not so much.

    /@

  14. Brett says:

    James,

    I have to be honest; I can only see your comment as complete new age bullshit. Believing in everything while believing in everything; isn’t it like, so totally deep? fur shur.

  15. James Cross says:

    Julian Huxley New Age?

    Interesting perspective.

  16. Dave Lewis says:

    “God does not exist,” you argue.

    I agree, not because I don’t believe in God, but rather because “existence” is, in my view, limited to empirical reality.

    My Grandfather no longer exists. The number “2” (or any other number) doesn’t exist. “Love” and “freedom” don’t exist either.

    Yet, each of these words denotes a concept in my head. Each has led me to behave in ways I would not had my mind not become aware of the concepts.

    Lest readers assume I’m some uneducated luddite, I studied Physics and Philosophy at College, believe the Earth is likely billions of years old, and have no substantive issues with Darwin’s general view of man as descended from non-language using simians.

    Yet, the opening line of John, In the beginning was the logos, reminds me that materialism alone will not answer all man’s questions.

  17. Chris says:

    Lots of comments and discussion. Enjoyed them all. Obviously, this is the right place to post. Help me out. Here’s my question:

    Can anyone explain the nature of infinity as it applies to the physical universe? After listening to Lawrence Krauss and Brian Greene, and reading several of their books, both invoke infinity to support their claims about the nature of the universe. Yet, they never clarify what they mean by infinity? Potential? Absolute?

    We all know what potential infinities are. A timer will potentially tick off time for infinity if we are willing to maintain the timer and wait. But as soon as the timer stops, whatever increment it has reached has become finite. And no matter how long it ticks, it will always be at a number to which another increment can be added. It is “potentially” infinite.

    Absolute infinities are not just very large numbers. They are sets of numbers that contain ALL numbers. There are NO examples of absolute physical infinities.

    Absolute infinities are mathematics’s way of telling you that your figures don’t make sense. Attempts to combine QM and GR produce infinities, or even infinities of infinities. Theories that require absolute infinities eventually collapse under their own weight. That is because actual absolute physical infinities require infinite energy, infinite mass and/or infinite time.

    Examples of current popular ideas that rely upon real absolute infinities include the Multiverse. This idea (among other things) attempts to offer an explanation for the unlikely numbers related to the so-called fine-tuning of the universe. Yet, it create more problems than it solves by invoking infinities of universes in order to produce the odds of our universe.

    Simply, absolute physical infinities are impossible! Not just operationally impossible. Not just infeasible, improbable or unlikely.

    Yet, Brian Greene, Lawerence Krauss both speak to packed standing room only rooms, and sell lots of books, all while telling us that the universe (or multiverse) may be infinite.

    Any care to comment (without invoking God or religion)?

    PS: I asked this question of a well-respected head of the physics department of a large university. His answer: What answer would you accept? You are correct in your reasoning. It’s a big problem, perhaps the biggest problem, and you are not the first to ask it. Between us, I cannot pull God out of a hat for you. But it’s pretty clear all the other hats have no rabbits.”

  18. Tony Rz says:

    How does science explain good and evil what’s moral and what is not? I’ll answer, it doesn’t, it can’t, science is impersonal and it’s impossible for it to know the difference. Neither can philosophy, the person who says science told me it is wrong to beat my wife and kids is a liar and those of you who say that science has all the answers or will are just as stupid. Science or Physics is a subject in high school or college and that it may tell us something of the physical universe, but that is all it is. What people do with that knowledge depends a great deal on Religion its Truths, and its moral compass. In other words science is blind.

  19. Stevie says:

    “… 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.”

    Anyone know Sir Karl? The conjecture “God does not exist” is not in the realm of science. It can’t be falsified. An opinion survey is a scientific endeavor not.

    It’s as it is with M-Theory. There’s no way to prove it not. Science it is not.

    “Sir Roger Penrose, who shared the Wolf Prize with Stephen Hawking in 1988, commented on Hawking’s latest book ‘The Grand Design’ with its M-Theory and its claim as a scientific theory that explains God away:

    “What is referred to as M-Theory isn’t even a theory. It’s a collection of ideas, hopes, aspirations. It’s not even a theory. And I think the book is a bit misleading in that respect. It gives you the impression that here is this theory which is going to explain everything. It’s nothing of the sort. It is not even a theory and it certainly has no observational…”

    http://szezeng.blogspot.com/2010/10/roger-penrose-and-others-rebuke-stephen.html

  20. Joe Morton says:

    Does this article aim at persuading its readers of anything other than the belief that its author has been offered a Templeton Award?

    While it is true that theism is terrible science, Naturalism nevertheless remains an untenable Philosophical position. It either results in a tautology (i.e., “everything that exists must exist within the realm of nature”, yet this accomplishes little, as most theists believe that God is the most fundamental part of nature”), or some appeal to Naturalism as the thesis that “everything that exists must fall into the realm of natural sciences.” The latter is equally silly, and circular to boot, as the boundaries of natural sciences only exclude a deity if so stipulated beforehand — the upshot being that naturalism answers the question of “are there entities beyond the realm of natural science?” with something like “nothing exists beyond the purview of natural sciences; God exists beyond the realm of natural sciences; therefore God does not exist.”

    Even as an atheist, I find it difficult to take seriously an argument which claims that religion is untenable because it does not explain the natural world as well as the natural sciences. Of course it does not. Science will never “explain” the meaning of life, nor prove that “murder is wrong.” These are simply the wrong sorts of questions to put to science. Conversely, it’s equally unhelpful to expect religion to provide a scientifically descriptive model of the world.

    Science asks “what?” and “how?” — Religion and Philosophy ask “why?” Confusing the two, while enormously popular, makes scientists, preachers, and blog-authors appear more-than-a-little out of their element.

  21. greg says:

    All this either-or thinking! People have been debating the existence or non-existence of God for thousands of years, without clear resolution. Perhaps it is: God exists AND God does not exist. The ‘Law of the Excluded Middle’ is just a tool, like a hammer, and not to be confused with a screwdriver.

    http://www.truthabouttheone.com/2010.10.01_arch.html

    And the same may be true of other long standing philosophical issues, such as free will and determinism:


    http://www.truthabouttheone.com/2010.08.01_arch.html

    My point of view is the universe cannot be properly described on the basis of any finite set of postulates, and the demand for consistency over-constrains the possibility for valid description. Consider Quantum Mechanics: particles like electrons and photons are considered both particles AND waves, and experiments persistently confirm this. Perhaps many philosophical issues have AND solutions.

  22. Ant (@antallan) says:

    @ greg

    If you think particles are particles and waves, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention to Sean’s public lectures.

    /@

  23. Bret Lythgoe says:

    I find it interesting that Sean Carroll is so certain that God doesn’t exist. How does he know? Carroll seems like a smart guy, but we have equally smart people, equally educated people, who believe that, what enables the universe to exist is God. Carroll seems to adhere to a version of positivism, the philosophy that the only means of knowing things is empirically. If this is so, I’m curious how Carroll is so sure God, not an empirical object, at least according to traditional Christianity, is nonexistent?

  24. Leon du Toit says:

    Do you conflate theism with religion?

  25. Tony Rz says:

    People such as Sean Carroll want God to fit their concept of what God should be and what, and since in their estimation there is no proof of that particular God, then of course He doesn’t exist. They want a God that they can comprehend, because of course their intellects are of such superiority that only they are capable of imagining a God that could create the Cosmos, in other words they want a God in their image, a giant intellect that would make those of higher intellect his true sons. There is no such God of course so he doesn’t exist. Satan would be proud. If you want the real God you have to look to Love.