Three pieces on Templeton

March 26, 2010 • 8:34 pm

Over at The Philosopher’s Magazine, Ophelia Benson has a long, dispassionate analysis of the Templeton Foundation and its effects on science. The piece ends with a question:

This is the issue in a nutshell. Are philosophy, science and theology different branches of the same kind of inquiry into life and being, which can be usefully and happily united? Or are they fundamentally different kinds of thing, with substantively different ways of inquiring and evaluating the results of inquiry? Templeton clearly considers the first answer correct, while the irreligious tribe of philosophers mostly (but not unanimously) opt for the second. With so much Templeton money hinging on the answer, it could be the $6 million question.

I’d go with the second answer, for the many reasons I’ve discussed previously, but I’d exempt philosophy.  The “knowledge” that religion produces isn’t at all comparable to scientific knowledge, for religious “truth” differs among different faiths, is based on revelation rather than rationality, and, most important, is impervious to disproof. In other words, religion has no way to adjudicate competing truth claims or to disprove any truth claim. Philosophy, on the other hand, comes with rational ways to weed out error, and propositions can be disproved.

Over at Metamagician, Russell Blackford disagrees a bit on the either/or question:

I’m not quite with her on this. I (and probably a lot of other philosophers) actually think that philosophy and science are continuous with each other, and it’s not clear where one ends and the other begins. They are part of the larger realm of rational inquiry, and the divisions made within this realm are more practical and pedagogical than anything else.

Theology is a mixed bag. Lot of different and ill-matching stuff gets shoved into theology. Insofar as it includes, for example, rigorous historical-textual analysis of the holy books, it is part of the larger field of rational inquiry. But the core of it is, indeed, something fundamentally different. Still, it can conflict with philosophy and science because it often makes claims that these have the resources to contest.

I’m not sure I’d agree with Russell that theology includes Biblical scholarship.  I’ve talked with some of the Biblical scholars at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and I assure you that they’d take great umbrage at being described as theologians! (In fact, they’ve set me straight when I made that mistake.) Biblical scholarship that involves dissecting and analyzing the historical and textual sources of the scriptures is a rational endeavor, and that puts it in line with science, which, after all, is just organized rationality.  The woo part of theology, i.e., the part for which Templeton awards millions of dollars, is clearly not a way to gain knowledge.

I’ve challenged people over and over again to tell me what “truths” religion offers that could not be apprehended by science and rational thinking.  I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer: the usual response involves moral prescriptions like “Love your neighbor”, which of course are neither truths nor the exclusive results of faith.

Religion, then, isn’t a way of knowing; it’s a way of believing.

Finally, Bob Park, a professor of physics at The University of Maryland, has a couple of short takes on Templeton: “Sir John Templeton: the man who tried to buy science,” and “A bigger prize: how much would it take to buy the NAS [National Academy of Sciences]?”

30 thoughts on “Three pieces on Templeton

  1. I think that science, in general, went with answer number one for years. Early scientists though brilliant, lacked many of the basic building blocks of knowledge that every school boy and girl has at their disposal today. Having their science become sticky with religion and other irrational beliefs was inevitable.

    But today, we simply know too much about the world to be able to hold on to all those warm and fuzzy and terribly illogical thoughts. From this point, for science to progress further, we need to shed them like a dead skin inhibiting our growth. We need to molt.

    To enter the next door we must leave religion behind. Good riddance!

    Blessed Atheist Bible Study @

  2. You know, if you drew a graph representing the religiosity of the Templeton recipient over the last 30 years vs time, Mother Theresa in 1973, Billy Graham in 1982, Paul Davies in 1995, and now Ayala there is a definite trend. It starts with wholly religious types, moves to philosophers, then cosmologists and physicists and finally Ayala who seems to be the first biologist to win the prize.
    Give it another 15-20 years and they’ll be giving it to atheists who are just prepared to say “God is the universe” and not long after that to people prepared to preach simply on goodness and niceness.
    They clearly realise that there is no future in religion and are giving it away slowly!

    1. Theresa & Graham were both a-theist.
      Davies seems to be a deist, and Ayala a fully fledged believer.
      The trend (if there is one) is a RISE in belief.

  3. Yeah, I can well imagine biblical scholars, or at least some of them, not wanting to be known as theologians. But a lot are employed in faculties of theology and the like. I wonder whether people in those faculties have interesting and complicated debates about where “theology” begins and ends.

    1. You are right, and I’m entirely with you on this. Theological faculties are ‘mixed bags’, at least here in Europe, and many different fields are conflated under one roof for arcane historical reasons. It’s a side-track, and a non-issue.
      I have in front of me the photocopy of a monograph on the ceramics of Machaerus, an antique hilltop fortress in Jordan. Professional fieldwork, straight solid archaeology, done by Franciscan scholars and published in their series Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. Because of the label, the only library hosting the series hereabouts is a theological seminary, where it is guaranteed that no one needs it, for no one there can tell a Nabataean flask from a bottle of sherry. Don’t be fooled by labels.
      Jerry, on the subject of moral prescriptions, have you seen Christopher Hitchens’ newest piece on the Ten Commandments over at Vanity Fair? Good one. L’envoi: “Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form.“. And of course: “Turn off that fucking cell phone.”

      1. CH should repeat the IX commandement 1000 times. He writes: “The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labor seven days a week…” What the F@#$%?#$…!!!(the f bombs are popular here now). The first congress of the 2nd International met in Paris in 1899 calling for demonstrations for the 1890 “anniversary” of the Haymarket massacre, Chicago. The Haymnarket rally was one of many before, to demand 8 hour workdays, which didnt become law in USA till 1930s(?)Early in the 1900s May 1 became international labor day evreywhere, except in the USA. Hitchens should fire his fact-finder and READ what he writes-or what he doesnt-and then fire himself. (disclaimer: CH became kind of a youth hero for many of us when he was one of the first-in the english language-that exposed Kissingers’ involvements in the Chile coup d’etat previous and following murders. Too bad.)

  4. There are “fuzzy philosophers” and genuine thinking philosophers. The difference seems to be that one type loves to invent words and strives to be incomprehensible in the mistaken belief that being incomprehensible makes one seem intelligent. The other type provide their arguments and opinions and are often very careful to point out opinions and assumptions. The ethicists are always a fun bunch. Philosophy does require a lot of thought though, because many ideas cannot be readily tested (or are unethical to test) so the philosopher is forced to imagine numerous possibilities and rule out many through reason alone. In science it is pretty rare when there is no ethical means to test an idea. Now religion deals exclusively with “fuzzy philosophy” which is not philosophy at all; it is mere sophistry to support the preconceived notion that there is a god. That is the sort of “reasoning” exhibited by every single theologian who believes in a god (and some strange ones who claim not to believe in a god). One only has to read that garbage by Thomas Aquinas; it has most of the tropes of the ages – so little has changed in what passes for religious thought in the past 2000 or more years.

  5. Has Ayala got some sort of selective amnesia?
    The Templeton foundation was one of the principle financial supporters of the Discovery Institute a decade ago. For instance they gave a grant to William Dembski at the Discovery Institute after he published ‘The Design Inference’.
    “The judges involved in selecting the seven grantees were John Polkinghorne, Cambridge University; Philip Hefner, Zygon Journal; and Lawrence Sullivan, then director of Harvard University Center on World Religions. The Templeton Foundation played no role in the judging and selection process. Dembski’s book proposal set out to develop a scientific and theological reflection on the elusive nature of information.”
    In other words they funded straightforward Intelligent Design.
    They’ve only changed their tune in recent years only after it became apparent that the DI are unsubtle creationist hacks who embarrassed themselves in their lack of scientific output and the clumsy legal debacle of Dover.

  6. John Templeton had billions of dollars but went off shore to avoid taxes. John Templeton was an unethical person while alive and has left that as a legacy to himself.

    1. Right on.However the problem at hand is-seems to be-when people like say, Martin Nowak or F. Ayala,accept funds-lots- from Templeton on scientific premises? I consider M. Nowak a phenomenal evolutionary-dynamics-biologist, as Paco Ayala is. I-we-dont know whether they hold a moral dilemma about this-I can only guess they dont, but there is room for wiggle. Templeton doesnt have that dilemma, this is what Templeton does.

  7. If you have read my previous comments here, it will come as no surprise that I disagree on the dividing line between empirical inquiry and the rest.

    The more fundamental problem I have is that facts are unique while truth is relative an axiomatic or philosophic system. This ambiguity lead into the problem of whether philosophy has a substantial different method of weeding out errors than religion has.

    If we discard the contingencies of religion and pull out theology for a comparison, it is evident they have not. Theology can be internally consistent for the same reason that philosophy can be – observationally theology is philosophy, albeit philosophy about an absurd object.

    (Which, by the way, isn’t unique to theology. Just an observation.)

    In both cases there remains one way of weeding out error, but it isn’t germane to philosophy. That is, of course, to adjust itself to the facts and theories that science uncover (by testing, to be clear). Nor is it exactly mappable to philosophy as facts doesn’t map to truths, having the dimension of uncertainty, admit “don’t know” values, et cetera.

    Nowadays I believe there is a reason nobody have come up with an axiomatic truth value description of facts, or at least none that I know of. It isn’t guaranteed to be doable, if physics is the larger arena of algorithms. And that seems to be the case, as theoretical physics can’t be axiomatized. (For example, no axiomatic description of QFT 2nd quantization is in existence, despite numerous attempts.)

    So the same challenge could be put to philosophy, to tell me what “facts” philosophy offers that could not be apprehended by science. I too have never gotten a satisfactory answer.

    And to further the analogy (or, as I claim here, equivalence), I find “philosophic belief in philosophy” a bit touching, if circular and not founded in empirical inquiry.

    And those are the facts as I find them. 😀

    1. So did Wittgenstein: “what is true depends solely on what is the case”.. Arent facts and truth identical in science (as a sytem of knowledge)??

  8. F. Ayalas’ and others, have been called-appointed-“Christian cheerleaders” for Darwin-ism by the microphones at the D “Institute” site. Quite funny, if it wasnt tragic in the-logic and otherwise-monstrosity of the whole discussion at the said site-never visited it before. I need an early fix.

    1. ‘Everybody should believe in something — I believe I’ll have another drink.’ (attributed to W.C. Fields)

      1. Rather extreme WC Fields after Descartes: “Bibo ergo sum” (not sure about this translation). “i drink therefore I am”.
        Another extreme from W.L. Churchill:
        “My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

  9. Also it is possible for plain ol’ atheists to get degrees in theology – to treat theology as a subject for study from the outside, as it were. Edmund Standing (frequent contributor to Butterflies and Wheels) has an MA in theology but he ain’t no theist.

    1. Startling paradox on ends, highlighted by many objection to place theology at the same level than other “legitimate” scholarly disciplines” (e.g.:biology, math, even philosophy:-). When your friend is asked about what he “does”, how does he answer?

  10. (I tried to post this over at Russell’s site also, but the type-pad demons are still lurking in my computer so I’m not sure if it will get through.)

    I have to question placing the biblical scholars under the umbrella of the sciences. Once they are in can the rest of the literary critics be far behind? Before you can say ‘different ways of knowing’ we will be up to our Sokals in post-modern relativists.

    1. This is precisely the crux of the hoax. Theology is not another “way of kowiing”. It is claimed that it is, however you know-told- by revelation. That is , you know nothing. Unfortunately, this another “way of knowing” kerfuffle (i adore this word) de-legitimizes legitimate claims to a way of knowing learned by EXPERIENCING that what is meant as the knwoledge e.g.: growing up and living as an Inuit learning how to hunt polar bears (a favourite). I mnean if you ARE NOT an Inuit to begin.

        1. No time for knowing if you are wrong. You become dinner. And no time to know if you are right. You become dinner. Hard to imagine Inuits attending polar bear hunting grad school. Useless.

      1. The whole point of science is that it considers experience to be an unreliable source of knowledge. Experience teaches that you should run from tigers, but it also teaches that rain dances bring rain. Experience is notoriously unreliable.

        1. It is not science that does consider anything. It is scientists. You havent practiced enough rain making I would say. Practice makes perfect. Experience is a reliable predictor: keep running from tigers.

  11. I like one of Dan Dennett’s quotes (although I’m not sure whether he originated it): “Science is what you do when you know what questions to ask. Philosophy is what you do when you aren’t yet sure.”

    Religion doesn’t like to concern itself
    with asking many questions.

  12. I’ve challenged people over and over again to tell me what “truths” religion offers that could not be apprehended by science and rational thinking. I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer: the usual response involves moral prescriptions like “Love your neighbor”, which of course are neither truths nor the exclusive results of faith.

    So, how do you derive “love thy neighbor” from “science and rational thinking?”

    And if “love thy neighbor,: etc. is not a truth, then, from a scientific perspective the opposite is just as acceptable?

    Which, it would seem to me, would be an argument in favor of some other guide to our behavior than science. No?

    But then, of course, you may not share my moral objections to things like murder rape & genocide. Perhaps we should wait to see what the long-term evolutionary outcome of such behavior is? perhaps it’s all for the betterment of the species. Or perhaps it goes toward the emergence of some new & better species if carried to sufficient extremes? What do you think? That’s one thing you do know about, right?

  13. This is a fun coincidence that nobody but me will see, but that’s okay because I’m pretty sure that nobody else will see this post.

    Earlier today there was a Slashdot article about some idiot who is suing his neighbor, because apparently he is allergic to Wifi and she refused to turn her access point off.

    True to the wishy-washy traditions of modern American journalism, the idiot and his woofull doctor were on the pro side – and none other than Dr. Bob Park at the University of Maryland was on the “no, this is BS” side.

    Weird coincidence, huh? Must be a sign from the Great Randi (not to be confused with the Amazing Randi, it’s a Trinity sort of thing) that I should sacrifice a lamb for dinner.

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