Templeton funds inquiry into how God’s mind works

October 27, 2011 • 4:24 am

Lest you think that The John Templeton Foundation is funding research only at the nexus of science and theology—bad enough as that might be—do be aware that it’s funding pure theology, and spending appreciable bucks on it.

The University of California, Riverside publicity machine has announced that one of its Ph.D. students in philosophy has been awarded a two-year fellowship to study the mind of God.  

And, as postdocs go, it’s a very lavish one:  $81,000 per year for two years, plus $5500 yearly for travel to and in Europe.  As the press release says:

The fellowship is part of a larger Templeton project to bring the resources of analytical philosophy to theology and philosophy of religion, Fischer [chair of the UCR philosophy department] said, adding, “This is a significant achievement for [the candidate], and a truly exciting and wonderful opportunity.”

The fellowship enables young scholars to use contemporary analytic methods to pursue independent research in the fields of divine and human agency, such as moral responsibility and freedom of will; or philosophy of mind and its theological implications, such as the presence of the divine in a natural world and the emergence of consciousness. The Pennsylvania-based foundation describes itself as a “philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.”

So what is the Big Question that the candidate is being given $173,000 to answer?

His postdoctoral research project, “Divine Foreknowledge, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Dependence: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,” assesses a core Ockhamist thesis about foreknowledge. William of Ockham was a 13th century philosopher.

“The central contention of the Ockhamist concerns a point about the order of explanation. According to the Ockhamist, it is because of what we do that God long ago believed that we would do these things. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained. “The overarching goal of this project is to develop and assess this core Ockhamist thesis along two underexplored dimensions: the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence – both of which have seen an explosion of recent interest.”

This is an area about which I’m completely ignorant, and happy to remain so, because it sounds like a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration. It of course begins with three completely unsupported premises: that there is a God, that that God has a mind that has “beliefs,” and that how we act now somehow influences God’s beliefs about our actions long before we performed them.  It sounds as if what we do now, then, can go back in time and change God’s beliefs.  (That, at least, is how I interpret the gobbledygook above.)

Given those three bogus assumptions, the candidate will then spend many dollars ruminating about how God’s prior beliefs relate to the philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence, whatever that means.

In other words, all the money is going to work out the consequences of a fairy tale.  So much money for so much “sophisticated” philosophy!

I haven’t named the candidate (though clicking the link will reveal the name) because this post isn’t so much about a cockeyed postdoctoral project as about the kind of hogwash that Templeton is funding—things that have nothing to do with science.  And of course, no Big Questions will be answered. (What makes me laugh about these “Big Questions” is that they’re always being “addressed,” but never answered.)

My Big Question is this:  which mushbrains at Templeton have decided to throw their money down this particular drain?

87 thoughts on “Templeton funds inquiry into how God’s mind works

  1. Why can’t they just give the money to help the victims of the recent Turkish earthquake instead? They are, after all, victims of “and act of god”.

    Which means, to me, that the earthquake happened because as it happened, it went back in time to make god think that he would make it happen? I see a flaw!

    Gobbledygook indeed. Sigh!


  2. Perhaps when this project is complete they will fund research into an even more important Big Question. “Divine Foreskin, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Reattachment: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,”

    1. You know, Jesus was a Jew, required to undergo circumcision — so the “holy foreskin” is supposed to be out there somewhere. Rumor has it: it is preserved
      and kept in the Vatican!

  3. Silly Professor Coyne, let me help you understand theology.
    Black is white and white is black and there are many shades of gray which look green or sometimes blue. Oh look, there is a pretty bird flying past.

  4. “This is a significant achievement for [the candidate], and a truly exciting and wonderful opportunity.”

    Now now Jerry, as the above quote states, this is a significant achievement for the candidate, and I agree. It is not everyday that someone can score $173,000 to theorise and study drained mush.

    1. For half of that money I would work and improve the “postmodernism generator” and make sophisticated theological generator and generate the dissertation required at the end. That would be more effective use of money. Saved time and energy I would spend to make a long vacation on the south of Europe.

  5. Any Ph.D psychoanalysing god is bound to run into trouble with divine foreknowledge being repressed into divine subconscience and his alter ego taking centre stage.

    1. I always thought that “solving” the divine foreknowledge thing was like trying to stand on neither foot at the same time.

  6. I like God’s first book The Bible, which is like a postmodernist fantasy with some interesting characters, but ultimately an absurd plot. It’s been a big number one seller for centuries, but it’s getting old. When is he coming out with a new book?

    1. Don’t you know that the Book of Mormon was the long awaited sequel to the Bible? Admittedly, it wasn’t a huge success. Perhaps God made a slight marketing error by having it delivered by an angel called Moroni to a convicted con man.

        1. I always think of the Who song, “I got a girl named Bony Maroney …” it makes it totally impossible to take Moroni seriously.

  7. ” … God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs … ”

    Holy Freakin’ Moley! I’ve never read such bunkum!. Is he really saying that if I decide to have strawberry jam on my toast tomorrow morning, rather than, say, blackcurrant, that my decision changes god’s past belief about what I would choose?

    I suspect even god(if he exists)’s head hurts thinking about that one! LOL!

  8. It may cheer you to know that Francisco Ayala, recent recipient of the Templeton Prize, donated the money (one million British Pounds, or about 2M American) to the Science Library at University of California at Irvine (a legitimate school) — so the money doesn’t all get wasted!

  9. According to Webster, belief is 1) An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. 2) Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.

    But if god is omnipotent, then he doesn’t have to accept things as true, he would know they are true. Looking at it that way, Templeton is funding the undermining of god’s omnipotence.

    1. And further, if god knows the truth rather than believes it then our actions, by definition, cannot change god’s mind.

      We have just disproved his whole argument.

      How do you want to split the $173,000? 🙂

      1. If god knows the truth, then the truth has set him free and he no longer has to hang around checking up on what we’re doing. Enjoy the time off, god.

    2. Templeton is funding the undermining of god’s omnipotence

      That is precisely what I thought when I saw this “argument”.

      That said, the whole time-travel bit seems popular in theology these days — I recall some mucky-muck recently arguing that human sin projected its effects backward in time, onto our ancestors, or some such nonsense (does anyone recall more details)?

      1. Bill Dembski has said things to this effect. He is an Old Earth creationist who also believes in Original Sin. So why was there death and destruction long before humans appeared on the Earth to screw it all up? It’s because the effects of Original Sin work backward through time. PZ summarizes Dembski’s position thusly: “God created a world containing evil in anticipation of Eve chomping on an apple.”


    3. I had not read your comment when I said something vaguely similar down below. If god is omnipresent then maybe it is funding itself to justify itself.

  10. plus $5500 for travel to and in Europe.

    I suggest that he visit the Ossuary at Verdun and write an explanation putting it in an Ockhamian context. That might give us an idea of where he’s coming from.

  11. That’s a pretty decent sum of money for studying woo, although in fairness its not out of line with other fellowships. For example the DOD Breast Cancer Research fellowships (first one I pulled up) are up to $100k in annual direct costs (which is not to imply that the fellow earns close to that, it covers salary, benefits, laboratory expenses, travel etc.)

    I’m not sure what expenses would be involved in this sort of exercise, so if it’s just salary it’s a very well paid postdoc. And yes, clearly there are better ways to spend the money. If they want to fund a postdoc to work on prostate cancer I’ve got one lined up that I’m trying to get funded.

    1. This two year post doctoral fellowship doesnt contain any laboratory expenses – its all wages and travel costs.
      In pure employment costs (going by the average wages in my department) it’s the equivalent of hiring three post-doc molecular biologists for cancer research.

  12. we can talk anything we like but they spend money on multiplication of nonsense

    it is time to look the truth in the eye:

    democracy and capitalism are as primitive as religion and beliefs in fairies

    for as long as scientists and all people of reason are complacent about letting crackpots run the show things will continue to deteriorate on the same path:

    “human rights and sacredness of human life”,
    “more people is good”,
    “economy must grow”,
    “i am better than you because i am smarter than you because i have more stuff than you”,
    “who cares about us piling up sh*t – future generations will have to eat it – not us!”,
    “let’s just talk about it all – no action is required – talk is enough to make us feel good now and that is all i care about”

    so it all going to be

    more people ->
    cheap labor->
    higher productivity ->
    less workers ->
    less money and wealth in workers’ hands ->
    no demand ->
    no production ->
    less jobs ->
    social unrest and violence ->
    breakdown of all morality ->
    gated communities with us vs. them -> population reduction outside the gates because there is nothing to eat and no water to drink ->

    and the cycle begins again with the gated communities spewing out next portion of the people outside as the carrying capacity of the planet diminishes

    and this will continue until homo sapiens subspeciates into homo cogitans and scientists will see no other choice but organize into a group that takes ‘beliefs’ out of their internal communications and that group teases out from the balck box how the system works and what is the best way to bring science into government and make science the basis of aristocracy

    1. Your naive belief that scientists would expunge beliefs may be shaken if you take a look at the attempts of scientists to convince the world (and other scientists) about global climate change. The sorry record of shoddy behaviour — fudging data, cherry-picking the start and end of trend graphs, attempting to block the publication of dissenting data and interpretations — makes it clear that scientists cannot be assumed to stick to known evidence when some of that evidence invalidates their beliefs.

      1. The sorry record of shoddy behaviour — fudging data, cherry-picking the start and end of trend graphs, attempting to block the publication of dissenting data and interpretations

        Except that this did NOT happen. Those are made up stories by climate change deniers and the data stands, even after detailed scrutiny.

      2. i was talking about _attractor state_ for human condition over long (evolutionary scale) time

        what you point out (scandal or lack thereof about global warming science) is an illustration that at the moment the scientists do ‘pure’ or ‘belief-free’ science for a very short time: when they are in their labs talking to their peers

        the moment they step out and into the ‘human condition’ they are ‘the peckers in the pecking order structure we all are part of’

        my post is about the lack of organized group of scientist who would understand ‘human condition’ and would _begin_ allocating some of their time to functioning of such ‘belief-free science’ group which then would proceed to study ‘human condition’ in a scientific way – something that is completely missing at the moment

  13. Assuming that “God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do” they’re missing a great opportunity, namely time-loop supercomputing. For example, if you wanted to factorize the product of two large prime numbers, you could use God’s power to perform the calculation as follows:

    Build an array of automated Eucharist desecraters, each of which is assigned a power of two, allowing them to represent an arbitrary integer in binary format. By triggering a particular combination of desecraters, an integer can be sent back in time, as by God’s omniscience, his knowledge of the event will extend to before it happened. The desecraters can therefore be used to detect this integer before it is sent, by noting which of them are cursed by divine wrath.

    Detect the integer sent from the future, and then proceed as follows: If the integer is the desired prime factor, then send that number back in time using the desecrators. If it isn’t the correct solution, then increment it by one (resetting to 0 if it exceeds the square root of the factor of primes) and then send that number back. Crucially, the reception of any integer besides the correct solution will cause that integer not to be received, thus creating a logical paradox. Therefore, the system must provide the correct answer.

    God is great.

    1. Wow. You’ve clearly thought…a lot… about this.

      You’re clearly right — there is huge potential in retrochronotheotechnology.

      1. The technique of time-loop computing (where a desired result must be obtained to avoid a paradox) is well known. Prime factorization is the classic example.

        I just added a theological twist.

  14. Philosophy of Time means, “Given that physicists overwhelmingly endorse the B theory of time, which negates the Kalam argument by interfering with our notions of cause and effect at the boundary conditions of the universe, how can we make the Kalam argument work anyway?”

    1. Shame that is likely where it is going – since there is good work in the philosophy of time which takes physics seriously.

      Also, Fischer, if it is who I think it is has written reasonably well regarded (but often metaphysically neutral hence awkward) stuff on moral responsibility … hmm … I guess being proud of your department’s student is one thing, but …

  15. The fellowship is part of a larger Templeton project to bring the resources of analytical philosophy to theology and philosophy of religion,

    Yes, by all means, let’s bring the quite formidable resources of analytical philosophy to bear upon all that stuff. Lol.

      1. Well it’s functioning well enough to get $173K out of Templeton to spend having a lovely time for the next two years, I’d say that shows some skills!

      1. Dude, you clearly don’t understand how this works. Never give an actual answer, and whatever you do, don’t give one before you ask for the cash.

  16. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs

    Except that, as every well-read reader of Science Fiction knows, there are a few fundamental things that could happen here. It could be a Predestination Loop – we can’t change God’s beliefs because whatever we do is what we were supposed to do to give him the beliefs that he already has, and if we try to do something different we’ll fail. Or it could be that our meddling with God’s beliefs manifests as a Many Worlds Scenario where the Trousers of Time branch off and some other universe has the God created by our meddling with his beliefs. I suggest that the post-doctoral student working on this brush up on his Heinlen, Piper, Bradbury, Anderson and Gerrold – among others – before embarking on this research. In particular, the novel “The Man Who Folded Himself” by David Gerrold is a striking view of the kind of narcissistic personality that Yahweh also often displays in Biblical accounts, so perhaps this research is not so far off the mark.

      1. Can God have sexual relations with his own grandmother, resulting in God inheriting a genetic defect that causes his brain to lack delta waves, rendering him immune to the mind control powers of the Brainspawn?

  17. This could have a place in a study of medieval history and thought, but it is a grotesque idea to take it seriously now–just as you might make a legitimate study of Osiris or Marduk in the context of ancient history, but you would hardly try to apply it to modern science.

  18. “And, as postdocs go, it’s a very lavish one: $81,000 per year for two years, plus $5500 for travel to and in Europe.”

    My “postdoc” time was recent enough that I can say WTF????

    I don’t even make that kind of money NOW.

  19. To put it another way:

    GOD: [crossing fingers] He’s gonna choose the strawberry jam, strawberry, strawberry, strawberry I tell you!

    ME: That looks tasty. [Leans over, picks up blackurrant jam]

    [WHOOSH! – some sound effects here, suggesting magical stuff going on]

    GOD: [fingers still crossed] See?! I always said you were a blackurrant jam type of guy!

  20. Surely the idea of a god, a supreme being having such a human/animal thing as a mind, is crazy? What is god supposed to believe IN? Can this god have doubts? That makes it a very ungodly god.

    1. I wouldn’t think that an omniscient and omnipotent god could have “beliefs”, just “knowledge”. The standard philosophical definition of knowledge is “justified true belief”, and certainly any belief that an omniscient and omnipotent being has will be justified and true. “Belief” implies uncertainty, and surely the Christian god can never be uncertain, right?

  21. “(What makes me laugh about these “Big Questions” is that they’re always being “addressed,” but never answered.)”

    Oh yes, and it’s very important that they are NEVER ANSWERED. If they were, they would lose their MYSTERY, and we can’t have that.

  22. This doesn’t sound so bad to me. In the first place, it could be historically significant. The Ockhamists were pretty influential (in the run-up to the Reformation, for instance), and a study of the problems they worked on using modern tools could provide insight into what they were up to.

    In the second place, the logical complications raised by the assumption of divine foreknowledge can be intrinsically interesting, even if you don’t believe in God (as I don’t, for what it’s worth). As evidence of that, consider that many of the commentators here, after declaring the problem meaningless and stupid, have gone on to state a view about its correct solution. I don’t find it at all hard to believe that serious consideration of the consequences of hypothetical free will and hypothetical divine foreknowledge would provide useful insight for someone who was interested in (and had bothered to learn something about) the philosophy of time and the metaphysics of dependence.

    1. Yeah, lots of sci fi fans here so lots of interest in the ideas involved. But what we’re mostly talking about is the ridiculous amount of money being spent to have some guy waffle on about an unanswerable question.

      Another commenter pointed out that Biologos could have paid for 3 full-time biochemistry post docs doing cancer research. I know what I think is a better use of money.

      1. Agreed. I doubt that anyone needs hundreds of thousands of dollars to essentially gaze at their navel. I can do that at home in my recliner for much much less.

  23. This sort of theology reminds me of elaborate fan fiction. (Sorry, but I won’t honor this sort of the thing with the name “philosophy”. It’s theology.) It’s all about spinning out the consequences of certain theological assumptions which have no basis in anything other than the Bible or the imaginations of theologians through history. It’s like people spending their time classifying the spells at Hogwarts, except they’re under the sad delusion that they’re talking about the real world.

  24. Wow. That is twice the salary I was on after 5 years as a postdoc. I don’t think I know any postdoc on anything like that much money.

    I guess he or she will be doing at least 12 hour days, right?

  25. I think the trick is to phrase a proposal to get money from Templeton then do real science and who cares if Templeton doesn’t like the results. Or do they already audit along the way to make sure everyone is a good little toady?

  26. I’m starting to think this whole theology business is just a big popularity contest. I mean, suppose I were to wander in to the Templeton office and announce, “We can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs.” They’d just pat me on the head and say, “God is timeless and does not have a ‘past’, let along ‘past beliefs’. Maybe you should go back to Sunday School!”

    But this kid from UC Riverside can say that and get away with it. Probably because he’s better-looking than me, or a sharper dresser, or a more confident speaker, or maybe he’s just somebody’s nephew.

    Hmmmph, I didn’t want their lousy $173,000 to begin with!

  27. Isn’t it ironic that the same William of Ockham gave us Ockham’s [or Occam’s] razor: “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem).

    When I first heard of it, I immediately realised it dealt a death-blow to virtually all of the arguments for the existence of God(/dess/es), and I’ve seldom felt any need to go beyond it since.

  28. “God’s mind works” (assuming He is either North- or West European) in the theology of one or none of the:
    Arminians, Socinians,
    Baxterians, Presbyterians,
    New Americans, Sabellians,
    Lutherans, Moravians,
    Swedenborgians, Athanasians,
    Episcopalians, Arians,
    Sublapsarians, Supralapsarians,
    Antinomians, Hutchinsonians,
    Sandemanians, Muggletonians,
    Baptists, Anabaptists,
    Paedobaptists, Methodists, Papists, Universalists,
    Calvinists, Materialists,
    Destructionists, Brownists,
    Independants (sic), Protestants,
    Huguenots, Nonjurors,
    Seceders, Hernhutters,
    Dunkers, Jumpers,
    Shakers or Quakers.

    I think that should scrape the bottomless pit of Templeton Funds for the next few years. I recall the banned phrase of the British Medical Association: “more research needs to be done”.

  29. I like it when Templeton wastes its money. It is not changing any minds, and sooner or later the money will run out.

  30. “That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained.”

    I’m trying to think about this from the point of view of what God thinks about his own past beliefs:

    “Oh, I see. Writing about my past beliefs, Shuggy has typed “typed”. I believed he would write “written”. I wasn’t wrong. I then believed he would write “written” but I now believed he would type “typed” – just as he did.”

    Schrödinger’s Catechism indeed!

  31. Being an awkward sod, I’d resolved to do something different tomorrow, thus forcing God to change his mind in the past. Like, the idea of me dictating to God has a certain perverse appeal. The only problem I have is knowing what I’m predestined to do tomorrow so I can make sure I do, indeed, do something different. I thought of tossing a coin (which gives a 50% chance) and if I do that for enough random choices (red tie/green tie? blue shirt/cream shirt? take the train or take the car?) then the odds of any particular outcome will be small enough that I’ll very probably be doing ‘something unplanned’. But then it occurred to me, the results of my coin tosses or any other ‘random’ selection mechanism will have been accounted for and nullified by God’s omniscience. (He doesn’t even need to be omnipotent and force the tosses – omniscience does all he needs). And I can’t think of a way to defeat it. This is very frustrating.

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