Publicity for Dennett’s withdrawal from a Templeton-sponsored event at the World Science Festival

May 10, 2015 • 9:15 am

As I reported a few days ago, Dan Dennett has withdrawn from a Templeton-sponsored symposium at the World Science Festival that had religious overtones (note the question at issue below: did humans arrive in incremental steps or in “one giant leap”?):


Now Dan’s withdrawal has been picked up by the Religion News Service in a piece called “Philosopher says ‘no; to major science forum over Templeton funding.

Here are a few choice quotes from the piece:

Dennett said he objects to Templeton sponsorship because he finds some of the projects they fund scientifically questionable. He is one of several scientists and philosophers who have refused to take Templeton money in the past, including physicist Sean Carroll and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.

In a 2013 article in Slate, Carroll wrote: “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.”

For Dennett, the issues were a bit different.

“I would be very happy to have the Templeton Foundation sponsor research on religion and science,” he said in a phone interview from Spain, where he is lecturing. “But what they are doing now is sponsoring some very fine science with no strings attached and then using their sponsorship of that to try and win prestige for other projects that are not in the same league.”

He pointed specifically to the Darwin Festival held in Cambridge, England, in 2009, which was also funded in part by Templeton. He wrote that some of the presentations there were “full of earnest gobbledegook.”

Check out the link to the gobbledegook stuff; Dan’s report on the Cambridge meetings, which he let me publish, is hilarious. And I love this quote from Dan:

“I compare it to an art collector who spends a lot of money on excellent art and then has a show with a few pieces by his brother,” Dennett said this week. “It’s trying to elevate the prestige of his brother by having them in the same room with a Cezanne and a Monet.”

Religion: the art collector’s brother!

I’ve had my differences with Dan over memes and, of course, free will, and with Massimo over many things, including the ambit of science. But I want to publicly applaud both of them, and also Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll, for putting principle over publicity and emoluments.

And from the Templeton side:

Earl Whipple, vice president of communications and public affairs for Templeton, said the organization invests in individuals with “an attitude of humility and open-mindedness.”

“Discoveries often result from competing ideas, rigorous scholarship, and civil dialogue, not from the inhibition or limitation of debate,” he said.

There’s the old “humility” trope, always found in conjunction with faith. As for “competing ideas,” when has Templeton ever set up a syposium about science/religion issues without stacking it with its own flacks?

For some laughs, read the comments under the Religion News Services’ piece.

32 thoughts on “Publicity for Dennett’s withdrawal from a Templeton-sponsored event at the World Science Festival

  1. So what will Pinker do now? As an aside, I saw Pinker speak at the Learning and the Brain conference in NYC yesterday.

    1. Indeed. He will seriously damage his credibility by supporting this event. He needs to “do a Dennett” and do it decisively and publicly.

      I can’t imagine Jerry hasn’t asked him about this.

      1. Pinker won’t be damaging his credibility with with me anyway. While I can appreciate the basis for folks like Dan Dennett’s withdrawal, I base my appraisal of Pinker on much more than his attending a Templeton conference; Pinker usually have something educational and interesting to say, and for me he is credible to the degree what he actually has to say is credible.

      2. I doubt it, and I hope not. I think anyone who would dismiss Pinker because he didn’t “do a Dennett” is being unreasonable and doing themselves a disservice.

  2. The dilemma is that by participating, he can be seen as endorsing the Templeton Foundation and by opting out, he allows opposing views to go unchallenged. Not an easy choice which everyone who pays attention to details must make at times.

    1. This symposium was not, however, a pro-and-con symposium about religion and science, and there would not have been an opportunity to make a general statement about Templeton’s aims. All anyone could do would be to say that “yes, humans evolved, both genetically and culturally, in incremental steps.” To make a general statement of opposition to Templeton’s methods and tactics wouldn’t fit in in that symposium. Have a look at the screenshot above.

      1. Understood. My point was a general statement on the dilemma of participating in a meeting where there is uncertainty as to the implication that one’s participation can be read as supporting contrary views.

        Most opportunities to participate carry this challenge to some degree.

        (I inadvertently posted as “g” originally. How arrogant can one be to pose as an initial… lower case at that.) 🙂

        1. I don’t think there’s much uncertainty about how Templeton will spin it. They’re basically shopping for names to put on their list of Respected Scientists Who Take Templeton’s “Big Questions” Seriously.

          If you don’t want your name on that list, don’t show up at their symposia, not even to represent an opposing view. Because Templeton doesn’t care what view you represent; they just want you to dignify their position by your presence.

          1. Yep, there’s the dilemma. Do I speak where I am invited and risk being categorized as one of the faithful or decline and allow contrary views to prevail?

            1. In what sense have contrary views prevailed? Dennett is not shy about voicing his opinion of these “Big Questions”; he just declines to do it on Templeton’s terms, while sitting under their banner.

              1. Of course he has, but will not here, meaning those who speak hold the floor. His absence means his will not be heard in this forum. That’s all. Hence, attendees unfamiliar with his positions who will leave less informed.

      2. This blog post by Sean Carroll on the Templeton Foundation is very interesting

        “…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…

        …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.)…

        Full post:

  3. If only scientists had the humility of those who claim they know what God wants, where would we be then?

    1. I don’t understand why Brian Green deems expedient to bring theology to the World Science Festival.

      Why not stick to presenting the latest in peer-reviewed science from around the world?

      Why give credibility to unscientific ideas?

    2. It’s particularly amusing (and stupid) when you compare the actual productivity of both sides.

      For cosmology, on the one side is CERN, decades of theoretical development, lively research, and mathematical refining, and further frontiers breaking down as the subatomic particles are analysed. You can also include developments into Big Bang physics and the study of the waves of creation themselves (speaking metaphorically, of course).

      On the other side, David Bentley Hart getting lost in a blissful mash of God, personal experience, and the universe. Which is supposed to be yet another ultimate rebuttal to atheists.

      Yes, if only science was like theology. Where indeed would we be then?

  4. You have to love this bit: “…inhibition or limitation of debate” — those mean scientists are bullying us into silence!

  5. Is it worth attending? I was going to take my daughter who loves science, but hesitated when I found out who was behind it.

    1. if it’s free, then why not? It could be educational, but maybe not in the way Templeton wants it to be. If I were in your shoes, I would, but not if I had to give them even one thin dime.

  6. The worst thing about it is that banners like “brought to you by (insert sponsor)” are really ads for the sponsor (in this case the proselytizing Templeton Foundation).

    I wonder if Brian Greene considers adding future science sessions sponsored by the Discovery Institute and Answers In Genesis…

      1. This is a question I keep asking myself. “How bad does an organization have to be before taking sponsorship money from it is unethical”? What about the Roman Catholic church? Scientology? “This session on the efficacy of psychiatry is brought to you in part by the Church of Scientology.”

        1. Wasn’t it Dawkins who said that if ever you are in hard times you can always ‘change your mind’ and go to Templeton? It was -if I remember well- even directed at Dennet.

  7. Rationalization is a powerful psychological process which enables one to subscribe to ideas that cannot be verified. Those indoctrinated from infancy in religious beliefs are hard to persuade that we exist in a natural world.
    Templeton et al gives explanations that are “close enough” for those wanting to believe in a higher power.

  8. I had not seen the “full of earnest gobbledegook” post from 2009 before. It really is delightful to read Dennett on
    “evolutionary Christology” and the rest. Is it just me, or was he a bit more acerbic back in those days?

  9. Check out the link to the gobbledegook stuff; Dan’s report on the Cambridge meetings, which he let me publish, is hilarious.

    Oh, I’ve just done so, and it is a delight to read Dennett’s reactions to the events of 2009. Funny and enlightening.

    “Kenotic”, as in “kenotic theology”, is a bit clunky for my tastes, but I can’t fault the aptness of its meaning or the aptness of the word in context. 😀

    1. The notion of ‘kenotic’ (‘self-emptying’) theology has many wider practical implications. Where can I buy, for instance, a kenotic beermug? Or a kenotic chemical toilet? The possibilities are surely endless.

  10. I may well think Uncle Dan is…well…waaaay off base when it comes to his espousal of that theological property known as, “free will,” but his handling of this Templeton affair is beyond reproach.

    I just hope Da Pinkah follows Dan’s lead….


  11. Good Man, Dan. I remember feeling outraged when the UK’s Astronomer Royal (and previous Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Newton himself once held sway) Martin Rees took their money. No shame.

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