Frank Wilczek, the newest Templeton Prize winner, talks about science, religion, and their relationship

May 20, 2022 • 9:15 am

The Los Angeles Times has a long interview with Frank Wilczek, polymath and physics Nobel Laureate who recently nabbed the $1.3-million Templeton Prize. As I wrote a couple of days ago, Wilczek doesn’t fit the mold of those who’ve won the Prize over the past decades, as he professes no belief in a personal god (he’s a pantheist), and emphasizes the power of science versus faith. It is the case, though, that the prize, which used to go to believers like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, is increasingly being conferred on scientists.

My main impression of the article is that the paper is subtly pressuring Wilczek to admit to some belief in the numinous, but Wilczek won’t bite. He does say a few strange things, but on the whole Wilczek seems to be one of us “nones”: a “pantheist” who rejects the idea of a personal God. Instead, he sees the whole of nature as “God”.  Well, I could say that, too, professing that I see all the panoply of evolution as God. Does that qualify me for the Templeton Prize?

Originally I saw no harm in giving the prize to someone who is, in effect, an atheist in the sense of being an “a-theist”—someone who rejects any conventional notion of gods. But several readers noted that giving Wilczek the Templeton Prize enables the Foundation to enfold him into their stable of faithheads and, to some extent, justify their aim, which the L.A. Times says involves extols “the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” The very notion of a “purpose” for humankind immediately conjures up the notion of God. And those readers may be right: Wilczek’s acceptance harms science.

Click to read:

Here are some statements by the Times and by Wilczek that struck me. First, the paper tries to draw a connection between Wilczek and belief in God:

As a theoretical physicist, Wilczek has been peeking under the hood of our perceived reality for more than 50 years. His insights and ideas have led to several revolutionary scientific discoveries, as well as an almost theological perspective on the nature of the world and our role in it that he shares in his myriad articles, books and talks for a general audience.

And yet, Wilczek has said some stuff that can be used to claim that he believes in a God, even though he’s a pantheist (in my view, a humanist). Here’s a quote from him given by the paper:

You’ve written that “in studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” So, what do you think God is?

Let me lead into that by talking about two of the greatest figures in physics and their very different views of what God is. Sir Isaac Newton was very much a believing Christian and probably devoted as much time to studying Scriptures and theology as he did to physics and mathematics.

Einstein, on the other hand, often talked about God — sometimes he used that word, sometimes he said “the old one” — but his concept was much different. When he was asked seriously what he meant by that, he said he believed in the God of Spinoza, who identified God with reality, with God’s work.

That was Einstein’s view and that is very much closer to my spirit. I would only add to that that I think God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be. So, to me, God is under construction. My concept of God is really based on what I learn about the nature of reality.

Now I think that the quote in bold (from the Times’s question) is poor, and clearly leads to misinterpretation.  The “God” of Wilczek is not the kind of God that nearly any believer accepts. Later on in the article, he emphasizes that. I’m still symied, though, by Wilczek’s statement that “God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be.” What does he mean by that? Even as a pantheist, how can you take as God a reality that doesn’t even exist? And how should the world be?

But here again, the L.A. Times tries to imply that there’s a more conventional religious cast to Wilczek’s views. From the paper:

In addition to groundbreaking discoveries, Wilczek’s work has also led him to some of the same conclusions shared by mystics from all religions: the myth of separateness and the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

As he wrote in “Fundamentals,” “Detailed study of matter reveals that our body and our brain — the physical platform of our ‘self’ — is, against all intuition, built from the same stuff as ‘not-self,’ and appears to be continuous with it.”

Other spiritual insights from his decades of scientific study include the idea of complementarity — that different ways of viewing the same thing can be informative, and valid, yet difficult or impossible to maintain at the same time, and that science teaches us both humility and self-respect.

The quote given by Wilczek is far from “spiritual”: it argues that the stuff of our body and brain obeys the laws of physics, be they deterministic or indeterministic. That’s NOT “spiritual!  (He also more or less rules out a “soul.”)

And the idea of “complementarity” clearly refers to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics: an electron can behave as a particle and a wave at the same time. We don’t understand quantum mechanics at its most basic level—does it correspond to any reality?—but our lack of understanding doesn’t promote spirituality, any more than our failure to understand what dark matter or dark energy are constitute “spiritual insighta.”

The Q&A with Wilczek tells us more about him. The stuff in bold is the paper’s questions (my comments are flush left):

Do you consider yourself an atheist, agnostic? Do you have a definition you’re comfortable with?

Not affiliated with any specific recognized church is certainly part of it, but I’m more comfortable saying that I’m a pantheist. I believe that the whole world is sacred and we should take a reverential attitude toward it.

What, exactly, does he mean by saying the “whole world is sacred”? We can have a “reverence” towards it because it’s amazing and yet still comprehensible, but that’s not the same thing as believing in God. It would have helped had Wilczek defined what he means by “reverential” and “sacred”. In fact, I’d love to interview him myself.  These answers, of course, involve words that would put him into the running for the Templeton Prize.

Are science and religion in conflict with each other?

No, they are not in conflict with each other. There have been problems when religions make claims about how the world works or how things got to be the way they are that science comes to make seem incredible. For me, it’s very hard to resist the methods of science which are based on the accumulation of evidence.

On the other hand, science itself leads to the deep principle of complementarity, which means to answer different kinds of questions you may need different kinds of approaches that may be mutually incomprehensible or even superficially contradictory.

He’s just admitted that they ARE in conflict with each other! For there are very few religions—none of them Abrahamic—that don’t at bottom rest on certain empirical assumptions about the world and Universe. He’s also admitted that science is based on evidence (but omits the obvious addendum: “and religion is based not on evidence but on faith”). The “deep principle of complementarity”, by which I assume he means quantum complementarity, is baffling but doesn’t show there’s anything wrong with science, much less that the answer involves the numinous. By saying “on the other hand,” though, he implies that “complementarity” is immune to scientific evidence.

You’ve written that “in studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” So, what do you think God is?

Let me lead into that by talking about two of the greatest figures in physics and their very different views of what God is. Sir Isaac Newton was very much a believing Christian and probably devoted as much time to studying Scriptures and theology as he did to physics and mathematics.

Einstein, on the other hand, often talked about God — sometimes he used that word, sometimes he said “the old one” — but his concept was much different. When he was asked seriously what he meant by that, he said he believed in the God of Spinoza, who identified God with reality, with God’s work.

That was Einstein’s view and that is very much closer to my spirit. I would only add to that that I think God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be. So, to me, God is under construction. My concept of God is really based on what I learn about the nature of reality.

Here again Wilczek admits that he sees God as “reality”, not as something supernatural. The Gods of Einstein and Spinoza were not goddy gods, but simply physical reality, and wonder before reality is not religion. Einstein, of course, rejected the idea of a personal God, and I don’t believe ever said that “reality” is “God’s work” (but I’m willing to be corrected). As far as I know from my reading of Einstein, he was a straight-up pantheist, and any palaver about what God did or wanted (like “not playing dice”) were mere musings about the nature of reality.

Does that God have a will?

Not a will as we would ascribe to human beings, although I’m not saying that’s logically impossible. I would say it’s really a stretch, given what we know. The form of the physical laws seems to be very tight and doesn’t allow for exceptions.

The existence of human beings, as they are, is a very remote consequence of the fundamental laws. One thing that [the physicist] Richard Feynman said really sticks in my mind here. He said, “The stage is too big for the players.” If you were designing a universe around humans and their concerns, you could be a lot more economical about it.

Of course a god with a will is not logically impossible, but it’s clear that Wilczek doesn’t buy it. And of course he must know that Feynman was an atheist, and appears to share Feynman’s view that the universe doesn’t look as it it were constructed with humans in mind.

There is more Q&A, but I’ll just give one last exchange:

While I was preparing for our interview, I came across a statement by the Catholic Bishops of California that said science cannot answer our deepest and most perplexing questions like, “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of my life?” “Why have I suffered this loss?” “Why is God allowing this terrible illness?” They said these are religious questions. Do you agree?

Science doesn’t answer those questions. On the other hand, you ignore science at your peril if you are interested in those questions. There’s a lot you can learn from science by expanding your imagination and realizing the background over which those questions are posed. So, saying that science doesn’t have a complete answer is a very different thing than saying, “Go away, scientists; we don’t want to hear from you, leave it to us.”

Now here Wilczek missed a shot, but it’s a shot that would have made Templeton revoke its Prize. What he should have said is this: “Science doesn’t answer those questions (though it can inform them), but religion doesn’t either.” He’s cleverly avoiding dissing religion.

The problem with softball interviews like this is that nobody ask Wilczek the really hard questions, or at least questions that would lay his disbelief out clearly. Example: “what exactly did you mean when you said that “the world is ‘sacred'”? And so on.  What’s clear is that Wilczek doesn’t adhere to the notion of God shared by the vast majority of religious believers around the world. Instead, he sees God as physical reality, pure and simple.

The only remaining question is, “With Wilczek’s views, why did Templeton give him the Prize?” There are many possible reasons, but, thank Ceiling Cat, I’m not on the board of those who have to weigh the factors.

Elaine Ecklund has a new book, and yes, it’s more of the same accommodationism

August 31, 2021 • 9:30 am

It’s been a long time (over a year) since we’ve examined the oeuvre of Elaine Ecklund a sociologist at Rice University—and now “director of the Religion and Public Life Program in Rice’s Social Sciences Research Institute—who used to be the subject of many posts.  The reason? Because she made her living as a researcher heavily funded by the Templeton foundations, and apparently dedicated to showing that religion and science are compatible. She was not above twisting or misrepresenting her data to make that point which, besides the tendentious nature of her scholarship, upset many of us, including Jason Rosenhouse and Russell Blackford, who panned her 2019 book Secularity and Science for misrepresenting the very data she published.

For most of the years I’ve written this site, Ecklund has been heavily funded by three foundations started with John Templeton’s mutual-fund fortune. According to her c.v., she’s currently sitting on three grants from the Templeton Religion Trust totaling $ 3,939,548! Sir John Templeton’s ambition, when he founded the John Templeton foundation, was to show that the more we learn about science, the more evidence we have for God.

Well, Ecklund doesn’t talk about her own religious belief, but she’s dedicated her career (and spent a gazillion Templeton dollars) trying to show that scientists aren’t as atheistic as people think they are, and that scientists are “spiritual people,” not meanies like Richard Dawkins. This message, of course, plays right into Templeton’s program, ergo the continual stream of funding she gets from their foundations. And once you’ve gotten your stall in the Templeton Stable, the feed bag has no bottom.

Now Ecklund has a new book, coauthored with David R. Johnson, which promises to be more of the same. I haven’t yet read it, but I’ve read several of her books and papers, and have never failed to be infuriated by them. To get an idea of what it’s about, there’s a summary of the contents in the puff piece issued by Rice University and on Ecklund’s personal website.  The book is called Varieties of Atheism in Science (you can also get it from Oxford University Press). The screenshot below links to the Amazon page.

Some of the puffery in a press release from her school, Rice University:

As it turns out, the “New Atheism” embraced by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other notable scientists is at odds with the beliefs of most scientists who are atheists.

“Atheist scientists and religious communities, for example, certainly disagree about many things, but we found that they have so much more in common than they might think they share,” Ecklund said. “Both groups often have a sense of fascination about the world, a sense of meaning and purpose and a desire to explain something larger than themselves.”

This is completely disingenuous. Science has ways of showing what we think is true about the world, while religion just makes stuff up and its claims about the cosmos are falsified or untestable. The “sense of meaning and purpose” of scientists rests on the desire to find out the truth about the world, or involves secular stuff like their families and hobbies, while that of believers rests on the assumption that a deity confers meaning and purpose upon us. Finally, “something larger than ourselves” means “the universe or the Earth” to scientists, but “God and his plan” to religionists. We also have in common that we eat, breathe, and sometimes like books and music. We should be friends!

But wait! I rant! The puffery goes on:

. . . Ecklund and Johnson argue that improving the public’s perception of scientists requires uncovering the real story of who  scientists are.

“As the pandemic continues to ravage the global population, never before has it been more important to improve the relationship between the public and the  community,” Ecklund said.

Of the New Atheists, the book concludes, “It is now our responsibility to replace their rhetoric with reality.”

“Reality” is Ecklund’s construal of the data, which, as we’ve seen repeatedly, doesn’t quite match with what the data themselves say. And I wonder who those 81 interviewed scientists are. They certainly don’t include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or me!

The onus for improving the “science-religion relationship” rests not on scientists, who by and large are atheists who ignore religion, but on religionists and their rejection of science. It’s not the scientists who are making the pandemic worse by ignoring data!

Which reminds me, as I continue my rant, of a lovely quote from The Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll:

“There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

That, in a nutshell, is the academic program of Elaine Ecklund.

Here’s a summary of her new book with Johnson from Ecklund’s personal website:

A significant number of Americans view atheists as immoral elitists, aloof and unconcerned with the common good, and they view science and scientists as responsible. Thanks in large part to the prominence and influence of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Hitchens, [JAC: SAM HITCHENS????] New Atheism has claimed the pulpit of secularity in Western society. New Atheists have given voice to marginalized nonreligious individuals and underscored the importance of science in society. They have also advanced a derisive view of religion and forcefully argued that science and religion are intrinsically in conflict.

Many in the public around the globe think that all scientists are atheists and that all atheist scientists are New Atheists, militantly against religion and religious people. But what do everyday atheist scientists actually think about religion? Drawing on a survey of 1,293 atheist scientists in the U.S. and U.K., and 81 in-depth interviews, this book explains the pathways that led to atheism among scientists, the diverse views of religion they hold, their perspectives on the limits to what science can explain, and their views of meaning and morality. The findings reveal a vast gulf between the rhetoric of New Atheism in the public sphere and the reality of atheism in science. The story of the varieties of atheism in science is consequential for both scientific and religious communities and points to tools for dialogue between these seemingly disparate groups.

Well, unless Ecklund produces a survey showing the percentage of “people around the globe who think that all scientists are atheists and that all atheists scientists are New Atheists”, I will doubt that. Many atheist scientists have criticized the likes of Dawkins, Harris, and [Sam] Hitchens for being too outspoken and “shrill.” So even atheistic scientists themselves think that not all atheist scientists adhere to their views.

Given the way Ecklund has vastly overblown her findings in the past, I’d take that second paragraph above with a grain of salt.  For years Ecklund has been calling for productive dialogue between science and religion, and yet what we have, and will always have, is an unproductive monologue, with science telling religion, “Your claims are either unevidenced or disproven.”  Religion has nothing valuable to say to science, though they often repeat the ironic mantra: “Be humble”. Yet it is “humble” to be a believer who not only thinks there’s a divine being, but claims to know its nature?

Will I read the book? I suppose so, but only in the way that I visit the endodontist for a root canal.

Jane Goodall nabs the Templeton Prize

June 2, 2021 • 9:30 am

I was a bit queasy when I woke up this morning to see the announcement below.  It’s not that I don’t like Jane Goodall, for who doesn’t? She’s a respected primatologist, spent years finding out new stuff about chimps, and is also a conservationist and prolific publicizer of science, as well as founder of her eponymous institute. She’s also long-lasting, having turned 87 this year while remaining as active as ever (she says she travels 300 days per year!). Nor do I begrudge her the $1.5 million that the John Templeton Foundation hands out to the prizewinners, as Goodall will undoubtedly use it for good causes.

No, I was queasy because the prize was given, as it always is, to someone who conflates science and spirituality, promoting John Templeton’s accommodationist mission. Granted, the JTF’s giving it to more scientists these days (they used to give it to people like Alvin Plantinga, Rabbi Sacks, John Polkinghorne, Chuck Colson, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham, but they’re realizing that they’d better “science up” the prize). The word “God” and “divine” has been downplayed, replaced by the eupheism “The Big Questions”.  As the Wikipedia entry on Sir John notes,

In an interview published in the Financial Intelligence Report in 2005, Templeton asserts that the purpose of the John Templeton Foundation is as follows:”We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.”

If you know what “spiritual realities” are beyond something numinous and divine, please enlighten me. Were I to answer that, I’d use terms of neurology and emotion rather than anything external to the physical world.

And Goodall is really known for showing not human exceptionalism, which is what the Prize is about, but for showing our psychological and behavioral connections to our closest relatives. In other words, she’s showing that we’re part of an evolutionary continuum, and share many traits with other primates. Evolution is one Big Question that’s been answered to most people’s satisfaction. Another is that our closest living relative is the chimpanzee.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the announcement from Templeton, or part of it:

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace and world-renowned ethologist and conservationist, whose groundbreaking discoveries changed humanity’s understanding of its role in the natural world, was announced today as the winner of the 2021 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize, valued at over $1.5 million, is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards. Established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, it is given to honor those who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. Unlike Goodall’s past accolades, the Templeton Prize specifically celebrates her scientific and spiritual curiosity. The Prize rewards her unrelenting effort to connect humanity to a greater purpose and is the largest single award that Dr. Goodall has ever received.

“We are delighted and honored to award Dr. Jane Goodall this year, as her achievements go beyond the traditional parameters of scientific research to define our perception of what it means to be human,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Her discoveries have profoundly altered the world’s view of animal intelligence and enriched our understanding of humanity in a way that is both humbling and exalting. Ultimately, her work exemplifies the kind of humility, spiritual curiosity, and discovery that my grandfather, John Templeton, wrote and spoke about during his life.”

Investigating the “deepest questions”, Sir John’s original purpose in bestowing the Prize fund, was intended explicitly to show that the more we learned about science, the more we understood about God. Those are what Templeton calls “The Big Questions”, like “why are we here?” and “what does it mean to be human?”. (The ultimate question, which isn’t broached, is “What is God like?”)  As for Goodall’s efforts to “connect humanity to a greater purpose,” that’s just bogus. Sure, she’s shown evolutionary commonalities, but evolution is not a “purpose.” “Purpose” implies teleology, i.e., for Templeton, “God.”

Goodall’s work surely enriched our understanding of chimps far more than about humans, but did show that in many respects, such as tool-using, humans are not unique—not exceptional among the beasts of the field.  As for “humility”, I know nothing about that, though Goodall has a reputation for being nice and certainly was engaging the one time I heard her speak. But that’s not the kind of humility that Templeton means: they mean “humility” before the Great Unknown—the same way theologians are always bragging that they’re “humble”. (They’re not: they pretend to know things they don’t.)

What about Goodall? It does appear she has a spiritual side that helped her get the prize. Here’s another paragraph from the award description (my emphasis):

Dr. Goodall receives the 2021 Templeton Prize in celebration of her remarkable career, which arose from and was sustained by a keen scientific and spiritual curiosity. Raised Christian, she developed her own sense of spirituality in the forests of Tanzania, and has described her interactions with chimpanzees as reflecting the divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature. In her bestselling memoir, A Reason for Hope, these observations reinforced her personal belief system—that all living things and the natural world they inhabit are connected and that the connective energy is a divine force transcending good and evil.

What? The “divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature”? “A divine force connecting all living things in the natural world”? Indeed, the subtitle of her 1999 book is “A Spiritual Journey.” And I’ll readily admit that “spiritual” can be construed as “awe before Nature”. If that’s what spiritual can mean, than I am spiritual, and so is Richard Dawkins. But “divine”? That’s a different kettle of fish. And yet eleven years ago she abjured acceptance of the divine in Right Attitudes:

In the May-2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Jane Goodall discussed her spirituality: “amazing moments—when you seem to know something beyond what you know and to understand things you don’t understand—can’t be understood in this life.”

“Can’t be understood in this life.” That means it’s beyond empirical investigation. But I digress: there’s more:

When asked if she believes in God in an interview published in the Sep-2010 issue of Reader’s Digest, Jane Goodall said,

I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.

That could simply be “evolution” or “wonder”. So why, in 2021, is Templeton touting Goodall’s acceptance of a “divine intelligence in nature”? As usual, as with other scientists like Francisco Ayala, Templeton often bestows its Big Prize on scientists who don’t explicitly say they believe in God, but are sufficiently ambiguous or waffle-y about the concept that they can slip under Templeton’s radar. And of course there are the explicit religionists who get the prize: people like Francis Collins.

Well, judge for yourself from the 9½-minute video below, and, later, from the Templeton Lectures that Goodall has signed up for:

As the 2021 Templeton Prize laureate, Dr. Goodall filmed a reflection on her spiritual perspectives and aspirations for the world and an interview with Heather Templeton Dill to announce her award. She will participate in the 2021 Templeton Prize Lectures in the fall.

In the video she mentions the soul, the Bible, “powerful spirituality” and so on, and says that “even the trees have a spark of divine energy”. The interview is definitely infused with the numinous. Granted, she says some good stuff about ecology and conservation. One telling statement, “It is just a feel of spirituality, you know, it’s something so powerful and so much beyond what even the most scientific brilliant brain could have created.” What? Where does it come from, then?

At 8:35 she resorts to a form of the First Cause argument: “What created the big bang?”

Before you give me flak for dissing a much beloved scientist, I’ll assert again that Goodall’s scientific work is exemplary and helped change the paradigm of human exceptionalism that preceded her. I admire her a lot, and clearly her life has produced on balance a great good. But that’s not what Templeton is giving her the prize for! She gets her $1.5 million for banging on about spirituality.

No, Goodall’s probably not perfect in that she evinces a weakness for the numinous, but we all have her flaws, and given her accomplishments, that a trivial one. What burns my onions is that the JTF is roping her into their stable so they can parade her as another example of someone whose work helps bring us closer to the Divine.

You can’t not like and admire this woman. The problem is that Templeton saw an opportunity to use her, and seized it.

Templeton pays $1 million for an unanswerable question: do keas feel joy?

July 1, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Keas, Nestor notabilis, are the world’s only alpine parrots, found in New Zealand. What is it like to be a kea?

When Tom Nagel wrote his famous article about what it is like to be a bat, he concluded that although bats may have consciousness, the content of that consciousness is inaccessible to us. He’s pretty much right about that, though, as I note below, perhaps some subjective sensations can be sussed out in nonhuman animals. But it would be hard, and probably impossible.

But the way to do this is not the way that the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) and the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) are doing. They’ve just spent a million dollars on grants to see if animals feel joy. The description of the project is below at (click on screenshot).

This is one of those wonky Templeton projects where the organization throws a pot of money at a bizarre issue, one unlikely to have any useful results. I’ll leave it to you to guess whether the results will be anything more than “keas like to do X and don’t like to do Y.”

But I digress. Here’s the project:

Two New Zealand professors have joined a team of international researchers to try to answer one burning question – can animals, like humans, feel emotion?

Experts from Scotland, the United States and New Zealand, including University of Canterbury (UC) associate professor Ximena Nelson and the University of Auckland’s Dr Alex Taylor, are taking part in the joyful by nature research project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

The Scottish and American researchers would focus on dolphins and apes, while Nelson and Taylor would focus on New Zealand’s native kea, the world’s only alpine parrot and a species well-known for their unique social attributes.

Experts believe the study could have significant implications for animal welfare and ethics.

. . . . The John Templeton foundation has provided $1 million funding for the research which has been given a three-year term, with an option for a two-year extension.)

(This is a bit confusing, because it seems that two branches of the Templeton Empire are funding the same work.)

First of all, even if we could figure out if keas (or other species) felt “joy” in the same sense we do, would that really have “significant implications for animal welfare and ethics”? I don’t see how. What’s more important is whether they suffer and feel pain, prefer some conditions more than others, and whether we have the right to make animals suffer and die to improve our own well being. Whether they have emotions similar to those of humans is an anthropomorphic and misguided way to formulate an ethical policy.

But, more important is the presently unanswerable question of “do animals like keas experience joy”? Here are the data the article adduces to suggest it:

Many New Zealanders were familiar with kea as cheeky and destructive, but few would realise how remarkably intelligent they were, Nelson said.

“Their cognitive ability is similar or better than many primate species, or humans up to the age of 4,” Nelson said.

Cognitive ability, can, of course, be measured in various ways, and is much easier to assess than emotions. And it could be relevant to animal welfare and ethics. But that’s not what Templeton is funding (my emphasis below).

There were a number of factors into kea behaviour that suggested they feel emotion or joy, Nelson said.

Their babies are raised by adults in crèches, they play and roll around like children, kick stones and dance about and are naturally social creatures, she said.

“They get excited – [their warble] is like laughter.”

Animals develop play behaviour between one another for many reasons. An example of this is young cats or kittens, who play fight to hone their predatory skills. The reason why kea play is unclear.

. . .The lack of any obvious predator allowed kea “spare time” to do whatever they liked, which may have initiated their play behaviours, Nelson said.

Kea also appear to be affected by the seasons, just as humans are and responded in the same way and played in the snow and sun but hid from the rain, she said.

And there you have it: there is an alternative explanation to “play behavior” enacted because it’s fun. It’s enacted because it helps hone skills useful later in life. And, in fact, most ethologists think that play behavior is practice for adult skills (not just predatory ones; my ducks zoom and flap to practice flight motions). It could also be fun, but that would not be its raison d’être. (However, fun or joy could be the proximate stimulus that prompts the animals to begin doing adaptive behaviors.) But in the end the question remains: How do we know whether keas can experience joy?

We can’t, not in any way these researchers could find out. The only way I see to begin addressing this question is to do extensive brain analysis in humans and keas, finding out what areas of the brain (better yet, which neurons are activated) when a human feels joy and when a kea “plays.” If there are consistent neuronal patterns and brain areas associated with joy in humans, and those same areas light up when keas are playing, we might begin to wonder if keas feel something akin to joy.

But we don’t even know the brain patterns of joy in humans, and comparative studies of brain function between humans and birds is fraught with problems.  Further, keas are heavily endangered, and looking at their neurons and brains is out of the question.

I thought of one jocular way: teach the keas to speak English and then ask them if they feel joy. You can already figure out the problems with that, though this kind of self-report is how I know that other humans feel joy.

No, at present the question of whether keas (or any other creature, really) can feel joy like we do is unanswerable, and may be forever unanswerable. Templeton has wasted a million bucks, as they do so often, on a dumb project that can’t even address the questions of animal welfare it asks.

Keas, of course, will be protected whether or not they feel joy. We refrain from bashing them on the head not because we know they feel joy, but because they’re amazing animals and are endangered. And if by some miracle we find out they can feel joy, well, that’s not useful for questions of animal welfare: we’d need to look at chickens and ducks and other fowl that we kill or cage.

Templeton, this looks like another million bucks down the drain.

Here’s a kea, photographed by me in New Zealand two years ago:

h/t: Gordon

Francis Collins nabs Templeton Prize

May 20, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Let it not be said that belief in woo isn’t lucrative, even if you’re a scientist who abjures woo in his or her daily work. Yes, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and an ardent evangelical Christian converted from atheism by seeing a tripartite frozen waterfall (get it—the Trinity), was just awarded the 2020 Templeton Prize. Click on the screenshot to read the press release from the John Templeton Foundation.

As the Foundation states:

THE TEMPLETON PRIZE honors individuals whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.

And Collins’s achievements?

Geneticist and physician Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, who led the Human Genome Project to its successful completion in 2003 and throughout his career has advocated for the integration of faith and reason, was announced today as the 2020 Templeton Prize Laureate.

Of course he wouldn’t get the Prize for just the Human Genome Project; it had to include his speeches, books, and proselytizing for Christianity and discussing God’s “purpose”. Craig Venter, another leader of the Human Genome Project, is an avowed atheist, and will get no dosh from Templeton. (He has plenty anyway.)

The prize? Designed deliberately to exceed the amount of the Nobel Prize, and given to only one individual, the Templeton Prize this year is $1.3 million.

From an interview about the prize in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The Templeton Prize honors people for leadership in science and spirituality, among other areas. You have written about how both are important to you. How does your faith inform your pursuit of science?

I didn’t start out as a believer. I was an atheist when I was a grad student studying chemistry and physics. As a medical student, I realized my efforts to understand really deep questions about life and death were not really being helped that much by the reductionist form of science going on around me.

For me, science is both an incredibly exciting intellectual challenge and detective story, but it also is a way of understanding nature and appreciating God’s creation. I can’t really separate who I am as a scientist from who I am as a believer. They coexist quite comfortably together.

Yes, they coexist quite comfortably together in Collins’s own mind, but not in the minds of most other scientists, nor in any kind of scheme that requires good reasons for one’s beliefs.

More on this tomorrow .

The Templeton-funded Faraday Institute proselytizes kids by promoting books on God

April 14, 2020 • 9:00 am

“Give me the child and I’ll give you a faith-ridden adult”.

   (Implicit motto of the John Templeton Foundation and the Faraday Institute)

The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, England (webpage here) describes itself as “an interdisciplinary research enterprise based in Cambridge. In addition to academic research, the Institute engages in the public understanding of science and religion by means of CoursesConferencesLecturesSeminars and the Media.”

As far as I can see, it has no formal affiliation with Cambridge University; rather, it was founded in 2006 with a $2 million grant from—you guessed it—the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). And the JTF is still pumping money into it: the Faraday is now working off a $2.4 million Templeton grant to “lease new bespoke offices”. And it acknowledges JTF support on its webpage.

I’ve written about the Faraday before, including posts on the “Faraday Schools Project,” designed to convince kids that science and religion are compatible (website here); on its “Test of Faith” homeschool project, aimed at more accommodationism, and on the accommodationist  Emeritus Director of the Faraday, Denis Alexander. 

But now it’s gotten worse. As the Lutheran Institute for Faith, Science, and Technology reported in October of 2017:

Separate from this $2 million grant [for the bespoke offices], a second grant from the Templeton foundation is focusing on media development for science and faith initiatives aimed at children.

According to the Templeton website, this second $910,555 grant will allow Faraday to disseminate new media materials in UK schools for children aged 2 to 12. The materials will provide “more positive narratives about the relationship between mainstream science and religious questions. Out of 60 creative proposals for new books and apps, 19 were selected as part of the grant proposal. The publishers will return a 33% royalty to The Faraday Institute to establish a ‘Continuation Fund’ to fund future initiatives.

So both the Faraday and Templeton are in the business of lying to children about God.This book project is a new Templeton grant, separate from the “Schools Project” and from the “Test of Faith” homeschool project.  Have a look at the Faraday Kids website to see the insidious proselytizing of kids, trying to convince them, before they can think for themselves, that religion is great, and fully compatible with science.

And here are some of the Faraday’s products, likely funded by the $910,555 grant (click on screenshots to learn more).

The paragraph below, from the God Made Animals book site, is straight religious indoctrination, aimed at kids between 3 and 6 years old:

The ‘God Made’ series encourages young children to explore and discover more about the world around them, and tells them about the loving God who made it all. Scientific ideas about how everything came to be are simply explained through the lively narrative and amazing illustrations, leaving children full of wonder at God’s creativity, love, and power. With input from The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, and fun experiments for curious young scientists to try, this series is an ideal way to help children engage with and celebrate God and His universe.

Yes, God made everything. As reader Mark (who pointed me to these books) noted, “Let’s see if they cover how God made the coronavirus.”

This effort by the Faraday and Templeton is contemptible. It’s no different from a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses hectoring kids about creationism or the apocalypse. The titles are so self-assured, and yet so wrong. The books are lying to kids.  And they’re being created by a bunch of academics and theologians funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

In fact, these things are even more blatant than the usual kind of stuff that Templeton funds—often scientific projects whose agenda comports with the JTF’s. This is how Templeton “whitewashes” its grants, giving them to another organization that produces odious books like those shown above. Of course Templeton knows about these products, and presumably approves of them.

I’ve hectored scientists and scholars for years not to feed at the Templeton trough, because the JTF is an enterprise whose goddy tentacles are everywhere. If you let its suckers fasten upon you, you enhance Templeton while debasing your own credibility. So, all my biologist and physicist colleagues who take money from Templeton, are you happy with your funder creating books like God Made Animals, God Made the World, and God Made Space?

I thought your answer would be yes. That trough is just too tempting.


In which Matthew and I went after Templeton

April 9, 2020 • 11:00 am

I had forgotten about this until Matthew reminded me the other day, as he was reminded of our joint bit of writing (one of only two we’ve done) while reading a book.  In 2008, about six months before this website began, Nature, which is becoming woker and woker, ran an editorial upon the death of Sir John Templeton, who left $1.5 billion to start the John Templeton Foundation. That money was to be used to try to find evidence for the divine through science. Or, as Templeton himself put it in 2005, he wanted to promote science that would help people discover “spiritual reality”.

Finding a Spiritual Way

About 12 years ago, I sold out. I had been helping a few thousand wealthy families and I did a lot of thinking that if I could tell you the rest of my life, I might help a few thousand wealthy families to become somewhat wealthier. But by selling out to my strongest competitor [Franklin Resources], I can now devote 100% of my time to trying to help people grow in a spiritual way. And that’s a wide-open field – very few people who have any substantial amount of money contribute to helping people grow spiritually.

The Study of Religion

We are tying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.

For example, to clarify, my grandfather was a medical doctor. But he had never heard of a germ. That was only 140 years ago. The medical doctors began to use that as a science, and now we know a thousand times as much about your body as my grandfather new as a medical doctor.

Or take the field of communications. As recently as when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated only 140 years ago, nobody in Europe heard about it for 17 days, because communications was so inadequate. Now we have this enormous communication system around us all the time. There’s 1,000 times as much communication as there was 140 years ago.

Again, this is due to applying methods of science to discover new modes of communication. So what my foundation is focused on more than anything else is to encourage people to donate to scientific research to help discover aspects of spiritual reality.

Since then, as I’ve written repeatedly, Templeton has kept injecting huge amounts of money into science (and theology) to foster Sir John’s agenda. That includes the annual award of the Templeton Prize, a big pot o’ cash designed to exceed the Nobel Prize (it’s now up to £ 1.1 million). Once given to pure religionists like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, the Foundation usually confers now it on religion-friendly scientists who will argue that religion is useful and important: people like Martin Rees and Freeman Dyson.

And the Prize has a “new” purpose statement:

The Templeton Prize honors individuals whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.

Meet the new boss—same as the old boss. “Deep questions” or “Big Questions” have, for the Templeton Foundation, always been synonymous with “the numinous”, “the divine”, or “that which violates science’s naturalism”.

But I digress. Here’s Nature‘s 2008 smarmy editorial about science and religion being BFFs (click on screenshot).

An excerpt (my emphasis):

At the time of his passing last week, Templeton had poured some US$1.5 billion into the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research at the intersection of science and spirituality. Critics have maintained that the foundation needlessly conflates science and faith, with some calling for an outright boycott of Templeton funding.

. . . [John Templeton] believed institutional religion to be antiquated, and hoped a dialogue with researchers might bring about advances in theological thinking. The foundation’s substantial funding of science and religion departments around the world is directed towards those ends. Theologians have also used foundation money to develop and promote arguments that reconcile some of the apparent contradictions between science and religion. For those many scientists with a faith, promoting the compatibility of science with faith is a prudent and even necessary goal. Strict atheists may deplore such activities, but they can happily ignore them too. [JAC: I think this is Nature’s way of saying: “Atheists, if you don’t like it, bugger off.”]

The foundation’s scientific agenda addresses ‘big questions’, which has sometimes resulted in work that many researchers regard as scientifically marginal. One field popular with the foundation is positive psychology, which seeks to gauge the effects of positive thinking on patients, and which critics argue has yielded little. Also heavily supported are cosmological studies into the existence of multiple universes — a notion frequently criticized for lying at the edge of falsifiability. The concern is that such research has been unduly elevated by the foundation’s backing. But whatever one thinks of positive psychology and the like, the foundation’s support has not taken anything away from conventional funding. And in the field of cosmology at least, it has arguably yielded some new and interesting ideas.

The foundation’s management now falls chiefly to Templeton’s son, John M. Templeton Jr, whose Christian beliefs are reportedly much more conventional than his father’s. A critical scrutiny of the foundation’s scientific influence continues to be warranted, and no scientific organization should accept sums of money so large that its mission could be perceived as being swayed by religious or spiritual considerations. But critics’ total opposition to the Templeton Foundation’s unusual mix of science and spirituality is unwarranted.

Back in the day, Matthew and I took umbrage at the claim that science had anything to contribute to religion beyond disproving its empirical claims, and, in my book Faith Versus Fact, I argue that religion has contributed nothing to science. I stand by those claims. But in 2008, that book wasn’t written, but its germs can be seen in the letter that Matthew and I jointly sent to Nature. And, mirabile dictu, they published it:


The reason this came up is that Matthew was reading a book published in 2010, the last in a series of three by the author, which happens to end with the only known reference to our letter.

The title page (click to go to Amazon link):

The opening page with its epigraphs to which Lewis-Williams refers in the final page (below):

The closing page:

The quote we gave was pithy, but perhaps a tad too pithy. As I said above, science can also show that religious claims are wrong (or, in the case of empirical claims about history, supported). But as for the ideas rather than the empirical claims of religion, yes, science’s sole contribution is to destroy them.

The craziest Templeton grant yet: Evolution and “self-giving love”

January 6, 2020 • 10:00 am

Templeton continues to waste perfectly good money on theology, which is the study of the invisible and its self-justification by simply making up stuff that can’t be tested. A paradigmatic example of the genre is this award of $133,130 for studies of theodicy by Mats Wahlberg, a professor of “systematic theology” at Umea University in Sweden.

What really burns my onions about this is the palpable stupidity of the project and the obvious objections to its thesis—and, most important, its lame attempt to justify why evolution by natural selection involves suffering. But Wahlberg’s “justification”, a particularly odious and tortuous species of theodicy, appears to involve only human beings. Click on the screenshot to read about this travesty:

Evolution has long stymied theologians, as it aims directly at their Achilles heel: why would an omnipotent and all-loving God “create” in a way that involves tremendous amounts of suffering? After all, a good God could have created a world of herbivores and no parasites, and could have given each individual a fixed longevity and a painless death. Then the only thing that would suffer would be vegetation. And there wouldn’t need to be be earthquakes, either, nor asteroids. After all, why did God create the dinosaurs and then let them all die off, presumably with substantial suffering, after the big asteroid struck the Earth?

It was this suffering that famously drove Darwin to the idea that if there was indeed a God (and I think Darwin was at best a deist), it wasn’t a good God. Here’s a well known passage from a letter that Darwin wrote to Asa Gray on May 22, 1860, six months after The Origin had been published:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Here Darwin punts to the view that perhaps God designed the laws that govern the world, though he can’t understand why those laws result in so much suffering. (Remember that in the last paragraph of The Origin Darwin argues that natural selection is a kind of law similar to the law of gravity.) But it’s clear that Darwin doesn’t accept a beneficent god.

And Professor Wahlberg, with his two-year $133,130 Templeton grant, isn’t content with the “I have a dog’s mind” view of theodicy, and so is taking Templeton’s dosh to work on solutions to the problem. Or rather, it seems, he’s already solved the problem, and simply wants to work out the details (indented quotes are from the Templeton blurb).

His question:

 “If you look at it superficially, the laws of evolution might appear to be antithetical to the Christian worldview — they involve a lot of competition, survival of the fittest, suffering and extinction,” Wahlberg says. “So the question arises, why would a perfectly good God choose to create by such a process?”

The answer: 

In theological terms, a theodicy is any attempt to understand how a good God could justifiably allow evil or suffering to exist. For Wahlberg, evolution requires its own version of theodicy — one with potential insights into the origin and purpose of divine and human love.

“In order to have great love, you have to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the one you love, just as Christ suffered for humanity on the cross,” Wahlberg says. “Perhaps we cannot separate love and suffering — they go together.”

Wahlberg’s proposed evolutionary theodicy runs as follows: If God wants love to be realized in the world, he would have to create the world so that it provides the necessary conditions for love. If this entails the possibility of suffering, then we have a glimpse of why God would make such a world. Wahlberg describes this as love’s “shadow side,” a necessary condition for the greater good. “If this hypothesis is borne out,” he says, “then you have to ask whether this entails that the world itself must have such a shadow side.”

Wait a tick! First of all, this “suffering” appears to be limited to humans, and is the reverse side of being in love. But evolution, of course, is the source of all creatures. So if a deer loves its fawn, does that necessarily involve suffering? Well, maybe, if the fawn dies and its mother feels grief. But what about all the evil inflicted on animals that can’t suffer for love, like fruit flies, rotifers, earthworms, sea turtles, most fish, and, in fact, all creatures without parental care, the capacity to “love”, or both. Or did God create evolution so that only humans could suffer, and doesn’t care about the suffering of every other species?

And even if you accept that the gratuitous suffering is simply a byproduct of the real creature that needs to suffer—Homo sapiens—why did God create love that allows the “possibility” of suffering? After all, if he controls all, he could make all romantic breakups mutual, and all deaths less grief-promoting by proving to all (which he could do, but doesn’t) that the dead find eternal life with their friends and relatives?

But Wahlberg may well be speaking not of our love for other humans, but of our love for God. In that case, no suffering need exist at all, save for those, like penetentes, who make themselves suffer needlessly so they can mimic the fictional sufferings of Jesus. After all, if you love God then all should be well—and you even get an afterlife in Heaven. Why do you have to suffer? Jesus did that suffering for you!

This is delusion, pure and simple, and yet Templeton wants to pour enough money into this crazy project that could otherwise buy hungry and impoverished kids Plumpy’nut, an effective and cheap nutritional supplement. In fact, the size of this grant would provide 2219 hungry Third World children with a two months’ supply of Plumpy’nut ($60 for each kid’s supply). I like to think of these ridiculous grants in terms of Plumpy’nut Equivalents.

Finally, Walhlberg has the temerity to suggest that his hypothesis is testable, even though I’ve shown above that it’s already dead upon arrival because of what we know of biology.

In its present form, Wahlberg casts his version of evolutionary theodicy as a philosophical theory, defensible not through scientific experimentation (although it draws on recent biological insights) but through careful thought. “You have to formulate it in a very precise way, and then you have to test it by confronting it with the strongest possible objections and see if there are adequate responses,” he says.

But it’s absolutely clear that Wahlberg’s “testing” of his theodicy is not a real test, as he would never reject his idea (for one thing, the Templeton money would dry up). Instead, he simply tweaks his unfalsifiable views so they remain viable. Theological “tests” like this one are shameful:

One such objection concerns the nature of heaven: if suffering is necessary for some of love’s highest expressions, can there be a heaven suffused with love but free of suffering?

“You can see heaven as the goal of the process where you go from being a created being and learning how to love God and your neighbor,” Wahlberg says. “It might be that the process requires at least the possibility of suffering, even though the end state might be free from suffering.”

It might be. . . it might be. . . It might be. Such is the cry of the Red-Breasted Theologian. Or it might not be. Here Wahlberg is simply spinning his wheels. There’s no way his idea can be refuted. But that’s theology, Jake! At least it keeps the trough filled with dosh.

Meanwhile, children in Africa and India are starving, and they won’t get their Plumpy’nut because Wahlberg needs that money to perfect his apologetics.


h/t: Michael

Templeton generously funds right-wing groups in the UK

November 29, 2019 • 12:30 pm

If you didn’t already know it, the Templeton foundations, including the John Templeton Foundation (henceforth JTF), give tons of money not only to fund science, but also the kind of science that is friendly to religion, like work on consciousness and free will. They also, of course, give money to “advancing” theology and to religious causes, and the JTF awards the annual $1 million Templeton Prize to an individual who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works”. I’ve been a strong critic of both the Foundation and its Prize, and I was pleased to find that,  in the Wikipedia article on the Prize, I’m quoted along with critics like Richard Dawkins and the late Harry Kroto:

. . . American biologist Jerry Coyne described the Templeton Prize’s aim as being “to give credibility to religion by blurring its well-demarcated border with science … [and] goes to scientists who are either religious themselves or say nice things about religion”.

(See the source of that quote, a Guardian article, here.) I also wrote my own article in the Guardian after Martin Rees got the Templeton Prize. In that piece I noted that the JTF gave an “epiphany prize” to the odious and anti-Semitic move “The Passion of the Christ.”

But Sir John, whose bequest was aimed largely at funding projects showing how the discoveries of science actually bring us closer to understanding God, was not just a diehard Presbyterian but also a diehard capitalist. After all, he earned his billion-dollar fortune as the manager of a profitable family of mutual funds. To that end, the JTF also funds projects promoting capitalism and free enterprise. (There are three foundations funded by Sir John’s inheritance: the John Templeton Foundation,the Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the Templeton Religious Trust.)

It’s no surprise, then, that today’s Guardian describes how Templeton—most likely the John Templeton Foundation, identified as one of the donating organizations—has been caught out giving millions of dollars to right-wing British groups, funding causes like a hard Brexit, the privatization of schools and of UK medical care, and low taxes and light regulation of business. This should have implications for the pack of scientists who take money from the JTF.

Click on the screenshot below to read the news. The photo below the headline is of Sir John himself:

And some excerpts from the article:

Eleven wealthy American donors who have given a total of more than $3.7m (£2.86m) to rightwing UK groups in the past five years have been identified, raising questions about the influence of foreign funding on British politics.

The donations have been given to four British thinktanks that have been vocal in the debate about Brexit and the shape of the UK’s future trade with the EU, and an organisation that claims to be an independent grassroots campaign representing ordinary British taxpayers.

Many of the donors have also given significant sums of money to a series of like-minded American groups which, like the British organisations, promote a free market agenda of low tax, lightly regulated business and privatisation of public services.

. . .The five British groups and their supporters have raised at least $6.8m in the past five years from US benefactors. However, the identities of many donors remain unknown because their donations cannot be traced in public records.

. . . The Guardian has compiled a partial list of American donors to the British groups since 2014 by analysing thousands of pages of US tax filings that have been published, and other public declarations. The most recent available year for these filings is 2017.

. . . The largest visible donations, amounting to $3.3m, have been given to three British groups by foundations funded by the wealth of an ultra-conservative US billionaire financier, Sir John Templeton, who died in 2008.

One of the Templeton foundations last year gave a donation worth $1.5m to the Legatum Institute. Legatum said the foundation supported its research on the impact of economic openness on global growth and prosperity.

. . . Legatum was required last year by the Charity Commission to remove from its website a report advocating a hard Brexit, which was judged to be too partisan. Charities are required by law to be politically neutral. It stopped its work on Brexit last year.

Another Templeton foundation gave $1.4m to the Adam Smith Institute between 2015 and 2017. The donation was used to make a film about Magna Carta and to fund scholarships. The existence of the donation was made public on the websites of the institute and the John Templeton Foundation.

The Adam Smith Institute has been one of a group of influential rightwing thinktanks credited with kickstarting some of the most controversial privatisations of the Thatcher and Major governments. It received donations from four other US donors.

The John Templeton Foundation also gave $497,000 to the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), another prominent British thinktank, between 2014 and 2017.

The money has been given to researching alternatives to the NHS for an ageing population and to fund work on inspiring young people to become supporters of free markets, according to the foundation.

Now, as you know if you’re a regular here, many reputable American scientists and social scientists take money from the JTF; this Guardian piece gives only a partial list. Would those same scientists continue to take money knowing that their JTF funder also supports right-wing causes?

The answer: probably yes. Funding for science is hard to find these days; Templeton’s conditions for giving money aren’t too stringent; and Templeton regularly gives lots of money—often with grants exceeding a million dollars. Once your nose is in the trough gulping down JTF’s swill, it’s too easy to keep it there.

h/t: Anne

Science versus religion: Are they “gifts” to each other?

November 29, 2019 • 10:30 am

Reader Mark called my attention to an accommodationist essay in Aeon by Tom McLeish, described as “a professor of natural philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York in the UK. He is the author of Faith and Wisdom in Science (2014), Let There Be Science (2016) and The Poetry and Music of Science (2019)”.

McLeish, to be sure, is a scientist of some accomplishment, having been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and has been awarded several academic medals. He’s also had an ecclesiastical award, having received the Lanfranc Medal from the Archbishop of Canterbury last year “as one of the most outstanding scientists of his generation, and the leading contemporary lay Anglican voice in the dialogue of science and faith..” But, as you might guess from his piece, he’s also not only been funded by the John Templeton Foundation (see here, for instance), but also is trustee of the Foundation. I suspect that be a trustee you have to have a demonstrated commitment to accommodationism.

Click on the screenshot below to read the latest attempt to show that science and religion are best buddies:

First, McLeish tries to dispose of the “conflict theory”, which is sometimes framed as the claim that science and religion have constantly been in conflict on all fronts. McLeish (all his quotes are indented):

The late-Victorian origin of the ‘alternative history’ of unavoidable conflict is fascinating in its own right, but also damaging in that it has multiplied through so much public and educational discourse in the 20th century in both secular and religious communities. That is the topic of a new and fascinating study by the historian James Ungureanu, Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition (2019). Finally, the concomitant assumption that scientists must, by logical force, adopt non-theistic worldviews is roundly rebutted by recent and global social science, such as Elaine Eklund’s major survey, also published in a new bookSecularity and Science (2019).

Well, even if you frame the theory McLeish’s way, it’s clear that there have indeed been sporadic but strong conflicts between science and religion, beginning with Galileo and extending through the creation-versus-evolution battle that started 160 years ago and continues to this day in the U.S. and Muslim world. But, as I explain in Faith Versus Fact, I do see the conflict as “unavoidable” in an important sense: both science and religion make statements about what’s true in the universe, but only science has a way to verify or falsify these statements. That’s why there are so many religions making competing truth claims, with no way to discern a “true” religion.

As far as Dr. Eckland is concerned, she has spent her career pushing the misleading idea that science and religion are in harmony because many scientists are religious. As I’ve argued many times before, all this shows is that some scientists can wall off a superstitious, faith-based way of ascertaining truth from a scientific, empirically-based way of ascertaining truth. It’s amazing to me that Ecklund has risen through the academic ranks by pushing this specious argument, but of course that’s what many people want to hear, including many nonbelievers who just want everybody to get along. (Ecklund, of course, is also heavily funded by Templeton.)

And so McLeish poses his questions:

It seems a good time to ask the ‘so what?’ questions, however, especially since there has been less work in that direction. If Islamic, Jewish and Christian theologies were demonstrably central in the construction of our current scientific methodologies, for example, then what might such a reassessment imply for fruitful development of the role that science plays in our modern world? In what ways might religious communities support science especially under the shadow of a ‘post-truth’ political order? What implications and resources might a rethink of science and religion offer for the anguished science-educational discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, and for the emerging international discussions on ‘science-literacy’?

Frankly, I’m tired of the claim that the foundations of modern science, and of its methods, are deeply rooted in Abrahamic religion. You can show that some early scientists, like Newton, thought that their work was revealing God’s plan, but even so they made progress by relying not on faith but on empirical observation. The methods of science are not the methods of religion, and were developed independently. Further, most good scientists in our day are atheists, and you’d be hard pressed to argue that they’re unwittingly using methods based on religion. Even if faith once motivated men like Newton, that motivation is defunct.

As for the other two questions, well, meh. How, for instance, is the creation-evolution debate going to be ameliorated and resolved by “a rethink of science and religion”?

Onward and upward. What points does the sweating professor make in his essay? I’ll give four. Briefly, they are these (McLeish’s words are indented):

1.) Without theology, the purpose of science is unclear, and even distorted. 

 . . . theology has retained a set of critical tools that address the essential human experience of purpose, value and ethics in regard to a capacity or endeavour.

Intriguingly, it appears that some of the social frustrations that science now experiences result from missing, inadequate or even damaging cultural narratives of science. Absence of a narrative that delineates what science is for leave it open to hijacking by personal or corporate sectarian interests alone, such as the purely economic framings of much government policy. It also muddies educational waters, resulting in an over-instrumental approach to science formation. I have elsewhere attempted to tease out a longer argument for what a ‘theology of science’ might look like, but even a summary must begin with examples of the fresh (though ancient) sources that a late-modern theological project of this kind requires.

Seriously, do you imagine that atheistic societies, like those in Scandinavia, would have a kind of science that is inferior to that of a more religious country like the U.S.? I doubt it. Britain is less religious than the U.S., and yet both Anglophonic countries do science the same way.

And if science is distorted by economic needs, well, sometimes those needs should be met, and at any rate that distortion is often the result of capitalism, or, as in the case of Lysenko’s Russia, of Communism. The fact is that any ideology can distort science, including theology.

You might be amused by McLeish’s contention that the Book of Job gives us material that is absolutely crucial to a theology of science. But I will drop that hot potato and pass on, giving just one specimen of McLeish’s muddled thought and writing:

The call to a questioning relationship of the mind from this ancient and enigmatic source [The Book of Job] feeds questions of purpose in the human engagement with nature from a cultural depth that a restriction to contemporary discourse does not touch.

I’m not sure that that’s even English. Why must these people write so turgidly?

2.)  Theology also promotes the doing of good science. 

A project on the human purpose for science that draws on theological thinking might, in this light, draw on writing from periods when this was an academically developed topic, such as the scientific renaissances of the 13th and 17th centuries. Both saw considerable scientific progress (such as, respectively, the development of geometric optics to explain the rainbow phenomenon, and the establishment of heliocentricity). Furthermore, both periods, while perfectly distinguishing ‘natural philosophy’ from theology, worked in an intellectual atmosphere that encouraged a fluidity of thought between them.

And yet the rise of modern biology since Darwin, including molecular biology and genetics, has nothing to do with theology. Jim Watson told me that Francis Crick in particular was motivated to discover the structure of DNA by his antitheism:  Crick wanted to demonstrate that the “secret of life” was purely physiochemical in nature.

What McLeish is doing is mistaking correlation for causation. As for the “scientific renaissance of the 13th century”, I know of no such thing. McLeish mentions a few names, but I’m not impressed with the work.

3.) The method of doing scientific experiments derives from theology.


The rise of experimentation in science as we now know it is itself a counterintuitive turn, in spite the hindsight-fuelled criticism of ancient, renaissance and medieval natural philosophers for their failure to adopt it. Yet the notion that one could learn anything general about the workings of nature by acts as specific and as artificial as those constituting an experiment was not at all evident, even after the foundation of the Royal Society. The 17th-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish was among the clearest of critics in her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1668).

For as much as a natural man differs from an artificial statue or picture of a man, so much differs a natural effect from an artificial…

Paradoxically perhaps, it was the theologically informed imagination of the medieval and early modern teleology of science that motivated the counterintuitive step that won against Cavendish’s critique.

Now how did that happen? Because, argues McLeish, Francis Bacon formulated his “experimental philosophy” in theological terms. Adjudicating that claim is above my pay grade, but I’ll add that Galileo (who lived at the same time as Bacon) and the Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, who worked on optics, also used the experimental methods, with hypotheses and tests. And did every experimentalist rely on Bacon’s “theology”?

Finally, as I’m growing weary, there’s this:

4.) We need more than the reason inherent in science to do science properly. Here McLeish quotes the critic and philosopher George Steiner to somehow confect a rapprochement between science and theology. If you can understand this kind of postmodern obfuscation, you’re better than I:

[Steiner} Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter…

Steiner’s relational language is full of religious resonance – for re-ligio is simply at source the re-connection of the broken. Yet, once we are prepared to situate science within the same relationship to the humanities as enjoyed by the arts, then it also fits rather snugly into a framing of ‘making accessible the sheer inhuman otherness of matter’. What else, on reflection, does science do?

(The superfluous dissection of words, like that of “religio” in the antepenultimate sentence, is a marker of postmodern writing. It’s showoffy but always contrived.)

What else does science do? Is matter really perceived as “inhuman”? Are the advances of geology and physics scary unless they’re somehow “humanized”? In truth, I don’t know what McLeish is talking about here, and I have a suspicion that neither does he.

In the end, McLeish reveals a motivation for accommodationism that I suspected from the beginning of his piece: his realization that religion, which he apparently embraces, is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world; and he has to show that it’s still relevant. And so he says this:

Although both theology and philosophy suffer frequent accusations of irrelevance, on this point of brokenness and confusion in the relationship of humans to the world, current public debate on crucial science and technology indicate that both strands of thought are on the mark. Climate change, vaccination, artificial intelligence – these and other topics are marked in the quality of public and political discourse by anything but enlightenment values.

Yes, irrationality, confirmation bias, and other psychological distortions of reality are pervasive, and while philosophy itself can contribute to clearing up confusion and framing discussion, theology—which is simply philosophy bent out of shape by a belief in the nonexistent—has nothing of relevance to contribute to matters like climate change and vaccination. Look how theology has already intruded uselessly into discussions of abortion and human reproduction!

And so, and I draw to a close, McLeish’s defense of religion’s value to science strains credulity, drawing on postmodernist Bruno Latour’s “call. . . for a re-examination of the connection between mastery, technology and theology as a route out of the environmental impasse.” If you understand that, call me. But here’s how McLeish uses Latour:

What forms would an answer to Latour’s call take? One is simply the strong yet gentle repeating of truth to power that a confessional voice for science, and evidence-based thinking, can have when it is resting on deep foundations of a theology that understands science as a gift rather than a threat. One reason that Katharine Hayhoe, the Texan climate scientist, is such a powerful advocate in the United States for taking climate change seriously is that she is able to explicitly work through a theological argument for environmental care with those who resonate with that, but whose ideological commitments are impervious to secular voices.

Well, yes, theology should recognize science as a gift rather than a threat. But the fact that McLeish needs to say that already shows anti-science currents among some theologians. And really, citing one religious climate scientist shows that theology is the way forward in solving global warming? Give me a break! If Greta Thunberg—the 16-year-old whose activities have prompted worldwide activism against anthropogenic climate change—is religious, it’s news to me. Thunberg is powerful because she’s angry, highly motivated, and representative of a younger generation that will experience more serious effects of climate change.

McLeish’s piece reads to me like muddleheaded palaver. But what else do you expect when a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation has to justify the value of religion for science? Everyone else besides the faithful already knows that religion has nothing useful to say to science.