Should I Have Asked For Templeton Money?

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On his blog, Preposterous Universe, Caltech Physicist Sean Carroll explains why he will not take money from the John Templeton Foundation (I saw the article reprinted at Slate).  This gave me pause: did I make a mistake when I applied for a grant through their New Horizons program, and an even bigger mistake when I accepted grant money to work on the research I proposed?

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I encourage you to read his post, because he makes a cogent argument, and I don't want to address all of the points he makes (because it would take me longer than I want to spend on the topic).

Dr. Carroll's main point follows from his naturalism and atheism.  He believes that religion and science are fundamentally irreconcilable, and he believes that the John Templeton Foundation is dedicated to contradicting that belief.  He writes:

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.

Carroll does not take money from the John Templeton Foundation because to do so would "dilute the message" that naturalism "is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last 500 years" and that it "can really change people's lives."  He considers such dilution a "grave disservice" to humanity.  He wants the world to be more atheist because this will make it a better place, and he says that there is "no question that Templeton has been actively preventing" this message from spreading.  

I agree that his message is an important one to share, so let me assert it:  science and religion are not different paths to the same ultimate truth, and science can make the world a better place, both materially and ethically.  And I see Carroll's reasoning, but I don't share Carroll's conclusions.  Now, I'm certainly in a compromised position, being actively supported by a Templeton grant, in that I have strong motivations to rationalize taking the money.  But I am pretty sure that my position would not be any different if the question were a purely hypothetical one. 

Here is the salient part of John Templeton Foundation's stated mission: "We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights."

Further, they support "Big Questions" with fundamental implications for philosophy and, yes, religion.  Questions like whether the Universe is deterministic, causal, and finitely old have real, serious ramifications in theology; in the past 200 years, science has answered them (no, yes, and yes, at least within its positivist framework).  Questions like those in the "New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology" research grant program do, too.  It doesn't seem nefarious to me at all that a religious institution would want clarity on those topics.  Would Carroll refuse money from, say, the Vatican Observatory to investigate these topics?  I presume so (and that his reason is that they believe that clarity should flow the other way -- from religion into science -- too).

I'm glad that theologians and clerics find science to be an important aspect of their work.  Where would be be without George LemaĆ®tre?  I find the boundaries between science and religion interesting and worthwhile to explore on philosophical grounds.  

All that said, I am not religious.  Professionally, I assume that the Universe is governed by Natural Law, which I sometimes call the "no miracles" assumption.  I assume this because that is the fundamental postulate of science (which cannot be proven or disproven by scientific inquiry because whenever you are not making this assumption, you are not practicing science).  Personally, I live my life as though this assumption were true (I do not believe beyond doubt that there is no God of any kind, but does not make me "agnostic" any more than a practicing and devout Catholic who has doubts and acknowledges the unprovability of their beliefs is "agnostic".)  

First of all, I know lots of good, religious scientists.  Do I "dilute the message" of atheism by collaborating with them?  My Astronomy 101 class is filled with the names and accomplishments of the founders science and astronomy: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and many more.  Do I "dilute the message" of atheism by telling my students that most of them were religious?  I suppose I do in both cases, but science is a social endeavor done by real, messy people, and I embrace that. 

Secondly, do I implicitly endorse the aims of any funding agency I take money from?  I suppose I must to some extent -- I would not take money from an organization whose aims in giving me that money I thought were evil.  But the John Templeton Foundation's stated aims are to explore the boundaries of science and religion, not to undermine science.  

Now, if the board of the Foundation believes that this exploration may reveal deep, spiritual truths, well, they might be right (because science can answer big questions that religion asks).  If they believe this exploration will be reciprocal -- that a spiritual exploration will reveal deep truths about astronomy and cosmology -- well, I'm not afraid to say I believe they're wrong, and I don't see how the grant program I applied to could do that, besides.  

I guess the big difference I have with Carroll is that I'm too pluralist to evangelize my non-religiousness on this point.  I don't think I'm being naive about the John Templeton Foundation's aims; I just don't see much about them to be bothered by.
 
To Carroll I would argue this: I don't think that the message of atheism will spread without dialog with non-atheists, and I see the John Templeton Foundation's mission as being the active encouragement of that exactly that dialog.  Perhaps it's true that they have an idea of where they think this dialog will lead that Carroll (and I) strongly disagree with, but since Carroll isn't arguing that they are putting their thumbs on the scales, so what?
 
At any rate, I'm happy to be a part of that dialog, in my own tangential way.  

One last point:  I think that Carroll is not correct (or, at least, not precise) when he writes this:

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. 

I think it would be more precise to day that they have concluded that they have "no need for that hypothesis" (to misquote Laplace).  "God" means a lot of things to a lot of people, and I think Carroll's perception of "religion" here is pretty narrowly focused on a particular set of of Western religious beliefs he rejects (i.e. those that insist the Universe is not governed entirely by Natural Law ("miracles exist"), or that divine inspiration can yield scientific truths).  I don't think that's all that the John Templeton Foundation has in mind;  the variety of human religious and spiritual experience goes far beyond that.    

But regardless of what one means by "religion", questions like the ultimate origin of the Universe and Natural Law may be beyond scientific inquiry (to believe otherwise is, I think, an act of unjustified faith).  It can give us great comfort to live our lives according to some not-disprovable assumptions about their answers, and I do not begrudge anyone their succor against existential darkness (after all, we all must have our own).  


1 Comment

I appreciate this post and your thoughtful consideration of a thorny issue. Meers Oppenheim (BU Astronomy professor) once noted that many people think scientists are arrogant, but in fact science is a humble endeavor because we always hold our theories subject to the available evidence. I think that retaining this humility and flexibility outside our discipline will carry us much further than lecturing from a position of assumed purity.

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