I spent Thursday down in Princeton attending talks at the second day of a symposium on mathematics, quantum mechanics and the legacy of John von Neumann, organized by Hans Halvorson of the Department of Philosophy. A blurb about the symposium is here, and a list of talks is here. There were quite a few interesting people there that I enjoyed having the opportunity to talk to, including John Baez, who gave the keynote presentation (available on his web-site). Most of the talks were pretty far from my own interests (an exception would be that of Stephen Summers, on the vacuum state in algebraic quantum field theory), but it was interesting to see what sorts of things people interested in quantum mechanics, mathematics and philosophy are up to. At the end of the day I joined a group of people on a trip to visit von Neumann’s grave, which was nearby.
One of the topics that some people at the symposium are working on is that of reformulating quantum mechanics using topos theory, an idea promoted by Chris Isham. For more about this, see an article here from the FQXI web-site. I have to say that, like ‘t Hooft and Dijkgraaf who are quoted in the article, I’m skeptical about this kind of thing, since topos theory is such a general formalism that I don’t see how it is going to provide the sort of non-trivial new idea that people are looking for. But, you never know, something unexpected may come out of it. The article also describes Isham’s “somewhat mystical view of reality” and the fact that he likes to “take part in interesting meetings on the twilight zone between physics and religion.” At one earlier this year about “God and Physics”, he speculated that “a logic of partial truth might be useful in comprehending the Trinity.”
As you might have guessed, the Templeton Foundation is deeply involved in funding all of this, from the “God and Physics” meeting, to an FQXI grant for Isham, to the symposium on von Neumann itself. Besides the event I was at, yesterday and today they’re also sponsoring two other events at Princeton: a panel discussion on Budapest: The Golden Years, Early Twentieth Century Mathematics Education in Budapest and Lessons for Today and a program called Living in von Neumann’s World: Scientific Creativity, Technological Advancement, and Civilization’s Accelerating Dilemma of Power.
At lunch I got to meet and chat a bit with Chuck Harper, who is in charge of much of Templeton’s grant-making in the scientific area. The mechanics of the symposium were very ably organized by him and others, and they were all quite friendly to me. Either they’re pretty oblivious and unaware of my vocal criticism of Templeton’s activities, or just extremely gracious. I’m guessing the latter.
Templeton wasn’t funding my day-trip down to Princeton, but they were paying for the dinner I consumed that evening in some very enjoyable company. Among other topics our dinner conversation included a long discussion about our hosting organization and what significance its activities and funding have for the sciences. Some people are concerned about involvement with an organization led by someone (John Templeton Jr.) known for his evangelical Christianity and devotion to funding right-wing political organizations (this article in the New York Times mentioning Templeton’s involvement in “Freedom Watch”, a new group that has done things like run ads suggesting Iraq was responsible for 9/11). As far as I can tell, the Templeton Foundation is careful to keep the right-wing politics out of its activities. However, they unambiguously are devoted to trying to bring science and religion together, and that’s my main problem with them. Their encouragement of religion seems to be of a very ecumenical nature, not pushing especially the evangelical Christianity of Templeton Jr. Still, more influence from a religious world-view seems to me to be the last thing that physics in particular needs right now, especially with the on-going challenge to the scientific method represented by the anthropic landscape, a topic that Templeton has strongly encouraged work on through funding various conferences and other activities.
Others pointed out to me correctly that Templeton wasn’t solely to blame for the anthropic landscape, that the real problem was its popularity at the top level of the physics establishment, leading to funding and influence mainly from other sources. The symposium I attended had not a trace of involvement of religion in it, and it seems that Templeton is careful to keep this out of some of the things that it funds as pure science, with another good example being the FQXI organization. They appear to have a serious commitment to the idea of funding things in physics that can be considered “foundational”. People working in some such areas often are considered out of the physics mainstream and so find it hard to get their research funded. For them, Templeton is in many ways a uniquely promising funding source.
So, it was an interesting day, I’m glad I went, and so have to thank the Templeton people (and Halvorson) for the work they did in organizing the event. I remain concerned though about the significance for physics of this large new source of funding, out of scale with other such private sources, and with an agenda that seems to me to have a dangerous component to it.
Update: John Baez writes about the symposium here, including (courtesy of Jamie Vicary) a picture of a bunch of us standing behind von Neumann’s grave trying to look suitably solemn.
Update: Thanks to many people for interesting comments, I especially recommend reading the one from Klaas Landsman here. Klaas both explains some of the motivations of recent work on topos theory and physics, and has interesting comments on the issue of Templeton funding. He notes that even a proposal by ‘t Hooft for funding foundational research on QM was rejected by conventional sources, making clear that the less conventional Templeton source of funding is one of the few alternatives open to people in this field.