The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic’s Take

Science writer John Horgan has just written a piece about the Templeton Foundation that is causing a bit of a ruckus. It first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and is also posted a the Edge web-site, where perhaps some further discussion of it will appear.

Horgan participated in a program held at Cambridge as a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion, an all-expenses paid gig that came with an additional $15,000 that made it hard to turn down. He had very mixed feelings about the experience, and explains these in detail.

The financial scale on which Templeton operates is unparalleled in this area. As in Horgan’s case, the people they invite to participate in their programs are often offered a lot more money than usual for this kind of thing. The foundation has an endowment of $1.1 billion, and is funding more than 300 projects at the rate of $60 million/year, a rate they intend to double. By comparison, the total NSF budget for supporting theoretical physics is also about $60 million/year. The sheer number and diversity of organizations using Templeton money to promote bringing science and religion together is staggering. I keep finding new ones at various places around the web, and also have yet to run into any organization trying to bring religion into science that isn’t getting Templeton funding.

One new Templeton-funded project is called Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology, and has a very illustrious advisory board of physicists. It has just finished accepting proposals for a first round of grants to total $2 million, and has received a 172 proposals, totalling $23 million, from top institutions including Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and The Institute for Advanced Studies, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Oxford, and Cambridge. Sean Carroll (who turned down Templeton money since he disagrees with what they are trying to promote) has a posting about this, including a guest blog entry and discussion with Anthony Aguirre, who is one of the physicists running the project.

The ethical questions involved in the question of whether to accept money from a source one is not completely happy with are not at all straight-forward. One can sensibly argue that there is nothing wrong with taking money from someone whose goals one disagrees with, as long as they let you do what you want with it, and one isn’t forced to further such goals. On the other hand, publicly associating oneself with an institution to some extent lends ones credibility and prestige to the institution and inherently furthers their goals. It’s also true that money talks, and a large amount of money talks loudly. Many scientists in recent years have probably ended up doing one thing or another that they wouldn’t otherwise have bothered to get involved in because Templeton money made it rather attractive.

There seem to me to be several different things about Templeton to be wary of. One is that the foundation’s leader, Sir John Templeton, is in the process of turning over control of the organization to his son, John Jr., who has a much more politically right-wing, evangelical Christian, point of view than his father. Even if one has no problems with what the foundation has done in the past (e.g., it has not supported creationism), this doesn’t mean it won’t change what it does in the future.

I personally happen to think that bringing religion into physics is inherently a bad idea. Whatever one’s view of religion is, it is inherently a quite different thing than science, and at a time when standards of what is science and what isn’t are under attack, a blurring of the distinction between science and religion may be very dangerous. Much of what Templeton supports seems to me rather silly, but not much of a threat to anything important. For example they are funding a project in Vienna that will bring together physicists, philosophers and theologians to study the foundations of quantum physics. I don’t believe the theologians will be much help here, but they’re not likely to cause much harm. On the other hand, the large amount of Templeton funding promoting symposia devoted mostly to pseudo-science like this one on the Multiverse and String Theory is much more worrying.

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37 Responses to The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic’s Take

  1. JC says:

    Any idea as to whether Mr. John Templeton Jr. is actually a true hardcore religious type, or whether the religion thing is just a convenient political “cover” for him? If it’s the latter, he may very well be harmless for the most part.

    For many of the “neo-cons”, I get the impression a lot of them use religion largely as a convenient political “cover” for pandering to the religious right voters.

  2. Bill says:

    Who are the most prominent religious scientists/mathematicians? Do Witten/Dijgraaf/Ashtekar/Atiyah/Maldacena/Hawking/Serre/Wiles/Tao/Mazur/etc believe in any form of god? How many are atheist? The gossip would be interesting…

  3. dan says:

    i agree with bill — i wonder if studying high-level physics (i.e particle physics, quantum gravity, etc.) begets a belief in some sort of deity (ala deism perhaps?)

  4. Lurker says:

    Off topic, but, Peter, why don’t you have a prominent link to where your new book can be bought?

  5. It has been pointed out before by several people
    here including me that Templeton do support ID, if not openly.

  6. csrster says:

    The Horgan article is worth reading for the Weinberg quote alone 🙂

  7. anon says:


    The Templeton Foundation does do some good work. They publish Professor Russell Stannard’s book, “Science and the Renewal of Belief”,

    “Originally published in Great Britain and now updated and available for the first time in a U.S. edition, this book is a critically acclaimed work by a renowned theologian-scientist.

    “Russell Stannard is known for cutting through highly technical data and presenting it clearly and simply. In Science and the Renewal of Belief he sheds light on ways in which science and religion influence each other and can help each other. Science and logic cannot establish belief, he says, but belief can be con-firmed and renewed with the changed perspective of modern science.

    “The many reviews of the UK edition of his book cite his lucid presentation of relativity and quantum theory, and the way he uses relativity to explore time and eternity, and indeterminacy to comment on free will. He is also praised for offering fresh insight into original sin, the trials experienced by Galileo, the problem of pain, the possibility of miracles, the evidence for the resurrection, the credibility of incarnation, and the power of steadfast prayer. By introducing simple analogies, Stannard clears up misunderstandings that have muddied the connections between science and religion, and suggests contributions that the pursuit of physical science can make to theology.”

    Stannard was professor of physics at the Open University a decade ago (he is now emeritus). He was too busy then with his research into the connections of physics and miracles to reply to my letter as a student asking about quantum gravity, but he kindly passed it to a colleague who wrote to me that I need to study string theory (I believe the suggestion was to see if it can be reconciled with prayer). Unfortunately, I failed. (Others claim to have succeeded.)

  8. Chris Oakley says:

    Superstring theory has proved that most theoretical high-energy physicists, given a free choice, will work on speculative, quasi-religious nonsense.

    Since the Templeton Foundation sponsors those who investigate the connection between science and religion, it would appear that Superstring theory and the Templeton Foundation are a marriage made in heaven.

    So here is a proposal for a research project: calculate the extent of the 6 or 7 compact dimensions in heaven.

  9. Ben says:

    Speaking as a religious person with an interest in (though sadly a lack of deep understanding of) physics, it’s always been a bit mystifying for me to understand why the Templeton foundation is so in love with string theory and the multiverse. On a purely aesthetic level, I find the idea that God created a final theory which dictates the physical parameters of our universe much more appealing than the idea of multiple universes spewed out at random. At any rate, I’ll certainly agree with Peter and Chris that high energy physics is metaphysical enough these days without adding Templeton’s money to the problem.

  10. anon says:

    Dear Chris,

    String theory is at a much higher level than you imagine. One Harvard M-theory expert (an assistant professor) said:

    “String theory is the language in which God wrote the universe.”

    If you disagree with this statement, disprove it! (And keep your discussion mathematical with physical content.) 😉

  11. Tony Smith says:

    Anon said (quoting Lubos):
    “… “String theory is the language in which God wrote the universe.”
    and then said:
    “… If you disagree with this statement, disprove it! (And keep your discussion mathematical with physical content.) …”.

    Since the statement itself is not “mathematical”
    since it has no “physical content” of calculations of observable quantities (as Feynman said, “The whole purpose of physics is to find a number, with decimal points, etc! Otherwise you haven’t done anything.”),
    it is a very good example of the unfortunate level of what passes for thought in today’s physics establishment.

    Tony Smith

    PS – Chris said “that Superstring theory and the Templeton Foundation are a marriage made in heaven”. Although they are remarkably compatible (with Lenny’s Loony Landscape putting huge areas of physics forever beyond human comprehension, and thus creating a huge space for a G-d of the Gaps), I see the “marriage” as being made in Hell by Satan in order to put Humanity into a Dark Age.

    It is amazing to me that a program (fqxi) to grant $2 million for “… unconventional … physics … research that, because of its speculative, non-mainstream, or high-risk nature, would otherwise go unperformed due to lack of available monies …”
    “… 172 proposals, totalling $23 million, from top institutions including Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and The Institute for Advanced Studies, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Oxford, and Cambridge …”.
    It seems as though the Dark Age is already here, and that Satan is giving thanks to Templeton for helping him win this round in his fight with G-d.

  12. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    Bringing religion into physics is like bringing alchemy into chemistry. Imagine if a modern chemist took a foundation’s money and began giving talks and writing papers about the four humors and transmutation of elements in the context of modern chemistry. Would you take money from the same foundation that continued to fund this?

  13. Dumb Biologist says:

    Well, their study of the post-CABG impact of anonymous prayer on recovery was a bust by any measure, so maybe they’ll be hoisted by their own petard.

  14. anon says:

    Prayers failed to contribute to the recovery of heart surgery patients in the Templeton study because the universe is 96% dark energy and dark matter.

    What do you think happens when the universe is 96% dark stuff? Prayers can get attenuated by the factor exp(-x/y) where x is the amount of shielding dark energy/matter, and y is the relaxation length or ‘mean free path’ of a prayer through the dark stuff (y being the amount which is enough to attenuate prayers by the factor e).

    So actually, the ‘negative’ result of the prayer study is actually best perceived more evidence for the current cosmological model. Sorry Peter, for going off topic a little bit. 🙂

  15. ObsessiveMathsFreak, that is not accurate. Alchemy has never left chemistry. The basic principle in Alchemy is not around humours (that is medicin) but ying/yang, call it Mercuric/Sulphurous, Acid/Base, Reduction/Oxidation…

  16. Yes, a funny quote: “I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue.”

    Religion is not mostly harmless. On one hand, the belief in an extranatural explanation does not seem compatible with the search of explanation. Religious people can do good observational science, reading Nature as the book of God, but weak theory. If this is bad at individual levels, it is worse when it is amplifyed at politic (which has intervering agendas of its own) and institutional levels. In Spain a good example of such problematic was the rebuilding of Ramon y Cajal’s “Junta de Ampliacion de Estudios” as a post-war “Centro Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas” under the control of Opus Dei.

    Also, it is not only about guiding and censoring; we have lost important individual people defecting from science to religion. From the past, think about Pascal, hammer of Aristotle, getting that mistical experience and abandoning all the scientific research. Or Isaac Barrow, dead on oppium after leaving math for a mix of religion and academic politics. Perhaps today Money or Politics are more powerful sources of defection, but all of them have mutual synergy, as Hogan’s comment shows.

  17. Michael says:

    Science and Religion has been mixing for along time. That is not what worries me. What worries me is irresponisble scientists and /or quasi-scientists writing about questionable science to prove the existance of a god or to prove ID (I am not implying any person or group in this statement). Most scientists and informed public can tell the difference between pseudo-science and real science. However, the general public is relatively uninformed and would rather be spoon fed. This is where pseudo-science does its real damage. I think that this is where the Templeton Foundation can do a significant amount of damage.

  18. Dick Thompson says:

    This may be a new problem for physics, at least in recent times, but it is an old, old one for intellectuals generally, hence the ancient saying “He who would sup with the devil must use a long spoon.”

    Argumant along the line of “X has done some good work” are also a familiar part of the problem. When I was a kid (during WWII), there was general derision of a saying that had been common a decade earlier; “Mussolini made the trains run on time.”

    And so is the “The father is moderate but the son is radical”. “If the Tsar only knew what his cossacks were doing in this pogrom, surely he would stop it.”

    As my quotations suggest, I think that history wil not look kindly of the physicists who have sold their birthright for a fat endowment.

  19. steve says:

    Alejandro’s comment about religion and theory is way off the beam. Kepler’s theorizing was entirely fired by his belief that he was understanding the mind of God (he had a neo-Platonist view of the role of math in the universe). Newton was a pretty religious guy (and also seems to have been interested in alchemy). Galileo seems to have been pretty devout, but more in a modern “non-overlapping magisteria” way, a la Gould, than the straightforward linkage of Kepler and Newton. All of these were mathematical modelers and theorists, in fact the very first in physics.

    It should also be pointed out that one strand in the history of science (Houkyas) argues that it was precisely the theological beliefs of the English scientists–specifically their “voluntaristic” doctrine that God could have designed things any way he wanted–that led to empiricism in the first place. Cartesians and other Continentals, in this view, tended to think that God should be constrained by logical principles intelligible to mankind, and so tried to deduce more and experiment less. I don’t know the current scholarly state of play on this idea, but it was still being taught to undergraduates at Princeton in twenty-five years ago.

  20. Thomas Love says:

    Theory and Theology have the same root: Theos=God. But why?

  21. The Anti-Lubos says:

    Thomas Love said: Theory and Theology have the same root: Theos=God.

    Actually, they don’t. Theory comes from a Greek root meaning “a viewing” or “a contemplation.”

  22. It is amusing to label as NeoPlatonist to the man that put perfect circles off, I wonder from where has this idea come, surely some historian looking at his gravure with the platonic solids (having just five planets, the radiouses of these solids were a logic place to research for a parameter-free theory; it is unrelated to Plato). It is true that the question of God was very live topic in the Baroque age, but note that neither Kepler not Galileo nor Newton can be qualified as orthodox theologicians; surely the inquisicion had found solid points to attack Kepler and Newton had they being at the reach of Catholicism. Note also the extensive printing and reprinting of Lucretius and other propaganda of Epicureism, where gods, even if acepted, were unrelated to the deep workings of Nature. To say that a scientist is trying to understand God if only valid in a sense: he is trying to understand His inexistence.

  23. Benjamin says:

    Peter, this may seem trivial, but I wish you had a date near the top of the page one gets to when one clicks on the comments, just as one has on the main blog page. I sometimes like to save a good posting, including the comments, and when I click on it I like to see the date right away at the top.

    As for science and religion, I believe in certain ‘metaphysical’ principles, but I agree that they should not be brought into science. Feynman is right when he says it is about predicting numbers. However, one should distinguish between harmless ‘metaphysical’ feelings like Einstein’s belief that ‘God does not play dice’, which can be considered ‘motivational’ (even if it made Einstein more or less waste his later years), and a subversive theological agenda. For the latter, read Christianity. I am not here to bash Christianity, but there is a noticeable tendency for them to think of their religion as the best or truest, as do the Muslims. The Muslims, at least, are pretty outspoken, but Christians tend to be more subtle, and any sneaky attempt to inject any particular dogma masquerading as science is especially noxious.

  24. Benjamin says:

    Here’s a better thought: Mathematics itself can take on some of the pernicious attributes of religious speculation. That’s what people here seem to see in string theory. Wasn’t Einstein at his greatest in his youth when he was thinking empirically and ‘operationally’? Then, when he learned Riemannian geometry and developed a greater appreciation (perhaps awe) for mathematics, he seems to have developed a belief that simply tinkering with the math would produce the truth. Isn’t that what the anti-symmetric tensor business was about, which Weinberg said amounted to nothing? (I’m no expert.) Anyhow, mathematics can be pretty seductive! It can acquire some ‘metaphysical’ or ‘theological’ characteristics. So maybe religion isn’t the only danger to physics.

  25. island says:

    Religion is necessary to science as long as science rejects out of hand interpretations of evidence by scientists which indicate that there is purpose in nature, due to their own personal pre-conceived prejudiced and misconceptions about what’s actually known.


    God does not play dice’, which can be considered ‘motivational’ (even if it made Einstein more or less waste his later years)

    Apparently this person has no idea that Einstein’s opinion falls from the most natural extension of GR with a cosmological constant as it applies to the observed universe… not from some quasi-religious “feelings” about it.

    So hidden variables is a categorically determined matter and you have the quantum gravity and the ToE in your back pocket, right?…

    Maybe you can provide some logical proof for infinity while you’re at it, so that we can finally know for sure that Einstein was wasting his life believing that “such a complete resignation in this fundamental question is for me a difficult thing. I should not make up my mind to it until every effort to make headway toward a satisfactory view had proved to be in vain”.

    Taking money from Templeton is necessary and justified as long as creationists are the only ones that carry the torch of purpose in nature.

    Don’t count Einstein out yet… as nothing has been “uncertainly settled” yet.

  26. anon says:

    ‘Einstein … rejected the theory not because he … was too conservative to adapt himself to new and unconventional modes of thought, but on the contrary, because the new theory was in his view too conservative to cope with the newly discovered empirical data.’

    – Max Jammer, ‘Einstein and Quantum Physics,’ in ‘Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives’, edited by Gerald Holton and Yedhuda Elkana, 1979.

  27. island says:

    Thanks, I’ll bear that in mind the next time that I think about how Einstein felt about quantum weirdness…

    I was indirectly quoting from his 1917 paper, when he attempted to defend his theory against arguments for setting boundary conditions at infinity, because it severely weakens the predictive capabilities of GR by requiring that it be augmented by other principles or a bunch of arbitrary information in order to yield determinate results.

    For this same reason, in, “Gravitation”, Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler said that GR “demands closure of the geometry in space as a boundary condition on the initial-value equations if they are to yield a well-determined and unique 4-geometry”.

    There is no uncertainty in this model, period.

  28. woit says:

    Please, this is a posting about the Templeton Foundation and the funding issues it raises. Try and avoid the seemingly irresistible urge to go on about your favorite ideas about cosmology or GR, that’s completely off-topic here.

  29. island says:

    Sorry, I agree, but I also felt compelled to defend that my example was correct in context, in order to illustrate why I believe that there are circumstances where it is… “ethical […] to accept money from a source one is not completely happy with are not at all straight-forward’.

    Maybe I could have done it without the example:

    Taking money from Templeton is necessary and justified as long as creationists are the only ones that carry the torch of purpose in nature.

    … when science requires that respectable scientists, like John Barrow, cross the line in order to do real science that would otherwise gain little or no support from the mainstream, so in this context, at least, it *can* be very necessary to science even if you don’t like the false-idol that forces the issue back to the surface until it is unequivocally decided.

    That sounds a lot crazier without the good reason for it tho!… 😉

  30. knotted string says:

    If Templeton were backing heretics who couldn’t get funding anywhere, instead of giving million dollar awards to already known and powerful people like Paul Davies, John Barrow, etc., then I’d have sympathy.

    They’re not interested in helping obscure back-room patent clerk types. They are out to do something political by bribing big names.

  31. Chris Oakley says:

    I must admit that I don’t think that I would be so proud as to turn down Templeton’s money if it was offered. But one of the many reasons why it would not be on offer is this: they have an agenda. Unlike the Bambergers (who founded the the IAS in Princeton) this is not a disinterested attempt to further scholarship. It is an attempt to bring people around to their way of thinking. With more than a billion dollars in the pot they can afford to be patient, but the plan is clearly to “buy” as many eminent scientists and other thinkers as they can in hopes that these people will repeat their message. Although it may be done in the nicest possible way, it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

  32. Tony Smith says:

    knotted string said “… Templeton …[is not]… backing heretics who couldn’t get funding anywhere … They’re not interested in helping obscure back-room patent clerk types. They are out to do something political by bribing big names. …”.

    Chris Oakley said “… I must admit that I don’t think that I would be so proud as to turn down Templeton’s money if it was offered. …”.

    I agree with both statements. I am also not so proud as to turn down Templeton’s help. In fact, back in November 2005 I sent an e-mail to hubbard at saying in part:

    “… I saw … at … a Templeton statement at … the following: ‘… the Templeton Foundation refuses in its programs to blacklist scholars based on their ideological positions. … Blacklisting is ethically inappropriate in academic contexts. … Research scholarship does not proceed by processes of censorship and inhibition of debate. …’.
    I am, and have been since around 2002, blacklisted from posting on the Cornell arXiv … I individually do not now need grants or money, and this message is NOT a request for money. However, I do need relief from the oppression of blacklisting, such as opportunities to present my ideas to physicists for discussion and criticism, and also some place where my work could be securely archived for the future. … If you think that it would be useful for me to meet with you or any other representative of Templeton to discuss such matters, I would be happy to do so at a mutually convenient time and place. …”.

    I have (as of now, several months later) not received any reply whatsoever.

    Since I was not even asking for money (just for an invitation to talk about my ideas),
    it seems to me that Templeton is indeed not interested in helping heretics, but is in fact interested in furthering a political agenda by buying influential people in influential organizations , as evidenced by the fact that their $2 million grant program attracted (according to Peter) “… 172 proposals, totalling $23 million, from top institutions including Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and The Institute for Advanced Studies, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Oxford, and Cambridge …”.

    Tony Smith

    PS – Peter, I want to make it clear that I do NOT want this comment to lead to discussion about my physics model or about me being blacklisted. I only mention my situation because (since I am an obscure heretic) it seems that Templeton’s totally ignoring my request for help is a concrete example that shows their high-minded statements such as “… Blacklisting is ethically inappropriate in academic contexts. …” to be merely bullshit window dressing to cover their real agenda, which is (as knotted string said) to “… do something political by bribing big names …”.

  33. how do you say in USA: “put your money where you mouth is”? Tony attemps clarifyes that words and actions do not agree.

    I have been thinking on the questions raised in this thread, and I think we should at least agree on an statement:

    “that gods, as sentient entities, are allowed to exist and live freely as far as they understand that Their freedom is restricted by the freedom of other sentient beings, and Their rights restricted to the rights of other sentient beings, particularly by those of the human genre”.

    Is this enough to qualify for Templeton money?

  34. Anthony Aguirre says:

    Tony Smith,

    I am sorry that you did not receive a helpful reply from Kirsten Hubbard, our scientific program manager. This may have been, in large part, because FQXi is NOT the Templeton foundation, nor is she a spokesperson for Templeton. FQXi is an independent and independently-run organization with seed funding from the Templeton Foundation (and hopefully soon other donors).

    In terms of who is funded by FQXi, note that the quoted web announcement referred to applications received, not applications funded. But in any event FQXi will seek to fund the best foundational, unconventional research in physics and cosmology that it can, whether it is by a patent-office clerk or a Harvard professor. The former is, of course, the exception more than the rule, albeit an important one.


    Anthony A.

    (FQXi Associate Director)

  35. knotted string says:

    If Tony Smith is too exceptional for your taste, then try funding the Harvard assistant professor who said ‘String theory is the language in which God wrote the universe’. But beware he might spend his time blogging about climatic change being a fraud! 😉

  36. Pingback: Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » Susskind Turns Down Templeton Prize

  37. John Harding says:

    I predict that life will continue to reproduce itself at least for the near future because of the anthropic principle. But what do I know? I’m nobody.

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