The Templeton Effect

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a long story about the Templeton Foundation, entitled The Templeton Effect. Much of it is about various subfields of philosphy where Templeton money has been successful at bringing religion, theological concerns and religious philosophers to greater prominence. One section however describes the Templeton funding promoting a new field of Philosophy of Cosmology. Religion doesn’t explicitly appear here, but the story of how this “Philosophy of Cosmology” got underway gives a good example of how money influences intellectual pursuits:

Barry Loewer, a philosopher at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, isn’t likely to turn up at a Society of Christian Philosophers meeting with Newlands and Miller. “I myself have no interest in philosophy of religion and am not a religious person,” he says. For years, Loewer has been working with a group of philosophers, mathematicians, and physicists in the New York area, meeting and collaborating on papers—nothing very expensive. But about five years ago a colleague at Rutgers, Dean W. Zimmerman, told the group about the Templeton Foundation and suggested that they apply for a grant. Zimmerman, a top Christian philosopher, had already served on Templeton’s advisory board and participated in many foundation-sponsored activities.

The idea at first was to do a project about quantum mechanics and the foundations of physics, which was an interest of Loewer’s group. Templeton had other ideas. The foundation pointed the group in the direction of cosmology, with the prospect of a much bigger grant, and the researchers jumped at the idea. They realized that cosmology encompassed the questions of time and physical laws that had concerned them all along.

“You know that story of Molière’s where someone discovers that he has been speaking prose his whole life?” says Loewer. “It was a little bit like that.”

The nearly $1-million grant his team received from Templeton last year coincided with another, slightly larger one called “Establishing the Philosophy of Cosmology,” which was awarded to scholars at the University of Oxford. Despite the change of plans at Templeton’s behest, Loewer stresses, “They’ve been really helpful, and totally noncoercive in terms of any agenda that they might have. I had my eyes open for it.”

Not that philosophers are especially well practiced in negotiating the terms of million-dollar grants, much less in thinking about how such money might sway them. Neither Loewer nor Mele nor Miller nor Newlands could have anticipated back when they were in graduate school that they’d be administering projects like this; their training was for armchairs, libraries, and conferences. But now that the money is coming into the field, it is being welcomed even by those who lack the foundation’s spiritual proclivities. “Templeton picks some people whose Christian epistemology I might not share,” Brian Leiter says, “but there’s no quarreling that they’re serious philosophers.” Suspicions about some secret religious agenda tend to lessen the more widely the foundation’s substantial sums begin to spread.

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7 Responses to The Templeton Effect

  1. Matti says:

    Why evolution is true blog had today piece about Templeton funding a homeschooling course at Cambridge University. The Anthropic principle, science giving evidence for faith and so forth. All neatly packed for home schoolers. Laugh or cry, not sure which one.

  2. Pravda says:

    Oh, more concerns about Templeton money and Christian theology.

    It seems as though I am the only person who considers Christian theology to be rather innocuous compared to post-modernism, or the “sociology of scientific knowledge/science” which on any balanced analysis must be recognized as being far more pernicious than a belief in evolution. Need I even mention the theological aspects of string theory? Even belief in “The Singularity” a la Kurzweil has more far-reaching deleterious consequences than belief in creationism.

    One can only assume that this has got to do more with the socio-economic status of the groups in which these beliefs are prevalent, than the beliefs themselves.

  3. Peter Woit says:


    When Kurzweil starts a multi-billion dollar foundation devoted to influencing fundamental physics research, I’ll start paying attention to him and that “Singularity”.

    In the meantime, discussion of the very large set of “things that are worse than Templeton” is off-topic.

  4. Templeton funds a lot of fundamental research in fields where there otherwise is a money drought (see FXQi, whose existance owes itself to Templeton) so that the McCarthy-esque attempts to discredit them are becomming stale.
    Templeton does not have overtly religious overtones as skeptics claim. It is an institution that feuls a lot of discussion on the relationship between the natural universe and spirituality — a topic that is both intellectually serious as well as important to many people. Once you remove the assumption of empiricism (which is, of course, necessary to formulate scientic hypothesis) from the a priori, truth becommes a little more blurry.
    I know you don’t like nonscience parading as science, but I don’t think that is what Templeton is trying to do, nor do I believe that people take what Templeton funds as purely scientific discussions.
    As for this specific project, Philosophy of Cosmology, I am glad that Rutgers is getting that grant. The physics department needs it terribly.

  5. chris says:

    Templeton has its agenda – but is it so different from public funding sources?

    in the US, NSF and DOE have their agenda, too. it is always determined at a very high political level which kind of research gets funded and usually the lucky ones – those who have their interest aligned more or less with the agendas – tend to just praise the decisions and take the money. scientists in other subfields largely go unnoticed because no money means no employment, less publications, no public recognition of the whole subject.

    this is just the way science works as a social, human endeavor.

  6. S. Molnar says:

    “Suspicions about some secret religious agenda tend to lessen the more widely the foundation’s substantial sums begin to spread.” Well, my suspicions increase when that happens.

    That said, I agree with chris that government funding can be pernicious as well. I seem to recall that Norbert Wiener (and there were others) was very much against mathematicians accepting government grants for just that reason when they began in earnest around 60 years ago. On the other hand, it’s hard to do research on an empty stomach and impossible to do modern experiments without a lot of money.

  7. srp says:

    Anti-materialism in a metaphysical sense seems to be the thing Templeton wants to promote. Platonists, romanticists, anthropicists, etc. would all be potentially useful to that project. To the extent that their views have any independent merit I don’t mind TF throwing some bucks at them, especially if they also have the side effect of paying for good theoretical physicists and philosophers to do their thing.

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