Deep Beauty

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.

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33 Responses to Deep Beauty

  1. Matt says:

    I think one has to be careful to distinguish between the aims of a funding organization and what they require from the scientists that they fund. Historically, patrons of science have not always been bastions of morality, but have been responsible for funding some very good scientists. Today, a large part of science funding in the US comes from the defense department and it would be almost impossible in my field (quantum information) to conduct normal scientific activities without receiving some funding from them. They sponsor almost all the major conferences for example. I would think that this should be a greater concern than a few misguided religious people, but so long as they don’t require me to unconditionally support all US military action, or to work on weapons research, it doesn’t bother me too much.

    I have a similar attitude towards organizations like Templeton. Provided I am free to declare my atheism, and they are not going to use my work to promote religion, I would accept funding from them. The minute this changes I would cease from doing so. Of course, a certain amount of credibility is given to the whole organization by the fact that scientists are accepting their money, but shouldn’t this be an even bigger concern with military funding? Isn’t there a double standard involved in singling out Templeton for criticism?

  2. Peter Woit says:


    The fact that all money comes with some agenda is certainly true, and I recall Lee Smolin making the same point about military/government money. It’s not even clear how much of a distinction one should make between DOD and DOE money, they both are coming from the same source, just different agencies.

    But, if the military started significantly funding particle theory, emphasizing one part of the subject that I thought was troublesome because they thought it might lead to better ways of killing people, I’d be criticizing them too…

  3. nork says:

    Is the Templeton physics funding that significant? I would have assumed it’s a small drop compared to other sources.

  4. Peter Woit says:


    I think the initial round of FQXI grants totaled $2 million. To get some sense of scale, the DOE budget for particle theory at universities is around $20 million, NSF $10 million. So, it’s not a huge fraction, but it’s not a small drop.

    Keep in mind that most government grants are continuing grants going to the same groups all the time. The amount of “new” money that someone who doesn’t have a grant but wants to try and get one can compete for is much smaller than the $30 million total. The FQXI money was all new money.

    I understand that Templeton has annually been funding projects totaling $60 million, and recently doubled its endowment and is planning on perhaps doubling their spending. I don’t know how much of this they intend to devote to pure science or science/religion. Traditionally they don’t make grants to experimental groups that require expensive equipment, so their money is going to theorists, whose other funding levels are much lower.

    My impression is that in the area of academics working somehow on an overlap of science and religion, the amount of funding in this area available from Templeton completely overwhelms any other sources.

  5. Kea says:

    …since topos theory is such a general formalism…

    If general applies to the level of abstraction, perhaps, but the theory is a very well developed branch of mathematics, computer science and logic, and quite capable of providing new computational tools.

  6. Yatima says:

    Topos theory in computer science? Really? Haven’t heard of it yet, and I am generally keeping my ears open. I will hit The Googles but would you have any references straight away?

  7. Yatima says:

    And, speaking of the John Templeton Foundation (“Supporting Science – Investing in the Big Questions”), I open the print edition of The Economist and – what do you know – find a two page advertisement of said Foundation, with the title “Does the Universe have a Purpose?”. Seven personalities are holding forth on the question: Lawrence M. Krauss, (“Unlikely”), David Gelernter (“Yes”), Neil deGrasse Tyson (“Not Sure”), Owen Gingerich (“Yes”), Jane Goodall (“Certainly”), Christian de Duve (“No”), Elie Wiesel (“I Hope So”). The advertisement rates are not publicized on The Economist website, but this can’t be cheap.

  8. Chris Oakley says:


    All this fraternising with the enemy. I would not now be surprised to hear about you getting drunk with Lubos at the Pilsen brewery in Czechia, or going on a cattle drive with Jacques Distler in Texas.

  9. Peter Shor says:

    It has always appeared to me that some of the people promoting the anthropic principle are in some sense trying to remove the last vestige of possible divine influence in physics. That is, they are trying to deny God His last remaining privilege; that of, e.g., setting the parameters in the Standard Model.

  10. Peter Woit says:


    Same two page spread in today’s New York Times, also not cheap. Available online here

  11. Alex Rivero says:

    The two definite “no” in the spread come not from physicists but from chemists. Interesting.

  12. Andreas Doering says:


    what you forget to tell your readers concerning topos theory and physics is the fact that you did not hear the two talks on this subject (by Klaas Landsman and me, where I was reporting on my work with Chris Isham), since they took place on the first day of the meeting when you were not there. Both Klaas and I included a lot of conceptual discussion besides the technical aspects, since this meeting seemed right for that. There also was some interesting discussion following the talks.
    Listening to the talks would have provided a minimal basis for an assessment of the topoi-and-physics ideas, reading the papers would obviously have been better. The FQXi article you give as a reference is completely non-technical and surely not a source for a serious discussion of these subjects. Moreover, the one day you were at the meeting, you made no attempt to talk to me about topos theory or anything related. (Maybe you discussed with Klaas or Chris Heunen, his PhD student?)

    As you say yourself in your post: “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.” To spell out the obvious: Chris and I welcome any serious discussion of our work – and criticism, of course! If you do not want to engage in that, please just let it be; I am not advertising here. But mixing an uninformed criticism of technical work that has absolutely nothing to do with religion with whatever beef you may have with the Templeton Foundation is deeply unfair. The remarks on Chris’s activities beside his scientific work come very close to a personal attack, since these remarks are obviously intended to put him in a somewhat dubious light. Chris was not even at the meeting, and our work has nothing to do with religion whatsoever, so what is the point here?

    I would think that this kind of rhetoric is something with which you have had a lot of unpleasant experience yourself, so I am surprised to see you employ this. I still hope that we may have a constructive discussion of physics some time.



  13. rob says:


    I think you’re overreacting a bit here. I’m a relativist, and Isham has been a personal hero of mine for well over a decade, despite his apparent religious proclivities. But I really don’t see how anything Peter said could be read as “very close to a personal attack.” In fact, I read the post as a statement of puzzlement over the fact that the Templeton foundation, an organization that most physicists seem to distrust, is nonetheless funding (in part) real science by great scientists.

    You may be annoyed that Peter expressed skepticism over your program of research, but surely you’re used to that by now. I’m a huge fan of the idea of applying Topos theory to QM, and I’d love to see someone evangelizing it on a blog, but this is Peter’s blog, and it’s not his job to evangelize your work, especially if he doesn’t happen to believe in it.

  14. Rhetorical question: What is “deep beauty”? See also a rhetorical answer.

  15. Peter Woit says:


    Unfortunately I wasn’t able to come to the first day of the symposium since I was teaching that day. I would have liked to have heard your talk, as well as several of the others from that day, and undoubtedly would have learned something from the discussion there. Klaas sent me his paper before the conference, I did read that, and took a look at yours. But I’m certainly not well-informed on the subject of work on topos theory and physics, and I don’t think I made any pretense of being so, or even capable of giving a serious explanation of the subject, with links to appropriate references.

    I do know something about what a topos is, having spent a fair amount of time trying to understand and assimilate the Grothendieckian point of view on topology and algebraic geometry in which the concept originally arose. But I don’t know much about the kind of attempts to reformulate physics using this that you are involved in. I don’t think that it’s controversial to characterize such a program as highly speculative, or inappropriate to mention that, despite not being well-informed about the program, I’m skeptical that it will work (while acknowledging that my skepticism could turn out to be misplaced). Everyone thinking about physics and mathematics in a fundamental way has their own prejudices about which directions are most promising to think about. I’ve got mine and they seem to me rather different than those of people working on toposes in physics. Quite possibly I’m wrong about mine, quite possibly we’re both wrong. All ideas out there at the moment about new ways to understand fundamental physics are highly speculative, without much evidence to back them up.

    I certainly in no sense intended what I wrote as any sort of attack on Chris Isham. The main reason I linked to the FQXI article was that, while mentioning the skepticism of ‘t Hooft and Dijkgraaf, it seemed to me a sympathetic description of him and what he is trying to do. I don’t know Isham personally and know very little about his recent work, but earlier in my career I spent a fair amount of time reading articles of his, especially about geometry and quantization, and as a result have a great deal of respect for him.

    The other reason that I linked to the FQXI article is that it mentions Isham’s attitude towards the science/religion issue, which is very different than mine. You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through a conference of talks on science and religion, while Isham says he enjoys this kind of thing. To each his own. It sounds to me like his point of view is a lot closer to that of the people running Templeton than mine, so he is a good example of what they would like to fund. As I hoped I made clear, my views about what Templeton is funding are mixed. The science/religion stuff I don’t think is very worthwhile, but it’s harmless if kept completely separate from real science. That Templeton is, through FQXI and things like the Princeton symposium, funding serious work about foundational issues in physics (including that of Isham on toposes and physics) is great, but the fact that their agenda includes a very different aspect seems to me very much worth keeping in mind.

  16. mo says:

    Andreas Doering Says:

    “Listening to the talks would have provided a minimal basis for an assessment of the topoi-and-physics ideas, reading the papers would obviously have been better.”

    I read with sympathetic eye most of the papers relating to categories/topoi and physics as I think it is a great idea and am curious to know what may come out of it. So far the progress was meagre. I believe this whole line of thought has been initiated by F. Lawvere who tried to apply topos theory to dynamics, chaos, entropy, continuum microphysics, and even engineering (unfortunately his lecture notes on algebraic foundations of physics and engineering are not published yet). As it turned out the most serious obstacle on this path is how to introduce time and evolution into a static framework of the category/topos theory. Lawvere tried to do it but I don’t feel he was successful.

    Isham and his coworkers laid the foundations of “topoical physics” (let me call it this way), but it was never clear to me how it would work in real life, whether it categories in general or topoi in particular. And then Jamie Vicary (a rising star of categorical physics?) posted his groundbreaking article on arXiv:

    A categorical framework for the quantum harmonic oscillator

    At last we have a simple, but real-life quantum system for which categorical computations have been pushed through to some kind of end and we can perform a comparative evaluation. I really appreciate Jamie’s yeoman’s work, but one immediately notices that titanic effort and much space (44 pages) did not accomplish a lot–Schroedinger and Heisenberg did it better. Jamie himself (or herself?) concludes on p. 41:

    “However, there are many issues which are still unclear. Philosophically, perhaps the biggest problem with the existing framework for categorical quantum mechanics is the lack of any nontrivial categorical description of dynamics. For this reason, it is questionable whether the system under study in this paper deserves to be called the harmonic oscillator at all: without a description of dynamics, all that has really been defined is the state space,
    but many different systems have isomorphic state spaces.”

    That damn problem of time again!

    Obviously, categorical physics isn’t yet ready for prime time.

    I skip our neighbors from n-Category Cafe (J. Baez et al.) to Louis Crane who, in my opinion, is the only person doing research in categorical physics that is well balanced between physics and mathematics. His most recent survey paper (which is heavy on topoi) is available here:

    Categorical Geometry and the Mathematical Foundations of Quantum General Relativity

    And by the way, to my knowledge, LC is the founding father of categorical physics:

    Categorical Physics
    Authors: Louis Crane

  17. Coin says:

    Kea, if you don’t mind me asking, I also would be curious what the connection you allude to is between topos theory and computer science. Or do you just mean that category theory in general is of relevance to computer science?

  18. Amitabha says:

    Not the right thread, and perhaps too close to the event, but would you or anyone else make any prediction about tomorrow’s Nobel Prize?

  19. John Sidles says:

    Many disciplines claim von Neumann as one of their own; this includes atomic-resolution microscopists, as foreseen by von Neumann in this little-known 1946 letter to Norbert Wiener.

  20. John Baez says:

    Just so everyone knows, religion wasn’t on the agenda at the Deep Beauty conference. As far as I can tell, none of the speakers is even very interested in the relation of religion and physics. Freeman Dyson is, but he merely sat in on the last talk of the first day, and came to dinner afterwards. I would be very uneasy attending a physics conference if I felt it was pushing religion somehow, but I didn’t get that feeling.

    I suspect that while the Templeton Foundation is interested in promoting religion, garnering the good will of academia is too important to their plans for them to deliberately do anything that stirs up lots of hostility. Look how they dropped the Discovery Institute like a hot potato after that controversy erupted.

    By the way: I hope to say a bit about the recent work on topos theory and physics in This Week’s Finds, pretty soon.

  21. Jamie Vicary says:

    If Chris Isham ever said “a logic of partial truth might be useful in comprehending the Trinity”, then it was certainly intended as a joke! 🙂

    It was a real pleasure to be at the conference and hear all of these ideas from their creators’ mouths. Something that might not be clear to an outsider reading this thread, though, is that the ‘topos quantum mechanics’ approach (D\”oring, Heunen, Isham, Landsman, Spitters) is currently quite different to the ‘quantum mechanics in symmetric monoidal dagger-categories’ approach (Abramsky, Baez, Coecke, Duncan, Morton, Paquette, Pavlovic, Selinger, Vicary). The latter looks to the category of Hilbert spaces for inspiration, and tries to axiomatise its important properties. The former provides a more flexible context in which to describe theories of physics, which then come along with a tailor-made realist interpretation. This works, in particular, for quantum physics, which famously lacks a realist interpretation when formulated in a more conventional way. So, although both approaches are ‘categorical quantum mechanics’, and people give talks about them at the same conferences, they’re really quite different in both style and short-term goals. (Although, of course, one hopes that in the medium term they’ll prove complementary, on the road to a long-term goal of quantum gravity!)

    The realist interpretation of quantum physics that emerges from the topos-theoretic approach is often not mentioned in high-level descriptions of the research, which seems a shame to me. This is a hugely important part of its philosophy and motivation. Perhaps this angle might make it more attractive to you, Peter?

  22. Benni says:

    the project sponsored by tempelton that scares me mostly is this here:
    This is a project from the famous quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger who is well known for his work on entangled states (several nature papers).
    Templeton foundation makes it possible to fund some theologists for a one year period, that will, according to the proposal, work together with the quantum optics group from Zeilinger.

    That is: some people really look up into the holy bible how to collapse a wavefunction……
    It is scary that the interpretation of physical formulas and experiment data which is the sole domain of theoretical physicists, is now taken up by theologists on a religions basis.

  23. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Jamie,

    Glad to hear that the Trinity comment was intended as a joke, I was hoping so…

    I’m afraid that I don’t especially have any prejudices one way or another about whether a realist interpretation of QM is desirable. My own prejudices are fueled by a belief that deep ideas about physics and deep ideas about mathematics are often closely related, and the interpretation question is kind of independent of this. My skepticism about topos and category-theoretic ideas is just based on the feeling that they seem to be such general frameworks that, while they may be useful for formulating all sorts of different kinds of theories, they aren’t likely to help one with the problem of identifying the specific mathematical structure that governs our word. But, as I keep pointing out, I’m all in favor of people with different guesses about what will be fruitful following those and seeing where they lead.

  24. Chris Heunen says:

    Yatima, you will want to look for `the effective topos’; it is very much related to computability and recursion theory. Invented by Martin Hyland in the 1980s, it also happens to be the best example (that I know of) of an elementary topos that is not a Grothendieck topos, i.e. a logical structure that allows full internal reasoning but could not have arisen in a geometric setting.

  25. tytung says:

    Hi Jamie,

    I wonder if you can describe a bit on the realist interpretation of quantum theory as seen from a topos formulation?

  26. 1) Topos theory

    Though a proponent of the use of topos theory in physics myself, I would agree that so far very little has really been achieved in this direction; the program largely rests on hope, on the excitement of having a relatively new and profound mathematical formalism at one’s disposal, and on a few technical indications that we might be on the right track (it would be ironic if topos theory indeed turns out to be relevant to physics, since its founder, Grothendieck, abhorred physics and physicists as he held them responsible for the atomic bomb). The reformulation of the Kochen-Specker Theorem in sheaf-theoretic language by Butterfield and Isham, see arXiv:quant-ph/9803055, (which for me and others was the original reason to get interested, spurred by friendship with and intellectual admiration for these authors) is certainly nice, but by no means shows that topos theory is genuinely relevant to physics. The papers by Doering and Isham, in particular section 4 of their second paper at arXiv:quant-ph/0703062, formed a second source of inspiration for me, notably their idea of reformulating the pairing between observables and states so that it takes values in the subobject classifier of a suitable topos (instead of in the interval [0,1]). Here the goal is to derive the usual probability interpretation of quantum theory from a deeper multi-valued truth assignment, but it has to be stated quite clearly that this goal has not been achieved so far (there are clear indications that it can be achieved, though). In fact, even the meaning of the multi-valued truth assignment in question is pretty unclear. Thirdly, the work of Heunen and Spitters at Nijmegen, see arXiv:0709.4364, appears to be the first mathematically rigorous and truly satisfactory version of Bohr’s version of the Copenhagen Interpretation, especially his Doctrine of Classical Concepts and his Principle of Complementarity (see my Handbook article, arXiv:quant-ph/0506082, for a modern though pre-topos reading of these notions). I distance myself from any reference to Heidegger (instead of Bohr) by Doering and Isham at this point.

    I would say that the essence of topos theory resides in its natural link with geometric logic, a fragment of intuitionistic logic deemed relevant to observational theories. As I said at the Deep Beauty meeting in Princeton, the statement that fundamental physics ultimately rests on geometric logic seems to me to be the correct version of the common informal idea that quantum gravity is “finite”, combined with the observation that quantum mechanics seems to cry out for intuitionistic (as opposed to classical) logic.
    The notion of a geometric morphism is highly attractive and might be the right home for the functoriality of quantization, an idea I wrote a number of papers about and which so far has lacked the link with the classical limit that the inverse image part of a geometric morphism could perhaps provide.
    As topos is a branch of category theory, it also deserves to be mentioned that there is increasing evidence for the relevance of category theory in physics, not merely as an organizing principle behind the maths behind physics, but more directly, too (cf. work by Graeme Segal, John Baez and others).

    Despite the somewhat preliminary nature of topos-related work in the foundations of physics so far, I was a bit surprised to see Gerard ‘t Hooft’s dismissive comments on topos physics at the fqxi website
    (see the link “Topos or not Topos” at Indeed, ‘t Hooft, myself and a few others recently submitted a large research proposal on the foundations of quantum mechanics, general relativity and quantum gravity to FOM, a branch of the Dutch Science Foundation responsible for the funding of physics research, in which topos theory (with reference to Isham et al) was explicitly mentioned as both promising and appropriate to the Dutch research landscape (for example, Ieke Moerdijk is a leading expert on topos theory and logic with close ties to myself, initially because of our joint interest in groupoids and lately also because of our view that the philosophy of mathematics should
    be relevant to the philosophy of physics). Now, believe it or not – ‘t Hooft is widely regarded as one of the most eminent theoretical physicists in the world, having won the Nobel Prize in 1999 for work done in the 1970s and since then still thriving with deep and original ideas, such as the holographic principle –
    our proposal was not even shortlisted! Such is the funding climate for foundations research outside of the Perimeter Institute.

    Which brings me to my second theme:

    2) Science, religion and the Templeton Foundation

    The John Templeton Foundation takes a sympathetic eye towards foundational research in physics and is funding an increasing part of it. First, it has to be mentioned that controversies of the type we are dealing with here seem heavier in the US than anywhere else; even technical disagreements about the K12 Math curriculum are referred to as “wars” (see Suzanne M. Wilson, California dreaming: reforming mathematics education, Yale UP, 2003). As a case in point, rumour has it that the Deep Beauty meeting had to be held at the Nassau Inn instead of at Princeton University because the latter refused to be host to an event sponsored by the Templeton Foundation (and this despite the fact that the Chair of the conference, Hans Halvorson, is a professor of philosophy at Princeton University). Apparently, it was never a problem for Princeton University to host researchers receiving grants from a Government involved in the Vietnam war or in the invasion of Iraq, not to mention all the other illegal operations practically any US Governments has been associated with in the past and the present.

    On a somewhat different note – trading the illegal for the legal – the Dutch Government receives part of its income from taxes paid by the producers of animal porn movies, the production of which is perfectly legal in the Netherlands (we do live up to our reputation). Indeed, 75% of the world production of animal porn comes from the Netherlands. Such movies do not display the intercourse of animals among themselves, which perhaps would be offensive enough if exploited commercially, but the rape of women
    by dogs and goats etc. Although it is hard to think of something more disgusting and humiliating, I have never heard of anyone returning his or her research grant to the Dutch Government for this reason Indeed, neither have I).

    The mission of the Templeton Foundation, on the other hand, is: “to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for scientific discovery on what scientists and philosophers call the ‘Big Questions.’ Ranging from questions about the laws of nature to the nature of creativity and consciousness, the Foundation’s philanthropic vision is derived from Sir John’s resolute belief that rigorous research and cutting-edge scholarship is at the very heart of new discoveries and human progress.”

    Sir John apparently hopes and expects that the answers to the Big Questions will involve God one way or the other, but so did Isaac Newton and I see nothing objectionable in this. No commitment in this direction whatsoever is required from grantees of the Foundation, and even the research funded by the
    Foundation need not contain any religious theme (and indeed much of this research does not).
    It seems to me that much of the hostility to religion I read in typical comments on the Templeton Foundation by secular scientists is fuelled by fear of Bush and the Christian right. I am a secular scientists and I share this fear, but I do not see why it should read to a rejection of the Templeton Foundation (or indeed of its grantees).

    In fact, I believe atheists or naturalists should be honest enough to admit that science has not given us a clue about the question why there exists a Universe at all, or, equivalently, why there exists something rather than nothing. I once closely followed research on the “wave function of the Universe” and other attempts to explain how the Universe could have been created from nothing, and in honor of our host Peter Woit I can safely tell you that such research is Not Even Wrong. We haven’t got a clue.

    In conclusion, I felt no qualms in receiving my expenses and honorarium cheques from the Templeton Foundation, I am going to apply to the Start program (which is funded by the Foundation) and I would not hesitate in the slightest to apply to the Templeton Foundation itself in the future, e.g. for a large program on determinism. I think we should be grateful to this Foundation and its executives for funding foundational research that Goverments typically refrain from supporting, and for doing so without asking anything in return but high quality.

  27. Andreas Doering says:


    thanks for the clarifications. It is good to keep the assessment of scientific work apart from the political (like questions about funding), as usual. And, as also said by some other participants, the Deep Beauty meeting was free of religious under- and overtones, and that is how it should be for a science meeting.

    I am happy to see that there is some interest for the work on topos theory in the foundations of physics. Every thoughtful criticism may be very useful. Klaas, John, Jamie and Urs give some valuable hints to the literature and some background information – thanks for that! -, and it is easy to find in the ArXiv the four papers (from March) that I have written with Chris.


    an explanation of the `neo-realism’ achieved by the topos formulation of quantum theory is not easily done in a few lines. I would like to point you to the papers. If you like, contact me via email with questions.

  28. a.k. says:

    ..let me say that it is certainly true that ‘any money comes with an agenda’, still the questions remains, to which degree the formulated aims interact with the content. While the US government is far from being without scientific agendas regarding their funding, someone mentioned quantum information, its funding still permits ‘diverging’ opinions, as the example ‘string theory’ and its opponents clearly shows.

    One could read, one year ago, some concerns regarding the Templeton foundation in the german weekly magazine ‘die Zeit’, where it was shown to what extent the Templeton foundation already interacts with certain themes in the non-exact sciences, here the Foundation actively engaged, as an example, in psychological projects to show the effect of ‘prayer’ and ‘forgiveness’ on health status and life-expectance, the evidence for both effects was rather small, by the way, this new area is called ‘neuro-theology’. The question remains how, especially in times of decreasing financial support for the non-exact sciences, a Foundation with a certain religious and explicit ideological agenda could influence the neutrality and freedom and possible critical views towards religion in the non-exact sciences or could even be involved in questioning certain achievements of critical rationalism as an organizing principle in society. A good example for such a questioning, as it was mentioned, would be to punish ‘non-spiritual’, ‘non-moral’ behaviour as pornography or even ‘animal porn’ by identifying it naturally with a criminal act, disregarding the highly differentiated categories of modern societies leading to tolerate these behaviours, given they are acts of free choice.

    Regarding the exact sciences, Templeton’s agenda is to accelerate a certain characteristic any progress has regarding the myths it evaporated: to become an even more powerful myth in its own. Since from the beginning, especially the exact sciences tended to develope a ‘vertical’ character which implied some ressemblance with monotheistic religious concepts, the question remains, if Templeton will be involved in a development which naturally converges to an anti-emancipating ‘scientific god’, that it will help to substitute the scientific method to be the culmination point of universal belief for anyone who is not part of a small, neo-religious elitistic circle, called exact scientists, even today certain parallels between ancient religious symbols and the particle accelerators are undenieable. To conclude, one could judge it doubtful to isolate Templeton’s actions on physics and mathematics, where their agenda is far from being clearly religious, one has to consider the effect on science and society in general, i.e. in that era of religious fundamentalism that we are going through.

  29. woit says:

    Thanks Klaas, both for the lucid explanation of some of the motivations of the work on toposes, and the comments on the Templeton funding issue.

  30. chris says:


    once we reach the point at which the templeton foundation – or any other private sponsor for that matter – is the main source of funding in a certain area of science it would be time for society to react. react by outdoing the private source and thus claiming the research topic in question firmly back into the public domain.

    if society chooses to be oblivious – well – then so be it. research in that area will then not be driven by public interest but by private interest. ultimately it is just a reflection of the value commonly assigned to a specific field.

    what i hope this will ultimately achieve is to ring the alarm bell in society that no private organization should take over research funding and direction.

    if this will not happen – well – then we are kind of lost anyways. and funding no matter what agenda behind is still better than no funding, since i firmly believe that ultimately the truth (i.e. true statements about reproducible empirical relations) will ultimately prevail and nothing else.

  31. Chris says the truth consists of “true staements about reproducible empirical relations.” He should read William Golding’s Nobel lecture: “When I consider a universe which the scientist constructs by a set of rules which stipulate that this construct must be repeatable and identical, then I am a pessimist and bow down before the great god Entropy. I am optimistic when I consider the spiritual dimension which the scientist’s discipline forces him to ignore.”

  32. If I may interject a clarifying remark: while at the conference, I spoke with Hans Halvorson about why the conference was moved from the campus to the Nassau Inn. It was not the University, but rather one senior professor in the physics department (I will suppress the name), who made it clear to Hans that he would prefer the change of venue, as he did not want to place the Physics Department’s imprimatur upon anything associated with the
    Templeton Foundation. Indeed, in connection with this von Neumann celebration there were major talks given on the Princeton campus which were also funded by the Templeton Foundation (and this fact was prominently displayed on the advertising placards placed all over the campus). So, Princeton University did not distance itself from the Templeton Foundation in the least.

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