Templeton Money and Metaphysics

In a rare moment of clarity, Immanuel Kant penned these unforgettable words:

Time was, when she (Metaphysics) was the queen of all the sciences; and, if we take the will for the deed, she certainly deserves, so far as regards the high importance of her object-matter, this title of honor. Now, it is the fashion of the time to heap contempt and scorn upon her; and the matron mourns, forlorn and forsaken, like Hecuba.

— Preface, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

This scorn and contempt for metaphysics was coming, of course, from empiricism generally and David Hume in particular.

Viewed from today’s vantage point, Kant’s effort to resurrect metaphysics — which never was a “science” as he claims — is bemusing if not quaint. Empiricism and its progeny swept the field, leaving metaphysics largely to theologians.

I was reminded of Kant and his programme today while reading this illuminating report on the John Templeton Foundation and its activities. Because the Templeton Foundation has an agenda and is massively funding all manner of research projects on religion (including several on the “evolution of religion”), I think it important for everyone to read the report.

Can the Templeton Foundation (and Templeton scholars) do what Kant failed to do? Can money turn metaphysics into science?

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7 thoughts on “Templeton Money and Metaphysics

  1. Erika Salomon

    Thanks for posting this! Having worked on a Templeton funded project (in a very, very minor role) and possibly doing so again in the future, I am VERY interested to read their findings.

  2. Erika Salomon

    Having just finished: Interesting. I don’t think there’s much new here, if one has paid attention to the JTF debate. What I think is overlooked is that, as you mentioned, in the field of cognitive science of religion, they are perhaps the major funder. Applicants for JTF grants know or believe they ought to apply to pursue “religion friendly” research, meaning research showing the benefits of religion or of the naturalness or evolvedness of religion. If pursuing such research is a surer means to funding than pursuing research into say religious prejudice or religiously-motivated violence, the proportional representation in the scholarly literature (resulting from disproportionate investigation) can appear to give a moralistic consensus in favor of the goodness religion, which, of course, is not what we’re about at all (nor are we about the badness of religion, merely about systematically understanding its causes and effects, whatever they may be).

    I think that the tendency of the JTF to promote its own takes up far too much of the critical “space” in the article. There are many alternative explanations not explored. For example, might the Board not attract the leading people in the field, such that most leading candidates for the prize or speaking/writing opportunities are already on the Board or in the “stable”? What about (cognitive) availability? When thinking of an example, we are likely to think of one that we have encountered recently and repeatedly. Thus, Board and “stable” members are more likely to occur during nominations. Plenty of biases (mere exposure, similarity, ingroup favoritism) would predict the viewing of Board members as more qualified, even when candidates are evenly matched. The selection of Board or “stable” members for various activities need not be a signal of a nefarious plot. How well do other foundations do in comparison?

    I wish Bains had instead been able to provide more commentary from grantees. The example of the journalist is compelling, but perhaps anomalous? Without more evidence, it is hard to tell to what degree grantees feel pressure to conform to the mission of the foundation.

  3. Marika

    Although it’s worth noting that not long after Kant, and in no small part in response to his attempts to revise metaphysics, came Hegel and Heidegger – not scientists but serious philosophers who deeply shaped the course of Western history and culture. Isn’t Kant the last person to be taken seriously by both analytic and continental philosophers? And so isn’t his work in some ways the last point before the parting of the ways between the sciences and the humanities, the last point at which ‘science’ meant any serious, rigorous thinking rather than a specific branch of knowledge?

  4. admin Post author

    Hi Marika! Thanks for the nice comment on intellectual history; it is a nice change of pace around here.

    Kant’s impact and continuing influence is undeniable. I was not alluding to the seriousness of his work, but rather how it signifies the breach between metaphysics and empiricism. My sense is that Kant represents the ultimate parting of ways. At the time he was writing, the term “science” was already being used in something like its current sense, and Kant rightly feared that metaphysics would be excluded (or was not a science). The irony in all this is that his model of human perception might be quite close to neurobiological reality.

  5. admin Post author

    The Bains piece has its flaws but when it is considered along with everything else we know about JTF (Jerry Coyne keeps track of this stuff) it is fairly disturbing. I have no doubt that JTF funds and favors research designed to demonstrate that “religion” was targeted by selection and is adaptive. For many researchers who take this position, “adaptive” appears to be code for “Design.” In other words, God is supposedly working through natural selection to accomplish his purposes. I tend to think that scientists working on these issues should make disclosures not only about JTF funding, but about their religious preferences.

    Your comment about goodness/badness of religion is spot on. I have long contended that all this back and forth about whether supernaturalism/religion is “adaptive” or not is beside the point, and amounts to agenda touting. It obscures the search for truth, and I hope that people taking money from JTF are sensitive to this.

    Let’s face it, there are historical times and places where supernaturalism/religion looks adaptive and others where it looks maladaptive. You can pick and choose your times/places to make either argument, and nothing is easier than manipulating supposed costs/benefits to prove a point.

    This is why I favor a straight chronological or historical treatment that sets these issues aside until we have something like a good genealogy of supernaturalism/religion.

  6. J. A. LeFevre

    I’ve seen several Templeton supported articles that appear to deliberately push the alternate models worth testing ideas (The customer expects to get what he pays for, no?). I however, see no concrete evidence tying religion to genetics. Half a billion mass conversions from religion in a generation or two was not likely caused by mutation.

  7. Pingback: Robert Bellah on Religious Evolution

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