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Where Philosophy Meets Theology

May 21, 2013

Unlike many of their colleagues in the sciences, philosophy faculty and researchers can go an entire year, or multiple years, without receiving a grant. A six-figure grant that would be unremarkable for a medical researcher could transform a philosopher’s entire career.

In recent years, though, a lot more of that life-changing money has flowed into the discipline as the John Templeton Foundation -- and its $2.5 billion endowment -- began making philosophy grants. The foundation is dedicated to exploring, as it puts it, “the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality,” and its earlier grant-making efforts in science had drawn criticism from some scientists. Now they’re raising the same discussions among philosophers.

The Templeton Foundation’s grants are intended to fund the study of the intersection of theological and scientific questions. Grants for medical research have looked at the power of prayer on health and the neurobiological foundations of generosity and compassion; in physics, the foundation sponsors the Foundational Questions Institute, which looks at big issues in theoretical physics -- “why is the universe large?” and “hidden variables in the early universe” among them.

Scientists have often criticized the foundation’s grants for attempting to interject religion into the sciences. The foundation holds religion in higher esteem than many of the researchers it funds; it also sponsors the annual Templeton Prize, given each year to a person who has made “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

Now the same debates are spilling over into philosophy. As it does in the sciences, the foundation funds grants surrounding the “big questions,” nearly all of which could be viewed from a spiritual or theological point of view: research into free will and the philosophy of religion among them.

Within the discipline, discussion about the foundation’s purpose and role, and how the influx of millions of dollars of grant money from a single funder could change philosophy research in the future, has churned quietly for several years, occasionally spilling over into the public sphere.

The question is less whether Templeton is giving grants only to researchers who will reach a religion-friendly conclusion; several philosophers involved in the debate said it’s pretty clear that the foundation is not attaching ideological strings to the mission. Instead, they have a broader concern: how the influx of money from one donor, with a specific worldview, could transform the discipline in the future.

That debate emerged again recently, when Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers, posted what he thought was a casual Facebook status update: “We may expect a huge number of papers and books in our field taking a religious perspective at the very least extremely seriously,” Stanley wrote. “This is not why I entered philosophy, and it is incompatible with my conception of its role in the university. I will not take any money from Templeton or speak at any Templeton funded conferences. Reasonable people may disagree, but I hope there are others who join me in so doing.”

The comment -- which Stanley said he meant as a personal statement, not as a call for a discipline-wide boycott -- was reposted on the blog of Brian Leiter, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, and reopened a vigorous debate about the influence Templeton has, for good or ill.

Stanley said he wasn’t as concerned about Templeton’s worldview as about the influence of big money for “big questions.” Templeton’s grants clearly favor research on free will, consciousness, dualism and other philosophical questions with theological overlap. But the fact that those topics are the only ones receiving grants in the tens or hundreds of thousands is concerning, Stanley said, and it would be a matter for concern no matter who was funding them.

“We know from social science that people tend to respond to the agendas of their funders in unconscious ways,” Stanley said.

Many philosophers have received the grants, and many more disagree over what influence -- if any -- the foundation has had on the discipline. Leiter’s repost of Stanley’s Facebook status has drawn more than 100 comments.

“I think Templeton money is affecting the constant judgments we all inevitably make about what is worth attending to and what we don't take seriously,” wrote Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, in agreement with Stanley’s concerns. “The side of any issue that intersects with religious ideas is better funded than the side that does not “

Stanley said he’s concerned less about established philosophers than about younger people entering the profession, who might feel pressured to research Templeton-funded areas and reach conclusions amenable to the donors.

But many others pushed back against the contention that Templeton funding could have a corrosive effect on the discipline -- either arguing that more consideration of religious viewpoints might have a positive effect, or that there’s no evidence that Templeton has tried to influence its grantees to adopt its worldview. They also said that many Templeton-funded projects lack any specific religious components, and when they do -- such as a grant to study the foundations of free will -- the theological components were only a portion of the full grant.

“It would seem to me to be a positive good for an institution to give aid and comfort to those who might find themselves in the minority in their discipline and who may even have their metaphysical views compared to astrology,” wrote Gordon Knight, a lecturer in philosophy at Iowa State University. “But theist philosophers are not a minority of one, they are about 20% of the profession. Its hard to see how helping this minority position can do anything other than broaden the range of discourse.”

The draw of a Templeton grant is clear. Stanley, who is senior and well-respected in the discipline, has applied for Guggenheim Fellowships, one of the few other grant programs available to philosophers. In 20 years, he hasn’t won one -- and that’s the norm, not the exception. The National Science Foundation sometimes funds work in theoretical physics, but even the Guggenheim and NSF funds pale in comparison to the Templeton grants, he said.

Projects in theoretical physics funded by the foundation have been “very good,” said Tim Maudlin, a professor of philosophy at New York University, and the foundation’s money has enriched the discipline as a whole. “It’s been very good for the field to have some funding source that’s willing to support people working in” theoretical physics, Maudlin said. “It’s been tough for them. The projects they’ve funded have allowed people to do what they wanted to do.”

Certainly, Maudlin said, he’d like to see many foundations -- not just one -- paying for research in philosophy and theoretical physics. “I wish they were,” he said. “But they’re not, and you deal with reality.”

 

 

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