A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A "natural design" proposal

Between my wife's major surgery, the start of classes, and a big grant proposal due tomorrow, this blog has been neglected. Rather than try to finish one of the half-written posts, I want to try posting a bit of the grant proposal. It is for the Templeton Foundation, which is a very large private philanthropy in the US. They have a decidedly conservative bent on some issues: They take religion and spirituality (broadly construed) quite seriously, and are concerned with character development, individual freedom, free enterprise, genius, and many other notions that can, at times, seem a bit antiquated. That said, they have these concerns due to an honest commitment to the intent of their founder, who was very concerned with such things. Personally, I like this focus, as it is rare to see such a large foundation that is unwilling to drift in the wind away from their donor's intent. Whatever your thoughts are on those issues, Templeton also has very ambitious programming on what they call the Big Questions, which they are confident we can make progress on through strategic scientifically rigorous investigations. Also very appealing is their encouragement of a "humble approach" in which people are reflective and honest about what they can accomplish, and open to other people's insights.

While I hope in the future to try to engage the Templeton Foundation in funding broad inquiries into embodiment and potentially unifying theories of psychology... at the moment I am proposing something much more modest: A book about design in nature. In addition to the book, I am asking for additional funding to create an accompanying course, related articles, and conference presentations. The book would be based on several of my writings over the past decade, and several writings of Nicholas Thompson over the past four decades. The central premiss is that we can talk about design in a manner that is neutral to how the design came to be, and that the ability to discuss design in that manner will help solve central problems in biological and psychological theory. The obvious implications for current debates about evolutionary theory are not the book's focus, though we do believe the book will aid in clarifying confusions in that debate.

Templeton's application process is somewhat infuriating for someone used to NSF and NIH applications, but only because Templeton want's different details and a different style of writing. In fact, from the point of view of the funding agency, Templeton's essays are much more insightful and useful than what most agencies ask for. I will probably write about this in more detail next week. In the meantime, I pasting below the essay about my "Theory of Change". In a prior part of the application there is a short essay in which we lay out the "Strategic Opportunity" and there is a ten page "Project Description". Following this essay will be a list of "Outcomes", specific "Outputs", and an idea of what the "Enduring Impact" of the project might be. The purpose of this essay, limited to 3,000 characters, including spaces, is to create an explicit bridge between the opportunity and the outputs.

------------ Theory of Change ----------

The strategic opportunity is created by three Big Question conversations about which people care deeply, each of which are currently convoluted by a lack of agreement about fundamental premises. In some cases this lack of agreement has created extreme polarization of positions, and led to the type of purely rhetorical argumentation that makes it difficult to restart earnest conversation. The most broadly public conversation regards the existence of design in nature, and how that design can be explained. The professional conversations regard the fundamental principles of evolutionary theory and the interface between biological and psychological science. While these conflicts cannot be solved by a single work, and they are unlikely to be solved in a single lifetime, we believe it is possible for well thought-out contributions to help overcome specific confusions, and thereby re-create the type of discourse needed for noticeable advancement.

This project aims to advance these conversations by creating a framework in which the design properties of organisms can be discussed in a neutral manner —independent of a particular explanation for the presence of that design. To put it quickly and crudely, to be “well-designed” is to display a matching of form to function. We will show that questions about the ways in which organisms are well-designed, and how they became so, are central to the fields of biology and psychology. This will entail showing that there is no sharp line between the types of design that biologists are interested in and the types of design that psychologists are interested in. Of particular interest will be the ways in which natural selection succeeds in explaining the presence of design, and several types of situations in which it fails to explain the presence of design. Evolutionary biologists are, as a group, well aware of these exceptions, but they have long been unwilling to openly discuss the implications.

The primary enduring impact of this research shall be created through a book; the other listed Outputs are, largely, in service of promoting the book and the ideas therein—associated articles and conference talks, a course and supporting materials. The Outcomes will be created by dissemination of the book to students, professionals, and the public, and by engaging readers at public talks, professional publications, and in-online forums. Despite speculation to the contrary, we still believe that monographs, carefully constructed, timely, and articulate, are capable of moving us closer to answering the big questions of our time. The growing challenge is producing a compelling argument for the work to be read, and we believe that we can make such an argument for this work. Through our professional networks, and our (limited but growing) public reach, we believe we can engage an audience already very interested in questions about design. From there, it is a matter making a compelling case for further dialog.


  1. Actually, I would want to have anything to do with the Templeton foundation, see here for some info:

    You see, it is not difficult to look bad if you have Templeton funding...

  2. Yeah... I have had some people comment about that at meetings... However, it is simply the case that Templeton is actually willing to fund bold projects at the moment, and pretty much no one else is.

    I have submitted several grants to "high-risk high-payoff" mechanisms at NSF and NIH, the feedback inevitably says "we agree that this proposal has a really big potential payoff , but unfortunately it seems like a lot of risk so... no".

    Templeton does have an agenda in terms of the types of things they want to see investigated, but they also seem willing to accept the answers investigators give them. Personally, I don't mind serious and honest investigation of anything. Their funding priorities are not what my priorities would be... but it isn't my billions of dollars that endowed the foundation. If I endowed a foundation, few would like my priorities, so... eh. My capitalist and libertarian leanings make me completely alright with rich people doing what they want with their own money. I like living in a world that contains eccentric rich people who do exciting things (see Takeshi Kaga, Richard Branson, and Peter Diamandis). Even when you don't agree with their immediate goals, often great things come of it.

    I would really like to know other people's opinions about this - whether you would apply to Templeton if your interests happened to overlap. I'll try to post more in the coming weeks. If nothing else, it is worth taking careful note of Templeton's application process - if I had a foundation, I would model my application process after their for sure.

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  4. It's worth recalling, I think, that the Intelligent Design movement has framed it's purpose to the public in pretty much exactly the same way....that is, as a neutral attempt to understand design irrespective of any explanation for the design. Of course, this was not really what they were ever actually trying to do, it was just a "neutral-ese" cover story -- a trojan horse for sowing public doubt about common descent and naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms, and smuggling in creationist mysticism in its place.

    Everyone who knows you knows you're not an intelligent design creationist. But Templeton came under criticism several years ago for funding some IDer projects, and my understanding is that they have been actively trying to distance itself from it. Still, any confluence of the words "Templeton" and "Design" immediately reminds people of the ID movement, and no reputable scientist or scholar in philosophy or religion thinks ID was ever a good-faith effort to tackle a serious question of any kind. Couple this with the lack of an empirical component --funding for books, courses, conferences, but no empirical studies, is another thing your program has in common with former ID projects-- and you may find yourself having to defend your project against the charge --whether fairly or unfairly leveled-- that what you're trying to do isn't really any different than the ID movement and shouldn't be taken seriously.

    I wish you the best of luck with this, but a Templeton grant to study "design" is about the last thing I would seek as untenured faculty.