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

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Is Templeton "Philosophy's Bite"?

Recently, I wrote about my grant submission to the Templeton Foundation. In the time since, I have also submitted a "letter of intent" to Templeton for a much more ambitious project to bring together those currently working on the variants of embodied cognition. I promised to write something about Templeton's really smart application process, but that will wait for now. Here I wanted to respond, at least a bit, to those who believe Templeton should be shunned. I'm inspired to do so by a recent pair of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the most recent one, philosophers react to Freeman Dyson question, "When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did become a toothless relic of past glories?" While the earlier article doesn't answer that exact question, it draws out the conflicting interpretations of "The Templeton Effect" on philosophy: Many are concerned that Templeton is "buying philosophy", but there is also little doubt that Templeton is motivated by concerns similar to Dyson's... and while Dyson is talking about it... Templeton is aggressively making things better.

The summary of Dyson's argument is simple: Philosophy used to be concerned with big, important-to-the-world things, but nowadays it seems most concerned with very narrow issues, and spends an inordinate amount of effort in disciplinary naval gazing. In my limited exposure to professional philosophy, including attendance of last year's American Philosophical Association convention, this sure seems to be true. What most outsiders might think of as the "core" of philosophy, a mix of adventurous and historic work on the perennial big questions, is now far at the periphery of the field. Instead, philosophy journals are filled with a mix of technical infighting and philosophical study of other disciplines. The latter strikes me as quite important (philosophy of biology, psychology, etc.), and I think it is good that philosophy departments make a place for this work, but I also think it is accurate to say that most such work lack's bite. Tom Bartlett's article does a good job displaying the mixed reactions of philosophers to critics like Dyson, and while Michael Ruse (in a later article) is right to be annoyed at scientists bashing philosophy, it is also the case that philosophers have not been making a good case for their value.

Of course, it is hard to make a good case for your value when your critics are funded with several times the amount of money that you receive.... Could it be that a field of philosophy funded with even a hundredth of science's annual budget would also produce useful, engaging results? Also, could it be that philosophy would turn its attention back to the big questions, if the request was made in a way that aligned with the broader priorities of academia?

And in steps the Templeton Foundation....

As Nathan Shneider points out in his article, The Templeton Effect, the foundation has developed a history of being smart about how to use its money. It is hard to make a splash in science, they observed, even with a several million dollar grant, but in philosophy there are fewer resources, and so your money can stretch quite far. Templeton is interested in funding research on the "big questions", exactly the type of work that Dyson and many other critics think is missing. They are putting millions of dollars towards questions of free will, character development, complexity science, evil, identifying and encouraging exceptional talent, astronomical studies about the origins of the universe, etc. And yes, within that, they are also interested in the dialog between science and theology, and interested in religious concerns, very-broadly defined. This funding is, as Nathan's article clearly explains, a game changing windfall for philosophy. Because there isn't much money in philosophy, many are concerned that Templeton is reshaping the direction of the field at breakneck speed... and they are probably correct. However, in light of the prior criticisms of philosophy, it seems to be reshaping it in an (overall) good way. More and more philosophers are showing concern with the classic big questions, because grant money is big in academia, and philosophy doesn't have much of it. Nathan's article is well worth reading, and it does suggest a couple situations in which the foundation helped shape research questions (usually broadening the question rather than redirecting it). Critics as well as supporters a given voice to talk about this influence. The overall picture bears little resemble the apocalypse that Templeton critics seem to fear. Instead it looks, to me at least, like an organization that is helping to revitalize philosophy by creating collaborative projects around currently neglected issues.


Two other recent articles in The Chronicle mention Templeton. The first, by Michael Ruse (Author of Darwin on Design), clearly states that Templeton never put any pressure on him to alter the form of his work. In full disclosure, the article does state that a Templeton sub-contractor once had a dispute with him, but he seems to have nothing but good feelings for the Foundation itself. The second, breaks down spending on Templeton's $4.4 million free-will project (overseen by Alfred Mele at Florida State University). Most of the money went to scientific studies, and much went to collaborative work.

So, there it is. All funding agencies give money to some causes you don't like; that's the nature of the business. And I'm not just saying that in a negative way, it is virtuous that funding is not controlled by a single person's whims. Templeton funds some things that I wouldn't fund, but that seems to me like their prerogative. Frankly, I think NSF and NIH waste more money in a year on bad neuro-psych work than Templeton's entire budget, and that has never stopped me from asking either of them for funding. Similarly, I'm sure the Department of Defense spends plenty of money researching "advanced interrogation" and other things I don't much like, but that won't stop me from signing on to an grant that my colleagues are putting together to study the potential of therapy done over video conference (in the context of helping the Veterans Affairs administration assist returning troops). While I understand people's concerns that Templeton might try to shape their results... there just isn't any evidence that they will, and there is plenty of evidence that they won't. Under those circumstances: If your work overlaps with Templeton's interests, then you should consider them for funding, exactly as you would consider any other large agency that funds a variety of work.


  1. The question is, would you take money from the pope or the Koch brothers or some other obscenely rich theocrats (of which there appear to be plenty in the US), which you know will use anything you might write for their own, sinister purpose?
    In other words, how low would you go before you refuse to accept money?

  2. Well, alright Bjoern...
    but I'm not sure that is the question regarding Templeton, and that is part of my point. They fund what they fund, and a good chunk of what they fund is stuff that you and I are fans of. There is also stuff they fund that you and I wouldn't fund, but I haven't seen any evidence that they are usurping or manipulating research in any way.

    In contrast, for example, it is well known that tobacco companies have funded several studies simultaneously, while retaining the right to squash results, and then they squashed anything that made cigarettes look bad. That is what I imagine you are talking about when you refer to "sinister purposes".

    A lot of people have gotten money from Templeton... and there is no indication they are suppressing or misappropriating anything.

    As for your broader questions, frankly, if the pope or Koch brothers wanted to fund my research on mathematical modeling of emotion perception, improving undergraduate science education, understanding evolutionary dynamics, or any of my other already existing projects... and they wouldn't have any say in what the final product looked like... I would accept the money in a heart beat. I'm not sure what is so "low" about that.

    If the Koch brothers offered to fund your research on classical vs. operant conditioning in insects, what "sinister purpose" are you concerned they would have in mind? I can't imagine for a second that the Koch brothers would be interested in such a project, but Templeton does, for example, fund research looking at whether quantum mechanics can help explain free will... which I know you are interested in. If you had a good research project, and you were looking for funds, what actually possible events would you be concerned about?


    P.S. I am honestly trying to understand your concerns here. Templeton hasn't given me any money, and I owe them nothing. I rarely get accused of being naive, but you seem to imply that I am, and so I really would like to better understand what you are worried about.

  3. I'm certainly not implying that you're naive! But how would you know your results were not misused and misappropriated if it were done via Templeton's religious channels? They might be using some of their recipients' stuff in religious propaganda right now on millions of poor 'sheep' and nobody but them would know it.

    Basically, receiving money from them would place a stamp on my forehead: "I associate with people who try to use science to find an invisible sky-daddy".

    WRT Koch & Co.: it is an age-old debate as to which money to accept. In German, there is a saying: money doesn't smell. But in some ways it's a little like using scientific data which were gathered from human experiments in concentration camps: they could save lives, but...
    (obviously, an extreme analogy to make a point, not to make a comparison, I hope that goes without saying)

    See also:

    This one's a real kicker:

    And notably: