With its deep pockets and agenda to conflate (and harmonize) science and religion, the John Templeton Foundation is a corrupting influence on science. Though impecunious scientists and other scholars might not deliberately corrupt their work to cater to the Templeton agenda, they have to conform to the “Templeton mission” in their research proposals. And this is Templeton’s stated mission (they’ve conveniently eliminated the word “religion”, replacing it with the euphemism “Big Questions”):
The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.
The problem, of course, is that there is no “human purpose” beyond the purposes we each give to our individual lives. The notion that there is some Bigger Purpose out there comes purely from religion, and there is no such purpose. And of course theologians have nothing to say on this issue—at least nothing that approaches an answer. If they did, different theologians and different faiths would not arrive at different conceptions of the Purpose of Our Lives.
In addition, recipients get installed in Templeton’s Stable of Prize Ponies, which, often on display, reassures the viewer that yes, science and religion are best friends forever. The Templeton Prize is one of the main vehicles for roping ponies into their stalls.
The latest Templeton Travesty, as reported by the University of California at Riverside’s blurbsite UCR Today, is that a philosopher at UCR, John Fischer, has been given the sum of five million dollars to study—wait for it—immortality and the afterlife.
For millennia, humans have pondered their mortality and whether death is the end of existence or a gateway to an afterlife. Millions of Americans have reported near-death or out-of-body experiences. And adherents of the world’s major religions believe in an afterlife, from reincarnation to resurrection and immortality.
Anecdotal reports of glimpses of an afterlife abound, but there has been no comprehensive and rigorous, scientific study of global reports about near-death and other experiences, or of how belief in immortality influences human behavior. That will change with the award of a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality. It is the largest grant ever awarded to a humanities professor at UC Riverside, and one of the largest given to an individual at the university.
“People have been thinking about immortality throughout history. We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death,” said Fischer, the principal investigator of The Immortality Project. “Much of the discussion has been in literature, especially in fantasy and science fiction, and in theology in the context of an afterlife, heaven, hell, purgatory and karma. No one has taken a comprehensive and sustained look at immortality that brings together the science, theology and philosophy.”
The John Templeton Foundation, located near Philadelphia, supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.
Half of the $5 million grant will be awarded for research projects. The grant will also fund two conferences, the first of which will be held at the end of the project’s second year and the second at the end of the grant period. A website will include a variety of resources, from glossaries and bibliographies to announcements of research conferences and links to published research. Some recent work in Anglo-American philosophy will be translated for German philosophers who, in the last 30 years, have been increasingly studying the work of American philosophers.
Well, of course this project won’t help us at all in figuring out what happens after death. It’s a huge amount of money for a philosopher, and appealing to Templeton’s agenda is the only way a philosopher can get this kind of dosh.
Now I’m not suggesting that Fischer is corrupt here; far from it, for his webpage suggests a sober and serious academic who has done respectable work. I’m suggesting, instead, that most of the project is a waste of money, and further cheapens science by mixing it with theology. I’m also suggesting that in order to bring in that kind of money, Fischer was forced to conform to what Templeton wants. And that is dragging in religion and theologians.
As I read the UCR blurb, I see three parts of this project.
- An attempt to collate and interpret what philosophers have said about the afterlife, and how average people conceive of their possible immortality. There’s also a suggestion about looking at the way different cultures see near-death experiences (NDEs):
One of the questions [Fischer] hopes researchers will address is cultural variations in reports of near-death experiences. For example, the millions of Americans who have experienced the phenomenon consistently report a tunnel with a bright light at the end. In Japan, reports often find the individual tending a garden.
“Is there something in our culture that leads people to see tunnels while the Japanese see gardens?” he asked. “Are there variations in other cultures?” What can we learn about our own values and the meanings of our finite lives by studying near-death experiences cross-culturally (as well as within our own culture)?
Well, part of the answer is already in: there are cultural influences. That’s why Christian NDEs, for example, sometimes involve seeing Jesus (see my post on Colton Burpo’s NDE). If you hadn’t ever been exposed to Jesus but saw him in a NDE, now that would be something! And I’m sure that there are physiological commonalities of one’s brain approaching death that produces similar characteristics, like out-of-body sensations and tunnels. This has been amply discussed in the literature, and we know that certain chemicals, like ketamine, can give symptoms very similar to those of NDEs.
I do think there’s some value (but not $5 million dollars’ worth!), in collating and analyzing reports of NDEs and attitudes towards immortality. It tells us, at the least, how different cultures regard afterlife. But the separation of physiological versus cultural influences on NDEs is not something this project can accomplish. That’s because there’s not enough money to achieve the second aim:
- Scientific studies of the biology of near-death experiences. There is not enough money in the grant to do the kinds of psychological and neurological work needed to seriously address what people experience when they are about to die, or are near death. That kind of work is the purview of scientists, with perhaps some input of philosophers and sociologists. But as any researcher knows, $5,000,000 is not enough to even start working on this. The UCR blurb says this:
Anecdotal reports of near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences and past lives are plentiful, but it is important to subject these reports to careful analysis, Fischer said. The Immortality Project will solicit research proposals from eminent scientists, philosophers and theologians whose work will be reviewed by respected leaders in their fields and published in academic and popular journals.
“We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions,” Fischer said. “Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports. We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked. We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife.”
Note that there have already been several tests of “out of body” experiences, for example physicians pinning notes to the ceiling that could only have been read by a real out-of-body patient (naturally, none ever are). But that’s the kind of thing, combined with examining the effects of drugs, brain scans, and so on, that are needed to properly study NDEs. And sociologists can contribute for looking for cultural factors affecting NDEs as well.
But note that they’ve dragged in theologians here. Theologians have absolutely nothing to say about immortality, afterlife, or NDEs, because they don’t study things rationally—they make them up. They can’t even agree whether there is an afterlife (Jews dissent, and Hindus think we’re all recycled), and even those who think there is an afterlife can’t agree on what form it takes. That brings us to the third and most misguided of the study’s aims:
- An attempt to find out if there is an afterlife, and, if so, what form it takes. The UCR blurb notes:
Other questions philosophers may consider are: Is immortality potentially worthwhile or not? Would existence in an afterlife be repetitive or boring? Does death give meaning to life? Could we still have virtues like courage if we knew we couldn’t die? What can we learn about the meaning of our lives by thinking about immortality?
Theologians and philosophers who examine various concepts of an afterlife may delve into the relationship between belief in life after death and individual behavior, and how individuals could survive death as the same person.
“Many people and religions hold there is an afterlife, and that often gives people consolation when faced with death,” Fischer said. “Philosophy and theology are slightly different ways to bring reason to beliefs about religion to evaluate their rationality. If you believe we exist as immortal beings, you could ask how we could survive death as the very same person in an afterlife. If you believe in reincarnation, how can the very same person exist if you start over with no memories? . . .
For example, “We think that free will is very important to us theologically and philosophically. And heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition is supposed to be the best place. Yet we arguably wouldn’t have free will in heaven. How do you fit these ideas together?”
This is all nonsense. First of all, theologians (and some misguided philosophers) have been pondering these questions for centuries, and have come to no conclusion. There is no need to fund further lucubrations. I’ve been reading theologians on the afterlife, and they’re all over the map. Some say we don’t have it, others (like John Haught) envision not some kind of personal translation to Heaven but the enfolding of our collective memories into the bosom of Jesus, and of course many others see us up there floating on clouds and plucking harps. Others see us coming back as cockroaches or dogs. (I personally would like to be Russell Blackford’s cat).
There’s no way to decide among all these speculations, and the endeavor isn’t worthwhile given the complete absence of evidence for a god or an afterlife. Speculating about this stuff before we know whether there’s a deity is the purview of philosophers like Michael Ruse and Elliott Sober, and in my judgment is a futile endeavor. It’s like speculating about how Santa Claus can deliver all those presents in one night.
And why bother with trying to decide if we have free will in heaven before we know whether heaven exists? Even if we found out it did, arguing about free will there is a useless endeavor, meant only to keep underemployed theologians off the streets. (See chapter 12 of John Loftus’s Why I Became an Atheist for a précis of theological thought on free will in heaven. It’s hilarious to see how theologians have wasted their time on this problem.)
The worst part of this project is the dragging in of theologians alongside scientists and philosophers. At least the last two groups are wedded to logic and reason, and their disciplines prevent them from making stuff up out of thin air. Note what Fischer says above, which does make me worry a bit about him:
“Philosophy and theology are slightly different ways to bring reason to beliefs about religion to evaluate their rationality.”
Slightly different? Give me a break! They’re hugely different, and that’s why most philosophers are atheists. Their application of reason has dispelled any notions about gods and heavens.
In the end, this is just another waste of money by Templeton on The Big Questions, and another corruption of science—and now philosophy. Those who want this kind of money must conform to Templeton’s faith-soaked agenda, and that agenda is deeply injurious to rationality. It is the conflation of reason and woo.