The New Scientist goes Templeton

This issue isn’t yet available through my library’s e-journal site, and it may not be an issue at all but a special collection, one dealing with “The Big Questions”

Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 5.02.15 AM

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the John Templeton Foundation’s main theme:

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New Scientist’s “Big Questions”, as touted on one site, includes the following:

The Big Questions

The first issue, entitled The Big Questions, explores and answers some of the profound questions we ask of ourselves and the universe around us:

Reality – Perhaps the most fundamental question of all – what is reality? It’s not as obvious as you may think.

Existence – What do the discoveries of modern science mean for our own existence? From the search for aliens to the bizarre possibility that you’re a hologram.

God – A new perspective is cast on one of the oldest answers in the book: that everything can be explained by the existence of an all-powerful supernatural being.

Consciousness – How can something so incredible be produced by 1500 grams or so of brain tissue, and why can you not be sure that everyone else is not a zombie?

Life – A phenomenon that, as far as we know, is confined to a tiny corner of the universe – life established itself quickly but why did it take so long to give rise to complex creatures?

Time – The everyday ticking of a clock might seem the most natural thing in the world, but it masks a very peculiar phenomenon.

Self – What is the self, which seems so solid and enduring to each of us and yet doesn’t appear to actually exist?

Sleep – The familiar yet strange world of sleep and dreaming – it’s a place we visit every night but which nonetheless remains eerie and elusive.

Death – There is perhaps no older question about human life than why it must one day cease. Is this New Scientist or New Superstitionist?

Well, some of these sound interesting, but they’re verging on the woo-ish, and what on Earth are they doing discussing God? (Note that the deity appears prominently in the ad.) Is there some new scientific evidence for his existence?

Indeed, New Scientist seems to be changing into New Superstitionist.

h/t: Diane G.


  1. francis
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink


  2. Greg Esres
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Not surprising, I guess, considering some of their contentious headlines in the past few years. Perhaps they’re getting some Templeton funding….the economics of print magazines these days makes one wonder how they can stay in business otherwise.

  3. Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    May I suggest that, as with Felidae as THE family of animal for / THE pet of atheists and as with vampish boots as THE wear of our pedes, an altogether different ‘ Templeton ’ become THE Templeton of us godless: this ‘ne =

    Even if you have always ‘ believed ’, before, that ‘ this ’ was stuff too, too tough to swallow, please take it from a witch who once thought that of this genre o’ brew as well: it is soooo THE easiest – ever to put down one’s gullet ! NO woo here ‘tall. Just … … lovely, lovely ‘ local ’ and TRUE brain – ( and cardiac – ) food.


    ps Nearing witchery times and the Winter Solstice, say, circa the end o’ October / first of December annually, why, there is a hoo – hah for bottling and for labeling to which the public is invited to apply for ( shall I say … … ) “ scholarships “ to come on over to help out at its home – area coven.

  4. alexandra
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Damn. Have been getting that mag for years inspite of its expense and really enjoyed it. Now I will have doubts ( not that doubts are bad) and read with an alert eye for any woo.
    And maybe protests…..

  5. Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I guess they really do think Darwin was worng, after all.


  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    New Scientist hasn’t been a reliable source on science for a long time now. It sold out to sensationalism and bad sourcing long ago.

    But here it is the (Templeton-colored) framing that is Not Even Wrong of course:

    “Humans have always asked themselves big questions; for most of history priests or philosophers were the ones with the answers, says New Scientist.”

    Purported answers. Where is your evidence?

    “Now science is muscling in on that territory and shining new light on the deepest mysteries of existence.”

    Needs no muscle, see above, just a way to derive answers. The whole field was wide open.

  7. krzysztof1
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Makes one wonder if NS isn’t somehow involved. My favorite reality quote is from Robin Williams: “Reality–What a concept!”

  8. gravityfly
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Templeton must be dishing out the big bucks these days. I see them in most science news venues I visit online.

    It’s kind of annoying.

  9. Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink


  10. Sastra
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Indeed, New Scientist seems to be changing into New Superstitionist.

    Not enough information to make that call. Yet.

    For all you know every single one of these topics could be bringing up the ‘old’ view — supernaturalism — only in order to debunk it with the new view from science: materialistic naturalism. I mean, look at this list. It’s just as likely to be a roster of the talks at a skeptic/humanist/atheist or science convention as at a woo-fest.

    YOU address the existence of God almost every day. Are you bucking for the Templeton prize? No. Do YOU think religion is a topic science ought to address? Damn straight.

    There’s nothing wrong with the Big Questions per se. They’re good questions. The problem with the Templeton Foundation is that they’ve obviously decided in advance that they’re going to take what they perceive to be the enlightened “middle” position in between dogmatic fundamentalism and dogmatic atheism. Templeton is “Science finds Spirituality.”

    I would rather wait and watch to see what New Scientist does. The “Is there a God and if not then why are people religious?” doesn’t sound like it’s going to stop at God.

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      Agreed. I really should read it but can’t get hold of it. I HOPE they have a good scientific take on the questions. This post was probably premature, but I doubt their take on God will be to my liking.

      • John K.
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        We shall see.

        God – A new perspective is cast on one of the oldest answers in the book: that everything can be explained by the existence of an all-powerful supernatural being.

        This does not bode well. Sure, they could go on to say that kind of “explanation” is about as much an explanation as “magic did it” (which is to say, not a real explanation at all), but the framing makes it seem unlikely.

        • John K.
          Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

          No moar blockquotes? Oops.

          Or perhaps my typing is just off today.

      • canicula
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        The Big Questions special edition is available via the iPad App to subscribers. Haven’t read it yet.

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      The New Scientist doesn’t have the best track record on this. Remember “Darwin Was Worng”? That was them.

      There’s nothing wrong with the Big Questions per se. They’re good questions.

      Only some of them. The others are so hopelessly muddled by philosophical and theological nonsense that their only real utility is the same as mentioning astrology in the opening lecture of an introductory astronomy course.


      • Sastra
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        The “Darwin Was Wrong” cover actually gives us cause to hope. Iirc there was nothing particularly problematic or anti-evolution about the actual article, which pointed out improvements in the theory since Darwin’s day. The objection was that the title was sensationalistic and easily misconstrued as saying the opposite of what it really means.

        In which case, these exciting Templeton topics may also end up turning into perfectly reasonable attempts to sell naturalism.

        Which of the Big Questions do you consider too muddled to address or correct through science?

        • Greg Esres
          Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          “The objection was that the title was easily misconstrued as saying the opposite of what it really means.”

          Yes, and I suspect that this has psychological effects that worked to undermine the article itself; and far more people probably read the title than read the article.

          All-in-all, it was irresponsible journalism.

          • Diane G.
            Posted April 16, 2014 at 12:26 am | Permalink


        • Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

          Which of the Big Questions do you consider too muddled to address or correct through science?

          My objection isn’t to science’s ability to correct them; of course science is capable of clearing up all sorts of nonsense.

          But I see no more place in a modern scientific discussion for questions of gods as causative agents than of demons or faeries or anything else that goes “bump” in the night. What’s next — answering the “big question” of what influence your astrological sign has on your personality?

          You could certainly have something reasonable in a science magazine about gods, such as an anthropological study of several of them or even a focus on one in particular. But, really? Seriously pondering the reality of any of them and their putative influence on the world? That’s a “Big Question”?




          • Sastra
            Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

            Yes, “Does God exist?” is a Big Question.

            The fact that all the little questions about God as causative agent have become pointless and stupid leads to an answer to the Big Question: no. It doesn’t. As our host exquisitely points out, over and over.

            Basically, you’re arguing that arguments in favor of atheism don’t belong in scientific forums. I don’t agree. I think that religion is a taboo topic which needs to be addressed and confronted by what we have learned not just about the way the universe really works, but by how we ask questions and find answers.

            Think this one over. If lo-and-behold the New Scientist is going to address its “God question” with something devastating from Sean Carroll and/or Jerry Coyne, would you write a letter of complain to its editor?

            The folks who want to keep God and science apart are called “accomodationists.” Once the existence of God becomes as quaint and trivial as the existence of magic wands, then I’ll agree with you. Been there, done that, nobody cares.

            Till then, God is the Elephant in the Room, the Ghost in the Universe, the Big Enchilada, the source and ground of people’s comfortable acceptance of pseudoscience, the supernatural, the paranormal, and woo in general. It’s where the action is. Cut into religion and watch what happens.

            • Posted April 14, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

              First, I’m not arguing that scientists shouldn’t tell the general public that the gods popular in this particular society are as fanciful as all the other spirits of all the other religions. Quite the contrary; that’s an essential part of public education.

              Where the divide lies, I think, is here:

              Once the existence of God becomes as quaint and trivial as the existence of magic wands, then I’ll agree with you.

              By that same metric, whether or not humans share a common ancestor with strawberries is a Big Question. Yet I hardly think that Evolution and human origins remain worthy of the status of a “Big Question,” do you? All the alternatives (including, “dunno”) are as quaint and trivial and superstitious as magic wands…yet we still have…what? 60%+ of Americans thinking the question is unsettled or settled in favor of magic wands? And the same thing, sadly, even for heliocentricism, though perhaps not to quite the same degree.

              Within the realm of established science, the gods are as trivially fanciful as magic wands and Leprechauns. And pretending that within the realm of established science the questions of the existence of gods is somehow a “Big Question” is as absurd and counterproductive as pretending that the influence of demonic possession upon rates of recovery from disease is a Big Question.

              That doesn’t mean that scientists, in their role as public educators, shouldn’t address such little questions. It does mean that they shouldn’t pretend that what the uneducated and superstitious masses are obsessed with has any bearing on reality, even whilst sincerely educating said masses and helping them to dispense with their superstitions.



  11. Alex Shuffell
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    So this is a book of their old articles? Then the god stuff will come from the 17th March 2012 edition, “The God Issue.” no2856. Which you have briefly described before as “not worth it.

  12. Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    This does look like something to keep an eye on, while rolling ones’ eyes. But it could be that these are marketing teaser lines aimed at pushing buttons and getting clicks and subscriptions from a broad audience. The content, when it comes out, might not be too woo-some. I will wait and see.

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      They did that with their “Darwin Was Worng!” headline. I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to assume this round is just as bad.


      • Posted April 14, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        Yes. And I am glad you remembered that example. I was not sure what was in the article, as the headline put me off from actually looking at it.

  13. Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Maybe its just that intellectuals and academics are always the last to know:

    John Templeton Foundations and its ties to Tibetan Buddhism .

    Tibetan Buddhism and its ties to the Mind and Life Institute, who is tied to Corporatism and a controlled media, that is spreading all over and infiltrating every major university and college in the U.S. and Europe to undermine vigorous scientific inquiry and weaken Science in general to create a massive ‘dumbing down’ of the western populations , which is almost complete if you take a sample of generations under 60 years old.

    You are looking at the fruition and going, ‘oh dear ‘ look at this tip of the iceberg , what is it about, and why is John Templeton ‘woo woo? and why is the New Science publication who have a younger generation , marinated in this New Age crap, and Cult Tibetan Buddhist and woo crap, all doing their internships in Nepal under the auspices of their corporately controlled universities now, And Corporations LOVE the Dalai Lama, and his ninth century mumbo jumbo,they don’t want ‘thinking intelligent workers’ they want quiet, conforming people, and this is is an elephant in the room that is destroying your profession, as it has many others, substituting a ‘values based’ ’emotional intelligence ‘ and a Eastern based Theism by stealth.

    And you , in your respective professions, are the last always to know and many in your professions have already been duped, or our going along to keep their jobs in their privatized and corporatised Universities and Colleges.

    A propensity for keeping everything ‘theoretical’ I guess.

  14. squidmaster
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I have little patience with this crap. The descriptions of the title words betray the intent to shroud these phenomena in pseudo-mystery rather than explicate them. I am quite familiar with the semi woo-ish regard in which even generally level-headed people regard consciousness. This is a subject near and dear (I’m a neuroscientist). I spend a considerable amount of effort trying to disabuse residents and grad students of the idea that consciousness is a phenomenon somehow fundamentally different from, say, the neural representation of salience. We don’t totally understand the latter phenomenon either, but we know enough about neuroanatomy, neural connectivity and neurotransmitters that we have a working model that can be refined by more research.

    This is essentially where we are with understanding consciousness, but, as it’s a somewhat more complex problem, the models are more complicated and incomplete. Clearly, however, a solution exists. There is nearly always, however, a person who clings to the ‘conundrum of subjectivity’, often exemplified by the plaint, ‘But how do I *know* your experience of the color red is the same as mine’?

    This is a false conundrum. ‘I’ can’t use ‘your’ brain because I am my brain and you are your brain. But my brain’s perceptual apparatus is quite similar to yours and to the rest of humanity. We all agree, with a few exceptions because of color (or actual) blindness, on what color is ‘red’. Furthermore, we know that light of 540 nm excites a red sensitive pigment in our cones and we understand how those cells interact with retinal ganglion cells that send the impulses brainward. We have a pretty good idea how visual association ares in the occipital cortex respond to the colors of objects and a reasonable idea how color perception is integrated with language so that one can say, ‘That plate is red’.

    So, though my brain can’t use Jerry’s brain to look at the red sports car, I can, however, know that his brain processes color identically (with a range) to mine. Therefore, the most logical assumption is that we are having nearly identical experiences when his brain informs mine that it’s detected a red car and my brain agrees.

    Getting hung up on the question of subjectivity muddles the clarity with which we understand perception. In fact, the whole subjectivity argument is essentially bogus. Just as is the solipsistic idea that everyone else might be a zombie and just be ‘simulating’ consciousness. I think this is a stupid question on its face and is simply meant to create an aura of woo about conscious phenomena. In addition, we can measure other people’s sensory perception and brain function (fMRI, EEG) and show that they are the same as ours. The most reasonable deduction is that all people, to the extent that their neural activity is similar, experience the same phenomenon of consciousness.

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Excellent post. I’d just take it one step further with your example of the Platonic idealization of “red”; you don’t even see red as the same color.

      As an excellent and trivial experiment to demonstrate, grab a red object. Step out into the Sun, or find a bright light if the Sun has gone missing. Close both eyes and place the palm of your hand over one of your eyes — which one doesn’t matter. Keeping your eyes closed (WARNING! DO NOT STARE AT SUN WITH REMAINING EYE!), turn your face to the Sun so it shines full upon you. Stay in that position for a minute or so. Turn away from the Sun, open your eyes, and look at your red object alternately with each eye, closing or covering the one eye and then the other.

      After you’ve done this experiment, and especially after you understand the physiology behind it, it’s pretty hard to take philosophical notions of qualia very seriously any more.



  15. Greg Peterson
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    If there were no mention of “god”–and the statement made about god is completely non-controversial–you would in no way interpret a list that includes life establishing ITSELF and human life HAVING TO CEASE as woo. False alarm.

  16. fivegreenleafs
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I can’t comment on the articles themselves, but I can cite a bit from the introduction to chapter 3, “God”

    “In our enlightened world, god is still everywhere. In the US, religion remains a fixture of public life. Even in secular Europe, arguments rage over religious identity and militant atheism. Try as we might, we just don’t seem able to let go.

    Perhaps that is because we have been looking at god the wrong way. Atheists often see gods and religion as being imposed from above, like a totalitarian regime. But religious belief is more subtle and interesting than that. In recent years a new scientific vision has emerged that promises to, if not resolve ancient tensions, at least reset the terms of the debate.

    …religious belief is part of human nature…

    …Viewing religion this way opens up new territory in the battle between science and religion…

    …religion is not a closed book to science…

    …only by understanding what religion is and is not can we ever hope to move on.”

    • Alex Gee
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:41 am | Permalink

      So if we have no religious feelings we’re not “normal”? we’re divorced from human nature?

      The scientific community suggesting that non-believers are less than human! Oh how religious authorities would love that!

      Well done New Scientist!

    • Sastra
      Posted April 16, 2014 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      If this is the New Scientists point then its in favor of gnu atheism (“militant atheism?”) A scientific approach to religion will not only debunk the existence of God; it will replace it with alternate theories on why people believe in God. The “it’s to control the masses” hypothesis simply leads to the question “why do the masses respond?” And of course there are many explanations. Only a Straw Man Atheist believes in the One True Cause of All Religion.

      “Only by understanding what religion is and is not can we ever hope to move on” could have been said by any gnu atheist, including Jerry.

      I really hope New Scientist isn’t going to have a bunch of pro-atheism articles disguised as What Richard Dawkins Doesn’t Want You to Know. That’s a mixed bag.

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    On the one hand there are critics of “scientism” who argue science can only deal with secondary/natural causes but not supernatural causes (which are allegedly more basic) and say that science can not deal with ultimate reality (I guess that means it only deals with penultimate reality).

    But then we get folks who are willing to shill for scientific endorsement of semi-wooish stuff if they can get it.

  18. exsumper
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Had a read in my local supermarket. I’m afraid the god bits are as you feared; pretty dire!.

    If not “New Superstitionist” at least “New Accomodationist”


  19. Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink


  20. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm, that one is in my coat pocket. I’ll have to read it (in the waiting room tomorrow for Yet Another Medical – required for work) and then slap the editors round the head. They do need it from time to time.

  21. HaggisForBrains
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Life, the Universe and Everything? I think we all know the answer to that.

    • Posted April 16, 2014 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      Oooh! Oooh! I know this one!

      54, right?


      • Posted April 16, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        In an alternat(iv)e universe, yes!


        • Posted April 16, 2014 at 6:35 am | Permalink

          …which means the Question must be, “What do you get when you multiply six by seven?”!


      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted April 16, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        😀 Close enough for the purposes of this exercise.

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