Templeton invades the World Science Festival again; Dan Dennett withdraws from the field

Once again the World Science Festival (WSF) will take place in New York City in May, the brainchild of Brian Greene and Tracy Day. Let me begin by affirming that I’m all in favor of the Festival as a way to excite the public about science. Greene and Day have put enormous effort into this event, which has been a live affair, and a successful one, since 2008.

But there’s a fly in the ointment: one of the big sponsors of the WSF is the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), which was also one of its founding benefactors. This is shown on the 2015 Festival Website:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 6.31.44 AMLet us now remind ourselves of the JTF’s ongoing mission, as stated on its site:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 7.38.39 AM

Here we see that the “Big Questions” that Templeton funds involve “human purpose and ultimate reality”, questions which of course cannot be investigated by science. (If “ultimate reality” refers simply to a reality about which we know everything, then that’s not science but something numinous or godly.) In fact Sir John’s purpose in endowing the Foundation appears to be his notion that science could tell us something about God, which is confirmed by the second paragraph’s statement that Sir John believed that science could give us “new spiritual information.”

The aims of the JTF—to blur the boundaries between science and the spiritual—haven’t changed, although they have realized that also funding real science having no obvious connection to God gives the Foundation a special “scientific” cachet. And so they do fund (as they do in the WSF) some projects and programs that are neither spiritual nor religious. But, given the Foundation’s mission statement, I suspect they do this to corral famous scientists into their paddock of thoroughbreds, hoping that their glory will illuminate JTF’s less scientific and more religious endeavors.

We can see this mixture of science and spirituality—and Templeton’s “thoroughbred stable” mentality—in several symposia in this year’s WSF Templet0n-sponsored “Big Ideas Series.” Here’s one on free will:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 6.50.10 AM

Now Templeton recently sponsored a huge project on free will, giving more than $4 million to a group of scientists, philosophers, and (of course) theologians to masticate the problem. Alfred Mele happened to be the sponsor of that program, and so of course he’s in the Templeton symposium about it. Experience has taught me that at Templeton-sponsored events we’re likely to find people who are or have been given money by the Foundation. And indeed, a bit of digging shows that all four of the participants fall into this class:

Alfred Mele was the sponsor of $4.4 million grant on Free Will from Templeton running through 2013. Mele now has another “running grant on the philosophy and science of self-control,” and admits that between the two projects he’s received 9 million dollars. Not all that money went to Mele, of course: he’s the sponsor of these programs, which means that he gets part of the dough and distributes the rest to his collaborators.

Tamar Kushnir is supported by a Templeton grant that started in 2015. Her curriculum vitae describes the grant:

John Templeton Foundation Science of Self Control (with co-PIs Alison Gopnik, and John Campbell, UC Berkeley), “Self-Control and Conceptions of Free Will, Desire and Normative Constraint: A Cross-Cultural Developmental Investigation.”

Christof Koch gave three Templeton-sponsored lectures on free will at Vanderbilt University in 2007, including one on “God, Consciousness, and Free Will” (he appears to be a determinist and perhaps a very weak compatibilist).

Azim Shariff was also funded by Templeton as a co-project leader (from 2012-2014) on the JTF-sponsored project, “Does Complex Religion Make Good People?”

That’s four out of four participants in the Templeton stable. And that’s par for the course. (The moderator, Emily Senay, appears to have no Templeton connection.) These participants will likely be handsomely remunerated for their efforts, though I can’t be sure about that. But what I’d like to know is this: did Templeton decide or suggest who got to speak at this symposium? If so, that’s a severe conflict of interest, compromising the scientific objectivity of such a panel. As far as I know, when U.S. government organizations like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation fund symposia, working groups, or meetings, the participants are chosen by scientists, not the funding organizations.

If Templeton had no say about who spoke, then it’s a remarkable coincidence that all four participants have received money from the Foundation.

My friend Dan Dennett has been a persistent critic of Templeton. Even in his largely favorable review of Alfred Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will in Prospect Magazine, Dan had some choice words about Templeton, suggesting that although Mele’s work was good, he appears to be a bit compromised by his association with the JTF (my emphasis):

[I]t is important to note that Mele’s research, as he scrupulously announces, and not in fine print, is supported by the Templeton Foundation. In fact, Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation, almost certainly the most munificent funding of any philosopher in history. The Templeton Foundation has a stated aim of asking and answering the “Big Questions,” and its programmes include both science and theology. In fact, yoking its support of science with its support of theology (and “individual freedom and free markets”) is the very core of its strategy. The Templeton Foundation supports, with no strings attached, a great deal of excellent science that is otherwise hard to fund. The Foundation supports theological and ideological explorations as well, and it uses the prestige it garners from its even-handed and generous support of non-ideological science to bolster the prestige of its ideological forays. It could easily divide itself into two (or three) foundations, with different names, and fund the same research—I know, because I challenged a Templeton director on this score and was told that they could indeed, but would not, do this.

Alfred Mele is in an unenviable position, and there is really nothing he can do about it. Was his decision to stay strictly neutral on the compatibilism issue a wise philosophical tactic, permitting him to tackle a more modest project, demonstrating the weakness of the scientific argument to date, or was it a case of simply postponing the more difficult issue: if, as science seems to show, our decision-making is not accomplished with the help of any quantum magic, do we still have a variety of free will that can support morality and responsibility? The Templeton Foundation insists that it is not anti-science, and demonstrates this with the bulk of its largesse, but it also has an invested interest in keeping science from subverting some of its ideological aspirations, and it just happens that Mele’s work fits handsomely with that goal. And that, as I persist in telling my friends in science whenever they raise the issue, is why I advise them not to get too close to Templeton.

See also a post I wrote in 2009, in which both Dan and philosopher Anthony Grayling refused to cooperate with a journalist who was working on a Templeton-sponsored project on materialism. As Dan wrote to the journalist:

The only reason I am replying is to let you know that I disapprove of the Templeton Foundation’s attempt to tie theologians to the coat tails of scientists and philosophers who actually do have expertise on this topic.

Anthony had a similar response:

I cannot agree with the Templeton Foundation’s project of trying to make religion respectable by conflating it with science; this is like mixing astrology with astronomy or voodoo with medical research, and I disapprove of Templeton’s use of its great wealth to bribe compliance with this project. Templeton is to all intents and purposes a propaganda organisation for religious outlooks; it should honestly say so and equally honestly devote its money to prop up the antique superstitions it favours, and not pretend that questions of religion are of the same kind and on the same level as those of science – by which means it persistently seeks to muddy the waters and keep religion credible in lay eyes. It is for this reason I don’t take part in Templeton-associated matters.

So I was saddened to see that not just Dan, but another friend, Steve Pinker, are also participating in another Big Questions symposium, one with woo-ish overtones (see update below; Dan has withdrawn):

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 6.33.27 AM

Note the question at hand: “did we get here through numerous baby steps or in one giant leap?” Seriously? One giant leap? This is not Apollo 11, but human evolution we’re talking about. The question is already answered. I can assume only that the “one giant leap” has some goddy overtones, though I have no doubt that neither Dan nor Steve would support that, nor offer any kind words about gods. Why they’re participating, especially given Dan’s disapproval of Templeton, is beyond my ken.

And an update:  As a courtesy, I informed Dan and my other friends mentioned here that I was going to put up this post, but Dan had already decided to withdraw from the World Science Festival because of Templeton funding. Kudos to him!

Here’s his email to the WSF, which I have permission to reproduce (I’ve readacted the names of the recipients as they’re not relevant). According to the email, Dan wasn’t told that Templeton was sponsoring the session, and I consider that both derelict and deliberate:

Dear [name redacted]:

I have just learned of the Templeton Foundation’s funding role in the session I was to be participating in, and I don’t do Templeton-funded events, as I have often made clear in public and in print. I wish I had been told of this when first invited. It would have saved us both a lot of time and effort. I remember all too well the appalling sessions curated by The Templeton Foundation at the Cambridge University Darwin Bicentennial in 2009, which were an embarrassment to science and to Cambridge. I don’t know the extent of the advising or consulting role of the Templeton Foundation in the World Science Foundation’s plans, but since I was not informed from the outset about the Templeton Fundation’s role, I consider this in itself to be more than adequate grounds for declining, at this late date, your kind invitation.

I would very much appreciate it if you would forward this email to the other scheduled participants on the panel, and to the people in charge of the book-talk session I had scheduled on Saturday afternoon.  I apologize to THEM for backing out at this late date, but I made my decision as soon as I had confirmed what I had been told: that the session was one of those sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.

Please cancel my hotel reservations and airline tickets.

Daniel C. Dennett

Finally, I want to be even-handed here. JTF does sponsor some symposia that do appear to be pure science, but of course that has been the case for some time. Here is one of them from this year’s WSF:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 6.33.05 AM

But I don’t think for a minute that the Foundation is interested in advancing science that has no spiritual overtones. They are coopting scientists into their stable and, as Dan noted above, they refuse to separate the pure-science projects from the spiritual projects. In a time of increasingly limited funding for science, you have to have a certain amount of moxie (and principle) to turn down Templeton’s dosh.

I have more to say about this in The Albatross.  Of course I have no doubt at all that Greene and other participants in the WSF will ignore what I say, for I am a small fish without influence. And, as Anthony Grayling wrote in an email today (quoted with permission):

You have only to look at the Templeton website stuff on connecting science to ‘the Big Questions on purpose and ultimate reality’ – sic for the capitalised B and capitalised Q and sic for ‘purpose and ultimate reality’ – to see what these guys are after. They are buying scientific respectability for their agenda.

Money talks so loud it deafens almost everyone.

And that’s the bottom line.


  1. Posted May 6, 2015 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, have you alerted Da Pinkah about the Templeton connection? If so, have you heard back from him?

    I would rather expect him to match Dan’s pace in this, and would imagine that, if he hasn’t yet withdrawn, it’s simply because the news hasn’t caught up with him yet. But, if not, that’d be something we should know about as well, I should think — and, if he decides to go through with it, I’d appreciate his reasons for doing so (even though I rather doubt I’d agree with them).


  2. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    If the Templeton Foundation admitted it may have erred in giving a Templeton award to Billy Graham and invested a little time and money in actually refuting blatantly pseudo-scientific spirituality like that of Deepak Chopra, it would go a very long way (in my eyes at least) in making me comfortable with their broader agenda.

    I’m glad they distance themselves from intelligent design, but they should invest more in direct rebuttals to it. Ken Miller and George Coyne would be quite comfortable with helping them with this.

    They are reasonably open to hosting a variety of opinions of some issues as evidenced here in asking various folks from Ken Miller to Victor Stenger about belief in God re science.

  3. Posted May 6, 2015 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I think science has illuminated the Big Questions. Sometimes turning on a light reveals an empty room.

  4. Kevin
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Well done Dan. Though I think people should take money from Templeton and convey in the short term alliances to Templeton’s superstitious desire to support their metaphysical hopes and aims. In the long term, the same people should provide evidence against those same claims. Templeton would crumble from within.

    This is not so different than what one sees in some churches in America. The very same people who attend are no longer in agreement with the fundamental principles of their beliefs. Their fortitude and their endorsement of their children’s fortitude for religion begin to wane. The house falls on itself.

  5. Scientifik
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    The first sentence in the description of the Free Will panel already misstates the problem: “Do we make conscious decisions?” as it seems to wrongly equate making conscious decisions with free will.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 6, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I noticed that too, a False Dilemma fallacy. They left out the option of our making conscious decisions AND all our actions predetermined — an exclusion determined to piss off Dennett.

  6. Posted May 6, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Although I sympathize with JAC’s concerns it seems to me that as long as the speakers are intellectually honest it can only backfire for Templeton. The audience will hear talk after talk that will make the core beliefs of religion untenable

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted May 6, 2015 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      And Templeton will be able to say “Look at all the smart, skeptical, intellectually honest people who take our research program seriously.” That’s not a backfire; that’s exactly what they’re paying for.

  7. tubby
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    If I called their proposed giant leap ‘agriculture’ would they be unhappy because it’s not made of magic and fairy dust?

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I looked into the other participants in the session with Daniel Dennet and Steven Pinker.
    Lee Berger is a paleoanthropologist who described the Australopithecus sediba fossil. This is an important fossil that may have transitional features to the genus Homo, and it shows anatomical signs of being able to make tools.
    Paul Bingham is a molecular biologist and evolutionary biologist who is now focusing on human evolution. He has developed what I think is a well regarded theory about how humans evolved ecological dominance.
    Dean Falk is an anthropologist who focuses on evolution of cognition in primates including humans. Of note she developed the theory that our evolution of radial blood vessels that cool our brains was an important innovation that removed constraint on larger brains (I have heard about that one!). She was also very important in arguing that H. floresiensis is a species that is different from ours — it is not a microcephalic human.

    So actually the other speakers (Pinker included, of course) seem like very solid, non-accommodationist types, and what they would have to say would be very interesting. But I wonder what they are thinking now.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 6, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      One of the things which may worry them about drawing out is that doing so basically ensures that Big Spirituality will take over and run all the major science conferences. That worries me.

      It’s kind of a lose-lose proposition. This is already an important science festival. Allowing Templeton the power to remove some of the best evidence and argument against supernaturalism just by showing up may end up backfiring. After all, the spiritual and religious world views are the views of the entrenched majority of the public. It’s the status quo. We therefore need more rational voices, not fewer.

      But Jerry is also right.

      So I don’t know.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted May 6, 2015 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        I think it is true that pulling out also poses a problem that should at least be considered. It also occurs, dammit, that scientists who study human evolution are always strapped for cash. The fee they may get for this engagement might pay for a field season or two.
        Dammit, dammit dammit.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 6, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps they, like Dan Dennett were unaware of the Templeton link or at least are unaware of Templeton’s motives.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 7, 2015 at 5:21 am | Permalink

      I’ve become acquainted with Lee Berger through John Hawks’s website. They are both unconventional anthropologists, who try to open up the field to free data. [And at least in Hawks’s case, to investigating a seeming suppression of rape, as defined in Sweden, tendencies towards female field workers.]

      So I am not surprised to see Berger pursue means of bread and butter both.

    • derekw
      Posted May 7, 2015 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Isn’t this supposed to be how science works? If any biases exist in the Templeton-funded work why isn’t Dennet there to expose it? Are Sean Carroll and Neil DeGrasse Tyson bowing to the almighty god of money and profit of Discovery network (Science channel)? How bout uber-conservatives David Koch sponsoring NOVA which has impacted hundreds of millions with regard to scientific interest. This ‘Planet of the Humans’ session seemed to be one not to be missed for anyone interested in science/human origins. Are they doing live/recorded web broadcast?

  9. Sastra
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    From Dennett:

    The Foundation supports theological and ideological explorations as well, and it uses the prestige it garners from its even-handed and generous support of non-ideological science to bolster the prestige of its ideological forays. It could easily divide itself into two (or three) foundations, with different names, and fund the same research—I know, because I challenged a Templeton director on this score and was told that they could indeed, but would not, do this.

    In other words, the Templeton Foundation is a classic example of a deepity. And look who’s pointing that out.

    It’s an organization deepity. Rather like “Integrated Medicine,” which also makes a big song and dance about taking only what’s scientifically valid from both systems — but it’s really about integrating quackery with real medicine. It’s a bait ‘n switch. They start by showing you well-designed research on promising herb-derived pharmaceuticals and the effect of massage on stress-related illnesses … and then proceed rapidly to energy healing and homeopathy and “other ways of knowing by personal anecdote.” The science was a cover for what turns out to be a spiritual agenda.

    I recently read Edvard Ernst’s wonderful A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble. It’s a highly entertaining look at what happens when a Templeton-style “merging science with spirituality” organization forgets that it’s all a show and actually hires a prestigious scientific researcher who is serious about doing scientific research. Hijinks ensue.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s suspect, as Dan Dennett points out in his letter, that Templeton was not mentioned as a sponsor and Dan had to actually dig to find this out. At the least it’s sloppy at the worst it’s deceitful.

  11. Dermot C
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Given Templeton’s tax-dodging history, shouldn’t the motto be, ‘How little we declare, how eager to earn’? x

  12. Posted May 6, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Currently struggling with a 3-city International project to elucidate potential differences in social network structure by recency of infection & doing genotypic analysis on how strains mutate as they percolate through networks & what the implications are… juggling two other projects that try to get young PhDs to be more familiar with network analytical methods to supplement disease control efforts. Everybody’s starving and trying to figure out where the money is coming from, where to cut.

    When I see such incredibly lavish numbers being doled out on this garbage, I just want to give up.

  13. Posted May 6, 2015 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Well done Jerry for keeping the heat on JTF, and well done to Dan Dennett for sticking to his principles.

    Just to reiterate what JTF are about, for anyone who isn’t aware of their tendrils, we have the LASAR project here in England (http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/lasar/about-lasar/), linked to Faraday Schools, all funded by the JTF; Jerry wrote about them before:


    They run events for Primary and Secondary school children to spread the good news that science and religion are compatible – hallelujah!


    For a report on one event see here:


    “Workshops included creating a ‘washing line of time’ to discuss whether this is at odds with ‘religious time’, and the biblical explanation of how Earth developed.”

    I bet I know their answer. Evolution has been added to the Year 6 curriculum in the UK, and Dr Berry Billingsley said:

    “It is fantastic that evolution is to be taught in primary education but many schools are anxious about the best way to teach these ideas.”

    So JTF are interfering in our kids’ science education with these events.

  14. rickflick
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    I seem to remember that Pinker was (to my disappointment) pretty wishy-washy regarding Templeton. Can anyone confirm that?
    I suspect and fear he will remain in the stable on this occasion.

  15. Posted May 6, 2015 at 7:30 pm | Permalink


  16. Diane G.
    Posted May 7, 2015 at 2:41 am | Permalink


  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 7, 2015 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    It isn’t odd that I cringe when I read bullet points of discussion, else there wouldn’t be much to discuss. But it is odd that JTF’s sponsored discussions seem so fringe. The “accelerating universe” discussion is such:

    – How do you go “beyond” infinity?
    – Dark energy doesn’t suffer from being unexplained, there are many explanations. If anything it suffer from having an embarrassment of potential explanations, it is “over-explained”.
    – Only in one class (I think) of explanations, phantom energy, does the vacuum rip apart spacetime due to energy considerations. But this physics has consistently been unfulfilled by observations of the cosmic microwave background, and it is as I understand it inconsistent with the way inflation smoothed the early universe. [The Planck Legacy Archive has a long standing discussion in the cosmology parameter papers through the years.]

    If one would like to see a worse finetuning balance that threatens future spacetime, it is the potentially meta-stable vacuum of the standard particles. “Thus, no reason to panic, our vacuum is meta-stable, meaning its average lifetime extends beyond December 2012. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing here. We happen to occupy a very special patch of the standard model parameter space. … Ah, and don’t forget the disclaimer: All this discussion is valid assuming the standard model is the correct theory all the way up to the Planck scale, which is unlikely.” [E.g. there is at least dark matter particles and the inflation field in between the standard particle and the Planck energy scales.] [ http://resonaances.blogspot.se/2012/10/whats-deal-with-vacuum-stability.html ]

    But they don’t seem to discuss that much. Presumably because there is too little “infinities” involved, and while LHC can’t resolve the question the next generation of accelerators should be able to – so it isn’t goddy enough.

    Maybe it should be renamed JTFF: John Templeton Fringe Foundation.

  18. The Eh'theist
    Posted May 7, 2015 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Does anyone know whether Templeton is only sponsoring WSF in the US? Nothing I’ve seen promoting it here in Canada has had any mention of Templeton, so I wanted to be sure of what I’m saying before mentioning it to some of the local supporters. Thanks.

  19. eric
    Posted May 7, 2015 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    If Templeton had no say about who spoke, then it’s a remarkable coincidence that all four participants have received money from the Foundation.

    Not too remarkable, in the same way that it would not be a ‘remarkable coincidence’ if each and every speaker at a high energy physics symposium received money from DOE. Templeton is probably the biggest if not the only major funder of this sort of research (on free will), so it really shouldn’t be surprising if most of the people speaking got their grant money from that source.

    Having said that, I would agree with Jerry and others that Templeton is not like DOE in that it’s not a ‘results neutral’ funding organization. So while there may be perfectly mundane reason why every speaker is Templeton funding, its still perfectly reasonable to treat the results with deeper skepticism than one would my example (a full slate of DOE-funded high energy physicists).

  20. Posted May 7, 2015 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Great effort here, although Sam Harris would probably have something to say about the conflation of spirituality/religion and the implication that spirituality cannot be a subject which science can speak about, spirituality insofar as it relates to spiritual experience is something that can be explored without any necessary religious connotations, and by habitually associating spirituality with religion you potentially make the wider task of combating superstition with rationality that much harder.

    • Posted May 7, 2015 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      Sam is well aware of the multiple meanings given to the word, “spirituality,” and always takes care to get his definitions straight up front. He might want to reclaim the word for reason, but I’m sure he’s fully aware that that’s not a battle he’d win in his lifetime.


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