Every year the World Science Festival, organized by physicist Brian Greene and CEO Tracy Day, gets a dollop of cash from Templeton (the sponsors are here), and every year it has a few “Big Ideas” Symposia directly sponsored by Templeton. Most of the ones for this year (program here) look fairly tame, but then there’s this one, with the graphic shown below. The indented material is taken from the Science Festival Announcment.
DATE: Thursday, June 2, 2016
TIME: 8:00 PM-9:30 PM
VENUE: NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
PARTICIPANTS: Brian Greene, Leon Wieseltier, and others
As long ago as the early 19th century, the poet Keats bemoaned the washing away of the world’s beauty and mystery in the wake of natural philosophy’s reductionist insights—its tendency to unweave a rainbow. Two centuries later, the tentacles of science have reached far further, wrapping themselves around questions and disciplines once thought beyond the reach of scientific analysis. But like Keats, not everyone is happy. When it comes to the evaluation of human experience—passion to prayer, consciousness to creativity—what can science explain, and what are the limits of its explanatory powers? What is the difference between science and scientism? Are the sciences and the humanities friends or foes? Join an animated discussion on science, reductionism, the mind, the heart, freedom, religion, and the quest for the human difference.
The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation.
Note first that they’re using the title of Richard Dawkins’s book, which was written to show that science doesn’t detract from wonder about the universe, but adds to it. (Dawkins’s title was, of course, itself taken from John Keats’s plaint that Newton’s unraveling of the rainbow’s colors destroyed the beauty of the phenomenon).
Wieseltier, you may recall, is a staunch anti-“scientism” man. After Steve Pinker wrote a defense of science in The New Republic, saying that a dollop of science could actually enrich and improve some of the humanities, Wieseltier (at the time an editor of TNR) wrote a scathing response, accusing Pinker of rampant scientism. There’s no doubt which side he’ll take on this issue.
I’m not sure about Brian Greene, as my one experience with him (his refusal to autograph a copy of Faith versus Fact on which I was collecting signatures and intended to auction for Doctors Without Borders), as well as my “scientist’s intuition”, leads me to believe that he won’t argue nearly as strongly against the “scientism” canard —if he argues against it at all—as would Pinker. He is not a vociferous critic of religion.
In fact, Pinker belongs at that symposium, and I’m not sure why he’s not there. The fact that all the participants aren’t named up makes me wonder if they’re having trouble recruiting people.
I don’t really mind such a public discussion; what I mind is Templeton sponsoring it, for Templeton loves the numinous. And I sense that the deck will be stacked. If the organizers are serious, they should have participants like Pinker and Alex Rosenberg along with those who will do down science.
I also don’t like the tenor of the announcement: the allusion to the “tentacles of science”, the reference to prayer, and the idea that at this moment we can say something meaningful about the limits of science. I’m dubious, for instance, about claims that things like creativity and the “hard problem of consciousness”—subjective sensation and self-awareness—are beyond scientific explanation. Finally, the illustration amalgamates science and religion (you know where the “touching fingers” come from)—symbolic of Templeton’s accommodationism.
But maybe I’m just grumpy today. If any readers go to this presentation, do report back.