Templeton invades the World Science Festival (again)

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.



  1. Jiten
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I guess it costs a lot of money to put on such an event and Templeton has the dosh. But I agree with you, Dennett and Dawkins in the your criticism of accepting their money. There’s got to be some other science supporting billionaire out there.

  2. Posted May 9, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    This makes me feel faint. I went to Templeton’s website for the first time just now. I see they describe their vision as being about “acquiring new spiritual information.”

    What an appalling view. I despise the word spiritual precisely for the reasons they use it–the mixing of scientific thought with myth.

    But given my background in both science and the humanities, I suppose if I fail as a scientist, I could also try and get money from Templeton to study the “big questions.”

    Going to go vomit now.

    • Posted May 9, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      I want a publicly available list of everyone who has received funding to study genetics, epigenetics, and engagement with the public from Templeton.

      I really hope that the program I’m doing at the University of Washington in public health genetics has not received funding from this odious group.

      • jaxkayaker
        Posted May 9, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        I think that’s funded by NSF. I attended their concurrent workshop on quantitative genetics a few years ago.

        • Posted May 9, 2016 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

          +1, thanks for that.

          • jaxkayaker
            Posted May 9, 2016 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

            Well, I’m not absolutely positive. Actually, the public health one might be funded by NIH. I looked, but didn’t see anything on the UW site. The campus is beautiful and the instructors are very smart and helpful. If you don’t know R, try to learn the basics before you go. You might try using RStudio, too.

            • Posted May 9, 2016 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

              Thanks 🙂

              R, yes!

              I’ve been using R for several years. I’ve taken 14 or so biostats courses between UW and Hopkins, two in R, and quantitative genetics with Tim Thornton used R. I know enough coding to be dangerous but not enough to be a statistician. I’m more of a thinker, like ideas and discovery and study design, and talking with everyone on WEIT 🙂

  3. Posted May 9, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t get it. The Cosmos is so mind-boggling amazing. Yes, rainbows are pretty and can be breathtakingly beautiful…but optics and color science is all that and so much more!

    Why are these people so eager to limit themselves, to put blinders on, to indulge in childish fantasies when there’s so much wonder out there to explore!?


    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      My feeling exactly. For me, understanding stuff makes it all far more amazing.

      If a god just plonked down a tree or a flower or a rainbow, it’s all a bit ho hum. It’s really just another artist’s imaginings, which is beautiful and special and unique, but limited. Contemplating all it took for an individual flower to get to how it is today, and the way it is part of the larger environment – that’s truly wondrous.

      And surely designing a planet and it’s contents would be no big deal for an omnipotent being, which makes all his cock-ups deliberate and therefore evil. Otoh, what it took for a creature to evolve who is capable of filling us with awe at her depictions of a single beetle – that’s amazing.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      Why are these people so eager to limit themselves, to put blinders on, to indulge in childish fantasies when there’s so much wonder out there to explore!?

      Small minds, afraid of the outside world without Mummy’s hand to hold.

    • eric
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      I don’t get a lot of people’s aesthetic tastes, and I’m sure they don’t get mine. Which would be no big deal, except that IMO positions like Keats’ carry with them more than just a whiff of superiority. Don’t you get the feeling from anti-science folks that it’s not just “I personally don’t enjoy science explanations for interesting phenomena,” but also “nobody ought to like science explanations for interesting phenomena”?

      Look, if Cosmos drains the joy out of life for you (the rhetorical you), don’t watch it. I’m fine with that. What does tick me off, though, is artists, poets, and so on acting like the high school jock, looking down their nose at the star trek fans.

    • Posted May 9, 2016 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. “Unweaving the rainbow” is the wrong metaphor. If you have to have a metaphor, “becoming the rainbow” or something like that might be better. Learning about reality and how it works is never a negative thing.

  4. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    *Are the sciences and the humanities friends or foes?*

    It’s weird to see science and humanities pitched against each other. In Dutch, German and Scandinavian languages they are both called “Wetenschap”, “Wissenschaft” or some variant thereof. Historians and archeologists use the scientific method all the time. Unfortunately, evidence in the humanities can’t even approach the precision achieved by mathematical evidence.

    And I think there is at least one thing the humanities and sciences can agree on: theology is BS.

    • Stephen
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      The sciences and the humanities are natural allies; both are expressions of human aspiration and creativity. Of course religious obscurantists try to pit them against each other fearful lest they combine against the real enemy. Divide and conquer. An old strategy.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I hate the way humanities is portrayed by many, and co-opted by religion. Humanities, like science, has many tools to disprove religion. The most obvious example is it was the Humanities that proved the Bible was written by multiple authors, in multiple languages, over many centuries, and frequently adapted characters and myths from earlier sources.

      • Posted May 10, 2016 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

        Sing it, Heather.

        I feel like I often see complaints about this from the science side (unsurprisingly), but we collectively forget to mention that the humanities can be practiced in an empirical, evidence-based way, contributing to the sum total of human knowledge without ever needing to take a shot at Newton. The kinds and standards of evidence are different, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t or shouldn’t exist at all.

    • Posted May 9, 2016 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      Well, the answer is right there in the OP. Keats vs. Newton. And it was Keats who insisted on the “versus”.

      In principle there need be no point of contention between the “two cultures”; in practice, artsy types love them some woo.

      • Posted May 10, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Or they seem to sometimes study humanities of science (or social studies of science) to insulate their woo explicitly (including religion). The rhetorician of science J. A. Campbell comes to mind, as with other DI fellows like S. Meyer.

  5. Kevin
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Templeton: The defender of narrow and provincial ideas employed by a plagiarized ancient myth. Turtles on crosses, all the way down.

  6. Posted May 9, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    “It only adds.” — Richard Feynman


  7. Posted May 9, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    The “hard problem” of consciousness isn’t!

  8. Posted May 9, 2016 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    “…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.”

    Another proponent of “ignorance is bliss”.
    Knowledge is bliss. Keeping humanity ignorant prevents growth, health and knowledge; all damaging. Chasing after the numinous is akin to wandering around with one’s head in a cloud all the time. Reminds me of the guy with the black cloud over his head in Little Abner. Being fuzzy-brained is not an achievement.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    In other, but related news, Sean Carroll has a curious take in his new book “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itsel”. [A title which of course has been used by Templeton Foundation before him: https://www.templetonpress.org/book/big-picture ]

    “The viewpoint I advocate in TBP is poetic naturalism. “Naturalism” being the idea that there is only one world, the natural world, that follows the laws of nature and can be investigated using the methods of science. “Poetic” emphasizes the fact that there are many ways of talking about that world, and that different stories we tell can be simultaneously valid in their own domains of applicability. It is therefore distinguished from a hardcore, eliminativist naturalism that says the only things that really exist are the fundamental particles and forces, and also from various varieties of augmented naturalism that, unsatisfied with the physical world by itself, add extra categories such as mental properties or objective moral values into the mix.”

    [ http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2016/05/06/the-big-picture-what-its-all-about/ ]

    So instead of the religious/pomo message of having different but valid ways of knowledge, we have different but valid ways of interpreting knowledge. Potato, potato?

    Disclaimer: I don’t see that Sean has taken Templeton money. But he seems traipsing close to their domain.

    • Posted May 9, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Sean is going wuwu on us. The impression I get is that he wants to not only point out the obvious that the roses are beautiful, but to take some time to luxuriate in smelling them and painting them and writing poems about how they make him feel.

      It’s nothing different from what Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan or Jerry or anybody else does, best I can tell.

      …but, then again, the book doesn’t arrive until tomorrow, so I obviously haven’t read it yet….



      • somer
        Posted May 10, 2016 at 7:40 am | Permalink

        I don’t see science as undermining emotion or beauty. As biological beings we Experience the world with emotion – which tags our thoughts and drives our actions. Most of what we learn brings us emotion. I think in Keats’ day a literal view of everything being like a machine pervaded in many circles and Newton had quite a lot of that. Today’s science is quite different. Quantum science is not cog like. Evolution is as much about behaviour to propagate genes as actual molecular structures of DNA, RNA proteins etc. the behaviour is part of the form and its not at all machine like as it interacts often very unpredictably in my view – with other animals, germs and viruses inside it and the wider environment generally. Evolution involves adaptation and change – machines don’t change because they have a program that is designed to do things for us – not to facilitate their survival and reproduction in specific environment. They are not biological – hence they are “machines”.

    • Stephen
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      I have tickets to see him talk about his new book at the Smithsonian thurs night. I’ll ask him about it.

  10. Posted May 9, 2016 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    …the tentacles of science have reached far further, wrapping themselves around questions and disciplines once thought beyond the reach of scientific analysis…

    As an unabashed supporter of The Squiddly One, I say, BWAHAHAHA!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      Is it Chthulu, or is it the Noodly Appendage of the FSM (Sauce Be Upon Him).

      • Peter N
        Posted May 9, 2016 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

        I refer to the notorious PZ Myers.

  11. merilee
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink


  12. jaxkayaker
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    “you know where the “touching fingers” come from”

    Yes, from E.T. the Extraterrestrial.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      I think it was used on (computer) networking books some time before whoever-it-was did that film.

    • Posted May 10, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      “I remember another gentle visitor from the heavens. Who came to earth… and then died… only to be brought back to life again. And his name was: E.T., the extra-terrestrial. I love that little guy.” – Rev. Lovejoy.

  13. chris moffatt
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I thought we’d done long ago with this BS about “the human experience” aka “what it means to be human”. Do we know how it differs from the experience of Summer-the-little-stripey-cat who has shared my home and my life for these nine years now? Does being human actually mean something? evidence please.

    As for Brian Greene I gave up watching his breathless deliveries long ago in the belief that he didn’t understand science very well.

  14. SA Gould
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    That photo to me shows the (Divine) male hand touching a smaller mortal(female) hand. Which I see as deliberately sexist. That has to be intentional.

    • eric
      Posted May 9, 2016 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

      Interesting; I don’t personally see the smaller hand as female and didn’t get any sexism out of it. I also didn’t think “E.T.” as some others thought. What I thought when I saw it was “Sistine Chapel.” IMO this is Templeton making a not-so-subtle reference to their project(s) being a touchpoint between human (smaller hand) and divine (big hand).

      • SA Gould
        Posted May 9, 2016 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the Sistene Chapel was what I was going for.

      • jaxkayaker
        Posted May 9, 2016 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

        For the record, I was joking about ET. I’m well aware of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.

  15. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    From Wikipedia :

    Greene has stated that he sees science as incompatible with literalist interpretations of religion.[18] He has argued that: “But if you don’t view God as the reservoir of temporary answers to issues we haven’t solved scientifically, but rather as some overarching structure within which science takes place, and if that makes you happy and satisfied, so be it. I don’t see the need for that; others do.”[18] He has also stated that there is much in the New Atheism movement which resonates with him because he personally does not feel the need for religious explanation. However, he is uncertain of its efficacy as a strategy for spreading a scientific worldview.[18]

    I don’t see too much in grounds for concern there, but I’m not aware of ever having seen him presenting anything, so there may be cracks in the pavement for the woo to rise through like sewage from leaking drains.

    • Posted May 9, 2016 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      Here is my prediction, and remember it well: over time, Greene will become more and more strident AGAINST New Atheism, and more cozy toward religion. Just a guess, but remember it, for if I turn out to be right, I will gloat.

      • Posted May 9, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        Did he give a reason for not signing the book? Worried about losing sales of his own books? Didn’t want to alienate potential customers? I think I’ve just lost some respect for him.

        • Kevin
          Posted May 9, 2016 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

          His attitude is pretentious. Greene thinks he accomplishes great things and that all look to him for finality. He is, in my view, wholly uncommitted to think seriously about the harm religion has toward science for fear that his precious public may think he is just another Atheist.

          • Somer
            Posted May 10, 2016 at 7:25 am | Permalink

            Can see the direction this is headed.

            Quote from George Coyne, Director Vatican Observatory
            “I like the look of evolution, however, primarily as a scientist but with some reflections upon the Catholic church’s view of evolution. I’m going to make four rather bold abrupt statements. Intelligent design movement belittles God, it makes of God a designer and engineer and to put it very briefly the God of religious faith is a God of love, he did not design me, he loves me. And I think intelligent design with its concentration upon a designer whom they do not really identify – but who’s kidding whom – who is this designer?

            However, if I believe in God, the universe as science sees it tells me a lot about God, if I believe in God. Not through science, but if through other human experience, as science is not everything, I believe in God, then God is more marvellous than the God they taught me about in 6th grade grammar school when we didn’t know as much about evolution. God has shared with the universe his or her own creative powers. Science reveals him to us in the universe; he caresses the universe, he disciplines the universe as you discipline a small child. But above all he loves those creatures, especially ourselves, who have come out of the universe in evolution.”

            from Intelligent Design is not science, 4 March 2006

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 9, 2016 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Shame Michelangelo’s heirs and assigns (or ET’s) can’t enforce an intellectual property claim against the hackneyed use of those hands from The Creation of Adam.

    Also a shame that Greene and Wieseltier are the ones hosting the panel in question. I used to enjoy Wieseltier’s book reviews for TNR way back when, but he’s been pumping out self-important, overwritten BS for quite a while now.

  17. somer
    Posted May 10, 2016 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    Aren’t we poetic. “unweave the rainbow”. Sounds like tidying up behind a finger printing class

    • somer
      Posted May 10, 2016 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      Keats actually was a doctor and as I mentioned earlier, he was reacting to different kinds of influences in the scientific world of his day – when literal mechanical models were thought to explain everything in many circles

  18. Posted May 10, 2016 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m coming down from Canada to volunteer at the World Science Festival – not sure if I’m working this event yet or not. If I’m not, I’d be interested in possibly seeing this one. (Afterwards I am heading to DC for the Reason Rally).

    I do love Professor Greene’s work as he taught me all about special relativity on his World Science U online platform. He’s got some unusual viewpoints…but he’s got a really colourful family life too so I cut him some slack.

  19. Posted May 11, 2016 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on CancerEvo and commented:
    This will not be a problem with the Pint of Science US events (www.pintofscience.us).

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