Thinking about Templeton

Posted on January 17, 2011

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The Leiter Report, which is perhaps the premier blog on analytical philosophy, has recently asked about the advisability of applying for Templeton funding:

While the Templeton Foundation undoubtedly devotes resources to muddying certain intellectual waters, it has, to my knowledge, funded substantial philosophical research projects, without unsavory strings attached.

Several significant points have been raised in the resulting discussion and are worth thinking about. However, it seems to me that the responses made there have a couple of shortcomings that I will expand upon here.

The first problem is that the commenters seem to assume that their work will not be affected by the source of the funding of that research. I mentioned this problem, responding to a commenter who suggested that people who do not like Templeton funding are implicitly rejecting Enlightenment belief in the power of argument:

I think that Nicholas Smyth has the crux of the issue but is grasping it somewhat too roughly. Belief in the power of argument is pragmatically implicit in being a philosopher. That belief, however, has to be tempered by a fallibilist attitude regarding human abilities, including one’s own. Anything else is hubris. What I mean by this is that I always start to feel very uncomfortable when scientists claim that being funded by Templeton does not affect their views and, what is more, their results. This may well be the case, of course. However, psychological research upon the unconscious effects of subtle social influence is far too well developed to be able to just turn around and say, “Well, that’s alright then.” We know that the behaviour of even the most intelligent people is profoundly affected by a number of factors, such as advertising, that they would disavow. We also know that scientific methodology is nowhere near as impersonal and purely logical as the logical positivists dreamed. This makes it highly plausible that being funded by Templeton can and does affect the work done by philosophers and others in ways that they are not aware of. Not that I can provide a single clear-cut example of this.

Philosophers, psychologists, physicists and all others who accept funding are just human. To presume that such funding will not influence us in some way when we do accept it is to deny scientific research that appears to show the exact opposite. Of course, it is that very hubristic denial that Templeton is counting on.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the general consensus in responses to what I wrote was to largely discount the possibility of personal bias resulting from such funding. All too many of the replies sounded like they were saying, “Well, maybe others but not me!”

The second shortcoming with how the various philosophers responded to Leiter’s original question is that they looked at the question from a purely individualist perspective. They have, therefore, focussed on the issue of whether individual scientists should take money from Templeton. That perspective does not, however, get at what I see as the overall pernicious effect of the Templeton Fund. To come to grips with what Templeton is doing it is necessary to think on a broader, discipline-wide level – less analytical philosophy and more cognitive anthropology, perhaps (though you’d think modern philosophers of science would be awake to this issue). Even if it was the case that individuals did not alter their work a jot due to the influence of Templeton and even if Templeton was happy to finance high quality projects that were neutral to its aims, a discipline like cognitive science of religion in which Templeton is one of the major, if not the major, funding source is going to find itself profoundly affected by the priorities that drive Templeton. It is enough that Templeton should be somewhat less willing to fund projects that run explicitly counter to its aims (something that it would unreasonable not to expect it to do), or for the researchers involved with such projects to be less willing to seek Templeton funds or even for them to be simply willing to deemphasise the relevance of their research to those aims. On a discipline-wide scale, such small and seemingly reasonable biases are enough for the overall weight of the discipline to shift in favour of a massive source of funding such at Templeton. The neutral work helps to justify Templeton as a largely neutral funding source that supports the development of the field, while preferring to fund work that supports, rather than opposes, their goals achieves the aim of swinging the field toward their worldview. They can even afford to support one or two projects that are explicitly against their basic goals. I have enough faith in the power of reason and science not to think that such a dislocation of the field will be viable in the long-term but then we know what Keynes said about the long-term.

Having said that, I am not sure whether it would have been better for cognitive science of religion had Templeton never funded work in the area. It is a quickly developing area and it is impossible to say how much of that is due to the support it is getting from Templeton. My own feeling is that this research is so novel, so interesting and so powerful that it would none-the-less likely form a big part of the biological turn that the social sciences are now starting to go through. But, then, I am biased.

As I made clear in my comment on the Leiter blog, the issue is far from abstract for me, making me aware of just how profoundly Templeton affects my field:

Not wanting to take Templeton funds has placed me in a particularly difficult situation. The Fund is the best source of support in the area I have been working in, i.e. cognitive science of religion. So, I am shooting myself in the foot by not seeking their support. Furthermore, since Templeton funds so much in this area, many of those that I would wish to collaborate with do get Templeton funding. This means that even if I do not personally seek Templeton funding I must, nonetheless, accept it indirectly or else cut myself off from the whole field. Even doing that, however, leaves me open to: 1) accusations of hypocrisy and 2) the subtle influence I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Indeed, it is in this somewhat difficult situation that I found myself recently – the only reason why Arizona has sufficient funds to invite me to give a talk there is because their seminar series is being partly funded by Templeton. Without ever asking for such funding, I am dependent upon it to be able to present my ideas to people in the US.

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