Religion, Science, and the Legacy of Sir John Templeto
When the time came to start thinking about his philanthropy, naturally, Sir John’s contrarian perspective influenced his thinking: What could he do that isn’t being addressed by other major philanthropies?
Editor’s Note: On July 8, 2008, Sir John Templeton, the pioneer global investor who founded Templeton Mutual Funds, passed away. He devoted his fortune to the Templeton Foundation, which addresses questions ranging from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to. Former Templeton Fellow John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer shares his thoughts about Templeton and his legacy.
The passing of philanthropist John Templeton Sr. is a notable event for people who care about science, spirituality, and the connections between the two. Sir John was a man with even more vision than he had money, and he had a lot of money.
Even those – and there are many – who have mixed feelings about the Templeton Foundation, the Templeton Prize, and the very notion that we should study, or effect a dialogue between science and spirituality, even such people must admit the impressive achievement Sir John has left: a $1.5 billion foundation, the largest of its kind in the world; what is said to be the largest single monetary prize awarded to an individual in the world (now at $1.6 million); a host of smaller, local initiatives doing a great deal of fascinating work, much of which, in my opinion, we sorely need.
That’s really the point here: What Sir John wanted to do is worthwhile. The world needs a place where people engaged in the great quests of scientific experimentation and spiritual inquiry can discuss what they have found and what they think. Sir John gave millions and millions to create such a place. I’m glad.
Some advocates for science and some for religion have made closed-mindedness itself their religion. Dialogue they abhor. They claim to find dialogue impossible, to find the other side so irrelevant and so wrong as not to be spoken to. Sir John, no matter his personal beliefs, made possible a whole new set of ways to have dialogues and do research that bypasses such stiffneckery.
The point of such dialogue? Neither rapprochement (the two sides need not become assimilated, need not become “more like each other,” need not even “be friends”), nor finality (these are not questions to be settled so much as questions to be asked). Dialogue has an intrinsic merit, a built-in worth.
Both science and religion are only partial accounts of the quests they embody. Human beings want to know everything about how the cosmos works. Science can’t satisfy that desire. But it does pretty well. Science embraces what can be verified or falsified about the material universe. The scrupulously self-imposed limitations of the field also mean that science cannot hope to present a complete knowledge of that universe. In fact, several of the greatest scientific discoveries make this very point. For instance, the message of quantum mechanics is, in part, that we can never know everything; never achieve the full knowledge we desire. There are many things (as science has shown) that we really wish to know, but probably can never directly test.
We cannot know (so far) the origins of things. The Big Bang wasn’t an origin, except of our particular set of cosmic laws. All we have are guesses about what preceded that localized originary state, and what triggered it. The origin of life similarly lies beyond our present ability to know, although good, educated guesses abound. Is the universe accidental? Is it eternal? No one knows or has a dream of testing an answer.
Neuroscience is beginning to suggest that, on many levels, there are things this incredible asset called the human mind really isn’t good at and really can’t handle. We will always want to know more than we ever can know.
Spirituality, in the same way, always exceeds religion. Many people see divinity at work in themselves, in others, and in the universe; and they want to know that divinity and know more about it. Instead, religion institutionalizes human beliefs and impulses that always exceed the limitations of the institution. How boring the religious leader who condemns those who don’t read his church’s holy text the way he does, who don’t accept his own church’s translation and interpretation of that translation of the text; and finally, those who don’t accept only his teachings about his church’s interpretation of the text.
Meanwhile, people go on their own quests to try to find the divine ground. They even, as I do, go to church, full heretic flags waving. But, as the recent, Pew poll of 35,000-plus Americans shows, we think for ourselves, are very tolerant, and do not assume that our way, or the way we belong to, is the only way. Within the culture of belief in a believing country, Sir John’s ideas make a lot of sense.
As for the science/spirituality dialogue, I am in both camps. For more than 30 years, I’ve been writing about science for scientists and scientific publications, for drug companies and scientific instrument manufacturers. And for the last 10 years, I’ve been writing science editorials for newspapers.
Although I am not a scientist, I’ve worked hard to maintain my general scientific vocabulary, awareness and understanding, because, lucky me and lucky you, we live in an unprecedented era of scientific discovery…But why call it “scientific”? The word gets in the way. We live in a time of discovery about the universe, what it is and how it works, from the largest to the smallest elements and in between. There are explosive revolutions under way in materials science, evolutionary biology, cosmology, neuroscience, and genetics, with impacts on many other fields. We’re hearing some incredible questions that couldn’t even be asked ten years ago.
What mutation or set of mutations led to the breathtakingly rapid evolution of the human brain to 3-6 times the size of the brains of our nearest relatives? What is the smallest “frame” of consciousness in time?
We know the story of natural selection “from the outside.” That is, we know the general outlines of how living things developed and branched in their florid manifestations. But what is it about matter that allows it to respond the way it does to mutations on the genetic string? Even where science is stalled at the moment – as physics appears to be stalled with string theory awaiting confirmation by new just-being-completed superaccelerators – science is in unprecedented ferment and excitement.
We’re even discovering new species, like the recently discovered trapdoor spider, named Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi. (If literally translated, and it’s not meant to be, that would mean “Neil Young’s Lover of Ants.”)
Jests aside, in what we’ve been able to uncover, our era exceeds any other in the detail, surprise, and profundity. We are entering, and indeed are well within epochs that will create new epochs in which we will explore and perhaps master our genome and the physical bases of consciousness. It all frightens me, but it makes me incredibly happy, too. Anyone who wants to be alive and vibrant in this world should get her or his mind around physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, quantum mechanics, string theory, genetics, materials science, and neuroscience. It doesn’t make you less of a person, less aesthetically in tune, less feeling. It should enhance those aspects that make us human.
I’m also a practicing Catholic. I have watched with impatience and amusement the recent tussles over religion, reason, God, and faith. Neither side (and both sides are doing a very poor job “representing” their constituencies if they can even be said to have such things) is doing much of value. I have never felt that science stands in opposition to belief in the divine. Science just tells us how the Big Girl works.
Sure, science has shown that certain primitive and extremely vulnerable teachings of fundamentalist Christian sects cannot be true – the 6,000-year-old Earth, or the notion that Adam and Eve lived among dinosaurs, or the flat denial of evolution. But those are pathetically easy quarries, and they didn’t especially require science to puncture them. Too many silly rationalists ballyhoo such “victories” as victories over all faith, which they’re not. To me, in order to have a fully aware, fully reverent faith, you must learn as much as you can about the cosmos as it is, and no other cosmos.
Too many people seem to think the science/spirituality thing is a “divide,” or a “battle.” For some believers, any discussion of science is polluting, fearful, not to be approached. On the other hand, for their part, many rationalist/secularist thinkers see spirituality with a similarly rigid viewpoint. That, to me, is sad. It means these two realms of human experience have been stained by partisanship and advocacy. In my position as an op-ed editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer for a decade, I am your man where advocatorial partisanship is concerned. And let me tell you, you need to sidestep all that and make up your own mind.
This is where I am grateful to Sir John. He has made it possible to begin to discuss things that, to be frank, are unfairly forbidden in too many intellectual circles. His money, for example, has and will continue to sponsor salutary dialogue among the world’s religions, seeking to break down old, useless, toxic barriers.
In 2005, I was one of the first groups of Templeton-Cambridge University Journalism Fellows in Science and Religion. I was eminently the least qualified of those fellows, so I will always be grateful to John Templeton and to his son Jack for the experience. We fellows sat together and discussed issues of faith and science with some of the most amazing intellects in the world. It was the first time around for this program, and its organizers readily and freely admitted there were things to adjust and improve.
Some participants wanted more balance between the faith “side” and the science “side.” (I am really uncomfortable putting it like that.) Several of us found a few of the speakers disappointing. And there were huge areas left poorly covered such as environment, and the field of ethics, in which, for me, science and spirituality have a lot of collaboration to do, whether their proponents like it or not.
Proponents? Even I use the word as if there were two different camps. However, if I am interested in science, am I necessarily a proponent of science? If I am a believer, am I necessarily a proponent of belief? Is to practice the same as to proselytize? No.
So again, I’m hating this language, science or religion, since it makes
it all so Republican/Democrat, paper or plastic, heart or brain, male
or female, hard or easy, Darth or Yoda, Abbott or Costello…Let’s just
face it…this recently-derived oppositional language plays into both
camps, and I hereby reject it.
The Templeton talks were worth it. For the six presentations of Peter
Lipton (philosophy), Richard Dawkins (understanding of science), Simon
Conway Morris (evolutionary biology), John Barrow (cosmology), Maggie
Boden (artificial intelligence), and Ronald Cole-Turner (ethics) alone,
as well as the presentations of my fellow Templeton fellows. We stay
in touch, and all of us are using what we learned at Cambridge to
inform our journalism. To judge from the subsequent “classes” of
Templeton Fellows, a high level is being maintained for both
participants and journalists. One more thing for which we can thank
One of my fellow Fellows, Shankar Vendantam of the Washington Post, has
gone back to Cambridge for a couple of years, operating as a
consultant, evaluator, genius loci.
Not once, when I was at Cambridge, did I feel compelled or pressed to declare myself as being on one “side” or the other. (Good thing, since I am on both.) I never felt the program as a whole was “arguing” for this or for that. Its imbalances were understandable in a first-time go-round and easily adjustable.
In the last three years, the organizers have tried to make a few of those adjustments, and I will let others evaluate their success. I believe the Templeton people are making a good-faith effort to create yet another world-class forum for the discussion of science and spirituality.
At least one of my fellow Fellows, John Horgan of the Stevens Institute, has discussed his severe reservations about the fellowship in a high-profile essay on the wonderful Web site entitled Edge, and it’s only fair to cite it here: www.edge.org.
I saw the Templetons differently. To be sure, John Horgan, a much-beloved friend, was not alone in being uneasy about being part of the program. Richard Dawkins certainly was – yet Richard also stayed on, past when he had agreed to stay, to hear some of the other speakers and argue with them. That very fact shows he was engaged beyond his understandable reservations.
Some critics will say the Templeton money has funded too much bad science, such as studies of the efficacy of prayer, or attempts to find the physical basis of spirit. Some have said early Templeton initiatives seem either naïve or biased or both.
On the other hand, the much-vaunted Templeton Prize has gone to deserving people such as Freeman Dyson , Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
I also like the more recent focus on studies of character and virtue. Some folks see this as only-faintly-disguised conservative hectoring. I don’t see it that way at all. I find fascinating the Templeton publication In Character, in which a different human virtue or propensity – for example, compassion – is treated in each issue, in essays by a range of prominent thinkers. I want it to continue, to get bigger, to have bigger and bigger names write. Some of those names, I fear, are afraid to join in, and that’s just prejudice. I hope more writers of truly global stature will step forward and lend their words and minds to the discussion of human character.
Another recent series of Templeton publications, called “Conversations,” furnishes a good look at where Sir John wanted to go. The first addressed the question “Does the universe have a purpose?” Eminent physicist Lawrence Krauss said, “Very Unlikely.” Primatologist Jane Goodall said, “Certainly.” Elie Wiesel said, “I Hope So.” Chemist Peter William Atkins said, “No.”
The most recent “Conversation” is on the question, “Does science make belief in God impossible?” Most of the respondents hemmed and hawed and pointed out ambiguities in the question. But experimental psychologist Steven Pinker said a qualified “Yes.” Skeptic Michael Shermer said, “It Depends.” Quantum physicist William D. Phillips said, “Absolutely not!” Literary critic Christopher Hitchens said, “No, But It Should.”
What I like here is that there is no effort to sway, mold, or referee the wide range of responses. The point is the grain of the conversation.
I personally am most interested in ethics and technology, a field I have written about often. As we discover more and more, and thus can do more and more, issues of how we do what we do and whether we should be doing it will arise more and more. Bioethics (the philosophical study of the ethical controversies brought about by advances in biology and medicine) has risen to the fore in the past decade and Philadelphia, home of my newspaper, is a world center for it with Arthur Caplan’s Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
Our society, our entire culture, needs to have a broad-ranging discussion about the future that’s coming apace. We are trying to avoid that conversation, but we need it so we know how to face new questions when they get here. Both science and spirituality will be involved in the way we sort out our responses.
John Timpane is the Media Editor/Writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His work has appeared in Sequoia, The Fox Chase Review, Cleaver, Apiary, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Review of Books, The Rathalla Review, Per Contra, Vocabula Review, and elsewhere. Books include (with Nancy H. Packer) Writing Worth Reading (NY: St. Martin, 1994), It Could Be Verse (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed, 1995), (with Maureen Watts and the Poetry Center of Cal State San Francisco) Poetry for Dummies, and (with Roland Reisley) Usonia, N.Y.: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), plus a poetry chapbook, Burning Bush (Ontario, Canada: Judith Fitzgerald/Cranberry Tree, 2011). His e-mail band, Car Radio Dog, has just released its second CD, Back to the Bone. He is spouse to Maria-Christina Keller, and they are parents of Pilar and Conor.