Why Carroll won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation


Recently there was an editorial by the cosmologist Sean Carroll who is a very fine astrophysicist but also a very hostile critic of religion entitled “Why I Won’t Take Money From the Templeton Foundation.”[1] the Templeton Foundation is a foundation set up by the late Sir John Templeton, the father of the Templeton investment funds to foster the dialogue between science and religion. Over the last several decades, the Templeton Foundation has been pouring millions of dollars into fostering a constructive dialogue between science and religion because Sir John was convinced that both of these disciplines have something to learn from the other.

Sean Carroll disagrees. He writes,

As probably everybody knows, the JTF is a philanthropic organization that supports research into the “Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality,” encourages “dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians,” and seeks to use science to acquire “new spiritual information.” They like to fund lots of things I find interesting—cosmology, physics, philosophy—but unfortunately they also like to promote the idea that science and religion are gradually reconciling.

And Carroll responds by saying,

I don’t think that science and religion are reconciling or can be reconciled in any meaningful sense, and I believe that it does a great disservice to the world to suggest otherwise.

. . .

In brief: I don’t take money directly from the Templeton Foundation.

. . .

But it’s not, as many people argue, because I am worried that Templeton works in nefarious ways to influence the people it funds. . . . The JTF is quite pro-science, in its own way; it’s just that I think their views on science are very wrong.

. . .

Any time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability—even if only implicitly—to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth. That’s not something I want to do.

. . .

when we blur the lines between science and religion, or seem to contribute to their blurring, . . . we do the world a grave disservice. Religious belief exerts a significant influence over how the world is currently run—not just through extremists, but through the well-meaning liberal believers who very naturally think of religion as a source of wisdom and moral guidance, and who define the middle ground for sociopolitical discourse in our society. Understanding the fundamental nature of reality is a necessary starting point for productive conversations about morality, justice, and meaning. If we think we know something about that fundamental nature—something that disagrees profoundly with the conventional wisdom—we need to share it as widely and unambiguously as possible.

. . .

And if anyone is tempted to award me the Templeton Prize, [says Carroll, which is a sort of competitor to the Nobel Prize; a million dollars for progress in science and religion] I will totally accept it! And use the funds to loudly evangelize for naturalism and atheism.

So, here is Sean Carroll’s take on the Templeton Foundation. He won’t accept research grants from them for his work because he doesn’t want to lend his credibility and his respectability to the idea that science and religion are reconcilable. On his view, science and religion are irreconcilable and therefore he will not lend his prestige as a cosmologist to enter any enterprise that thinks otherwise.

Now, as I thought about this editorial, I had two reactions to it. First, on the one hand, I rather admire Carroll for having the strength of his convictions. It takes courage to turn down the possibility of having big money to fund your research project because you disagree with the philosophy or the worldview of the granting agency.[2] I remember when I was teaching seminary years ago at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, at that time the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon was giving large grants to Christian theologians to come to their conferences which were often held in exotic places that you would like to meet in, for example, I think maybe even in Bali, and who wouldn’t want to take advantage of an expense paid vacation just to go to the Moonie conference as your ticket of getting there free? Some Christian theologians were accepting these offers. I made the decision at the time, however, that this was not something that I felt I could do in good conscience because I realized that by participating in these conferences you were, in effect, lending your stamp of legitimacy to the Unification Church and to Sun Myung Moon. You were saying they are a player in the dialogue ongoing about theology and I didn’t want to do anything that would help to legitimize or validate their claims to be anything but a sort of heretical or cultist group. So I determined that I would not take advantage of these kinds of offers. In the same way, I rather admire Carroll for having the strength of his convictions. If he thinks that the Templeton Foundation is something akin to the Moonies then he ought not to take their money and lend his credibility to them. Indeed, I wish that other naturalists and atheists would follow suit and not take the Templeton money. I think that could be better reserved and spent on people who will pursue the project of reconciling science and religion than those who are convinced that this is an illegitimate enterprise.

But having said that, I wondered, well, why think, as apparently Carroll does, that science and religion are irreconcilable? That is a very, very strong claim – not that they are mutually irrelevant but literally irreconcilable such that somehow the truth of scientific theories invalidates religious belief. Why think that science and religion are irreconcilable? Well, he doesn’t really explain in his editorial. He just says he would evangelize for naturalism and atheism if he were given the Templeton prize.

So it seems to me as I think about it there could be two reasons why someone like Carroll might think that science and religion are irreconcilable. The first would be a commitment to metaphysical naturalism. If you believe that there are no supernatural realities, that the physical world is all there is, then naturally you would think that science would be irreconcilable with a view of the world that posits the existence of God or supernatural realities.

But then of course the question becomes, why think that metaphysical naturalism is true? To show that science and religion are irreconcilable, Carroll would have to show that science somehow proves, or that he has some sort of argument for, metaphysical naturalism. And I can’t imagine what that would be. What sort of argument could possibly prove that to be true? I’ve read what Carroll has written in other places, for example, he had an article in the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity earlier this year to which Kevin Harris and I devoted three of our Reasonable Faith podcasts. We examined in some detail the arguments offered by Carroll in that piece and none of them was successful, I think, in even turning back the theistic arguments for God, much less demonstrating that God does not exist and showing the truth of naturalism. So, I haven’t seen anything from him that would demonstrate the truth of metaphysical naturalism.

But maybe there is a softer approach here. Maybe he is endorsing simply epistemological naturalism? Epistemological naturalism would not assert that God does not exist but what it would claim is that the only source of knowledge, the only kind of truth, is physical science. So if something cannot be demonstrated through physical science therefore you can have no knowledge of it or there is no truth about it, there is nothing there to be known. Clearly, religious belief would be irreconcilable with science if science were committed to epistemological naturalism.[3]

But, again, as I explained in the debate I had in February with Alex Rosenberg at Purdue University, there is just no reason to think that epistemological naturalism is true. This is an extraordinarily narrow view of the sources of knowledge and the kinds of truth that there are. There are kinds of truth and sources of knowledge apart from physical science; for example, esthetic truths about the beautiful and the ugly, ethical truths about the good and evil, mathematical and logical truths which are presupposed by science but can’t be proven by science, metaphysical truths about the reality of the external world or the reality of the past or other minds which are not scientifically provable. So this is too narrow a view of knowledge to be plausible. Moreover, as I explained in the debate with Rosenberg, it is actually self-refuting because the statement that science is the only source of knowledge is, itself, not a scientific statement. There is no scientific experiment that you could conduct, there is no scientific theory that has that as part of the implications of that theory. This is a philosophical point of view about the nature of knowledge and yet it says you should only believe something if it can be scientifically demonstrated which it cannot and therefore epistemological naturalism pulls the rug from beneath its own feet.

So, in short, while I admire Carroll’s strength of convictions for not taking money from an organization that he regards as on the verge of kookdom, nevertheless, I see absolutely no grounds for thinking that the Templeton Foundation is wrong in thinking that science and religion are reconcilable and can engage in a mutually profitable dialogue.[4]

[1] Sean Carroll, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled: Why I won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation,” Slate.com, May 9, 2013. See http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/05/i_won_t_take_money_from_templeton_science_and_religion_can_t_be_reconciled.html (accessed September 4, 2013).

[2] 4:59

[3] 10:06

[4] Total Running Time: 12:08 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)