Science and religion

Last year, the renowned physicist Freeman J. Dyson caused some of a stir in scientific circles with his decision to accept an award from the Templeton Foundation, joining the ranks of Paul J. Davies or (this year) John D. Barrow. We’re talking big money here: the prize is around $1.5–million. The Templeton Foundation is pretty wealthy: so far, it has spent more than $250–million on prizes, academic programs, publications, broadcasts, lectures, conferences, and research on topics such as the neurobiology and genetics of religious belief; the evolutionary origins of altruism; and the medical benefits of prayer, church attendance, and forgiveness. As you can see, the Foundation aims at some sort of reconciliation between science and (Christian) religion, and although it seems to be against such no-brainers as intelligent design theories, some of its affiliated scientists are happy to defend the curative powers of prayer or the reality of Christ’s miracles (as explained in some of the linked articles below). More to the point, John Templeton’s foundation says the above-mentioned prize is intentionally larger than the Nobel Prize “to underscore that research and advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than disciplines recognized by the Nobels”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having beliefs; problem is to try to pass them as scientific, and to pay big sums of money to enroll scientists in your club for doing so. Of course science needs money, but by its very nature, it needs free money. I’m sorry but i don’t buy the alleged neutrality of this foundation (also known, for instance, as a contributor to G.W. Bush (a scaring fundamentalist, if you ask me) presidential campaigns). Obviously, you don’t have to take my word for it: over at Edge you can read a very interesting report by John Horgan, a scientific writer, on his relationship and experiences as a freelance supported by the Templeton Foundation’s money, and a subsequent online debate with the opinions of Daniel C. Dennett, George Johnson, Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, Marc D. Hauser, Dan Sperber, Jerry Coyne, Leonard Susskind, Lee Smolin, and Scott Atran. Most of them are against entering the Templeton Foundation’s game, with the (obvious) exception of Dyson and, to some degree, of Lee Smolin. The latter goes on to explain that he’s so used to go against mainstream that he doesn’t feel threatened by the TF’s influence, and makes an interesting remark:

I have to say that I found a much more open minded, engaged and respectful discussion between people with different views at Templeton meetings than I have, for example, at string theory meetings.

I think that the above observation is fallacious in the same (even if ameliorated) way as the following by Freeman:

Even in the gruesome history of the twentieth century, I see some evidence of progress in religion. The two individuals who epitomized the evils of our century, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, were both avowed atheists.

Come on, this is plain propaganda (and is this close to being an instance of Godwin’s Law). Of course Hitler and Stalin were monsters, and it goes without saying that string theorists are doing a disservice to the physics community and to themselves with their (alleged) ivory-tower attitude. So what? Let’s work in correcting these problems, but acknowledging these issues in no way endorses equally condemnable positions (shall we talk about the abuses perpetrated in the name of god? or about the lobbying exerted by some of the TF’s trustees?).

The scientific community, as any human endeavour, is plagued with problems, and is far from the ideal, undeterred and free exchange of ideas that it should be. All over the place, interests (monetary and otherwise) drive the efforts and careers of scientists, instead of an honest pursue of objective truths. But the solution to these problems needs denouncing and working against them, not endorsing Templeton and the likes. In science, we should strive to attain the ideal status (and avoid the pitfalls) expressed in Jerry Coine‘s critique:

[…] the Templeton Foundation corrupts science. It does this in two ways. First, it involves us in a dialogue that is designed to have a predetermined result: the reconciliation of science and religion. But when doing our own research, we are not committed to a specific outcome. Thus, if you’re one of the many scientists who doesn’t think that such a reconciliation is possible ā€” at least not without mendacity, self-delusion, or cognitive dissonance ā€” then it is unethical to take money from the Foundation. That is like taking money to attend a conference aimed at reconciling evolution with Intelligent Design, even if you do not think that they’re compatible. (IDers think that they are.)

Second, it leads, as George Johnson has noted, to the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if the beneficiary is convinced that none exists. Even if a US Senator is predetermined by his own opinions to vote in favor of, say, drilling for oil in Alaska, it is nevertheless illegal and unethical for him to take personal money from the oil industry, and it looks bad to take campaign money from the oil industry. Scientists should be purer than Senators because it is our business to promulgate the truth, and all we have is our reputations as unsullied truth-seekers.

Right on the spot, in my opinion. Another exponent of what i’m talking about is Sean Carroll, who recently turned down a prize from the TF, as he explains in this post (see also here and here for more debate on the issue at Cosmic Variance).

A final thought. If you think that i’m overstating my points, that organisations like TF are not nearly as bad as i (and all the others) try to make them, and you happen to live in a western/catholic culture, just make the following exercise: what would you think of an organisation exactly like TF but endorsing, say, Hinduism, or Taoism, or Animism? What about The Cult of Cthulhu or Scientology for that matter? (Point being, of course, that this was not a rant against Christianity or any other faith or belief system, but against intermingling science and “spiritual discoveries”, with big money in between.)

One Response to “Science and religion”

  1. island Says:

    If you think that iā€™m overstating my points, that organisations like TF are not nearly as bad as i (and all the others) try to make them…

    If only it were that simple.

    If only evidence wasn’t prejudicially interpreted.

    If only scientific interpretations of evidence weren’t pre-prejudicially “designed”.

    Amanda Gefter:
    If we do not accept the landscape idea are we stuck with intelligent design?

    Leonard Susskind:
    I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics.

    Given the intended audience of physicists, that amounts to string-theory blackmail…

    I note that creationists are the ones carrying the torch for purposeful structuring in nature that unimportant guys like Einstein and Dirac had, even though this question is still open to this kind of natural explanation, as Lenny has so unintentionally pointed-out.

    Sorry, I don’t buy the hype from any of them.

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