This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
The moment I learned that Martin Rees had been awarded this year’s Templeton Prize, I knew it was going to be controversial. In the piece I wrote and posted only a few hours after the announcement, I tried to explain why Rees was a surprising choice (to most observers, who really don’t know the Templeton Foundation almost at all) and why, in my understanding, he had won. In a nutshell: besides being a hugely accomplished scientist and being so active on issues of “science and the public”, he has been tackling “Big Questions”, which for the Templeton Foundation, contributes to “spiritual progress”. I’ll try to explain this further down.
Still, I was stunned by what The Guardian’s Michael White has called “a meteor shower of abuse” inflicted on Rees from many in the scientific community. It was, however, nice to see other, more objective and fair writings by some atheists.
I say I was stunned by that reaction, for two reasons: 1) Rees is a non-believer (or, to put it bluntly, an atheist), and I would have imagined more disagreement from the religious circles (as in the reaction by the editor of First Things); after all, Rees has not endorsed Religion or joined the Templeton Foundation, and he still doesn’t see any value in the dialogue between Science and Religion; 2) I would have thought that the attacks (like Jerry Coyne’s) would have focused more on the “spiritual progress” objectives of Templeton, instead of insisting on the largely discredited claim that “Templeton's mission is a serious corruption of science.” It’s interesting that those who have stayed away from Templeton and the projects it funds (research, meetings, prizes, etc.) have a cartoonish view of the Foundation, while those (including non-religious people) who have participated in any of its activities have come away with a good, respectful impression. At the very least, I would have expected such (rigorous) scientists to examine the process by which grants are given out, before condemning Templeton.
Let me mention in passing some (public-knowledge) info on the process by which the Prize is awarded: 1) people (anyone) nominate(s) candidates with a much supportive documentation as possible; 2) a Review Committee (made of 10 very diverse experts) receives the full submissions and spends a couple of months reviewing them; 3) the Review Committee members then submit their rankings and explanations; 4) the Review Committee meets to discuss the top 50 candidates and short-list a dozen or so; 5) the Judges (9 outstanding individuals from around the world) meet and select the winner, at which point no one, not even the president of the foundation, can have any say on the outcome. No wonder we now year after year get exceptionally good winners.
Now, let me go back to what I think is the important issue to examine here, namely what exactly is meant by “making spiritual progress” in the Templeton worldview.
As I said in my reply to a comment on my previous post, the Templeton Foundation, following the views, philosophy, and directives of its founder, believes that there are “spiritual realities”: humans have a spiritual dimension, in addition to their physical/material one. This belief is shared by the overwhelming majority of humans, past and present. (Nothing new or important, up to here; materialists, of course, reject this idea.)
Now, one of Templeton’s main ideas, that one may or may not agree with, is that we know very little about those “spiritual realities” and we should try to help humans make progress in this realm.
But, before examining this, one must ask: what do “spiritual realities” encompass? In addition to the usual religious concepts associated with the spirit, i.e. prayer, thanksgiving, love, and the divine, the Templeton literature cites some surprising themes under “spiritual realities”, such as creativity, purpose, and infinity; and one can place “altruism”, which is an important theme for Templeton, either in the field of evolution or in the realm of “spiritual realities”.
And I should also mention one of Templeton’s main philosophies, namely “Humility Theology”.
As I keep repeating, one may or may not agree with this whole worldview, and even those who believe in the spiritual dimension of humans may not agree that one can, through research and funding, achieve progress in understanding those spiritual concepts, themes, or “realities”.
Templeton will fund any solid project (and again, everything is at least triply refereed, and the acceptance and funding rate is rather low) that will somehow advance our understanding of those themes. A case in point is the project known as “Foundational Questions”, for which an Institute (FQXi), seeded by a multi-million-dollar Templeton fund, provides grants to “catalyze, support, and disseminate research on questions at the foundations of physics and cosmology.” It is instructive for everyone to check out this project’s website, to see who works on it and on what kind of research projects (not a hint of “religion”).
The crucial point I am aiming to make is that Templeton has been redefining the realm of the spiritual, by including in it concepts like creativity, purpose, and infinity (which then leads to someone like Rees qualifying for the Prize under its “spiritual progress” objective), and also making the bold claim that we can make advances and “discoveries” in spirituality by undertaking research in it, using the tools that science and philosophy have given us.
I think this is the major philosophy of the Templeton Foundation, and unfortunately most observers miss it completely with their allergic reaction to anything related to “religion”.
Finally, to bring together all these threads, I would like to make two points: 1) Templeton has often funded projects that either had no theological undertones whatsoever or ended up producing results that were not favorable to “spirituality” (the famous study on the effect of prayers on the recovery from heart surgery); 2) the work that Rees has done on the multiverse in particular, thus relating to “infinity”, has, in my view, gotten him the Templeton Prize, even though the multiverse is rarely hailed by religious people (Templeton people tend to like it, however, based on the humility theology principle mentioned above).
So, to make a long story short, one may or may not subscribe to the philosophy of the Templeton Foundation, but to attack it as the (religious) wolf in the (scientific) henhouse or to describe it as a network of either naïve or sinister religion-promoting people is uninformed or misleading.