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Why Philosophers Need Not Shun the Templeton Foundation

Philosophers are stirred up again about the John Templeton Foundation, which according to its mission statement, supports “research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.” Its programs “encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.” Philosophers cannot help but wonder: Should we take their money? Full disclosure: I have never taken Templeton money. Fuller disclosure: They have never offered.

Among philosophers, the main concern about Templeton money seems to be that it could lead the discipline to take religion more seriously than it now does. As Jason Stanley, the soon-to-be Yale philosopher whose Facebook post touched off the recent discussion, explains, we “may expect a huge number of papers and books in our field taking a religious perspective at least extremely seriously.” Stanley does not object to “funding for religious perspectives.” But he worries that Templeton’s large grants, sometimes in the millions, may direct too much attention to such views.

“This is not why I entered philosophy, and it is incompatible with my conception of its role in the university,” says Stanley. He concludes that he “will not take any money from Templeton” or even speak “at any Templeton funded conferences.” He hopes “there are others who will join [him] in so doing.”

There are two things about the Templeton Foundation that few engaged in the debate deny. First, the foundation does not limit its financing to research that will be supportive of religion. When Brian Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, reposted Stanley’s Facebook post, a number of commenters wrote of their personal experience with Templeton-supported projects that did not appear agenda-driven. Second, the Templeton Foundation funds a lot of good and respectable work carried out at world-class institutions by philosophers and other academics with impeccable credentials. Leiter himself says, in “all the cases I’m familiar with, they have funded serious philosophers doing legitimate research.”

Consider the Templeton-supported Defining Wisdom project, which brought together philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and others for inquiry into a neglected but plainly important field of study. This initiative financed a wide variety of research projects. One of the philosophers supported by the project had already published a book on wisdom that made it through the peer-review process at one of the most prestigious university presses in the field. The project also fostered collaborative work among scholars with an interest in wisdom. Why would someone like Stanley distance himself from such seemingly valuable work and hope aloud that others will do so, too?

Stanley has two arguments. First, although there are no strings attached to the grants, we “know from social science that people tend to respond to the agendas of their funders in unconscious ways.” The weakness of this argument suggests how hard it is to defend Stanley’s position. Suppose as a matter of statistics that people tend to gravitate toward the positions of their benefactors. That may be a reason to keep aware of this propensity and to surround ourselves with colleagues who will keep us honest. But it is not a reason to avoid accepting money from mission-driven foundations. Does Stanley think that  because people tend to respond to authority figures, that philosophers, who purport to be more capable of self-examination than most, should refuse to talk to deans and college presidents? Or that because philosophers, like everyone else, may be subject to confirmation bias, they should not be taken seriously when they are discussing their own work?

Second, because funds for philosophic research are scarce, Stanley and others argue, the Templeton Foundation may have an outsized influence on the field, moving researchers to attend to areas of inquiry “that intersect with religious ideas.” But philosophic careers, unlike academic careers in the natural sciences, typically rely relatively little on external grants, and a great deal more on the judgment of one’s peers. It hardly seems likely that the Templeton Foundation will make a field-changing dent in philosophy, in which, according to a survey, 72.8 percent of professors accept or lean toward atheism.

Concerns about Templeton would seem more credible if academics also expressed concern about, let alone resolved to shun, foundations with a footprint in higher education that are more direct than Templeton is in promoting certain values and policy outcomes. Search the Ford Foundation database for its grants to colleges. It’s all right with me if Ford favors grantees whose projects align with its mission to promote reproductive rights, social justice, and other ends. But if the complaint about Templeton is really that higher education should be free of the influence of deep-pocketed foundations with agendas, then academics should be urging their colleagues not to accept Ford Foundation money either. Yet one hears not a peep.

I could imagine adopting something like Stanley’s position if I thought Templeton’s mission sufficiently heinous. But it is hard to respond very energetically to an alarm sounded over encouraging dialogue between philosophers, scientists, and theologians, or research into matters of mutual interest for them, like the order of the universe or the character of wisdom. Nor is Templeton’s mission rendered more objectionable by its hypothesis that science and religion will ultimately prove compatible, a hypothesis that, however controversial, is hardly the advance guard for an evangelical conquest of the academy.

Oh, well, as I am sure many others are saying: More money for the rest of us.

Jonathan Marks is an associate professor of politics at Ursinus College.

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