The Sciences

...and They're Creeping Up on Us

Cosmic VarianceBy Mark TroddenMar 20, 2006 4:59 AM

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This year's Templeton Prize has been awarded to British cosmologist John Barrow. Barrow is a renowned physicist, who has made important contributions in several areas of cosmology and gravitational physics, most recently to understanding the possibility that the constants of nature are changing with time in a measurable manner. Barrow's interests and successes extend to his Directorship of the Millenium Mathematics Project, his authorship of a number of books and a successful physics-based play, his wonderful public lectures and the production of excellent Ph.D. students who have become well-known cosmologists in their own right. In short: he's an impressive guy. While I am an admirer of Barrow's science, I find his acceptance of the Templeton Prize unfortunate. Although I'm not going to make a huge fuss over it, I'm always a little disappointed when something like this happens. The Templeton Foundation isn't the Discovery Institute (although they were involved in funding some of the same things for a while) and I suspect that they have pure, although in my view misguided, motives. Also, if it is truly one's position that science and religion are reconcilable world-views, and that one should actively seek to smooth over any perceived points of contention, then I guess it is perfectly fine to accept support or prizes from them. Indeed, as Sean has pointed out, there are some scientists who are religious, and the goals of the Templeton Foundation presumably sit rather well with them. However, I can't for the life of me see how it is intellectually tenable to consider religion and science as complementary, and it does dismay me to see people for whom I have great respect falling into the other camp. When one accepts money or prizes from the Templeton Foundation, one's name becomes inextricably linked - not only logically, but also explicitly, on their web site - with their philosophy, their goals and all their efforts. For example, here is a quote by Sir John Marks Templeton himself, from their main science and religion page:

"There is here no knockdown argument for design and purpose, but certainly there are strong hints of ultimate realities beyond the cosmos. One of the strongest hints, in our opinion, relates to the new understanding of the creativity of the cosmos, its capacity for so-called self-organization. ... From a theological perspective it is indeed tempting to see this remarkable self-organizing tendency as an expression of the intimate nature of the Creator's activity and identification with our universe."

It isn't clear what is meant by "strong hints of ultimate realities beyond our cosmos," but I imagine it might refer to the discussions of the anthropic principle that have been taking place in a small subset of the physics community in the last few years. I also imagine that "self-organization" refers to the same thing. I think one would have to be deluded or dishonest to think, even if these ideas turned out to be correct, that there is any implication of a supernatural force outside the physical universe. Indeed, you'd be hard-pushed to find a string theorist who would claim that the idea of the landscape compels them to view it as "an expression of the intimate nature of the Creator's activity and identification with our universe." But the problem is that when the odd well-known scientist allows their name to be associated with ideas such as those pursued by the Templeton Foundation, it lends credence to non-scientific ideas, and ultimately does a disservice to science and the scientific method. I'm not trying to give John Barrow a particularly hard time here - as I mentioned above, accepting the Templeton Prize is presumably commensurate with his philosophical views, and I expect he and I would just plain disagree over the validity of those views. But I do think it is worth pointing out the consequences of association with the Templeton Foundation, and to hope that, at the very least, scientists who do not subscribe to Templeton's views of science and religion won't allow their names to be used in support of them.

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