Sunday, March 31, 2013

Philosophy as (disguised) apologetics

While trying to find out more about David Albert's religious views, I have stumbled across something rather more interesting and more significant: an article by Nathan Schneider (written from a point of view sympathetic to religion) which seems to confirm much of what I have been saying about philosophy and religion.

It seems that the John Templeton Foundation which, under the guise of promoting a dialogue between science and religion, seeks to enhance the status and intellectual credibility of the latter, has been providing a lot of funding to academic philosophers of late. Albert, who has benefited from Templeton in the past, is currently co-directing a three-year project on the philosophy of cosmology which is funded by the foundation.

Strangely enough, there is a prominent link to Schneider's article, which discusses not only the great influence of Templeton money on the discipline of philosophy, but also the 'silent coup' conducted over recent decades by Christian philosophers, on the website of David Albert's Templeton project.

The article gives interesting general background information on the John Templeton Foundation, but the excerpts which follow are specifically concerned with the wooing of philosophers by the foundation, as well as with earlier activities by Christian philosophers which had the effect of reversing an early-to-mid-20th century trend within philosophy towards more rigorously scientific and secular perspectives.

Controversy ... always follows money, especially when it's Templeton money. Partisans of Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists have long despised the foundation, interpreting its interest in dialogue between science and religion as an attempt to buy undeserved credibility for the latter at the cost of the former. Adds Brian Leiter, "It's clearly more of a windfall for philosophers who have some sort of vague religious angle to what they're doing." Yet he also points out that [Alfred R.] Mele is an exception. His foregoing work on free will expressed scant interest in the religious implications—which makes it all the more noticeable that his Templeton project has a component devoted to theology.

It's true that one tends to hear more Templeton-branded talk of "Big Questions"—spoken as if capitalized, and without irony—on the lips of philosophers with religious commitments, at religious institutions. When I met Christian Miller two years ago at a Society of Christian Philosophers conference at Wake Forest, the historically Baptist university where he teaches, he was still glowing from news of the three-year, $3.7-million Templeton grant he'd just received. Its purpose is "to promote significant progress in the scholarly investigation of character," and $2-million of it will go to empirical psychological research, alongside accompanying investigations in philosophy and theology...

[Barry] Loewer, a philosopher at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, isn't likely to turn up at a Society of Christian Philosophers meeting ... "I myself have no interest in philosophy of religion and am not a religious person," he says. For years, Loewer has been working with a group of philosophers, mathematicians, and physicists in the New York area, meeting and collaborating on papers—nothing very expensive. But about five years ago a colleague at Rutgers, Dean W. Zimmerman, told the group about the Templeton Foundation and suggested that they apply for a grant. Zimmerman, a top Christian philosopher, had ... served on Templeton's advisory board ...

The idea at first was to do a project about quantum mechanics and the foundations of physics, which was an interest of Loewer's group. Templeton had other ideas. The foundation pointed the group in the direction of cosmology, with the prospect of a much bigger grant, and the researchers jumped at the idea. They realized that cosmology encompassed the questions of time and physical laws that had concerned them all along.

"You know that story of Molière's where someone discovers that he has been speaking prose his whole life?" says Loewer. "It was a bit like that."

The nearly $1-million grant his team received from Templeton last year coincided with another, slightly larger one called "Establishing the Philosophy of Cosmology," which was awarded to scholars at the University of Oxford. Despite the change of plans at Templeton's behest, Loewer stresses, "They've been really helpful, and totally noncoercive in terms of any agenda that they might have. I had my eyes open for it."

Not that philosophers are especially well practiced in negotiating the terms of million-dollar grants, much less in thinking about how such money might sway them... But now that the money is coming into the field, it is being welcomed even by those who lack the foundation's spiritual proclivities. "Templeton picks some people whose Christian epistemology I might not share," Brian Leiter says, "but there's no quarreling that they're serious philosophers." Suspicions about some secret religious agenda tend to lessen the more widely the foundation's substantial sums begin to spread.

The phenomenon under consideration here can be traced to two others gradually converging over the past few decades: the rise of the John Templeton Foundation itself, and the quiet coup hatched by religious believers within analytic philosophy.

...The archtect of projects like Mele's and Loewer's is a philosopher named Michael J. Murray, who before joining the foundation taught at his alma mater, Franklin & Marshall College. He did a short stint directing philosophy and theology programs, and then was elevated, in February 2011, to the job of overseeing Templeton's entire portfolio of grant programs. Murray is a product of what has often been called the "renaissance" of Christianity in analytic philosophy. So is Dean Zimmerman, the one who connected Murray with Loewer. And so was the Wake Forest conference... This renaissance helped till academic philosophy for Templeton then to sow.

In the 1960s and 70s, while the atheistic straitjacket of logical positivism was loosening, smart, young Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff began crafting new ways of defending Christian faith from the deliverances of the latest epistemology and modal logic. They formed the Society of Christian Philosophers to help coddle their conversations and cultivate successors, and they ascended to chairs in eminent departments—Plantinga at Notre Dame, Wolterstorff at Yale. Soon, thanks to them, the world of analytic philosophy that was once decidedly hostile to religious believers became significantly less so. More science-savvy students soon followed suit, crafting their own sophisticated defenses of faith in terms of physics, neuroscience, and biology. Michael Murray, who earned his Ph.D. at Notre Dame, has played a part in this, including as editor of a 1998 book, Reason for the Hope Within, which triumphantly summarizes the fruits of the renaissance so as to equip lay Christians to defend their faith. Follow these contours, and Templeton's recent projects—even those led by people outside the Christian-philosophy fold—seem to follow a certain apologetic logic. Free will, for instance, is a critical feature of Plantinga's celebrated defense against the problem of evil; although Al Mele does not partake in religious speculation himself, he is a respected opponent of the brazen neuroscientists, like Michael S. Gazzaniga, who announce free will's nonexistence. Cosmology, too, is considered one of the most promising avenues lately in arguments for God's existence, particularly thanks to evidence that basic features of the universe may be "fine-tuned" to provide for the possibility of life. Barry Loewer isn't particularly interested in arguing for a divine fine-tuner, but his efforts might indirectly lend aid to someone who is. The recent $5-million grant to study immortality went to a philosopher who doesn't believe in the afterlife, but the very fact that so much money is going to study it might give more credence to those who do.

It is clear that Templeton money is not just supporting respected, mainstream academics and institutions.

Much as Notre Dame served as the headquarters of the Christian-philosophy renaissance ushered in by Alvin Plantinga, a 104-year-old evangelical institution on the outskirts of Los Angeles called Biola University has cleared the way for one of the ren­ aissance's most spirited and ambitious outgrowths. Biola supports the Evangelical Philosophical Society, a more doctrinally austere cousin of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and it houses the country's largest philosophy graduate program, which is devoted to sending Christian students with its master's degrees to leading Ph.D. programs. For a few weeks each year, Biola is graced by an intensive by William Lane Craig, the master of public "God debates," who famously trounced Christopher Hitchens in 2009.

This summer Biola received the largest foundation grant in its history—a $3-million Templeton award to support a new Center for Christian Thought, an interdisciplinary forum led by three philosophy professors. One of them, Thomas Crisp, was a star student of Plantinga's at Notre Dame, and he first met Michael Murray during a 2010 Society of Christian Philosophers good-will expedition to a symposium in Iran. A year later, Crisp and the others in the center's "leadership triumvirate" were hard at work on a proposal for the foundation, and he sees Templeton and Biola as an ideal match.



  1. I've never heard of Michael Murray or Biola University. I am of course familiar with Plantinga, Wolterstorff and Templeton.

    What's the punch-line here? "X was funded by Templeton, therefore X is less likely to be philosophically sound than Y which is uncontaminated"?

    For my part, I prefer Mill's naive liberalism. Let the debate take its course. Opponents of Templetonianism are not lacking in outlets for their views.

    1. There's no punchline, just a complex, emerging picture.

      I may try to sketch out later exactly how all this serves to confirm what I have been saying about academic philosophy being dependent, both intellectually and materially, on religion. But, then again, I don't know that I've really got much to add to what I've said before.

      People will make up their own minds. But my reaction to Schneider's article was surprise that the process of 're-religionizing' philosophy was so planned and organized. (And it's not just about Templeton, by the way: it's also about earlier involvement by mainstream churches.) I had seen the effects, but only had a vague idea of the causes.

      It gives me a bad feeling, actually. The 'quiet coup' and so on.

      And now that evangelical 'university', with the largest graduate program in philosophy in the entire country and one of Plantinga's former students playing a key role, setting itself up as a kind of feeder college to the prestigious doctoral programs.

      It's not just a debate: it's politics.

      And I do think philosophy is more vulnerable to this sort of funding, more easily compromised, than scientific disciplines. Religion-related ideas are a central part of philosophy but only peripheral for physics and similar sciences.

      It seems clear that philosophy as an academic discipline is moving closer to theology and religion, and will increasingly be perceived in non-secular terms.

  2. The most well-known Christian philosopher/apologist associated with Biola is William Lane Craig, whose debates with atheists are honestly assessed here:

    Interestingly, in an "empty chair" debate with Richard Dawkins, Craig marshals the book review in your previous post (Physicists and Philosophers) in support of his arguments near the 5 min. mark.

    1. Thanks for the links. Yes, Muehlhauser's analysis seems pretty sound. And the empty chair segment in the video was weird (though perhaps not as weird as Eastwood's original!). Craig is a real showman. He certainly looks like a showman in the photo attached to Muehlhauser's post. I wouldn't trust anyone with teeth like that...

      Regarding David Albert, I haven't made much progress figuring out where he's coming from. He tends to talk and write only within a narrow range (on the foundations of physics), but clearly has strong views about other things. And what possessed him to agree to appear in the film What the Bleep... I can't imagine.

  3. I never understood Eastwood's original. Craig's "empty chair" debate-- or empty chair "debate"-- was an attempt to taunt Dawkins for refusing to debate him. Dawkins explained why below, in which he, well, makes a debating point.

    The photo of Craig is a little weird as well. I am not sure why the Wiki page (where Luke pulled it) made that selection. As for the risk of putting your trust in a man with a smile like that, just remember the old sayin, "Nothing dentured nothing gained . . ."

    1. I must say, I much prefer the old Dawkins, the biologist and science writer to this slightly smug and self-important sounding (to my ears) media personality and professional atheist.