Edge 180 — May 1, 2006
(6,500 words)



WHO'S AFRAID OF THE THIRD CULTURE? [5.1.06]
By Gloria Origgi

Ramachandran, Freedberg, Dennett, Atran, Elster: new approaches in the study of society, art, and religion

Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences.

[...continue]


On "The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic's Take" By John Horgan

Daniel C. Dennett, George Johnson, Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, Marc D. Hauser, Dan Sperber, Jerry Coyne, Leonard Susskind, Lee Smolin, Scott Atran, Dan Sperber, Daniel C. Dennett


DANIEL C. DENNETT: John Horgan closes with a modest proposal to the Templeton Foundation:

"To demonstrate its open-mindedness, the foundation should award the Templeton Prize to an opponent of religion, such as Steven Weinberg or Richard Dawkins."

That made me smile, but I burst out laughing when my wife quipped "That would be a miracle! [...more]


GEORGE JOHNSON: The danger of accepting that fine hospitality is more subtle. From now on, whenever I write about a Templeton-funded project, a little voice somewhere in my head will be second-guessing me. Anxious to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, am I being a little nastier or nicer than I might otherwise have been? And if I am troubled By the possibility, how can I expect that a reader won't be? [...more]


FREEMAN DYSON: Thank you for sending the Horgan piece, which I think expresses quite well the prejudiced attitude of some scientists toward religion in general and Templeton in particular. As a Templeton beneficiary, I do not feel that my freedom of speech is in any way limited. [...more]


RICHARD DAWKINS: But the fact that religion keeps coming back gives us not the tiniest smidgen of a reason for thinking that any of its supernatural claims are true. Freeman Dyson, By accepting the Templeton Prize, sent a powerful signal to the world which, whether he likes it or not, will be taken as an endorsement of religion By one of the world's most distinguished physicists. The great Freeman Dyson is a Christian! [...more]


MARC D. HAUSER: I decided to publish with Science and Spirit as a way to get "inside" the system and go at it. It is in this spirit that I think Horgan's piece is important, and that Richard's comment is relevant. Taking money from the Templeton foundation presents a Faustian choice for many. Given the lack of funding in many of our disciplines, it is tempting to be seduced By an organization brimming with money. But I wouldn't do it! Selling your soul is irreversible, so I hear. [...more]


DAN SPERBER: Isn't it obvious that committed atheists, for whom there is no "boundary between theology and science" where "new insights" could be pursued, should abstain from applying for, or accepting funding from this foundation (even if — or, rather, particularly if — as do some participants in the debate, they feel respect for the foundation)?


JERRY COYNE: I absolutely agree with Sperber and Dawkins that 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 — at least not without mendacity, self-delusion, or cognitive dissonance — then it is unethical to take money from the Foundation. [...more]


LEONARD SUSSKIND: I don't understand the idea that a convergence between science and religion is taking place. I don't believe in any such convergence. Throwing huge amounts of money at scientists who claim to see such a convergence can only lead to a dangerous blurring of boundaries. [...more]


LEE SMOLIN: 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. [...more]


SCOTT ATRAN: I find it fascinating that brilliant scientists and philosophers have no clue how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. Makes me embarrassed to be an atheist. [...more]


DAN SPERBER: When we do take monies from less than optimal sources (for instance because otherwise our students are not funded), let's, as I suggested, be cynical — or if you don't like the word, lucid — about it rather than pretend that all is well and that Templeton money smells of hallowed roses. Let's be cynical however with some sophistication, and not pretend that all money is impure and that all sources of funding stinks equally: some stinks more than Templeton, and other less. [...more]


DANIEL C. DENNETT: I'm surprised and disappointed that Freeman Dyson views the open-minded curiosity of Breaking the Spell as prejudiced. I'm sure he doesn't think that it is wrong to try to learn more about a natural phenomenon, so I suspect he is just being lulled by the ancient tradition that demands that religions be honored first, studied later or never. [...more]

[...continue]




London [4.17.06]
Science notebook by Anjana Ahuja

I'm so sorry, you fellows, but I always religiously avoid your sort

[...continue]



Cambridge [4.13.06]
Profs Debate Consciousness
By Jan Zilinsky

[...continue]




Santiago [4.9.06]
En la caverna de las ideas científicas
Por Federico Kukso

[...continue]



Bangladesh — Saturday Feature [4.8.06]
The twilight zone of thought
By Syed Fattahul Alim

[...continue]


 
Stockholm [4.06]

Varlens Farligste ideer

(The world's most dangerous ideas)

Av Eva Wisten

[...continue]



Amsterdam [3.3.06]
The End of Free Will
("Het einde van de vrije wil
")
By Ted de Hoog

[...continue]



Amsterdam [1.28.06]
Danger is Everywhere
("Overal loert gevaar")
By Ellen de Bruin

[...continue]



WHO'S AFRAID OF THE THIRD CULTURE? [5.1.06]
By Gloria Origgi

Ramachandran, Freedberg, Dennett, Atran, Elster: new approaches in the study of society, art, and religion

Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences.

Introduction by John Brockman

A few months ago, during a visit to Paris, I was invited to dinner at the home of philosopher Gloria Origgi and social and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber which was attended by half a dozen researchers attending a mirror neuron conference on the outskirts of Paris.

During the dinner, Origgi made a number of interesting observations regarding the growing presence of the third culture in France. She pointed out that the mirror neuron conference was an example of how the "naturalistic" scientists — those who are engaged in a realistic biology of mind — are gaining sway over the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation.

This began in the early seventies, when, as a graduate student at Harvard, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wrote five papers that set forth an agenda for a new field: the scientific study of human nature. In the past thirty-odd years which has spawned thousands of scientific experiments, new and important evidence, and exciting new ideas about who and what we are presented in books by scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Edward O. Wilson among many others.

Recognition of this development can cause pain to those not participating in the conversation. "Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology," Origgi writes, "disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences. "Is a third culture possible," she asks, "in which the natural sciences take part in making sense of ourselves and our actions?"

Origgi points out that there is ongoing discussion and debate among the third culture scientists on how to consider the social and cultural aspects of our lives as part of the the new scientific conversation. For example, see the robust discussion in "The Reality Club" comments regarding John Horgan's essay on The Templeton Foundation.

JB


GLORIA ORIGGI is a philosopher and a researcher at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. She is the editor of the www.interdisciplines.org project, a portal for virtual conferences in social and cognitive sciences, and the author of Text-E: Text in the Age of the Internet.

Gloria Origgi's Edge Bio


WHO'S AFRAID OF THE THIRD CULTURE?

(GLORIA ORIGGI:) It is remarkable that the discovery of a class of premotor neurons in the brain of macaque monkeys should seem to have important repercussions on our understanding the nature of human sociality. What does, after all, the activation of a cell of the nervous system of a monkey have to do with the intricacies of our social relations?

Beyond the fascinating arguments provoked by this discovery (*), this illustrates the changes that have taken place in the last twenty years in the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities, that is “the two cultures,” defined by C.P. Snow in his famous 1959 essay. Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences.

So, is a third culture possible, as defined by John Brockman, in which the natural sciences take part in making sense of ourselves and our actions?

The investigation of the biological bases of moral sentiments, aesthetic judgment, interpretation of others, or religious beliefs still provokes frontal intellectual resistance in the name of an exception of human experience, which is historically situated and irreducible to natural constraints. More generally, a naturalistic approach is seen as deeply distorting the mission of the human and social sciences, which should aim at understanding how social-historical structures, power relationships, and cultural domination manifest themselves in human beings and shape their individual expressions. Therefore, there seems to exist an irresolvable tension between incompatible explanatory models. But is it really so?

Two main criticisms are addressed to the idea of a naturalistic research program in the human sciences. The first is the risk of reductionism, that is, the idea that complex social and personal experiences can be reduced to neurophysiological mechanisms. The second is that it suffers from anti-historicism, in the sense that it fails to provide historical contextualization or genealogical investigation, as though the forms of thought and the patterns of action that we seek to explain were immutable “natural types.” And indeed, in some cases, the reductionist and universalist speculations presented as grand claims of some of the exponents of the new naturalism can be irritating.

Consider for instance the project of neuroaesthetics: Vilayanur Ramachandran identifies ten universal “laws” of aesthetic experience, one of which says that neurological responses to “exaggerated” stimuli (such as an eye twice the size of a normal eye) are at the base of our aesthetic preferences (a neurological effect present also in mice called “peak shift”). The claim of having replaced the “vague speculations of historians” by scientific principles of aesthetic evaluation seems rather grand. The study of the psychological response to works of art has, however, been undertaken by expert art historians such as David Freedberg, who, in his seminal work The Power of Images sought to understand the universal psychological and anthropological constraints on human responses to images. There is nothing reductionist or anti-historical in Freedberg’s approach; he is just attempting  to improve our understanding by drawing on the resources of the natural sciences.

Incidentally, regarding anti-historicism, one could point out that most naturalistic approaches are also of a historical nature: evolutionary arguments, for instance, seek to explain a behavior or a present forma mentis in terms of the brain’s history of adaptation to ancestral conditions or of mechanisms of cultural evolution.

This is how the philosopher Daniel Dennett undertakes in his new book Breaking the Spell to outline a naturalistic explanation of religious beliefs in Darwinian terms. Dennett isolates the “germs” of religious belief in cognitive predispositions, such as that of  interpreting phenomena in intentional terms and of seeking therefore agents responsible for notable events, or in the greater memorability of counterintuitive information  of a kind abundant in religion.

Dennett brings together speculations on the idea of group selection, on the evolution of religious institutions, and on the selection over time of sets of beliefs based on authority and immune to proof. Here too, Dennett’s total confidence in a Darwinian approach to religion may be seen as irritatingly premature. However, even if Dennett’s all-encompassing evolutionistic teleology may look like a form of religious creed, this does not mean that looking at religion with the help of natural sciences is a misguided project.

One need only turn directly to the anthropological works from which Dennett draws partial inspiration to find studies, like that of Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust.  Atran balances evolutionary arguments, ecological and anthropological observations, and psychological experiments in order to reconstruct the “ecological landscape” in which a system of beliefs evolves and persists. He explains the difference between animistic, pantheistic, and monotheistic religions in terms of the psychological “distance” between the images that different human groups have of their biological environment and of society: where representations of nature and of society tend to merge (as in totemic societies), we find animistic religions. The greater the distance between these representations, the more people tend towards monotheistic systems. Atran’s work provides an example of a perspective that, without being reductionist or anti-historicist, draws on the natural sciences in its explanation of a religious phenomenon.

Thus, the third culture can be seen as a multidimensional culture, where explanations originating in different disciplines combine together without cancelling one another. As yet another example, one might think of Jon Elster’s work on emotions in his book The Alchemies of the Mind, in which neurobiology, literature, and rational choice theory come together as vectors of a causative and conceptual explanation of what is involved in feeling emotion.

Is then a third culture possible? There is a strong temptation to see in these smoothly combined approaches a new path to knowledge, a pluralistic culture that weaves together a dense plot of facts and interpretations without the ideological burden of having to reduce the ones to the others or vice versa.

(* For a comprehensive view on mirror neurons, visit the virtual conference: www.interdisciplines.org/mirror.)

(translated from Italian by Carrie Keesling-Getz)

[Origgi's essay was originally published in the "Scienza e Filosofia" section Il Sole 24 Ore—Domenica [2.26.06]. Click here for the PDF file.]



DANIEL C. DENNETT [4.6.06]
Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Breaking the Spell

John Horgan closes with a modest proposal to the Templeton Foundation:

"To demonstrate its open-mindedness, the foundation should award the Templeton Prize to an opponent of religion, such as Steven Weinberg or Richard Dawkins."

That made me smile, but I burst out laughing when my wife quipped "That would be a miracle!


GEORGE JOHNSON [4.12.06]
Writer for the New York Times; Author, Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order

Those three summer weeks in Cambridge, as Templeton journalism fellows, were magical. Anything Templeton puts on is a class act, and what we were treated to was a sumptuous feast of intellectual camaraderie. Whether we were dining at Trinity College, across the Great Court from Newton's old quarters, or grabbing hamburgers at the Eagle Tavern with the ghost of Francis Crick, we were talking about ideas. It was an unforgettable experience for which I always will be grateful, and that is the problem.

It's not that I sensed any pressure during the fellowship to accept the Templeton world view. The judges knew from the beginning what I thought of the effort to make peace between science and religion, and during the seminars I freely expressed my doubts. I left unharmed and learned a lot. What I came away with was better ammunition.

The danger of accepting that fine hospitality is more subtle. From now on, whenever I write about a Templeton-funded project, a little voice somewhere in my head will be second-guessing me. Anxious to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, am I being a little nastier or nicer than I might otherwise have been? And if I am troubled by the possibility, how can I expect that a reader won't be?

In the ethics of journalism, appearances count heavily, and all of us confront these dilemmas every day. I convinced myself that the tradeoff was worth it. I still believe so, but part of me will always wonder. A journalist is cursed with having to be skeptical of everything and everyone, including himself.


FREEMAN DYSON [4.12.06]
Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study, Author, Disturbing the Universe





Thank you for sending the Horgan piece, which I think expresses quite well the prejudiced attitude of some scientists toward religion in general and Templeton in particular. As a Templeton beneficiary, I do not feel that my freedom of speech is in any way limited. I have no objection to your publishing this piece on Edge. With luck it might stimulate a more intelligent discussion of the issues. After all, whether you like it or not, religion is an important part of the human comedy. As my mother used to say, you can drive religion out of the door but it comes back in through the window.

I just finished reading Dennett's book, "Breaking the Spell", which expresses the same prejudices in a more scholarly style.


RICHARD DAWKINS [4.13.06]
Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University; Author, The Ancestor's Tale

I have just read Freeman Dyson's response to Horgan, which he copied to me.

Nobody could possibly deny that religion is an important part of the human comedy, which comes back through the window whenever you try to drive it out of the door. That, indeed, is precisely what Dennett's book is about. Dennett wants us to do scientific research to understand why religion is an important part of the human comedy. What is prejudiced about that?

But the fact that religion keeps coming back gives us not the tiniest smidgen of a reason for thinking that any of its supernatural claims are true. Freeman Dyson, by accepting the Templeton Prize, sent a powerful signal to the world which, whether he likes it or not, will be taken as an endorsement of religion by one of the world's most distinguished physicists. The great Freeman Dyson is a Christian!

"I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels." Isn't that exactly what any atheistic scientist would say, if he suddenly found himself confronted with a strong inducement to profess Christianity and yet was trying to avoid an outright lie?

Oh, you want something a bit more profound, as well? How about "I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension." Have I said enough yet, and can I get back to doing physics now? Oh, not enough yet? OK then, how about this: "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." Can I go now?

Dyson could easily refute the implication of these quotations from his Templeton acceptance speech (*), if only he would explain clearly what evidence he finds to believe in God, in something more than just the Einsteinian sense (which trivially we can all subscribe to) of 'a name we give to that which we don't yet understand.' I look forward to reading or hearing any such explanation from any scientist who has accepted the Templeton Prize.

If I understand Horgan's point, it is that Templeton's money corrupts science. On the face of it, Freeman Dyson's letter might be thought to play into Horgan's hands. As Dan Dennett once said to me, "Richard, if ever you fall on hard times . . ."

Best wishes
Richard

(
Ed. Note: See "Progress in Religion: A Talk by Freeman Dyson" [5.16.00])


MARC D. HAUSER [4.13.06]
Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Wild Minds

Let me add to Richard's comment with a relevant experience. I was asked by the magazine Science and Spirit, supported by Templeton, to write a piece concerning the work we have done on the sources of our moral judgments, summarized in my upcoming book. At first I had a very similar response to that expressed in Richard's note: don't write for, and thus functionally support, a magazine that is funded by a foundation that I don't respect.

But then I thought of a comment that Noam Chomsky made to me once when I asked why he stays in a country that he appears to disrespect so deeply. In brief, he noted that there is no better place to attack than from within. I took this position and decided to write a piece for S&S, laying out the evidence we have from our work that a significant proportion of our moral judgments are mediated by unconscious processes that are functionally immune to religious background and belief. In this sense, the mind's instinct to deliver moral verdicts is like a prophylactic against religious beliefs. When we deliver moral judgments and think that religion guides our choices, we are guided by a massive illusion.

Now, the piece is still in the hands of the editor, and we will soon see whether they run it or back off given the message, but I decided to publish with Science and Spirit as a way to get "inside" the system and go at it. It is in this spirit that I think Horgan's piece is important, and that Richard's comment is relevant. Taking money from the Templeton foundation presents a Faustian choice for many. Given the lack of funding in many of our disciplines, it is tempting to be seduced by an organization brimming with money. But I wouldn't do it! Selling your soul is irreversible, so I hear.


DAN SPERBER [4.16.06]
Social and cognitive scientist, CNRS, Paris; Author, Explaining Culture

According to its website, "the mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science through a rigorous, open-minded and empirically focused methodology, drawing together talented representatives from a wide spectrum of fields of expertise."

Isn't it obvious that committed atheists, for whom there is no "boundary between theology and science" where "new insights" could be pursued, should abstain from applying for, or accepting funding from this foundation (even if — or, rather, particularly if — as do some participants in the debate, they feel respect for the foundation)? I can alas well understand how, lacking funding for oneself or for one's students, one might be led to adopt a less principled attitude, but in that case, better be cynical about it than disingenuously find virtue in what remains, even if one choose to benefit from it, an unacceptable ideological agenda.

More generally, scientists (and citizens) should object to sources of funding for research, whether public or private, that try to favor findings of a given tenor. This can never be "rigorous" or "open-minded" in the way we are trying to be.


JERRY COYNE [4.17.06]
Evolutionary Biologist; Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago; Author (with H. Allen Orr), Speciation

I absolutely agree with Sperber and Dawkins that 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 — at least not without mendacity, self-delusion, or cognitive dissonance — 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.

I am appalled at the Templeton Foundation dangling large sums of money in front of scientists. Why so much money? This can only serve, I think, to bend those people motivated by the prospect of gaining a million-plus dollars toward the will of the Foundation.

Now if the Foundation changes its aims to exploring the compatibility of science and religion, that would change things!


LEONARD SUSSKIND [4.17.06]
Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The Cosmic Landscape

I don't understand the idea that a convergence between science and religion is taking place. I don't believe in any such convergence. Throwing huge amounts of money at scientists who claim to see such a convergence can only lead to a dangerous blurring of boundaries.

I hereby pledge to refuse any prize for advancing the so called convergence between science and religion.


LEE SMOLIN [4.19.06]
Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity

I am not at all religious, nor particularly interested in religion, but I was invited to several meetings sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. I found that skeptics about religion and its relation to science were represented at each meeting, such as Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. No one minded when we expressed our views strongly, quite the opposite. I do think that the fact that they included people who are strongly in disagreement with their goals speaks well for them. They seemed genuinely interested in a dialogue between scientists, philosophers and theologians, without preconditions.

This stands in contrast to some scientific research programs that never invite skeptics or leaders of competing approaches to speak at their conferences. 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.

Why did I go? First, to meet Richard Dawkins, who I had always wanted to meet. Second, because I am interested in the history and philosophy of physics and it is impossible to understand key figures such as Newton and Leibniz without understanding the role theological issues played in their thinking. I found some of the theologians I met at the Templeton meetings to be intelligent, open minded, sophisticated thinkers, and I learned things about my subject talking with them.

I also found that I can have a more useful conversation with a cosmologist such as George Ellis who is honest and reflective about the role his religious faith plays in his thinking than I can with some colleagues whose faith in their theories seems almost religious but who believe they are paragons of rationality. Given the role that Christianity has played in framing the thinking of physicists and cosmologists isn't it better to confront it head on than leave it unconscious and unanalyzed?

Was I influenced or tainted in some way by attending these meetings?

Not in the least. My beliefs and views did not change at all, but I do have some more insight into how the yearning to find god is tangled up in the thinking of cosmologists, both in the past and now. Finally, am I tempted to change my views by the prospect of a large prize? Many of us could have had easier careers had we been more willing to go along with the mainstream trends in our fields; if we have survived this long by preferring our own ideas, we are not likely to give up our hard won integrity for mere money.


SCOTT ATRAN [4.24.06]
Anthropologist, University of Michigan; Author, In God's We Trust

I find it fascinating that brilliant scientists and philosophers have no clue how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. Makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.

I find no historical evidence whatever that scientists have a keener or deeper appreciation than religious people of of how to deal with personal or moral problems. Some scientists have some good and helpful insights into human beings' existential problems some of the time, but some good scientists have done more to harm others than most people are remotely capable of.

Science has made enormous contributions to prospects for improving human welfare, but only very intermittent progress in application. As a group, even the very best among us haven't the foggiest idea of how to deal with power, other than to try to escape it or to believe that their saying that what should be so must ultimately make it so.

True, some people operating in the name of religion have been more explicitly savage and cruel towards others than most, but there are the likes of Lincoln, Gandhi and Martin Luther King whose religion not only has given hope to so many but has thereby cumulatively enabled the lessening of human misery.

Should scientists take money from foundations whose objectives include not only the scientific study of religion but also explorations of possible complementarities between science and religion in understanding the human comedy or making it less painful?

No reason not to, as long as there is no move to subvert research or force findings. Much more problematic, it seems to me, is the unreflective taking of monies from national science foundations and national institutes of health, and from offices of defense research — all of whose priorities are determined in the mid and long term by others' judgments of political compatibility.

One notable exception is Noam Chomsky, who was lecturing at West Point last week, deep within "the belly of the beast." Let those who think religion so beastly similarly engage, using the beast's own money as Marc Hauser suggests (just as Chomsky has used defense monies over the years). But I think a more productive use of such funds would be much needed research into how to advance science in a fundamentally non-rational world, instead of just railing against this world or pretending that sweet reason will prevail if only it is given sufficient clarity and exposure. From this vantage, engagement with religion might be more help than hindrance.


DAN SPERBER [4.25.06]
Social and cognitive scientist, CNRS, Paris; Author, Explaining Culture

I agree with most of what Scott Atran says. I don't believe that "things (in general??) ought to be rational and evidence based." I have no objection ("God forbid!" so to speak) to talking with and to religious people, attending conferences organized by them, and, in fact, enjoying life in their company. I agree that "the unreflective taking of monies from national science foundations and national institutes of health, and from offices of defense research — all of whose priorities are determined in the mid and long term by others' judgments of political compatibility" — is problematic.

So, let's be reflective about it. Let's ask ourselves in particular how accepting this money affects the structure of power on the one hand, and the tenor of findings on the other.

On the first point, I find it objectionable, for instance, that defense ministries should have money to spend on research beyond properly military research. This gives them an unjustifiable say on the pursuit of science in general. On the second point, most of these grant giving organizations have no stake in the tenor of the findings, but there are exceptions, the most blatant and objectionable being pharmaceutical and tobacco industries financing research the outcome of which may make them gain or lose income.

The Templeton Foundation is an exception in this respect too: they have a stake in a rosier picture of religion. So yes let's reflect, be careful, at times refuse monies. When we do take monies from less than optimal sources (for instance because otherwise our students are not funded), let's, as I suggested, be cynical — or if you don't like the word, lucid — about it rather than pretend that all is well and that Templeton money smells of hallowed roses. Let's be cynical however with some sophistication, and not pretend that all money is impure and that all sources of funding stinks equally: some stinks more than Templeton, and other less.


DANIEL C. DENNETT [4.29.06]
Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Breaking the Spell

"Prejudice" — I'm fascinated by Freeman Dyson's word choice. The tradition of hyper-respect for religion has so thoroughly saturated our culture that we think someone is prejudiced who treats religion as one natural phenomenon among many — alongside music and sex and food (and money and the pharmaceutical industry and baseball) but perhaps as important as all of them put together.

Even-handedness is not good enough for religion, apparently. One of the reasons that religion keeps coming back in through the window is that it has managed to secure a free pass, just one of the adaptations that organized religions have acquired over the millennia. There is no more mystery about why religions have such a hold on us than there is a mystery about why symbionts have such success inhabiting our bodies: in both cases they have been designed (by no one, by evolution) over the millennia to secure their bases, to deflect challenges and criticisms, and to enhance their own spread to new hosts. Many of our biological symbionts are not just helpful to us; we couldn't live without them. Perhaps religion is, similarly, something we can't live without, a cultural symbiont that truly earns its keep. Many think so, but this is not yet established.

It is prejudiced to assume that religions must be good for us because they persist so vigorously, and it is prejudiced to assume that religions must be bad for us because they are cunningly designed to hold our allegiance whether they deserve it or not. I want to look at these questions using all the tools of inquiry at our disposal.

I'm surprised and disappointed that Freeman Dyson views the open-minded curiosity of Breaking the Spell as prejudiced. I'm sure he doesn't think that it is wrong to try to learn more about a natural phenomenon, so I suspect he is just being lulled by the ancient tradition that demands that religions be honored first, studied later or never.

That's the spell we must break. Religions should be respected, yes, the same way we should respect both whales and tsetse flies, sunlight and tsunamis, but not honored. When we have a better grip on what they do for us, and to us, we'll be able to make a more informed decision about whether to honor them.




London [4.17.06]
Science notebook by Anjana Ahuja

I'm so sorry, you fellows, but I always religiously avoid your sort

. . .

My vague misgivings have now been articulated by John Horgan, a science writer and agnostic who became a 2005 Templeton fellow. “I rationalised that taking the foundation’s money did not mean that it had bought me, as long as I remained true to my views,” he wrote last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the US equivalent of The Times Higher (click here to read his essay).

So, what happened when Horgan told a foundation official that he had no wish for religion and science to be reconciled? “She told us that . . . she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship.”

I applaud those writers who become Templeton fellows; I commend their desire to learn more and I wish them well in their efforts to keep an open mind. In truth, I envy them their two-month summer sabbatical.

Perhaps I lack backbone, but I worry that accepting the foundation’s largesse might make me a bit soft. And a soft reporter is the last thing needed by infertile couples who wrongly believe that a stranger’s prayer will help to bring them a child.

[...continue]



Cambridge [4.13.06]
Profs Debate Consciousness
By Jan Zilinsky

[photo]

What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?

Last night, three Harvard professors, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, and a Tufts professor provided their own answers to this question before a crowded audience in Askwith Lecture Hall at the Graduate School of Education.

[...continue]




Santiago [4.9.06]
En la caverna de las ideas científicas
Por Federico Kukso

Todos los años, el sitio de Internet www.edge.org, que nuclea a los científicos más importantes y prestigiosos del mundo, inaugura el calendario haciéndoles a sus miembros una pregunta crucial. La de este año fue ni más ni menos que: ¿cuál es la idea más peligrosa del mundo? A continuación, las diez respuestas más explosivas, y una yapa.

[...continue]



Bangladesh — Saturday Feature [4.8.06]
The twilight zone of thought
By Syed Fattahul Alim

...The above are the opinions of experts on profound issues of love, consciousness, existence of God. However, the laypeople, too, reach a similar conclusion with the help of their common sense, which are often vague, prejudiced, and what an expert would term as irrational.

Paradoxically, the rational as well as the irrational mind reaches a similar conclusion though from the opposite directions. What is then the path to truth?

[...continue]



Stockholm [4.06]

Varlens Farligste ideer

(The world's most dangerous ideas)

Av Eva Wisten

Democracy is not the best way to rule a country. The concept of the free will disappear the more we learn about the brain. Internet undermines the quality of our relationships. Read the leading brains of the world list their most dangerous ideas...



Amsterdam [3.3.06]
The End of Free Will
("Het einde van de vrije wil
")
By Ted de Hoog

...You get absorbed in reading answers to the question, publishes as the Edge Annual Question 2006. Though the intellectuals and scientists form no coherent group, there is a general tenor. Philosophizing on free will has no purpose if you haven'y been buried in neurobiology for a year or two.

(Subscription Required)



Amsterdam [1.28.06]
Danger is Everywhere
("Overal loert gevaar")
By Ellen de Bruin

Web magazine Edge asked 119 scientists for their dangerous ideas. What if reality is not what we think it is? ...The edge annual Question 2006 was suggested By psychologist Steven Pinker... In general, the 119 intelectuals see 3 kinds of danger: intellectual; social/ moral; total destruction.

(Subscription Required)


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