Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Lofty mountain grandeur

There's been a lot of talk lately about whether public broadcasting shows too much lefty bias. Generally, I don't put much stock in this talk, but I had to listen to this Morning Edition piece on the John Templeton Foundation twice to decide what I thought about it.

(Sidebar: More than once, my very wise brother has called me on not really listening, but thinking about my response to the part I did hear. And he's right; it's a debater's trick which I really have to look out for. I caught myself doing it while this piece aired, so I went back to force myself to really just listen. I'm interested in your feelings about the segment, but only if you're prepared to do the same. Just listen, then decide.)

In a nutshell, the John Templeton Foundation has started giving away significant sums of money to physics researchers, apparently primarily in the cosmology and astrophysics areas. Templeton is an expressly pro-religion foundation, interested in the intersections of theology and sciences. (Based on a very limited amount of research, it does seem that they probably have a rightward bent on social issues.) Some physicists aren't comfortable taking their money.

This brings up two areas of interest for me. I plan to work the rest of my life in non-profit higher education. I know that all money has strings, and you have to be on the lookout for the conditions you can't live with. But as far as I'm concerned, if you can establish that the strings aren't that bad, take the money and run. Do what you gotta do so you can do what you wanna do.

One string is that the donor always wants to be acknowledged. (Library Lesson 1: make sure you pull your This Book Is A Generous Donation From bookplates before you take a book out of the collection. Boy, do they not like finding their donations in the second-hand booksale.) Some organizations, you don't dignify with your name. It's not like I'd take money from the Klan or NAMBLA. On the other hand, I once told a colleague that, not only would I take money from Philip Morris, but if they wanted to buy me a private jet, they could paint ashes on the nose and a filter tip on the tail. (I can't speak for my bosses, but for personal use, the offer still stands.)

Another string is what kind of control the group wants over the work and its outcomes. As near as I can tell, it's not like Templeton wants weapons-applicable technology here. On the other hand, they do want people to participate in conferences and awards which don't fit The Official Ivory Tower Mold. They want to motivate scientists with money, and that bothers some people.

Well, guess what, folks: scholarly communication is broken. And you scholars broke it. It costs way too much to buy the scholarly information you need to do your job. In large part, it's because you took your eyes off the bottom lines of whether you got paid, and how much your institution has to pay. You let yourself get boxed out of the market; you lost control of the products of your labor. So you know what? Maybe it wouldn't kill us any deader to remember that your work has financial value to some people.

Gentle readers, highly educated folk with a fair amount of non-profit experience that you are, I put it to you: am I a mercenary or a realist?

The second point, perhaps, explains the first. I don't have a problem with the foundation's money because I agree with them, at least in part and on this issue. I believe that the universe was designed, intelligently, by a God well described in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I further believe that He gave us intellects to puzzle out and marvel at this amazingly complex creation. (In fact, Catholics, by rule, believe that faith and science cannot be in contradiction.)

I believe these things.

What I can prove is that He did it with physics, and chemistry, and biology.

(I can also remember the difference between religion class and science class, and the good reasons we don't want governments deciding which religions to teach... until the winds change.)

So it rather follows that I wouldn't see the harm in taking money from people who think the same thing. (And why I would go back, to see if an organization I trust were really bashing an idea I agree with.) I do, though, think that Templeton might very well be barking up the wrong tree.

I think that Templeton isn't just interested in illuminating the process of creation, but on the hunt for the so-called proofs of the existence of God. Catholics are very fond of these little logical games. I've had people try to teach them to me no fewer than 4 times over the years, and I'd bet I'm forgetting a few. But what I remember, with one exception, is that they're all bunk.

All the so-called proofs seem to me to much better fit the formula "there is a God, and you can tell because" than "because of this phenomenon, there must be a God." I see no reason to believe that a watch implies a Watchmaker, any more than a hole implies a hole-digger. Everything seems to have a source in something else, but I believe it's a logical leap to assume that the First Mover was a conscious plan and not a random chance.

Oh, and Pascal's Wager? That's not a proof, it's a supernatural sports book. Don't you think God Almighty will know you're only betting on him because the atheists lay an afterlife worth of points?

Nah, the only guy who had a clue was Wittgenstein. Rationality belongs in science. I accept evolution because all the evidence points to it, but I don't believe in evolution any more than I believe in the speed of gravity or of light. These things are provable. I don't have to believe in them.

Faith is for those things which don't make sense but we assert them anyway. Like love and joy and hate and pain, it doesn't add up. It just makes us alive.

Then again, if me and Wittgenstein are so smart, where's our prize money?


Blogger TeacherRefPoet said...

I've never understood those who profess their "knowledge" that there is a God. If they know there's a God, then they don't have faith. They have knowledge. Those are very different things, and our religious documents find faith much more valuable...and faith with less knowledge more valuable than faith with more knowledge. Thomas has seen, so he believes...blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe.

Anyway, that's my response at midnight.

3:09 AM, July 27, 2005  
Blogger lemming said...

You are a realist. A mercenary would take money from NAMBLA.

12:30 PM, August 01, 2005  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

Ok, I'm neither a scientist nor a religious expert, so feel free to take my comments with a pinch of salt. From my notes on the program:

* I have always considered the intersection of science and faith to be something called "philosophy". (I can just hear the philo majors groan in agony.) While I don't have much practical and/or everyday use for philosophy, I certainly recognize its usefulness to humanity. I disagree with the notion that this intersection always produces a "traffic accident."

* Money doesn't always equal sell-out. Or if it does, then show me where the sell-out line forms.

* To that professor who loathes the idea that conferences advertise the "wonderfulness of their participants": get your freakin' head out of the sand, dude. I've attended many a conference, and the quality of the speakers is one of the most important factors in deciding whether or not to attend.

* What, exactly, is "spiritual reality"?

* Why bother with searching for scientific evidence of God? If there is a God, don't you think that She/He would hide evidence of its own existence?

* I wanna take a class from that Nun/Physicist professor! She sounds like fun.

At the end of the day, I think I agree with most of your arguments, Joe. I'm a realist, so I'd probably take their money. It doesn't sound like they are forcing people to bend their results a certain way. And I believe that, no matter how much knowledge that humanity amasses, the mysteries of God and Faith will remain intact.

10:43 AM, August 03, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...

Tom: thanks for keying in on that stuffed shirt who apparently believes that physics conferences should be conducted in dimly lit basements where everyone wears masks. That ticked me off too.

"Spiritual reality"? Well, that's the stuff Hamlet meant when he said "there are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." IMO, it is all those things which we cannot capture in a lab but do exist. That which is real but noncorporeal. So, yes, God, transsubstantiation, heaven, grace, but also love, hate, wonder, apathy...

Personally, the idea of a god which would intentionally conceal itself is frightening to me; I believe in a god which reveals itself in myriad ways. But again, "believe" and "reveal"... not "prove" and "discover."

8:40 AM, August 04, 2005  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

Joe, yeah that's what I consider "spiritual reality." But I'm not certain that's what the folks on the program were talking about, hence my query.

And I am also uncomfortable with the idea of God as concealer. I think that She's probably hiding in plain sight. But I am very comfortable with the idea that if there is a God, then She will remain mysterious regardless of how much knowledge we amass. Hence my opinion that the scientific search for God is pretty much a waste of time.

8:58 AM, August 04, 2005  

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