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10/21/2014

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Al,

I admire your work (and the work of many others), and I believe mankind is lucky that organizations like JTF exist and provide funding for research. Discovery of truth is enhanced by funding, but the truth isn’t determined by said funding. I wish you and others continued success.

I was disappointed to see Dennett's comments when I read his article in Prospect magazine. Aside from the comments (at the end), Dennett wrote quite a nice article.

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/are-we-free

I posted this at Daily Nous and figured I'd share it here:

I have received two grants from Templeton (one from Mele’s Big Questions in Free Will project and one from the Wisdom project run out of UChicago), and I have never seen any top-down pressure on who gets funded or how projects should be carried out. I have not looked over every grant JTF has funded, but from what I’ve seen there is almost nothing I would be embarrassed to have lent my credibility (such as it is) to, or at least no more so than what gets funded by public granting agencies like NEH. But perhaps I’m rationalizing.

I don’t think I’m rationalizing when I say, as JLS does, that the cost-benefit analysis clearly favors the existence of JTF funding in its current form (putting aside whether it would be better if the money went to, say, famine relief). For better or mostly worse, the current environment at most universities increasingly requires that philosophers need to have sources of external funding, and such sources are scarce. JTF has been very generous in funding philosophers, mostly with project areas that seem pretty philosophical (wisdom, character, virtue, free will, etc.)–and given the demographics of our field, even accounting for the theology-based funding, I’d guess they are giving a majority of the money to atheists and naturalists, like me.

Having said all this, Dennett is of course free to express his views about Templeton, and it’s not like the issues here are clear–note that I haven’t really addressed the concerns he and others raise about the extent to which JTF has a partially nefarious agenda and how they might be advancing it by funding (otherwise) respectable scientists and philosophers, etc. The arguments here are complex–for instance, I am worried about the ‘backwards-influence’ argument that says people will adjust their research to get JTF funds, and conversely, I am attracted to the argument that it’s better for people to get the JTF (or Koch Foundation, etc.) funds who will “use it for good” (or at least without explicitly trying to advance agendas) than for the money to go to people who will more explicitly advance the agendas of the funding agencies.

In any case, I think Dennett chose the wrong venue to express (once again) his concerns about JTF funds–it’s not like he’d have a hard time getting a whole article on the issue published somewhere visible. Here’s how A&L Daily summarizes his review: “Do we have free will? Neuroscientists think they know; philosophers are unconvinced. But look closely at who is bankrolling these views.” The summary (and perhaps Dennett’s review) is easily read to suggest that the sullied philosophers are getting JTF funding and using to to fight back against the ‘pure’ scientists. But for many or most of these big JTF grants (including both of Mele’s), more money goes to scientists than philosophers. And, as Dennett notes, Mele is right and the scientists are wrong (about the scientific challenges to free will). So, why muddy the message? (yes yes, I know that one might try to argue that taking JTF funds muddies the message.)

I think Dennett's concern about Templeton using good work - like Al's - as 'cover' for less good work is a reasonable one (I say this as someone who has received funding from Templeton: I think it is a reasonable concern, but one on which reasonable people may disagree as to how big the problem is). There is no excuse for mixing this reasonable criticism with an attack on the integrity of Al: talk about muddying the message!

I suspect, moreover, that the concern is now less reasonable than it was a few years ago. Templeton has got out of the business of funding intelligent design. So far as I can tell, none of the work it funds is the kind of thing that we ought to worry about. So Dennett's concern may be out of date, as well mired in mud.

Mele and multi-disiplinary projects like Templeton's BQFW have made Philosophy really, really neat and more interesting to the non-philosopher and general public. In fact, I think people like Al Mele (and projects like Templeton and the "Big Questions" are a shot in the arm of Philosophy. And I also think both Neil and Eddy are doing a lot in that regard as well (making Philosophy "neat" for the masses!) Eddy, your famous NYT article was simply amazing in how it presented the whole Free Will issue in a way most understandable to the general public. And Neil, you wrote an article a few years ago called "Free Will's Win." I always felt that article did not receive as much attention as it should have. I would have loved to have seen it featured in a much larger publication like the NYT or Wall Street Journal.

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