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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, September 22, 2022

Does the Vacillating Templeton Prize Stand for Anything These Days?

The Templeton Prize is a huge monetary award of more than 1,300,000 dollars. The prize was established by John Templeton, an incredibly successful investor who in his will gave a huge endowment to the Templeton Foundation he had established. The Templeton Foundation now has assets of more than 3 billion dollars, and gives out lots of small grants as well as the big jackpot of the annual Templeton Prize. Until 2001 the Templeton Prize was officially called “the Templeton Prize for Progress in Relgion.” From 2002 to 2008 the Templeton Prize was officially called ”the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities."

Nowadays the Templeton Prize has no such official title other than the Templeton Prize. But in 2020 on one of the Templeton Foundation's pages describing the prize, the prize was described in these terms: “The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.” The page also referred to “the John Templeton Foundation's mandate for breakthroughs in discovery and outreach with direct or indirect relevance to 'Spiritual Progress.' ”  Those were quotes I copied from the page in 2020. 

Looking at the latest version of the Templeton Foundation's description of the Templeton Prize, I see that the description of the prize has changed once again. The latest page describing the Templeton Prize describes it as a prize that: "honors individuals whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it." So now apparently the Templeton Prize is merely another prize for scientists. 

The Templeton Foundation has removed all claims that the prize has anything to do with spirituality or morality. Very confusingly, the page describing the prize states this: "In 2020, the Templeton philanthropies updated the description of the Templeton Prize, focusing it on research, discovery, public engagement, and religious leadership that advance our understanding of, and appreciation for, the insights that science brings to the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s purpose and place within it." The inclusion of this phrase "religious leadership" is very odd, because in two of the last four years the prize has been to physicists who had no involvement at all in religious leadership. One of these was an avowed materialist hostile to claims of cosmic purpose, an advocate of the claim that life has no purpose.

The claim that giving a prize to scientists does something to "advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision" is an inaccurate one. The late John Templeton tried to set up a foundation to promote progress in religion, not a foundation to give prize money to scientists. 

The 2022 winner of the Templeton Prize, Nobel Prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek, has not done much of anything to explore humankind's place and purpose within the universe. A look at his papers on Google Scholar seems to indicate that he has no great interest in such a thing, but seems a hundred times more interested in equations, matter and energy than in humans. Looking through the titles of the first 300 papers of Frank Wilczek listed on Google Scholar, I find not one single paper about human beings. 

The Templeton Foundation page describing the awarding of the 2022 Templeton Prize to Frank Wilczek is a strange affair. It uses the word "beauty" eight different times. For example, we read this:

"Drawing from science and aesthetics, he argues for an objective principle of beauty in which our universe employs the most elegant structures to achieve spectacular surprises. With the flair of an artist, he paints a picture of the universe in which space and time, logic and pure mathematics form a pattern of awe-inspiring beauty. His concept of natural beauty is one where maximum complexity arises from foundations of maximum simplicity."

But why should someone get so big a prize for having a sense of beauty? We all have an appreciation for beauty.  Also, it makes no sense to claim that "maximum complexity arises from foundations of maximum simplicity."  The enormous complexity and gigantic levels of organization in biological organisms were not made possible by "foundations of maximum simplicity."  A prerequisite for such biological complexity (but not at all sufficient to cause it to arise) are extremely complex and fine-tuned laws of nature, things that are not at all "maximum simplicity."  An example of such laws are the very complicated laws that keep protons and neutrons bound in the atomic nucleus, but also allow the electrons in atoms to behave in very complicated ways consistent with the chemistry needed for life. It takes incredibly complicated and fine-tuned physics for you to have both the chemistry allowing folded protein molecules with up to 10,000 atoms, and also the kind of physics needed for stable stars like the sun.   No kind of life would be possible in a universe with physics of "maximum simplicity."   

Another Templeton Foundation page related to awarding the prize to Wilczek is a page with the title "The Universe According to Frank Wilczek." We have very many words about Wilczek, but no indications that he has any very strong interest in humans or human minds. The talk is mainly about matter, energy and physics, with lots of speculations about undiscovered axions. Very strangely we read this quote: "Wilczek 'epitomizes what the Templeton Foundation is going after, which is the synthesis of science and what I would call the metaphysical,' says France C√≥rdova, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance and a member of the prize’s judging committee." Nothing on the long, wordy page describing Wilczek's work (and nothing on his Google Scholar list of  papers) gives the slightest indication that Wilczek has any interest in metaphysics. 

The front page of the Templeton Prize site (www.templetonprize.org) now has a link to an LA Times interview with Wilczek about his metaphysical views. We get no sign of any deep thinking about metaphysical matters in the interview, in which Wilczek claims that "God is under construction" and "God can be constructed."  We hear Wilczek giving some witless reasoning that God cannot have a will because "the form of the physical laws seems to be very tight and doesn't allow for exceptions." 

So what does the Templeton Prize stand for these days? Not much of anything, it seems. You apparently don't have to be any serious scholar or analyst of the human mind or humanity to win the Templeton Prize, and you can seem 100 times more interested in your physics speculations (such as speculations about never-detected particles such as dark matter and axions) than in any matters of humanity or human welfare or spirituality or morality. 

Although we read a giant font headline at www.templetonprize.org claiming that the Templeton Prize is "the world's most interesting prize," it is no such thing. Nowadays it seems the Templeton Prize is mainly just a big million-dollar handout for already flourishing "fat cat" old guard scientists, kind of like being elected to the Royal Society consisting mostly of old white men who keep pushing the same old story lines, some of them very dubious. The Templeton Prize epitomizes the Matthew Effect at work in modern society, under which the famous and already-richly-rewarded get more fame and more rewards. 

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