John Templeton's Universe

What is the purpose of the universe, anyway? I hadn't started reading the Sunday papers with this question in mind, but after slogging through mass rapes in Congo, bombings in Baghdad and K-Fed's worthiness as a father, I could no longer dodge it. Then, in the middle of the New York Times Week in Review section--some of the priciest real estate in the print industry--I came across a two-full-page ad under the headline "Does the Universe Have a Purpose?"

The text of the ad was the responses of twelve scientist-and-philosopher-types, ranging from the purposeless (biochemist Christian de Duve) to the purpose-driven (Jane Goodall) and the just plain whiny, as in astronomer Owen Gingerich's "Frankly, I am psychologically incapable of believing that the universe is meaningless." (Suck it up, Owen, it's the only universe you've got.) I was miffed that I had not been asked to contribute my theory that this is a trial universe that has turned to be defective. But I was even more distracted by the sponsor of the ad--the John Templeton Foundation.

Just a couple of weeks ago the Templeton Foundation had showed up in the news in a somewhat less exalted context. John Templeton Jr., the president of the foundation, turns out to be one of the funders of Freedom's Watch, the new right-wing group that has been running pro-war commercials conflating Al Qaeda with whomever it is we're righting in Iraq. You may have seen the one in which a veteran complains that stopping the war now would render the loss of his legs meaningless, much like the universe itself.

This is not John Templeton Jr.'s first or only venture into right-wing politics. In 2004 he started the group Let Freedom Ring, aimed getting out the evangelical Christian vote for George Bush. He recently joined the Romney campaign's National Faith and Values Steering Committee, a group that includes an antiabortion activist and a fellow from the Heritage Foundation.

So the real question may be, "What is the purpose of the Templeton Foundation?"

Founded by John Templeton Jr.'s father, Sir John Templeton, the investor, the foundation set out to bridge science and spirituality while--on a not obviously related track--promoting free enterprise. In just the last ten years, it has become a serious force in the academic world, generally funding anything too soft and fuzzy for the governmental grant-makers--studies, for example, on optimism, happiness, character, forgiveness and faith. This year, its $1.5 million annual Templeton Prize went to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who states, on the foundation's website, that "We urgently need new insight into the human propensity for violence."

Maybe he should have started by querying John Templeton Jr. on that one. Or maybe there was a mistake, and the foundation had intended the award not for the Canadian philosopher but for the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. And what are we to make of Templeton's stickiest project of all--an $8 million grant to create the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, that last being defined by Templeton Sr. as "total constant love for every person with no exception"? Are there some major Oedipal issues between the Templetons, or is the universe just a little too tricky for me?

But the Templetons' most famous baby is the young field of Positive Psychology, launched by University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman after his five-year-old daughter accused him of being a "grouch" and he resolved improve his outlook. Pos Psych carves out everything ordinary psych, with its bent toward pathology, ignores, which is in itself an admirable ambition. In practice, though, it tilts dangerously, for something that considers itself a science, toward the prescriptive. If you're not happy--or optimistic or upbeat--you better get to work on that now, and we have the "coaches" to help you.

Put all this happiness and optimism together with John Templeton Jr.'s political agenda and you could come up with some pretty paranoid scenarios: for example, that the Templeton Foundation is a plot to numb Americans into smiley-faced acquiescence to the status quo. And could it be a coincidence that Templeton helped finance the re-election of the most optimistic President we've had since Ronald Reagan?

So I attended the Sixth Annual International Positive Psychology Summit conference in Washington, DC, last week to see what was up, and am happy--make that also optimistic, hopeful and almost positive--to report that this Templeton-spawned group could probably not plot its way out of a paper bag. The presentations I sampled occupied the full range from mediocrity to silliness. At the mediocre, or submediocre, level was a paper on the effects of a Christian summer camp on teenagers, suggesting that it enhanced such virtues as self-control and patience. For silliness, you couldn't beat a couple of sessions featuring "coaches" and management consultants using their power points to illustrate how to make corporations more "positive" and "strength-based."

Strangest of all, Pos Psych founder Martin Seligman appeared, to the dismay of many in the audience, to renounce the whole enterprise, stating from the podium that "I've decided my theory of positive psychology is completely wrong, so I've put forth a different notion." All I can report is that the new notion expands Pos Psych's jurisdiction to include anthropology, political science and economics, and seems to be based empirically on Seligman's love of bridge--the card game, that is, not the link between the spiritual and the scientific. Beyond that, my lengthy and detailed notes offer no enlightenment.

When that session came to an end, I cornered the young psychologist who had been appointed by the Templeton Foundation to give out this year's Martin E.P. Seligman Award for Outstanding Dissertation Research in Positive Psychology. "What about John Templeton's funding of pro-war commercials?" I asked him. "No comment," he responded at great length, mentioning along the way that he's been asked that question before.

And well he might be. The Templeton Foundation's academic beneficiaries include not only opportunists and self-help gurus but some serious scientists, and they need to dissociate themselves from the reckless belligerence of John Templeton Jr. I'm not saying they should return their grants, just chip in a little of that Templeton largesse for a full-page ad in the New York Times with an intriguing headline like "What Is the Purpose of Science? Clue: It's Not War." Charles Taylor, with his $1.5 million award, should organize the effort.

© 2023 The Nation