Mele Replies to Dennett on Templeton Funding (Guest Post)


Yesterday’s post, “Funding and Philosophical Results,” on Daniel Dennett’s critique of Alfred Mele’s acceptance of money from the John Templeton Foundation, generated a fair amount of discussion, with contributions from Dennett and his critics. Al Mele has now written a reply to Dennett, presented in the guest post*, below.


 Reply to Dennett

Dan Dennett suggests that my neutrality about compatibilism in Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will might be motivated by a desire to please the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). In fact, I was officially agnostic about compatibilism as far back as my book Autonomous Agents, published in 1995. Neil Levy makes a cute comment about this on Facebook. Here it is:

Now that I know that Al Mele adopted agnosticism about the compatibility question two decades before he received Templeton funding, in order to receive it, I shall replace discussion of the Diana thought experiment with thought experiments involving “Al, a demigod who uses his omniscient knowledge of the laws of nature and the exact distribution of subatomic particles to bring about an event in two decades time.”

In any case, this neutrality or agnosticism has been a feature of my work on free will ever since.

I should also mention that parts of Free are based on critiques of Libet’s and Wegner’s work in my book Effective Intentions, which was published in 2009, before I had any contact with JTF.

I wrote Free for a general audience. I keep things simple there. It’s not rocket science, and people can decide for themselves whether my arguments are persuasive. Dan himself seems to think they are persuasive, by the way. He says that his “review could . . . end on the mild, modest verdict that Mele has done his job and done it well” but ends it instead with a discussion of JTF.

As I’ve said in print, I enjoyed working with JTF on the Big Questions in Free Will (BQFW) project and I never felt pressured to do anything that seemed wrong to me. I have friends there now — good, hard-working people who love philosophy and want to showcase what philosophy can do. But, of course, Dan has a right to express his opinions about JTF.

I don’t take Dan’s remarks personally. I know his views on JTF. We had a friendly discussion of them in London a couple of years ago while I was in the midst of directing the BQFW project. It’s safe to say that we disagree about what JTF is up to. His views about JTF come through clearly in his article, and writing about Free was an occasion for him to express them. Tying those views to me by way of the agnosticism about compatibilism in Free is ineffective, for the reason that I mentioned. If JTF likes neutrality about compatibilism, I’m their guy; I’ve pretty much had that market cornered for almost 20 years. I’m told there’s a goddess named Diana who is predicting that now that the cat is out of the bag, “agnostic autonomism” (my old label for my pro-free-will view that is agnostic about compatibilism) will quickly become the dominant position in the free will literature; the money will drive things there, she says. However, this Diana is but a pale shadow of the Diana of mine that Neil mentioned. I don’t trust her predictions at all.

In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I’m directing another large project funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control (PSSC) project. I’m excited about it. I expect it to fund a lot of excellent work, as the BQFW project did. (For some results of the BQFW project, see A. Mele, ed., Surrounding Free Will, to be published soon by OUP.) Someone can say that my view of these projects is biased by the money – totaling about $9 million. But I see my work on these projects as a way of helping people make progress on issues that I have cared deeply about for a very long time. A look at my CV reminds me that my published work on self-control dates back to 1985, years before I got seriously interested in free will. (Right, I wrote a book on self-deception; so I know that it’s possible that my belief that I’m not biased by the money is biased by the money. But I also know that many things that are possible aren’t true.) Oh, if any thieves are reading this, let it be known that the $9 million doesn’t go to me! The projects mainly fund grants to scientists and philosophers. (The BQFW project had a theology component; the PSSC program doesn’t.)

I don’t plan to continue discussing this issue. Right now, I want to get back to a paper I was writing on free will. If there’s a demigod in it, he’ll be named Neil.

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anon p
anon p
6 years ago

In short, Mele doesn’t care about the deeper whys of his work being generously funded by an organization with a strongly ideological agenda — either because he is comfortable enough with that agenda or is indifferent about the uses to which his JTF-bought work might be put by JTF. He is to this extent very fortunate.Report

Philosopher
Philosopher
Reply to  anon p
6 years ago

Well, anon p… Do you know what are these deeper whys of Mele’s work? Maybe you are a demigod who uses his omniscient knowledge of the laws of nature and the exact distribution of subatomic particles to discover it. If you aren’t, maybe Al is saying the true reasons.Report

anon p
anon p
Reply to  Philosopher
6 years ago

I have no idea — nor does Mele seem particularly interested in the question, which would require him to think seriously about motivations and effects re JTF. But maybe I’m missing your point. I’m not the one seeking and receiving JTF funding — so that poses no personal moral problem for me.Report

JTF - WTF?
JTF - WTF?
6 years ago

What is this reply a reply to, exactly? I don’t recall Dennett claiming that Mele had been pressured by JTF, or even that he might have, unprompted, moulded his work to fit JTF’s line. One of his observations (surely undeniable) is that JTF have an enormous amount of power to fund research projects that they deem to be worthwhile, a judgment based on (what else?) their very particular religious and political leanings. A further claim (more contentious, but in need of far more discussion than offered here) is that JTF use their reputation in funding respectable, non-ideologically-driven projects to “bolster the prestige” of more ideological work, and to guide the research questions of our discipline. Can it really be adequate to say, in effect, “my work can’t be part of an ideological drive, because I believe in it for my own reasons,” and just leave it at that?Report

anon22
anon22
6 years ago

The conservative, free market agenda so vigorously advocated by the JTF, an agenda which is completely entrenched in American power structures, and which has brought great suffering to millions of people, cannot be split off from their otherwise neutral support of philosophers pursuing “Big Questions.” Dennet is right to compare accepting funding from the JTF to accepting funding from, say , Scientology. I am struggling to see why philosophers seem so willing to take funding from these people. Just because they don’t lean on you to skew your research in one way or another doesn’t mean that their conservative agenda is not being advanced by your participation in their political project.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  anon22
6 years ago

Would you have similar qualms about a philosopher taking money from a foundation with a liberal agenda? Is the problem here with money that is tied in some way to ideology (*all* money is that), or is the problem the fact that–as we all know, and no longer need to even discuss–conservatives are inherently evil, and therefore ought to be prohibited from having any influence on academia?Report

anon
anon
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

I’m not the OP, but have an answer. There’s at least two reasons for having qualms about JTF’s influence on academic research:
(1) JTF’s political slant is objectionable in itself;
(2) JTF, as a private institution, has too much power over academic research (a worry which would apply to private liberal or radical institutions with equal power, of which there are none).
In my view, both hold.

The obtuse banality that *all* money is “tied in some way to ideology” is not the complaint. The complaint regards where the money is going and who decides where it goes, not where it came from. And in the case of JTF, quite a lot of money is going to fund projects which are either Christian, free-market-oriented, or aim to dismantle the wall between science and religion (esp. Christianity).Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  anon22
6 years ago

“free market agenda” + “completely entrenched in American power structures” = don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s completely entrenched in American power structures is a crony system wherein big business interests lobby for regulations that benefit themselves and hamper their competitors. The cozy relationship between big business and government is pretty much the exact opposite of a free market. As the the latter portion of your post, it’s textbook ad hominem. Either Mele’s arguments are sound or they’re not. Nothing else is relevant. If Dennett thinks that JTF’s political agenda, with which he disagrees, means that Mele’s conclusions are wrong, that’s a straight-up fallacy.Report

anon22
anon22
6 years ago

I really don’t know how to answer this except to refer you to the plethora of information, how the conservative agenda as actualised in the US brings very concrete harm to millions of people. If you don’t understand this, or have the basic curiousity to inform yourself, there is not really much to say.

Nobody is inherently evil. But making yourself part of a system which demands of people that they should somehow, starting from zero, be able to create wealth for themselves in a system which is set up to propel someone with 25 million dollars in assets to 8 billion in assets, in a period of less than a decade, and if you complain that the game is skewed it is your own failing, well , as I say, not much common ground here.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  anon22
6 years ago

Oh silly me, how obvious! How could I have missed the clear, uncontroversial fact that all versions of fiscal conservatism ’cause concrete harm to millions of people’ and that they all heartlessly demand the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps with no assistance from anyone? Just like when I overlooked the clear fact that all versions of liberalism support a totalitarian form of communism that destroys the family and denies personal responsibility. Don’t worry–I won’t make the mistake again.Report

Libet's Ghost
Libet's Ghost
6 years ago

One can only hope that Tufts’ $1.4 billion endowment came from only guild-approved sources.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Libet's Ghost
6 years ago

Making perfect the enemy of good: Exhibit AReport

JLS
JLS
6 years ago

Does anyone really think that the harm done by Al Mele’s affiliation with JTF exceeds the good done by having millions of dollars going to fund excellent, unbiased, productive, collaborative research by philosophers and scientists on free well and self-control?

Alternatively, does anyone think there’s a standard other than this consequentialist one that shows that Mele shouldn’t have accepted (or applied for) the money?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  JLS
6 years ago

I believe that any (plausible) claim of harm is the systematic harm done to higher ed research. In the UK at least there has been a strong lurch away from public funding, which means more researchers seeking funding from private organisations, like Templeton. This can be a vicious circle (the more research is privately funded, the more the government can back off on its funding), leaving the setting of research problems more and more to private bodies, which are not democratically accountable.

There is also the worry that the balance of research questions can become distorted. E.g., Templeton have funded a ton of projects that seek free-market solutions to various social problems, or encourage some sort of encounter between science and religion. Each of these projects may well be ‘excellent, unbiased, productive and collaborative’, but researchers working on other stuff just don’t get funded, and have either to scramble for the ever-shrinking pot of public money, or just quit. (I say this completely self-interestedly: I have little interest in Templeton’s gee-whiz “big questions”, nor in some Frankenstein-monster-like amalgam of Ayn Rand and christian theology, and I would hate for these ideas to dominate the research culture.) If Templeton ever funded an Edinburgh-School-like project on the sociology of academic research funding… well let’s just say I’d be very surprised.Report

JLS
JLS
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Alright, but even then the problem is one of collective action, and in Mele’s own case the benefits may outweigh the harms.

I would also submit that Templeton money has been good for philosophy and other disciplines even if it does have some of the effects you describe.

And any “agenda” behind what they fund is pretty damned permissive: their “big questions” are not always that gee-whizzy (e.g. big projects on character and friendship have recently been funded), nor is there any obvious bias against naturalistic stuff (e.g. they just gave a couple million for a philosophy and neuroscience project at Duke, where Walter Sinnott-Armstrong — who has also gotten money from Mele’s grants — is one of the co-PIs).Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  JLS
6 years ago

I agree with most of what you say. It is a problem of collective action. (In fact there’s a whiff of the tragedy of the commons about the benefits for individual researchers’ outweighing their individual costs, and yet driving the collective situation down.) And it’s true: Templeton do fund naturalistic projects and unpretentiously down-to-earth research questions.

But look at the general shape of what is funded:
http://www.templeton.org/what-we-fund/grant-search/results
A mixed bag, to be sure, but about half of e.g. the projects funded in 2013 (I would say) reflect Templeton’s political and religious interests; none go against them (e.g. no ‘The problems of free markets’ or ‘Ethics without God: a study in atheistic morality’).

For that reason, I’m not sure I agree that Templeton has been good for philosophy, all things considered. That said, I’m even less sure what can be done about Templeton and private funding of academic research in general, if like me you deplore the situation. (It’s not as if we can vote Templeton or Wellcome or whoever out at the next election.) The most that can be done is to limit e.g. Templeton’s credibility in academia, which I gather was the motivation behind Dennett’s original comments in his review. I realise that the knock-on effect could potentially be very detrimental to researchers whose perfectly good research happens to have been Templeton funded (e.g. Mele’s book will now be known as a Templeton book), and generally it’s very divisive for the discipline. These are bad things, to be sure. And of course it will very likely make no difference in the long run. But what else can you do?Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

The US population is deeply, and somewhat evenly, divided on the questions of religion and free market economics. If the public as a whole could vote on which projects philosophers undertook, it is likely that you would get a mix of projects not too different from the ones Templeton funds–with religious and free market views not dominating the whole conversation, but definitely getting a seat at the table.

Sure, JTF is a private group, which is a little disconcerting. But, within philosophy at least, it is not like they are taking funding power away from some pure democratic method of funding that currently exists. If anything, they are shifting power just a little away from the existing philosophical establishment and its dominant beliefs and toward the kind of discourse the public might well prefer.

It’s not ideal, but in some ways I view JTF as exerting what might be called a “populist” influence on philosophy, getting the kind of questions that (for better or worse) occupy everyday people into the philosophical spotlight.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Chris
6 years ago

Chris, I’m all for religious and free-market views getting a seat at the table, but do you really see a diversity of starting assumptions in what Templeton funds? And I don’t think you have to advocate a direct democracy for what gets funded to have a coherent position against privately funded research. What’s wrong with “good” research being defined by the academic elite, i.e. the researchers’ peers? I’m aware that academic committees are how Templeton (now, though not in the past) decide which proposals are awarded funding, but those boards are appointed by Templeton. (And at the risk of dabbling in conspiracy theories, I don’t know whether the evaluating committees see *all* of the proposals given to them.) Plus there is the serious problem, now that Templeton is a large and well-known funding body, that researchers will *choose* their projects in full consideration of Templeton’s known values, hoping that it increases their chances of getting funded. I don’t call that situation ‘populist’.Report

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Thanks for your response, anonymous.

I think I am populist to this extent: I don’t think the common person should have a veto over the results of philosophical studies, but I do not have a problem if, say, 10% of what philosophers undertake to study concerns the questions common people most ask, rather than what philosophical experts think is most worth researching.

And, my main point was that, whatever their intention and practices, I think that JTF currently moves things in this direction. So, I think it is populist in effect, if not in methodology.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Chris
6 years ago

Thanks, Chris. Philosophy’s public engagement is something that I do worry about, and would say we’re (in general) doing a lousy job of it. But for me that engagement would be more critical; i.e. less of answering the questions set by the taxpayer and more of offering alternative questions or ways of thinking that are not offered by popular culture and politics. (In my experience, even apparently straightforward physics questions are best answered through an attack on the original question.) I realise by saying that I am putting myself, in many minds, firmly within the elitist lefty academic stereotype against which you say Templeton is pushing!Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
6 years ago

Upfront: I share Dennett’s concern about lending credibility to uncredible projects by doing good work under the name of the JTF. But on a different tack, it’s worth pointing out that philosophy already has a long history of accepting money from potentially dubious sources to do our work. Patronage, and generally needing to get various rich people to pay your way in order to continue doing philosophy, has a centuries-long history.Report

anon22
anon22
6 years ago

Just curious, where do people’s scruples kick in exactly? How morally reprehensible/harmful does the funding agency have to be for people not to accept those funds?Report

Joe
Joe
6 years ago

I’m generally amazed that people are so willing to criticize JTF and then return to comfortably embracing the way that the rest of academic funding is distributed. I’m sure most of these folks would happily publish in journals that fairly ruthlessly exclude certain types of content. Moreover, as many have recently noted, ours is a discipline in which a fairly diverse body of graduate students is inexorably pressured into all writing one of the 11 or 12 dissertations you are allowed to write if you want to get a job. We live and breathe in an atmosphere of content-control, and all content-control has social and political ramifications. I’d be far more willing to take critics of JTF funding seriously if they at least showed some recognition of this fact.Report

anon
anon
Reply to  Joe
6 years ago

So how seriously you take the view that JTF funding is problematic is based on how responsive *other* people are to the facts?Report

Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

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.)Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Lots of people on this, and the previous thread, have criticized Dennett, or defended the use of JTF money, by suggesting versions of the following conditional:

If JTF money/influence is troubling, then so are all the other sources of influence on academics (other foundations, endowed chairs, the university system as a whole, etc).

The implication is that we should deny the consequent and so deny the antecedent. But, assuming the conditional is true, wouldn’t we do just as well to continue taking worries about JTF seriously and using those worries to break us out of our complacency about more well established forms of influence on philosophical research and practice?

Rather than demanding intellectual purity from critics of JTF before taking their charge seriously, why not encourage them to take that charge seriously and begin to examine how their own research and status might be similarly tainted by these other forms of influence?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 years ago

This.Report

Drew
Drew
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 years ago

“Rather than demanding intellectual purity from critics of JTF before taking their charge seriously, why not encourage them to take that charge seriously and begin to examine how their own research and status might be similarly tainted by these other forms of influence?”

That sounds like continental philosophy! Ostracize him!

Seriously though, if Templeton is you guys’ most controversial funding, then I think your field is doing alright on that front. I mean, the Pentagon has funded a lot of important decision science research, Lockheed-Martin has their hands on a lot of engineering research, and you don’t want to even know the kind of companies funding agronomy research…Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

There’s a different between promoting GM crops and doing what Monsanto does…Report

anon
anon
Reply to  DC
6 years ago

Fair enough!Report

H.J.B.
H.J.B.
6 years ago

Nobody denies that social factors such as funding issues have some bearing on how research gets done. Such factors affect, for instance, which diseases are studied. (The fact that each year more resources are spent on finding a cure for baldness than on finding a cure for Malaria is an obvious example). But as long as funding plays a role only in setting questions, and not in answering them, it really doesn’t matter where the money comes from, at least not from a scientific point of view.

That the need for certain specialists affects which research programs gets funded, does not mean that those who receive funds are being used as blind instruments in some or other ideological ploy. The fact that, for example, the US government channelled a lot of resources into the study of Vietnamese languages during the Vietnamese War, didn’t mean that the linguists who were on the receiving end of all that money weren’t absolutely free to draw their own conclusions.

It is inevitable that research gets funded by the government and by private institutions, as is the fact that the results of such research can be taken advantage of by anybody, including ideologically motivated people and institutions. If one wants to avoid that, one had better stop funding research altogether – a result that can also be taken advantage of by anybody, including ideologically motivated people and institutions.

Scientific research is corrupted only when its practitioners are forced to adopt certain starting points or to come to certain conclusions; when, for example, a quote from the bible or Lenin or Mao is deemed to hold evidential value. I don’t see any evidence of that here. One may very well object to the reasons behind JTF’s funding, without thereby condemning the research funded on the same grounds. As long as Alfred Mele is free to do conduct his research as he sees fit and to reach his own conclusions, and that certainly seems to be the case here, I see no reason for him not to accept this grant.Report