A Fascinating Meeting of the Minds, On Templeton's Dime

Templeton’s known for funding hard science with one hand and the humanities with the other, all in pursuit of answers to the same tough questions. Its latest effort aims to wrangle neuroscientists and philosophers together until they get along.  

I’ll be honest, we’re pretty fascinated by the John Templeton Foundation around here. I can’t think of another funder quite like it, giving to both particle physics and Christian thought. Oh, and don’t forget the hunt for life on other planets and digging deep into human origins. 

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At times, Templeton funds some pretty far out stuff. In fact, Templeton is far out practically by definition, seeking to answer the “big questions” of existence, sometimes through science, sometimes religion, sometimes both. And we’re not talking about fringe researchers either; Templeton funds leaders in their fields.

Frankly, though, the foundation’s dual interests in religion and science can be unsettling, and funding from Templeton makes some scientists uneasy. But some of the situations where Templeton's approach shines most are at the points where separate disciplines run parallel, and the funder arranges for them to overlap a bit more.

Related - Templeton Foundation: Grants for Science Research 

The latest such project is a $1.8 million grant to Duke University to run SSNAP, Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy. Duke professors Felipe De Brigard and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong will be convening 15-day summer seminars that bring together 20 leaders in philosophy and neuroscience. The academics will meet and exchange knowledge about the fields, present to the public, and form teams to conduct collaborative studies with sub-awards. The first of such seminars will happen May 2016. 

Philosophy and neuroscience often deal with the same sorts of questions—how we remember, the existence of free will, the reality of consciousness—but in different ways, while sometimes reaching incompatible conclusions. In recent years, new experimental techniques are providing clues into how the brain and body function in ways that are creeping into jurisdiction formerly held by philosophers. 

But there’s a strong belief out there that both disciplines will be necessary to actually grasp some of these mind-bending problems. As SSNAP’s nascent website states, “Sadly, researchers in these disciplines rarely work together or even understand each other.” De Brigard and Sinnott-Armstrong, however, are bothphilosophers at Duke, and both have been involved in neuroscience at some level and serve as faculty at the school’s Institute for Brain Sciences. 

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One of the truly unique strengths of philanthropy that we often talk about is serving as facilitator, bringing together disparate groups with the draw of funding and a common goal. This is one of those cases where Templeton, as lofty as its goals can be, can help this kind of collaboration happen.