Friday, April 8, 2011

further appreciation of martin rees

Last tear I blogged in appreciation of martin rees, where I expressed admiration for this eminent scientist who refuses to get involved in the religion-atheist "wars", and who thinks we cannot know whether God exists or not.

But now he has received a lot more appreciation - a million pounds worth, no less - and some people are very angry.

Rees has just been awarded, and accepted, the Templeton Prize which "honors a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension". The Templeton Foundation, set up by US billionaire philanthropist John Templeton (who once wrote: "there may be significant promise in supporting a wide range of careful and rigorous research projects by well-regarded scientists on basic areas with theological relevance and potential"), funds many areas of scientific research, as well as awarding its annual million pound prize.

As one of the world's most respected cosmologists, you'd think everyone would be pleased the Cambridge based Rees has received this recognition. Not so.

Some strongly atheistic scientists think that any form of cooperating with the Templeton Foundation is a compromise and selling out science - for example, Richard Dawkins called Rees "a compliant quisling" (i.e. a contemptible traitor), for apparently accepting funding from the Foundation. Thus several critics, including Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, have condemned Rees for accepting the award - see these reports in Nature and the Guardian.

Rees refuses to comment on these criticisms, but does say that if we tell a young Muslim that he has to choose between science and his religion, he may be lost to science, which would be a pity. And the editorial opinion in the popular press seems to be on Rees' side. This editorial in the Guardian defended Rees, while Michael White said Rees should sleep soundly at night, and suggested Rees take his wife on a holiday or a shopping spree.

White's headline has the last word: "top boffin gives correct answer to question: would you like £1m, no strings attached?"


  1. There was a discussion about this in the Guardian involving a man named Sam Harris:

    Now there have been plenty of discussions of it, of course. Richard bustled with coverage about this. It was quite an issue for them.

    Though I must say that I liked Michael White's calm and nuanced take on the subject best! :)

  2. The Guardian discussion was interesting, thanks. But I would like to see Sam Harris challenged on his statement: " We have Christians believing in the holy ghost, the resurrection of Jesus and his possible return – these are claims about biology and physics which, from a scientific point of view in the 21st century, should be unsustainable." I don't recall anyone ever conducting a scientific experiment that attempted to demonstrate that the "holy ghost" doesn't exist, let alone actually demonstrate that fact with 95% confidence limits. Ditto the resurrection. And if the experiments haven't been done, how is such belief "unsustainable"?

  3. Not having read his book I'll withhold any definitive judgment, but my guess is that he views the scientific method as the only method and that he jumps from methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturism.

    Supposing that the resurrection of Jesus is the event "debunked" by biology, I guess that leaves physics to "debunk" the "holy ghost"??? :S

  4. Yes, if science is the only way to know things, we cannot measure the Holy Spirit so he mustn't exist. But no-one in normal life believes such a limited way of knowing things.

    Another problem is that conclusions are often assumed in the premises. e.g. the resurrection cannot occur because we know how human bodies behave and we are assuming there's no God to make one particular human body behave differently.


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