In 1987 the mutual fund billionaire, Sir John Templeton, made US$1.1 billion available to finance what was, and still is for all intentional purposes, a search to locate and confirm the existence of god. In the twenty-five years since the funds were released and grants began to be awarded (including the annual £1,100,000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, renamed in 2001 the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities) this effort and its kitty of now US$2.5 billion has returned precisely zero positive results… and for very good reason. Presenting the case for something that doesn’t exist is a relatively easy trick; storytellers have been inventing and directing impossibly fantastic creatures since time immemorial. Demonstrating something that doesn’t exist is outrageously more difficult; a problematic swim through an unaccommodating ocean filled with a million and one dream-wrecking snapping turtles that are not easily navigated by even the most skilful of tale-spinners. Proving something that doesn’t exist is, however, manifestly impossible, and this unshakable truism has wreaked havoc with even the most reckless (and well-funded) of Christian apologists determined to find something (anything) with which to validate their entirely unjustified belief in an exclusively undetectable being.
Now far from me to lampoon sincere (privately funded) inquiry, and despite well-deserved criticism concerning the Templeton Foundations more underhanded motives to covertly tie real science to unfounded religious folly, Sir John’s core vision was at the very least honourable. “Big Questions” (one of the foundations catchphrases) should never be shied away from and no one should ever be censured for searching for answers no matter how large, small or ludicrous the query. To chastise privately funded work would be out of order, and if researchers and institutions like Oxford and the Mayo Clinic accept the foundations money then they accept it knowing what they’re participating in: an attempt to legitimise superstition and keep it treading water long after it should have been allowed to drown. As Dr. Sean Carroll of Cal Tech noted, “the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking.” They’re not, but in the spirit of good science, spending millions over ten years to conclude beyond a shadow of a doubt that intercessory prayer has absolutely no effect whatsoever on patients undergoing heart surgery is worthwhile to the point of perhaps signing off on that superstitious chapter in human development. Instead of wasting funds on a new chapel hospital’s may now confidently re-direct that money to more worthwhile (tangible) things which directly address wellbeing like rehabilitation wings, dialysis machines, or even new gardens where patients and their families can lose themselves… if not only for a few hours.
Gardens, not prayer, work at improving the human condition, and if by “spirituality” we mean reverence to something larger (and yet perhaps more fragile) than ourselves then there is without question a certain spirituality in any designed landscape. In many ways a single non-designed natural green acre in fact realises Templeton’s larger ambitions better than a thousand theological essays which try to “read the mind of God,” as claimed by the 2008 Templeton Prize winner, the Polish priest and cosmologist, Michael Heller. Reading the mind of god was, no doubt, what Templeton thought his money would buy, but after hundreds of millions of dollars spent chasing phantoms wrapped in lies Sir John died (in 2008) further from his god than he could ever have perhaps imagined. He did not find his spiritual reality, but he could have, and all it would have taken was this magnificent piece of handcrafted technological wonder: the Deep Space Climate Observatory, DSCOVR. First proposed in 1998 under the name Triana the DSCOVR was slotted for launch by NASA in 2003 but was mothballed by a Bush administration determined not to let the bird fly. Had it flown the DSCOVR would have been the first earth observation satellite placed at Lagrangian point L1; a gravity-neutral spot 1.6 million kilometres above earth, a thousand times higher than any existing climate satellite, four-times further out than the moon where it would gaze back on our world, seeing not just hemispheres or the gorgeous curved lip of the globe as viewed from the ISS, but the earth as a whole. From this astonishing vantage, a sight unseen since the last manned missions to the moon, it would not only measure the planets changing albedo (an audit impossible with low earth orbit satellites but essential to resolve the planets total energy budget) but also transmit back to the surface a continuous live video feed of the sunlit face of our home world accessible to all households, classrooms and office cubicles for free.
The DSCOVR needs to fly, and there’s a chance it will. The project was reanimated by the Obama administration and a tentative 2015 launch date on board one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets has been named. Something as important as the DSCOVR should never, however, be touched by politics and if the goal of the Templeton Foundation is to understand the human condition by establishing the foundations of reality (spiritual or not) then no other project better fits this objective. The DSCOVR needs to fly to perform the climate science the Bush administration didn’t want it to perform, but even more importantly it needs to fly so our species can for the first time in our clumsy (still juvenile) 6,600 generation-long history get an actual permanent sense of locality burnt into our consciousness. This will not be some clever animation or reproduction of 41 year old Apollo stock footage, rather a real time view of the rotating earth framed against the vastness of space; a sight which Apollo 8 astronaut, Bill Anders, described as “[seeing the earth] like a Christmas tree ornament lit up in space, fragile-looking.”
Anders was one of the first humans to experience what is now called the “Overview Effect;” a paradigmatic shift in consciousness which is, at its simplest, the sudden and transformative recognition that we live on a planet. “The sheer beauty of it just brought tears to my eyes. If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth.”
Granted, no matter how good a camera and its lenses it is no substitute for a set of eyes hardwired to a brain, but for just 1% of the their total cash reserve the Templeton Foundation could have made the DSCOVR, and all that it represents, a reality in 2003. Gifting humanity even a partial, technologically-assisted Overview Effect might not be the scientifically-confirmed (god-endowed) spiritual realism Sir John Templeton had hoped for but there is surely nothing more singularly important to our species than being shown precisely where we are in the universe; for without knowing where we are (without seeing it in real time) it is impossible to even begin to know who we are, and knowing who we are tells us where we want to go, and knowing where we want to go ultimately determines the value we, as a species, place on things.
That, Sir John, is where the Big Answers reside.
And so the question facing the Templeton Foundation and their billions of research dollars is this: what is more truthful and ultimately more powerful; A child spending thirty minutes knowingly praying to nothing for no result, or that same child spending thirty minutes gazing awestruck at the earth rotating slowly 1.6 million kilometres away, knowing that they and everything they love and hold dear is down on that blue-white marbled planet at that very moment?
“Suddenly, you get a feeling you’ve never had before, that you’re an inhabitant of Earth” (Cosmonaut Oleg Makarov)