When he got the call from the Templeton Foundation a few weeks ago, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor admits he was totally surprised. That's because the past few winners of the annual Templeton Prize, worth more than $1.5 million and awarded "for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities," has been given to scientists physicists and cosmologists mostly, who have been willing to acknowledge that science alone can't necessarily explain the nature of the universe. It's clear that the foundation was consciously trying to counter the widespread impression that science and spirituality are inevitably at odds.
Past winners of the prize include Freeman J. Dyson, physicist and mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Charles H. Townes, UCLA professor and Nobel laureate for physics. The 2006 winner was cosmologist John D. Barrow, who has written in depth on the connection between life and the universe and what scientists may not understand about matter, space and time. Judges of the prize, awarded by the John Templeton Foundation, include leaders from the fields of science and religion.
On Wednesday at a press conference in New York City, Taylor, 75, a professor at Northwestern University and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, was proclaimed the latest Templeton laureate for his work in trying to bring a spiritual dimension, not to the sciences but to the humanities and social sciences fields that overwhelmingly influence public policy, and thus affect peoples' lives directly. Taylor has argued in essays and scholarly articles that by failing to take individuals' spiritual needs into account and focusing only on the economic and political, politicians and social theorists have left out a crucial avenue by which people of all religions find meaning in their lives.
Taylor, the first Canadian to win the award in its 35-year history, says he'll use the money to fund his work on the relation of "relationship of language and linguistic meaning to art and theology and to developing new concepts of relating human sciences with biological sciences." That's the sort of high-minded thinking to be expected of an academic philosopher. But the Templeton folks are expecting a more immediate and practical result from Taylor's selection: they're looking to start an online discussion of what role spiritual thinking should have in the 21st century. It's all happening at www.templeton.org.