Philosophy professors receive Templeton award to focus on religion, morality

August 9, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Religion and morality will be the focus of an upcoming conference, seminar, collection of papers and book by two Purdue University professors, thanks to an award from the John Templeton Foundation.

"Commitment to moral and religious beliefs is deep and central to people's lives, yet these same people sometimes have serious doubts about these beliefs," said Michael Bergmann, professor of philosophy and the project's lead investigator. "One reason for such doubt is that people all over the world who are roughly equal in intelligence and goodwill have significant disagreements about moral and religious topics. These differences make people start to question their own beliefs on matters of morality and religion."

Thanks to the John Templeton Foundation, Bergmann and Patrick Kain, an associate professor of philosophy and co-principal investigator, received more than $500,000 for the project, which aims to critically assess arguments for skepticism about moral and religious beliefs. The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the "Big Questions" of human purpose and ultimate reality.

Bergmann, an expert in epistemology and philosophy of religion, will work on the 2011 summer seminar and a book entitled "Perceptual, Moral and Religious Skepticism," which will defend moral and religious belief against skepticism. Kain, who is an expert on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and ethics, will assist with the fall 2012 conference as well as the postconference publications.

The seminar and conference will include scholars from philosophy, theology, psychology and cognitive science, Kain said.

"The interdisciplinary aspect of the conference and the collection of papers is key to our project because it will help bring different perspectives together on this shared topic," he said. "We aim to stimulate more fruitful dialogue between philosophers and theologians on questions of moral and religious knowledge, and we believe that serious exchange with others, including psychologists and cognitive scientists, will be of mutual benefit."

For example, one area of overlapping interest concerns how moral and religious beliefs may have contributed to, or been shaped by, the evolution of humanity.

"Evolutionary psychologists have pointed out that these beliefs, such as 'murder is wrong' or 'you ought to be kind to others,' have contributed to our survival as a species," Bergmann said. "What's interesting is the suggestion that these beliefs could be advantageous for the species and possess deep psychological roots even if they are entirely fictitious. This suggestion raises another skeptical challenge that deserves serious consideration."

In addition, this project also will examine philosophical responses to perceptual skepticism in order to see how these responses may compare with our responses to moral and religious skepticism.

"People tend to not worry about perceptual skepticism because they think the world is as they see it," Bergmann said. "An example that helps us understand perceptual skepticism is the movie 'The Matrix.' In the film, the characters think they are engaging the world they see, but in fact their sensory experience is untrustworthy because it is artificially induced. Skeptics about perception point out that there is no way any of us can prove that we aren't caught in something like the Matrix.

"The fact is, we don't have or expect any arguments that prove what we believe using our senses. We just accept it and think we are reasonable in doing so. One issue we want to explore is whether this sort of reaction to perceptual skepticism can be used in addressing religious and moral skepticism."

Writer:  Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Sources:   Michael Bergmann, 765-494-4584,

                    Patrick Kain, 765-494-4286,