Calvin could do it so much cheaper, with just a cardboard box

The Templeton Foundation has found another way to throw money at universities: they are supporting a study of spirituality in space, whatever that means. The University of Central Florida is getting $300,000 to build a rocketship simulator, in which subjects will apparently sit and go “Ooooooh, aaaah”.

To perform the experiment, they will build a virtual space lab to simulate a space flight with the help of the Bildakt Research Group in Berlin. The simulation will try to replicate those spiritual experiences among astronauts.

The team will also analyze astronauts’ reports using a software program developed at the University of Memphis.

The team’s hypothesis is that the spiritual experiences described by astronauts are primarily caused by the various views of the earth and the vastness of space.

No duh. What are the alternative hypotheses? What results would support or disprove their hypothesis? How are they going to measure “spirituality”? Their proposal sounds murky from this summary, and it also sounds remarkably like they’re going to be looking at natural processes — so why confuse the issue with ambiguous words like “spirit”?

What they don’t realize is that in this project, UCF is the experimental subject, the Templeton Foundation is the experimenter, the $300,000 is the unconditional stimulus, and they are trying to make “spirituality” the conditional stimulus that causes university administrators to start drooling. The only way to succeed is to wake up and realize how they’re being manipulated.

Oh, well. We already know what result they’ll get.


  1. says

    Yes, PZ, but this is part of the wider agenda to lay exclusive religiot claim to the word “spirituality”. I have problems with That Word; once you define it as a general feeling of awe (which is real, of course), then you can smuggle in all the other concepts that people have related it to, and pretend they’re all the same.

    But the cardboard box – post-Christmas our kids spent most of their time inside these things. There’s your awe, and if the Templetweenies want to call it “spirituality”, I think I might want to take issue with them.

  2. F says

    Not much to add to this one, excepting, “Duh”. They get a big ol’ “Duh” from me. Terrifically awful idea.

  3. robro says

    Oh, good, they’ve got someone from the “philosophy department” on the project, probably just to define “spirituality.” As a one time philosophy major, I can attest to the fact that philosophers really like to define their terms. And it’s about time we had a good solid definition of “spirituality”…other than “bullshit,” that is. Once they’ve got that definition down pat, the research will be a snap. When they finish that, perhaps the Templeton folks will provide me a grant to research “spiritual” experiences at Grateful Dead concerts. They’re noted for inducing “awe” experiences and there’s a larger population to study than astronauts. I think $300k would be a good start.

  4. raven says

    I’m speechless and this isn’t even a verbal medium.

    Templeton is having a hard time finding worthwhile projects to spend their money on. That was obvious a long time ago.

    They’ve moved on to just wasting it on silly stuff.

  5. Zinc Avenger says

    If an atheist can have a “spiritual” experience does it falsify atheism, or spirituality?

    The question is meaningless without a clear definition of “spiritual” agreed upon by atheists and the religious. For the record, elation and awe are not spiritual, no matter how much they may wish it to be so.

    Once they have that I’ll sign up to be first in line to be launched into orbit – for Science!

  6. says

    Since the space flight is simulated, won’t the spirituality be a mere simulation as well? Will I go to a simulation of heaven when I die? I suspect a pair of simulated angel wings won’t do fuck-all.
    And what would Templeton pay me to start taking acid again? Those were pretty good spiritual simulations. Once my friend climbed on the roof, pointed at me, and turned into Jesus. Everyone should have that experience.
    Killed By Fish

  7. ethicsgradient says

    They could just interview the final 3 chosen in the TV reality space hoax Space Cadets. They really thought they’d gone into space (having been selected for gullibility).

  8. says

    I could save them a lot of time. Give me the money and I will immediately send them the results.

    An postcard on which is written, “Duh.”

  9. Denephew Ogvorbis, OM says

    Maybe the Templeton Foundation could blow the money on just coming up with an actual definition for ‘spirituality’ — the one they think they are looking for, not the one that was understood forty years ago. It would accomplish as much.

    Oh, and bravo to UCF (Mickey Mouse’s University) for finding a way to get $300k for a cardboard box, some food, and some photos.

  10. says

    “To perform the experiment, they will build a virtual space lab “.
    Will they throw it off a cliff to simulate free fall? I think a few of the passengers would find God doing that.

  11. robro says

    I can see UCF’s angle here. UCF plays along with Templeton’s little woo game and gets a space flight simulator…or at least a start on one, perhaps a little more than a cardboard box, some food, and photos. NASA is tasked with researching the future of human space flight, particularly longer trips to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc. There could be psycho-cognitive issues and risks with longer flights, and a simulator might be useful in studying those effects. With UCF practically next door to the Cape (as well as MM World), there could be real research dollars available if they already have the facility. Still, it’s a shameful way for a university to get money, but with the Republicrats and Democans trying to kill education (and Florida is a major battleground for this), they may have to stoop pretty low.

  12. What a Maroon says

    As an aside, reruns of Calvin and Hobbes are still funnier than about 99% of new comics.

  13. cearbhaill says

    As one who spent decades considering myself “spiritual” for fear of admitting to my atheism, I preach to the choir here by saying that I now believe the word is absolutely meaningless.
    I was very saddened this weekend when I visited a brother (to whom I hadn’t said more than “Hello” and “Goodbye in 25+ years) to see two books by John Templeton on the table in front of his TV. I keep hoping my siblings will learn to face reality, but I have learned to ignore their nonsensical woo – almost.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    The experiment won’t work, at least not at that campus.

    Not until they bring a $100K+ exorcist to cleanse everything of the astral influences of that infamous crackernapper Webster Cook.

  15. Midnight Rambler says

    As an aside, reruns of Calvin and Hobbes are still funnier than about 99% of new comics.

    That’s completely untrue. Reruns of C&H are funnier than 100% of current comics.

  16. Moggie says

    Can’t they just give $300k to Bill Watterson to draw more strips? That’d do a damn sight more towards giving people transcendent experiences than putting fake astronauts in a small room and having them shit into bags.

  17. says

    They could try, Maggie, but they wouldn’t succeed. The son of a gun has principles. Worse, he sticks to them in the face of monetary provocation to do otherwise.

  18. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    To be honest, I see this as UCF saying “Hey, we can get some cool new shit paid for by Templeton”.

    At least I hope that this was their plan. :-/

  19. says

    Apparently spirituality can be “scientific” enough for a Ph.D. thesis on angels. It’s all based on Jung’s synchronicity, don’t you know! And teachers can get staff development credit for 90 minutes of attending a seminar on whether angels exist. Whoa.

  20. What a Maroon says

    That’s completely untrue. Reruns of C&H are funnier than 100% of current comics.

    I did say “about”. And in a blog that’s frequented by so many scientists, I’m reluctant to make such a categorical statement.

    (But you’re right.)

  21. says

    There’s a lovely experiment somewhere with people floating in a pool, using snorkels and drifting over embedded video screens that show them space and the earth rotating beneath. It’s said to be the best simulation of being in space because it includes a feeling of being weightless.

  22. kaorunegisa says

    While I really want to agree with you, I live down the street from UCF and know people there, so I kinda want to play with the simulator. Would I be willing to sell my soul for it? Considering I’ve sold it for a cookie several times, the joke would totally be on them.

  23. says

    Take it from me: UCF has been very, very stupid lately.

    Remember when they tried to sanction a kid for not eating a piece of flour at a catholic meeting? That wasn’t a thing that stopped being ridiculous.

  24. kome says

    Two of the researchers – Dr. Fiore and Dr. Gallagher – are former professors of mine (in fact, I’m a TA for a class taught by Dr. Fiore this semester) and I’ve known about this since they applied for their grant last year (I was enrolled in the Cognitive Science certificate program, so I got to know both of them pretty well). I laughed when Dr. Gallagher said they were trying to get a grant from the Templeton foundation, but my suspicion – which I haven’t confirmed with them, so this is my thought – is that they went where the money was. Gallagher has written a lot about the concept of embodied cognition and the extended mind, impressively including a lot more science than most other philosophy professors I’ve read or known, and if I remember correctly this project is linked to those concepts in some way. I think Dr. Fiore is on this primarily because of his involvement in the Institute for Simulation and Training and his background in cognitive psychology has mainly been on team building and effective communication among professional groups lately, but last we spoke he seemed pretty intrigued by it.

    If you’d like, PZ, I could ask Dr. Fiore a little more about it tomorrow and jot down his responses for you. In fact, I probably will anyway. He has always been a pretty good, clear-headed, and strictly scientifically minded individual in my view, and I know there’s more to this than the article wrote about, so I’d be interested in seeing how some of the researchers respond to those types of questions. Besides, I always enjoy a chance to be critical of my professors. =P

  25. says

    Markita: Zeno: What a short seminar: “No. Go for coffee. Goodbye.”

    If I were there, that would be my reaction. I wonder: How long could I sit in my seat without groaning aloud?

  26. GodotIsWaiting4U says

    If the subjects confirm the same “spiritual reaction”, wouldn’t that confirm beyond a reasonable doubt that such reactions can be manipulated into being and are entirely mental constructs?

    Shouldn’t the Templeton Foundation be hoping that there is NO such reaction?

  27. Amphiox says

    A Calvin and Hobbes and a Far Side reference in the same blog post?

    I am . . . . speechless.

    I stand in awe and wonder at your superior skill, PZ.

    It is almost a . . . spiritual. . . . experience.

    (Or perhaps you’re just trying to make an oblique comment on the quality of current newspaper comics?)

  28. says

    I graduated from UCF in 2007, studied cog sci with Gallagher. I was glad to be exposed to the embodied/enactive/extended paradigm so early in my development. Most cog sci is rooted in AI and symbolic processing, which never struck me as a good way to understand human or biotic cognition.

    Anyways, I am a bit skeptical they’ll be able to simulate being in orbit well enough to create the types of mystical experiences reported by astronauts like Schweikart and Mitchell. They’d have a better shot if they gave the subjects LSD-25 or psilocybin before strapping them into the simulator.

  29. says

    Placing a subject inside a room with a holographic representation of the universe with an arrow and (you are here). According to Adams in the Journal of HGTTU.32.ibid, this just makes you go fucking crazy, but perhaps that IS the Spiritual Journey. Worked on everyone but Zaphod Beezlebox.

  30. DLC says

    “I’m not religious but I am very spiritual. . . ” I am always annoyed by that comment.

  31. crowepps says

    Having many aquaintances heavily into woo, sometimes I think “very spiritual” means “willing and eager to suspend disbelief”.