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Paul Henne awarded $217K Templeton World Charity grant

paul henne headshot
May 07, 2024
Meghan O'Toole

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Neuroscience Paul Henne '11 is the recipient of a Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) grant to pursue his project, “Charitable Reasoning: how the tools of philosophy can help increase belief revision and decrease polarization.”

The award total of $217,283 will fund research on how the adoption of philosophical principles increases the impartial evaluation of reasons and arguments, increases the likelihood that people change their mind, and decreases polarization.

“More than ever, people are entrenched in their moral and political positions and unwilling to respond to arguments that challenge their beliefs,” Henne wrote in a summary of the project. “This project seeks to test the efficacy of a novel strategy—inspired by principles of philosophical argumentation—that is designed to encourage people to evaluate counterarguments more even-handedly and increase belief revision in response to sound reasoning.”

Henne hopes to encourage people to adopt philosophical principles such as the principle of charity, which, according to Henne, “tells reasoners that when interpreting someone’s argument, one ought to think of them as stating true premises and making good inferences, rather than simply seeking to win the argument.”

“There are really interesting anecdotes of people responding effectively to reason and arguments. Megan Phelps-Roper, for example, was a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, and she engaged with people on social media to debate many issues. In a very famous TED Talk, she shared that in the midst of those discussions, she wasn’t really being charitable to the arguments of her opponents or seeing the mistakes in her own reasoning,” Henne said. “Once she changed her approach, she changed many of her views.”

This kind of anecdote led Henne to consider what factors account for those who change their stances on social, political, or moral issues.

“One of the mysteries I was thinking of is, what accounts for that subset of the population that does change their mind?” Henne said. “One of my hopes is to identify whether when you encourage people reason well about these things, they'll be more inclined to change their mind. I am interested in what arises when you look at the data; what is accounting for that change in their mindsets? I want to see if these philosophical principles, like the principle of charity, are actually effective.”

The grant will also offer a number of opportunities for students to get involved in the research. The funding will enable the hiring of two student researchers each summer for the next two summers as well as opportunities for students to be credited as co-authors on articles published as a result of the research. The first students to join Henne’s Reasons and Decisions Lab, or RAD Lab for short, will be philosophy and history double major Davis Rowe ’25 and psychology major Jinhua Adair ’26.

Henne expressed his gratitude toward the TWCF, which was founded by Sir John Templeton, who promoted the ability to change one's mind through learning. Famously, in Worldwide Laws of Life, Templeton wrote, “To become wise, we must be willing to suspend our personal beliefs about something, set aside prejudices, and think with an open mind.” 

“The Templeton World Charity Foundation has funded many amazing projects all over the world to do really impactful work, and I am really honored to have the support of this organization,” Henne shared.

Henne, the principal investigator of the project, will work with co-investigators Matthew Stanley and Felipe De Brigard of Duke University.