Sir John Templeton stipulated that most of the Foundation’s resources would be devoted to research (and disseminating the results of research) about the "basic forces, concepts, and realities" governing the universe and humankind's place in the universe. What did he mean by “basic forces, concepts, and realities”?
Sir John’s own eclectic list featured a range of fundamental scientific notions, including complexity, emergence, evolution, infinity, and time. In the moral and spiritual sphere, his interests extended to such basic phenomena as altruism, creativity, free will, generosity, gratitude, intellect, love, prayer, and purpose. These diverse, far-reaching topics define the boundaries of the ambitious agenda that we call the Big Questions. Sir John was confident that, over time, the serious investigation of these subjects would lead humankind ever closer to truths that transcend the particulars of nation, ethnicity, creed, and circumstance.
In posing the Big Questions, Sir John stressed the need for humility and openness, and he saw the possibility of important contributions from various modes of inquiry. He especially wished to encourage researchers in the natural and human sciences to bring their rigorous methods to bear on the sorts of subjects that he identified, but he was also enthusiastic about the insights that might come from new approaches in philosophy and theology. Whatever the field, he expected research supported by the Foundation to conform to the highest intellectual standards.
For Sir John, the overarching goal of asking the Big Questions was to discover what he called “new spiritual information.” This term, to his mind, encompassed progress not only in our conception of religious truths but also in our understanding of the deepest realities of human nature and the physical world. As he wrote in the Foundation’s charter, he wanted to encourage every sort of opinion leader—from scientists and journalists to clergy and theologians—to become more open-minded about the possible character of ultimate reality and the divine.
Sir John's own theological views conformed to no orthodoxy. Though raised a Presbyterian and exposed in his youth to the Unity School of Christianity, he did not fully identify with any established religion and possessed an eager curiosity about all of the world's faith traditions. In assessing proposals, he asked the Foundation to stand apart from any consideration of dogma or personal religious belief and to seek out grantees who, in their approach to the Big Questions, were “innovative, creative, enthusiastic, and open to competition and new ideas.”
The Foundation has honored Sir John’s vision of the Big Questions by supporting a wide range of research projects, as well as other activities of a more practical or educational purpose, in the following areas: