Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Self-Deception: Religion and Science are Compatible

Many very smart, otherwise ungullible people, have an affection for religion that belies their true motives and their intelligence when they offer accounts of how science and religion can coexist. Those same people can show such acumen and clarity of thought when it comes to matters in their fields—in biology, physics, and philosophy. But for religion there’s no contortion, no rationalization, and no accommodation that they won’t stoop to because they are so deeply in the clutches of the urge to believe. They so want the religion in their hearts to settle nicely and comfortably with the science of their minds that they’ll do anything to make them fit together. And they get hearty applause and accolades from eager audiences who are delighted to have their craving for religiousness validated. Consider Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, who has sold countless copies of his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Stephen Jay Gould, former Harvard biologist, coined a name for the position that has been taken up by hopeful compatibilists all over the world: NOMA, or science and religion are Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Here’s a few of his comments in the famous essay about NOMA:

[Concerning science and religion] No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "nonoverlapping magisteria").

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clich├ęs, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology.

As plausible, and reasonable as this may sound at first glance, realize that no one would even consider accepting an analogous defense of the place of magic or astrology in our lives:


The worlds of magic and science are non-overlapping magisteria. One concerns the realm of physical, empirically confirmed, objective, testable facts. The other concerns a realm of magical forces, wishes, spiritual entities, and the mystical power of symbols. Science addresses what is the case in the empirical world. Magic fulfills a vital and universal need in human hearts for personal and spiritual guidance. It provides meaning and counseling for a side of humanity that is not addressed by science. The two worlds do not overlap—they concern themselves with different subject matters. Nor do they conflict because they take essentially different topics, principles, and phenomena to be their subject matter. They don’t conflict any more than the study of art and its principles conflict with the study of botany. Furthermore, magic is so deeply loved and needed by so many people that science should not presume to overstep its bounds and claim to have an authority on the truth in that realm where it has no standing.

I deeply love and respect the separate domains of science and magic and the NOMA solution to their apparent conflict.

We should not be seduced by the compatibilist, “separate worlds” view that has become so popular. Science makes claims about the world, about humans, about our anthropological origins, about morality, and about the way we came to exist that are directly in conflict with and incompatible with the worldview of religion. Religion makes assertions about what is true in the world, what the nature of being human is, what our origins are, what our destinies are, and what sort of activity science should be that are in direct conflict with the worldview of science. The earth cannot be both 6,000 years old and 3 billion years old. Humans cannot both have a consciousness or soul that depends on the brain to exist and one that is immortal and independent of the body. Humans cannot both be evolved by means of natural selection from other earlier life forms and also created complete, all at once before the existence of any other animals. We cannot have the biodiversity that we have on this planet today if a flood a few thousand years ago killed all but a few pairs of animals on Noah’s ark. Prayer cannot both work and have no plausible empirical evidence in its favor. Humans cannot be both inherently wicked and corrupted by sin, and essentially sympathetic, social animals like their great ape cousins. The world cannot both be a natural, physical place explainable by science and capable of empirical explanation, and inhabited with spirits, demons, evil satanic forces, miraculous violations of physical laws, and an all powerful, magical supernatural deity.

Nor can we continue to ignore these profound incompatibilities by only focusing on those aspects of science and religion where the conflict appears to be less acute. Religion, religious movements, and religious adherents have a fundamentally different set of social, political, moral, educational, and personal goals and views that the rest of humanity. Whether you think that the truth is the province of science or of religion has a profound and direct affect on what sort of person you are, who you vote for, what kind of parent you are, what you think the future of humanity is, what kind of future you want for humanity, what sort of government you think we should have, what laws we should pass, which people are criminals, and which wars we should fight. And the only way that you can conclude that on the whole, the scientifically inclined and the religiously inclined have no substantial incompatibilities on all of these accounts is if you just haven’t been paying attention.

9 comments:

paulv said...

Where does all this leave art? Should we treat artistic convictions with the same distrust as religious convictions? Or can we allow that the scientific magesteria does not yet encompass all that there is?

Central Content Publisher said...

I think his point is that the "two worlds" are overlapping rather than non-overlapping.

Art is also overlapping, and, I think we generally adjust our understanding of it appropriately. When a painter paints a landscape, the painter is making claims about reality. If we consider, say, one of Dali's clocks, we realize immediately that he is blatantly misrepresenting reality, and so the painted representation yields to the dominance of rational reality (or maybe the reverse), begging us to think about the overlapping worlds of rational and irrational. We don't shrug and say, "well, I guess that's how clocks work now". In Dali's case, we only know what he's talking about because rationality discounts half of what he's painted (or is it the reverse), while the other half taunts us with the recognizable affectations of reality.

The question may be: does the irrational limit the rational, or is it the reverse, and does it even matter? Or, rather than permanent domains in states of overlapping or non-overlapping, our situation may be more active - like a tug of war. Perhaps turf is far less important than forces.

Anyway, there is certainly an active or overlapping relationship between the rational and irrational. They are not distant worlds.

Explicit Atheist said...

There are two different issues here, compatiblism versus non-compatiblism, and overlapping versus non-overlapping. Compatiblism claims that both religion and science are alternative valid methodologies for finding the truth. NOMA claims that religion and science are both necessary to find two different aspects of the complete truth.

Those of us who consider religion to be an invalid methodology for finding the truth, and are thus incompatabilists, are by definition atheists. Compatabilism versus incompatabilism is thus one of the fundamental differences between the theistic and atheistic viewpoints.

paulv said...

It strikes me that science has made good use of the idea of NOMA to carve out a niche for itself against religious or other interference, and might need to do so again in the future.

If as a thought experiment we allow for NOMA between two hypotheical fields. This does not mean we would agree to any inconsistant definition of the fields in question. I.e the conflicts given in the original post between 18th century religious notions and 20th century science, is not a good proof that NOMA is not possible, it could be that one side is encroaching on what are logically defensible borders. And the example is not in my view, really a fair representation of typical NOMA divisions between religion and science.

In the vein of you can't prove much with analogies. i.e. in the sidebar "If Atheism is a religion then not playing chess is a hobby"

Encouraging other people to either play chess, or to give up playing chess could be someone's hobby. Proving absolutely that promoting atheism, like promoting theism, could be a hobby.

I don't think theism alone is a religion either. Only when you start attributing unproven but specific characteristics to god(s), or reality(ies) that you get close to a religion.

Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD said...

I don't think theism alone is a religion either. Only when you start attributing unproven but specific characteristics to god(s), or reality(ies) that you get close to a religion.

If you purport existence without denoting any properties of the entity that purportedly exists, are you saying anything of value?

paulv said...

No not really, the point is only that someone can be a theist without being part of any religion.

Anonymous said...

While some scientists, I am sure, have a mission to eradicate religion, I doubt that most scientists see this goal as their main focus. Science and religion could be relatively compatible socially if religious folk would not attack science and claim that some aspects of religion are scientific in order to undermine scientific progress. If religious groups did not try to stifle scientific research or did not try to divert funds for scientific research toward their own agendas, then things would be relatively fine.

F. Fletcher 192

roberto quintas said...

this is not true, sir. all the science and thecnology was started and developed by the ancient folks, all of them religious. also, there are a lot of scientist who is religious or theist in some way.

roberto quintas said...

this is not true, sir. all the science and thecnology was started and developed by the ancient folks, all of them religious. also, there are a lot of scientist who is religious or theist in some way.