Brief thoughts on NOMA

21 03 2007

I finally got around to reading Gould’s essay of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (henceforth referred to as NOMA) yesterday, and while I agreed with the premise for quite some time I do have severe doubts about the idea. The concept of an intellectual restraining order don’t sit well with me, especially since science would not be able to probe ideas such as the soul, miracles, etc. while religion would be still be able to impose certain moral framework on real-world topics. In reality, the two seem to overlap more than anything else, especially wit the recent surge in papers/books dealing with the origins of religion and what happens in the brain during religious experiences. For example, in the essay Gould mentions the issue of the soul; science cannot prove nor disprove it, so it should be left to religion. While this may be true in a general sense, we need to define what is meant by soul. For many people, soul and the mind are one in the same thing, the “I” that is doing the thinking, typing, and seeing right now being the soul inside a body. Of course this is not true, but even today the idea of a “soul” is essentially the same as “mind”, many people choosing to believe that such a supernatural entity inhabits our body but can be released upon death or in meditation. Since we know that the mind is emergent from the activities of the brain and we can detect what happens to the brain and body in certain conditions, whole new lines of questioning open up to us, and I am glad that such questions are not being ignored on the basis of NOMA.

Also, I find Gould’s use of the word “religion” to be interesting, especially since it is never explicitly defined. Indeed, well Western religions seem to be his template, the use of the word in the essay seems to point more towards the overall realm of organized faith, individual faith, philosophy, and other schools of thought that deal with the moral code (or what “should be” vs “what is.”) If this is indeed the case, that science should unflinchingly tell us what is but we should not automatically use what occurs in nature to be our moral guidelines, I agree, but the more I think about it the less I can accept the idea of science and religion not conflicting. They need not conflict, but except for a belief system akin to pantheists (i.e. “Spinoza’s God” or the sum laws of nature being “God”) there always are conflicts between science and faith to greater or lesser degrees. While many theistic evolutionists have done well bringing understanding of evolution to the faithful, punting God out of biology and into physics or the origin of laws that govern the universe is only a quick-fix, essentially a “god of the gaps” type argument. Sure, you can come up with a logical explanation of God’s relationship to us and to nature, but just because you can make a case for a certain revised belief system doesn’t mean it’s accurate or consistent with science or religious doctrine. I may be entirely wrong, but perhaps many people are in awe of nature and (because they don’t take time to understand it) attribute many things to an unseen force that takes the form of whatever religion is dominant in that area. Sure, there are fundamentalists who are enveloped in their faith all the time, but there are many more who have a looser idea of faith, their religious beliefs having more to do with socialization and how they were raised than anything genuine. Such assertions, however, are merely logical associations in my head and I have not done any case studies, statistical analysis, or anything else to determine if this is true, so I won’t go any further down a road that I can’t light my way down.




3 responses

21 03 2007
Chris Harrison

Hear hear.

This whole idea, that science and religion occupy separate territories and contribute to different domains of knowledge, just seems absurd to me.

To paraphrase Dawkins (I think), suppose we, for whatever reason, happened upon Jesus’ body and were able to extract and sequence the DNA of his y-chromosome. Now suppose that this sequence is entirely foreign- nothing like any other male in the human lineage. How many theologians wouldn’t trumpet this scientific finding as evidence for Jesus’ non-human father, and thus his divinity? The answer is zero. No theologian would suddenly invoke NOMA and proclaim “No, no religion and science occupy distinct territories and the “knowledge” of either does not inform the other”.
This situation is hypothetical, yes, but it still serves to reveal the silliness that is this “two domains of knowledge” deal.
That’s not to say science can inform or falsify/verify *all* religious beliefs (although a good many have fallen as a result of science – no matter if believers accept it), it’s just to say that the magisteria undoubtedly overlap, and that this overlap is unavoidable.

It appears to me that “NOMA” and the oh-so-sinister phrase “scientism” are only invoked when the findings of science jeopardize or indeed refute religous beliefs. Only then are these–for lack of a gentler term–excuses offered to defend religious faith.

21 03 2007

Excellent comment Chris; whether in the realm of science or religion, we need to have our BS detectors on at all times these days. Just because something brings us comfort or can be logically extrapolated in a hypothesis doesn’t mean it holds any water at all, NOMA reminding me of an axiom like “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice?” Essentially I think NOMA causes more cognitive dissonance than anything else, especially for those actively investigating science.

1 08 2007
Why fight creationism? « Laelaps

[…] some variation on that theme) is the response I most often get, many people taking something of a NOMA-approach to keeping science and religion separate. Once again I’ve gotten this response, in blog form, […]

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