Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rejecting NOMA

image via RationalWiki

Stephen Jay Gould famously proposed to place science and religion as “Non-overlapping Magisteria.” Gould defined magisterium as "a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” His NOMA principle states that "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry." In Gould’s view, "Science and religion do not glower at each other...but interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity." This is where the modern notion that science describes how the universe works and religion describes why it is here and what our place in it comes from. This is accommodationist nonsense.

Science defined is “the systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms.” It is a method of describing the material universe through these means in order to increase and organize objective knowledge. It is a tool in the toolkit of human curiosity and reason. It is not perfect, nor does anyone claim it to be; but it provides humanity with the means to understand more and more of the universe. Anyone willing to put forth the effort can participate and reap tangible results and rewards. Scientific inquiry operates on facts and evidence and requires no faith. In fact, science cannot operate on faith either in whole or in part. Despite that infamous canard of theists to make the claim over and over again; it is not in any way, shape, or form based on faith. While there is conjecture in science it is clearly not the same operation as the faith of the religious. Scientific conjecture has its foundations in previously proven or likely theories that have been constructed via careful examination and analysis. Unproven scientific hypotheses can be and are discarded when they found to be incorrect or insufficient.

Religion defined “is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” It is a cultural system that propagates and sustains specific belief(s) based on preconceived, “revealed knowledge” that from an immaterial or supernatural agent. Nothing can be confirmed and all beliefs are based on faith. This is wholly incompatible with science. It is not based on material, quantifiable or reproducible knowledge that is gained via human effort. In this sense, and this sense alone, Gould’s NOMA really do not overlap. For religion, a major point of contention is who revealed this knowledge? God or men? Most believers claim it was their particular deity. Many—but certainly not all—admit that it was humans who wrote the scriptures. All objective historical evidence suggests that various human agents and institutions over the millennia wrote, complied and edited the various holy books as the revealed word(s) of god (or gods) based on oral and other written traditions. So to begin with science and religion are not on equal footing as magesteria. I won’t pull any punches here: as the basis of religion, scriptures are fiction taught as truth. That is also called “lying.” One cannot have “meaningful discourse and resolution” when one side is based on incorrect or highly flawed information.  If the premise is incorrect, so shall the conclusion be.

Gould’s concept that these two magesteria are equal and do not overlap has already begun to erode. Indeed, it has been criticized by others for quite a long time now. Religion makes claims about not only the supernatural universe, but the natural universe as well. Many of these claims regarding the supernatural universe and its effect on the natural universe should have physical manifestations that science could be able to detect. This has never happened. In fact, throughout history the gaps in our knowledge that have been previously attributed to a deity have slowly but surely been filled in as knowledge and understanding of the universe grows. By no means do we know everything and in fact we still, on the grand stage of the universe, know next to nothing. At no point, however, does this lack of human knowledge automatically require a deity to fill the gap. These little “gods of the gaps” have repeatedly been pushed aside. To assign the premise of a deity to various phenomena is a larger leap in logic based on ignorance and faith.

The claim that religion has its place in telling us why we are here and our place in the universe has always annoyed me since it does neither of these things from an objective standpoint. Each religion has its own claim. They can’t all be right and I suspect they can all be wrong. I also take exception to the religion being handed the mantle as sole “law giver” of morality. I am not claiming that the religious are automatically less moral or that atheists are more moral, but there is no example of any religion providing perfect morality. If a follower of any of the Abrahamic religions followed it to the tee, they would inevitable be locked up for some crime. Unless they lived in Iran (probably not even there). Perfect morality does not exist. Much of modern, Western morality owes more to the secular Enlightenment period than it does to Biblical teachings. The truly awful Biblical morals of the past that we (or most of us) now ignore were discarded by secular people and religious people alike as attitudes changed based on secular values and scientific knowledge. Secular and scientific influence is the only explanation for this. How else would the religious change or ignore the perfect Word of God?

Regardless of the truth of science vs the truth of religion the title of Gould’s idea alone betrays its name: non-overlapping + magesteria. It is actually fairly obvious that they overlap. A lot. The religious consistently makes claims about the natural universe that are quite easy to scientifically test and refute. Obvious examples are heliocentrism vs. geocentrism, evolution vs. creationism, the efficacy of prayer, etc.

RationalWiki nicely sums up NOMA as “a method of being deliberately stupid by compartmentalising one's thinking.” Quite true.