Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Modified NOMA? Schleiermacher's three spheres

We are familiar with Stephen Jay Gould's separation of science and religion as two Non-Overlapping Magistaria (NOMA) - basically investigations of the natural world on one side and the questions of morals and meaning on the other. It works in some cases, and falls apart in others (there are no referees to enforce the boundaries). But I recently encountered Friedrich Schleiermacher's (1768-1834) three spheres of human life - and I think they are interesting. He divides them as follows:
a) Practical reason (science) or knowing
b) Morality/human action or doing
c) Religion

So I find interesting that he placed morality issues outside of religion. Much of Gould's NOMA gets into trouble when you start looking at scientific studies of the origins of morality, etc. But then what does Schleiermacher (hmm...it takes a while to spell out his name...) think or religion? Well, he considers that the the universe and its relation to humans is described through these three spheres. For the first two,"knowing" and "doing", humans are at the center (i.e. we look at the universe from the human perspective). Whereas, for religion, it is the way the universe acts on us. In this way, religion is our intuition of that action. Or in other words, religion, for Schleiermacher, is rooted in a fundamental experience of being related to the universe as a part within a larger whole. The essence of religion then is the "sense and taste for the infinite". This is mystical/Sufi (and to a certain degree, Sagan, I might add :)) stuff.

What I like about this is that it reduces the chances of clash between science & religion - as religion is now bounded primarily in personal experience (William James can also help on this) and its centrality is to humans have to be looked in a completely different way than science and morality (this way it also avoids Euthyphro's dilemma - "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?").

Some food for thought.

But if one does not subscribe to this mystical vision of the infinite, then this may appear to be yet another place where religion is ceding ground.

I ran into Schleiemacher's views on religion while listening to Teaching Company's (as usual) fantastic lectures on Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition by Professor Tyler Roberts.

Also see:


Ali said...

Interesting post, Salman.

I think human life can be divided into these three spheres only if one looks at it from a very mechanistic or rather a very superficial point of view.

An alien observer who knows nothing about God and religion (not that I believe such an observer exists) might divide human life into such categories when he encounter humans for the first time. But if he is to live among human beings, and acquire knowledge as much as human beings, he will soon realise that these three shperes are actually quite intermingled -- like three circles in a venn diagram -- and so are not as discrete as he first thought.

So, in essence, Schleiermacher's vew is only as good as Gould's view. Dividing human life into three categories instead of two is not helpful at all.

I think attempts to isolate religion from human life, will always fail because true religion is a way of life. I am sure you have heard this many times. :)

Salman Hameed said...

"I think attempts to isolate religion from human life, will always fail because true religion is a way of life. I am sure you have heard this many times. :)"

But religion is isolated from many, if not most, aspects of human life. It does not come up in 95% of science (say understanding sunspots, or craters on the Moon, or the reason why our sky is blue). Sure, one can say that all of this is because of God, but one does not invoke God as the cause - when seeking causal explanations in these cases. Religion comes up - usually in the cases dealing with origins or morality. Religion also does not show up in most of politics or in education - even in Pakistan. So religion is indeed a sphere. The question is: What it practically covers.

Ali said...

"But religion is isolated from many, if not most, aspects of human life."

This is exactly why i said a mechanistic or a very superficial view might divide human life into three discrete shpehers.

The circles of the venn diagram will become obvious when you contemplate on human life.

Sun spots can be explained by science without talking about God just like photosynthesis and transpiration can be explained without talking about germination of the seed. But, you cannot completely separate germination from phtosynthesis and transpiration and vice versa.

Rustam said...

Iqbal also considered religious experience as a primary human experience. Almost part of its nature. I dont know where does the role comes up. But surely this categorisation by Schleiermacher is interesting.