Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dennett and problems with Gould's NOMA

Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA) is the most popular and perhaps the most criticized model of science & religion interaction. Of course, there are some serious problems with it - boundaries keep on changing, who gets to decide the boundaries, etc. However, NOMA has also been successfully used in making controversial ideas, like evolution, more acceptable to believers. Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) consistently use NOMA for dealing with evolution in public schools. But the problems are there. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Daniel Dennett, where he exposes some of these problems with NOMA and what this approach leaves for religion (not much):

S&S: What then of religion, or, more specifically, of the relationship between religion and science? Stephen Jay Gould speaks of "Non-Overlapping Magesteria," where the two realms of knowledge—or inquiry—stay within their own spheres, operating with mutual respect but maintaining a strict policy of non-interference. Is this possible, in your views? Is it even desirable?

Dennett: The problem with any proposed detente in which science and religion are ceded separate bailiwicks or "magisteria" is that, as some wag has put it, this amounts to rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have. The most recent attempt, by Gould, has not found much favor among the religious precisely because he proposes to leave them so little. Of course, I’m certainly not suggesting that he should have left them more.

There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can’t consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—"beyond a reasonable doubt"—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions.

And not much in the realm of ethics either:

What does that leave for religion to talk about? Moral injunctions and declarations of love (and hate, unfortunately), and other ceremonial speech acts. The moral codes of all the major religions are a treasury of ethical wisdom, agreeing on core precepts, and disagreeing on others that are intuitively less compelling, both to those who honor them and those who don’t. The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom—we wouldn’t accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance—shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions.

Centuries of ethical research and reflection, by philosophers, political theorists, economists, and other secular thinkers have not yet achieved a consensus on any Grand Unified Theory of ethics, but there is a broad, stable consensus on how to conduct such an inquiry, how to resolve ethical quandaries, and how to deal with as-yet unresolved differences. Religion plays a major role as a source of possible injunctions and precepts, and as a rallying point for public appeal and organization, but it does not set the ground rules of ethical agreement and disagreement, and hence cannot claim ethics or morality as its particular province.

That leaves ceremonial speech acts as religion’s surviving domain. These play a huge role in stabilizing the attitudes and policies of those who participate in them, but the trouble is that ceremony without power does not appear to be a stable arrangement—and appearances here are all important.

Read the full interview here.


ungtss said...

I'd argue that both ideas are flawed. NOMA is flawed for all the reasons Dennett points out. But Dennett then concludes that no meaningful role remains for religion, because science trumps it.

What neither of them understand is this:

Human thought exists in a spectrum, from the falsifiable to the philosophical to the speculative. None of us can live purely on one segment of thought. For example, the scientific method (and the justifications for it) are not themselves falsifiable -- they are philosophical. And how are we to determine that the Knowledge and Truth discoverable through science is a Value worth obtaining? We must make value judgments which are themselves not scientific, but ethical and moral. Without philosophy of science, there can be no science. Without moral judgment, there can be no justification for science.

Unfortunately, the minds of secular bigots like Dennett aren't nimble enough to grasp the ultimately religiophilosophical nature of their faith in science. They view their particular religion as privileged and set apart -- and in the process, they fail to challenge and reevaluate their own religio-philosophical assumptions.

If more academics and religious leaders had the cahones and/or mental capacity to perform such evaluations, things would start to look a lot different in academia and church, I believe.

Matt Griscom said...

@ungtss: It's unseemly for you to resort to insults, when actually your point simply shows a basic lack of education.

Science is a process based on empirical reality and repeatable experiments. It builds models to understand how things work. Any model used in science could be proven incorrect, and this is the strength of the ongoing process of science.

Religion has no relation to physical reality or repeatable experiment. Can you prove to me that any religious idea you have is more than just something inside your head? No, you can't.

That religions exist today is a tribute to people's need for comfort and magical thinking, and leaders' drive to control people towards their own ends.

ungtss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ungtss said...


Let's apply your reasoning to your own comment, eh?

You said:
1)Religion has no relation to anything in the physical world, and is (impliedly) less than intellectually legitimate.

2)The existence of "belief in ideas that have no relation to the physical world" is a tribute of the need for comfort.

Now in your comment, you described my behavior as "unseemly."

Does "unseemly" have any relation to anything in the physical world? Can you touch or taste an "unseemly?" No. Can you measure one? Of course not. Unseemly is an adjective, describing an "idea in your head" -- that is, your opinion of my behavior, and probably me.

Therefore, your idea of "unseemly" is flawed for the same reason all religion is -- because it is "just an idea in your head without any link to reality."

Your own statement doesn't stand up to to your own criticism. Your comment defeats itself.

That's the point I was making. Human thought is a spectrum. Some of our ideas are falsifiable and scientific. Some are not. But just because an idea is not falsifiable not make it less than valuable. Without unfalsifiable ideas, there can be no philosophy of science. Without philosophy of science, there can be no science.

Your failure to understand this is why you still hold to such desperately out of date ideas. Positivism is dead, dude. It was stillborn.

Merry Newb said...


To speak the word, "unseemly" in conversation is making a claim that this person A) understands the word's definition and B) can relate that definition to the context of the conversation. Its purpose is demonstrable.

The world's religions also make very specific claims, yet they are either demonstrably false or unable to be tested.

Just because some concept is abstract doesn't relieve it of scrutiny. Huge difference.

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