Saturday, February 09, 2008

 

Majesty



As my contribution to James F. McGrath's suggested Blog-A-Thon this Evolution Weekend, I'd like to explore a bit Stephen Jay Gould's argument for religion and science occupying "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" or "NOMA." First of all, in Gould's reformulation of an old idea, the supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion is mistaken:

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 clichés, 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.

This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer -- and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.
Gould was not proposing a black-and-white division between the fields, as he is so often mischaracterized as having done, but an interaction, featuring sharp elbows but no necessary blows. As we all know (and as a major topic of this blog), some religious sects and some individual religious believers cannot refrain from crossing the conceptual line between the magisteria and attempt to impose their religious beliefs on the empiric results of science. However, it has not, historically, been a one-way street.

In John Hedley Brooke's well-respected study, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (p. 305-308), it is noted that intelligent people could come away from Darwinian evolution with the understanding that:

... humanity could no longer delude itself that there was a caring providence, that pain and suffering had an ultimate rationale, or that there was any destiny other than engineering the future course of evolution.

This was, however, a destiny of a kind. And if social improvement, even human perfectibility, was grounded in a law of nature, then there was a basis for a secular religion pursued with all the fervor of the sacred.
Brooke notes that the language of the exponents of such a destiny hints at scientific naturalism taking on:

... the mantle of a religion in which human values were corroborated, if not positively derivable, from the facts of biology. T. H. Huxley would preach what he called "lay sermons" to a public whose consciousness of the value of science he sought to raise. His campaign to gain greater social prestige for the scientific professional, having as its corollary the exclusion of the clerical amateur, can easily be parodied as the bid to create a "church scientific." For Herbert Spencer there was a power behind evolution, an "Unknowable Power" that nevertheless made for righteousness. In 1884 he declared that it was a power that "stands towards our general conception of things, in substantially the same relation as does the Creative Power asserted by Theology." For Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, as for Huxley, it was vital that any prerogatives claimed by the clergy to control the machinery of education should be denied. The pursuit of science, he wrote, is "uncongenial to the priestly character." As a member of the scientific priesthood, Galton had his alternative religion, which he called practical Darwinism. Its creed was a eugenics program, which was also a response to the fears of middle-class intellectuals in Britain that their social values were at risk from the higher rates of reproduction of the poorer classes. ...

The ease with which Darwin's science could be inflated into a naturalistic world-view, and thence into a rival religion, can be seen most clearly in the writings of [Ernst] Haeckel, who cherished a vision in which Christian churches would not be so much empty as taken over by like-minded monists who would refurbish them with symbols of nature and science. The altar would give way to Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy, while the walls would be decked with exotic flowers, trees, and aquaria. In due course Haeckel would be elected anti-pope by the apostles of free thought. His view of nature, as one historian has observed, "resembled a giant work of art, almost yearning for the creator he kept begrudging it." The possibilities of Evolution as an alternative religion were similarly perceived by a later popularizer, Wilhelm Bölsche, who spoke of the scientific movement as having effected a "Second Reformation." There had been an Old and a New Testament; now there was a third, the testament of science, which transcended both.
Today, not a few scientists venture across the frontier between science and religion, which is, of course, their right. But trying to ignore or erase the borders, instead of acknowledging them, can cause as much trouble in philosophy as it would at national frontiers. Gould's view is close to my own and, naturally, I think it is the right one:

I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). Much of this fascination lies in the historical paradox that throughout Western history organized religion has fostered both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heart-rending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger. ...

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.
Despite the heat on both sides, it is still right and proper for people of good will to try to reach out to each other and talk instead of shouting. As the 1880 cartoon from Punch above suggests, that may be more effective in the long run. Let's hope that this Evolution Weekend and the ones to follow can facilitate dialogue over dogma of all sorts.

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