Sunday, June 6, 2010

More on Gould on Science and Religion

The criticisms that have been directed at Gould’s thesis of non-overlapping magisteria (for science, questions of how the natural world is; for religion, questions of ultimate meaning and value) can be reduced to one objection: Why should we believe that religion has any magisterium at all?

Stephen Jay Gould (source)

As I explained in a previous entry (“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion”), Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis that science and religion have “non-overlapping magisteria” (“NOMA”) is meant neither as a description of the actual scope of claims made by practitioners of science and religion nor as a proposal for how those two activities can stay out of each other’s way, but rather as an account of the range within which each of the two has “teaching authority.” Science, on Gould’s view, has such authority with regard to questions of how the natural world works, and religion with regard to questions of ultimate meaning and value. There is, according to Gould, no conflict between science and religion as such, because their respective domains, though they adjoin each other, do not overlap. Claims about the natural world made on the supposed authority of religion as well as claims about ultimate meaning and value made on the supposed authority of science are one and all void.

Interestingly, while many defenders of science have been highly critical of Gould’s thesis, their principal complaint has been not that it grants too little to science (though some have made this objection: more on that on another occasion) but that it grants too much to religion. The objection is that, even if questions of ultimate meaning and value lie outside the competence of science, it does not follow that they lie within the competence, much less the exclusive competence, of religion. After all, such questions are and always have been prominent concerns of the discipline of philosophy. To hold that they can only be resolved by reliance on religious sources is itself a substantive philosophical position, and an unpopular one among professional philosophers at that.

At the same time, as I noted in my previous entry, these critics find fault with Gould for drawing the boundaries of religious authority in an implausibly utopian fashion. To hold, as Gould does, that such authority pertains only to questions of ultimate meaning and value and not to questions of natural fact excludes a vast body of actual religious claims, such as the historical narratives on which the Abrahamic religions depend. Gould’s assertion that the conflict between science and religion “exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects” (Rocks of Ages, 3) requires so vast a disparity between the supposed “logic or proper utility” of religion and how religion “exists . . . in people’s minds and social practices” as to make his conception appear more wishful thinking than historical or philosophical analysis. In the satirical summation cited by Daniel Dennett, the thesis of NOMA says in effect: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have.” In other words, while Gould’s formulations make a show of giving to science and to religion each their respective shares, in effect it only allows to religion a portion of what is left over after science has done its work.

In this light it is all the more remarkable that religionists (if that is the term for those who follow some religion or other) who have commented on Gould’s thesis seem to be content with his delineation of the religious magisterium. Yet it is not difficult to guess the reason for this. Presumably, it is only the exponents of modern, liberal, intellectually catholic (with a small “c”) interpretations of religion—religionists well up in secular learning, who will not feel pinched or chafed by the strictures of NOMA—who have anything to say about Gould. For them, the role of the defender of the faith in relation to scientific findings that conflict with traditional beliefs is not to refute those findings but to reinterpret the tradition to accommodate them. By contrast, creationists and other religious reactionaries, who take their favored scriptures or clerics to be authoritative for all time and in all questions whatever, are not likely to pay attention to what an evolutionary biologist—a proponent of the hated doctrine of “Darwinism,” which they equate with atheism—has to say about the proper scope of religious claims. It’s either that, or I just haven’t heard their grumblings because they have not carried beyond their closed circle of communicants.

So, to sum up, the objections to Gould’s thesis of NOMA are (1) that it grants religion an authority that it lacks in questions of ultimate meaning and value, and (2) that, however attractive it may be as an ideal scheme, it is too remote from the actual practice of religion to be credible. Alternatively, one can sum up all the criticisms that have been directed at Gould’s thesis by defenders of science in one rhetorical question: By what right does Gould assume that religion has teaching authority about anything? Why, in other words, should we believe that religion has any magisterium at all?

There is an evident contrast with science on this point. Science, one could argue, is defined by a body of methods that can be derived from the inherent requirements of human epistemic rationality. Thus the definition of science—not the definition of the word “science” but the rule by which in practice science is identified—explains why science has the magisterium that it has, and a fortiori why it has any magisterium at all. Science has teaching authority with regard to how the world is because its methods are derived from the requirements for learning about how the world is. This is true not only of science as a whole but of any particular science. Particular sciences are individuated not as competing claims (there are competing claims in the sciences, but there is a commonly accepted methodology for adjudicating among them), but as the science of this or that particular subject matter.

With religion, things stand on an entirely different footing. The various religions of the world are not parts of a whole called “religion” except as a matter of verbal classification. As far as their beliefs are concerned, religions are not complementary at all but conflicting, and there is no common method or practice or principle of operation among them by appeal to which differences of doctrine can be resolved. Gould defines a magisterium as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” (Rocks of Ages, 3). It may be fair to say that religion or the religious mode of teaching, whatever exactly that may be, holds the tools for meaningful discourse, but resolving differences of belief is precisely what it cannot do. Each religion may contain the tools for resolving internal doctrinal disputes, but no religion contains the tools for resolving differences between religions, except to the utterly parochial satisfaction of its particular adherents; much less does the abstract generic entity “religion” possess any such tools. Thus, while the existence and extent of the magisterium of science can be derived from the nature of science, consideration of the nature of religion only makes it difficult to sustain the claim that religion has any magisterium at all.

There is, I think, a way out of this, both for Gould and for religion. In making the case for the pedagogical incompetence of religion—the non-existence of anything that can be called its magisterium—I relied on a restriction of religious teaching to beliefs, or truth claims. If religious teaching is essentially concerned with telling us how things are, whether in “this” world (as if there were another) or in some putative world beyond it, then, I think, Gould’s atheistic critics are surely right, and religion has no teaching authority at all. But the assumption that religious teaching concerns beliefs may be called into question. Religion may have teaching authority with regard to something—I am not venturing to say what—that is not essentially a matter of belief at all. Another possibility is that the proper task and scope of religion is not captured by the idea of a magisterium. I hope to explore these possibilities in another entry.

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Correction, added June 10, 2010: I overstated matters in my final paragraph, above, when I equated the non-existence of a religious magisterium with the “pedagogical incompetence” of religion. To lack teaching authority is not the same as to lack competence to teach. Any religion is competent to teach what it will, in the sense that there is nothing inherent in religion as such that prevents given religious teachings from being authorized by some non-parochial standard. But the only non-parochial standards available are (as the term suggests) non-religious ones. Thus, for instance, the fact that certain histories offered in the Bible are incorporated into Jewish or Christian doctrine does not render those histories rationally untenable. The point is merely that their religious status does not confer any authority on them either: whether they are true or false can and must be settled by the same standards as any other historical claims.

Previous entry: Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion

Next entry:  A Dilemma for NOMA


  1. I like how clearly this piece puts the focus on the question of authority. If religion does have teaching authority over something other than beliefs, I wonder if it could be the act of religion itself--i.e. viewing religion as an experiential part of human culture. In this manner, religion would be more comparable to art than to science, especially since art can have multiple forms, doesn't have clear boundaries, and strives to reveal something about the human condition or the universe without claiming to teach absolutely true beliefs.

    I wonder, though, if such a view could only be taken by an outsider; I doubt most religious people would care for it, and I wonder if it is at all tenable for them to take it or whether religion must carry a sense of cosmic truth in hand. I have been involved in some arts throughout my life and have always found meaning and/or pleasure in it, but religious experience reached crisis for me once I started doubting the beliefs upholding the experience.

    On a side note, I have no idea why it took me so long to find your blog, but I'm quite glad I did.

  2. Thanks for the comment, JG. Actually, in my final paragraph I made an error of overstatement when I spoke of the "pedagogical incompetence" of religion. A lack of special authority does not imply incompetence. It just means that religious truth claims are not beyond the reach of secular criticism. They derive no privilege or immunity from their religious character.

    I think you are right that few religious people would be willing to accept a non-cognitive or non-epistemic interpretation of religious teachings. But I suspect that such a view has its religious proponents. For instance, I recently had my attention drawn to this writer, Shaiya Rothberg—not a rabbi, I grant, but a teacher at a Conservative yeshiva—who seems, at least in some passages, to be close to such a view. On the other hand, he does retain the language of belief, and it may be impossible for a religionist not to do so.

  3. JewishGadfly, I find your potential viewing of religion as an art interesting. Obviously it depends on your point-of-view and everyone would have a different response, but I can offer my personal reaction.

    I am an artist and art historian, as well as a fairly observant Jew. I have never thought of art and religion as contradictory, but have ascribed them both their own place. Once you mention it however, I do view both similarly. I never thought of it before, but perhaps both religion and art ARE absolute -- and both scientific. Religion is strung together through tradition and the evolution of Halachah - the people change throughout time and each generation has new challenges, but the foundation remains Torah, the word of God. (And this could be applied for other religions as well, although not all religions grouped together.) Art as well is linked through a spiritual quality. Look at the Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists who spoke of the spiritual nature of art that made it absolute - artistic depiction changes but it is all driven by the same inner spirit.

    But art is an undefined means of expression, while religion usually dictates how to be expressed.

  4. And MKR, Thanks for the link the Shaiya Rothberg...seems to be an interesting read that I look forward to! :)

  5. I never thought of it before, but perhaps both religion and art ARE absolute -- and both scientific. (Recreational Musings)

    Ha ha, you sound like a Hegelian! Without the anti-Jewish element, of course.

  6. Thanks for sharing that, RM. I attempt to be scientifically-minded and all elsewhere in life, but the vision of art that has always captured me as well is the vision of the artist as a vessel for something greater, revealing the sculpture behind the marble or becoming another person on stage.

    So then, I guess the comparison I have in mind is that art doesn't need to be scientific or teach beliefs, because it is a specifically subjective exploration of the world and a part of human culture with its own merits. I wonder if religion can be similarly viewed as a cultural endeavor with its own merits that fulfill human needs, without any outside objective truth claims. In that manner, religion has authority over how to do religion, just as an art instructor might have authority over how to do art. (And I can maintain the above vision of art because it works well for me, it's meaningful to me, and I value art on its own grounds--not because it is teaching me an objective belief.) There are differences, as you note, but it's a similar view of what their roles in human culture are.

    Again, I don't know if any of this would actually work with religion, but I was trying to think of something in response to the closing question of this post.

  7. I wonder if religion can be similarly viewed as a cultural endeavor with its own merits that fulfill human needs, without any outside objective truth claims. In that manner, religion has authority over how to do religion, just as an art instructor might have authority over how to do art. (Jewish Gadfly)

    I would emend that second sentence to say: “just as art has authority over how to do art.” Then the two assertions are symmetrical. Remember that Gould’s thesis does not attribute authority to persons but to certain human enterprises.

    In connection with your idea it is worth recalling a passage in his original essay on NOMA in which he says that the magisteria of science and religion do not encompass all inquiry, and adds parenthetically; “consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty.” This passage suggests that Gould himself did not think of what he calls “teaching authority” as necessarily an authority to adjudicate truth claims—although, on the other hand, there is that passage about “[holding] the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.”

  8. Gadfly, I would say religion can be viewed in many ways and that is certainly a possibility, just as you maintain your vision of art because it works for you.

    I don't think that your definition of art is necessarily at odds with a scientific definition, though. Art is an expression and everyone expresses themselves differently - but the role of art in society remains the same throughout the generations. "One must be of one's time," Daumier said (an early 20th century art critic). Expression changes depending on surrounding society and events, but it still plays a similar role. To relate to religion, all religions have the same goal but provide different means of achieving it. It isn't a difference in the times, but a difference of opinion or belief. Even within a religion, personal prayer allows for diverse expression of the same absolute. You and I - both Jews - may pray to the same God but in very different ways.

  9. RM, Honoré Daumier was a French draftsman and painter of the 19th century. I don’t know of any other Daumier. Perhaps you were thinking of someone else?

  10. Sorry it was actually Manet, a painter, that said that. There is an art movie called "Honore Daumier, One Must be of One's Time"