Reality Conditions

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Science and Religion Redux

Recently there has been quite a lot of discussion around the blogosphere (or at least around the corners of it I visit) about the demarcation or overlapping of science and religion. See Ed Brayton at Dispatches, Tim Sandefur, Jason Kuznicki and again Sandefur at Positive Liberty, and Brandon at Siris.

The issue is of course largely semantic, on what should we understand by "religion". Provisionally we can define as a religious doctrine any one that includes reference to a supernatural realm. (While this may leave out some forms of religion, for example pantheistic ones, it probably reflects quite well the ordinary Western use of the term). It is clear then that a religious claim will always have a metaphysical element, but also that it need not be purely metaphysical. Some religious statements are so (e.g. "God exists"), while some have in addition an ethical content ("Pride is a sin against God") or an empirical content ("God created the world in six days").

Stephen Jay Gould introduced the concept of NOMA (Nonoverlapping Magisteria) for the idea that proper religious claims should not address empirical matters. (The original article can be read here). This seems at first glance to make a nice division, that many people in our cultural climate would endorse: the empirical and testable goes to science, the metaphysical and ethical to religion. But things can't be so simple.

To start with, a way of using NOMA which one sees often, especially by religious people (for example in the context of bioethics), is along the lines of "Science can tell us how to do something, but only religion can tell us if we should do it". The fallacy of the binary division is clear here: it is true that science cannot answer ethical questions, but there is no reason to think that only religion can do so (as opposed to nonreligious ethical philosophy, or even unsystematized moral feelings). The situation is not symmetrical: there is every reason to trust the scientist more than the priest on the question of how a given contraception technique works, but there is no solid reason to trust the priest more than the scientist, the philosopher or the man of the street on the question of whether to use it is moral. This, however, could be said to be a mistake in popular use of NOMA rather than in the principle itself, which should state only that "religion does not deal with empirical matters, only with metaphysical or ethical ones" without saying that only religion can make ethical pronouncements (or metaphysical; there is nonreligious metaphysics, after all).

Another criticism of NOMA, that Jason makes in his post, it that it can be seen as commiting the No True Scotsman fallacy. One can imagine the defender of NOMA, when confronted with a creationist who makes lots of empirical claims based on his religion (about the young age of the Earth, the Flood, etc.), answering: "Your position is not really religious, because true religion is not concerned with empirical matters". This would seem to be a cheap redefinition that goes not only against the popular use of the term, as stated at the beginning of this post, but also against the creationist own subjective religious conviction.

However, Brandon in his post defends NOMA against this charge (though critizizing other aspects of it) saying that what NOMA aims at is clarifying a conceptual confusion. Perhaps in popular use the term "religion" applies to some empirical doctrines; but if we are convinced that there is a deep divergence between empirical and nonempirical claims, and that only science has authority to make the first ones, and that the core and fundamental elements of religion are not empirical, then the NOMA move would not be a cheap redefinition but one that aims at clearing a conceptual confusion and making for a more organized intellectual panorama.

But how true is it that the fundamental elements of religion are not empirical? I would like to think it is true, as it would eliminate all possible conflict between science and religion, and I think it is true of a pure, idealized form of religion. But there is hardly any real-world religious tradition for which this is true. Take Chistianity for example; surely a core element of it is the claim that a man called Jesus lived 2000 years ago, was crucified, and resurrected. What if we found convincing historical evidence that Jesus never existed, or that he existed but did not die in the cross? While I don't think it is likely that this will happen (unlike, for the latter example, the many amazingly guillible people who are taking seriously The Da Vinci Code) it is surely an empirical question to be decided in principle by science. (Even the resurrection is: concievably we could find Jesus' tomb with his remains still there, disproving a literal bodily resurrection.) What about the idea of an inmaterial soul? Suppose science comes to give a complete and convincing explanation of human consciousness that does not involve the spirit; wouldn’t that force a serious reconsideration of some core religious doctrines?

So, while I sympathize with NOMA as stating an ideal for religion, I think it stands in too large contradiction with our central concrete examples of religion to be "true", even in the way Brandon suggests. Insisting on it could be a useful move for making religion evolve in a good direction, but not a clarification of a minor conceptual confusion that does not affect fundamental religious tenets.

My ideal of religion would be one that had only purely trascendental and ethical doctrines, basing them on faith but claiming no rational authority, and tolerating other religious and nonreligious (for example philosophical) views on its subject. Its function would be to provide a way for people to give meaning to their lifes in a trascendental context for those who need to. I personally would not adhere to it; I am too much of a rationalist to be able to just have faith in a non-rationally based idea, and I don’t feel the need of a trascendental meaning for my life. But I would have no quarrel at all with those who embraced it, and could even view them with sympathy.

Sadly, this kind of religion is quite far away from those that have the spotlight in the real world.


  • I tend to think that way too much attention is aimed at trying to discuss the conflict between science and religion, if only because both terms, but especially the last one, are so slippery. Perhaps it would be better if we instead simply talked about the conflict between science and supernaturalism, science and the separate creation of species, science and miracles or science and individual religious experience.

    Instead of aiming for religion, simply aim for the characteristics of (some kind of) religion which you are aiming at, that way religionists won't be able to weasel their way around you reasoning so easily. If your criticisms apply to their form of religion, then they have to respond, and if not then they have nothing to worry about.

    By Blogger jeff g, at 5:46 PM, May 18, 2006  

  • If someday you come to my church, you`ll change your point of view

    By Anonymous Tom Cruise, at 7:40 PM, May 18, 2006  

  • (Blogger ate my comment so I'm rewritting it, apologies if it appears twice.)

    Jeff, that seems pretty sensible. I think NOMA was an attempt to solve the question once and for all: religions that made empirical claims were in opposition to science, religions that did not were not. Given that reality is more muddy and complicated than that, I think your strategy of addressing conflicts once at a time and wherever they arise is more reasonable.

    By Anonymous Alejandro, at 10:11 PM, May 18, 2006  

  • Mr Cruise, I'm not a big fan of your acting, I loathe your church, and above all, I hate you for having had Nicole Kidman and leaving her. So don't come to my blog ever again.

    By Anonymous Alejandro, at 10:12 PM, May 18, 2006  

  • There is no such thing as an ideal religion for there is either one and only one religion and it is how it is, or there is none.

    There are twenty or so major religions. The corollary is that at least nineteen of them are made up. It is possible that all twenty are made up. What religion is can't even be known until we know which one, if any, is the right one. Only then can we talk about (any) overlap between science and religion.

    By Blogger Korollary, at 9:04 AM, May 19, 2006  

  • Korollary: the problem is that we are most likely never to know which religion, if any, is the right one, so what you say is not very useful in practice. When I was talking about my ideal religion, I meant one which I could admire for the role it tried to play in this world.

    Besides, I think that increasingly many religious people would dispute your assertion that "either one and only one religion and it is how it is, or there is none", because they see reigion as a quest for God and not as adherence to one dogma or another, and would accept many different ways of doing that quest as valid.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 3:19 PM, May 19, 2006  

  • Further, religions are not unitary things; and there will always be things that, say, Christians and Sikhs can agree on, that Jews and Muslims can agree on, etc. So if one religion is the true one, it doesn't follow that the others are 'made up', only (at most) that they are missing something important that throws off their reasoning. (The same thing applies, by the way, if all of them are false. What makes a religion false is not that it is a complete mishmash of errors but that its key doctrines are misconceived or untenable in the particular interpretation under which the religionists accept them. It's possible to be an atheist like Feuerbach and hold that all religions are false but deny that all religions are made up. In fact, Feuerbach-style atheists will argue that the reverse is true: all religions are false not because they are made up but because they are on the whole misapplying genuine truths that they've discovered.)

    By Blogger Brandon, at 5:31 PM, May 19, 2006  

  • Alejandro wrote:
    Besides, I think that increasingly many religious people would dispute your assertion ... because they see reigion as a quest for God and not as adherence to one dogma or another, and would accept many different ways of doing that quest as valid.
    I won't be surprised if they dispute, but I don't understand how they look in the mirror doing that. So they can't establish if there's a God, whether one of these books carries His word or not, but they won't even blink at assuming that there is one and figuring out their own quest for God? To me that's just inventing the 21st religion.

    Brandon wrote:
    there will always be things that, say, Christians and Sikhs can agree on, that Jews and Muslims can agree on, etc. So if one religion is the true one, it doesn't follow that the others are 'made up'...
    Is this agreement on the truth or the fabrication? To answer that you must know the truth.

    Proving any religion false is no easy task and I am not up to it. The funny thing is that we're not supposed to prove a claim wrong and failing that, accept it. "They" are supposed to prove it true. By "they" I mean the persons who hand these books to us.

    People certainly, undeniably made up religions throughout history. Look at scientology. 25% of college students in the US believe in astrology. People still have superstitions. This much we know: we make stuff up, we believe in it. But, this doesn't alarm anybody. God doesn't say he sent twenty books, but here they are, and nobody is suspicious. In such an environment, wouldn't it take ten times the persuasion to make a believer? Knock on wood, people are still eager.

    By Blogger Korollary, at 5:34 AM, May 20, 2006  

  • Is this agreement on the truth or the fabrication? To answer that you must know the truth.

    I'm not sure I see what relevance this has to your inference. Suppose they agree on a fabrication; they aren't agreeing that it is fabricated, but are assuming as true something that is fabricated. Therefore neither can conclude that the other is wholly made up. Suppose they agree on a truth; the same.

    Further, it's just not right to say that we have to know the truth to recognize a fabrication; all we have to know to recognize a fabrication are the origins of the claim. Strictly speaking, a fabricated claim can turn out to be true -- by accident; what makes it fabricated is not that it is false but that it is made up by someone. So to identify fabrications (as opposed to confusions, honest errors, etc.) we have to look at the origins, and see whether we have any evidence that the claim was just made up.

    In any case, the inference involved an equivocation between a religion's being 'right' in the sense of being the religion one should have (a practical/moral sense of 'right') and a religion's being 'right' in the sense of not being made up (a purely epistemic sense of 'right'). The two are related but not the same. No one can rationally infer from a religion's being right (in the first sense) that all others are wrong (in the sense of being made up); just as no one can rationally infer from a religion's being right (in the second sense) that all the others are wrong (in the sense that they are not the right sort of religion to have under certain practical circumstances). Strictly speaking, one can't even make the inference that if one religion is right (in the second sense) that all the others are made up, because some of the others might be based on nothing more than honest error, or incomplete analysis, or any number of other mistakes, where they diverge from the right one.

    I agree that lots of religious claims are fabricated; but this is hardly surprising: lots of claims of any kind are fabricated. Our society has a penchant for making up claims that are supposed to be scientific; there has always been a problem with people simply making up ethical claims to suit their convenience. It would be astonishing if religion were immune. But, as I said above, one discovers fabrication by uncovering origins; if we don't have evidence that something is made up, the rational thing to do is to deny that it is fabricated -- even if you think it is mistaken.

    By Blogger Brandon, at 2:41 AM, May 22, 2006  

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