For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Why NOMA is inadequate

It’s Science and Religion Friday again. Last week I talked about moving beyond the “conflict” model of science and religion (but especially Christianity) interaction. This week I talk about the concept of NOMA (and why it fails). Next week, I’ll go to Ian Barbour’s scheme of different models of interaction, and why it may be helpful on one level, but grossly inaccurate on another.

First, a definition. NOMA is an acronym to describe a particular way of thinking about Science and Religion interaction. It stands for Non-overlapping magisteria. The concept was first put forth, at least in these terms, by Stephen Jay Gould. Drawing on the use of the term “magisteria” in Roman Catholic thought, he argued, in his initial essay and later in his book Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, that a magisteria is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for

Photo of Stephen Jay Gould by Kathy Chapman via wikicommons (Click picture for full information on the photo)

meaningful discourse and resolution.” He went on to argue that the domain of science is with the realm of empirical observation, what he calls “fact” and the realm of religion is in non-empirical areas, what he calls “meaning” or is sometimes referred to as “the big questions.” The two are entirely distinct according to Gould.

On the one hand, that solves the problem of any apparent conflict very neatly. There is no conflict because the two are talking about fundamentally different things, and thus the two can’t even be in dialogue, much less disagreement. No fuss. Gould calls his solution “elegant” and “simple.” So compelling is it that most scientists (and arguably theologians) ascribe to it. There’s just one problem. It’s built on entirely false presuppositions and erroneous claims.

First, let’s address the problems from scientific perspectives. The claim is that science only ever makes statements of fact, that is not to say it only makes claims that are true, but that it is only concerned with physical material existence, which would include mathematical claims as well as claims of observation. The problem is that this just isn’t the case. Scientific claims regularly extend beyond the observable. Claims about events that are strictly non-observable are, by their very nature, more than empirical claims. By claiming that historical events occurred in such a way, one is making a claim that they did not occur in a different way (a tautology I know, but bear with me). One excludes all other claims to how something could have occurred. Now, if it is vital for a religious belief that, rather than the universe progressing toward absolute thermodynamic entropy (a cold, dark universe), it is actually progressing towards some greater fulfillment (as virtually all religions claim), then there is a conflict here. Simply put, scientific claims about the distant past (i.e. where there is no record of observation) or distant future (where no one alive now can observe it) can never be value neutral claims. They have implicit meaning. While this certainly doesn’t exclude all religious interpretations of events, it does impose certain limits on what those interpretations can be.

Let’s look at something more contemporary, though. Take cognitive psychology. Rather than the “soft-science” that people might exclude from NOMA, I’m referring to the biological study of the brain. There, many mental disorders are attributed to purely physical/material phenomena, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. The treatment may often involve a series of drugs. However, this clearly overlaps into the religious claim by certain branches of charismatic and pentecostal churches that mental disorders are caused by demon possession and require an exorcism of some sort. Now, again, religion is not entirely excluded from these discussions, but to accept the scientific claim, it does certainly place certain parameters on the religious interpretation of the world.

Let’s also look at the actual claims made by scientists. Rarely are they value-neutral or value-independent claims. Probably the most notorious example is that of certain neo-Darwinians. The point where they go beyond mere “statements of fact” occurs when they shift from describing an historical process to describing the means by which occurs. Specifically, when the claim is made that evolution occurs as a “purposeless” or “random” process, there is a pretty significant value claim being made there, one that seems very much at odds with virtually all forms of theistic belief.

Finally, from the scientific point of view, one must consider that even if empirical claims were value neutral (which I doubt), the presumption of empiricism is not. Empiricism cannot be shown to be a valid method from empiricism (that’s circular). Instead, all empirical investigation (such as scientific investigation), must make the value claim that empiricism, and even a particular type of empiricism, is a valid means of accurately describing the universe. That is a value claim and not a “statement of fact.” Let’s look at the religious point of view.

For Gould’s NOMA to make sense, it must also be the case that religion only makes value claims and makes no claims regarding “statements of fact.” Again, this is not the case generally. While it may be true of certain existentialist interpretations of Christianity (where the historical accuracy of the bible is irrelevant, all that matters is what it means to you right now), and certain forms of Eastern religious philosophies (most, but not all, forms of Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism), for most religions this is not the case. It is certainly not the case for what I consider genuine Christianity. Christianity makes claims about the physical world. They include: a) God made it good and directs its purposes; b) God interacts (and has interacted) with material creation, particularly but not exclusively people, in an empirically observable way; c) God became a real and genuine historical person in Jesus; d) this Jesus really lived and was really executed on a cross; e) this Jesus really was raised from the dead (not spiritually, but physically in history); d) God is not done interacting with this world; and e) God will again come to this world in visible form to change the course of its history forever. Now all of these claims make value claims as well, but they are primarily claims about the observable universe and thus very much overlap with the “magisteria” of science. To state that they don’t actually make any kind of claim to “statements of fact” is the very definition of “begging the question” (to presume the answer to an argument or proof before one has been provided or explored). Such a thing is invalid and thus not a “solution” at all.

Now, as I said last week, I don’t believe that science and religion are in conflict. So if they aren’t in conflict, yet they do genuinely interact, contra Gould, then where does that leave us? I’ll start on that point next week.


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10 thoughts on “Why NOMA is inadequate

  1. You have weird definitions for value claims and statements of fact. You also seem to be operating under some sort of assumption that methods of finding things out need some sort of existential justification other than that they work. It’s not an assumption that I have any particular need for. I like empiricism because it, you know, works. It sharpens the picture and refines the grain of knowledge, and though they are still incomplete, whenever other methods have gone up against it they have lost, and that right badly.

    • My definitions of value claims and statements of fact are standard philosophical definitions.

      There is some odd reasoning going on in your objection, though. You say “I like empiricism because it, you know, works.” Do you fail to see the circular reasoning there? Let’s talk about what you mean by “it…works.” Do you not mean that “it” whatever it is (let’s forget for the moment we know what “it” refers to) “works” means that “it” has been shown to be the case (a statement of fact) in all past observable instances. In other words, “it works” is only true via an empirical method (I have observed that it holds true in the past, or is useful, or whatever). You are, in essence, saying that empiricism is valid because it has been empirically shown to be valid. You could have based it upon non-empirical evidence, things like: ’empiricism is valid because God ordained it to be so’ (heavy deism/theism) or ‘because there is a form of the empirical that so closely matches the form of the good that they are indistinguishable’ (a form of neoplatonism) or something entirely, but all of these must make an appeal to something external to the empirical method. Saying it’s valid because “it works” is just circular. Even if you claim that by “it works” you are making a utilitarian or pragmatic claim, which you very well might be, the means for evaluating the pragmatic value is nevertheless empirical. Something can’t “work” unless it is demonstrated to work (and we can’t know it works unless this demonstration is observed). Thus all claims to historical “working-ness” are, of logical necessity, empirical claims.

      Why am I harping on this point? Because to claim it is valid is a non-empirical value claim. That doesn’t make it wrong (and that’s not at all what I’m saying. I like empiricism, most of the time), but it does make NOMA invalid. NOMA is only valid in one situation if it is valid in ALL situations. This is not to say that all scientific and religious claims are indistinguishable (far from it). It does, however, mean that the “magisteria” is not as all inclusive as Gould wants to say it is. Thus, on some level at least, there is room for dialogue, considerable dialogue. Again, it doesn’t mean that I am saying things like “We get energy from food because God forces our cells to convert proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in a lengthy process that he micromanages (thus making the process nothing more than a show at which to wonder, and not really all that necessary) resulting in ATP that he tells our cells when and how to release.” In fact, I wouldn’t say anything of the kind. The fact that we get energy from food through a lengthy process, which I only partially understand, is something mostly independent of God. Further, the “mostly” qualifier I put in there is because of my non-scientific religious claims about the process. The two aren’t directly dialoguing. However, as I’ll begin talking about next week (but probably won’t really get into until the following week), there are instances where the two CAN and DO dialogue, even if neither group wants such a dialogue.

      • Oh I don’t like NOMA either–I think that religion and science are ultimately incompatible, even if large numbers of people manage to like some version of both. Gould was just throwing a bone to the cultural hegemons.

        The standards you demand for empiricism would throttle theology–for that matter, they would throttle the idea that there’s a universe at all. Empiricism is, at bottom, the idea that ideas have to be tested to know if they’re right. This is easy enough to see: there are nearly infinitely more possible thoughts than there are thoughts which correspond to reality; any given statement might or might not be true, and testing–empiricism–is the only known way in which to determine which is which. You can call it circular until you’re blue in the face, but you might as well call circular the idea that ‘we are not just brains in a vat experiencing a simulation’–after all, what possible counter-evidence could you offer that could not be part of the simulation?

        If I may make an analogy, when Newton came up with the inverse-square law of gravitation, folks pitched a fit trying to come up with some sort of justification for how a force could operate at a distance without contact (you would think that the example of light would have provided some–haha–illumination, but no). Newton simply answered ‘I make no hypotheses.’ The best single interpretation I have ever heard of that was this: we have here an actual phenomenon, and the only way to make progress is to put aside the philosophical handwringing over the metaphysical justification and actually study it.

        The idea that empiricism is circular is precisely equivalent to hard solipsism, or asymptotic light speed, or last Thursdayism–equally impossible to refute, and equally onanistic to actually pursue.

        • You’ve misunderstood me, I believe. I was not saying empiricism is circular and therefore invalid. I was merely making the claim that one cannot embrace NOMA without simultaneously embracing circular justification for empiricism. My primary claim with that was this: in order to avoid a circular justification for the validity of empiricism, it must be justifiable upon a non-empirical basis. The only justification for it, then, must be metaphysical. Even if such a justification cannot be articulated or is stated as a “just so” sort of thing (which it often is, despite the protest of certain “New Atheists” that religious claims do the same), this is still an appeal to metaphysical areas, a “magisteria” where religion and science overlap. Thus (QED) NOMA is invalid. That’s the only claim I’m making with the talk of circularity (which is a much more narrow claim than you seem to be taking me to make).

          With regard to the conflict, I’ve addressed that before in these posts (just look under the category Science and Religion Friday). While not entirely comprehensive over every area of conflict, it gives a good starting point (which I may return to in the future).

          Finally, although Newton initially made no claim as to how action-at-a-distance occurred, he did, prior to penning his Principia, decide that the best candidate was the Aether, something he had no empirical evidence for, because he felt a need to make an existential claim (about which he attempted to describe the properties). It was not until Faraday that the idea of “force” itself as the “field” through which energy was transferred began to be taken seriously, and not until Einstein that it began to be articulated. Now, I’m not arguing a so-called “God of the gaps” with Newton (don’t take that to be my point) by insisting that Newton’s claim based upon non-empirical evidence that there is a permeating Aether was a suggestion of the necessity for existential claims that are non-empirical (that’s based upon other reasoning as above), but merely to note that it does happen, and that scientists do this sort of thing all the time. Even if empiricism could be justified without “overlapping” into the “magisteria” of religious claims (which it can’t), the simple fact is that scientists frequently do make claims of a non-empirical nature (ones that are metaphysical) and do so as though they were acting as a scientist (at least that’s where they base their authority to make such claims). See virtually any of the more recent statements by Stephen Hawking, almost anything said in the past decade by Richard Dawkins (once a very highly respected scientist, now a PR and media glutton who is more amateur philosopher and atheist cheerleader than anything else), or the like for similar claims. My point (for this paragraph) is this: you can’t claim NOMA, and then go about making metaphysical and existential claims on the basis of your authority as a scientist. Such a double standard (a standard whose validity is certainly questionable as I’ve argued here) is reckless, but all too common.

          • Well far be it from me to defend NOMA (which I caught myself writing as ‘DOMA’, which I would also never defend), but just to reiterate: empiricism has equal validity to the inverse of last-Thursdayism, and ‘metaphysical’ claims from different magisteria don’t solve either problem in any way whatsoever. They only manage to bump it back a level, and as soon as you ask, ‘how you do know that the metaphysical claim is true?’ you’re right back at square one, plus a few unnecessarily multiplied entities. The extra step adds nothing but futile complications.

            A couple of random points: Actually the aether was a fully empirical claim, in that it was subject to test–refutation, even. You don’t have to have proof to postulate an idea; you have a phenomenon, so you posit an explanation on the basis of the going evidence, and that explanation is tested–exactly what happened with the aether, even if Newton didn’t perform the test himself. Likewise many posited ideas in modern physics are untested, but are still empirical in that they explain observed phenomena and are in principle subject to falsification even if the requisite experiment remains beyond our present technological capabilities. That’s not non-empirical, that’s the empirical process in a nutshell. As for Dawkins, Hawking, et al, I *have* read them and my understanding of them is rather different than what yours appears to be. Religion likes science until the latter steps on the former’s toes, whereupon immediately we hear … well, exactly what you just wrote: ad hominems and cries of ‘not really science!’, or ‘you darn kids get off my magisterium!’

            I’ve read your previous series with something a loose eye, and I may have missed an entry or two in schoolwork, but I don’t recall your addressing my chief grounds for saying that science and religion are incompatible. Essentially: science is an acknowledgement of and compensation for human fallibility. Any idea might in principle be wrong, so all ideas are subject to test. Religion at its core demands acceptance of certain ideas, often with the threat of hellfire for nonbelievers, and usually with the inducement of heaven or even earthly gains for believers. It explicitly forbids tests, and thus cuts off the one known way by which true ideas can be distinguished from false.

            Usually, the religious will then try to say that, well, it’s another way of knowing, it’s knowledge coming to us from the outside. But this, too fails: how is one to tell the difference between actual knowledge coming through revelation, and one’s own mind? I just can’t count the number of craptastic praise choruses I’ve heard whose composers–bless their hearts!–earnestly believe their three-chord schlock to have sprung forth whole from the mind of a transcendent creator of the universe like Zeus birthing Athena with a cheap guitar. (Guitar, axe, see what I did there?) Doctrine is no better–there is no agreement how many gods exist, what they’re like, what they did, what they want, what they said, or what it means. This is hardly what we would expect to find if there really were knowledge ‘breaking through’ from the outside. But this is exactly what we would expect to find if people were confusing whatever durn thing popped into their heads with divine revelation and then the social convention of respect for religion and the religious ban on testing prevented the bad ideas from being weeded out.

            The core of science is that all ideas are subject to observation, test, and falsification. The core of religion is that some ideas are not.

  2. Pingback: Trey Medley on NOMA | Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground

  3. Hi Trey,

    I’ve commented on your NOMA post on my blog: http://theistsandatheists.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/trey-medley-on-noma/

    Here’s the gist of what I said:

    I have appreciated Trey Medley’s blog, Whytheology. His latest post is called “Why NOMA is inadequate.” NOMA is Stephen Jay Gould’s acronym for “Non-overlapping magisteria.” A magisterium is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” Gould said the scientific tools of empirical observation work well in dealing with facts, whereas the tools of religion are suitable for non-empirical areas such as meaning and value. “The two are entirely distinct according to Gould.”

    Trey Medley thinks Gould is mistaken. I’ll second the motion, but for slightly different reasons. For one thing, I want to encourage theist-atheist dialogue. NOMA undermines the possibility that believers and unbelievers could fruitfully discuss factual matters.

    I agree with Trey that Christianity typically sees the Bible as making lots of claims about the physical universe. Some of these assertions, such as the notion that Earth is just a few thousand years old, can be ignored without undermining core Christian doctrines. The same could be said about demon possession, which Medley mentions. Many church-goers agree with psychologists who say that all serious mental illnesses are due to brain malfunctions. But other Biblical claims are more essential to traditional Christianity, such as the idea that God interacts with the universe and even suspends natural law to perform miracles.

    Trey also points out that acceptance of the empirical method can’t be justified by using the empirical method. He’s right to say that would be circular. But of course choosing a method for understanding reality is a prelude to actually using that method. When we decide to try using science to understand the universe we are not at that moment using science.

    Medley’s essay states that when science makes claims about events that are non-observable, those “are, by their very nature, more than empirical claims.” I’d analyze that issue a bit differently. ANY scientific claim must go beyond empirical findings. A report which asserts facts based on scientific findings has already gone beyond the data. Typically data are fitted into theories which are considered well-grounded. Based on theory + data, we draw conclusions.

    Suppose I observe that every time a one-ton boulder falls on someone’s head, that person dies. That is an empirical finding. To claim that the boulder killed those people, I have to go beyond this datum, although in this case not by very much! By using a widely-accepted theory of physical causation I can assert that the fatal results were more than mere coincidence.

    I think Trey may be suggesting that claims about events in the very distant past or future are not scientific claims, because such events are not observable. But they are empirically-based claims, if research data is combined with scientific theories.

    Without theory, science is mute.

    Note, however, that sometimes scientists speculate about the cosmos in ways that seem to be based more upon their personal world-views than on well-proven facts. I’m thinking, for example, of some statements made by Stephen Hawking. Regardless of whether such speculations are brilliant or misguided, they are theology or philosophy, not science.

    Roger Christan Schriner
    Blogs: Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, http://theistsandatheists.wordpress.com
    Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible

    • Thanks for linking to my blog. I’m in general agreement, though I’d wonder if we really are denying something held to be true in the bible by following certain claims of science. For instance, I can believe that some people are possessed by demons, while still believing this is more of a rarity and thus most mental illnesses are biological rather than demonic. In that instance I can believe demon possession is real (and has happened) without feeling the need for an exorcism every time someone gets a bit depressed, or is found to be schizophrenic. (Similarly, one may interpret the bible faithfully, and even hold to inerrancy, while still believing the earth is over 4 billion years old (there’s a few ways to do this, each of which has different implications, to be sure). The two aren’t mutually exclusive, rather some well liked interpretations are in conflict). My point (and I tried to make in the previous Science and Religion post last week) is this: One can accept that both the bible is fundamentally true and that the investigation produced by science are also true (or very near the truth). The real conflict is between how those two things are interpreted. Interpretation, then, is the real problem, not the bible nor scientific investigation qua empirical methodology.

  4. Pingback: Adendum to the discussion of NOMA « whytheology

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