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
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.