Sunday, May 27, 2007

Do Science and Religion Overlap?

The late agnostic and paleontologist, Steven Jay Gould, postulated the Nonoverlapping Magisteria or simply “NOMA” to explain the relationship between science and religion.

Religion and science, from an epistemic standpoint, are in conflict. Scientists, individually and as a community, make observations. From those observations they postulate hypotheses to explain the observations and predict future observations. The more correct predictions, the more weight a hypothesis gains. After some time, it becomes a theory. A single observation can refute a theory, so even the most solid science is tentative and self-correcting. This is a simplification of the way science works. Philosophers of science have toiled with other concepts unnecessary to delve into here.

Religion assumes a set of highly specific, sometimes contradictory, dogmas. Most often the religious dogmas are “justified” either by appealing to personal feelings or presupposed scripture.

This is where NOMA comes in. It says that science deals with the world of “facts” while religion deals with “values” (assuming the fact-value distinction). So, science takes on its usual role and religion takes on a role similar to ethics. The problem is that religion does overlap, quite a bit, with scientific matters.

Genesis One describes an origin of the world that is mutually exclusive with the well-established scientific theories of geology and biology. Unless there’s a radical paradigm shift in science (which I doubt), there’s no way these two ideas can be reconciled.

NOMA advocates (more than likely, Christians) may take the Modernist interpretation of the Bible and say that, except for a crucial few stories, most of it is just God’s metaphorical way of giving us moral truths. Such hermeneutics are unhistorical.

None of the gospels ever hinted that the bible was meant to be taken figuratively, nor do any records indicate that the early churchmen took this view. It was thyears after e Bible was written that this ad hoc way of reconciling the Bible and science (or its predecessor, Natural Philosophy) came about, thanks to Saint Augustine.

NOMA is offers little insight into the relationship between science and religion, not to mention that it’s unoriginal. Obviously made to reconcile religion and science, it carries little force to those not already sold on the premise. It wasn’t Gould’s greatest idea.

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