Monday, April 26, 2010

Gould's non-overlapping magisteria

Gould says:

NOMA [Non-Overlapping Magisteria] is a simple, humane, rational, and altogether conventional argument for mutual respect, based on non-overlapping subject matter, between two components of wisdom in a full human life: our drive to understand the factual character of nature (the magisterium of science) and our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion).
An obvious problem is that in fact all religions I know of make claims that entail scientific claims. There are several classes of such claims:
  1. Historical claims about miracles that intersect the realm of science, such as that at least one person who was once dead was later alive, or that once water was changed into wine.
  2. Uncontroversial historical claims that, nonetheless, intersect with science. For instance, non-anti-realist Buddhisms entail that somebody (e.g., Siddharta Gautama) has embarked on an ascetical life, while Judaism, Christianity and Islam all teach that we are not members of the first generation of human beings.
  3. Claims about possibilities for human transformation. Thus, Buddhism claims that at least some degree of detachment is possible to achieve, while Christianity claims that at least some degree of unselfish neighbor love is possible to achieve. And if Kant is right that ought implies can, any claim about what one ought to do entails a claim about what one can do, while claims about what one can or cannot do obviously intersect with science.
  4. Scientific claims, often uncontroversial or not, that are presupposed by various specific moral judgments. For instance, religious and non-religious moral thinking about the ethics of war would have to be significantly modified if it were proved that whenever anybody is "killed" in war, their brain travels through another dimension to another galaxy, where they live a somewhat happier life. Catholic sexual ethics is based on the empirical presupposition that human beings reproduce through intercourse. Now most of us know this biological fact, but there have been tribes where it is not known. Similarly, many religions centrally presuppose the claim that other people are like us in relevant respects, a claim that has scientific components: for instance, if I discovered empirically that everybody else is a non-intelligent robot, Christian neighbor-love would be an empty duty, and could not be the center of my life.

One might, mistakenly, dismiss (1) by thinking that the better religions make no miracle claims in the realm of the physical or by claiming that history is not science. Cases (2) and (4) highlight an important point: uncontroversial common-sense science is still science. Case (3) is in some way the most interesting here, because it is closest to Gould's idea that morality helps define the meaning in our lives. It would be very difficult to come up with an account of the meaning in our lives that made no reference to what is or is not possible for our lives. So even if we denuded religion of miracles and science of entirely common-sense claims, NOMA would still be mistaken, because what the meaning in our lives is surely depends on what is possible for our lives, and these possibility claims are not entirely uncontroversial.

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