Monday, November 11, 2013

NOMA and the difference between science and religion

From guest blogger, Aviva.

I want to begin this post with the disclaimer that though my slant is more theological and less purely philosophical than many people in our class feel comfortable with, I feel that there ought to be a space for theological viewpoints in a philosophy of religion class.

Jesse asked the class who of us supported Gould’s theory of NOMA, and who of us did not. Only about a third of the class raised a hand one way or the other; the other two thirds presented no opinion. I believe the reason so few students expressed an opinion is that the relationship of religion and science is far more nuanced than NOMA satisfies, though it is an excellent foundation from which to begin investigation.

My initial response to the theory, which I shared in class, was not received well. I asked why the two cannot be distinct and yet comparable—why can’t we read scripture (which I and most theists believe to be allegory and story, rather than literal and law), and then determine how to interpret the text with the inclusion of scientific understanding?

(The most basic example of this would be to read the first chapter of Genesis and view the days of creation as thousands of years of evolution, or to read the story of Noah and the flood as an incredible natural disaster from which came new opportunity.)

In response, Jesse asked, “What question can be answered both theologically and empirically?” and I was stumped.

Though I would love to entertain a discussion of what question disproves NOMA, I have found that the answer to that question is not what I had in mind with my initial question. I ask not if the two overlap, but if they can be synthesized.

In fact, what I want to know is if the schools of science and religion can be juxtaposed without violating NOMA. I use the word “juxtapose” specifically; to juxtapose is to compare two things, which result in a different, third thing.

The primary reason to view science and religion as synthetic is based on social logic. It is unreasonable to expect an individual to choose either science or religion with which to align themselves. (At least in our society,) most people believe in some form of G-d, as well as some form of science. To demand that every individual place one domain over the other is illogical. I am aware NOMA does not demand that individuals chose which to believe, science or religion. However, it seems that NOMA place science and religion in a kind of détente that I find unnecessary and unproductive.

Dawkins wrote of the awe of witnessing the brain of an ant or distant galaxies, and how that awe easily surpasses the psalms’ ability to invoke wonder. I know my question is simple, but I ask, what is to be gained by putting this awe in separate spheres?


Andrew Josten said...

Some questions regarding a synthesis of science and religion: Can we interpret the messages of scripture using science? Sure, we can if we want to. Suppose we try to use science to interpret scripture. Here are two ways that could go. 1. We make the observation that the bible says that everything in the universe was made in six days. Using our scientific theories which suggest that everything in the universe was not made in six days, we could interpret our scriptural observation to mean that the writers of Genesis didn’t know what they were talking about, that they were just making myths to explain where the universe came from and they got it wrong. That’s one way to interpret scripture using science. 2. Another way would be to make the same scriptural observation, realize it conflicts with science if day means 24 hours, and then reason in the following way. Hold the assumption that “scripture must be correct in some way, it can’t be false or just a flat out failure at providing accurate information”. With this assumption, and our scientific understanding that the literal interpretation would be false, we would be led to a new interpretation, one that would not conflict with science and which will make our dearly held assumption true. This approach would be to say “Science shows that a literal interpretation of scripture is false, but scripture must be true in some way, so it must be somehow metaphorically true”, and in this way, science would be giving a different interpretation of scripture than we might have had if we were ignorant of science.
Many people take another view which is that a literal interpretation of scripture is a higher authority than science, and therefore when they conflict, science is wrong. This relates to what you said about it being unreasonable to expect people to only hold beliefs arrived to through science or only hold beliefs arrived to through scripture. You could hold some beliefs through one method and other beliefs through the other method if you want. Where I think you will have to make a choice is where they conflict. Where science and religion seem to conflict (universe made in six days versus universe not made in six days), you will have to ask yourself “which one is the firmer ground? Is science more trustworthy than a literal interpretation of scripture, or the other way around? Should I reinterpret scripture based on science or should I interpret science to be false based on scripture? Should the meaning of scripture be molded to fit science or should we take scripture as the authority and say that when science conflicts with it, science is wrong?
The NOMA principle seem to suggest that if science and religion conflict on empirical matters, science trumps religion and we should reinterpret religion to fit science. But as I mentioned in my post attacking the NOMA principle, I don’t see why the theist would have to accept this rule. They could just say that their scripture is literally true and when it makes empirical claims they are true and a better guide than science. As an atheist, I think science should be trusted over religion on both empirical and moral matters.

Michael Dean Hebert said...

You may be interested in a book called "When Science Meets Religion" by Ian G Barbour. In this book, Barbour articulates a view which I think matches up pretty nicely with your view of a possible synthesis between religion and science.

He distinguishes four possible stands on the relationship between religion and science: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration. Dawkins' view might be summed up as the conflict view. Gould supports the independence view. Dialogue suggests an independence between science and relgion, but nonetheless a parallel (for lack of a better term) dialogue between both. Integration, the view Barbour ultimately supports, is further split up into three possibilities: natural theology, theology of nature, and systematic synthesis. I won't go into more detail here, primarily since I doubt I can faithfully (ha) recall it now and I'm not about to look it all up.

I do have to point out that I think Barbour creates a straw man out of the conflict view. If you read it, I'd just like you to note that he often overstates the claims of naturalists. While I'm not religious and this book has certainly not changed my mind, I think it did a good job of helping me structure my thoughts about religion and presents some of the strongest arguments in favor of coexistence and mutual support between the two.