Monday, November 4, 2013

The NOMA principle: A wretched subterfuge.

From guest blogger, Andrew. 

The NOMA principle is the principle that science and religion are nonoverlapping majesteria, that is, two separate ways of acquiring beliefs about two separate fields of knowledge.  Science tells us about empirically observable phenomena and religion tells us about the subjects of meaning in life and morality according to this principle.  This is clearly and demonstrably false.  Both science and religion cross the NOMA border in plenty of cases.

Religions make empirical claims regularly.  Religions have origin myths about how the earth was created or about what makes planets move in the night sky.  Often times religions make claims about empirical matters that directly contradict the findings of science.  The Quran says in Sura 31 verse 10 “He (Allah) set on the earth mountains standing firm lest it should shake with you”.  This would seem to mean that Allah set down mountains like you would set down a paperweight on your desk.  This contradicts what geology has to say about mountains.  Mountains do not come down out of the sky and get set on top of the earth like paperweights.  Mountains come up out of the earth either through volcanoes ejecting lava that hardens and piles up into a mountain or through collision of tectonic plates in which the plates buckle upwards.

I took this mountain example from the following video, which argues that the Quran suggests that the earth is flat, another empirical claim.

Science on the other hand, has implications for morality, the supposed domain of religion on the NOMA distinction.  Here is one example.

1.  If the laws of physics govern our bodies and brains and determine everything we do – control us completely, then we do not have free will.
2.  If we do not have free will, then we are not morally responsible. (ought implies can)
Conclusion:  If determinism is true, then we are not morally responsible.

If you think that this argument is sound, then the claims of science about whether or not determinism is true will have moral implications.

Another point to make is that the theist doesn’t seem to have any reason to accept the NOMA principle.  Why should they think that their god is limited to only giving revelations about moral matters?  Can’t he tell people about empirical matters if he wants to?

In my opinion, the NOMA principle does not describe how science and religion actually behave and further, it does not describe how they should behave or what we should be willing to take from them.


Michael Dean Hebert said...

Nice analysis. I was raised Catholic and was genuinely shocked when I learned about transubstantiation. I was pretty excited to tell my church-school teacher that I was "pretty sure" we could verify in a science lab if the bread actually turned into the body of a person, namely Jesus (though we couldn't technically be sure it was his, since we didn't have his DNA on record). I thought I was about to create a revolution in the church. No such luck. It would be interesting to press the idea of NOMA on Gould and see what a religion would possibly look like if it actually made no claims where science has the tools to seek an empirical answer. I doubt such a religion would resemble any religions observed now. These considerations should make NOMA a less appealing proposal for theists who wish to use it to defend their own religious beliefs.

Will Psilos said...

I took the NOMA principle to be almost entirely normative, not descriptive, so any examples of religious people or scientists breaking the principle doesn't refute it. I know Gould used examples from the real world to show that many religious people seem to embrace this principle, but that doesn't make it a descriptive principle. It would certainly be absurd for Gould to be committed to the claim that no scientist or religious person ever acts in opposition to the principle, of course people break the principle.
Anyway, in the cases you've raised, it's your interpretations that break the NOMA principle, not anything inherent in the cases. It seems to me that the Quran verse only necessarily says that Allah created the mountains. There's no mention of how. Your talk about setting paperweights on desks and setting mountains out of the sky is a interpretation, but there's no reason to favor it over one that is consistent with empirical facts. Also your argument about determinism and moral responsibility explicitly relies on non-empirical claims - about the nature of free will and about ought implying can. The fact that there may be an empirical claim in the argument doesn't make it an empirical argument. Even if it was an empirical argument that made moral claims, it wouldn't show NOMA to be false, it would just break the rules set down in the principle - the same goes for a religious text that does necessarily make empirical claims.

David Harms said...

Very interesting. I had never been exposed to this concept of the NOMA principle. I do see too much of a flux between science and religion, too much of an overlap, too much of a similar purpose between the two. Like Michael Dean had suggested prior, it seems to go against any individual who has stark beliefs one way or the other, for example dedicated theists and dedicated scientists. It seems hard to defend any concrete theory either way. For an individual who is relatively passive both ways, the NOMA principle provides a unique answer to justifying both science and religion attempting to make empirical claims.