Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's Wrong With NOMA

I want to explain in a little more detail why I disagree with NOMA, that principle which tries to maintain a safe distance between science and religion in cultural and political affairs. The idea is that religion and science involve "non-overlapping magisteria," each field dealing with matters the other cannot touch.

Those who support NOMA usually say that religion offers moral wisdom and guidance, a framework for understanding our place in the world and a foundation for our way of life. Science, on the other hand, only offers descriptions of nature, tools for making better predictions, models for understanding how natural phenomena unfold. Science is not prescriptive; it cannot ground or justify our social and political institutions. Science cannot tell us what it means to lead a good life. All science can do is let us understand the natural world; religion, on the other hand, deals with questions of value and meaning.

There are two basic lines of argument for this view, and I will explain why they are both flawed. First, however, I will explain in more general terms why I reject NOMA. It is not simply that NOMA lacks sound argumentative support. Rather, it is that NOMA is impracticable as a social or political tool.

The problem with NOMA is that it does not allow us to distinguish the religious from the scientific. NOMA claims there is a line between science and religion, but offers no means of recognizing or measuring that line.

If we could draw the line scientifically, it would mean that science was able to recognize and delineate the properly religious; similarly, if we could draw the line from a religious point of view, it would mean that religious perspectives had some authority over what defines the scientific as such. Since NOMA says that these are non-overlapping magisteria, neither science nor religion can draw the line between science and religion. So how do we decide where science ends and religion begins?

One might say that philosophy is the answer. Yet, if the philosophy of science has taught us anything, it is that there are no a priori boundaries when it comes to scientific discovery. Philosophy cannot tell us beforehand what science can or cannot achieve, or what functions science can or cannot perform. Science, and science alone, defines its boundaries.

So what happens when scientific practice challenges religious doctrine?

Since NOMA offers no means of making the distinction between science and religion, it offers nothing by way of conflict and dispute resolution.

The historical and social fact of the matter is that science and religion can and do compete for the same territory. NOMA says they should stop trying to compete, but offers no method for achieving that end.

Now that I've explained my dissatisfaction with NOMA, let me explain the flaws in its justification.

There are two basic arguments for NOMA. The first is that science, being only descriptive, cannot produce or ground any of our moral sentiments. It does not provide ultimate goals or purposes. Religion, on the other hand, offers people a worldview, a belief system which provides moral foundation. Thus, morality itself requires religion, or something like it.

The second argument is that science deals only with the rational, logical side of experience, while religion deals with the emotional, intuitive aspects of life. Thus, we need religion (or something like it) to lead healthy, balanced lives.

With respect to the first argument, it attributes qualities to religion which are not there and fails to see the proper relationship between science and morality.

Science does help us decide how to live better lives. It informs our decisions about diet, medicine, and general health care. It informs our judgments about whether or not we should, for example, have an abortion or utilize stem cells for research. Only with science can we make informed decisions about how to live.

Science does not tell a woman if she should decide to have an abortion, but it tells her what an abortion is and what its consequences are. And it tells her when the best time to have one would be. She then has to decide if having an abortion is something she wants to do.

While science can help inform our decisions, it cannot provide us ultimate goals or reasons. But, then, neither can religion. Religion only offers the illusion of an ultimate goal and reason, and not a substantive, coherent purpose. Religion offers a framework for avoiding the search for goals and reasons, and not a foundation for understanding or coming to terms with any definable goals or reasons.

One's religion might tell them, for example, that abortion is wrong. The justification? Because God said so, or because it is in God's nature. That is not a reason. It's just an excuse.

Unlike science, religions often make sweeping moral pronouncements. The question is, are they justified in doing so? Should we respect religion as having some authority over such matters?

By what authority?

The problem is, religion offers no reliable foundation for its claims to moral authority. There is no reason to trust a priest over a plumber, a theologian over an accountant, when it comes to questions of moral value and good living.

Many people trust in priests and theologians because doing so makes them feel better. It gives them a reason to stop asking difficult questions. It lets them get away with not having to decide for themselves.

Science offers no such alibi. As far as science is concerned, we can ask all the difficult questions we like, for as long as we want. You can ask your plumber, and your mailman, and your nurse. In the end, the decision is yours.

Our search for moral answers--our search for justifications--is not to be dismissed with sweeping judgments, like "abortion is wrong." Rather, it is to be cultivated and improved over time.

The only reason to stop asking for moral justifications is when it is no longer practical to do so. That is not something that can be decided ahead of time, and it is not something that religions have any authority to command.

Unlike religion, science helps us guide our moral questioning towards more practical and controllable ends. Science is not merely descriptive. Rather, science gives us new languages for framing our prescriptions. The prescriptive language doctors use when advising on diet and lifestyle decisions are made possible because of science. All rational prescriptive language has some basis in science, or else it wouldn't be rational. We cannot separate prescriptive language from science, because if it weren't for the desire and need to produce such prescriptions, we wouldn't worry about science in the first place. Science exists because we need to shape our lives, because we can and must develop attitudes towards our futures.

A science which did not inform our decisions about the future would be a dead science. So it is misleading to say that science is not prescriptive, that it has nothing to say about morality or questions of value and good living. Science is inseparable from our moralizing, forward-thinking behavior and language. Science cultivates and directs our prescriptive language; religion suppresses its development and progress, seeking to terminate the search for justifications with sweeping pronouncements that lack rational support.

Thus I reject the first argument.

This leaves the second argument, regarding the difference between logos and mythos--the rational and irrational, the logical and emotional aspects of human experience. The idea here, promoted by such intellectuals as Karen Armstrong, is that, while science nurtures our rational, logical selves, we need religion (or something like it) to nurture our emotional, intuitive lives.

There may be some truth to this view. I admit that a fulfilling life with only science--where art forms such as literature, music, and film were wholly absent--is hard to imagine. However, we should not interpret this as a valid argument for NOMA.

Religions offer mythology which can provide us with psychologically stimulating and perhaps even enlightening material. Religions can, in this sense, inform our lives and shape our understanding of the world and ourselves. At the very least, religion can feel good.

However, this does not mean that religion relates to a unique "magisteria" which is outside of science's purview. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that what makes religions work--and what makes art work--is open to scientific discovery. Science can help us better understand religion and art, just as it can help us understand our emotions and moralizing instincts.

The idea that our intuitive, emotional selves is beyond the scope of scientific discovery is unfounded and antagonistic to reason. As I noted earlier, only science can determine its boundaries.

Thus, while we can see a difference between science and religion as human endeavors, we should not conclude that science and religion possess non-overlapping magisteria, or that science has no authority when it comes to religious matters.

Thus I reject the second argument for NOMA.