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I miss Stephen Jay Gould

The other day, my husband and I watched an old Charlie Rose interview with Stephen Jay Gould, which prompted me to pull out a few of his books. The one that grabbed my attention most this time is Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.

For those who don’t know, Gould proposed that science and religion are separate, “non-overlapping magesteria.” That is, they are separate endeavors that have nothing to do with one another. They are, in essence, mutually exclusive in purpose and content and therefore there can be no inherent conflict between the two. When such a conflict appears, it is because either science or (more commonly, in my opinion) religion, is overstepping its boundaries.

For the past couple of years, this idea has been dissed by so many authors, I can’t even list them. The most popular, of course, is Richard Dawkins. I thoroughly enjoy Dawkins’s writings about religion and his talks on the same topic, but I don’t always agree with him. To be honest, when Gould was alive and the two had disagreements on various topics, I almost always found myself agreeing with Gould. It’s a shame that he’s not around to defend his ideas about science & religion, when so many people are criticizing them and we so desprately need intelligent dialog on the subject.

I wonder what he’d have to say about religion and science today, in the wake of 9/11 and the encroachment of Christian fundamentalism into American politics and government. I wouldn’t presume to guess. But even though I never met Gould in person, I still miss him. A lot.

P.S. I just read on PZ’s blog that SJG has a new book coming out from beyond the grave! Halleluja. OK,it’s not new — it’s simply chapter 9 of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory published as a separate paperback book called Punctuated Equilibrium. Which is good, because I haven’t been able to get myself to read that other giant tome, even though I bought it as soon as it came out. Why not? It’s too fat to stay open on my lap.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I never liked NOMA. From the first time I heard about it, it sounded like the conception of a brilliant mind clutching at a pleasant untruth because the alternative was emotionally unpalatable. I'd wager that the reason "this idea has been dissed by so many authors" is that its sheer wrongness shines forth like a supernova in the night sky.

    Just think about it:

    1. Every religion in the Western tradition makes claims about what the actual, factual world is like. They say what is, where it came from and wherefore it did so.

    2. These claims are, quite often, bound up with the religion's ethical and moral positions. Homosexuality is a sin, they might say, and then in the same breath, being gay is just a choice.

    3. Thus, anything which stays on the "religion" side of the NOMA quarantine — any system of thought which confines itself to "ought" and never enters into "is" — cannot be a religion by any familiar sense of the word.

    4. It is not logically justifiable to call the "ought" side of the NOMA line, the domain of ethics and moral questions, by the name "religion", since non-theistic moral philosophies date back to Ancient Greece at least.

    5. Just as religions do not confine themselves to their proper place in the NOMA scheme, neither does science, although this is more a matter of method than of specific discoveries. (Naturally: the facts one uncovers via scientific methods exist independently of the human species, for the most part, while the methods are human practices.) It's not a hard-and-fast rule, and not every scientist — nor even every successful scientist — acts this way, but rational inquiry typically demands a basic set of precepts. "Scientific integrity" was Richard Feynman's phrase: "a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards." Parsimony suggests that one who adheres to this standard in their scientific work would at least attempt to do something similar in other aspects of life. Even setting that aside, there's no requirement that a moral precept apply to everything; an "ought" rule for one part of life is still an "ought" rule.

    By advocating such a principle as NOMA, Gould ends up foreclosing areas of debate that his central argument suggests should fall within the magisterium of religion. For example, he castigates, as a violation of the NOMA principle, what he calls "The misguided search for intrinsic meaning within nature". But wasn't the magisterium of religion supposed to have authority over issues of value, purpose and meaning?

    He states that we must seek morality within ourselves, a proposition that Hume might have agreed with but which rules out most religious positions from antiquity to the present. The more closely the Principle of NOMA is scrutinised, the more obviously it is incoherent and intellectually untenable.

    Russell Blackford

  2. People who actually subscribe to the NOMA idea should really make it clear where they think the boundaries are – does religion have any right to make claims about reality which can override actual evidence?

    In the absence of knowledge over what evidence may be unearthed, does religion effectively retreat to a shrinking god-of-the gaps-style approach to reality?

  3. I just came in here to voice my disapproval of NOMA, but lo and behold Blake has done just that and in a far more clear and convincing manner than I could. So…yeah. I'm with Blake.

    Which is not to say that I don't respect SJG or his ideas. For the most part, Gould was a wonderful science writer, a great communicator of complex ideas. I don't actually fall fully on either side of his other major debate with Dawkins, in terms of which point of view (punctuationism or gradualism) is better supported by the evidence. While I prefer Dawkins's gene-centered and gradual view, I am in no position, academically speaking, to truly defend it or attack any of the other theories. My best guess (and one that is hardly going out on a limb) is that evolution is probably very much more complex (as various offshoots like evo-devo and Lynn Margulis's work show) and mutable than we currently know.

    Regardless, it's nice to see Gould coming back into print, even if PZ says that it's a more difficult and technical work than a lot of his other well-known texts. Don't think I'll have time to read it while working on my dissertation this summer, but I'm sure I'll at least look into it at a bookstore at some point.

  4. Well, I reread Rocks of Ages this afternoon and at this point in my life, I don't actually buy into NOMA. Still it would have made the whole discussion more interesting if SJG was still around to update his thoughts on the topic.

    I personally think SJG just liked religions and rituals and was looking for a way to have an excuse to indulge even though he wasn't a believer. :-) My favorite book of his is Time's Arrow and Time's Cycle, in which he also allowed himself to indulge in some of his more arcane religious interests.

    I'm also in no professional or expert position to decide between Gould's and Dawkins's scientific ideas either. Gould was just my favorite writer.

  5. While I respect SJG, both his work and his communication skills, on NOMA I must take issue with him and agree with the others here. I think Blake Stacey has put it better than I could. I would only add that in my opinion NOMA is an oxymoron and is only subscribed to by religites, if at all, in an attempt to silence or marginalise criticism of religion.

  6. Just to put in a point for Gould–when you teach very religious people, NOMA makes evolution very much more palatable. As a pedagogical tool, it's essential for me.

    By emphasizing the separate-ness of science and religion, I can get students to put aside their initial emotional reaction, and listen to me talk about evolution. And, eventually, begin to see the reality of it.

    The overlapping of faith and science is a very complex issue–and not something beginners can get at, if they are still deeply embedded in religion.

    You can't start a beginner with a transmission change–you teach them to change the oil and work up. Given that Gould was so wonderful at popularizing, and also was known as a teacher, this may have been where he was coming from.

  7. "Every religion in the Western tradition makes claims about what the actual, factual world is like."

    Isnt the fact you had to say 'Western' suggests its possible for religion and science not to overlap too hugely though?

    Obviously it can, and thats where much of the conflict starts, but in my view theres been an increase in awareness that its often in a religions interest to not get into a direct contest, eg earth being the centre of the universe and all that, the many religious people who dont view the bible as literal truth, or evolution as 'just a theory', etc. Focussing only on the most intolerant of religions makes thing much more simplistic than the range of views that really exist in my view.

    im a bit baffled by the suggestion that anyone finding utility in the idea is a 'religite'. It may be misguided of me to think religion and science doesnt have to conflict as heavily as some theorists suggest, but I think thats going a wee bit far.


  8. Well, I often think that science and religion should address completely different issues. However,I would also include philosophy with religion in one category.

    Science is about studying the physical attributes of the universe.

    Relition and philosophy are about defining morality and finding a purpose in life.

    In that general way, I do agree with the concept NOMA. However, it's not so simple in the real world. (Is anything?)

    Over the past few years I've been starting to think that science can at least explain morality, even if it can't tell us what our moral precepts should be. And in some sense, I think science can tell us what is moral or immoral. (For example, if we see that certain animals have a higher level of consciousness than we previously thought, shouldn't we take their mental states into account in regards to the way we treat them? )

    I also think science shows that there is no ultimate purpose to the universe, therefore it throws us all into an existentialist position of having to create our own meaning in life. Both of ideas things fly in the face of many religious beliefs, and yet I feel that they are legitimate topics for science. So does that completely wipe out the definition of NOMA that I've listed above?

    In addition, many religions obviously feel that it is necessary to address the origins of life and the universe (aka "creation") in order to provide a foundation for morality and a purpose for life. Clearly an intrusion into the magesteria of science.

    So, is SJG's idea of NOMA a naive semantic device that does not reflect reality, but rather wishful thinking on the part of SJG (and me)? Or does it reflect a real division of categories that we should try to recognize and promote, but that is too often stomped on by both science and religion?

    I guess I'm a lonely sole in even wanting to think this idea might be valid.

  9. Otara,

    I included "Western" because that's the tradition I'm most familiar with, both from direct personal experience and from reading books. However, I think it's pretty obvious that taken literally, Native American creation myths conflict with the actual story of how we and the world came to be just as much as the Babylonian ones do.

    Hindus recently believed that smallpox was caused by the anger of a goddess named Shitala. How can this not conflict with the idea that smallpox is caused by a virus — a virus which, moreover, we can control and eliminate?

  10. Thing is, *if* two things clearly don't overlap, then there wouldn't seem to be much need to make a point that they don't. It's only if people think they do overlap (or that they should overlap) that it becomes an issue.

    In a generic sense, if there are two people in a debating context, one saying there are overlaps between two arbitrary things and one saying there aren't, the first only needs to point out where they exist to make their case, the second can only really make a case by falling back on general descriptions which seem to explain that there shouldn't be any clashes, yet such general descriptions would seem likely to be prone to missing out features. The second person has to be able to explain away each and every apparent clash that the first can come up with, either by showing how there isn't a clash, or that one or both of the clashing entities aren't *really* part of the things that the first claims.

    However, within the mind of one person, if they aren't interested in clashes, but just want there not to be any, a philosophy which says they don't exist could definitely be appealing. However, if it isn't actually tested against reality, to an observer it may seem to just be a named way of justifying ignoring potential conflicts.

    The person to whom the NOMA idea might be most appealing would seem to be someone juggling a religion and science (which appear to others to conflict), either by quietly reevaluating or redefining the awkward parts of the religion, or by ignoring the awkward parts of science.

    "[Authority-figure] has said there isn't *really* a clash" could be a definite comfort, but what is comfortable is often not what is right.

  11. "Thing is, *if* two things clearly don’t overlap, then there wouldn’t seem to be much need to make a point that they don’t."

    Which acts as if religion is a unitary construct when really that isnt the case. Obviously there are examples where science and particular religions directly conflict, I gave several exampels myself. But many religious people dont take that kind of literalist stance. By only pointing out the places literalist clashes do occur, it kind of suggests that religion will slowly give way until science can explain everything that religion used to. Given there are aspects of religion that are non-falsifiable, I dont think this is a likely event.

    And while someone might be avoiding a clash to avoid feeling 'uncomfortable' or the like, others might be _looking_ for a clash because they feel more comfortable with that instead. Ascribing motivations for why a particular theory might be attractive to a person often arent much use in my view, they're effectively just variations on the 'you're in denial' game.


  12. Otara: But why won't science or the scientific method ever reach a stage where it can explain everything. I am not saying that it will as I honestly don't know. But the evidence so far is that the scientific method is increasingly capable when it comes to explaining our universe. Thus it is far too early to say whether there are limits on what science or the scientific method will be able to explain in the future. However, what we can say is that science has already explained in a very short time what religion has only ever been able to speculate about, and invariably incorrectly. Yet it is religion that claims certainty, not science.

  13. Im not really saying that – Im more saying you cant completely falsify religion because aspects of it are inherently untestable. No matter where you push the boundaries of the known universe, religion can just go 'well god is beyond that'. It gets to cheat basically.

    Because religion doesnt really rest on empirical evidence, it can adapt to whatever empirical evidence is turned up whenever a literal claim is made and vanquished.


  14. Otara said: "It gets to cheat basically"

    You will have no argument from me there and it appears to be something they are very good at. Our main hope there is better education. Though even then, I agree that we are unlikely to ever totally eliminate the need some have for religion. At least not until we perhaps evolve much further, either in actual Darwinian terms or at the very least socially.

  15. >>"But many religious people dont take that kind of literalist stance."

    There's a great difference between saying "If religion and science clash, religion should take the relevant bit non-literally (ie retreat)" and saying "There *is* no clash between science and religion".

    It's possible to interpert NOMA as saying "There is no clash between science and pragmatic [sensible] religion", but then NOMA really ceases to be about science at all, and ends up being all about which religions are and which aren't flexible in the face of reality, and/or which religions don't really deal with physical reality.

  16. This makes me wonder what a science of ethics would look like. Hume notwithstanding, there is probably a way to frame ethics so science can get a grasp on it. In my opinion, ethics are not out of the domain of science; we just haven't found the right approach, yet.

    As a first approximation, for instance, for my personal use I've been trying to define the most ethical action as that which maximizes the long term reward of all involved organisms, with a weight assigned to each organism depending on how important it is to me (my sister vastly outweighs my cat, who is much more important than a spider. But, nevertheless, I try to do right by the spider as well. And spiders, collectively, outweigh my cat.)

    So: one would have to define the reward function, and a way to approximate its values for certain actions. Approximating that function for a given organism would require understanding how its mind works, and how that organism fits into its ecosystem (be that a wolf in a forest or a woman in a suburb). So long as one remembers that this is meant to be descriptive, and not prescriptive, it seems well within the bounds of science… though it's still fiendishly complex.

  17. It’s possible to interpert NOMA as saying “There is no clash between science and pragmatic [sensible] religion”,

    I kind of took it for granted thats what its saying. I mean obviously a religion that is directly in conflict with objective reality has a problem – 'the world will end in 1999, oh uh whups'.

    Thats the whole point of 'territory' I thought, ie it inherently assumes you can go out of your territory with things like this and over time we're learning whats appropriate territory and what isnt. And one converse might be the idea we can come up with completely objective empirical ethics, just dont think we can really pull that off myself. Or really pronounce on whether 'heaven' really exists or not – some things just wont really be solvable by science because they're not falsifiable, so it can never become part of sciences 'territory'.


  18. >>"I kind of took it for granted thats what its saying."

    But the logical extension is that there's something wrong with religions which do conflict with science.

    I kind of assumed that the point of the NOMA idea was to reassure certain (less consciously pragmatic) kinds of believers that they shouldn't be afraid of science, but in reality it seems to be more a case of hoping that when they see a conflict, they'll adapt their religion.

    The openly pragmatic and/or more mystical believers don't seem likely to be afraid of overlaps, so NOMA doesn't seem to be aimed at them.

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