Thursday, May 3, 2012

Science and Religion – II

    In our last blog post we began our consideration of Stephen Jay Gould's book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. We noted that Dr. Gould attempted to reconcile science and religion through the concept of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" or NOMA, for short. We also noted with consternation that his proposed solution would have had the effect of stripping religion of all of its supernatural elements, leaving it but a pale shadow of its former self.
    But what, then, about morality? Morality, after all, according to Dr. Gould, belongs to the magisterium of religion; science cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is." But how does religion go about finding the answers? If there is no such thing as prophecy or divine revelation, God presumably has no way to communicate with us. He could not have spoken directly to Moses, or to Isaiah, or to the Apostle Paul. What, then, forms the basis of morality? Dr. Gould offers a suggestion of his own: we ate to "seek solutions to questions of morals and meanings in the proper place – within ourselves" (p. 197).
    This, however, cuts us loose in a raging sea of moral relativism. If values are determined by culture, then there are few, if any, universal values, for cultures can differ quite markedly from one another. Who is to say that cannibalism or genocide are absolutely wrong? Both practices have been accepted in various cultures around the world. In our own culture we have arrived at the point where we are no longer certain about such basic concepts as the sanctity of life or marriage. (True to our deeply held materialistic principles, the only thing we are certain about is the sanctity of private property. You can have my wife; you can have my reputation. But don't you dare touch my bank account!) To ask an even more disturbing question, why is it, that of all the species on our planet, only one, Homo sapiens, even worries about morality? We can't we, as human beings, simply accept life as it is, just like the ichneumonid wasps Dr. Gould describes in his book? (The female wasp stings another insect, usually a caterpillar, and then lays her eggs on the other insect's paralyzed body. The hatched larvae then eat the host insect alive!). In an amoral universe, is the presence of a conscience in a human being an evolutionary anomaly? Shouldn't it rather be considered a neurosis, and treat it accordingly?
    Ironically, Dr. Gould's conception of NOMA even creates problems for science. Modern science arose in the Western world precisely because of our belief in a rationally ordered universe, ultimately rooted in the Judaeo-Christian belief in an all-powerful and intelligent Supreme Being. Once science cut itself loose from divine revelation and asserted the autonomy of human reason, an epistemological crisis ensued. How do we know that the external world has a real, objective existence? How do we know that our senses are giving us accurate perceptions? How do we know that causality is a real phenomenon? Apart from revelation we have no way to validate our sense perceptions, and modern Western philosophy has struggled with these questions ever since. Modern science is built on a set of unproven assumptions.
    Dr. Gould calls his approach a "humane, sensible and wonderfully workable solution to the great nonproblem of our time: (p. 92). On closer examination, not only is it apparent that the problem is very real and pressing, Dr. Gould has actually made it more acute. We can appreciate his interest in the issue, but his solution leaves much to be desired.


  1. What, then, forms the basis of morality?

    What moves the planets?
    What makes the lightning?
    What makes the grass grow?
    Why did my grandmother die last Tuesday?
    Why is the sky blue?

    These are all good questions.
    However, making magical stuff up because you don't know the answers is not acceptable.

    Otherwise, you get to do that with everything.
    And that's exactly what they will do.

  2. Let us stand back and marvel at what Gould's other knowledge 'magisteria' has produced:




    (still waiting)

    Not one bit of knowledge.

    Religious belief protected by the term 'magisteria' just makes stuff up and then runs and hides behind the Gould's handy dandy magisteria curtain and claims it has every right to make stuff up and pretend it's true... or, at least, it would be more likely to be true if everyone could be forced to support this made up stuff as if it were true. Religion makes all kinds of causal claims of effect, claims about the nature of reality, its purposes, meanings, intentions, and so on, but cannot produce any equivalently compelling causal evidence that underlies the products and explanations derived from the method of science. Religion just wants to continue to make stuff up and have everyone respect that not because it is deserved but because it is not, because it easier to make stuff up than it is to figure stuff out. Bottomless ignorance and intellectual meekness is a small price to pay for the assurances of our delusions.

    As for that knowledge that is sure to come from the magisteria assigned to religion, well, while we wait for another couple of millennia for some knowledge to magically happen - any new knowledge will do - let's form clubs and sing songs and pretend that we're privy to secrets unavailable to those who think we're gullible and foolish.


    (still waiting)