This has been gnawing on me ever since the Templeton Lecture at COSI. Today I was reminded of it again by a brilliant piece on YouTube by Feynman.
And then I read again the essay by Gould on Non-Overlapping Magisteria.
I adore Stephen Jay Gould. He and I share many things (besides a first name) – a passion for baseball and It’s a Wonderful Life, a love of quirky history, and a commitment to the idea that evolution isn’t just true, but marvelously pointless, that the real message of evolution isn’t survival of the fittest, but rather unrepeatable contingency. Gould taught me evolutionary biology, afternoons in the school library reading his marvelous essays. Certainly he taught me far more than my creationist 10th grade biology teacher ever did. When Gould died, it affected me, just as Carl Sagan’s early death affected me. (I remember the day Feynman died, because my quantum mechanics professor talked about it in class, talked about how Feynman had touched his life and career, but I didn’t really know of Feynman at the time. Now I look back and realize that death was the greatest loss of these three great losses.)
Gould’s NOMA essay, and the longer work Rock of Ages on the same topic, both hurt me. When I read them, I felt like Gould was not being honest, either with himself or with the world at large, and I didn’t understand why. It was like discovering that a long-trusted friend was actually stealing money, or was a Baltimore Ravens fan.
The idea of NOMA sounds so PC, so reasonably middle ground on its face. But when you dig into it, as you might a pretty, fluffy dessert, you discover there’s nothing there. NOMA suggests that both science and religion respect one another’s boundaries, that they deal with separate realms and that therefore one has nothing to say about the other.
Science cannot be bound. Science must be free to investigate all things. Perhaps there are some things that science can never know. But we won’t know that until we investigate! Starting out with a blanket prohibition is out of bounds. And for NOMA to have any meaning, it must create these prohibitions.
For instance, in the essay Gould quotes the pope as saying that science can’t speak to the ensoulment of humans. Why? What does “ensoulment” mean? If it means any change, any change at all, then it becomes the object of scientific exploration. Is there any evidence for humans having a soul? Some would point to a moral sense. Fine. A moral sense is a physical manifestation. We can investigate it. We can determine if any rudimentary moral sense exists in animals. We can find out if a moral sense, via reciprocal altruism, might have had survival value to early humans and pre-humans. We can investigate what’s going on in the brain when we think about morality.
The point isn’t that science will find the answers; the point is that science can, will, and must look for these answers. Prohibiting such a search violates NOMA right off the bat. But any such prohibition is out of bounds, not just this one. The beginning of life, the “cause” of the Big Bang, and the eventual fate of the universe are all examples of fields that religion might be tempted to claim. Religion can’t have them. Science must be free to roam.
What we’re left with, then, is a religion with nothing left to do. If by definition it can’t affect the natural world, then what’s left? Of what possible consequence could it be to the actual world?
Suppose someone says they’ve received a message from God. That message must have been received by something in the body, a single neuron, perhaps. Science can investigate that neuron, find out what exactly happened at the moment the message was received. Was it electromagnetic? A gravity wave? A neutrino pulse? What? If it was nothing, then it couldn’t have affected the neuron, because the neuron is a physical object in the universe, and the thoughts it engenders are real, physical things. If it was something, then scientists could (in theory, at least) investigate the source of the signal. Perhaps they’d trace it to an ancient planet circling a faraway star in Pisces. Or maybe not. The point is, they could investigate the claim, and that makes it a scientific question.
The only way NOMA works is if religion completely folds, surrenders all territory with absolutely no resistance, admits to no affect whatever on the natural world.
And if that happens, we have to be courageous and ask the next question. What good is it?