Explanation on NOMA

In an earlier post C4 left a comment asking whether I was advocating NOMA.

NOMA=the late Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of Non-Overlapping Magisteria. NOMA, for Gould meant that scientists should deal with facts, causal explanations of events (the so-called what and how) and religion be left to the question of meaning and ethics (the so-called why).

This view is criticized by religious types who want to argue against science and scientists who feel that religion should not be automatically deferred to in the realm of meaning and morals.

The theory, I believe, is half-right, half-wrong.

Gould is right that there are non-overlapping magisteria. He is wrong that the these magiseteria can be so easily divided between religion and science.

Gould’s understanding of the magesteria is very flawed. A better theorist in this regard is the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Habermas, going back to the ancient Greek tradition, argues for the separation of the spheres of Art, Morals, and Science—Beautiful, Good, and True respectively.

Now it can be seen where Gould was right and wrong. Scientists, like any other citizens, in the public sphere of communication, can argue for morals. Religion should not have a de facto higher place in this regard than philosophy, political theory, sociology, etc.

Scientists can and should participate in this discussion of Morals IF (and this is a big IF) they realize–according to Habermas and here I think he is right on the money–that the methods and canons of science (IT/TRUE language) are not superior to the canons of the Good. To impose, non-democratically, scientific canons onto a public debate about proper policy, law, foreign policy, and ethics is to try to colonize the Good Sphere by the True Sphere.

What is the case is not what should be the case in all instances, to put it bluntly.

So in that post I was not saying religion has some special privileged position, but rather that if one is going to criticize religion–and there is plenty of reason to do so–then one has to do it from within the canons already established. e.g. Philosophy, political theory, ethics–which yes involves the history of religious thinkers.

The Third Culture (the first being the humanists, the second by positivist scientists) has added knowledge of natural selection into certain arenas of our moral activity, language creation, social bonding, etc. Great. But what is not been shown (I think) by these authors is that what ought to be the case (i.e. How then shall we Live?) is answered by the question of how nature selected certain patterns and traits.

That’s not to say that Moral discussion shouldn’t take into account what science can tell us. Only that we shouldn’t be held enslaved to such findings. [i.e. I actually believe humans can choose differently…]. As Habermas would say, the point about moral and political discussion is free communication in a public sphere aiming at the creating of mutual norms.

And as a purely non-scientific poll I’ve taken in my own reading of these individuals, most of them strike me as pretty politically naive. Hitchens is an exception–though again he’s not a scientist but a political theorist, proving my point. I disagree with the guy on certain political issues, but he thinks politically.

Most of these New Atheists types are just 60s Culture Warrior Liberals, which is fine, it’s a point of view, but there’s nothing in the chemistry of molecules that suggests someone should be a Democrat over a Republican.

The boyz at the American Scene took Steven Pinker to task on this very point.

Published in: on January 19, 2008 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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