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Stephen Jay Gould, NOMA and a couple of popes

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I’ve been making my way through my second collection of Stephen Jay Gould essays, Leonardo’s mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms, published in 1998, having read his 1993 collection, Eight little piggies, a couple of years ago, and I was surprised to come across ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ as number 14 in the collection. I read it today. I’d heard that he promulgated his famous – or infamous, depending on your perspective – thesis on NOMA in a book called Rocks of Ages, so I wasn’t expecting such a treat, if I can put it that way, when I turned over the page to that essay.

As it turns out, Rocks of Ages, subtitled Science and religion in the fullness of life, was published in 1999, immediately after the collection I’m reading, and it presumably constitutes an elaboration and refinement of the earlier NOMA essay. So maybe one day I’ll get to that, but meanwhile I’m itching to get my teeth into this first ‘attempt’ – reminding myself of the original meaning of the term essai, in the hands of Montaigne.

Gould begins his essay with a story of a conversation he has, in the Vatican – half his luck – with a group of Jesuit priests who also happened to be professional scientists. The Jesuits are concerned with the talk of ‘Creation Science’ coming out of the US. One of them asks Gould:

‘Is evolution really in some kind of trouble, and if so what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both utterly satisfying and entirely overwhelming. Have I missed something?’

Gould assures them that this development, though big in the US due to the peculiarities of evangelical protestantism there, is quite localized and without intellectual substance. He wonders, in the essay, at the weirdness of an agnostic Jew ‘trying to reassure a group of priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief.’

This was the first point at which my (highly primed) sceptical sense was roused. First, the priest had been taught, or told, that no doctrinal conflict existed between Catholicism and evolution. One hardly gets the impression that he’s nutted this out for himself. What about the doctrine of the human soul? What about the absolutely central Judeo-Christian idea that humans were specially created in their god’s image? Can anybody honestly say that evolution casts no doubt upon these notions? To me, making such a claim would defy credibility. I mean, isn’t that precisely why so many Christians, of every denomination, have such difficulty with evolution? Second, Gould tells us that he was able to reassure the priests that evolution wasn’t under threat (fine, as far as it goes), and that it was ‘entirely consistent with religious belief’. Eh what? Did he show them or just tell them? Of course we get no detail on that.

Gould gives other examples of his fatherly reassurance, e.g. to Christian students, of the complete compatibility of Christian belief with evolution, which he tells us he ‘sincerely believes in’, but still without providing an argument. Finally he claims that, notwithstanding fundamentalism and biblical literalism, Christians by and large treat the Bible metaphorically. He seems to feel that this smooths away all incompatibilities. The six days of creation, ensoulment, original sin, humans in god’s image, salvation from sin through Jesus, his resurrection, his virgin birth, his miracles, etc etc, these are just stories. Is that what most Christians believe? Or just that some of them are stories, some of the time, for some believers? This question of literalism and metaphor is in fact a great can of worms that Gould doesn’t even glance into. It’s important, for isn’t literal truth also empirical truth, and doesn’t science have something to say about that?

In any case, having ‘established’, to his satisfaction, all this compatibility, Gould moves on to his central thesis:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise – science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains – for a great book tells us both that the truth can make us free, and that we will live in optimal harmony when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

This is NOMA in a nutshell, together with some unobjectionable remarks about harmony, justice, mercy and humility, all vaguely associated with religion. Yet I’ve read a lot of history, and this has made me sceptical of the role of religion in promoting such values. If you examine sermons and priestly speeches through the centuries, you’ll find them very much parroting the ethics of  their time – with a certain lag, given the inherent conservatism of most religious institutions. The Bible, that multifarious set of texts, is ideal for quote-mining for every Zeitgeist and Weltanschauung, but really we don’t need history to inform us that our ethical values don’t come from religion, a point made by many philosophers, anthropologists and cognitive psychologists. Religion is essentially about protection, hope and human specialness, all emanating from a non-worldly source, and all of these elements have been profoundly buffeted by the scientific developments of the last few centuries, precisely because the domains of scientific exploration and religious conviction overlap massively, if not completely. As Gould writes in another essay in this collection:

‘Sigmund Freud argued that scientific revolutions reach completion not when people accept the physical reconstruction of reality thus implied, but when they also own the consequences of this radically revised universe for a demoted view of human status. Freud claimed that all important scientific revolutions share the ironic property of deposing humans from one pedestal after another of previous self-assurance about our exalted cosmic status.’

Another, simpler way of putting this is that science – which after all is only the pursuit of reliable, verifiable knowledge – is perennially confronting us with our own contingency, while religions, and most particularly the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, seek desperately to keep us attached to a sense of our necessity, our centrality in God’s plan. It’s hard to imagine two activities on a more complete collision course.

Gould’s first essay on NOMA was apparently triggered by an announcement of Pope John Paul II to the effect that his Church endorsed evolutionary theory and found it compatible with Catholic dogma. This was much hyped in the media, and Gould considered it much ado about nothing, as it merely repeated, or so he thought, an earlier papal proclamation:

I knew that Pope Pius XII…. had made the primary statement in a 1950 encyclical entitled Humani Generis. I knew the main thrust of his message: Catholics could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of the human body, so long as they accepted that, at some time  of his choosing, God had infused the soul into such a creature. I also knew that I had no problem with this argument – for, whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue.

Now, it seems to me, and to many others, that this question of a soul, possessed only by humans, is an empirical question, unless the soul is to be treated as entirely metaphorical. If empirical, all our understanding of humans and other mammals, derived from evolution but also from zoology in general, tells against the existence of such an entity. We see clearly, and can map, through neurophysiology, genetics and other disciplines, the continuity of humans with other mammals, and with earlier hominids, and there is no trace of, or place for, a Homo sapiens soul. If metaphorical, the religious implications are enormous, for if the soul, which supposedly lives on after the body’s demise, were metaphorical, wouldn’t that make heaven, hell and the afterlife also metaphorical?

This is a real problem for the believers in such an entity, and a source of some amusement for non-believers. In a debate with Richard Dawkins a while back, George Pell, the Catholic archbishop of Sydney was apparently challenged on the exclusivity of the human soul and came up with the view that souls inhabit all living things but that the human soul was ‘infinitely more complex’ than those of other organisms. So now we know that white ants do indeed have souls, as well as blue-green algae and amoebae.  This sounded like a physiological claim to me, and I wondered how well synchronised it was with official Catholic doctrine on the matter – or is that non-matter? It seemed much more likely that the good archbishop was making it up as he went along, just as Dawkins accuses such authorities of doing.

Gould, though, congratulates Pius XII, because he ‘had properly acknowledged and respected the separate domains of science and theology’. We get here a whiff of the authoritarian arrogance of Gould, which grates from time to time. He presents separate domains as virtually an established fact and ‘proper’, and so takes on the role of chiding those who don’t subscribe to it, because he himself has ‘great respect for religion’. He also claims, but without any evidence, that the majority of scientists think like him. It was a questionable claim in 1998, and is even more so in 2013.

Still, Gould recognises that there’s a problem, because, according to him, the two non-overlapping domains are not widely separated, like the USA and Australia, but share a troubled border, a la Pakistan and Afghanistan. This seems a concession, but it goes nowhere near far enough. Gould himself uncovers the problem while probing the detail of Pius’s Humani Generis, and finding that the fifties pope was rather less well-disposed towards evolution than he’d thought. What’s more, Pius seems aware of the conflict Gould is so keen to avoid, as he writes of ‘those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless connected with the truths of the Christian faith.’ Pius elaborates on these questions by castigating claims, in particular as regards evolution, that might not be in keeping with ‘divine revelation’, which naturally he regards as some kind of truth. One of these truths is that ‘souls are immediately created by God’, which contradicts the evolutionary idea that all that is human is derived, through incremental moderation, from previously existing creatures. Gould provides a gloss on this by essentially claiming that Pius is patrolling the border between science and religion, intent on preserving the integrity of religious territory. I’m not convinced.

Gould then turns to the more recent statement on evolution by John Paul II. John Paul makes the point that in the 50 years or so since Human Generis, the strength of evolution as an explanatory theory has grown to the point that it’s pretty well unassailable. So he seems to have none of the qualms of Pius, yet still he makes empirical claims about matters ‘spiritual’ while claiming them not to be empirical, something which Gould prefers to obscure with a lot of self-congratulatory language about respect for ‘that other great magisterium’. Here is a slab of John Paul’s argument:

‘With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry?  Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line.  The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation.’

It’s a nice try, but the ontological difference described here is ‘just saying’.  But the ‘just saying’ has a lot of religious energy behind it, because so much of monotheistic religion is tied up with human specialness, and even necessity. We are in the creator-god’s image, we’re the ultimate end-point of the universe, and other hubristic clap-trap. What John Paul is trying to ‘say into being’ is the spiritual realm, no less. The ‘spiritual transition’, the emergence of soul-stuff, is real but beyond scientific observation. Thus it is both empirical and non-empirical, which is impossible.

There’s a good reason why Gould’s claim about NOMA is bogus. All we have to do is look at what he claims these ‘magisteria’ cover. To quote Gould:

‘The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.’

That the second sentence in this quote is false should be obvious to everyone after only a moment’s reflection. The central thesis in all monotheistic religions is surely that their one and only god exists and is real. We can’t possibly be talking in metaphorical terms here. Thus, an empirical claim lies at the very heart of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and there’s just no way of arguing yourself out of this. The fact that this empirical claim appears to be unprovable doesn’t make it any less of an empirical claim. The statement ‘Unicorns exist’ is also an empirical claim that is essentially unprovable. We can be pretty certain that unicorns don’t exist on our planet, but how can we prove that a creature fitting that description has no existence in the whole universe, or the multiverse, if there is a multiverse?

What’s more, religion is much more about empiricism than it is about ‘moral meaning and value’, because what is absolutely central to the monotheisms is that moral meaning and value derive from that real and existent being, and as such are themselves real and existent. That’s certainly the point that William Lane Craig bangs on about in all his debates – the empirical reality of his god, and of the values this male being espouses and somehow bequeaths to us.

In fact, on reflection, the statement that ‘God exists’ is not quite of the same type as ‘Unicorns exist’. It’s much closer to the statement ‘Dark matter exists’.  Unicorns can only be contingent entities – they may exist in some corner of the universe, but if they suddenly went extinct on the planet Gallifrey it would make little difference. However, dark matter is necessary, as far as I’m aware, to the standard model of the universe and its mass. That’s why the search is on, big-time, to find it, to identify it, to learn more about it. To the religious, their god is also necessary, and it becomes a matter of urgency to ‘find God’, to know him, to understand him, etc. That’s why proof of their god’s existence is important, and always will be. Of course, the religious obviously believe they already have the proof, but an increasing percentage of inhabitants of our western world are unimpressed with such claims.


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  1. […] There are essential empirical questions at stake, as I argued in my critique of Stephen Jay Gould here, but they’re hardly key to getting a handle on religion’s enormous popularity and […]

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