Before I put the issue with the United Methodist Church and Discovery Institute to rest, I want to make one last comment on the UMC’s Statement on Science and Technology, which I wrote about the other day. One of the most significant assertions in the statement is “We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues.” If that sounds vaguely familiar to readers here at Uncommon Descent, it should. It is little more than a restatement of the late Stephen J. Gould’s principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (or NOMA).
In essence, NOMA is the idea that Science and Religion occupy different spheres of knowledge and influence and as such are subject to two completely different ruling authorities or magisterium. Science has its sphere and doesn’t tell Religion what to do and Religion has its sphere, and Science doesn’t interfere there. On the surface, this would seem to make perfect sense. Science is Science, Religion is Religion, and one can’t dictate to the other regarding its boundaries or methods. Gould himself put it this way:
No such conflict [between science and religion] should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or “nonoverlapping magisteria”). The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beautyTo cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.
If only things could be so ordered and tidy. But, as Gould goes on to point out:
This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.
That’s hardly surprising considering that both Science and Religion offer much differing narratives about the origins of the cosmos or answering the question “who are we and where did we come from?”
Reading Gould’s explanation of NOMA carefully makes it pretty clear that science, so Gould thinks, deals in the realm of facts, and religion in the realm of values. The implication is pretty clear: if you want facts you should go to science because religion doesn’t deal with any facts. Gould puts it this way:
NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.
Thus the religious claim of the Judeo-Christian tradition that all things came to be because of the intentional and purposeful act of God the Creator is a “value” and not a “fact”. Precisely how Gould (or anyone else for that matter) comes by this knowledge is never elucidated. Did he derive it scientifically? If so, it would be interesting to read the peer reviewed research paper that confirmed that. If not, then to what “magesteria” did he appeal to make the determination?
And that reveals the fatal flaw with NOMA. As laid out by Gould, NOMA is at root a self-refuting proposition. Whether Gould realized it or not, in laying out the principle of NOMA as he did, he was, in fact, making a determination as to where the proper boundaries are between science and religion. So, was NOMA, then, a statement of Science or a statement of Religion? Given Gould’s admission that he is not a religious man, it seems likely that it was his science and not any religious impulse that informed his thinking on NOMA. But if NOMA is a statement of science, then science is clearly dictating to religion where the boundaries are and further what claims it can and cannot make. The reverse is true if NOMA is a statement of religion. Either way, the very meaning of NOMA is compromised as neither science nor religion can dictate to the other where the relevant boundaries are to which they must adhere and doing so violates the very principle of NOMA.
But let us suppose that NOMA is neither a statement of science nor religion. Well that would imply there’s a third magisteria out there, and that magisteria has the authority to oversee the magisteria of both science and religion. If that’s so, then what magisteria is that, exactly, and by what authority does it get to dictate terms to both science and religion? Gould never addresses that, of course. However, given the formulation of NOMA, there doesn’t seem to be any way to really get around the problem, and NOMA either defeats itself as self-refuting, or NOMA is meaningless because no one knows what the third magisteria is or ought to be to oversee both science and religion. A non-specified magisteria with no authority is meaningless. Either way, NOMA fails as a guiding principle for anything.
In advocating the principle of NOMA in their statement on science and technology, the UMC is relying on a flawed understanding of science and the relationship of science and religion, or more properly, science and faith. The UMC asserts as facts several statements about the origins of the cosmos, with God as the Creator of all things, including human beings. Surely if those are facts, then they would directly contradict any narrative from science that suggests the cosmos created itself out of nothing or that undirected, natural causes can explain the full panoply of life on earth, including us. A strict application of NOMA here would imply that the UMC (or any other religion asserting the same) must yield these authoritative statements to the version science wants to tell. I seriously doubt the UMC is going to give up asserting that God is the creator of all things no matter what science might say.
In the same way the UMC’s statement isn’t at all clear on what they mean by “science”, as I pointed out in my last article, neither is Gould in his explication of NOMA. To be sure Gould does seem to imply fairly strongly that when he is talking about “science”…that which deals with facts, that tells us how the heavens go, etc…he has in mind science very much constrained by the boundaries of methodological naturalism (MN), if not outright philosophical naturalism (PN). Either way, any science constrained by naturalism, even if only for “methodological” reasons, would be indistinguishable from science constrained by PN. No one makes this clearer than Del Ratzsch in his book Nature, Design and Science. Speaking of the effect of MN on science he writes:
People are, of course, perfectly free to stipulate such definitions [that is MN] if they wish. What no one is free to do, however, is to make such stipulations, erect on those stipulations various prohibitions concerning what science can and cannot consider, then claim that what science produces under those prohibitions is truth, rational belief, accurate mirrors of reality, self-correctiveness, or anything of the sort. The character of the results will be constrained by the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the original stipulations. (Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science, State University of New York Press, 2001, pg 146)
NOMA is an excellent example of what Ratzsch is saying here. Gould assumes that science, conceived as a handmaiden of PN in the guise of MN, produces “facts”, and those facts are truth or “accurate mirrors of reality”. In other words, NOMA assumes that no activity of any creator God could ever possibly be revealed in ways detectable by the methods of science. Thus science, as Gould conceives it in NOMA, is not a correlate of Nature, but of PN, which is a very different thing. That implies that where NOMA is concerned Naturalism will always trump Religion. If the UMC understood that, I doubt they would have worded their statement in such a NOMA-like fashion thus subjugating some of their key doctrines to the dictates of the non-theistic philosophy of Naturalism.
Indeed, why would the UMC, or any other Judeo-Christian tradition, think that nature itself would ignore the activity of a creator or that science and its methods would be incapable of revealing markers of that Divine activity? Ratzsch puts it this way: (speaking of actual design in nature as a possible indicator of intelligent cause)
If nature does not ignore design and if design factors into relevant empirical structures, then any science built on the proscriptions against design will inevitably fall into one of two difficulties. Either it will be forever incomplete…or it will eventually get off track, with no prospect of getting back on track (key elements of the track having been placed beyond the permissible bounds of discussion), thereby turning science from a correlate of nature into a humanly contrived artifact. (Ratzsch, ibid)
That being so, it is difficult to see how the UMC can justify a statement that would preclude it from making any authoritative claims about science, especially any science that is a correlate of non-theistic philosophical naturalism. Rather, one would expect that the UMC would expect all human spheres, including science, to be subject to the revealed Word of God, and as such nature would be replete with evidence for His activity, including such things as actual design. The Apostle Paul certainly understood this point when he wrote in his letter to the Romans:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Rom 1:20, NIV)
Poor Paul…such a blatant violation of NOMA and the UMC statement!
Some might argue that the UMC statement isn’t really a restatement of NOMA, that the language is different, and therefore the meaning is different. While it is true the UMC statement uses different words, the implication amounts to the same principle as NOMA. Saying “we preclude science from making authoritative claims about theology” and vice versa sounds very much like a recognition of two different magisteria in the sense of Gould’s formulation of NOMA. There really doesn’t seem to be any way that the Church can avoid violating its own standard while at the same time asserting some of its core beliefs about the nature of, well, Nature, and what role God had and has in creating and sustaining it. Any sermon on Romans 1:20 by a UMC pastor would almost certainly be considered out of bounds!
If, as a matter of doctrine, the UMC asserts that the first sentence of the Scripture is true, that “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth”, then it would seem to follow that the most scientific thing one could say is “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. For if that is a true statement, as most in the Judeo-Christian tradition believe, then there’s really nothing unscientific in asserting that, for no science could be properly constructed or understood outside of that overriding principle. Rather than an artificial imposition of NOMA, attempting to keep science and religion in separate spheres, the UMC should be asserting the integration of science and faith, because you need both to explain the universe and all that is in it, including us! One would think the UMC leadership would not need this explained, but apparently they do.