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NOMA or not?

It’s been a few years since I’ve read Stephen Jay Gould’s “Rocks of Ages”, but ever since then, the underlying premise of the book has stuck with me.  By “stuck with me”, I mean more in the manner of a popcorn kernel that gets stuck in your teeth and refuses to be dislodged, rather than in the manner of how a memorable vacation or good movie gets stuck in your mind, if you catch my drift.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, or even that I think that Gould was completely off base with his idea of NOMA.  For those that might be unfamiliar, NOMA stands for “Non-Overlapping MAgisteria”, which in turn refers to the idea that the intellectual realms of religion on one hand, and science, on the other, are either in fact, or ought to be in principle, completely separate without any sort of overlap in their respective spheres of influence.  At the same time, however, they are each presumably legitimate pursuits of knowledge in their own respective spheres of influence. Sounds reasonable — on the face of it at least — right?

The problem is, during my reading of Gould’s book where he lays out this premise of NOMA, it became clear (to me at least) that, in fact, Gould had little sympathy for the idea of religion as being anywhere near the same level as science on the scale of intellectual legitimacy.  In brief, it almost seemed to me that he came up with the idea of NOMA as a means to “throw a bone” to theologians and other religious thinkers while still maintaining his view of the modern supremacy of science as the ultimate expression of human intellect.  What I mean is that Gould came at the problem with the idea that science was the de facto standard for getting at “truth” and was trying to see if there was still a way that religion could fit in to the picture, given its obvious importance in human history and current state.  It never seemed to occur to him that his whole starting point might be a little off balance, and in this way, he merely came across as condescending toward those who didn’t share his fundamental epistemology.

This starting point, it seems to me, is this implicit assumption that the explanations for reality alternately proffered by science and religion are part of a zero-sum game: that is, this idea there can be only one explanation for any given phenomenon.  On this view, if science comes along and explains something in physical terms that used to be explained by some sort of appeal to supernatural entities, then that is an example of science gaining ground on religion.  Looked at this way, it seems that religion has been losing ground for quite some time.

But not so fast.  While it is certainly true that different explanations for a given phenomenon can compete with each other, it’s not obvious that they logically are required to.  I’m perfectly fine with the idea that religion attempts to focus on the “why” questions for phenomena, or questions of purpose, while science mainly focuses on the “what” and “how” questions, as a basic starting point for trying to find demarcations between science and religion.  But it seems to me that NOMA takes this to extremes when it declares that there can be in fact no overlap.  As a quick aside, many atheists also reject NOMA, but they do so from the standpoint that religion is not a legitimate means to knowledge or truth, and thus it doesn’t even have a “magisterium” to begin with.  While I stand with these atheists in rejecting NOMA, my reasons for doing so are quite different.

As an example of what I mean, science surely has something to say about what it means to be human, by revealing our evolutionary history, and the biological underpinnings of any number of human behaviors.  At the same time, to take an example from Christian theism, religion may talk about humans being made “in the image of God”.  My point is, who’s to say that the biological explanations for our behaviors, our intelligence, and so on aren’t in fact part of this “image of God”.  In such a way, we see that there could be layered explanations for phenomena, instead competing ones, coming from science and religion.  I’m not trying here to argue necessarily for the legitimacy of particular religious explanations, but rather to argue that at least some of them can and do overlap with scientific ones, without any obvious conflict.  But, if this is true, NOMA fails almost by definition.

I doubtless will have more to say about this in future posts, but hopefully this will get things started.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being a guest on an old friend’s podcast, The Christian Humanist Podcast.  Nathan and I went to high school together, and were part of the same church, and in particular, the church’s high school youth group.  He went on to pursue English literature in college, while I went on to study the weather.  Many years later, I discovered his blog while searching for Christian resources on the Internet, and we  reconnected through there.

The podcast discussed science and its relationship to Christian inquiry.  The hosts of the Christian Humanists are students of philosophy and the humanities, and as such I was very interested to hear their perspective on that other great human intellectual pursuit–Science.  I thought we had a great conversation, and I learned a great deal (which I will likely discuss in future posts), but wished we could have had more time to pursue some of the issues that came up in our discussion.  This post is an attempt to elaborate on one of them, namely the idea that science is progressive.

First I want to lay some background by discussing what the changeable nature of science means.  One common thread I’ve noticed amongst non-scientists is a conception that science is always in a state of flux.  What is true one minute may be shown to be false the next.  While this is certainly true, there is another very important aspect to consider.  Namely, science always builds on what came before.  There is always a solid bedrock of time-tested knowledge on which to fall back on.  As Newton famously said, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  In this regard, it is quite similar to other intellectual fields such as philosophy or theology.  Philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike never operate in a vacuum (unless they are literally studying the vacuum, of course!).  They always at least consider what other philosophers and theologians have said, and test their ideas in relation to them.  This is not to say that they don’t question fundamental assumptions, only that proper care is taken in doing so.

In regards to science, there is a solid bedrock of core ideas, theories, experimental findings, etc., that have all withstood the test of time and repeated experimentation, while out on the edges are the newest crop of scientists who are pushing the envelope, testing new ideas, re-examining old ones in the light of new data, and generally trying to learn more about the natural world.  Out on the fringe, science is indeed in a state of constant flux, and this is a good thing, because it is the only way science can ever progress.  More about this in a moment.  Often the public only sees what is reported through the media, of this-or-that study which overturns this-or-that idea, or contradicts this other contemporary study, and so on.  That is, they only see what is happening on the front lines, and often are unaware of the bedrock.  Or, rather, the bedrock has become so ingrained in common knowledge that it is not even recognized in everyday life as being “science”.  A good example of this is the spheroidal nature of the earth, which (nearly) everyone takes for granted today but was once a far from settled scientific issue.

Its easy to see how folks may get confused and wonder how anyone can trust anything a scientist says at any given moment.  The truth of the matter is, not all science is created equal: some theories are very robust, by which I mainly mean well-attested to by the evidence, while others are far less so.  A contemporary example of the former would be Quantum Theory, while of the latter would be any of the myriad variations of String Theory.  Nevertheless, any theory, no matter how well established up to the present time, is always in danger of being overturned by new data–although more likely, it will not be completely overturned as much as being superseded by a new, more complete theory.  On the flip side, just because a theory doesn’t have a lot of evidence going for it at the present time doesn’t mean it is not a good one that deserves study.  These are two considerations that, in my opinion, make science so exciting to begin with.

So what does progress in science look like in practice?  Most of the time, progress is slow, with small discoveries here and there serving as stepping stones on a more-or-less gentle slope which represents progress within a given theory or paradigm.  A contemporary example would be the continued efforts to understand and refine the Standard Model theory of particle physics–witness the efforts of the teams at the Large Hadron Collider.

Then, every once in a while, a great leap forward is taken.  A classic (perhaps even the archetypal) example of this is Einstein’s two theories of relativity, which together supplanted the reigning paradigm of Newtonian mechanics, almost overnight.  I won’t get into the details of the theories here, but the key point I want to make is that Einstein didn’t as much show that Newton was wrong as he was incomplete. It turns out that Newton’s laws work perfectly fine for everyday circumstances, as long as the local gravitational field doesn’t get too strong or speeds of objects don’t get too close to the speed of light.  Einstein’s theories, however, were able to explain observations of phenomena like the precession of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun which Newton’s Laws utterly failed to do.  (Einstein did so in terms of the geometric warping of spacetime, rather than the unexplained “action at a distance” that Newton’s Law of Gravity relied upon).  Simultaneously, Einstein’s theories explained everything that Newton’s Laws already explained.  In other words, Newton’s Laws are a special, limiting case of Einstein’s theories.  Most assuredly the reason Newton held sway for so long was both because his laws were a very good approximation to relativity, and because our technological ability to observe phenomena that would conceivably violate Newtonian mechanics was limited until near the time of Einstein.  For what its worth, Newtonian mechanics (or classical mechanics as it is often called) is still used successfully by many modern sciences, including my own field of Meteorology, because many fields of science derived from physics don’t have to worry about strong gravitational fields or motions near the speed of light.  (When we discover tornadoes that have winds near the speed of light, I’ll retract my claim!) So, in brief, Einstein built upon Newton, and then leaped beyond him, and his theories are held as the gold standard today not because they are more interesting aesthetically (although they may be that) or that a majority of scientists decided they liked them more, but because they explain more of the actual empirical observations and experimental data that we have access to than Newtons laws do.  I have little doubt that in the future we will find more and more observational “anomalies” that demand an explanation beyond Einstein (there are already some tantalizing hints!), and science will be poised to take another leap forward.  And that’s what I mean by the progressive nature of science.

Welcome, readers, to my new blog!  It’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, isn’t it?  Need I any more motivation?

In all seriousness, this blog is born out of an attempt to get some of my scattered loose thoughts about things variously scientific, theological, philosophical, and experiential down in some sort of coherent journal form.  I can’t even begin to count the number of times an idea has come to my head and I’ve failed to write it down, only to have it reappear unbidden at some later date.  It’s as if they are bouncing around inside my mind, like a fly trapped by a window, looking for a way out, and becoming increasingly frustrated because I keep them in there.  If you check out the “about” page, you can read more about my motivation in this regard.  In brief, this blog is about discussing the Christian faith from an intellectual perspective — loving God with all my mind — and in particular, to explore the interplay of scientific thinking and practice with that of the Christian faith.  I also want to use it as a discussion of my faith journey, which has been heavily influenced by my chosen vocation, namely that of a practicing scientist in the field of Meteorology.  My hope is that the posts here will alternately resonate, inspire, challenge, and provoke thinking in the readers of the blog, for my fellow Christians and non-Christian friends and whoever else happens upon this blog.

I want to make it clear that I’m not writing this blog in a vacuum.  I have been inspired and influenced myself by several other excellent intellectual Christian bloggers out there.  Some that top this list are the late Michael Spencer of Internet Monk , Scot McKnight of Jesus Creed , and my old friend Nathan Gilmour and his cohorts at The Christian Humanist (on which I was a recent podcast guest), among many others, which you can visit in my blogroll.  One thing that these bloggers have in common is that they all approach the Christian faith passionately from thoughtful, careful, and serious points of view.  It has been writers like these that have brought me through a time of wilderness in my faith, and have helped confirm and increase it beyond what I thought was possible, for which I thank God.  If you continue to read this blog, I daresay you will hear more about this in future posts.  All would describe themselves, I think, as firmly orthodox in their theology and faith practice, but yet all have a distinct desire to engage seriously and respectfully with the great intellectual issues of our time, at least those that occupy our lives in the West.  As should go without saying, I don’t necessarily always agree with everything they say on their blogs, but their humility, civility, true respect for the issues and those that disagree with them, and their overall Christian character, are qualities I would like to emulate here in my own blog.  I can only hope to contribute in some small and humble way to the conversations that they have been having, adding my own experience from the scientific realm, and thus to contribute to God’s glory.

As for comments on my posts, I welcome them wholeheartedly, but I wish to make it very clear from the get-go that I will tolerate no personal attacks, spamming, or trolling in any form.  I expect that much of what I have to say will be disagreed with from all manner of perspectives at some point or another, and that commenters will disagree with each other, sometimes vehemently.  I have no problem with disagreements, but civility must be maintained.  I’ve had quite my fill of wading through any number of flame wars on other blogs to get at nuggets of goodness, to see the same thing happen here.  I do not see this blog as a debating platform, but rather as a platform for civil conversation and mutual learning.  I’d ask people who choose to comment here to please respect this vision; I reserve the right to terminate a line of discussion at any time, if only because time is valuable, and with my full time job, I don’t always have a lot of it.

Finally, I hope that writing in this blog will also make me a better writer overall.  It’s not one of my stronger suites, but being a scientist means writing a lot, and since I’ve only been recently decanted from the Ph. D. mold, I had better get to learn to like it and get good at it!

Thanks for reading!