Blackford 10, NOMA 0

June 14, 2009 • 7:41 am

Over at his website,  Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, philosopher Russell Blackford (who has been out of town), finally weighs in on the debate about accommodationism. His tactic is to take on Steve Gould’s concept of NOMA, or religion and science as “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

There is more to be said about this, but I’d like to spend more time on another claim, the idea, popularised by Stephen Jay Gould, that science deals with the empirical world, where it has authority, while religion deals with questions of how we ought to live, essentially the realm of morality, where it has authority. Thus, science and religion have separate spheres of authority and that do not overlap. According to this view, we are entitled to tell religious leaders to keep out of such matters as the age of the Earth and whether Homo sapiens evolved from earlier forms of life. However, so the idea goes, scientists should not challenge the authority of religion in the moral realm.

In my view, this is comprehensively wrong.

(Snipped . . . a lot of good arguments)

. . . I conclude that NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its very nature to the moral sphere and in principle it has as much authority in the empirical sphere as anywhere else. I.e., it could have made accurate empirical claims if really in receipt of knowledge from an angel or a god.

Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion. Once we know what we want to achieve from morality, science is at least as well placed as religion to tell us how to achieve it, though we also need to rely on personal and historical experience, etc., since the most relevant sciences (such as psychology) are relatively imprecise and at an early stage of development.

However we look at it, religion is neither conceptually confined to the moral sphere nor authoritative within that (or any other) sphere. NOMA is a false doctrine. NOMA no more!

Of course, NOMA is a contentious doctrine. While I have put the case that it is false, that does not entail that, for example, science organisations should say that it is false, or that school students should be taught that it is false. Nor, however, should it be promulgated to students and the public as true. While I’m convinced that religion has no special authority in matters of morality (or in matters involving a supposed supernatural realm if it comes to that), other intelligent and reasonable people may disagree with this assessment.

All I ask from science organisations and school curricula is neutrality on the point, but I am personally convinced that NOMA is a completely specious philosophical doctrine. Those of who are not already convinced of the claims of religion should not buy it, and we should in no way be convinced by its proponents that we ought to back away from our critique of religion. Religion possesses no special authority in the moral sphere, and no one should persuade us to stop saying so.

I reviewed Gould’s lame book on NOMA, Rocks of Ages, in the Times Literary Supplement some time ago (need I say I was critical?), but it doesn’t seem to be online these days. You can find other reviews here.

7 thoughts on “Blackford 10, NOMA 0

  1. I remember engaging in wearying arguments about that book when it came out. I kept whining ‘But religion doesn’t have any expertise in those areas, why does Gould say it does?’

  2. Not only is it Blackford 10, NOMA 0, but it is a perfect game: no runs, no hits, no errors, no walks and the losing team never made contact with the ball.

  3. “…why does Gould say it does?”

    for the same reason it has been employed in places like the Ohio school board debates, and in Texas, and Florida…

    It has tactical value as a device.

    I saw it work in Ohio, utilized quite well by Richard Hoppe and company to stem creationist attempts to muck with science standards there. Even false rhetorical devices can work well; hell the creationists themselves basically LIVE off of them.

    The thing I have really enjoyed over the years about Richard Dawkins, then PZ Meyers, and now Jerry Coyne, is that they clearly see there is a difference when we speak of tactics vs. truth.

    NOMA is bad philosophy, and frankly I think even Gould knew it. Just like I think EO Wilson isn’t a creationist, but will look to tools that will placate the fundie attack on science (see for example his book from 2006: “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth”).

    One can argue that while effective tactically, in the long run utilizing NOMA is a bad strategy, and sends the wrong message about what science is, and how it works (and religion too). I think Coyne has recently been leading the way to document exactly why this is.

    There MUST be room for us as scientists to discuss the actual message we as scientists will use to describe science itself, while still being able to utilize any weapon at hand to battle against anti-science whackaloons.

    Frankly, what troubles me most about Miller and Collins, is that when you look at THEIR arguments, it becomes clear that they really are confused about the message we should be sending as scientists, and that confusion has resulted in misplaced defensiveness.

    I’m sure Dr. Coyne will have a direct response to Miller’s latest up soon, but frankly, there were so many red-herrings in Miller’s recent response, I can’t see the point of arguing with him any more. He’s retreated so far I think this paraphrase of his second to last paragraph says it all: “the reason science works is because the universe has been tuned for us to be able to use it.”

    1. “It has tactical value as a device.”

      Yeah – and, as you say, at the price of honesty.

      That book shot my opinion of Gould all to hell. It’s not worth it – all this belly-crawling. Especially since even as a tactic, all it seems to do is feed the beast. The more people crawl, the more crawling the beast demands.

  4. Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion…

    My agreement with this is limited. While science is great for epistemology, and gives a better factual basis to inform our moral choices, I believe that ultimately morality falls under axiology (values) rather than epistemology(knowledge).

  5. Ultimately your morality falls under environment and genes. To the extent from which you may choose or are capable to escape those you could do worse than rely on an evidence-based epistemology.

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