Nonoverlapping Magisteria: Gould’s NOMA Principle

About the same time that I was introduced to the work of Howard J. Van Till, I was also introduced to the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). I must confess that, until I read Gould’s outstanding essay “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” I had never (and still have not) read a shred of Gould’s other works. I plan to remedy that down the road.

Gould was not, by any means, a theist. However, Gould respected the role of religion—a role that had the potential of giving mankind a sense of purpose and providing human beings with a method by which we could make contextual sense of the world around us. These were facets of our existence to which science could not speak. Like Van Till, Gould believed that the scientific method and the various religio-philosophical pursuits provided appropriate answers to different questions regarding identical phenomena, both of which were equally valid ways of understanding the universe which need not conflict—as long as each discipline respected the other’s domain.

Here are some highlights from Gould’s essay that I find extremely profound:

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 that the truth can make us free and that we will live in optimal harmony with our fellows when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. [bold emphasis mine]

Thus, it stands to reason that any conflict between science and religion which arises does so from an overlap between their respective domains of expertise. Moreover, any existing overlap can have its origin in either domain. Gould continues:

No such conflict 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 . . . . 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. . . . NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. 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. [bold emphasis mine]

It never occurred to me until reading Van Till and Gould that both science and religion had their limitations in regard to the questions that they were able to answer. While science could tell us how the cosmos evolved over the aeons since the Big Bang, only religion could posit a possible solution to the ultimate cause of the Big Bang. Science could seek to tell us what natural laws govern our universe, but only religion could posit Who created and sustains those laws, as well as provide mankind with possible answers regarding the “why” question that is begged by the cosmos’ very existence. I felt at peace knowing that my faith and scientific observation needn’t conflict with each other. I was now free to examine the scientific evidence for myself without being distracted by a misguided (albeit well-intentioned) “witch hunt” for contradictions between the two magisteria.

Since I began this blog, many have applauded me for finally reconciling my faith with the findings of science. In response, I tell them that I don’t need the applause. The perception that a reconciliation was required is really a false one, for there was no real conflict to begin with. The only conflict that existed was a product of my own misunderstanding of both science and religion.

Having taken the “red pill,” I was ready to see how far evolution’s rabbit hole really went . . .

13 Comments

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13 Responses to Nonoverlapping Magisteria: Gould’s NOMA Principle

  1. Hi Mike,
    Welcome back! I like this comment from Gould:
    Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs – and equally compatible with atheism.

  2. Thanks, Steve! The first few weeks of my language training was critical and I couldn’t distract myself with blogging. It feels good to be back. However, comma, I won’t be able to post as much as I have in the past until I get a large chunk of Farsi grammar rules under my belt and vocabulary becomes my primary focus. Another 8 weeks or so.

    So … I suspect I’ll be blogging one or twice every few weeks.

    Nice Gould quote. =)

  3. Brian

    Mike,

    I think that a lot of confusion in describing the nonoverlapping magisteria esposed by Gould lies in what someone means when they use the term religion. If you mean a primary mover or entity—that’s one thing. If you mean the institutionalization of belief in a primary mover—that’s another. In the latter case, I feel science and “religion” overlap frequently. The obvious issues such as the age of the earth, evolution, etc., that are in vogue today serve as examples. The institutes of religion throughout the ages has had to alter and modify their premises when a new scientific breakthrough occurs, thus the overlap is obvious. Even the age-old arguments that only religion can explain sense of purpose and ethics is now being challenged by neuroscience. Certainly the lowland gorilla would appear to have ethics and purpose to the casual observer, but if he isn’t aware, then is it still ethics and purpose. Is only awareness needed for moral behavior? I am not sure purpose and ethics can be dumped in the “religion” magisteria completely. Maybe man has arrogantly bestowed those qualities on itself and placed them in the parochial confines of religion. No matter what, when man starts defining a primary mover’s motives, overlap occurs because one system (religion) is reletively static and the other(science) dynamic.

    So my understanding of Gould is that he believes that science simply does not pursue the “who” question, because by science’s own definition, it is immaterial. This pushes us back to the primary mover. Is science actively searching for it? No, of course not. But in its endless search for the “whys” of the universe, could not the who or what be found? The classic is, of course, a far-advanced society created us.

    Two separate circles (magisteria), when pushed together and approximate, exchange subatomic particles. When two approaching universes begin to slowly develop into one larger universe, at what point does the outermost star of one become part of the other? Could science be getting there without that being its objective?

    Brian

  4. Are Hinduism and Christianity non-overlapping magisteria also? How about Evangelical Christianity and Mormonism?

    Jesus came from space according to one, came from a metaphysical heaven in another, and is an elephant with six arms in the other. The religion magisteria requires juggling that could only be accomplished by the infinite number of Hindu gods; every individual has a slightly different conception of their messiah/deities.

    The one conclusion that requires no reconciliation with reality is that religious thought is equally as valid as a daydream: it’s a conception created by our own whims, tastes, and subconscious to which we give absolute authority to justify the good and bad things that we do.

  5. This is super unprofessional but I wanted to add my url in case you wanted to follow up directly with me.

  6. One thing that many people forget, however, is that scientists regularly use theology and philosophy when doing their research. The big bang was not created independently of theology. In fact, it was created because of Lemaitre’s theological dispositions, and was rejected early on because of its theological implications.

    Likewise, Hawking’s model of the big bang is explicitly based on his own philosophical biases (he says so in his book the large-scale structure of space-time).

    Likewise for geology – Steno laid the foundations of stratigraphy using a flood framework, while Lyell modified them using an old-world framework.

    Darwin made his contributions trying to answer the theological questions of why there is suffering in the world. Mendel made his discoveries trying to show that Creation, not evolution, was the foundational principle.

    What you find in each of these cases is that, far from science and theology being in different domains, theology actually precedes science and sets both its direction and limitations.

    So, NOMA doesn’t work, because science requires theology to operate!

    For a more in-depth look at this issue, I strongly suggest the book The Myth of Religious Neutrality.

  7. Brian,

    If you mean a primary mover or entity—that’s one thing. If you mean the institutionalization of belief in a primary mover—that’s another. In the latter case, I feel science and “religion” overlap frequently.

    I believe Gould is referring to “religion” in a general sense, not an institutionalized sense. I would agree with you that in the latter case, science and institutionalized religion do overlap, but only because one or the other (or both) attempt to force their “folk-science” on the other.

    I am not sure purpose and ethics can be dumped in the “religion” magisteria completely. Maybe man has arrogantly bestowed those qualities on itself and placed them in the parochial confines of religion.

    You make a good point. Mankind’s sentience and moral attributes may very well have developed via evolutionary processes. But where “religion” came into play (aside from the question regarding the origin of the cosmos) is the point at which mankind attained the “image of God” (however it is defined by God) and began to relate personally with his Creator. It is at this point where the two magisteria overlap but need not conflict on a personal level.

    Of course, Gould never discusses this inevitable overlap, nor did he need to. As simplistic as his NOMA Principle is, there is a point at which it breaks down. But as a starting point for understanding the domains of science and religion, I still think it’s a great point from which to leap into further discussion.

    But in its endless search for the “whys” of the universe, could not the who or what be found? The classic is, of course, a far-advanced society created us.

    Which is one of Dawkins’ theories. But that only pushes the question of “Who/What was responsible for the cosmos?” further back in time.

  8. Brad,

    Are Hinduism and Christianity non-overlapping magisteria also? How about Evangelical Christianity and Mormonism?

    I believe Gould did not (nor did he need to) make such a distinction. You could easily replace the word “religion” with “philosophy” and Gould’s principle would still hold true.

    The religion magisteria requires juggling that could only be accomplished by the infinite number of Hindu gods; every individual has a slightly different conception of their messiah/deities.

    The differences between religions completely misses Gould’s point.

  9. Jonathan,

    The big bang was not created independently of theology. In fact, it was created because of Lemaitre’s theological dispositions, and was rejected early on because of its theological implications.

    True. However, the Big Bang’s philosophical underpinnings were later obscured heavily by the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of the theory.

    You’ve provided some great additional examples of other scientific theories that have their basis in philosophical assumptions, but given enough time, science will weed out the necessity of those philosophical assumptions.

    What you find in each of these cases is that, far from science and theology being in different domains, theology actually precedes science and sets both its direction and limitations.

    Interesting point.

    NOMA doesn’t work, because science requires theology to operate!

    But I can’t agree with that. Certain scientific domains may have been jump started by certain religious or philosophical presuppositions, but Gould’s NOMA Principle looks beyond that to a point at which science no longer requires its “muse.”

    For a more in-depth look at this issue, I strongly suggest the book The Myth of Religious Neutrality.

    On my Amazon wishlist. Thanks!

  10. Anonymous

    The Evolution of a Creationist

    My key thought: Science can teach you facts, but not truth.

    Your journey is interesting, but your destination just doesn’t have the ‘ring’ of satisfaction – it really feels more like capitulation.

    The (An) ultimate issue regarding science and its limits is related to the philosophic buy-in requisite to gain entrance to its priesthood/membership (science, here, viewed as a religion).

    I contend that science is good at observation (the speed of light is x; this layer of sediment is located on this layer of sediment) but bad at explanation (the reason an elephant has a tusk is . . . ). Why bad? Faulty assumptions.

    Science is like the smartest kids in the classroom taking over the classroom because they think the teacher is out of the room. They’re teaching history, trying to explain the existence of the United States, but they don’t believe in Plymouth and the Revolutionary War, even though mentioned in their textbook, because they can’t find artifcacts.

    My question:

    Contemporary science proceeds on the presupposition of the non existence (or at least non involvement) of God-Creator in the physical universe. This has massive implications: if God exists and is involved in his physical universe, explanations of observations that ignore this are based on a faulty world view.

    Christians seems perpetually drawn in to granting so much to the high priests of science. Intellectual intimidation at the highest level. It’s an unnecessary capitulation.

    For me:

    Old Earth: no problem.
    Day/Age: whatever.
    Micro Evolution: OK – it seems to happen all the time.
    Intelligent Design – Of course, that’s what creation is. Whether it is ‘science’ or not – I sure don’t care, I don’t worship at that temple anyway. If it is proven to be ‘science’ one day, it’s not going to make it any more or less compelling for me. As for ‘proving’ it – our entire lives and daily existence presume ID – mousetraps are just the beginning – the mac i’m typing on is soooo much cooler, and more intelligent. and better designed and . . .
    Macro Evolution: A ridiculous non-necessity postulated by non-theists looking, searching, hoping, begging for a universe without God. Science has now become a private club with believe in materialistic darwinism as a prerequisite for membership.

    The ultimate test of science is its correspondence to reality. If the ‘science’ of origins fails to take into account the ‘reality’ of God’s existence and role, what separates it from science fiction?

    “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”

  11. Anonymous:

    My key thought: Science can teach you facts, but not truth.

    As Pilate once asked, “What is truth?” The statement 2+2=4 is undeniably true, yet you will not find that statement taught explicitly in Scripture. Of course, we are arguing semantics. Thus, it’s important to define our terms. That being said, I get the gist of what you’re saying.

    Your journey is interesting, but your destination just doesn’t have the ‘ring’ of satisfaction – it really feels more like capitulation.

    What kind of “ring” would satisfy you? I haven’t yet completed blogging my journey to EC. In the next few days, however, I’ll be adding Step #12, in which I’ll discuss briefly my journey through the books, lectures, and resources that helped me abandon false perceptions and misunderstandings about the cosmological and biological evolutionary processes that I’ve only recently come to accept as fact, not just mere theory.

    As for my so-called “capitulation,” you are absolutely correct. I have capitulated. As a leader of military forces, I think I have a pretty good idea of when it’s wise to surrender, when it’s wise to retreat, and when it’s wise to continue the fight. When confronted with what I deemed to be God’s truth—regardless of its origin (is not all truth God’s truth?)—I capitulated and surrendered a fight I was destined to lose. There is no shame in surrender, especially when you realize the side on which you were fighting originally was the wrong side.

    Contemporary science proceeds on the presupposition of the non existence (or at least non involvement) of God-Creator in the physical universe.

    As well it must. But science does not deny the existence of a God-Creator, nor is it within its domain to do so.

    This has massive implications: if God exists and is involved in his physical universe, explanations of observations that ignore this are based on a faulty world view.

    And your scientific proof that God exists is … what?

    Intellectual intimidation at the highest level. It’s an unnecessary capitulation.

    Intellectual intimidation? I don’t think so. No one intimidated me into accepting evolution as fact. I was not pressured to capitulate, nor am I in a situation in which my job or livelihood is at stake. I surrendered to the truth of my own accord. I would posit that the most instances of “intellectual intimidation” are experienced by those involved in YEC ministries who, through their own research, discover what they’ve believed all of their lives to be a lie. There are plenty of examples to be found.

    Micro Evolution: OK – it seems to happen all the time.

    And what do you propose is the combined effect of these so-called micro-evolutionary changes that “happen all the time” over the course of millions of years? You guessed it. So-called “macro-evolution.”

    Intelligent Design – Of course, that’s what creation is.

    I will not argue that. But I believe in “intelligent design” (lower-case). Acceptance of this paradigm is by those who have “eyes to see,” not through scientific observation and reliance on so-called “irreducible complexity,” which has the unfortunate fate of becoming “reducibly complex” with every new scientific discovery. I challenge you to ask the Discovery Institute what their research has yielded. Read the comments on my review of Expelled and you’ll find one of DI’s fellows admitting that his organization has produced nothing of scientific import. Just unnecessary controversy.

    the mac i’m typing on is soooo much cooler

    Ah, the Mac! I am capitulating next year. 😉

    Macro Evolution: A ridiculous non-necessity postulated by non-theists looking, searching, hoping, begging for a universe without God.

    Obviously, you are unaware of the spate of scholarly works coming out of the Evangelical world that support a theistic evolutionary/evolutionary creationist perspective. I highly recommend you create a summer reading list from this blog post.

    Science has now become a private club with believe in materialistic darwinism as a prerequisite for membership.

    That is a complete falsehood and you know it. Time to show your hand and prove your claim.

    The ultimate test of science is its correspondence to reality. If the ‘science’ of origins fails to take into account the ‘reality’ of God’s existence and role, what separates it from science fiction?

    In order for science to maintain objectivity, it must assume a lack of divine intervention. Otherwise, one will rely on a “God-of-the-gaps” paradigm and abandon further scientific research to reduce that gap. As for your “science-without-God = science fiction,” you merely propagate the all-too-common false dichotomy that exists and provides fodder and purpose to my blog.

    “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”

    And with that, I reserve the right to call you a “brother” in Christ. May He move you toward THE truth, regardless of its origin.

  12. Hi Mike,

    Sorry for taking so long to respond to your email. Work has been crazy & I’m way behind in email.

    Regarding my comment that Gould’s NOMA model is too simplistic, I should first qualify that by saying that there are lots of things to like about the model. Gould recognizes the limits of religion and science, a fact that many (on all sides of the dialogue) seem completely oblivious. That being said, the implication of NOMA seems to be “no interaction” which the reformed part of me says “no way – all truth is God’s truth” ie. Science is not somehow independent of religion, in fact, the creation that science studies owes its being to the initial creative act & ongoing sustenance of the Creator. The relationship between science & religion is not orthogonal, like ships passing in the night; the relationship is actually rather complex.

    Then again, Gould himself said (from above) – “interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border” so maybe my oversimplication of his too simple model is .. well, too simplistic.

  13. zorro

    The problem is, of course, that religion does NOT give us AN answer to the "why" and "who" questions, it gives as many answers as there are religions, sects and cults. Moses, Paul of Tarsus, Muhammad, Guatama, the priests of the pantheon of Greek and Roman and Egyptian and Indian gods, Joseph Smith, L. Ron, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, The Great Spirit, The Hero Twins,Bokanon, God the Utterly Indifferent, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. The all have THE answers, and none of the answers are the same. Not uncommonly, there are conflicting answers within a given "faith". And, with few exceptions, their particular answers compel them to warfare of greater or lesser violence, against the others who have the answers wrong! And each believer utterly convinced in his own heart that his faith is correct because of the warm and fulfilled state of mind that it brings. And the great majority of them believing as they do for the simple reason that they were inculcated with those ideas as children and told that to even question them would bring untold misery of one kind or another. Mind viruses.

    I doubt seriously whether civilization as we know it has much chance of surviving much longer, given the idiocy and the technology that abounds in the world, but if it DOES survive it will not be because of the prayers of the Ayatollahs or the Falwells, but because science has worked out answers to the problems that seem on the verge of taking us out. imho, of course.

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