Some people think that science and religion operate in two different spheres, with never the twain meeting.
This often is called NOMA, non-overlapping magisteria -- a term coined by biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who said:
The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).
I disagree, unless "religion" is defined so broadly as to include philosophy in both the scholarly and commonsense meanings of this word. People can ponder the ultimate meaning of the cosmos, and what is right or wrong within it, without being traditionally religious.
Also, science seems to have a role to play in evaluating certain religious claims. If God or some other supernatural power produces effects in the physical universe, these should be observable. And thus testable.
However, movie critic Roger Ebert disagreed in his essay, "Darwin survives as the fittest," written in commemoration of Darwin's two hundredth birthday last February. Even though Ebert is strongly pro-science, he said:
Science has no opinion on the supernatural. It cannot. Science deals with that which can be studied or inferred by observation, measurement, and experiment. Supernatural belief is outside its purview, except in such social sciences as sociology, anthropology, and psychology, where even then not the validity of the beliefs but their effects are studied.
Ebert's piece is interesting for what he says about evolution and the varieties of responses to the Theory (better termed Fact) of Evolution. These include "species" such as the True Believers, Reasonables, Metaphysicians, and New Agers.
But what got science blogger P.Z. Myer's attention was Ebert's contention that science can't invade religion's supernatural turf. Otherwise he mostly approved of what Ebert had to say.
In "Effectively non-existent" Myers wrote:
The premise that science can't have a stance on the validity of a religion is like the tranquilizer dart of the debates with religion; someone is thinking and questioning, and suddenly, swooosh, thock, ouch…they hear this argument that you can't question the premises of religion, they get all sleepy and soporified, nod a few times, and piously agree. Gould succumbed to this, too, and here's Roger Ebert, hit by the same dart.
Think about it. Why can't science address the existence of gods? Why should we simply sit back and accept the claim of apologists that what they believe in is not subject to "observation, measurement, and experiment"?
Myers correctly points out that religious believers make all sorts of statements about who or what God is, how God acts in the world, what God approves of, and so on. Many of these claims have implications that are amenable to observation (such as whether prayer produces the outcomes asked for).
Yet when scientists ask for demonstrable evidence of religious claims, suddenly this God that was so well understood is said to "work in mysterious ways" and is beyond knowledge as we know it.
Well, which is it? Either a religion can say something true about God and the supernatural, or it can't. If nothing can be said, then why do all the saying? Just shut up.
However, if some truths can be spoken, then they should be able to be tested. Myers gets it right:
So where did these confident promoters of god-business get their information? Shouldn't they be admitting that their knowledge of this elusive cosmic beast is nonexistent? It seems to me that if you're going to declare scientists helpless before the absence and irrelevance of the gods, you ought to declare likewise for all of god's translators and interpreters. Be consistent when you announce who has purview over all religious belief, because making god unobservable and immeasurable makes everyone incapable of saying anything at all about it.
...This is where the "Science has no opinion on religion" argument leads us: to an atheist's world, where there are no activities by a god that matter, where at best people can claim that their god is aloof and unknowable, admitting in their own premises that they have no knowledge at all of him.
I can accept that, as long as these people are aware of the import of what they are actually saying.
I think the Tao Te Ching (also in no way perfect but a nice little book all the same) covers it's back on this subject.
Myers says "eople can claim that their god is aloof and unknowable, admitting in their own premises that they have no knowledge at all of him.
I can accept that, as long as these people are aware of the import of what they are actually saying.
I like that, it's a tongue in cheek death blow to many religious arguments so applause there.
But as I said, my favorite philosophical angle on all of this, that mapped out by the Lau Tzu book is that the truth is unknowable yet can be pointed at, not directly transmitted but recognized as the case.
Fluffy perhaps, but takes a side step to Myers otherwise knockout blow.
Posted by: Tao (the one with the blog) | October 28, 2009 at 12:04 AM
Surely science by definition can only deal with the natural, whereas the supernatural supposedly transcends nature and its laws.
Also, how does one distinguish between a supernatural event, which by its definition could never be explained by science, and an unexplainable event, which science might one day be able to explain.
Would a scientist even recognise a supernatural phenomena, since its existence would need to be proven objectively by evidence.
While Science and Religion might overlap in the big questions they seek to answer, but otherwise their methodology (faith vs evidence) and answers would seem completely different and indeed often in conflict as witnessed by age-old secular/religious struggle.
Posted by: George | October 28, 2009 at 06:35 AM
Tao, I get what you're saying. It's sort of like pointing at a strawberry field and saying, "I can't really describe what the berries taste like, or prove to you that I love their juiciness, but I invite you to pick one, put it in your mouth, and taste for yourself."
However, in this case there is evidence for a strawberry field. Just not the taste. I read Myers as saying that if religion posits supernatural forces which operate in the physical world, this is akin to a strawberry field -- something demonstrable, albeit with effects that are essentially immeasurable.
Absent this sort of evidence, Taoism's and Zen's pointing finger really isn't different in kind from religious dogma, such as a Christian saying "I can't show Jesus' love to you, but if you open your heart to him, you'll discover it for yourself."
For me, the problem arises when a claim of objective reality is ascribed to a subjective phenomenon. I think Taoists are on firm ground when they say "I feel the Tao guiding me." But not when they say "The Tao guides all things," if Tao is taken to mean a force above and beyond the laws of nature (which, actually, I don't think philosophical Taoism does).
George, I like your distinction between supernatural and unexplainable. Yes, people often jump to a supernatural explanation (like how life began on earth) when it is more honest to simply say, "We don't know yet how this happened."
As noted above, I think it's agreed that something truly supernatural would be outside the bounds of science. But many, if not most, religious and mystical claims are within those bounds, because they posit a link between immateriality and materiality.
If that link -- such as ESP -- is genuine, then people able to tap into the supernatural should be able to demonstrate some ability above and beyond normal human capacity. As Myers notes in his blog post, this could be some knowledge unknown to science, but which can be confirmed as being true of the physical universe.
So far, this hasn't happened, notwithstanding thousands of years of people seeking the divine, and often claiming to have realized it.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | October 28, 2009 at 10:54 AM
interesting ... but i suppose even ESP or other paranormal events, might not be supernatural - perhaps there are other human senses we have not observed or understood, but will one day have the technology to do so.
In any event, i think real science is that which is supported by the objective evidence and repeatably accurate every every time, everything else is belief, faith or speculation.
It may well be that what is speculation today becomes science tomorrow, but it remains speculation and myth today. This is why Science is such a good reference for Truth imo.
On the issue of the Tao, philosophically i understood it to be intergral and interwoven in the fabric of the universe, not trasncendetnal to it - which makes it natural, indeed i thought it was understood to represent the flow of nature, rather than being supernatural. However, since the Tao has not been objectively proven and indeed cannot be defined, it also is not science.
Posted by: George | October 29, 2009 at 03:30 AM
I was hoping you'd indulge me if I express a bit of puzzlement about these strange and mysterious goings on here at your chosen place of non-worshipping worship.
Now, I'll concede I'm out of my depth with all this talk of models represented as sub-symbolic models and all. Nevertheless, isn't there a whiff of triumphalism when one speaks of transcending those (apparently) burdensome feelings of specialness? That sense of being "real and true [rather than] imaginary and false"? In other words, can you really be so sure that you haven't just found a new way to be "special" in your "non-specialness"?
Posted by: Brian in Colorado | October 30, 2009 at 09:21 PM
Dang, commented on the wrong post. Definitely not so special.
Posted by: Brian in Colorado | October 30, 2009 at 09:29 PM
Brian in Colorado, you have a point. However, I still feel less special now, compared to when I considered myself especially special because I was on the One True Godly Path, notwithstanding some admittedly special feelings about my newfound non-specialness.
It's a matter of degree. Before, I felt special a lot. Now, not nearly so much -- mostly just when I contemplate my lack of speciality in a blog post, or when talking with someone. It's much like celebrating a loss of fifty pounds with a large sundae. Inconsistent, but understandable.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | October 30, 2009 at 10:42 PM
My apologies if it was I who inadvertently aroused the troll.
Posted by: Brian from Colorado | October 31, 2009 at 05:10 AM
Brian from Colorado, no problem. He pops up with some insults from time to time. Then I delete them. It doesn't take much to arouse fundamentalist hatred toward open-minded free-thinkers, unfortunately.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | October 31, 2009 at 08:26 AM