Thursday, March 13, 2008

The NOMA Principle

Stephen Jay Gould, the self proclaimed agnostic who helped construct many support pillars of modern evolutionary science until his death in 2002, is famous for articulating the NOMA principle. This is an acronym for “non-overlapping magisteria.” It means science and religion are distinct and separate domains (schools of knowledge). One should not impinge on the other. Science should not influence religious beliefs, and religious beliefs should not influence science. Gould’s principle does not advocate antagonism toward religious views. It merely states that scientific and religious views should be quarantined from each other.

Someone may offer, for example, a suggestion that the cell’s complexity and function points to “design” as an explanatory option. That idea must not even be granted a hearing in the context of the science lab. Why? Because the domain of science has been, by acclamation of science professionals, restricted only to natural cause and effect. Any supernatural option is seen as religion and must be viewed as an “illegal border crossing.” Scientists are obligated to continue their study of naturalistic processes forever. They may self-congratulate and claim they are finding out more and more about how things work, and indeed, they are. Their knowledge gain, however, merely substitutes for “inference to the best explanation.” Perpetual knowledge gain is not an answer for some of the recurring deeper questions. When we look at the information-laden complexity and function of bio-systems and the many examples of fine tuning in the physical cosmos which makes life possible, we sense, intuitively, that there is something deeper than naturalism to account for it.

Science and theology had a mutually supportive relationship several centuries ago. Early theistic scientists were not God-of-the-gaps theorists at every turn. Their concept of God inspired and motivated them in their discovery process. In contrast, modern scientists have locked themselves into NOMA’s philosophical box. Some naturalistic scientists like Stephen Jay Gould have attempted to claim the high ground of public opinion by appearing supportive of the domain of religion. Others are openly antagonistic. NOMA has become a clever catchword designed to preserve the naturalistic purity of modern science.

Stephen Jay Gould’s 1997 essay in Natural History codified the NOMA principle, establishing today’s “rules of the game” for the operation of science. While these rules have helped maintain objectivity in the process of science, they may shield us from a hidden agenda. Gould dedicated the essay to astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, saying, “Carl also shared my personal suspicion about the nonexistence of souls.” Denial of the existence of the human soul should be of utmost concern to the Christian. It is crucial to our concept of man created in the image of God.