Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Magisteria Overlap

In 1997 Stephen Jay Gould proposed a principle to experts in both science and religion. It became known as the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) principle. The conflict between science and religion had occupied the attention of authorities in both fields of knowledge for many years. It was described as a conflict where answers posed by scientists and theologians were often at odds. This did not result from the two groups dealing with completely different subject matter. Rather, the discord occurred when both groups weighed in with their own versions of truth on very significant issues, sometimes identical issues. One example relates to beginnings of the universe, origin of life, and diversity of species. Other issues are embryonic stem cell research, cloning, recombining DNA, and in vitro fertilization. Conflicting overlap also occurs with disagreements on social behavior and the moral significance of various behaviors. In these domains, science and religion should always overlap.

Gould suggested a resolution—a “blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to…the supposed conflict between science and religion.” The inspiration for Gould’s resolution was drawn from a comment by Pope John Paul II who had used the ancient term “magisterium,” a term meaning a domain where different teaching groups claim ownership of appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution. That teaching domain is claimed both by scientists and ecclesiastical authorities where certain subjects hold interest to authorities in both science and religion. We propose that there is a significant, appropriate overlap. Gould decried the overlap. His proposal amounted to, “You go your way; we’ll go ours.” 

Scientists, explained Gould, deal with empirical facts while religious authorities are concerned with human purposes, meanings, and values. As an evolutionary biologist he was devoted to discovering empirical facts concerning evolution. One of his many statements concerning human origins reveals that Gould clearly understood that alternative explanations of “facts” exist and many are diametrically opposite: “Do humans look so much like apes because we share a common ancestor or because creation followed a linear order with apes representing the step just below us?” (emphasis mine) This quote makes clear that Gould understood the blatantly opposite factual interpretations of physical evidence presented by evolutionists and creationists. If new species originate by descent from a common ancestor, this sharply contrasts with supernatural creation of new species along Earth’s historic timeline. Science professionals do not always agree on facts. Often experts propose only their own versions of facts.

In view of the diversity of interpretation of empirical evidence, it is inaccurate to characterize Gould’s NOMA proposal as a difference between those who are guided by a simple dichotomy between facts and values. That is a misrepresentation of remarkable proportions. Scientists often disagree on facts and lean toward their own version of facts. He further professed respect for each camp by politely implying one side should respect the other even though they deal with separate domains of human experience. Implied was the idea that there is little argument concerning facts. For example, evolution is a fact because we look out at the world and see that evolution (changes among life forms) has taken place. Moreover, the method of evolution related to descent from a common ancestor should also be accepted as fact because the bioscience professionals have accepted its factuality. Nevertheless, their explanations of the evolutionary process are in dispute. Most bioscientists following Gould’s advice politely advocate that values of religious creationists should be respected even though their beliefs are not fact-based. Their positions possess separate religious values and significance for humanity.

Did God ever supernaturally produce earth life using a method going beyond the natural laws emplaced by God at the initial creation? If God created in this way, his action may be considered a “fact.” If he supervised the classic scenario of “molecules to man” evolution, that would also be considered a “fact.” But these proposals are in substantial conflict. Likewise, religious judgments concerning recombinant DNA, stem cell research, cloning, pro-life, and other morality-laden issues generate disagreements on the “values” side of the NOMA discussion. We should strive for resolution of the conflict not by a quarantine of the two domains, but by a diligent attempt to enrich relationships and exchanges between the groups.

Has the Creator interacted with the creation in terms of supernatural, hypernatural, or naturally occurring divine sustaining action in the past? Does the Creator yet interact with his creation in these ways in our day? Proof of these interactions is a difficult standard to achieve, but we have confidence in plentiful evidence and the strength of inductive reasoning. 

The NOMA principle lives on in our science culture. Science deserves its elevated status of respect and admiration. However, In the respective domains of science and religion subjective philosophies sometimes reign. Science must not rest completely on its reputation as a fact-based enterprise. Conclusions concerning evolution, climate change, and other broad issues mentioned above have been awarded the imprimatur of science. Conclusions are often subjectively value-laden. Disagreements concerning the application of subjective moral values are also apparent. But science and religion should overlap. God has created both domains. We must avoid misplaced trust in unreliable science and search for reliable science while strengthening our trust in the revealed truths of scripture. We pray for God’s guidance in establishing the reliability of facts claimed to be true, the scriptural basis for our values and beliefs, and the validity of our knowledge.