Thursday, September 18, 2008

Some Religious Ideas Are Subject to Scientific Investigation

Musings prompted by, but only tangentially related to, the Michael Reiss affair.

There's a longstanding notion that religious ideas are simply in another domain than those of science (whether in the narrowest sense of the physical sciences or the broadest sense of any evidence-and-reason based knowledge). One well-known popularization of this belief is Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA ("nonoverlapping magisteria"") argument, which holds that, in regards to the "supposed 'conflict' or 'warfare' between science and religion" that
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 (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clich├ęs, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

This notion, and all the variants of it, is beloved by both science teachers (since it gives them a way out of the Reiss dilemma by simply responding to tricky questions with a swift "that's not my department") and by serious religious thinkers (since it gives their subject a safe haven from any possible challenges by the relentless advance of science). It is a very neat out to the challenges posed by religious faith in a secular society.*

The problem is that, as a description of the actual beliefs of many (I'd guess most) religious believers, it is simply false. Many religions** do, in fact, make claims that are well within the bounds of science -- certainly broadly construed, but even if narrowly construed. Worse, many of those claims are, so far as one can tell from the current state of human knowledge, simply false.

Thus the notion that the Earth is under 10,000 years old is both an idea integral to the religious beliefs of many Americans (in regards to which the state is ideally neutral), and a scientifically testable idea which has been conclusively demonstrated to be false.

This makes church/state issues -- both legally and socially -- far more complex than many people want to admit. A great many people -- more sophisticated religious thinkers and proponents of scientific education in particular -- cling to the NOMA idea as a liferaft: evolution is a scientific idea, and science has nothing to say about the existence of God.

The latter is true, however, only for some conceptions of God;*** or, more accurately, it may be true for the narrow question of God's existence, but it is decidedly not true for a great many other ideas and propositions which are as (or nearly as) integral to the beliefs of most believers as God's existence is. Both sides have a tendency in these debates to act as if whether or not God exists is the only important issue for religion; but it isn't, and the others are where the real trouble starts.

Thus a great many Americans believe that everything in the bible is entirely and literally true. If one is willing to interpret "entirely and literally" to include notions of metaphor, poetic language, phrasings appropriate to the time, and so forth, then this idea can probably be safely pulled onto the religious side of a NOMA divide. But for many (most?) of those who proclaim an adherence to biblical literalism, this is precisely what they don't mean. And biblical literalism in their sense is a testable idea: indeed, it has been tested, and found false.

Which is the end of the story -- for those for whom evidence (an overwhelming amount of it) and logic (as strong as any scientific logic we have) trump their preexisting ideological commitments. (This, incidentally, is what I was trying to get at when I proposed a distinction between reality-based and reality-defiant theists: the former are willing to let evidence and reason hold sway on any issue, while the latter will hold to their articles of faith regardless of what the progress of secular knowledge shows.****)

Now, most mainstream religions are willing to cede the matter of the age of the earth. But if we are willing to broaden out "science" to include "archeology" -- which basically means, if we are willing to take seriously the evidence and arguments of archeology rather than shut our ears to them while humming real loud -- then, for instance, whether the exodus from Egypt as described in the second book of the bible ever happened is also a question on the scientific side of NOMA. (An issue which some would claim is determinative for the existence of the Jewish religion.)

Of course, the historical facts about the exodus from Egypt are never likely to be settled as solidly as those about the age of the Earth -- the amount and nature of the evidence (as well as the nature of the question) simply doesn't lend itself to such solid settling. But the way that science works, and the way that a minimal adherence to the reality of evidence and argument works, isn't to hold a completely open mind on issues until they are definitively proven one way or another. So I think that the argument that archeology could be wrong here shouldn't be nearly as comforting for believers in the exodus as they assume it will be. In any event, the key point here is that the issue is one upon which empirical evidence comes to bear -- and thus one which doesn't fall neatly into the NOMA divide.

Now, some believers evade this by pointing out that old religious claims can always be reinterpreted in ways consistent with the science. And this is certainly true: one can imagine the exodus simply as a moral fable,§ and one can understand the opening of Genesis as implying something-or-other about the nature of existence that doesn't have to do with anything studied by science. In fact, millions of believers do precisely that.

But it seems worth noting that this doesn't solve so much as divide the problem. Instead of one religious claim -- e.g. that hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaves in Egypt, left, and then settled in present-day Israel -- we now have two: one, a moral claim that this is a useful story regardless of its historical truth, and two, a historical claim that this story is, in fact, historically accurate. And while the first may not be subject to scientific investigation, the latter remains so -- and this fact remains important since a lot of believers will not see the former as an adequate substitute for the latter.

(It is also somewhat disingenuous to note that there aren't two§§ different claims here -- as if the moral fable version is the only version, and thus the religious claim is entirely unaffected by science. It is particularly disingenuous to fall back on the moral fable version of the claim when considering the science, while, in most other contexts, to continue to talk about the issue as if the historical claim were true.)

I don't have any great solution to this problem. But it seems to me that a frank recognition that some religious claims are subject to investigation by secular science -- and that some have been flatly disproved by it -- is essential to any discussion of these issues.

Post Script: In addition to the issues which are clearly subject to scientific investigation, and those which are clearly not, there are a number of intermediate categories, of course. One important such category is the claim of a one-time departure from the laws of nature by God, of a sort that would (in the course of things) leave no remaining evidence one way or another. Both the claims of the virgin birth and the resurrection fall into this category: neither are thought to be anything other than a departure from the ordinary course of nature, and neither would (if true) leave evidence that could be examined by science at this point (in contrast to, say, Noah's flood, which would leave such evidence (and didn't, and thus clearly didn't happen.)) Some people will argue that our scientific understanding of the world shows that such events don't happen, but this seems to me to entirely beg the question, since the whole point is that they're supposed to be departures from observable reality. By my lights, therefore, these questions are safely exempted from scientific (or historical) investigation in a strict sense. However, any claimed evidence for them -- e.g. testimony -- can certainly be evaluated by historical standards (under which it doesn't stand up at all); so anyone who claims they have any historical basis for such beliefs is leaving the safe harbor of the religious magisterium and entering the historical one. As long as your claimed grounds are purely non-empirical, however (e.g. faith, or a burning in the bosom, or whatever), they fall on the safe side of NOMA.

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* To be fair, Gould goes on to note that "two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border." I think the situation is even worse for the principle than this implies, but Gould was not as naive as the quote above, out of context, may sound to some.

** Not all religions, since certainly some of the faithful restrict themselves to claims that are safely on the religious side of NOMA. But I suspect that most religions make such claims -- certainly as interpreted by most believers.

*** Richard Dawkins has argued that pretty much any concept of God is a claim upon which science has purchase; without wanting to hash it out right now, I think he's wrong; but I wanted to note that this line, too, is contested and arguable.

**** As I note in the original piece, the distinction is complex: where the line should be drawn will be a contested issue, and some theists might well be reality-based on most issues but reality-defiant on others.

§ With, for instance, the moral message that "if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt".

§§ Well, there are a lot more than two, really. But certainly more than one.

1 comment:

Graeme said...

This is a balanced and intelligent overview of the problems encountered by generations of fundamentalists who have tried to establish the historicity of the Bible. However,there are two considerations to be taken into account: 1) scientific evidence of, e.g. the Flood may still be found and in a manner which has not previously been determined, e.g. a more localised deluge. It is the task of scientists to be forever sceptical about their own discoveries (something that seems to have bypassed Dawkins et alii). 2) the material in the Bible has to be interpreted in accordance with literary form (which many scientists struggle with) so that the intention, context and form of the original writing can be established.

Finally, the question of historicity is not going to impinge on believers' faith, especially those who see a process of development of ideas about God's presence in the world from the Old Testament through to the New Testament and what is regarded as the fullness of this process of revelation in the person of Jesus Christ.