The Myth of Separate Magisteria | Big Questions Online

The Myth of Separate Magisteria | Big Questions Online.

The main problem (aside from its pretentious name) with Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “Non-overlapping Magisteria” as a resolution of the “conflict” between science and religion is the fact that many religions fail to respect the purported boundary. Sam Harris (and followers like Susan Jacoby) would like to make a counter invasion, but they are wrong.

Before dealing with Harris and co I should first say what I mean by declaring that  some religions fail to “respect” the boundary as drawn by Stephen Jay Gould. It is not the silly examples cited by Jacoby of religious moral scruples interfering with what are considered acceptable methods for collecting research data and/or applying scientific knowledge. To attempt such interference is within the legitimate purview of any moral system, religious or otherwise, and does not in any way tread on the legitimate terrain of science which is the body of observed facts and deductive methods which are used to predict the effects of various kinds of worldly events. It would even be within the domain of the moral magisterium to declare certain kinds of question inappropriate for scientific analysis (eg because knowledge of the true facts might be socially harmful). This might conflict with the goals of certain scientists but  not with the actual content of science itself. Where some (but not all) religious positions invade the territory of science is when they declare the truth of certain testable propositions – either just in the absence of, or in contradiction to, scientific predictions. Admittedly some religions, and many interpretations of others, do confine themselves to the moral domain by explicitly or implicitly acknowledging the  metaphorical nature of those of their statements which appear to intrude on the domain of science. But others do not, and it makes little sense to claim that they do. And the claim that they “should” is one which Gould would put outside the domain of science. So the intrusive overlap is real and the “Non-overlapping Magisteria” claim is just not factually correct unless one allows Gould to be the arbiter of what is a “true” religion (as opposed to what? -heresy perhaps?)

But my main concern here is with the counter-thrust, namely Harris’s claim that science can determine moral values.

Certainly science can attempt to describe, explain, and predict (or even in that sense to “determine”) what humans (and maybe others) will determine to be their moral values, but it cannot ever actually determine those values itself, because their determination in that sense is a behaviour of a system under study rather than a part of the scientific study process. Science may be able to predict our feelings about moral questions but it can’t make us feel them. That is the job of moral argument. And even though science may provide a technology for effective moral argument, and may also provide knowledge  which affects our moral  feelings, it does not itself make those judgements or “have” those feelings.

In fact all Scientific statements have a form which reduces to, “In this context that will be observed” not “In this context that should be observed”. So although some religions do not confine themselves to one side of Gould’s line, science does (and I believe “should” continue to do so).

Now let’s move on to the issue of “compatibility”.

Although some religions do very obviously conflict directly with science by making unfounded statements of fact, it must surely be acknowledged that some others do not.

Of course it is conceivable that a religion which does restrict itself to moral questions may cause a change in the moral perceptions of a community away from those which would have been correctly predicted by science in the absence of that religion. But that is not a conflict with science, since the science which failed to take account of that religion was describing a different situation.

So there is no conflict with the claims of science for religions that do confine themselves to claims of value (interpreted as exhortations towards certain value judgements), as opposed to claims of fact about the physical world (maybe even including facts such as what values people are actually inclined to adopt).

This is all that is needed to defend the thesis that science and religion are compatible  – ie that there is no inevitable conflict with science inherent in all kinds of religion.

Of course some religions that do not conflict with the claims of science may conflict with its practice (eg by prohibiting certain methods of data collection or lines of enquiry as I have suggested above), and others do indeed conflict with the claims themselves.  So there are indeed many religions that are in conflict or even totally incompatible with science. Just not all of them.

Of course anyone who has ever been in a human relationship knows that conflict and compatibility are not incompatible – and often not even in conflict (cf “make-up sex”).

But just because religion per se is not incompatible with science does not mean that even those religions which do not conflict with science are in any way supported by it. Despite the polemics it is an open scientific question to what extent various kinds of religion enhance or diminish the levels of various measures of human satisfaction, and an open moral question as to whether that effect is a “good thing”.

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