Sunday, November 3, 2013

Non-Overlapping Magisteria and the Quandary of Public vs Private Thoughts.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria (or NOMA) is a concept propounded by Professor Stephen Jay Gould who was best known as an evolutionary biologist and science historian. In his Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, Gould claimed that “the net of science covers the empirical realm: what the universe is 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 [or teaching authorities] do not overlap” (Gould, p. 274). Professor Gould expresses this idea as a hopeful “resolution of the supposed ‘conflict’ or ‘warfare’ between science and religion” (Gould, p. 274).

Unfortunately Gould ignores that religion, from its very beginnings, was an explanation by superstitious people of “what the universe is made of and why does it work this way.” Our Judeo-Christian belief systems, for example, posit the existence of a monotheistic god, that this god created the Universe, that he created all organic life including humankind and that he infused Homo Sapiens with souls. While rational people may accept that science has pushed religion back from the empirical realm, this does not mean that religion has surrendered the field. The above beliefs are still advanced by Judeo-Christian believers. One may also take exception to the notion that religion addresses moral meaning and value, given the current and historical behavior of dominant religions worldwide, but I wish to maintain the focus of this response on the alleged separation of the realms themselves. Religion has always crossed the boundary between its purported domain and that of science. And if religion continues to invade the scientific realm with irrational positions on the physical world, science will continue to refute religious propositions.

There are people who are rational in most of their lives. They use empirical evidence when purchasing a car, or deciding what to wear when the weather changes. But many of those otherwise empirically-based individuals create within themselves Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Using the mental tools of denial, rationalization and compartmentalization, people are capable of holding any number of conflicting ideas. Many maintain illogical religious beliefs because these beliefs are comforting. As a nurse, I have met many a dying patient. Some of them believed in God and Heaven. There is not a hospital situation in which I would attempt to disillusion any of them of a belief in an afterlife. That would simply be cruel. Additionally, their belief is privately held and affects me not at all. I am a firm advocate of the view that people have a right to their private thoughts, regardless of whether those thoughts are superstitions or rational ideas.

People also have a right to express their ideas or beliefs publicly. But once those thoughts enter the public sphere, they are open to public comment. At that point, the author of the stated idea doesn’t get to say “these are my personal beliefs/ideas; you have no right to challenge them.” One has the right to express their personal views publicly, and the public has a right to agree or disagree. Stephen Jay Gould had personal motives as a self-described “agnostic” (Gould, p. 270), and as a scientist. He wanted peace between the two systems he held dear. Like many religious/spiritual people in denial, he overlooked that his NOMA theory was flawed, which allowed his spiritual/religious fantasy bubble to remain unpopped. He died on May 20, 2002. Had I been his nurse, I would have encouraged the comfort he obtained from his beliefs. It is in this more public forum that I examine NOMA and find it wanting.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. New York: Harmony Books, 1998.