Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

In a recent post I suggested an alternative take on Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA framework, in which religion and science occupy “nonoverlapping magisteria”. Richard Dawkins also has an alternative to the NOMA framework. It goes:

“Science tells us everything and what it doesn’t tell us isn’t important anyway la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you-so-stop-talking.”

I’m paraphrasing his words slightly, but I believe I have captured the thrust of his argument accurately. Let’s look in a little more detail at the perspectives of these two evolutionary biologists.

A common criticism of NOMA is that religion and science insist on interfering with one another, so we can’t really regard them as being non-overlapping. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that scientists and religious people keep commenting on each other’s fields. (Of course, when you have a scientist who is also religious, this issue becomes even muddier: my point is that we end up with a person making a religious comment based on a scientific perspective, and making scientific claims based on religious beliefs).

Note that Gould doesn’t simply say that the two fields are independent: he specifically says that they “bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border.” Of course, such a complex border would appear to be merely fuzzy from a distance, but it is exactly this interdigitation that we must explore. What Gould claims is that within every issue, whether moral or scientific, there are complex details which will fall into the domain of one or other field.

In our (very human) quest for meaning, even when operating as scientists, we have an inevitable tendency to add a moral and philosophical dimension to everything we see. It is an article of faith amongst materialist atheists that there is no deeper meaning to anything, but that is a religious statement masquerading as science. T. H. Huxley warned against this trend in his 1889 essay Agnosticism (in which he also first defined the title term):

“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

If we look into areas of conflict between religion and science, I believe we generally see something like:

  1. Science announces a theory (which may or may not be true).
  2. A philosophical and/or moral dimension is added by either or both sides of the debate.
  3. Argument ensues about the philosophical/moral dimension, and is extrapolated back to the validity of the scientific claim.

It is precisely this combination of scientific conjecture and philosophical implication that Gould was referring to with his complex border. He did not believe that religious perspective would illuminate a specifically scientific question, but he also believed that it is irresponsible for a scientist to add a philosophical aspect to any thesis in his capacity as a scientist. When Dawkins claims that the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”, he is most assuredly not making a scientific claim, and thus even under a NOMA framework, it is entirely appropriate to respond to him from a religious perspective.

This temptation to proclaim on topics far beyond his field of expertise seems to be irresistible to Dawkins. He further claims that: “A universe with a God would look quite different from a universe without one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look different. So the most basic claims of religion are scientific.” But different from what? We live in and experience and can observe precisely one universe. How can that possibly be a scientific statement? It is akin to saying, “The Big Bang was very different from all the other Big Bangs which have happened”; or, “Life based on complex organic molecules is very different from all the other life we observe”. It is ridiculous. Gould was more honest about the limitations of science, saying: “Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.” (Scientific American, 1992)

Let us examine another pair of quotes from Dawkins:

  • “What has ‘theology’ ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has ‘theology’ ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” (Letter to The Independent, 20 March 1993)
  • “If you want to do evil, science provides the most powerful weapons to do evil; but equally, if you want to do good, science puts into your hands the most powerful tools to do so.” (The Richard Dimbleby Lecture, 12 Nov 1996)

Thus according to Dawkins, science is morally silent, and yet theology is completely useless. But if science is all that there is, what morality could possibly guide our actions? Can science seriously hold the weight of ethical decisions? In light of these opinions, it becomes easier to understand how Dawkins reaches the conclusion that “[his] belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.” (Interview with Justin Brierley, 21st October 2008)

This is, tragically, the despairing depth in which we find ourselves in the absence of a theologically-guided moral imperative. Far wiser was Gould, who wrote in his essay “Nonmoral Nature” (Natural History, February 1982):

“Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians … indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”



Related posts:

Believing and understanding

On reading both books

Overlap in the Magisterium?


12 thoughts on “Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

  1. I loved Nancy Frankenberry’s reference to the failure of empiricism, that what exists is not limited to “the senses and their technological extensions alone.” I came up with a reference to someone having died, they happen to be found on a pavement. To say “They were killed by a broken heart” would be as true as saying “They died from hitting the pavement”. Both statements are true and descriptive. Steven Katz (at least in one of his books so it may’ve been a contributor with him as editor) notes how one can be descriptively accurate and misleading. He uses soccer as an analogy, noting that “If you describe a game of soccer only as a leather ball being kicked between two posts” your description is accurate but your description alone is misleading. Soccer is not only that, there are elements that go beyond the material alone.

    BTW, have you read Ian G Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion yet?

    • Haven’t read it or heard of it – tell me more?

      And yes, it’s the multiple layers which can lead to confusion between technical accuracy and limited description. As John Lennox points out, to take a rigidly reductionist approach, it is possible to describe a book in terms of physics and chemistry by detailing the paper and ink at a molecular level. Such a description falls short of explaining the existence or purpose of the book – for that we must include concepts such as information, language and communication from a person.

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  3. The best science is that which is most clear and honest about its limitations. Science is a tool for discovering the mechanics of molecule and matter: not meaning. When we separate it from the hand that holds it, we fail to recognise that tools, in order to have a useful purpose, require a user. Which is precisely what makes them tools. Think about it, what purpose does a hammer have when there is no carpenter to give it meaning and useful purpose? If science was truly honest with itself, it would not separate the hammer from the carpenter, but realise that it cannot have any meaning without it. That is, science shoots itself in its own foot by suggesting that it in and of itself; has no purpose. Why conduct any science at all then? So to all good scentists out there (be careful how you decide on what “good” is here), realise that empirical science is only one of the epistimological frameworks that justify knowledge and does not provide an all encompassing grasp on the meaning of life. Only a creator has a hand that is big enough to do that. Please don’t separate his hand from the science, the hammer – he will make much better use of it than us.

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