Non-moral nature

I’m visiting some colleagues in Hobart at the moment, so I have a new route that I walk to work each day. It’s a tranquil and tree-lined avenue with some lovely gardens, especially now when all the spring flowers are in bloom.

Running alongside the path is a stream, and this morning, in that stream, were some ducks. Mostly they were doing normal duckish things – paddling about, quacking and nibbling the odd bit of water vegetation. But it’s spring, so they were also pretty frisky. In particular, there were two drakes which both seemed very keen on a female duck, which in turn was doing her best to paddle away from them. But the drakes were not to be discouraged. They held her head under the water and had their way with her despite all her struggling and flapping.

Just another day on the river. A light breeze, the delicate scent of flowers in the air and avian gang-rape in the water.

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On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth (Part II)


This post and Part I have been edited and combined into a single essay. The full version can be found here.


Part I of this essay was an overview of how models (and scientific inquiry in general) actually work.

Let’s have a quick recap of the key points:

  • Explanations should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.
  • We make sense of complex systems by building models.
  • Models are built for specific objectives and incorporate assumptions.
  • The usefulness of a model depends on the validity of those assumptions.
  • We cannot modify our objectives without re-examining our assumptions.
  • Models can never be verified (shown to be true), only confirmed (shown to be useful).
  • Scientific theories are models.

In this section, I want to explore the role of science in the search for ultimate truth.

We need to recognise the limitations of science as a method of pursuing truth, and with our newly-acquired understanding of models I hope that it will be clearer what those limitations are.


Methodological naturalism and the limitations of scientific models

Science, as a collection of models (termed theories or hypotheses according to their level of confirmation), is built on a set of assumptions. These are broadly grouped under the philosophy of methodological naturalism, and could be summarised as:

  • The world we observe actually exists and is consistent.
  • We can use our reason and senses to explore it.
  • The material world is all that there is.

So we must ask ourselves: how useful is naturalism as an assumption?

The general opinion amongst philosophers of science is that it is a useful simplification. That is not to say that it is true, only that it is useful. Steven Schafersman, a geologist and prominent advocate against Creationism, writes that:

“… science is not metaphysical and does not depend on the ultimate truth of any metaphysics for its success … but methodological naturalism must be adopted as a strategy or working hypothesis for science to succeed. We may therefore be agnostic about the ultimate truth of naturalism, but must nevertheless adopt it and investigate nature as if nature is all that there is.”

Philosopher of science Robert Pennock, also a prominent voice against Creationism (and Intelligent Design), is more explicit. In his 1997 paper for a conference on “Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise”, he states that science “makes use of naturalism only in a heuristic, methodological manner.” He also argues against even the theoretical possibility of using scientific methodology to explore supernatural issues:

“Methodological naturalism itself … follows from reasonable evidential requirements in science, most importantly, that hypotheses be intersubjectively testable by reference to law-governed processes.”

Why does this preclude the supernatural? In the same essay, Pennock writes:

“Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the purported independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant and we observe the effect on the dependent variable. But by definition we have no control over supernatural entities or forces.”


The pursuit of data

Assumption are fundamental to understanding the usefulness of the outputs of a model. But the assumptions underlying the scientific method will also influence the data that we subsequently look for. This limitation has been noted by philosopher Karl Popper and historian of science Thomas Kuhn, who notes that the “route from theory to measurement can almost never be traveled backward”. Theories also tend to build on each other, usually without revisiting the underlying assumptions.

Popper examines this problem of nested assumptions in his critique of naturalism:

“I reject the naturalistic view: It is uncritical. Its upholders fail to notice that whenever they believe to have discovered a fact, they have only proposed a convention. Hence the convention is liable to turn into a dogma. This criticism of the naturalistic view applies not only to its criterion of meaning, but also to its idea of science, and consequently to its idea of empirical method.” (The Logic of Scientific Discovery)

Note again the emphasis (in the second sentence) on the problem of confusing model confirmation with verification. This self-reinforcement of theory dominates most of science. Kuhn writes:

“Once it has been adopted by a profession … no theory is recognized to be testable by any quantitative tests that it has not already passed.” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

Pierre-Simon LaplaceWe will never find what we do not seek and are unwilling to see.


The usefulness of models

In their correct place, of course, models are very useful. The great French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace used Newton’s model of gravity to calculate the motion of the heavens (as well as for predicting ballistics) in his masterpiece Mécanique céleste. Napoleon asked to see the manuscript, being greatly interested in ballistics. According to the story, after perusing the equations Napoleon turned to Laplace and asked, “Where is God in your book?” To which Laplace famously replied, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”).

Laplace was perfectly correct. He was using calculus to predict the motions of celestial bodies and bodies moving through air, and it is not useful to incorporate theological complications into that  prediction. Remember: as simple as possible, but no simpler. Of course, Laplace also didn’t include gravitational attraction from other stars in calculating the orbits of the planets. In the real world, we believe that other stars do exert gravitational attraction, but it is a useful simplification in our model that we ignore them at the scale of our solar system.

Laplace’s model does not correspond perfectly to reality, but it does allow us to make sense of data and make predictions, provided that we stay within the limits of its assumptions. Popper comments on the usefulness of the Darwinian evolutionary synthesis, despite the great limitations of that theory:

“Darwinism  is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program … And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin …  Although it is metaphysical, it sheds much light upon very concrete and very practical researches … it suggests the existence of a mechanism of adaptation, and it allows us even to study in detail the mechanism at work.”

But let us never confuse useful with true.


Science and truth

So what can science really tell us, if not truth? Well, within the limitations of its assumptions, it can give us great insight into process and the nature of the material universe. But it cannot, by definition, tell us anything about the immaterial: including the supernatural, philosophical reasoning and morality.

The great Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay Nonmoral Nature, commented thus on the limitations of science:

“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.”

Indeed, science cannot even comment on the validity of its own assumptions: they must simply be accepted at face value for any science to be done at all. As per Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, they are postulates which cannot be proven by the system itself.

In our search for insight into the supernatural, we’re out of the territory of science. And recall the fundamental principle of modelling: we cannot change our objectives without re-evaluating our assumptions. So we can’t even adapt any current science to deal with these questions: science is simply not equipped for the task.

I do not propose allowing supernatural explanations into science. But I do suggest that it is very misleading to imply that science in any way supports a materialist worldview. This is mere question-begging: scientific theory, by its very assumptions, operates within a materialist worldview.

But we do not live in “science”. We live in reality.

Are we searching for truth, or are we searching for a theory nested in unprovable assumptions?

If the supernatural exists, it is beyond the tools of science. But if we have a supernatural aspect to our existence, it is not beyond our experience. To limit ourselves wholly to a materialist view may deprive us of fully experiencing a part of ourselves.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues strongly for this line of thinking. He wrote:

“If you exclude the supernatural from science, then if the world or some phenomena within it are supernaturally caused – as most of the world’s people believe – you won’t be able to reach that truth scientifically.”

Are you missing out on something important by clinging to rigid materialism, perhaps because of a mistaken belief that such a worldview has scientific justification? Is there anything more to life?

Not to science. To life.

C. S. Lewis, certainly, had no doubt about the importance of our supernatural aspect. In Mere Christianity he described the human condition thus:

“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

What are you missing out on?



Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth (Part I)

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding


Conflict Myths: Bishop Ussher

This essay is part of a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as “conflicts” between science and Christianity.


This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.


“Not only by the plain and manifold testimonies of Holy Scripture, but also by light of reason well directed.” – James Ussher (A body of divinity: or, the sum and substance of Christian religion, 1641)

There is probably no name more indelibly linked with rigid church fundamentalism than that of Bishop James Ussher (1581 – 1656), who today is almost exclusively known as “the man who fixed the time of Creation at midday on October 23, 4004 BC”. As Stephen Jay Gould observed:

“One can scarcely find a textbook in introductory geology that does not take a swipe at Ussher’s date as the opening comment in an obligatory page or two on older concepts of the earth’s age (before radioactive dating allowed us to get it right). Other worthies are praised for good tries in a scientific spirit (even if their ages are way off), but Ussher is usually excoriated for biblical idolatry and just plain foolishness”

As with the essay on Galileo, I will argue that this interpretation of the events is based largely on a failure to adequately appreciate the scientific and social context of the work. Inappropriately applying a modern interpretation to historical events distorts our perceptions and generally does more to highlight current biases than historical truths.

To be clear, however, I do not intend to defend the substance of Ussher’s conclusion. I have great faith in cosmological and geochemical research and am happy to accept the postulated ages of approximately 14Gyr and 4.5Gyr for the Universe and the Earth respectively. But I think that it is greatly erroneous to blame work from a particular time and place for its accuracy regarding later and fundamentally different disciplines: we must evaluate the work in its proper context.

So what did Ussher’s work actually involve? The play (and later movie) Inherit the Wind, which is very loosely based on the 1925 trial of John Scopes, features a scene in which a fictionalised version of William Jennings Bryan named “Brady” presents the common impression of Ussher’s methodology:

Brady: A fine Biblical scholar, Bishop Ussher, has determined for us the exact date and hour of the Creation. It occurred in the year 4004 B.C.
Drummond: Well, uh, that’s Bishop Ussher’s opinion.
Brady: It is not an opinion. It is a literal fact, which the good Bishop arrived at through careful computation of the ages of the prophets as set down in the Old Testament.

We’ll deal with William Jennings Bryan in another essay – his participation in the Scopes trial has in itself an important place in the “conflict” mythos – but for now let us note that this exchange represents a common impression of Ussher’s work. In fact, it was nowhere near that simple, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible will realise. The question of the age of the Earth represented a major field of theological study, and within that context the quality of Ussher’s work was outstanding.

James Ussher was born in 1581 and entered Trinity College Dublin when he was only 13 years old (in its founding class of 1594). In 1601 he was ordained as a priest and by 1607 had risen to professor at Trinity. In 1625, aged 43, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and head of the Anglo-Irish church – a difficult position to hold in a turbulent religious and political landscape. He was in England when civil war broke out in 1642 and remained there the rest of his life, devoting most of his last years to study and writing.

By temperament he was far more inclined towards scholarship than ecclesiastical administration. Although an effective bishop in a troubled time, he devoted much of his energies to works such as his 1639 treatise Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates, a comprehensive study of the history of Christian churches in Britain. In 1650 he published his most famous work, the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, or “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world”. It is on this work that we will focus our attention.


Ussher’s Chronology

To understand his work, we must first rid ourselves of this notion that Ussher was working to “quench scientific knowledge and inquiry” with static dogma.  To do so gravely misinterprets chronological thinking at the time. Attempts to establish a chronology of human history were a major scholarly pursuit in Ussher’s time, and his methods and conclusions were well supported by other researchers. The Venerable Bede, writing in about AD 723, had reckoned the dawn of humanity at 3952 BC, and more contemporary scholars such as Scaliger (3949 BC), the astronomer Johannes Kepler (3992 BC) and the great Isaac Newton (c. 4000 BC) had all come to similar calculations.

As to the scholarly merits of Ussher’s efforts, the calculation of such dates required some serious research and historical reckoning. James Barr emphasises this academic aspect in his study of Ussher’s chronology.  Contrary to the common textbook presentation of simply adding up genealogies, Barr identifies three distinct periods of history that Ussher had to deal with to arrive at this dates:

  1. The genealogies (from Adam to Solomon). For this period, there is an unbroken succession of the male lineage with ages of each heir at the birth of their son. Even so, the Hebrew and Septuagint Bibles differ by nearly 1500 years in their totals. Ussher went with the Hebrew bible and added up the numbers.
  2. The period of kings (from Solomon to the Babylonian captivity, or around 930 BC – 586 BC). Here things get much more complicated: the succession of kings is not continuous, as regents sometimes rule for periods between successive kings, and there are even overlaps between reigns. Considerable cross-referencing is needed to correlate the Judean kings with other contemporaneous histories.
  3. Between the Testaments (from Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus). The Biblical record of the Old Testament ends with the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Second Temple, which probably happened in about 515 BC. For this 5-century intermission, Ussher relied entirely on alternative timelines such as the Chaldean and Persian histories. By correlating significant events (such as the reign of Nebuchadnezzar), these histories could be used as a “bridge” to connect the Jewish and the Roman timelines, and thus ultimately arrive at the birth of Jesus in about 4 BC.

In all, it is reckoned that Ussher relied on the Biblical narrative for only one sixth of his chronology. The rest of his references came from his in-depth study of Chaldean, Persian, Greek and Roman history – which, we note, represented virtually all of ancient history know in Europe at the time. His dating of other historical events (such as the deaths of Alexander and Julius Caesar in 323 BC and 44 BC respectively) is in accordance with current estimates.

It may seem a little too neat that his estimate for “Creation to the birth of Jesus” comes out at exactly 4000 years. Indeed, it becomes even more suspicious in light of the common view (in Ussher’s day) that the Earth would last 6000 years. Barr considers this question in his study, but ultimately decides against the idea that Ussher “fiddled the numbers” according to a preconceived notion. Although he was no doubt delighted to calculate that the first temple was completed exactly 3000 years after Creation and was followed exactly 1000 years later by the coming of Christ (the fulfillment of the temple), Ussher appears to interpret these as confirmations of his work rather than a priori assumptions. Stephen Jay Gould comments on Barr’s analysis:

“First, Ussher’s chronology extends out to several volumes and 2,000 pages of text and seems carefully done, without substantial special pleading. Second, the death of Herod in 4 B.C. doesn’t establish the birth of Jesus in the same year. Herod became king of Judea (Roman puppet would be more accurate) in 37 B.C. – and Jesus might have been born at other times in this thirty-three-year interval. Moreover, other traditions argued that the 4,000 years would run from creation to Christ’s crucifixion, not to his birth – thus extending the possibilities to A.D. 33. By these flexibilities, creation could have been anywhere between 4037 B.C. (4,000 years to the beginning of Herod’s reign) and 3967 B.C. (4,000 years to the Crucifixion). Four thousand four is in the right range, but certainly not ordained by symbolic tradition. You still have to calculate.”


The great pursuit of knowledge

Finally, and most inportantly, let us note the intent of Ussher’s chronology. He was not attempting to impose the authority of rigid dogma: rather, he sought to illuminate and give meaning to human endeavour by giving it a proper historical context. As Barr wrote:

“It is a great mistake, therefore, to suppose that Ussher was simply concerned with working out the date of creation: this can be supposed only by those who have never looked into its pages. . . . The Annales are an attempt at a comprehensive chronological synthesis of all known historical knowledge, biblical and classical. . . . Of its volume only perhaps one sixth or less is biblical material.”

Contrary to the common presentation of Ussher struggling to refute geological timescales, his scholarship was actually at odds with the Aristotelian notion of an eternal Earth, in which human history has neither context nor consequence. Ironically, Ussher was more concerned with why God had chosen to take a whole six days for Creation, when surely he could have achieved it all in an instant. Gould writes:

“We castigate Ussher for making the creation so short–a mere six days, where we reckon billions for evolution. But Ussher fears that six days might seem too long in the opinion of his contemporaries, for why should God, who could do all in an instant, so spread out his work? “Why was he creating so long, seeing he could have perfected all the creatures at once and in a moment?” Ussher gives a list of answers, but one caught my attention both for its charm and for its incisive statement about the need for sequential order in teaching–as good a rationale as one could ever devise for working out a chronology in the first place! “To teach us the better to understand their workmanship; even as a man which will teach a child in the frame of a letter, will first teach him one line of the letter, and not the whole letter together.”


Note: This essay was motivated by Stephen Jay Gould’s Fall in the House of Ussher, which I recommend as further reading. The Gould quotations in this piece are all taken from that essay.

Faith: reflecting on evidence


This post has been edited and expanded. The full version can be found here.


There seems to be a great deal of confusion among non-Christians about the meaning of the word “faith” in a Christian context. The prominent atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins writes that: “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principle vice of any religion.” And further: “[whereas] scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops”. And thus we see that for Dawkins (and many atheists), religious faith is blind faith.

But such a view is totally at odds with the view of faith presented in the Bible and maintained throughout mainstream Christianity. The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence. This was the whole reason that the apostle John wrote his gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, NIV). Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, says that Dawkins’ definition of faith “certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor most of those in my personal acquaintance.” Throughout the Bible we see this theme: you have been given evidence, so believe.

On the topic of evidence, we often see the charge that “Faith is opposed to science”. As both a scientist and a Christian, I find that to be patently false. Firstly, we must understand the rightful position of science on the topic. The great evolutionary proponent T. H. Huxley coined the word agnostic to describe not only his own personal philosophy, but also the necessary stance of science. He wrote,

“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.”

This is not to say that science can never contribute to faith. Among the central issues of the Christian credo are belief in the historical truth of certain events. I believe that Jesus was a real person, that he lived around 2000 years ago, that he was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate, then the Roman Procurator of Judea. I believe that God raised him from the dead, and that he appeared physically to hundreds of people after his resurrection. There are many other things that I believe about Jesus, but I offer these as a starting point, not only because they are all verifiable by historical and archaeological evidence, but because all my other beliefs about Jesus hinge on his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul, preaching to the gentiles in Athens, explains that the resurrection of Jesus was “proof to all” of God’s plans. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is even more explicit: “if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NLT). But the scientific contributions to the question of the death and resurrection of Jesus, principally through archaeology and textual criticism of the historical records, overwhelmingly endorse the beliefs I have stated above. There is evidence, so I believe.

On broader issues, such as the existence of a God who created the universe, science is in a far more difficult position. I have already discussed in a previous post how Stephen Jay Gould articulated so clearly that:

“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.”

The tools of science are unequipped to deal with the supernatural and the unobservable. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in Medicine, noted that:

“The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions … such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”

Furthermore, for any postulated experiment to determine God’s existence, we have what I would term the isolation problem. That is to say, scientific experiments rely on experimental controls: if we wanted to determine the existence or lack of existence of God in an experiment, we would need another experiment in which God didn’t exist, to which we could compare our results. But God is present in the entirety of existence. He is not just the Creator but the Sustainer of the universe. Imagine a creature which lived its whole life under water and could not exist without water, attempting to eliminate “wetness” from an experiment.


Acceptance of evidence: the real issue

In fact, the perceived lack of “evidence” for the Christian faith generally arises from an a priori decision that any evidence pointing towards the truth of Christianity must automatically be rejected. When the “Big Bang” theory was first proposed, it was met with staunch opposition from atheists on principle, rather than on scientific grounds, because it would lend support to the idea that the universe had a specific beginning, and thus force the issue of God’s creation into the picture. An endless universe could ignore the need to explain its beginning, but a universe with a definite and identifiable starting point could no longer bypass this issue. When the cosmic microwave background was discovered, the validity Big Bang theory was accepted as being conclusively demonstrated, but the same objectionists simply moved on to other semantic arguments and ignored the theological implications.

Jesus himself referred to this phenomenon: in chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel, he tells the story of a man who has died and is suffering in hell, and he begs that someone rise from the dead to go and warn his brothers of the truth. He is told that the prophets and the scriptures already give all the information his brothers need. But, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, then they will believe. To which the reply comes:

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31, NIV)

For those less insistent on keeping our eyes closed, every facet of the universe is a glorious testament to God’s creation. Even T. H. Huxley acknowledged that:

… true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which ‘are not dreamt of in our philosophy’.”

Or, as the psalmist phrased it:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1, NIV)

Is that a statement of science? No. But so much of what makes life glorious is inaccessible to science, and it really would be a shame to just ignore it all.

As for me, I do not take a blind leap of faith. The path ahead is thoroughly illuminated by historical evidence, scientific insight and personal experience, and I see clearly where I am choosing to walk.



Related posts:

Believing and understanding

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth


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?


Overlap in the Magisterium?

Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of NOMA (nonoverlapping magisteria), in which science and religion address different issues and have no point of contact, is an interesting position. Despite contentions from leading atheists that Gould was just “trying to throw a bone to the religious camp”, if we read his original essay it is clear that his intent was very different: despite his own position as an agnostic, he was actually addressing concerns from Christian believers who had been told by their co-religionists that to believe in evolution was to deny Genesis.

But I would distinguish between “religion” and “theology”, as Gould does not (and nor do most who discuss this topic). Let’s unpack these terms a bit. Although “theology” is often used in common parlance as a synonym for “religious studies”, it’s really something quite different. Augustine of Hippo (aka St Augustine) defined the Latin term “theologia” as “reasoning or discussion concerning God”. Note that it’s not reasoning/study/discussion about religion, it’s study of God. “Religion”, on the other hand, could perhaps be defined as:

A set of beliefs, typically dealing with the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, and thus often (but not always) concerned with the Creator of the universe.

I know that Greek-derived words sound wonderfully academic, but the correct name for the department in most schools and universities would thus be “Religious Studies”, not “Theology”, as they tend to involve the study of belief systems.

Back to NOMA.

Although he specifies that they are non-overlapping, Gould does note that:

“…the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.” (Nonoverlapping Magisteria, Natural History, 1997)

I would suggest that the difficulty in sorting the legitimate domains comes from our shift from a fully Theistic worldview to one which, while it is not actually atheistic, holds the question of God’s existence and agency as undetermined.

I believe that the difficulty in disentangling religion and science comes from trying to view the world without an understanding that it is all created by God. I would extend the NOMA concept: I would say rather that both science and religion are sub-sets of Theology.

This will raise difficulties. Unfortunately, “theology” as a word has been watered down to the point where it implies wondering vaguely about whether God exists and what He’s like, rather than “studying God”, without any unnecessary qualifiers. Likewise, “theologian” is basically understood as a synonym for a religious scholar, and I am certainly not saying that a student of scripture is ipso facto qualified to make pronouncement on scientific issues. And as for the reverse, I would again hold with Gould on the applicability of Science to religious questions: “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.”

The agnostic naturalist T. H. Huxley shared Gould’s view of Science and Religion operating in tandem, writing:

“True science and true religion are twin-sisters, and the separation of either from the other is sure to prove the death of both. Science prospers exactly in proportion as it is religious; and religion flourishes in exact proportion to the scientific depth and firmness of its basis.” (Science and Religion, 1859)

But without confidence in the existence and goodness of God as a starting point, nothing makes any sense, either in the scientific world or in the affairs of the human soul. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”



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