Gould's Non Overlapping Magisteria, a Review

Massimo Pigliucci

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Let me make two things clear at the outset, before I get accused of being a Gould-basher or a rabid atheist. I am neither. Stephen J. Gould is a colleague whom I admire, agree with, disagree with, and who sometimes just overdoes it. An atheist I am, but not a rabid one. I don't wish to start holy wars against religion and I have an active distaste only for the fundamentalist-in-your-face-I-have-to-legislate-your-life kind. However, that does not mean that I will refrain from engaging in a frank discussion of the topic.

Gould's latest book, Rocks of Ages, is extremely disappointing. Simply put, and with the exception of one chapter to which I will later return, it's a badly written, condescending, and misleading book. That Rocks of Ages is badly written is recognizable by many symptoms, chief among them are the numerous parenthetical statements that take several sentences, in many cases starting in the middle of a page and continuing all the way into the following one (e.g., pp. 7-8), and the equally obnoxiously long footnotes (e.g., p. 55-57). As if that were not enough, two sections of the book are reprints not from previously published essays, but from previously published chapters of books that were in turn collections of essays! As for condescension, I cannot find another word to describe an atheist who keeps using the locution "Lord knows" (e.g., p. 163) or uses self-effacing sentences like "I present nothing original ... while perhaps claiming some inventiveness in choice of illustrations" (p. 3).

But the misleading argument central to the book represents the real problem. It is that science and religion are not in conflict, and the reason is purported to be NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria. This is an old idea that Gould has repackaged with a fancy label. It basically says that "Science covers the empirical realm ... religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value" (p. 6). Since the two areas of inquiry are so neatly separated, argues Gould, why all the fuss about a "supposed conflict" (p. 3)?

Well, for one thing, because such conflict can be traced throughout the history of science, including burning at the stake scores of "heretics" whose empirical findings or philosophical theories trod on ground already claimed by religious dogma. But Gould seems to be reading history in a very original way. For example, he thinks that Galileo is really to blame for his misfortunes, because he was not politically savvy enough to know how much he could push Pope Urban VII (pp. 71-74). Gould calls this "one defining historical accident," as if it were an exception to an otherwise reasonable history of conduct on the part of the Catholic Church. Assuming that Galileo did miscalculate his own influence on the religious authorities, this is an argument in favor of scientists hiring lobbyists and lawyers, not a gem in science-religion relationships.

One of Gould's reasons for supporting NOMA is his uncritical application of Aristotle's "golden mean." The idea, of course, is that sometimes the truth can be found in the middle between two extreme views. Gould calls as his witness the English essayist G.K. Chesterton, well known for such nonsensical phrases as "art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame" (I wonder what would happen if suddenly art museums would decide to overcome their limitations, hang frames, and get rid of pictures). While I have a hard time following Gould's logic here and seeing the connection with the science-religion debate, sometimes (as Richard Dawkins recently remarked) the truth simply cannot be found in the middle. While the golden mean surely appeals to contemporary political correctness, Gould himself repeatedly opposes such Solomonic solutions in the case of creationism: he certainly does not want creationism and evolution taught side by side in public schools (pp. 123-150).

One of Gould's most maddening logical fallacies in this book is the recurrent citation of individual scientists who espoused one version or another of NOMA. Chief among them, of course, was Charles Darwin (pp. 191-207). In a famous passage concerning the perceived atheistic implications of natural selection he wrote: "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton." Perhaps this is a great example of Darwin's humility (perhaps not, since the historical record clearly shows that he was much more canny and politically savvy than most people think - see E. Caudill, Darwinian Myths, 1997). Regardless, it is equally easy to round up very respectable scientists who dare to make a direct connection between science and unbelief (about 95 percent of the "great scientists" interviewed in a 1998 survey - see E. J. Larson and L. Witham, Leading scientists still reject God, Nature 394:313 - and also their article in the September 1999 Scientific American). The logical validity of a position simply cannot be decided by majority rule, which - once again - is exactly why we don't teach creationism in American public schools.


There are several intrinsic reasons why NOMA does not hold water. First, it is not true that (most) religions do not make claims about the natural world. Besides the tens of millions of people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, the Bible was never meant as a book of metaphors. It is read that way by enlightened Christians today precisely because of the long battle between science and religion, with the latter constantly on the losing side. Second, it is not true that religion is the only, or even a viable, quest for ethics. In fact, it is not a quest at all, since it is based on arbitrary sets of rules and on the enforcement of dogmas. Philosophy, using the tools of logic and informed by the discoveries of science, seems to me a much better candidate for that magisterium.

Perhaps the only valuable part of the book is the very last section of the last chapter, where Gould convincingly demolishes other attempts to reconcile science and religion. He calls these "the syncretic school," referring to the idea that science and religion actually describe the same unified reality and will eventually converge toward one grand unified theory of knowledge. The Templeton Foundation is a generous source of funding for science-religion syncretism (their prize for the advancement of religion is more hefty than the Nobel). Gould lashes out at the Foundation for sponsoring conferences in which all sorts of bizarre arguments are used to achieve the ultimate science-religion fusion. For example, physicist E Russell Stannard suggested that the "mystery" of the dual nature of Jesus (human and divine) can be "understood" in terms of quantum electrodynamics (QED), as equivalent to the particle-wave nature of light. The good professor conveniently neglected to specify how QED field equations could predict the Second Coming. Gould does not seem to realize that the kind of syncretism that he so effectively tears down, together with the creationist version of religion dominating science that he rightly despises even more, are exactly what the overwhelming majority of people think of when they think of religion and reality. A few sophists and intellectuals are the only ones playing with more esoteric versions of religion for which the conflict with science may be remote or nonexistent.

In the end, the major reason for a fundamental conflict between science and religion was highlighted honestly and in a straightforward manner by physicist Richard Feynman. In The Meaning of It All (1998), he says that it boils down to a matter of attitude. Regardless of what the goal of the inquiry is, science fosters doubt and investigation based on empirical evidence; religion, on the other hand, is based on dogma and revelation. It is hard to see how those attitudes can logically coexist in the same brain.

This book rests on a basic, uncomplicated premise that sets my table of contents and order of procedure, and that requires restatement at several points in the logic of my argument: NOMA is a simple, humane, rational, and altogether conventional argument for mutual respect, based on non-overlapping subject matter, between two components of wisdom in a full human life: our drive to understand the factual character of nature (the magisterium of science), and our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion).


- Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages


Massimo Pigliucci is an associate professor in the Departments of Botany and of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.




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