Saintly Thoughts

On Non-Overlapping Magisteria

I found myself reading this review by the well known and respected rationalist Steven Pinker the other day concerning a book written by biologist and essayist Jerry Coyne.  In it Pinker spoke disparagingly of a position that is sometimes known as the principle of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria."  This is the idea that science and religion represent two different, complementary, and non-overlapping ways of viewing the world and thus need not come into conflict with one another, even as they make claims which appear contradictory.  If I am not mistaken, this idea was first coined (or at least made most famous) by Francis Bacon in his work "The New Science" [I seem to remember him saying something along the lines of, "Render unto science what is science's, and unto faith what is faith's".]  Pinker (and apparently the author of the reviewed book) posits that this view satisfies no one and is naive and convoluted at best if not downright intellectually fraudulent.  He then goes on to draw the logical conclusion that science and faith cannot both be correct since they make contradictory claims, that both are subject to reasoned analysis based on evidence, and that such reasonable evidence supports science and debunks religion [this is, admittedly, a gross oversimplification of the argument presented, but we must move things along].

Now we will get into my specific views on these subjects, but what most intrigued me about this article was the questions it raised about the boundaries of our conceptual categories of "science" and "religion/faith/belief".  I could well see the appeal of the view that science and religion were simply talking about different things as the Magisterial claim seems to indicate; to my judicial mind which always looked for conclusions which allow for moderation and compromise, this position seemed one which allowed both endeavors to carry on, if not in complete harmony, then at least not in complete conflict--a lawyer's solution if ever there was one (and Bacon was, if I am not mistaken, himself a practitioner in this field).  But, alas, as is so often the case with judicially structured conclusions, while they often allow for workable compromises between competing interests, they are often not, strictly speaking, "true" conclusions, but simply conclusions which both sides are able to live with.  Thus a Magisterial conclusion might be an arbitrated solution fit for jurists seeking peace and stability [and I do not here mean to suggest that lawyers are uninterested in the truth, only that they are perennially forced to work within the confines and the vicissitudes of the world in which such "truth" as may be found is always mediated within the bounds of the practical limitations of a specific trial], but is hardly a conclusion fit for the dignity of either science or religion, which are both (at their best) concerned with absolute and unmediated truths, regardless of how inconvenient such truths may prove to existing paradigms and power structures.  

And as such, I have for a long time rejected this idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria as logically untenable.  For science proponents and faith proponents are constantly making incompatible claims regarding all sorts of things: from human origins to ethics to politics.  Of course, many proponents of these two world systems disagree among themselves about the very nature of these frameworks, so we could weasel out of our impasse by that route if we wished.  But let us not do this.  Let us submit ourselves to the rigors of the canon that declares both a religious approach to the world and a scientific one are subject to the dictates of reason, for reason is nothing other than the way that we think and perceive by virtue of our being creatures inhabiting our particular place within the cosmos.  

But, what of this?  Reason may be the conceptual hegemon, but there are many directions down which she might lead us.  Do we start with a basic empiricism, which begins with the input we perceive with our sense impressions and constructs observational experiments which delve into the bases of what causes these stimuli?  Or, preceding that, need we think about the nature of thinking itself, and how we come to perceive?  Or, before we can even begin thinking about thinking itself, should we attempt to conceive of the conceptual framework of being wherein such thinking takes place?  Or might it be better in our own lives (since we shall never have the time to know everything, and the path to greater knowledge may lead us through conceptual mazes which cause great and dangerous errors before we ever come to the nature of the truth itself, which we are almost certain never to find ourselves) if we attempt a cognizable synthesis of our underlying emotions and thoughts and thereby attempt some mystical understanding of the nature of being and our place as creatures as existent beings?

Now you may have noticed that I have outlined what might be considered a grossly inadequate and over-simplified version of the development of thought (in roughly reverse chronological order) whereby we "arose" from older religious ways of thinking to a scientific methodology of analysis.  This model is somewhat misleading inasmuch as human beings have employed all of these methods of "reasonable" (if not necessarily reasoned) methodologies since the dawn of humanity's youth.  Still, it would not be hard to guess which methodology seems the most reasonable to the modern ear.  And while the middle two courses of epistemology and ontology are still respected (though ontology is respected more as a categorical realm of thought than a real method of understanding anything significant about the world) it is clear that the last, much more esoteric and older form, is one which may not even be recognizable to many who claim allegiance and inspiration from some "faith" tradition.  And yet I should be very surprised if we don't all (in our way) apply each of these methods of thought all the time, in turn, and without usually realizing what we are doing.  In some way, no methodologies of thought ever go away, because they all speak to some necessary aspect of the human experience.  We are beholden to all of these ways of thinking in turn, for even if the more scientifically minded shun the last as a way of knowing of which they are no longer beholden, what is the awe felt in the presence of great beauty or the mysterious grip of passion one feels in the presence of their beloved--no doubt a scientific rationalism may explain "why" such reactions and feelings exist in that they aided some evolutionary necessity, yet this does not compass the rationalists actual lived experience of them; at least, not if he or she is wise.  Reasoning always begins from two ends at once, the mind reaching outwards to an understanding of the world outside of itself which it perceives, and the mind reaching inward into the strange depths of her impulses and desires.  If we start from the one place rather than the other, or allow our thinking to cascade down one path while avoiding another one, these strange combinations are going to yield different results, this is the consequence of living in a world of fundamentally dialectical relationships.  It is this principle which allows two sides in a reasoned debate, both arguing well but unable to reach consensus in the end, to proffer that "reasonable people can disagree".  Thus, rather than saying that there are two easily determinable "Magisteria" of reason and belief which we may conveniently think do not overlap, we are perhaps instead dealing with a multi-polar world of constantly and inevitably overlapping methodologies of reason which interact in ways more akin to poetry or music.  It is not "chaotic" exactly, but it is certainly not the neat and orderly reason which we may sometimes be accustomed to. 

Now, where does this leave us in the great debate, you may ask (for "reasonable people may disagree" is not a very satisfying answer, nor is it a completely honest one)?  While I have no time to go into the wide-ranging and convoluted steps of my analysis, I wish to suggest some controversial claims requiring further discussion and analysis: that a religion's claims may indeed be subjected to a reasonable analysis derived from a scientific inquiry into the nature of the cosmos, however, we must hold to the caveat that there are other reasonable and methodological forms being applied co-terminally.  Conceptually then, this seems to imply that such analysis does allow for the existence of God to either be proved or disproved (though, practically, this seems impossible since one would need to know the whole system at once perfectly; hence a practical but not a conceptual barrier).  However, this misidentifies (as Pinker seems to well understand) the nature of the God and beliefs being dealt with.  If the only God that existed were the demiurge of the Deists and philosophers, there would really be little point in saying much about him.  No, the great bugaboo of the Magisteria herein contested is the God of revealed religion [though not necessarily only the God of the monotheists; Orishas might draw similar scrutiny], who takes an active role in the governing of the cosmos.  And this God has indeed not done very well in the age of science; to reject the truth of this observation stinks of the most flagrant ignorance of the basest dishonesty.  For science did indeed dismantle the ordered cosmology of an earlier age; that earlier cosmology (both pagan and christian) invited its adherents to imagine the intervention of forces and spirits lying just beyond the bounds of the observable world and directing its course.  And such belief was tenable for both the rustic peasant who might have imagined devils with pointed horns dancing under the harvest moon and angels with halos and wings who stood guard beside their beds as well as urbane sophisticates who perceived the influence of mighty abstract beings of light who caused the rotation of the heavenly bodies and dark shadows who troubled the sleep of man.  For them, these beings were not strictly metaphor and not strictly real; they were spirit and they were close at hand, flitting behind the veil of physicality but just out of reach.  But, though they were invisible they were real, and their influence was felt, for their actions provided explanations for the apparent order of the cosmos lying outside of humanities control.  Now, I suppose we could say of spirit (whatever "stuff" we take spirit to be) that it too lies beyond the purview of science to understand; this is always a possibility into which the religious may rationally return to, for purposes of practicality mentioned above.  But, if this is the case, as the understanding of science grows ever more subtle, the "cause" of such spirit drifts further and further into the background, and the religious, who perceive themselves as spirit intermixed with the perceived matter of appearance, will naturally feel more and more estranged from this conceptualization of themselves.  And this, I would wager, is a problem; for humanity (and here I realize I am being very controversial) developed this concept of spirit in order to serve an apparent problem of perception; that is, the two-fold issue of the fact that they were able to abstract their thought from themselves and their immediate stimuli and thus, became aware of their mortality.  [Now, I should take a moment here to deny that I am in any way putting this anthropological account in contradistinction to some idea that spirit is revealed to humanity by God; the introduction of an efficient cause does not destroy the category of first cause--it may be seen to lessen the necessity of such cause, but this is another issue which I will not take up here]...

..I just realized that I had intended this to be a short post but it appears to have become instead a short essay.  I could go on in this vein, but in some sense I realize that the initial argument has been made [though not well] and that I am beginning to rehash arguments raised in my June 16 post.  I suppose this has become something of a personal project with me.  I have stated before that I stand for the importance of religion and faith in this age as in all others.  Yet I well realize that our age has raised new conceptual problems both in reason and in experience which necessitate a response.  Many of the answers formulated in other ages--Non-Ovelapping Magisteria, for instance--were reasonable in their time but are no longer tenable for serious religious persons to believe.  That is well, that is the way of philosophy.  This age, then, presents an opportunity to construct new philosophies of belief (and I say philosophies in contradistinction to doctrine, which is something other and must be worked within) lest we are forced to give way to those who think the universe thoroughly disenchanted.  Such will not be done by clinging doggedly to outmoded conceptualizations springing from philosophies that have outlived their usefulness.  This is a terrifying process, to be sure; for the danger of misidentifying what is true (though perhaps obscure) doctrine as mere philosophy and thus discarding what is true as though it were false is very great, and very dangerous.  But, so what?  To live is dangerous; that at least is clear to all.