The Principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria — Science vs Religion

What would it take for you to stop being Catholic?

Think about this for a bit; it’s a really important question.

When I ask friends or fellow Catholics this I often don’t get a satisfying answer. There’s something about this question that people are troubled by, and I think the reason for this has to do with something called the Principle of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA).

NOMA is an idea coined by Stephen Jay Gould which states that Science and Religion operate in two different spheres of human experience and the two don’t overlap. Science thus can’t “disprove” religion anymore then religion can “prove” scientific theories correct because neither discipline has anything to say about the other. Religion answers questions about why and Science answers questions about how. It seems like an innocuous and plausible notion and I think it’s commonly held to be true. Asking someone what observations would disprove their religion seems like a bad question and people are confused by it. Falsification is something that scientists do when thinking about hypothesis; religion doesn’t really deal with it.

Obviously this is a complicated topic, but let’s start by thinking about the ways the two disciplines approach knowledge.

Science begins with two assumptions. First, we take as an axiom that reality operates by consistent laws. Second, we assume that those laws have effects that we can observe. The problem is that mere observation can never guarantee exact knowledge of the underlying laws. Let’s say you have a hypothesis that explains all your current observations.  You continue to test it by trying experiments designed to disprove the hypothesis (side note: trying experiments to confirm your hypothesis is a rookie mistake), but your model of reality seems plausible. That’s great, except next week you might observe something your hypothesis totally failed to predict because your model isn’t exactly correct. There’s no way to know for sure before that happens. Science can’t ever deduce the underlying laws; all it can do is model realty with greater and greater accuracy.

On the other hand, Religion does claim to have absolute certainty. The Nicene Creed is a list of things that, as a Catholic, you must believe and hold to be true. Catholics are certain that there is a God, certain that there are three persons in one God, etc. The two sources of religious knowledge are Reason and Revelation, the latter of which is truth directly revealed by God (we assume that God is trustworthy and isn’t just pulling our leg). As a result, religion claims to be pretty damn certain about its beliefs.

From the two different ways of approaching knowledge it sure looks like Religion and Science are doing different things. They even answer different questions about the world. Religion deals with our purpose as humans, morality, the why questions of the world. Science answers the how questions: how things have mass, how atoms form bonds, how species differentiate, etc. You won’t really see priests preaching about molecular orbital theory and you won’t really see scientists trying to measure the difference between right and wrong. NOMA seems like a pretty good way to think about the world. Science and Religion both have their uses and no one has to fight about it.

Here’s the catch: most scientists and serous philosophers think that NOMA is garbage.

The reason why is that most of us don’t believe in a Deist God who created the Universe and then just sort of let it run, not interfering with it. Christianity believes in a God that lives and loves us and interacts with the world, answering prayers and performing miracles. All of these interactions with the physical are in principle falsifiable by scientific techniques. Catholicism is aware of this and has a promotor fidei (Devil’s Advocate) who attempts to falsify claims of miracles and sainthood, but it goes deeper than that.

We ought to anticipate different experiences based on our religious beliefs. A world where Christianity is true is going to look different from a world where Hinduism is true. If we didn’t expect different observations and experiences from different religions it would imply that we didn’t actually expect the spiritual to have any impact on the physical world. No miracles, no answered prayers, nothing. Any interaction, however slight, between the material world and the spiritual is open to scientific analysis and, thus, disproof.

Do some Saints really have incorruptible bodies? We could test for decay and decomposition. Did the Host miraculously turn into Flesh? We could test for human cellular makeup. Did we actually discover the burial shroud of Jesus? We could carbon date it and make sure the material was correct for the time and place.

So much for the principle of non-overlapping magisteria.

This is why the question I posed at the beginning of the post is so important. There are serious philosophical problems with beliefs that can’t be falsified, and if you don’t think there’s anything that could shake your faith or disprove your religion the actual implication is that your religion isn’t affecting your life at all. It isn’t making any predictions or providing expectations about the world around you; it isn’t having an observable impact on the world at all, and that’s completely against everything we believe about God as Catholics.

Some people may be afraid of such questions just as some people are scared by the implications of evolution, but they really shouldn’t be. Truth cannot contradict Truth. The disciplines of Science and Religion do overlap, but their relationship isn’t adversarial, it’s mutually beneficial.  Religious people can say stupid and harmful things and Science can help free Religion from superstition and incorrect interpretation of sacred texts. Religion can help guide the moral framework in which Science operates and put human pursuits in the correct context. Together they enrich our knowledge, experience, and build our love for God’s majesty. At the end of the day, they are both describing the same reality, the same universe, the same wonder that is God’s creation.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.


3 thoughts on “The Principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria — Science vs Religion

  1. In my experience resurrections are not terribly common, and while I would not want to speak for others I think one fly in the ointment (that I was waiting for the post to bring up) is the tried-and-true dichotomy of Jesus: either he was batshit insane and was one step away from simply flinging his own poop at people. Or he was the Son of God. If we all exist on the ‘other shore’ of the Kantian Revolution, and I agree with Thomas that we do, there seems to be at least one event that all Christians should be able to point to that crosses those boundaries. Namely, the fellow who got this train to move. It’s more than (merely?) miracles.

  2. Pingback: The Porch
  3. Pingback: The Hypocrisy of Moral Relativism | The Porch

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