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“Religion” and “science” are typically held to be opposing worldviews, especially in the United States where they identify two sides of a cultural divide (such that Jesus fish and Darwin fish are as common on American cars as are bumper stickers). For those of us who are trying to learn from both, it often seems like a relief to hear compromises like the late Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of “non-overlapping magisteria” (abbreviated NOMA). Briefly, in effect, Gould says that there is no need for conflict between science and religion, because science deals with questions of fact and religion with questions of value (or of “moral meaning”). Ken Wilber puts forward a slightly more sophisticated version of the non-overlapping magisteria view:

Simply imagine what would happen if we indeed said that modern physics support mysticism. What happens, for example, if we say that today’s physics is in perfect agreement with Buddha’s enlightenment? What happens when tomorrow’s physics supplants or replaces today’s physics (which it most definitely will)? Does poor Buddha then lose his enlightenment? You see the problem. If you hook your God to today’s physics, then when that physics slips, that God slips with it. (from Grace and Grit, p. 20)

Gould’s claim would be a great way of resolving the conflicts between science and religion – if it were true. The problem is that it isn’t. A rigid separation between fact and value cannot be rationally sustained, and rare is the “religious” person who tries to do so. Gould approvingly cites encyclicals from Pius XII and John Paul II allowing Catholics to believe in evolution; but they don’t do so on the grounds of a fact-value distinction. The popes say we may believe in the evolution of the body as long as we also believe those bodies have souls; but the existence of souls, if true, would be a fact. It is a fact imbued with moral meaning – but so are the existence of grinding poverty, the development of a fetus, and the heritability of homosexual orientation.

Other “religions” are similarly concerned with questions of fact. Much of Buddhism is composed of psychological hypotheses about the nature and origins of human suffering. If we can disprove empirically that suffering is caused by craving, then we have effectively disproved Buddhism. Wilber is right to see that if we tie our “religious” claims to scientific ones, then they become far more tentative, far less a source of certainty; but that’s just in the nature of knowledge itself. People have disagreed on matters “religious” since time immemorial. (The soul that’s so essential for the Popes is explicitly and directly denied by the Buddha of the Pali suttas.) Science does offer ways of resolving some of those disputes, for those inclined to listen. To refuse to tie your beliefs to experimental evidence, for fear that they might be disproven, is to refuse to allow your beliefs to be true.

It’s not just that “religion” deals in matters of fact. It’s also that science deals in matters of value. I’ve previously discussed the way in which health is itself a value, and medical science is inescapably normative in prescribing the healthy functioning of human beings. The point applies even to biomedical science with no explicit psychological component, but it goes double for psychology and neurology, which cannot help but deal with questions of happiness, virtue and vice.

The NOMA idea only has a chance of making sense if we separate questions of value out into an a priori realm completely detached from the physical world – as Kant tried to do, for example. But it’s an inordinately difficult task to try and derive a full set of answers to questions of value without reference to the physical world, and I don’t think that even Kant managed to succeed at it. Even when asking questions of ethics and meaning, we need evidence from the physical world. And that means that, indeed, science may disprove matters like the Buddha’s enlightenment – not causing him to lose it, but demonstrating that he never had it in the first place. The point is all the more reason to embrace some degree of uncertainty; new connections in the physical world are likely to be discovered, in ways that change things we thought we knew for sure. I’ve previously noted the difficulty with attempts at certain knowledge. Since writing that post, I’ve become a little more confident in saying we can never truly have certain knowledge – but, of course, I have not become certain.