Nonoverlapping Magisteria?

Philosophy of Science

Nonoverlapping Magisteria

Some questions/issues about the relation between science and religion, and in particular Gould's take on this.

0. What's a "magisterium"? And what are the magisteria of religion and science? Gould writes:

The text of Humani Generis focuses on the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Church—a word derived not from any concept of majesty or awe but from the different notion of teaching, for magister is Latin for "teacher." We may, I think, adopt this word and concept to express the central point of this essay and the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "nonoverlapping magisteria").

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).

He apparently says a bit more about what he means by a "magisterium" in his book; Goodenough quotes this definition:

"a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution."

1. What's the "magisterium" of science?

What kinds of questions can science hope to settle?

My own rough answer to this would be: any empirical question that can be answered at all.

This excludes: (a) questions that are about values rather than facts (what's a good person, what's the right thing to do, etc.); (b) questions that are factual but not empirical, e.g. mathematical questions; (c) questions that may be factual but that we have no way to answer at all (perhaps questions about things that lie outside our event horizon).

It includes: everything else! In particular, to the extent that religions make factual claims (such as: the universe was created by God; the world was created in seven days; in the communion service, the wine changes into blood; etc.), these are in principle testable by science.

Is there any way other than science to answer empirical questions?

My take: basically no, but a more precise answer requires refining the question in a couple of ways.

First, what is it to "answer" a question? Of course we can give answers that aren't based on science: I might offer answers to factual questions that are based on hunches, whims, hearsay, etc. However, I don't think any of these techniques provide answers that we have any reason to accept. The more interesting question is what it takes to give an answer to a question that we are rationally justified in believing.

Second, how broadly should we construe "science"? I don't think there's any way to give justifiable answers to factual questions that doesn't involve empirical evidence, and I think that the standards for what counts as good evidence for a proposition are broadly speaking scientific standards. So if we take "science" broadly enough then I don't think that any factual questions are answerable by any method other than the scientific method.

However, I also think that some good reasons to accept propositions wouldn't count as science in a narrower sense. For instance, I think that it can be rational for an individual to believe something because of the testimony of someone else whom the individual believes (on good grounds) is trustworthy and knowledgeable about the subject.

Another example: it's rational to believe that there's a cup of coffee in front of me on the basis of the evidence of my senses. This an example of believing a factual claim on empirical grounds, but it doesn't seem general enough to count as scientific in the familiar sense.

2. What's the "magisterium" of religion?

Gould seems to think that value questions are the proper domain of religion: "The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value." I disagree. I see no reason to think that insights about ethical or other value questions have any necessary connection with religion. [Cf. Dawkins, God Delusion, p. 80: "Why not the gardener or the chef?"] In particular, I think that Plato showed convincingly in the Euthyphro that moral judgments do not need a religious foundation.

What does religion involve, anyway?

1. doctrines. To the extent that these claim objective truth, it seems to me that the reasons to believe them (if any) must come from outside religion itself: for instance, from science or philosophy.

2. practices. Religions tend to involve practices such as prayer, singing hymns, and ceremonies such as baptism, confirmation, and communion. To the extent that these are independent of particular doctrines they don't need any theoretical justification; if practioners find them rewarding, that's enough. (On the other hand, the doctrine that prayers are listened to and perhaps answered by a divine being is a factual claim that would require evidence.)

3. values. It may be part of practicing a particular religion to value certain things. (For example, in Catholic theology, faith, hope, and charity or love are regarded as theological virtues, alongside the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.) My own view is that values require justification, and that this cannot come from within religion itself.

As far as I can see, the only way for religion to avoid potential conflicts with science (or philosophy) is by essentially eliminating its doctrinal component altogether. It was common for theologians in the 50s and 60s to do this, or something very close to it. In some of their writings we can see suggestions that look a lot like Gould's doctrine of nonoverlapping magisteria:

"Science can conflict only with science, and faith only with faith; science which remains science cannot conflict with faith which remains faith.  . . . The famous struggle between the theory of evolution and the theology of some Christian groups was not a struggle between science and faith, but between a science whose faith deprived man of his humanity and a faith whose expression was distorted by Biblical literalism. It is obvious that a theology which interprets the Biblical story of creation as a scientific description of an event which happened once upon a time interferes with the methodologically controlled scientific work; and that a theory of evolution which interprets man's descendance from older forms of life in a way that removes the infinite, qualitative difference between man and animal is faith and not science." --Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), pp. 82-83.

"Theological statements are not a description of 'the highest being' but an analysis of the depths of personal relationships -- or, rather, an analysis of the depths of all experience 'interpreted by love'." --John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), p. 49.

Bultmann: de-mythologizing Christianity.


Last update: April 3, 2011
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of Science | Philosophy Department | Trinity University