Science, Religion and Values: Magisteria Redefined

Science and religion have been archenemies for some time now, with one on a quest for knowledge and truth, and the other seeking to fill a perceived void of meaning in lives. Logical inspection confirms the two systems are incompatible with one another, since science requires evidence for all claims, whereas religion insists on faith when there is no evidence whatsoever. But many do have both science and religion in their lives. How do they deal with the conflict? Stephen Jay Gould wrote in a 1997 essay on the non-overlapping magisteria, NOMA, that there actually is no conflict 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). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult. To cite just two broad questions involving both evolutionary facts and moral arguments: Since evolution made us the only earthly creatures with advanced consciousness, what responsibilities are so entailed for our relations with other species? What do our genealogical ties with other organisms imply about the meaning of human life?"

The meaning of life - what a wondrous thing to ponder! Every human has the power to create meaning for his or her life; if one wants god to give his life some meaning, then Flying Spaghetti Monster bless him. But no gods are necessary to instill meaning or value. Religious folk traditionally think atheists' lives as devoid of meaning because they don't have gods to help them out, but it is not clear (to say the least) why a supernatural being is needed to fill the value void.

god joke
god joke

Something is needed though to give life meaning and value to things or ideas, because, as Gould rightly said, science deals with facts, not values: science won't show what's "good" or "beautiful." Thankfully that something isn't much - almost every human comes equipped with a sense of good and bad; right and wrong; beautiful and ugly. That's not to say that everyone agrees, or everyone has a "correct" sense. Moreover, science can be quite useful in telling us which ideas are common or natural or culturally learned, etc. (From the standpoint of the universe, it simply does not matter what's right and wrong.

However we determine what's right, wrong, good or bad, it won't be with science and does not have to be with religion (if I may say, it shouldn't be with religion, since religion strips us of responsibility and respect for fellow humans).

This is my proposition for non-overlapping magisteria: science and values. One will give us facts; the other will give a subjective, personal, cultural or societal account of what's good, beautiful, moral, and just. Science can and must study these subjective concepts, but it can't make statements of value about them insofar as the universe is concerned.

Take a Beethoven piano sonata as an example. Science will in principle be able to tell us 1) what proportion of the population likes this music; 2) what happens in the brain when one listens to it; 3) what brain differences there are when one enjoys the piece vs. hates it; 4) what features of the music make it enjoyable (i.e. what about this music can be changed to decrease enjoyability). The most impressive feat would be if scientists could predict the enjoyability based on the music's spectral features or on the brain activity patterns during listening. At the same time, science would be incapable of shutting the door on the question of what is a good piece of music and what isn't. What sounds great today may not tomorrow; what seems good to you may not seem good to me. Otherwise, why do people listen to Justin Bieber?

Music isn't the most contentious of subjective issues; the world won't end if science rules that some pop stars aren't good musicians. Morality, on the other hand, is more controversial; most just can't agree to disagree over issues like women's rights, murder, or slavery.

Science can't say what's good or bad because from the objective viewpoint of the universe, these concepts don't make sense. There needs to be a brain to apprehend "good" vs "bad" etc. Science can in principle tell us what any brain will find good or bad; moral or immoral; beautiful or ugly. But what holds true for any one person/brain won't necessarily be true for others. Science therefore can show what I find to be moral behavior, but that may not be the same for you, and there is no definitive way to say one of us is right and the other wrong; there is no correct answer.

People are looking for some system to feed them answers and guide them in their lives. Some genuinely hope that science is that system. But science won't make decisions for you; it is only a much needed fact checker. People and governments will still need to make decisions for themselves based on their values. At least science allows those decision makers to be informed.