July 1, 2016
In my journal entry of June 28, I discussed Galileo’s notion of the two books, viz., the Bible and the book of Nature. Galileo’s goal was to prevent theological and ecclesiastical inference in scientific research.
Pictured: Scientists at work, happily free from ecclesiastical interference
To achieve his goal, Galileo limited the message of the Bible to one issue, salvation. As he said in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany:
The Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side. . . . Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?
A modern form of this view was offered by Stephen J. Gould. Gould advanced the notion of non-overlapping magisteria. Gould, neither a Christian nor a theist, discovered at some point in his life that not all Christians were anti-scientific dolts. In particular, he seemed appreciative of John Paul II’s efforts to reduce the tension between the scientific community and the theological community. In response, Gould articulated the NOMA principle, a sort of division of labor between science and religion. In Gould’s words:
If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.
The truce between science and theology thus called allows each to work undisturbed by the other. Fuzzy but sincere lines of demarcation are established between the domain of science and that of theology. Each agrees to work its own side of the street:
The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.
Gould’s view represents a vast improvement on the idiotic picture that many scientists seem to have of theology’s relation to science, a picture of unrelenting hostility caused by thick-headed religious believers who willfully refuse to accept the results of science.
Distinguishing, as Gould does, the domains of theology from those of science performs a practical service. As the long, sad, and baffling history of biblical creationism has shown, trying to extract scientific knowledge and theories from the Bible is futile. It is, moreover, a hindrance to the scientific enterprise when adopted into scientific education.
At the same time, I’m not convinced of the wisdom of limiting the Bible so one-dimensionally to matters of salvation. Gould’s approach gives us a workable strategy for reducing conflict between science and theology, but can the Bible so easily be restricted to “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?
Here’s what I’m getting at: the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) makes assertions about the non-human portions of the universe: sun, moon, and stars; animals; natural forces and processes; and so on. Only Fundamentalists want to continue the preposterous agenda of squeezing scientific information from these biblical assertions. But are such assertions one and all expressions of “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?
Here’s a good cliffhanger on which to end. More to come shortly.