Thursday, May 9, 2013

Non-overlapping magisteria

Non-overlapping magisteria is the idea that science and religion each have their own place where they work but they shouldn't try to interfere in the other's area. Science can tell us about how physical things work, religion can tell us about spiritual things, but neither really should be weighing in on the other's domain. This argument seems to be primarily used by people who are either trying to avoid a conversation (if they aren't interested in this type of discussion), or want to end a conversation already in progress (if they are losing).

Other than a desire for the conversation to go away, the declaration of non-overlapping magisteria seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what science really is. I think when the average person thinks of "science" they imagine a chemistry set and a chalkboard full of equations. But really, science is all about testing hypotheses and refining ideas with new information. If you make a testable claim, you are in the domain of science. So to say that science and religion don't overlap is to say that religion makes no testable claims. Is this true? Absolutely not! I can think of a handful of claims that religions make right off the top of my head.

Prayer. God supposedly answers prayer, this is clearly a testable claim. If prayer to God does anything at all, then we should be able to see an effect. religious people should win the lottery more often, their loved ones should be in fewer car accidents and they should get more raises at work, and of course when they get sick, they should recover faster. This last one has been studied pretty extensively and no effect has been found except when the studies are methodologically flawed, and even then the result is quite weak.

Miracles. The religious make miracle claims all the time. These claims are often some version of "this can't happen naturally, it must be God's doing". The claim of "this is impossible" is perfect for science, where the goal is to figure out how it happened. A perfect example is the weeping statue of Jesus which turned out to be a broken water pipe along with capillary action.

I'm sure there are other obvious things to add, but that's good enough for now. Let's move along to the next point, when religion tries to invade the domain of science. The most obvious one is evolution vs. creation. The evidence for evolution is staggering and yet many religions deny it anyway. They literally intrude on the domain of science, trying to get creation taught in science class along side evolution, or ideally instead of it. They don't really want science and religion to occupy separate places in society, they just want science to back off and let religion get away with as much as possible.

I love Jesus and Mo
There's one last place where I've seen people try to apply non-overlapping magisteria, and that is to some sort of deist god. In this case I would agree that science really doesn't have much to say about such a nebulous God, but honestly, neither does religion. This isn't a situation where science has nothing to say but religion can enlighten us, it's a situation where god has been defined away to the point where neither can contribute anything useful. As far as I can tell, non-overlapping magisteria is garbage no matter how you slice it.

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