• Gould’s NOMA – a thorough analysis (part 2)

    As Promised, the concluding part to yesterday’s blog post.

    Is there really no overlap between the domains of science and religion?

    Taken at face value, the claim that the domains of science and religion are completely non-overlapping is flat out wrong. As I have shown in the last section, Christianity has made scientifically testable claims, and Christians only started reinterpreting these claims in a metaphorical sense after science had disproven them.

    So, we should maybe rephrase the question to “is it possible for a religion to make no claim that overlaps with domains of inquiry that are also addressed by science?”.

    Is it possible for Christians to leave all questions about the natural world to scientists just as they are supposed to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar´s”? (Mark 12:17 – if only Christians would actually live by this command and keep their religion out of politics…).

    It is undeniable that non-fundamentliast Christians made many attempts to redefine their religion to have as little overlap with the domain of science as possible. Many Christian denominations for example do accept the fact that we share a common ancestor with all other living things and interpret Genesis accordingly (see for example a list of statements from religious organizations collected by the National Center for Science Education [13]).

    Let us suppose for the sake of the argument, that theistic evolution, the idea that a God designed a universe in which the emergence of living organisms  and subsequent evolution of intelligent organisms that could have a relationship with this God, is indeed compatible with the Christian concept of a God that is omnibenevolent and wants his craftsmanship to be visible in his creation (see Romans 1:19-20) – a problem I´ll revisit in a later post.

    Is it true that there no longer is any potential for conflicts between science and (Christian) religion now that Christians made peace with evolution? I don´t think it is true, and I don´t think that a religion that makes no claim that could potentially be contradicted by science is even possible. Think about what it would mean for a religion to make no claim that could potentially be contradicted by science. Since the domain of science is the natural world – a religion that makes no claim overlapping with the domain of science has to stay completely silent about the natural world and only address the “spiritual realm”.

    But how could this be possible? With humans being a part of the natural world and the human nature being in the domain of scientific inquiry – how could a religion that makes no claim about human nature which is (at least potentially) scientifically testable have any relevance for humans?

    The problem becomes apparent when we look at the  Address of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – “Truth cannot contradict truth” [14] (which Gould actually mentions and discusses in his NOMA article[1]). This papal address includes the widely quoted statement that “…new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” However, in the same document, John Paul II also writes:

    Pius XII stressed this essential point: If the human body take its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God (“animas enim a Deo immediate creari Catholica fides nos retinere iubei”; “Humani Generis,” 36). Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.

    The “soul” is the last straw – religions cannot concede this ground to scientists, they would cease to be of any relevance for humans if they did so. Gould thinks that this statement nicely fits into his NOMA concept because, as he argues, the “soul” legitimately belongs to the magisterium of religion and not to the one of science [1]. But is this really true? It depends on what “soul”, a notoriously ill-defined term, actually means. Most religious philosopher attribute the following properties to a “soul” [15]:

    1. “Souls” are immaterial but able to interact with our material bodies
    2. “Souls” survive our physical death
    3. “Souls” have no natural causes – their origin is an act of special creation by a deity
    4. A “soul” is the source of our rational faculties

    If there truly are such a things as immaterial souls, then it would be true that their nature are beyond the domain of science (which doesn´t automatically mean that religions would have legitimate authority on this matter as Ive argued previously).

    However, there is no evidence that such things actually exist. And in the meantime, our rational faculties are a study object of science. Science can and does investigate how humans make decisions, where human morality comes from, whether humans actually have freedom to make decisions and so on. For the point I am trying to make, it is irrelevant whether you think that these scientific endeavours are misguided and doomed to fail or not, it is still simply not true that there is no overlap between scientific and religious domains in this respect.

    So, even after accepting the reality of our shared ancestry with all living things – there still is potential for conflict between science and religion. Worse than that, using our modern understanding of science, we can even argue that “immaterial souls” that interact with our physical brains, cannot possibly exist. We do know very well what our brains are made of, down to the level of subatomic particles. And, as theoretical physicist Sean Carroll argues, we also know what governs the behaviour of these particles. The behaviour of electrons for example is precisely described by the famous Dirac equation – which explains the behaviour of electrons based on their velocity and inertia coupled to electromagnetism and gravity [16]. The Dirac equation is not a complete description, it ignores couplings to the weak nuclear force and the Higgs field for example, but this is irrelevant for the physical conditions under which these particles exist in our brains. If there really is an immaterial soul that interacts with our brains – why can we precisely describe the behaviour of the particles that our brains are made of without any reference whatsoever to such “souls” ?

    Note that I am not claiming that we have a complete model of how the brain works, only that the physical laws which govern the behaviour of the stuff our brains are made of are understood – and they leave no room for magical interactions with immaterial souls. Whether you agree with this argument or not, it seems obvious that science can and does address religious claims, even for religions that have made peace with evolution.


    The NOMA position advocated by Gould sounds superficially plausible, but it fails on all levels under close scrutiny. Even if we grant the assumption that religion has a legitimate magisterium to begin with (which I don´t think it has, as I have argued) – this magisterium does clearly still overlap with domains of scientific inquiry. Removing all potential for conflicts between science and religion would only be possible if religions concede the entirety of the natural world to science, but this cannot be done without religions becoming completely irrelevant.

    I actually think that those religions that made peace with evolution have already reached a point where they became completely irrelevant. These religions already did concede so much ground to science and already did redefine their beliefs so many times, that theologians can no longer give a meaningful answer to the question – how would the world be any different if your God would not exist ?

    As Anthony Flew brilliantly argued, if a belief system can be reconciled with any observation, if there is no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” – then this belief system is void of any intellectual content, it does not actually assert anything. It wasn´t scientists that killed the God hypothesis, theologians did by adding so many qualifications to the hypothesis that nothing remained. As Flew said: A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications [17]


    1. http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

    2. http://www.antievolution.org/projects/mclean/mva_tt_p_gould.html

    3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McLean_v._Arkansas#McLean_v._Arkansas_ruling

    4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations

    5. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books XII, XIII and XV




    6. http://www.pollingreport.com/science.htm

    7. http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/10/must-the-story-of-the-fall-be-true.html

    8. Augustine of Hippo, The literal meaning of Genesis, Book 1, chapter 19 http://college.holycross.edu/faculty/alaffey/other_files/Augustine-Genesis1.pdf

    9. Augustine of Hippo, The literal meaning of Genesis, Book 2, chapter 9 http://tinyurl.com/co3wlol

    10. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1997/prusiner-autobio.html

    11. Berry, Robert James (2003). God’s book of works: the nature and theology of nature. London: T & T Clark.

    12.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah%27s_Ark#Historicity

    13. http://ncse.com/media/voices/religion

    14. http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_jp02tc.htm

    15. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14153a.htm

    16. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/05/23/physics-and-the-immortality-of-the-soul/

    17. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/antony_flew/theologyandfalsification.html

    Category: Science and religion


    Article by: Andreas Schueler