Sunday, November 14, 2010

Susan Jacoby on Sam Harris and the Myth of the Separate and Unrelated Domains of Science and Religion

The Myth of Separate Magisteria

Susan Jacoby October 7, 2010

Big Questions Online

By now, nearly everyone with a passing interest in science or religion is familiar with Stephen Jay Gould’s description of the two disciplines as “non-overlapping magisteria” with separate domains — science in the physical universe and religion in the moral realm. On this website, the philosopher Roger Scruton recently made the sweeping declaration that “genuine science and true religion cannot conflict.” A 2004 editorial in Nature magazine insists that science and religion clash only when the two “stray onto each other’s territories and stir up trouble.”

One might as well say that conflict arises between men and women only when they stray onto each other’s territories and stir up trouble. Science produces discoveries that challenge long-held beliefs (not only religious ones) based on revelation rather than evidence, and the religious must decide whether to battle or accommodate secular knowledge if it contradicts their teachings.

I know both scientists and religious believers for whom the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) has become an unexamined fiction designed to skirt the culture wars. It is clear, however, that NOMA (a term Gould adapted from Catholic theology; the "Magisterium" is the Church's term for its teaching authority) is not only a fiction but a useless fiction — from the standpoint of both religion and science.

To cite one prominent example, scientists use embryonic stem cells in research aimed at developing treatments for currently incurable scourges of the body. Some church leaders, primarily Roman Catholics and conservative American Protestants, are doing everything they can to impede the research because their faith tells them that a six-day-old embryo is the equivalent of a person — and that destroying the cells for scientific purposes is murder.

The biomedical researcher who wants to continue working with embryonic stem cells is making a moral as well as a scientific judgment, and the cleric is making a judgment that constrains science. The domains have overlapped since science first began making discoveries that could promote, or, for that matter, threaten human welfare. When Dr. Edward Jenner developed an early form of vaccination against smallpox in 1796, many orthodox Christians — the most notable of whom was Yale’s president, the Rev. Timothy Dwight — considered vaccination an intrusion on God’s plan, which supposedly required the ancient killer disease.

Why, then, do so many intellectuals now pay obeisance to the historically absurd idea of separate domains for science and religion? This is one critical question raised by Sam Harris (who, full disclosure, is a distant but good friend of mine) in his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The book is sure to provoke even more controversy than Harris’s earlier works, becausethe author, a prominent voice among the New Atheists and the holder of a doctorate in neuroscience, rejects both religious notions of revealed truth and secular veneration of moral relativism.

He argues that “people who draw their worldview from religion generally believe that moral truth exists, but only because God has woven it into the very fabric of reality; while those who lack such faith tend to think that notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ must be the products of evolutionary pressure and cultural invention. My purpose is to persuade you that both sides in this debate are wrong…to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.”

Harris, who notes that the original term for the physical sciences was “natural philosophy,” believes that science has a crucial role to play in assessing moral values according to their observable earthly consequences. It seems perfectly obvious that while science can tell us nothing about a putative afterlife, it can tell us a great deal about whether specific beliefs produce or alleviate suffering in this life.

Numerous social science studies have shown, for example, that countries where women are forbidden to educate themselves, earn a living, or control their sexual lives are the poorest societies on earth by any objective measure of well-being — from health to poverty rates. How, then, can it be morally sound — regardless of whether people believe they are doing the will of God — to subjugate women?

In this instance, the cop-out for the separate magisteria establishment is that religions restricting the freedom of women must be “false.” Those who uphold the notion of separate domains want domain over values for their religion — not all religion.

Neuroscience raises a red flag because it attempts to explain human behavior by studying the physical brain rather than by evoking the existence of a independent, non-physical soul. The idea that humans may not possess free will in the religious or secular senses — at least not to the degree we would like — is as threatening to our sense of human specialness today as Darwin’s theory of evolution was in his time.

One reason why neuroscience inspires such unease is the influence that this relatively new discipline has already exerted on law. When the Supreme Court declared the death penalty for minors unconstitutional in 2005, the decision gave considerable weight to brain research (PDF) from the late 1980s and 1990s, when MRIs demonstrated that the brain’s frontal cortex is significantly less developed in teenagers than in young adults. The frontal cortex controls “executive” functioning — which, among other cognitive tasks, includes the capacity to envisage the overall consequences of actions; i.e., judgment.

Those who oppose the use of scientific evidence to mitigate the legal responsibility of the young and the mentally ill sometimes point to the proverbial “slippery slope” in which scientific “excuses” will be used to exonerate criminals and to deny the very existence of good and evil.
The slippery slope is a powerful metaphor because it implies that eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge must lead inevitably to Cain’s murder of his brother. But this image of a soul easily corrupted by knowledge, because it denies the possibility of human intervention to alter the curve, is actually more fatalistic than any neuroscientific findings.

I don’t quite agree with Harris that science can “determine” values; I would have added the qualifier “help” to the title. But his insight that the emperors of separate magisteria have no clothes is critical if we are to talk about values in a way that returns the earthly welfare of human beings — as distinct from conflicting ideas held by humans about how to make it to heaven — to the center of the conversation.

Me: I don't think there is a word of Susan Jacoby's here that I disagree with including her light emendation of Harris's thesis. A nice example of clear, calm and persuasive thinking.


  1. I am addicted to stuff like this. It is inconceivable that many people refuse to acknowledge the beauty of the scientific process. I strongly believe, in due time, common sense will prevail and science will be venerated.

  2. On the other hand, see:

  3. The problems with this:

    First, there's a difference between science and scientism -- and the "veneration" of science seems to stem from or lead to the latter (i.e., making an ideology of science, making lab-coated scientists into priests, etc.).

    Second, once you make an ideology of science, you perpetually risk turning your wishes, political fixations, and the like into pseudo-science (e.g., psycho-babble, random statistics, etc.), thinking that this confers on them some sort of validity which of course is spurious.

    Third, scientists, not being priests, superior beings, or aliens, are in fact just as human as anyone else, and therefore susceptible to intellectual fads, political fashions, and the religious yearning for purpose and meaning. This doesn't necessarily interfere with their purely scientific work as long as that work is sufficiently removed from their political, moral, or quasi-religious concerns. When it isn't, however -- as it isn't, e.g., in the current climate dabates, or in virtually the whole of social science -- then scientists too are motivated to "arrive" at politically correct results, and frequently do so in various inappropriate ways, all of which outside observers need to be aware of and be willing to discount.

    Which is to say that we should avoid scientific idolatry, and bring the same critical intelligence to pronouncements of scientists, particularly in political areas, that we do with any other profession.