More on science and religion, or Stephen Jay Gould’s error

Those advocating a complementarian view of science and religion may claim that science is amoral or cares nothing for ethics, which leads to the claim that religion provides what science lacks.

This is from a book titled Science and Religion: A New Introduction:

Most scientists would affirm that their discipline is fundamentally amoral – that is, that the scientific method does not extend to moral questions. For example, Richard Dawkins succinctly confirmed that “science has no methods for deciding what is ethical” (Dawkins, 2003, p. 34). Stephen Jay Gould made a similar point in his important essay “Nonmoral Nature”:

“Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.” (Gould, 1994, p. 42)

McGrath, Alister E. Science and Religion : A New Introduction, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central

But every scientific organization has a code of ethics, and scientists who violate these codes can lose their careers and reputations. Gould and Dawkins are simply saying that human morality cannot be derived through the scientific method. Religious believers and leaders can sin, ask for absolution, and go on as before. So the claim that religion offers a moral code that is lacking in science–and that therefore religion offers something science needs–is absurd on its face.

But Stephen Jay Gould went on to write the following:

Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teaching occupy distinctly different domains.

Gould, S. J. (1997). Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Natural History106(2), 16.

I agree; however, Gould also, unfortunately, endorses the complementarian view:

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. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains . . .

Gould, S. J. (1997). Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Natural History106(2)

In other words, Gould asserts, a scientist cannot live a full life or attain real wisdom without religion. But what makes the ethics offered by a religious scripture superior to Aristotle’s Ethics or The Discourses of Epictetus or some ethical system?

But, ignoring this body of thought, Gould elaborates:

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.

Gould seems, inexplicably, to forget the ethical codes that scientists work under when they study the empirical universe. Scientists don’t simply observe nature and tabulate data like a machine; they have to make ethically informed decisions all the time.

Richard Dawkins criticized Gould’s magisteria argument in The God Delusion. Paul Kurtz also argued that Gould was wrong to posit that science has nothing to say about questions of ethics.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.