The Failure of NOMAThursday, February 17, 2011
In a recent article titled "Science on Faith," sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund notes the influence of "nonoverlapping magisteria" (NOMA).
Hang with me.
The idea of NOMA was made famous by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. For Gould, science and religion were two completely separate ways of discovering truth. Commenting on Gould's influence, Ecklund writes that according to the principles of NOMA, "Religion…operates within the realms of purpose, meaning and values, while science operates within the realm of empirical facts - and the two should respect but never interfere with each other."
In other words, continues Ecklund, "the proper relationship between science and religion is no relationship at all."
All the more reason to be intrigued by John Gray's forthcoming book, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, notes that the "myths" of animism and religion have retreated in our culture, "but only…to resurface through the channel of science, so that …now…, we look to science to provide a kind of meaning in the universe…which these older myths once did."
Gray's point is that we have emptied our world of God, but now look to science to give us what a belief in God once did. Or as he puts it, "the attempt to re-inject human meaning into a world from which science has emptied meaning."
So much for NOMA.
Even the hope for life after death finds a new home in science. "We have writers and thinkers who propose that humans can…avoid death, can cheat death by having their remains or their brains frozen until, at some point in the future, they can be resurrected. And others more radically, such as the American writer Ray Kurzweil, who propose that human consciousness or human mind can somehow…be uploaded into a virtual realm."
This is a step beyond scientism. Scientism, Ecklund notes, "is a disciplinary imperialism that leads scientists to explicitly or implicitly assert that science is the only valid way toward knowledge, and that it can be used to interpret all other forms of knowledge."
What Gray is unveiling is the attempt of science to provide the transcendent promises of religion. In this case, resurrection from the dead and/or immortality. The things we used to put our faith in God for, can now be placed squarely into the hands of science.
The dilemma is that it is a misplaced trust. As Gray observes, "The undoubted fact of progress in science is confused with the hope for advance in ethics and civilization when the actual reality is that the ethical and cultural and political impact of science is always going to be extremely ambiguous. However, I don't think that this feature of modern culture can be altered….science is the most authoritative institution. And that being the case, the human need for meaning and purpose, which used to in the past to be met by religion or other kinds of myth, will almost inevitably be met in modern circumstances by a faith in science which is in fact irrational."
The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal continues to be prescient, noting long ago that within each of us is a God-shaped void. We will desperately attempt to fill it, but will find that since it is God-shaped, only God will do. Or as Augustine wrote, our hearts will simply be restless until they rest in God.
The irony is exquisite: belief in a Creator, and thus an orderly universe, drove the scientific revolution; science then removes God from the equation altogether; the void forces science to assume the role and place of the very God it removed; science cannot fulfill its new role;
…which brings us back to needing God.
James Emery White
Quotes of John Gray taken from, 'The myths of animism and religion have retreated, only to resurface through the channel of science' (video), online at
John Gray, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (to be released March, 2011).
Elaine Howard Ecklund, "Science on Faith," The Chronicle Review, February 11, 2011, p. B9 and B10.