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NOMA vs COMA

Most likely most of you will recall the late Stephen J. Gould’s principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria or NOMA. In sum, Gould espouses the notion that Science and Religion each have their own realms and hence their own respective magisterium and those boundaries need to be respected. NOMA could be stated more tersely as “science is science and religion and religion – one has nothing to do with the other” or something to that effect. In any case, the main idea of NOMA is for Religion and Science to tell each other “get outta my house!”

As a principle, NOMA has its problems, not the least of which is the question of which magisterium dictates the principle itself? If its either Science or Religion, then it is clearly self-refuting. If its something else, Gould doesn’t tell us what that is or why this third magisterium gets to dictate to Science and Religion where the boundaries are and put up the “Stay Out” signs.

In response, a friend of mine has proposed a different principle: COMA which stands for Completely Overlapping Magisteria. (Its tempting to say something like ‘put NOMA in a COMA’…but I’ll refrain. My friend puts it this way:

Picture a target consisting of a bullseye surrounded by 4 concentric rings. You are the bullseye.

The first ring is Biology
The second is Chemistry
The third is Physics
The 4th is either God or absolutely nothing (and it isn’t absolutely nothing)

Think about it. Gould couldn’t possibly have believed that the 4th ring didn’t exist. To Gould and most Darwinists, the 4th ring is Philosophical Naturalism, the prime mover of Darwinism itself.

In COMA we more plainly see the interdepence that the different disciplines have on one another surrounded by an all-encompassing ring which is either nothing – the ultimate conclusion of true Philosophical Naturalism, or something beyond Nature itself. This is in stark contrast to Gould who writes that

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.

But later, Gould (seeming somewhat confused on his own point) writes:

This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping
magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer–and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult. To cite just two broad questions involving both evolutionary facts and moral arguments: Since evolution made us the only
earthly creatures with advanced consciousness, what responsibilities are so entailed for our relations with other species? What do our genealogical ties with other organisms imply about the meaning of human life?

Gould was smart enough to know that he couldn’t describe a vast no man’s land between Science and Religion, so resorts to trying describe tensions along the borders…with apparently some forays (“interdigitating) from one into the other. Perhaps if he’d thought about it a little longer, he might have realized those interdigitations represent real overlap. NOMA, it seems, can not work. COMA, on the other hand, seems to move more in the right direction by recognizing the true dependecies the various disciplines have on one another and the complete overlap from one into another.

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16 Responses to NOMA vs COMA

  1. I came up with “COMA” (= Completely Overlapping Magisteria) in 2000 in this article for Metanexus:

    http://www.metanexus.net/magaz.....fault.aspx

  2. I think I’m OK with NOMA as long as it is understood that there is a greater magisteria that covers both.

  3. Bill:

    came up with “COMA” (= Completely Overlapping Magisteria) in 2000 in this article for Metanexus

    I recall this article but had totally forgotten you mentioned COMA. From the article:

    In place of Gould’s NOMA, design theorists advocate a very different principle of interdisciplinary dialogue, namely, COMA: Completely Open Magisteria. It is not the business of magisteria to assert authority by drawing disciplinary boundaries. Rather, it is their business to open up inquiry so that knowledge may grow and life may be enriched (which, by the way, is the motto of the University of Chicago). Within the culture of rational discourse, authority derives from one source and one source alone — excellence. Within the culture of rational discourse, authority never needs to be asserted, much less legislated.

    Whether COMA is Completely Over-lapping Magisteria or Completely Open Magisteria, the point is that we must recognize that the spheres of these various disciplines do in fact overlap.

    Thanks for the reminder of your earlier version of COMA.

  4. tribune7

    I think I’m OK with NOMA as long as it is understood that there is a greater magisteria that covers both.

    That’s part of the issue. As I said in my OP, if NOMA is a statement of a third magesisteria, then what is that magesteria, and why does it get to rule over the magesteria of Science and Religion (and perhaps others as well)? The problem I have with your statement here is that this supposed third magesteria remains undefined. Until we know precisely what that ‘greater’ magesteria is and what authority grants it the power to rule over other magesteria, there’s seems little point in mentioning it. Is there a even greater magesteria that grants others authority over still others? Is it magesteriums all the way down?

  5. DonaldM–The problem I have with your statement here is that this supposed third magesteria remains undefined.

    OK, let’s define it.

    But first let us consider the benefits of NOMA and recognize that not all its proponents are people of bad faith who wish to regulate all believers in God to a ghetto.

    And let’s also remember they have a point.

    Invoking NOMA works very well in debates involving Biblical-literalists vs traditional scientist.

    If someone in the sciences says that by faith he believes in young Earth and 6-day creation then he would be immune from persecution assuming NOMA was followed.

    Conversely, it would protect those concerned about someone coming along and saying your research may contradict what is said in Holy Scripture hence it is false and may not be done.

    And I don’t think that’s a completely illegitimate fear.

    So that’s the good of NOMA.

    NOMA only works, however, if certain values are recognized as transcending science and faith i.e. that truth is an absolute, that a particular end does not excuse a failure to respect one’s neighbor or colleague etc.

    It should be noted that these values are Judeo-Christian but no statement of faith is required and I’m sure someone for who that phrase is a red flag will come along and say some South Sea Island group had those values or whatever, and fine.

    Recognize that those values are paramount — and that no matter how successful or influential you become you will have to account to something for failure to follow those values — and NOMA will work.

  6. NOMA only works, however, if certain values are recognized as transcending science and faith i.e. that truth is an absolute, that a particular end does not excuse a failure to respect one’s neighbor or colleague etc.

    To keep our terms straight, the distinction drawn in NOMA according to Gould is between science and religion not faith. Most people think that Religion defines values for society. That is certainly what Gould thought. Look at the first quote from Gould in my OP where he says “…religion…the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” In the Judeo-Christian Religion, the teachings of the Bible are viewed as God’s revealed Word and thus reveals those transcendent values. So I’m not sure what you mean by saying we need recognize that certain values “transcend” religion, since religion is where those values are defined. Thus as I read your comment here, it seems to say that Religion transcends science, which violates what Gould intends by NOMA.

    I don’t necessarily disagree that there may be times when a particular view of scripture or a religious tenet might lead someone to attempt to influence or even halt science. But it doesn’t follow that NOMA is the solution. There is common sense. I wouldn’t attempt to discover the inverse square law of gravity in a Holy book any more than I would look for spiritual guidance in a scientific hypothesis. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t important areas where certain aspects of religion can inform science and vice versa. Note Bill Dembski’s quote above from his essay introducing COMA.

    COMA describes this relationship much better than NOMA ever could, which is my original point.

  7. science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.

    Actually, that makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t think science should be used to search for ethical values and I think attempts to make it do so have led to our greatest problems.

    If we were to insist that NOMA apply to bioethics, there would be no bioethics.

    And I don’t agree that most think it’s religion that defines values. I think many would feel that Hollywood, secular philosophers, music have an impact that’s as great.

    Again, it’s one of the problems with this country (and world).

    So. for many religion has a connotation of required ritual and dogmatic worldview especially relating to natural history.

    And I’m not saying that connotation is correct but given Hollywood et al many accept it.

    If we can cleave the worldview from the values in matters relating to science, NOMA would work well and probably to our benefit if we would learn to point out where those speaking in the name of science transgress it.

    And I guess I’m saying that values ultimately trump science. If you find someone who wants to argue with that you can always cite Josef Mengele as to why they are wrong.

  8. If ethics are included in the Religion sphere, then that means they have no place in the science sphere? Tomorrow I will conduct a science experiment to measure the bouyancy of ground eagle wings. I am stopped due to animal protection laws. So are laws the overarching magistrate? But laws are formed based on ethics, whether divine or subjective. But according to NOMA, no one has the right to stop me on ethical, and therefore religious, grounds. yeah, NOMA doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But then neither does the idea of the astrnomical amount of complexity and information in biology coming from a bunch of blind chemical reactions and physical mutations, or everything there is popping out of nowhere or existing infinitely (the only two options for a philosophical naturalist)

  9. I strongly support COMA in both forms – i.e. where ‘O’ means ‘open’ and ‘overlapping’. In fact, I am very scathing about NOMA in Dissent over Descent, since that’s one of the popular dodges used by theistic evolutionists to avoid the obvious tensions between a (mono)theological and a naturalistic perspective on science. It’s also the dodge that was used by Judge Jones in the Dover trial to conclude that ID may be true but only religiously true, not scientifically true — and hence does not belong in science class.

    It’s also good that DonaldM counts Dawkins amongst the COMA-ists. I believe that the more Dawkins is given free rein to reveal and affirm the atheistic naturalism that underlies Darwinism (about which he is largely correct), the more it will appear hypocritical not to allow ID theorists the public space to articulate the (often theologically inspired) metaphysical assumptions that motivate and direct their inquiries.

    However, let me bring out one feature of NOMA that I think many philosophers and scientists find compelling – namely, the idea that as disciplines, like cells, develop through functional differentiation. It’s very easy – and common – to argue that the quest for a unified vision of reality that would integrate science and religion is a relic of an earlier time that should be left behind because of the technicalities and complexities that have come to be discovered about increasingly differentiated subject domains. This view is even held by theologians who feel their strongest suit is not to provide the ultimate meta-science but to protect a narrowly defined sense of their turf (i.e. theologians addressing each other in print).

    In philosophy, much of contemporary epistemology is devoted to ‘trust in expertise’, which is premised on the idea that no one can arrive at a comprehensive understanding of reality and so we need to justify how we decide whose judgement to trust about which bits of reality. This explains, e.g., why so much authority is attached in science to a head count of ‘experts’ in a given field as to what counts as knowledge in that field – and indeed who is eligible to contribute to knowledge in that field.

    In order for COMA to really gain a foothold in the academy, there needs to be a concerted effort to reverse this sense that knowledge somehow must inevitably and endlessly differentiate without any larger unity in sight. The obvious first place to launch such an offensive is the undergraduate curriculum, since that’s where disciplinary consciousness is first systematically reproduced in the next generation. Here the history of philosophy offers many interesting precedents for COMA: German idealism, both French and Anglo-Austrian positivism, Neo-Thomism, even dialectical materialism, if one wishes to venture to the ‘far side’.

    My point, then, is that while NOMA is easily spotted as shallow in terms of how Gould specifically pitched the idea, it does feed into much broader currents of thought that COMA needs to counteract.

  10. If ethics are included in the Religion sphere, then that means they have no place in the science sphere?

    It means science can’t be the source of ethics.

  11. Always thought NOMA was quite entertaining. Basically Gould was trying to be proactive. He saw that dogmatic naturalism was imperiled on many fronts—including in his own field—and formulated NOMA in a somewhat desperate attempt to preserve it.

    But that’s the point, isn’t it? The virgin purity that Gould imagines in science is imparted by the resistance of dogmatic naturalism to theism. And in that case “science,” as SJ envisions it, isn’t really pure at all. It is dogmatic naturalism.

    Pure science, of course, would look at bones and cells and stars and stuff and NOT DRAW ANY DOGMATIC CONCLUSIONS WHATSOEVER—naturalism, theism, or otherwise. So SJ wasn’t really a virgin after all. He just thought he was.

    And even then he couldn’t resist the temptation to cross over the NOMA chasm he himself created and stick his “interdigitating” fingers in the philosophy pie. Seems NOMA was only categorically imperative in one direction…

  12. To be serious for a moment (please feel free to slap me), here’s why NOMA doesn’t really work: “the way” does not make any sense unless the universe was created with a purpose and is purposeful.

    But we can’t expect poor SJ to understand such esoteric things. After all, he was a scientist, not a theologian. Why, he looks almost as silly as Einstein when he wanders over to that other “magisterium.”

    Too bad he didn’t take his own advice…

  13. Tribune7

    I don’t think science should be used to search for ethical values and I think attempts to make it do so have led to our greatest problems.

    If we were to insist that NOMA apply to bioethics, there would be no bioethics.

    This seems to imply, though, that some set of ethics be introduced into science (with which I agree). The question, then, is from where do these ethics come? I would say from religion, if we take religion in a broad context. I would agree that we don’t want science itself defining its own ethics. When that happens, it seems the only ethic is anything that’s possible should be.

    Steve Fuller (#10): Your entire post is excellent, but I’ll just respond to a couple of your points.

    It’s also good that DonaldM counts Dawkins amongst the COMA-ists. I believe that the more Dawkins is given free rein to reveal and affirm the atheistic naturalism that underlies Darwinism (about which he is largely correct), the more it will appear hypocritical not to allow ID theorists the public space to articulate the (often theologically inspired) metaphysical assumptions that motivate and direct their inquiries.

    I quite agree. The constant complaint against ID is that the goal of ID is to introduce a particular worldview into science…a worldview that science must reject. All of this said while vehemently defending the worldview of naturalism as totally necessary for science. Seems a trifle hypocritical to say the least. You’re quite right, even Dawkins can’t escape that he really does see science and its relation to worldviews through the lens of COMA and not NOMA. He and others (like Gould) think its NOMA because they think that science and philosophical naturalism are inextricably linked.

    In order for COMA to really gain a foothold in the academy, there needs to be a concerted effort to reverse this sense that knowledge somehow must inevitably and endlessly differentiate without any larger unity in sight. The obvious first place to launch such an offensive is the undergraduate curriculum, since that’s where disciplinary consciousness is first systematically reproduced in the next generation. Here the history of philosophy offers many interesting precedents for COMA: German idealism, both French and Anglo-Austrian positivism, Neo-Thomism, even dialectical materialism, if one wishes to venture to the ‘far side’.

    Excellent point. One place to start is to develop the concept of COMA more academically – perhaps with a published paper in some peer reviewed journal or other – as a direct contrast to NOMA.

  14. DonaldM –This seems to imply, though, that some set of ethics be introduced into science (with which I agree).

    Science doesn’t need ethics, people need ethics, and if we take NOMA at face value the ethics can’t come from science.

    The question, then, is from where do these ethics come?

    That’s not necessarily our problem in the intellectual debate, since we are not the one’s who idolize science :-)

    Why not just let the question hang out there and have our opponents swing away at it? And if they cite, nature, science, evolution, psychology or anything they claim to be empirical we invoke NOMA.

    And, of course, I’m not suggesting this apply to quiet personal conversations with family, friends, children, strangers on the subway etc. which are not academic matters.

    As far as schools and legal institutions, as you point out ethics have to come from somewhere and they can’t come from scientific observations of nature as per NOMA.

    How about the Declaration of Independence? We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights? Treat it as an axiom (which it is) We can apply it to the world.

  15. Another point — if NOMA was followed literally science would reign on matters measurable and religion would reign on ethics.

    This would mean religion would win on all the big questions.

    Of course, NOMA is not followed literally. Just look at the celebrations of Darwinism, which has become a cult, and the academy’s non-science attacks on ID, which is measurable science.

    I don’t think it’s a bad idea to point this out.

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