NOMA: The religion and science debate

Share this story!

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17In his 1999 book “Rocks of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould sought to diffuse the creationism/evolution debate by sequestration. Religion and science occupy Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), relating to domains using different methods and relating to disparate realms of inquiry where, properly engaged, they really shouldn’t be bumping into one another in controversial ways. So settle down kids.

Neither side of the debate bought this olive branch.

Skeptics reminded Gould that religious believers were all too prone to trampling across his NOMA barrier, most notoriously Young Earth Creationists insisting on shaving off half a dozen orders of magnitude regarding the age of the Earth and universe, while making the resulting created landscape safe for herbivorous pre-flood tyrannosaurs and strictly heterosexual family arrangements (though not dwelling too much on Old Testament patriarchal polygamy or behavioral foibles like that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” rule).

Religious believers, meanwhile, felt Gould was edging religion out of all the gutsy verifiable stuff, and thus relegating it to wispy endeavors like morality and ethics (as though that pursuit were somehow less worthwhile than paleontology or particle physics).

Having studied the methodological ins and outs of the creation/evolution debate for some years, it has come to me that Gould got the issue almost right. There is an evidential and conceptual divide between cognitive domains, but it is not between science and religion. It is between decidable and undecidable propositions.

Here the ghost of Kurt Gödel winks down at us: all logical systems contain intrinsically undecidable propositions, lurking like philosophical icebergs to sink the logical positivist ship (such as atheist Bertrand Russell’s faith in the tidy ineluctability, which may have been just as messianic as Christian William Lane Craig cuddling close to an Anthropic Big Bang).

Scientific reasoning in the form of rigorous common sense is the tool for figuring out which decidable propositions are actually true, while philosophical reasoning is what you have to employ when grappling with undecidable propositions. Propositions are “decidable” to the extent that you can work out what sufficient evidence would be for accepting or rejecting them (like the Earth revolving around the sun, and not the other way around). Propositions are “undecidable” whenever the nature of “sufficient evidence” is the point of dispute. All moral, and ethical, and esthetic judgments are strictly undecidable for that very reason.

If you like, this version may be dubbed NOMAD to distinguish it from the unalloyed Gould original.

In other words, decidable issues are matters of knowledge: one can “know” that the Earth revolves around the sun because there is sufficient evidence to prove it.

Undecidable notions, by contrast, are really matters of belief. One decides to take a stand on an undecidable prospect, to “believe” that it either is or is not so, precisely because you’re never going to be able to resolve such questions if you are restricted to the dictates of “sufficient” evidence.

To be continued.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

View All Posts

Check Also

One Year with FāVS

I was a newspaper reporter and editor for nearly 40 years, a university professor for 10. And this month, I am celebrating one year as a columnist for Spokane Faith and Values.


  1. Attended a seminar this weekend where Dr. Stephen Myers spoke on excerpts out of his new book, “Darwin’s Doubts”. I think his arguments regarding origin of information, and documentation of many peer reviewed scientists expressing their dissatisfaction with the ability of neo-Darwinism to explain it, puts Goulds thoughts in the background. Consider that the “Altenburg 16” are openly calling for a new theory of evolution because they doubt the creative power of the mutation and natural selection mechanism. I’d say the game is definitely still on!

    As far as the non-overlapping magisteria, that was also addressed, with the conclusion that there is prolific overlapping by both sides. God is not dead, and He is not silent. Many just vehemently refuse to listen.

  2. Dennis, if your idea of research is listening to Stephen Meyer telling you what Stephen Meyer thinks, you may be operating from a rather limited data set. I had fun quizzing Steve on paleontology back when he was at Whitworth, but I’m afraid his thinking has grown no deeper in the years since, only longer. “Doubting Darwin” is kind of what one expects someone like Meyer to write (a non-paleontologist who shows only peripheral interest in things outside his apologetic frame).

    Meyer’s treatment of Gould’s Punctuated Equilibrium (P-E) concept is a case in point. Meyer devoted a whole chapter to the topic (pp. 136-152) and managed to get several major conceptual issues flat out wrong. Meyer claimed Gould and Niles Eldredge devised the “allopatric speciation” concept (that speciation tends to occur due to geographical isolation), and that they had done so just as a way to account for their fossil observations. This was completely backwards from the facts: Ernst Mayr had worked out the allopatric concept decades before (based on observing living animals and looking at the genetics of the matter), and Gould & Eldredge had simply applied this to their fossil data. (Meyer gives short shrift to Mayr in “Darwin’s Doubt,” offering only a few quotes from him, pp. 171, 339, without any appreciation of the depth of his contribution to modern evolutionary thinking.)

    In a section of his chapter headed “BURST OF INTEREST AND GRADUAL DECLINE” Meyer suggested (again erroneously) that P-E had faded away in modern thinking. Sorry, the concept is alive and well in modern science, which Meyer might have stumbled on if he had spent more time acquainting himself with the technical literature and less lecturing to appreciative audiences.

    As for the Altenberg 16, again I would love to know how you arrived at your understanding of what thatr group thought, or how much their work (before or since) called into question “the creative power of the mutation and natural selection mechanism.” Just pulling up their work in my own reference bibliography, I see items like:

    John Beatty & Eric Cyr Desjardins. 2009. “Natural selection and history.” Biology and Philosophy 24 (March): 231-246.
    Sergio Branciamore, Enzio Gallori, Eörs Szathmáry, & Tamás Czárán. 2009. “The Origin of Life: Chemical Evolution of a Metabolic System in a Mineral Honeycomb?” Journal of Molecular Evolution 69 (November): 458-469.
    Karen D. Crow, Chris T. Amemiya, Jutta Roth, & Günter P. Wagner. 2009. “Hypermutability of HoxA13a and Functional Divergence from its Paralog are Associated with the Origin of a Novel Developmental Feature in Zebrafish and Related Taxa.” Evolution 63 (June): 1574-1592.
    Niles Eldredge, John N. Thompson, Paul M. Brakefield, Sergey Gavrilets, David Jablonski, Jeremy B. C. Jackson, Richard E. Lenski, Bruce S. Lieberman, Mark A. McPeek, & William Miller III. 2005. “The dynamics of evolutionary stasis.” Paleobiology 31 (June Supplement): 133-145.
    Kevin N. Laland, Kim Sterelny, John Odling-Smee, William Hoppitt, & Tobias Uller. 2011. “Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?” Science 334 (16 December): 1512-1518.
    Christopher J. Lowe, Mike Wu, Adrian Salic, Louise Evans, Eric Lander, Nicole Stange-Thomann, Christian E. Gruber, John Gerhart, & Marc Kirschner. 2003. “Anteroposterior Patterning in Hemichordates and the Origins of the Chordate Nervous System.” Cell 113 (27 June): 853-865.
    Richard C. Moore & Michael D. Purugganan. 2003. “The early stages of duplicate gene evolution.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100 (23 December): 15682-15687.
    Stuart A. Newman & Gerd B. Müller. 2000. “Epigenentic Mechanisms of Character Origination.” Journal of Experimental Zoology 288 (15 December): 304-317.
    Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien, David Sloan Wilson, & Patricia H. Hawley. 2009. “‘Evolution for Everyone’: A Course that Expands Evolutionary Theory Beyond the Biological Sciences.” Evolution: Education & Outreach 2 (September): 445-457.
    Massimo Pigliucci & Gerd B. Müller, eds. 2010a. Evolution—The Extended Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    Gregory A. Wray. 2007. “The evolutionary significance of cis-regulatory mutations.” Nature Reviews Genetics 8 (March): 206-216.

    If you have some instances of the Altenberg 16 weighing in favorably to antievolution views, by all means let me know. Marc Kirshner would be unlikely to be among them, since he explictly signed a 2005 petition circulated critical of Intelligent Design.

    It should be noted that the evolution issue is quite separate from the God matters as fas as NOMA-D is concerned. Evolution is a matter of scientific knowledge, while many (though by no means all) God concepts are approached as matters of philosophical belief. Sorry that the argument has to sprinkle out over multiple postings, but such are the strictures of online postings.

  3. Jim,
    Who said anything about research, I said I attended a seminar at which he spoke. Even though you disagree with the man, based on what I’ve read about him and from a co- worker who has interacted with Steve personally, I trust what he has to say. All the lying and false presentation of phony evidence “to further the cause” earns no trust for the evolution camp from me, that’s for sure.

    Besides that, just looking from a distance as evolutionary theorists scramble from one theory to the other just continues to make me glad I’m not one of them. It reminds me of the emperors new clothes story. Since our education system has been purposely taken over, in the majority, by Marxist evolutionists, and have trained children as such for decades, it’s no wonder they can’t think any other way. Even though just some common sense comparison and thinking about the “religious” view that God created the universe, and the “scientific view” that everything just “bang” came from nothing, these poor students are shamed and intimidated into thinking only the God view is a faith proposition. And they continue to praise the professor on his “new clothes”.

  4. “Since our education system has been purposely taken over, in the majority, by Marxist evolutionists.”

    Well that does indeed dump an entirely comprehensive shroud over the whole matter. And here I was, muddled and confused by all my reading of the people who actually do the scientific work for a living (including the output of the Altenberg 16 Dennis, after all, made a point of bringing up). How clear and simple things would appear for me if only I stopped paying attention to 99% of the data.

    Hmmm … I’ll have to think about that one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *