Thursday, June 12, 2008

Robert Sapolsky & the Overlapping of Non-Overlapping Magisteria

In the Templeton Conversation over whether science makes belief in God obsolete, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky makes a a very good point about the nature of science only to make a very non-scientific value claim about science and religion.

Sapolsky is an atheist who recognizes that "belief offers something that science does not." He writes: "Science isn't remotely about a scientist stating things with a degre of certainty." And in this I think, for the most part, that Sapolsky is correct. The only wondering I now have about this is when someone like Francis Collins rejects Gouldian NOMA in favor of POMA (partially overlapping magisteria, the "magisteria" being "science" and "religion").

The attractive Sapolskian point for me has always been and now is that science qua science can tell me how much a strand of DNA weighs, but the moment someone refers to that strand as "elegant" they have left science. "Elegance" is not to be found in the laboratory or under the microscope. "Elegance" cannot be weighed, measured, or quantified. The rose I am now looking at has leaves containing chlorophyll but surely it is not, scientifically, "beautiful." All of which is to say that science concerns itself not with values like love, truth, beauty, evil, right, wrong, heavy, light (in terms of weight), and so on.

Therefore if there is a battle between "science" and "religion" it's not a battle over "truth," as if one of the two has the "truthier truth." Agreed. If this is so than science qua science says nothing either for or against religion. They are, Gould again, N (non-)O(overlapping)M(magisteri)(A(a).

But then Sapolsky leaves science by asking the question "of whether religion or science is better for society." He writes: "On this front, there's no question which approach has produced more historical (and contemporary) harm." No question? On what basis? Surely not science, since science isn't remotely about the truth of anything. Truth is an abstraction, a non-empirical value, or perhaps a Platonic Form. Or truth is a relationship. But no one puts a bug under a microscope and sees truth alongside a pair of antennae. And what can Sapolsky mean by "harm?" Historically, religion and philosophy are the disciplines that try to answer such a question. Sapolsky writes: "The blood on the hands of religion drips enough to darken the sea." Maybe, maybe not. Such a metaphorical statement surely, as many metaphors do, contains a Ricoeurian metaphorical excess or extravagance. What is it's literal meaning? Is it that religion is "evil" or "bad" or "horrible?" Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is for sure about this: science isn't remotely capable of making a judgment here. All it could say is something like: "If all the blood spilled as a result of religion were poured into the sea 0.000003% of the sea would be blood."

Sapolsky claims that "religiosity as an alternative [to science] has a spectacular potential for harm." What can we do with such a claim as this? Science can't help us. And why is religion to be considered as an "alternative" to science? What could this mean? Especially if the magisteria don't overlap.

I find Sapolsky's first point about the realm of science to be accurate. But he almost seems to forget this when he presents "science" as an alternative to "religion," or presents religion as more harmful than science, as if the values of "harm" and "good" had anything to do with science anyway.