Saturday, January 1, 2011

Gould's Kettle

On his blog, Arni Zachariassen posts a passage from John Polkinghorne's Questions of Truth which trots out the idea that science and religion are not incompatible because science answers "how" questions and religion answers "why" questions. Polkinghorne uses the analogy of a kettle whose boiling water can be explained by the fire burning under it but the reason why it is boiling is because John want's a cup of tea. Stephen J Gould was less homey in his rendition of this concept and apparently needed an acronym: NOMA - Non-Overlaping MAgisteria. Below I reproduce the comments I contributed to Mr Zachariassen's post more or less as it appears on his blog:

Non-Overlaping MAgisteria works nicely as a philosophical stance but I always run into trouble when trying to apply it to the real world, to the way people actually practice religion. While many of a more intellectual bent seem inclined to separate the hows from the whys, the vast majority of believers hold that the active work of the divine is central to why they believe. They will tell you that the beauty and complexity of the universe could not have come about without some intelligence behind it. They will look for divine interventions in their family relationships, careers, health and parking places - [couldn't resist! ;)] They will tell you that they have felt their heart strangely warmed. They will tell you that your actions now will be balanced by fortune in this life or a future one.

All of these common religious experiences are hows, not whys. They express either a belief in a supernatural mechanism that determines events in the world or a direct intervention of the divine into the workings of the physical world (I am including mental states here). This is where I believe analogies like the Kettle fall short (or Stephen J Gould's Non-Overlapping MAgisteria). They explain only a part of what religion does - the part that appeals to the analogist - while pretending that the "how" elements endemic to religion either don't exist or are somehow not valid.

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