Thursday, June 25, 2009

On a Confusion about NOMA

Sean Carroll has recently had a couple of posts up on NOMA, i.e., the idea that science and religion have 'non-overlapping magisteria':

The Principle of Non-Overlapping Food Groups
Science and Religion are Not Compatible

The first of the two is just bad all the way through. Arguing from analogy can be a helpful tool in this context, but only if logical consistency is maintained through the analogy, which it is not here: the absurd conclusion arises not from the non-overlapping principle itself but from the fact that it is assumed in one part of the analogy and violated in another part. It is trivially easy to get absurd consequences even from correct claims if we are allowed to be inconsistent in applying them. The second post, however, which develops more lines of reasoning than just the faulty analogy, is much better, and makes a few decent points, although you have to dig for them a bit.

Both posts, however, seem to involve a confusion about NOMA, leading the main argument of the second post to beg the question against it. This is a pretty common confusion, one I've noted before in a slightly different context, and so it's worth pointing it out. And the confusion lies in thinking that the existence of people who conflate the two somehow is a problem for NOMA:

Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it.

But NOMA is effectively a diagnosis of a category mistake, a fallacy, and you don't refute a claim that a certain move in reasoning is fallacious by pointing out that someone commits it. The NOMA proponent can quite agree that people often commit the category mistake -- indeed, it is precisely the point of NOMA to do so. NOMA is put forward precisely in order to say that people who treat religious claims as claims about the world, or scientific claims as claims about morals, are engaging in a rational confusion. What would refute NOMA is not people making this alleged confusion, but people who are making this alleged confusion who are clearly doing so in a way that is rationally consistent. NOMA is not the claim that nobody ever treats religious claims as factual or scientific claims as ethical; it's the claim that whenever they do so they are being rationally inconsistent. Likewise, it is entirely possible for lots of people to be rationally inconsistent in their religion, and that is perfectly compatible with the claim that it is possible to be completely rationally consistent in one's religion. The former does nothing to block the other.

One sees this in the failure of a certain part of Carroll's argument. Carroll, urging people not to jump too quickly in calling ethical matters religious, says:

Be honest and clear about what you actually believe, rather than conveying unwanted supernatural overtones.

Unfortunately, Carroll himself doesn't quite follow his advice, because at several points he states things in a misleading way. For instance, he says that religion and science are incompatible because people have religious beliefs that are inconsistent with scientific conclusions. The indefinite quantification here would ordinarily be taken to indicate a universal or near-universal claim: that there is something about science and religion themselves that makes them generally incompatible. But such a claim is not proportionate to the evidence to which he actually appeals, which doesn't show a general incompatibility, but only, at most, that some religious claims conflict with some scientific claims. That is, it only establishes a particular conclusion, and leaves open the question, "What about the other claims?" Are all religious claims in conflict with scientific claims? The NOMA proponent will say, "Look, there are obviously religious claims that don't, because there are ethical claims that are also religious claims, and ethical claims and scientific claims can't conflict because they fall into rationally distinct categories -- to make it look like they conflict you have to engage in a category mistake." Carroll himself knows for certain that 'religion' as usually understood extends to such claims, because he takes the trouble to argue against atheists and nonreligious who take the term to extend so far, and it's precisely in this context that he gives his advice. Thus Carroll himself fails to be clear, glossing over the fact that many common uses of the term 'religion' do, in fact, work as the NOMA theorist claims it should, and therefore glossing over the fact that his argument is just as revisionary for our understanding of the term 'religious' as the NOMA theorist's is. Likewise, the way he states the incompatibility thesis is misleading; in the way his words would ordinarily be taken it isn't proportioned to the evidence with which he supports it, and if taken in such a way that it would be proportionate to the evidence given, it is consistent with NOMA. The cases of people taking religious claims as factual or factual claims as religious are in themselves only inconsistent with NOMA if one begs the question against it.

Thus NOMA can't be refuted by the fact that some people take some claims about fact to be religious. The real problem with NOMA is that the reasons for accepting it are generally rather vague, and in practice boil down to one particular reading of what is usually known as the fact/value distinction. This way of taking the distinction is highly controvertible, and thus NOMA is built on a pretty tenuous support -- and, indeed, I think it is ultimately a rationally unsustainable position for precisely the fact that its way of taking the fact/value distinction is itself rationally unsustainable. But it gets plausibility in part because most of the arguments brought against it are very flawed; as I said, Carroll's confusion here is a very common one. (An additional reason for the support it gets is utilitarian: it is a compromise position that has potential appeal across a wide spectrum of views. Thus many people find it attractive as a peaceable proposition, a claim that if accepted would allow for peace in a contentious area, even independently of any reasoning or evidence in its favor. But, of course, pointing this out is not a refutation of NOMA, but merely a diagnosis of one of the reasons why it is popular among such a wide variety of people.)

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