Gould on God
Can religion and science be happily reconciled?
October 1, 1999
Oct 1, 1999
25 Min read time
Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
Stephen Jay Gould
When I heard that Stephen Jay Gould had written a book on science and religion, I got worried. Not that I usually disagree with Gould. On the contrary, I find that I often side with him on larger social or intellectual issues. (The same is not true of technical matters within science, but that’s another story.) I got worried because of a peculiar property of the topic. Talk of the relationship between science and religion routinely reduces normally sensible people, as if by magic, to idiots. Or if not idiots, charlatans. The problem is that you are, in your bones, either for religion or against it and that’s the end of the matter. If you’re for the Pope, certain arguments, often ludicrous, get trotted out, predictably and automatically. And if you’re for Science, another set, often disingenuous, gets trotted out, just as predictably and just as automatically. This doesn’t mean the two sides are evenly matched. It just means the discussion suffers from an unusual amount of intellectual dishonesty.
The good news is that Gould avoids most of the usual dishonesties in Rocks of Ages. The bad news is that he invents a few of his own. His sins are, however, mostly ones of omission. Gould’s vision of the proper relationship between science and religion seems fairly sensible, as far as it goes. His cardinal claim is that the two enterprises, rightly understood, are compatible. Science has its subject–the material world–and religion its–moral discourse–and each leaves the other plenty of elbow room. By reminding us that science cannot yield values and that religion cannot yield empirical truths, Gould aims to end the constant quarreling between science and religion–bickering which he believes injures each enterprise as well as shortchanges those individuals who feel compelled to choose between the two, thereby forfeiting the "fullness of life" of his title.
This all seems sensible enough. Who can deny that science isn’t the surest source of values or that religion has little to say about molecular biology? The problem is that Gould systematically eschews asking harder, deeper questions about this superficially appealing view. He does not, for instance, ask if what he ends up branding "religion" would be recognized by card-carrying believers, or, as seems more likely, if his reconciliation has been bought at the price of a convenient re-defining of religion. This penchant for easy, pleasing answers is unfortunately systemic in Rocks of Ages. Gould tends to cut the discussion off prematurely, sidestepping the thornier consequences of his claims and leaving things looking a good deal simpler than they are. (He does not, however, leave them looking pretty: ordinarily a masterful prose stylist, Gould seems not to have tried here and his writing rarely rises above the competent.) In the end, Rocks of Ages is surprisingly superficial, a sort of Reader’s Digest condensed version of what should have been a far subtler work.
But it could have been–and often has been–worse. So before inspecting Gould’s thesis in any detail it’s worth looking at what he didn’t say. It’s worth looking, that is, at alternative views of religion that scientists often champion. Though Gould himself doesn’t survey such views, at least in any systematic way, I believe it’s important to do so: only by understanding the options from which Gould steers clear can we weigh the one he chooses.
Love It or Leave It
Scientists’ talk of religion takes two stereotypic forms and both are marred by some dishonesty. The first, and thankfully rarer, is that of the scientist who, in his bones, loves religion. He denies any conflict between science and religion and argues that science has, remarkably enough, recently vindicated the claims of religion. The shelves of my local bookstore sag under the weight of books like Science of God, Science and Theology: The New Consonance, Skeptics and True Believers, and Belief in God in an Age of Science,averring that science has re-discovered the truths of sacred texts (usually, oddly enough, the Bible). The good folks at the J. M. Templeton Foundation recently reckoned it was high time to air these findings at an extraordinary conference of scientists-cum-theologians in Berkeley. To make matters worse, the popular press seized upon these public pronouncements with breathless articles in Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal,and the New York Times proclaiming that physics and biology now largely back God and country.1 Newsweek, with a cover that screamed "Science Finds God," reported:
Rather than undercutting faith and a sense of the spiritual, scientific discoveries are offering support for them, at least in the minds of people of faith. Big-bang cosmology, for instance, once read as leaving no room for a Creator, now implies to some scientists that there is a design and purpose behind the universe. Evolution, say some scientist-theologians, provides clues to the very nature of God. And chaos theory, which describes such mundane processes as the patterns of weather and the dripping of faucets, is being interpreted as opening a door for God to act in the world. From Georgetown to Berkeley, theologians who embrace science, and scientists who cannot abide the spiritual emptiness of empiricism, are establishing institutes integrating the two.2
But forget the institutes. The bottom line from physicists like John Polkinghorne, Allan Sandage, Mehdi Golshani, and Joel Primack is clear (at least to Newsweek: "Physicists have stumbled on signs that the cosmos is custom-made for life and consciousness."
Lest you believe this flood of book and blurb reflects real and recent scientific progress, consider the following (slightly more sensible) statement:
In recent times, the bulk of eminent physicists and a number of eminent biologists have made pronouncements stating that recent advances in science have disproved the older materialism, and have tended to re-establish the truths of religion. The statements of the scientists have as a rule been somewhat tentative and indefinite, but the theologians have seized upon them and extended them, while the newspapers in turn have reported the more sensational accounts of the theologians, so that the general public has derived the impression that physics confirms practically the whole of the Book of Genesis. I do not myself think that the moral to be drawn from modern science is at all what the general public has thus been led to suppose. In the first place, the men of science have not said nearly as much as they are thought to have said, and in the second place what they have said in the way of support for traditional religious beliefs has been said by them not in their cautious, scientific capacity.
The author is Bertrand Russell and the year is 1931,3 The disproofs of "the older materialism" that Russell mentions have, of course, been forgotten and so too will the ones trumpeted in Newsweek. The point is that this is an old con and one that’s easily pulled off as the public is (1) scientifically illiterate; and (2) terribly hopeful that what it’s being told is true. Gould is, of course, too smart for such nonsense. While many may not be happy with his vision of the right relationship between science and religion, at least he doesn’t pretend the two are the same. Indeed one of the best parts of his book features a hard-hitting denunciation of such junk, in which these muddled scientists and their cynical media allies come in for a good paddling. ("I’m sorry," he writes, "But I find the arguments ... so flawed, so illogical, so based in hope alone, and so freighted by past procedures and uncertainties, that I have difficulty keeping a straight face or a peaceful pen.")
The second stereotypic view is far more popular. It is that of the scientist who, in his bones, hates religion. It holds that science has disproved or effectively destroyed religion among thinking people. While this conclusion may or may not be correct, one cannot help but be bothered by the slipshod arguments and revisionist histories routinely cooked up to reach it. Gould mentions several, of which the first is: history is characterized by the advance of science and the retreat of religion–never the reverse–so any sane person must see the jig is up. As Gould notes, the facts are right but the pattern misinterpreted. In reality, the trend reflects a near historical necessity. Because religion arrived on the scene first and was more or less all there was–the Church was the religious, secular, and intellectual authority in much of the West–it’s inevitably the institution that must cede turf. When you start as a monopoly, there is, over the long haul, only one possible direction of change.
Scientists also often claim that religion rarely inculcates virtue. The history of religion is, after all, the history of bloodshed. (It is a law of nature that scientists must bring up the Crusades within five minutes of mention of religion.) In any case, the argument goes, atheists are as ethical as any believer, and religion needn’t be kept about for purely moral reasons. But Gould again argues that this claim misses the historical fact that the Church was a secular and not merely religious institution. When the Church was a powerful state, it, not surprisingly, acted like a powerful state. It is also worth noting (and Gould doesn’t) that when avowedly atheist governments called the shots their ethical track record was less than awe-inspiring. Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are not, so far as I know, in line for sainthood. The point isn’t that godless commies are bad. The point is that it is dishonest to pretend that the Crusades count against theism but that Stalin doesn’t count against atheism.
Last, scientists often manufacture absurdly revisionist histories of science itself. The reason is clear: many great scientists led deeply religious lives. This fact obviously makes it harder to maintain that science and religion are intrinsically and immutably incompatible. It’s also vaguely embarrassing–an insult to scientific vanity. The claim that science has conquered religion seems a tad less compelling when the Great Conquerors shuffle off to church each Sunday. So the sordid fact gets buried.
Gould, an accomplished historian of science, is outraged by such nonsense. Ever since John Maynard Keynes revealed that Newton was a mystic, it’s been appreciated that the history of science and religion is a good deal richer than the cardboard one favored by many scientists. But Gould goes further than most, arguing that even Darwin and Huxley–those ur-evolutionists and bishop-baiters–held more nuanced views on religion than popular history allows.
I think, though, that Gould could have picked better examples. The fact that Darwin and Huxley were slightly soft on religion (if it is a fact–Gould’s case is not overwhelming) might just reflect the times. Mired in nineteenth-
century pieties, any Victorian surely found it hard to break wholly free, at least while remaining remotely respectable.4 But this won’t do with modern scientists, who’d have a hard time losing job or spouse by voicing doubts on the Trinity. Nonetheless, many of the century’s leading scientists–including some of the brightest stars of evolutionary biology, that most allegedly atheistic of all sciences–were deeply religious. Among the fathers of the so-called modern synthesis, Theodosius Dobzhansky was a Christian and something of an amateur theologian; Sir Ronald Fisher was a deeply devout Anglican who, between founding modern statistics and population genetics, penned articles for church magazines; and J.B. S. Haldane was an unabashed mystic.5 While surprising, there’s one fact more surprising still–few evolutionists know any of this. The reason cannot be that biologists care only about these men’s science, as any evolutionist can rattle off a dozen anecdotes about each. Rather it seems clear that a kind of unconscious censorship goes on. These facts are a bit too out of whack and a bit too embarrassing. And so they get dropped. The result is that scientists live with an absurdly pat view of the history of science and religion–a view which, to Gould, promotes a false confidence in the incommensurability of the two.
Gould, God and NOMA
Gould rejects the views of both the naive religion-lover and the naive religion-hater. He thinks a third, middle way, is possible. He (unfortunately) calls this way "NOMA," for "Non-Overlapping Magisteria." Magisteria, we are told, are domains where "one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution." It is what you or I would call a sphere or a paradigm. According to Gould:
NOMA is a simple, humane, rational, and altogether conventional argument for mutual respect, based on non-overlapping subject matter, between two components of wisdom in a full human life: our drive to understand the factual character of nature (the magisterium of science), and our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion).
Science is one thing, religion another and–when done right–never the twain shall meet. It is the abuses of NOMA, the failures to respect the partition, that give rise to the illusion of inherent conflict. Although this brand of different spheres talk is common in smart circles generally (a bastardized legacy of Kuhn, no doubt), it is, I think, fairly rare among scientists. Gould devotes most of Rocks of Ages to its defense.
It is clear why Gould would want to guard science from religion. He has spent more hours than he likes to admit battling creationist mumbo-jumbo. (Gould played a role, for instance, in the defeat of the infamous Arkansas creation/evolution equal time law.) It may be less obvious why he wants to guard religion from science. Although some guesswork is required here, I think the reason grows clearer when taking the long view on Gould’s career.
In different ways at different times, Gould has battled what he considers the excesses of science. Gould has doubtlessly been the most outspoken and effective voice for humanism among living scientists. He has warred, in books and essays, against the use of science to mask social prejudice or to advance reactionary political agendas. Indeed he is best known not as the co-author of the theory of punctuated equilibrium but as an articulate (and rightly feared) enemy of sociobiological and hereditarian excesses.6 It would not be far from the truth to suggest that Gould has written almost as often against as for science, or at least what passes for science. This is a man to whom phrases like the "imperialistic aims of many scientists" come naturally.
Gould’s career can, I think, be seen as part of a larger intellectual move against scientism, the view that all truths are ultimately scientific. It may seem obvious that there are mathematical truths (1+1 = 2), logical truths (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates was mortal), historical truths (Socrates was mortal), folk psychological truths (someone who’s blushing is embarrassed) and socially constructed truths (paper bearing George, but not Grover, Washington’s likeness is worth something). And it may seem equally obvious that none of these is scientific. The world is not all science and there are places where science cannot and even should not go. But this lesson has come surprisingly hard to many philosophers and scientists–for instance, E. O. Wilson.7 Gould has, all along, been on the right side of this skirmish. Scientism is naive and it is hubristic. But, most of all, it’s just plain wrong.
It is not clear, however, that this style of argument leads where Gould now wants to go. From the existence of non-scientific truths it does not follow that there are religious ones. From the fact that science should not go everywhere it does not follow that religion is welcome instead. So why does Gould now press for the acceptance of religion? He gives two reasons.
The first involves Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. When confronted with different takes on complex problems, Gould argues that humans tend instinctively to choose between them. (And when I say instinctively, I mean instinctively: Gould, the great slayer of adaptationist story-telling, surprisingly suggests that this either/or mindset is an evolutionary legacy of our more brutish days on the savannah.) But Gould maintains that we’d be better off jettisoning instinct and embracing Aristotle. For, according to Gould, "Aristotle preached, as a centerpiece of his philosophy, the concept of a ‘golden mean,’ or the resolution of most great issues at a resting point between extremes."
Now I’m afraid that this is just bad philosophy. Aristotle never upheld the golden mean as a way to resolve "most great issues" nor did he suggest that any question be settled "at a resting point between extremes." If one man thinks there’s a God and another thinks there isn’t, Aristotle doesn’t recommend that there’s half a God or that each man’s view is somehow true. Aristotle laid out his doctrine of the golden mean in hisethical– not in his scientific or metaphysical–work, and he used it to characterize virtues. Virtuous action or passion is moderate (e.g., courage), while bad action or passion is extreme (cowardice or rashness).
But it’s not just that Gould misidentifies Aristotle’s claim; it’s that his alternative one doesn’t make much sense. Gould’s suggestion that we take a golden mean when "conceptualizing complex issues" or when trying to "make sense of the relationship between two disparate subjects" goes wholly unjustified and, when applied generically, seems dubious. There are obviously some cases where averaging over divergent views is sensible. If ten biologists arrive at ten different estimates of a gene’s frequency, the central limit theorem assures us the best estimate is the mean of the ten. But there are plenty of contexts where such compromise is absurd. If one proposition states that p and another that not-p, the law of the excluded middle mandates that one of the two is wrong and any talk of means is nonsense. Gould does not tell us why "conceptualizing complex issues" typically falls into the first and not the second category and I, for one, am not convinced that it does. In any case, Gould surely owed us a sentence or two explaining why Aristotle’s formula for virtue is so likely to work when transferred wholesale to questions of truth.
Gould’s second reason fares somewhat better. After stripping away layers of superstition–and the magisterium of science demands that they be stripped–we find that religion is in the morality business. Indeed, to Gould, religion essentially is moral discourse. Now this might seem to pose a problem: there are, after all, plenty of ethical atheists who do more than their fair share of discoursing on morals. Not surprisingly, it takes considerable contortions to bring this fact into line with Gould’s religion-equals-morality theory. But two or three pages later, the job is done: it is a historical fact, Gould tells us, that most moral discourse occurred within religious institutions. Thus, he concludes, let us "not quibble about the labels. I will ... construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people." Gould’s take on religion is thus characterized by a kind of radical simplicity–religion is morals and the meaning that emerges from the struggle for right behavior–and it is best not to lose sight of this fact.8
Gould’s reconciliation of science and religion gets completed with one further step: moral principles are not located "out there" in nature. Instead "Nature is amoral–not immoral ... Nature just is." It immediately follows that moral principles cannot be divined by science. Instead we are bound to "seek solutions to questions of morals and meanings in the proper place–within ourselves," a task that falls exclusively within the magisterium of religion. To Gould, then, religion amounts to no more and no less than "looking into the heart of our distinctive selves." There is, in such a religion, no room for moral truths embedded in nature and no particularly pressing need for a God in the sky. The ball is in our court–each of us, individually.
It follows from NOMA that science and religion cannot contradict: the two magisteria cannot simultaneously answer p and not-p as they never respond to the same question. Scientific answers to questions of value are not so much wrong as meaningless and ditto for religious answers to empirical questions. Gould’s science and Gould’s religion keep out of each other’s way.
To summarize, Gould’s move is a two-step: First, religion means moral discourse; second, moral principles are arrived at by a kind of introspection, not science.
The Devil’s in the Details
While pleasing to liberal ears, this view suffers from several problems. The chief one is that it’s not what anyone who practices the thing means by religion (or almost anyone, anyway). What Gould would likely dismiss as superstitious and superficial trappings is what the actual religious world typically deems the heart of the matter. In place of the divine, Gould gives us "our distinctive selves." In place of the numinous, we get rules of right behavior. The sacred and sublime give way to the sober and moralistic. The mystical, the miraculous and the mysterium tremendum are nowhere to be found. Though Gould leaves the door open ever so slightly to the possibility of a God, his religion is on the whole curiously bloodless, featuring something more like a legal than a sacred text.
In the end it is hard to resist the conclusion that Gould has lifted the word "religion" and grafted it onto a toothless, hobbled beast incapable of scaring the materialists. And he seems strangely untroubled by the fact that few religious folk resemble the creature. But surely it is obvious that Gould’s religion is a close cousin of secular humanism. It is true that a book subtitled "Science and Secular Humanism in the Fullness of Life" is unlikely to land on books on tape–as has Rocks of Ages–but that seems insufficient reason for not speaking plainly. While it would be going too far to say that Gould pulls a bait and switch here–that implies a conscious manipulation that’s far from obviously true–the religion Gould finally hands you is unlikely the one you thought you were buying.
But there’s a subtler point. Gould’s view of religion is itself arrived at via science. It is, after all, science that tells us we "are the offspring of history," a " ‘thing so small’ in a vast universe, a wildly improbable evolutionary event, and not the nub of universal purpose"–and thus that we are, by default, obliged to seek purpose and meaning within. Gould’s position is not therefore so much, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s" as "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that Caesar says he can have."9 Gould’s view of religion follows fairly naturally, though not necessarily, given a prior commitment to materialism. But this is precisely the commitment many religious people do not make. And if, to you, materialism is not logically prior, Gould’s look-within view neither follows nor likely seems attractive. Not surprisingly, religion means anything but looking within to most religious people (at least in Gould’s sanitized sense).
I do not wish to make too much of this, but the fact that NOMA derives from a scientific stance raises hard questions about the cogency of Gould’s non-overlapping thesis. How can it be that religion and science are non-overlapping when this very view of religion follows from science? There is something close to a paradox here. If your religion is dictated by science, the two are non-overlapping. But if your religion is independent of science, the two routinely tread on each other’s toes. This problem is, I think, more serious than it first appears, and suggests that Gould may try to reconcile two views that part company much earlier, and at a much deeper level, than he thinks. If the problem boils down to choosing materialism or not, a reconciliation built on lessons from materialism is beside the point.
In any case the oddity of Gould’s "religion" can be seen by noting that essentially the same position was championed by one of the century’s loudest religion-bashers, Bertrand Russell. Russell famously argued that "it is we who create value and our desires which confer value. In this realm we are the kings.... It is for us to determine the good life."10 And he understood that this view follows from science: "Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in." Now to Russell such a view was defiantly anti-religious. But to Gould it is religion. Obviously both cannot be true if religion is to mean anything. Unfortunately for Rocks of Ages, I suspect most readers will come nearer to sharing Russell’s than Gould’s usage.
The upshot is that Gould’s "religion" is sufficiently capacious to include atheists, so long as they behave themselves. But it is uncontroversially true that there is no inherent conflict between atheism and science. So it is unclear what the fuss is about. One might define religion in such a way as to encompass atheism, but having done so it is surely odd to announce at book-length that this religion has no problem with science. Of course it doesn’t. This was never the locus of the struggle between science and religion. (Or at least not the main locus. It’s true, of course, that some problems between science and religion remain when defining religion as Gould does–where do values come from in a world made of quarks? which medical interventions are ethical and which are not?–but these never represented the main battlefield and Gould has little to say about them anyway.)
The final problem with Gould’s view is obvious. Different people look "into the heart of [their] distinctive selves" and see different things. And many of these things will be incompatible. To take cartoonish examples, Gandhi looks within and sees the nobility of non-violence. Hitler looks within and sees that man is noblest when at war. Gould’s quixotic portrait of a world in which people of goodwill search their souls (or whatever it is Gould thinks they search) and peaceably consult the "varying views of fellow humans in our diverse world" is syrupy and implausible. Serious thought gives way here to feel-good prattle, a problem that crops up too often in Rocks of Ages. There is every reason to think that some people will search their souls and conclude they should slaughter their charmingly diverse neighbors–perhaps because those neighbors saw something a bit different when gazing upon their own navels. The bottom line is that liberal conceits of tolerance are not the inevitable product of Gould’s formula for religious introspection. It is obviously the view that Gould, and many of us, have arrived at. But we make a serious mistake if we confuse this particular outcome with that which is destined to occur. (Ironically this is just the sort of projection of personal preference that Gould has so effectively combated in other settings, e.g., in his wars with sociobiologists.) The problem we run into here is the sense of the truth of any religious view. How do we go about showing that one view is truer than another? And if we can’t, what do we do about views taking the form "All other views must be smashed"? Gould sidesteps these questions. And he does so for good reason: neither he nor I nor, as far as I can tell, anyone else knows how to talk sense here. But it will not do, I think, to pretend that all will be well in some imagined world where people of goodwill pursue invariably consonant views.
There is in Gould’s book a sort of striving after decency that one cannot help but respect. Gould badly wants the state of relations between science and religion to improve and he longs passionately and sincerely for the cohabitation of scientific skepticism and religious impulse within the same soul. And it may be that the road Gould cuts is in a sensible enough direction. It is certainly humane, it is a considerable improvement over the present state in which creationists pester scientists and scientists preach values, and it avoids many of the inanities that often accompany talk of religion by scientists. But it is a far bumpier road than Gould lets on.
1 See "Science finds God," Newsweek, July 20, 1998; "Faith and reason: together again," The Wall Street Journal., June 12, 1998; "Science and religion: bridging the great divide," The Times , June 30, 1998.
2 Newsweek, "Science finds God."
3 Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook (London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1931).
4 Indeed there is good reason to believe Darwin hid his thoughts on religion to protect the feelings and reputation of his devout wife. See, for instance, A. Desmond and J. Moore, Darwin (Warner Books, 1991).
5 Haldane wrote: "Without that body [my mind] might perish altogether, but it seems to me quite as probable that it will lose its limitations and be merged into an infinite mind or something analogous to an infinite mind which I have reason to suspect probably exists behind nature." From "When I am Dead," in Possible Worlds and Other Essays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972). For Dobzhansky’s religious views, see J. C. Greene, Debating Darwin (Claremont, Calif.: Regina Books, 1999) and M. Ruse, Monad to Man (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996). For samples of Fisher’s views see Collected Papers of R. A. Fisher, vol.s I-V, J. H. Bennett, editor (Adelaide: University of Adelaide, 1971-1974).
6 See, for instance, his superb The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1981).
7 See his recent Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Knopf, 1998), an extended argument for the reduction of most thought to science.
8 In particular, it is important not to confuse Gould’s view with two other, subtler, ones. He is not saying that religious discourse, while false (or at least an abuse of language), answers a deep human need to locate meaning–a need so integral to what it means to be human that it is worthy of respect. (This was close to Wittgenstein’s view. See Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, edited by Cyril Barrett. University of California Press, 1966.) He is also not saying that we should spend our days translating the metaphysical claims of religion into a more secular tongue. ("When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven what he really meant was ...").
9 M. Ruse ("NOMA," June 27, 1999, http://www.meta-list.org) reaches a similar conclusion.
10 From "What I Believe," reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (Simon and Schuster, 1957). The following quotation is from "Why I am Not a Christian" in the same volume.
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October 01, 1999
25 Min read time