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Playing with non-overlapping magisteria, religion and science

December 2, 2012

A few days ago on Facebook, I was reading a conversation where the topic of religion and science’s supposed incompatibility came up. One participant to the conversation insisted that religion and science were a zero sum game — and that on any topic or question you could think of, science would produce value (the +1) while religion would destroy it (the -1). For example, medicine vs. prayer/faith healing/blessings. He challenged other participants to mention situations where this was not so.

The other participants to the discussion did not even want to buy into the premise. So, they pointed out that it wasn’t a zero-sum game, because the two were not answering the same questions.

Although it was not mentioned, the idea of non-overlapping magisteria popped into my head as I read the various participants. And eventually, I decided to throw in my thoughts — which I have pasted (and expounded upon) below:

So, here, let me throw something out. I don’t know if it will stick, and I don’t know if I even believe it, but whatever. Feel free to eviscerate this as much as you care to, because I bet plenty of people have already thought well and hard about the non-overlapping magisteria idea, and probably have found all sorts of problems that I have not yet considered.

You all may have heard the idea that science and religions are in different spheres because science answers “what” and “how” and religion answers “why”. (And you may have heard [or even interjected with] the counter that religions often try to encroach upon the whats/hows, or that science tries to address the whys, and so the framework doesn’t really work out.)

But if we took that basic framework to heart, and considered that crossovers were violations to be frowned upon, then where do we end up with?

One of the things that kinda frustrates me is that the narratives (in a “myth” or “worldview” sense) of religions seem so…ad hoc or arbitrary. I always want to find something to anchor them to.

I wrote a little about this in my earlier post on religions as brain software.

So, here I am, reading this book. And it seeks to describe why things are. It internally ascribes to the idea that both religion and science are incomplete, and while it doesn’t use the exact terms, I infer that one of the book’s raison d’etre is to describe why its brand of spiritual-but-non-religiosity can explain the inadequacy.

And so it does.

The book describes that in the beginning, we all were in the World of Answers. God, like a light, radiated light constantly and fully. We could not help but receive the light of his goodness at all times every time.

And we were not pleased with this.

Because we had not earned this light, and we could not earn this light, we requested that he give us the opportunity to earn light for ourselves.

God complied by creating a World of Questions, in which we would be veiled off from light by our five senses, and by the Adversary.

…as I’ve read this book, I’ve found many things in common with Mormonism, although the book is definitely not Mormon. The book does just enough to throw a twist on things that I might have seen too comfortably from a Mormon lens.

For example, I imagine that many Mormons take for granted that the Adversary is this external being in opposition to God and humans from reaching their goal. Even if Mormons also believe that there must be opposition in things.

But in this book, the M. Night Shyamalanian twist is that the Adversary is Doubt. And Doubt is Ego. Our egos, however, are not really about preventing us from reaching our goal. I mean, yes, they are, in the sense that they prevent us from seeing the light. They are a curtain over the light that obscures that light.

But in order for us to “earn” the light, we need that light to be hidden, and Ego/Doubt/the Adversary is the way that that happens.

As I read this book, I think, “OK, so this is an interesting story, but is it true?

That’s still my question — is it true? Why should I believe that?

(As a side note, I now have a hunch as to why there were so many things common with Mormonism…shortly after reading that book, I learned that when Joseph Smith was learning Hebrew, he learned about Jewish Kabbalah)

…but it seemed to me that perhaps I was looking for the wrong thing.

Separating Hows from Whys

If we take non-overlapping magisteria serious and decide that religion answers “whys” or provides a narrative or mythological framework, then I can’t rely upon the tools that would satisfy “whats” and “hows”…but when I’m trying to validate scriptural concepts, that’s exactly what I tend to be looking for. I’m trying to anchor scripture to historical or scientific validations…”whats” and “hows”. E.g., the physical, literal existence of Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, or a talking snake is an empirical concern that science can speak about — so if we’re focusing on those elements, then we are breaking our own rule (of supposing that the two are non-overlapping).

But the “why” of the narratives — why we know good and evil (???), or why we sin (???) [man, you can tell I’m not really good on drawing out the whys of stories…], these things are not something that we are going to be able to prove out in a lab. Just from knowing that Adam and Eve weren’t real beings doesn’t say anything about the *story* underlying them (and us) — because the “why” isn’t tied to the “what” and “how’…the “what” and “how” is just a literary framework for conveying the message.

In the same way, science that is so tied to the empirical cannot give us a why. (I guess this is basically the meaning of the phrase, “An ought cannot be derived from an is” — if you take the fact/value distinction seriously.) It can certainly say “what” and “how” and people can try to extrapolate “why” from that — but they will be making the same error as a religious person focusing on the “whats” of the Adam and Eve story (or whatever story).

There are still people who try to derive “whys” from science…I guess that’s why some people say that atheism (note: I’m not suggesting that atheism implies deriving whys from science, or that atheists are the only people who do this) is a religion — because if religions are about “whys,” then there are even going to be plenty of atheists who assert “whys” (although I still think that many of those whys will amount to instead being how/what answers…)

What does the support for why look like?

This is a question I have asked before. It struck me a few weeks ago that many supposed answers for “why” eventually end up being, “Because it just is” or an answer to a “how” question in disguise. Neither of these are satisfying to me.

…and maybe that’s what the support for “why” looks like? It’s about what answer satisfies you.

If this is the case, then so many theists who talk about choosing to believe start to make a lot more sense.

Life of Pi

Recently, my brother read Life of Pi. I am vaguely aware as well that the movie has come out too — and one thing that a lot of people (or at least President Obama) have claimed is that both the book and the movie make a case for theism.

I have been skeptical — and plenty of others have been too, from my searching. It seems there are several wildly divergent interpretations of what Yann Martel is actually getting at with the story. I haven’t read the book, but from what I’ve read (spoilers ahoy, guys?), I think I understand the basic conflict.

So, if you have heard of the basic plot of Life of Pi, you should be vaguely aware that it’s about a boy who gets shipwrecked with dangerous animals who eat each other and then threaten to eat him. There’s also a part of the book that goes into how Pi is so into religion, and he likes parts of all the traditions he comes into contact with in India — Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism.

^That was about the extent of my understanding of the book before doing any research…and since I haven’t read the book (yet? I dunno if I want to read it…), I have no sense for the scale of how the religion plays all this. But from just these parts, I didn’t know how this book could make the case for theism.

Well, the piece that I had missed was the third part of the book. See, the story is Pi telling this survival tale to his Japanese rescuers. And when they hear about the fantastic story of animals and whatnot, they are quite skeptical. And so they demand that he tell the real story.

…Pi then tells another story of shipwreck, where instead of animals eating each other, all the characters correspond with human characters. Think of the implications of that. All of a sudden, a story of Animals Being Animals possibly becomes a story of the horrors of humans trapped in a terrible situation living down to that terrible situation.

And so Pi presents to the Japanese: which story do you want to believe? The one that seems more reasonable or the one that is less horrifying?

And so it is with God, Pi says.

The conflict of readers begins first with which story seems more plausible. Some readers take the story of animals as being the “true” one, but some take the story of people as being the “true”.

But I was reading an article that really clicked with what I’m trying to say here, about narratives and myths and “whys” and all of this:

The argument for the existence of god contained in Life of Pi is successful only in the least interesting of ways, because the  scope of that existence is limited to the mind of the believer. When Pi asks the men which of the two he has told them is the ‘better story’ and says, when they reply that the more fantastical is better, “so it goes with God”, he makes it clear that the only argument he has for god is that he prefers it. He chooses a world with god in it over one without. He does not accuse the agnostic of being wrong, but simply of missing the ‘better story’.

Not only is this not proof of the existence of god as it would usually be understood – as proving that god exists whether or not anyone believes in it – it is inelegant, a mere stating of the position. ‘God exists because I choose to believe it,’ is without finesse, a mere declaration of faith which is, therefore, unassailable.

What is proved elegantly, however, is how god could easily be a fiction conjured by a mindin extremis as a method of survival. In the same way Pi constructs a fantastical journey for himself rather than face the true horror of what has happened to him, human beings, confronted by a savage existence, coupled with the misfortune of possessing a consciousness able to reflect upon it, create for themselves a refuge, an all powerful father figure that loves and protects them.

Support for “why” for many folks apparently comes down to what people prefer, what makes people feel better. (Although caveat: there are varying values of “better”)

Richard BushmanThis is something I have seen in common from several thoughtful faithful Mormons. If I weren’t lazy, I’d pull up specific examples…I am thinking in particular of on scholar who said that he “chooses to live in a world where Joseph Smith was a prophet” (I want to say it was Richard Bushman, but I can’t find any sources). But here’s something I can pull up from a Bushman Mormon Stories interview (transcript via Mormon Heretic):

I’m a person who lives in this divided world.  I’m very conscious of arguments against God and religion, which is to some extent against the church.  I always am hearing those questions and engage constantly in these internal debates where I try to make a point against imaginary contestant of some kind.  But what really comes around to me is a very simple thing.  The big word for me is goodness.  I above all things want to go where things are good and if I turn away from what I know is good, because of some philosopher who tells me that this can’t be, or some little fact in history of the church is disruptive, that’s not enough to throw me out of the saddle.

I want to go where I find goodness, where I want to be where I have brothers and sisters that I love and admire and want to work with, and where I live in a universe where I have an incentive to improve and grow better sometimes, and I just get that over and over with church.  I can’t possibly turn away. It’s more like planting a seed image of a testimony in Alma 32.  The seed is good.  I can’t deny that so I stick with it.

So, the next problem is that many people don’t see the same level of good out of any given religion.

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  1. that is not what zero sum means.

    it means that there’s a winner and a loser

    religion doesn’t zero out what science can explain

    because it is not a credible alternative explanation.

  2. I struggle with the concept of how’s vs. why’s. As I pointed out on your follow-up to the religion as brain software post [Answering Why] people with neurological differences in their “wiring” (such as adults on the autism spectrum) have difficulty reasoning “teleologically” about “why” things happen.

    Meaning — there’s no difference between “whys” and “hows” for people who think this way. They’ll answer “Why” in terms of “How”. Their “brain software” doesn’t/can’t differentiate between the two predominately-supposed roles/jurisdictions for science and religion.

    And I feel similarly. When asked, “Why?“, I tend to begin by thinking about “How?“. So I think the key to finding religion “niche” is to figure out how we answer “why“ while staying independent of answering “how“. And finding the benefit of the “whys” (when they are apart from the “hows”).

  3. Justin,

    Ahh, I was thinking of referencing that post and that article somewhere in this article, but I couldn’t find my “Answering Why” post, and this post was getting too lengthy anyway.

    Anyway, I definitely think there is something to the idea that many people have difficulty distinguishing why answers from hows (and that this difficulty probably extends along more than just the autism spectrum…neurotypical folks also tend to make the confusion — or maybe I overestimate neurotypicality in our brave new world :3 )

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