Science & Theology News was looking for some famous and charismatic scientists to respond to an interview with Noam Chomsky on various issues touching on science and religion. They were able to get Lawrence Krauss to agree, but then they ran out of ideas and ended up asking me. So you have some of the deepest questions we face about meaning and the universe, addressed by someone recently voted the world’s top intellectual, with responses by the author of The Physics of Star Trek and an assistant professor with a blog. What a great world!
You will notice that most of my answering comments are short and sweet. You can take this as evidence that I know how to pack a tremendous rhetorical punch into just a handful of words, or that I was in a hurry as the deadline was approaching. But sometimes I do go on a bit when a nerve is struck, such as this discussion on whether science and religion ever overlap in their respective spheres of interest.
ON STEVEN JAY GOULD AND “NON-OVERLAPPING MAGISTERIA”
CHOMSKY: Steve Gould [was] a friend. But I don’t quite agree with him [that science-and-religion are “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”]. Science and religion are just incommensurable. I mean, religion tells you, ‘Here’s what you ought to believe.’ Judaism’s a little different, because it’s not really a religion of belief, it’s a religion of practice. If I’d asked my grandfather, who was an ultra-orthodox Jew from Eastern Europe. ‘Do you believe in God?’ he would have looked at me with a blank stare, wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. And what you do is you carry out the practices. Of course, you say ‘I believe in this and that,’ but that’s not the core of the religion. The core of the religion is just the practices you carry out. And yes, there is a system of belief behind it somewhere, but it’s not intended to be a picture of the world. It’s just a framework in which you carry out practices that are supposed to be appropriate.
KRAUSS: Science and religion are incommensurate, and religion is largely about practice rather than explanation. But religion is different than theology, and as the Catholic Church has learned over the years, any sensible theology must be in accord with the results of science.
CARROLL: Non-overlapping magisteria might be the worst idea Stephen Jay Gould ever had. It’s certainly a surprising claim at first glance: religion has many different aspects to it, but one of them is indisputably a set of statements about how the universe works at a deep level, typically featuring the existence of a powerful supernatural Creator. “How the universe works” is something squarely in the domain of science. There is, therefore, quite a bit of overlap: science is quite capable of making judgments about whether our world follows a rigid set of laws or is occasionally influenced by supernatural forces. Gould’s idea only makes sense because what he really means by “religion” is “moral philosophy.” While that’s an important aspect of religion, it’s not the only one; I would argue that the warrant for religion’s ethical claims are based on its view of the universe, without which we wouldn’t recognize it as religion.
I was going to say that these guys might be famous, but do they have their own blogs? No! Except, of course, Lawrence was our very first guest-blogger, so that counts for something. And, I remembered, Noam Chomsky actually does have a blog. A funny one that consists of answers to occasional interview questions asked by someone from Z magazine, but I suppose it counts. Man, everybody has a blog these days.