Trey Medley on NOMA

I have appreciated Trey Medley’s blog, Whytheology. His latest post is called “Why NOMA is inadequate.”


NOMA is Stephen Jay Gould’s acronym for “Non-overlapping magisteria.” A magisterium is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” Gould said the scientific tools of empirical observation work well in dealing with facts, whereas the tools of religion are suitable for non-empirical areas such as meaning and value. “The two are entirely distinct according to Gould. … There is no conflict because the two are talking about fundamentally different things, and thus the two can’t even be in dialogue, much less disagreement.”

Trey Medley thinks Gould is mistaken. I’ll second the motion, but for slightly different reasons. For one thing, I want to encourage theist-atheist dialogue. NOMA undermines the possibility that believers and unbelievers could fruitfully discuss factual matters.

I agree with Trey that Christianity typically sees the Bible as making lots of claims about the physical universe. Some of these assertions, such as the notion that Earth is just a few thousand years old, can be ignored without undermining core Christian doctrines. The same could be said about demon possession, which Medley mentions. Many church-goers agree with psychologists who say that all serious mental illnesses are due to brain malfunctions. But other Biblical claims are more essential to traditional Christianity, such as the idea that God interacts with the universe and even suspends natural law to perform miracles.

Trey also points out that acceptance of the empirical method can’t be justified by using the empirical method. He’s right to say that would be circular. But of course choosing a method for understanding reality is a prelude to actually using that method. When we decide to try using science to understand the universe we are not at that moment using science.

Medley’s essay states that when science makes claims about events that are non-observable, those “are, by their very nature, more than empirical claims.” I’d analyze that issue a bit differently. ANY scientific claim must go beyond empirical findings. A report which asserts facts based on scientific findings has already gone beyond the data. Typically data are fitted into theories which are considered well-grounded. Based on theory + data, we draw conclusions.

Suppose I observe that every time a one-ton boulder falls on someone’s head, that person dies. That is an empirical finding. To claim that the boulder killed those people, I have to go beyond this datum, although in this case not by very much! By using a widely-accepted theory of physical causation I can assert that the fatal results were more than mere coincidence.

I think Trey may be suggesting that claims about events in the very distant past or future are not scientific claims, because such events are not observable. But they are empirically-based claims, if research data is combined with scientific theories.

Without theory, science is mute.

Note, however, that sometimes scientists speculate about the cosmos in ways that seem to be based more upon their personal world-views than on well-proven facts. I’m thinking, for example, of some statements made by Stephen Hawking. Such speculations may be brilliant or misguided, but they are theology or philosophy, not science.

Medley is planning to say more about NOMA, and I’m looking forward to reading his next post.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.


One thought on “Trey Medley on NOMA

  1. “the tools of religion are suitable for non-empirical areas such as meaning and value.”

    Which would also mean that we atheists are just screwed, what with having to look to Bronze Age fiction in order to find a source for meaning and value, especially when the meaning and value people find there so often leads them to oppress, if not kill, those who disagree with them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s