David Barash and the problem of NOMA in the classroom

…it is hardly true that “Science” has done much itself to demolish anything with regards to superstition, ritualization, or cult hegemony


David Barash 1 fairly nailed the typical attitude or perspective, as I’ve experienced it, of working scientists, no doubt once young students themselves, when he wrote in his opinion piece, God, Darwin and My College Biology Class2

…Noma is the received wisdom in the scientific establishment…

In fact, most people I’ve encountered, not just working scientists, would rather not discuss topics as pedestrian and contentious as cult dogma, content in the assumption and rhetorical position that evidential, reasoned investigation can never penetrate the fog of gods and preferring to relegate the topic, if they are interested at all, to carefully choreographed debates, lectures, or “sessions”. In a working environment, that’s probably a good attitude to take and have enforced by an organization’s human resources department. A real-world application of Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA, “non-overlapping magisteria” 3.

It isn’t that I don’t agree with much of what he wrote in this opinion piece, but that I noticed the turn of phrase, the grammar of expression that seemed to say somewhat more than what he actually wrote. If I had any criticism for Barash, it would be that he simply plunked down an unqualified, “…if God exists…”.

That little, conditional phrase makes many huge assumptions, long before we ever arrive at any possible consequence. A long series of assumptions, in fact, the least of which is the assumption that every person’s personal god would be the same as that locked inside every other person’s head! And, by the way, that every person actually nourishes, if any god at all, one called “God”!

Okay, so you might feel already that I’m taking an overly theoretical approach. Most people who are into gods these days do seem, within my culture and presumably his, to fit within a particular religious mold, having a number of common views about gods: They tend to report, fashionably, that they think only one god exists, not several; that it’s a “boy” god, not a “girl” god and that He has a laundry list of demands. These assumptions end up being fairly foundational for anyone concerned with the topic, even a biologist and psychologist. These gods are not all the same after all, even among the great block of self-reporting monotheists — even yet among the sectarians of any cult! We absolutely know, too, that not everyone holds to ideas of singular gods, so we have to ask the question — he did not (here) and most people don’t either — “What the hell is a ‘god’ anyway?”

This should be the first and constant question, “what is a ‘god’?” When failing to ask that question, is any nominalization for this bizarre idea even deserved? Shouldn’t he rather have said: “If the god which people love to call “God” exists…”

Well, yes, I do know the answer to that question. It goes something like, “He was writing an op-ed in a prominent, internationally acclaimed newspaper. I’m sure he and the editors would like the letters and emails in reply to be kept to a small hurricane roar.” Or words to that effect. The current, accepted name, make and model for deities is the singular and genericized, vaguely all-powerful god named God. Public contradictions of that tend to inspire violent reactions, even in America.

Along those lines, the other criticism I have for Barash, whilst I’m following a slightly tangential path and beating my chest toward a man having gallons more experience and training than me, is along different lines. It’s that, in my view, “Science” has absolutely not done so much, contrary to his assertion, “…[to demolish]…pillars of religious faith…in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.”

It is true that religious thinking may be displayed less publicly and less floridly in some districts – “the Talk” affecting a more noticeable few, as he says,

…a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material

I don’t think it is so controversial, however, to say that religion is going as strong now as ever. It is hardly true that “Science” has done much itself to demolish anything with regards to superstition, cargo cult ritual, or cult hegemony. The methods and objects of a proper, scientific investigation do indeed contribute to that field of knowledge yet available to more and more people, and that alone may force the question, but if any “demolition” was ever done, that work was done long ago and is done now, in a single moment, when a thinking person just asks a few questions about their own experience and about cult claims. The questions alone do the work before one embarks upon a methodical collection and examination of evidence toward the construction of a theoretical framework. Lucretius famously observed, more than two thousand years ago — long before the contemporary Age of Enlightenment — that the gods, which everyone seems so constantly to obsess about, clearly have nothing to do with any aspect of life, inner or outer.4 5

Barash spent some time typing out an apologetic for scientific method. Fair enough. Scientific method may indeed be the greatest invention to have sprung from the womb of philosophy. But, he contradicts himself a bit while offering some softer kindnesses to his audience. It is obvious to me, if I can be allowed to take his words at face value, that he truly respects his students. But, outside the magisteria of polite conversation and the professional environment, he has no reason to say that he respects belief, especially after stating that the assumptions of NOMA are false.

Maybe it is too fine a line to stand on, but “belief” itself — the condition of “believing” — is inherently stupid in nearly all aspects of the word. In the mode of investigation, one doesn’t “believe”, but acknowledges facts. “Belief” itself is reserved for what is wished to be true or what could be true given particular conditions no one has observed. It is enough to respect a person’s right and prerogative to believe and express what he or she will, but, Barash should know, surely, that rational, evidence driven investigation is not about “belief”, but about unflinchingly acknowledging that which is discovered to be false and asserting inferences contingently. To “believe” is to make a priori assumptions about what can be true and to forget contingency. 6

All of this talk about gods being what it is, we will continue, to the end of time, no doubt, hearing narrow-minded (self-described) “anti-atheists” reacting consistently to this entirely deserved criticism of religious obsession.7 NOMA never seems to impede cult adherents in the way in which scientists or anyone else are expected to be thus impeded. I think we will continue to hear, too, the absurd, commonly heard expression which proceeds along the lines “all those other cults should be called ‘religion’, but my special and beloved cult is not a religion, thank you very much. Mine is The Truth [capital ‘T’]”.

Gould did not think of — rather, he never expressed it, so far as I’ve found — one particularly prickly aspect of his very idea of NOMA, that is that the foundational assumptions of working scientists and that of cult adherents are mutually and equally subject to philosophical scrutiny. I wonder whether the common questions of perception, being, or inference are something people (can) sense when comparing “Science” and “Religion”. My own sense of it is that many people do, if only superficially. But of those who do, an even smaller number are yet still comfortable with actively raising, then pursuing, all of the questions such a comparison forces when one begins to think about it for more than a few seconds. Barash, no doubt, is fully aware of this and he warns his students,

if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.

Let’s raise a cheer, then, for mental gymnastics!

Circles in Circles

  1. http://www.dpbarash.com 
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/opinion/sunday/god-darwin-and-my-college-biology-class.html 
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria 
  4. Thinking here of the few stanzas in which he addresses Memmius specifically, “…that in no wise the nature of the world for us was builded by a power divine – so great the faults it stands encumbered with…”; he addresses also, in more than one place, the uncanny connection between the idea of “gods” and the insatiable hunger – the physical manifestation of hegemony – of the priests. 
  5. I have at this point a series of other questions that seem to flow from the topic and that don’t fit neatly here. David Deutch conceives in “Constructor Theory” [also 1 2], as pertains to Quantum Mechanics, but generally speaking (very generally!) the idea that all data is physical. At no time does data ever exist in a way that is not physical. The implications of such a theory are many. Anything that can be construed as “information” by brains that are rather fond of information exist as things that are physical, whether those things are beams of light or blocks of wood or cells in the brain that churn the information. The cult dogmatist could easily take this idea and assert in the manner of Aquinas or Anselm, that a “thought” is a physical unit, therefore the physical thought of “God”, by an extended series of actions, must have originated outside “this reality” from “the divine”. Yet, this contradicts experience and the theory itself. 
  6. Again, another path to take: The matter of “belief” as an object of inquiry. How to separate out the mundane from the special; how to ask what it means “to believe” one’s experience (the mundane) and hold to abstractions (the special) that we conceive of as place-holders to reality. Another time. 
  7. As an aside, the faithful do seem to make a fairly brisk business of creating so many of the very “atheists” whom they, in turn, oppose so vehemently!