Saturday, November 8, 2008

NOMA Applause

I am often drawn to the intersection of spiritual belief and scientific empiricism (religion belongs to another category altogether and is probably best discussed by social scientists, psychologists and neurobiologists). Earlier today I posted a short clip of Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining that science educators had to take into account their intended audience's state of mind (see the post just below this one—very much worth watching in its entirety), and the exchange between Tyson and Richard Dawkins made me think of Stephen Jay Gould's theory of Nonoverlapping Magisteria (abbreviated "NOMA" by both its adherents and detractors).

Gould's argument, briefly, is that religion and science are spheres of human inquiry that are not in conflict because they address different phenomena and different concerns. I think that position is naive: science and religion are regularly in conflict, especially in the sphere of public policy. From Texas school boards trying to jam creationism into science curricula, to Islamic fundamentalists blowing up girls' schools in Pakistan, there is no shortage of people trying to ensure that their particular religious belief is reflected in government policy.

We'll never know, but Gould may have been groping toward a state of mind familiar (in teaching, if not in practice) to adherents of Zen Buddhism: attainment of enlightenment through the non-rational. In his essay on NOMA, Gould admits "I cannot, through ignorance, speak of Eastern religions..." which is a shame, because I think in Zen he might have found both intellectual and emotional appeal. A Zen fixture in popular culture is the question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping," a phrase drawn from a Japanese kōan. The point of a kōan is not to arrive at a logical answer, or at any answer whatsoever, but by pondering it to force the mind from its rational dualism. NOMA aside, many people who give thought to issues of spirituality and science believe either science is right or spirituality is right; they can't both be right.

I know what you're thinking: he's going to say "What if both are right?"

Nope. I'm going to say "What does right mean?" We are, some of us, very focused on winning the debate, without really understanding what winning means. I don't refer here to politics, nor public policy here: winning and losing have clear and consequential meaning in those arenas—see Dover v. Kitzmiller. (And in that vein, I have no truck with the Templeton Prize or its winners: despite its posture of reconciliation with reason and scientific inquiry, the organization is just another partisan in the culture wars; the whole point of the prize is "affirming life's spiritual dimension.")

I think it's more important, and likely more productive, to ask what it means to the individual, inside his or her own head, for one view or the other to prevail? Does it mean losing a part of ourselves? Maybe. Or to phrase it differently, maybe clinging to the either/or of spirituality versus empiricism keeps us from reaching our genius.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack Up that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Fitzgerald may have put the cart before the horse. It's possible that one develops a first-rate intelligence (if we take intelligence in the broadest sense) by attempting to hold conflicting ideas in mind at the same time. If not enlightenment, it is possible that a deeper level of understanding may come from sidestepping the question of being right, concentrating instead on just being.

Point, Tyson

A clip of Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining his approach to science education, in contrast to Richard Dawkins' approach. Well thought out and well said, I think.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Kitten X Awarded Tenure

In a milestone action for Feline Americans, Kitten X has been awarded tenure through an unusually expeditious and evenhanded process at FSP.

We urge our reader to write to FSP in support of this faculty appointment.