Stephen Jay Gould’s Weak Argument For Science And Religion’s ‘Separate Domains’

Stephen Jay Gould‘s famous ‘Two Separate Domains‘ argues, roughly, that religion and science operate in different domains of inquiry, and as such do not conflict with each other:

We get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

Or, science gets the descriptive and the quantitative, religion gets the prescriptive and the qualitative. Facts on one side; values on the other.

‘Two Separate Domains’ is an essay I read some years ago; yesterday, I discussed it with my philosophy of religion class. On this revisitation, I was struck by how weak and narrowly focused Gould’s arguments are.

Most crucially, Gould is almost entirely concerned with responding to a very particular religious tradition: Christianity. Moreover, within that, he takes himself to be pushing back against that species of Protestant fundamentalism which would indulge in literal interpretations of the Bible to promulgate creationism:

I do not doubt that one could find an occasional nun who would prefer to teach creationism in her parochial school biology class or an occasional orthodox rabbi who does the same in his yeshiva, but creationism based on biblical literalism makes little sense in either Catholicism or Judaism for neither religion maintains any extensive tradition for reading the Bible as literal truth rather than illuminating literature, based partly on metaphor and allegory…and demanding interpretation for proper understanding. Most Protestant groups, of course, take the same position—the fundamentalist fringe notwithstanding.

Later in the essay, Gould concentrates on responding to a pair of Papal encyclicals on the subject of evolution, issued by Pius XII in 1950 and John Paul II in 1996, the differences between which–the latter takes on board the scientific evidence for evolution–Gould takes as evidence for the flexibility of the Church to respond to scientific findings in a manner which preserves its own ‘non-overlapping magisteria.’

Several problems now present themselves. First, there are a diversity of hermeneutical approaches in different religious traditions, with varying reliance on metaphorical, allegorical, literal, or historically contextualized readings, which generate conflicts of various degrees with the content of scientific statements. (As a student in my class said, getting rid of literal interpretations in Islam would remove, for many followers, their reason for believing in the Koran’s claims.) Second, Gould relies on an untenable fact-value distinction. But science’s empirical claims are infused with value-laden choices, and religion’s value-laden claims rest on empirical foundations (neither domain of inquiry offers a purely descriptive or prescriptive claim and are thus entangled.) Third, and perhaps most crucially in my opinion, Gould’s task is made considerably easier–at least apparently, in this essay–by concentrating on a religious tradition which has a central church–the Catholic–with an authoritative head, the Pope, who issues documents which articulate a position representative of the religious institution, and which can be expected to serve as instruction for its many followers’ practices and beliefs. That is, that religion’s practices can be usefully understood as being guided by such institutions, persons, and writings–they are representative of it. Such is obviously not the case with many other religious traditions, and I simply cannot see Gould’s strategy working for Islam or Judaism or Hinduism. (Buddhism is another matter altogether.)

Gould’s irenic stance is admirable, but I cannot see that the strategy adopted in this essay advances his central thesis very much.

2 comments on “Stephen Jay Gould’s Weak Argument For Science And Religion’s ‘Separate Domains’

  1. Reblogged this on A Philosopher's Take and commented:
    A nice post by Samir Chopra.

  2. Angra Mainyu says:

    Hello Samir

    Nice article. I agree.
    I’d like to add that even the most central tenets of Catholicism fail to respect the alleged separation, since they include the claims that Jesus walked on water, that he brought Lazarus back to life, that he himself came back from the dead, that he appeared to Paul/Saul, etc.
    Even if one assumed for the sake of the argument that the fact/value (or non-moral fact/moral fact, or however one chooses to make it) distinction can be neatly made, all of those claims would be matters of fact, descriptions, etc., even if further evidence against them (“further” because based on science we can already tell the probability of some of those events is astronomically low, though we didn’t need science for that in my assessment) may never become available.
    But purely for example, let’s say a Paul/Saul letter were found, in which he (for one reason or another) makes it clear that it was a lie, and he never saw Jesus (either in dreams or in the flesh). That surely be evidence against Catholicism. Nothing like that will ever be found, almost certainly. But the fact remains that Catholicism, even at its core, does not respect the distinction by making assertions that fall very clearly on the “descriptive” side (assuming that the distinction can be neatly made, etc.).

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