We often hear the argument that science has limits – that there are questions science cannot answer, problems science cannot solve. Most scientists agree. They acknowledge that science cannot, for example, solve ethical questions. The definition of right and wrong is not a scientific task (although science may help us understand how we make that decision).
However, this argument is often accompanied by the claim that such questions are really the province of religion. I believe this claim is unjustified because there is no evidence that religion is capable of solving such problems. The claim is also basically anti-human because it denies any rights to participation of the non-religious in solving ethical and moral problems.
Stephen Jay Gould proposed a system of non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA) as a way of avoiding conflict between science and religion. In his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life he said:
“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meaning and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while science must operate with ethical principles, some specific to the practice, the validity of these questions can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.”
Few people would object to Gould’s description of the role and limits of science and few scientists would claim a sole right to solving ethical questions. Modern science is more and more raising ethical questions about application of new technologies and even the research protocols themselves. Ethical problems related to introduction of genetically modified organisms into the environment and the harvesting of stem cells are only two recent examples. These question cannot be left to the researchers involved (how can they be objective) but should also involve an informed public.
Moral and ethical questions
So yes, let’s acknowledge the limits of science and agree that when it comes to morality and ethics there is no straightforward way of deciding what is “right.” There are no absolutes in such areas. Resolution depends on the prevailing ethics of the specific society and times, as well as the empirical indication of consequences. Consequently, society as a whole must decide such matters. Full information will assist such decisions. But, also essential, is a democratic process enabling involvement of all sections of society.
And this is where I have a problem with Gould’s presentation of NOMA. It is basically undemocratic because it grants religion (and only religion) a special role in moral and ethical questions. It defines morals and ethics as the special domain of religion (and only religion). It says we should hand these problem over to religion. It denies any role for those of us with non-religious ethical and spiritual beliefs. Surely, as humans we non-religious are as equally qualified (or as equally at a loss) on such questions. It is undemocratic to hand these problems to one section of society and deny a role to the rest of society.
No special role for religion
Let’s face it, experience surely shows that religion has no special skills in solving ethical and moral problems. Consider the history of religious opposition to issues such as artificial birth control, anesthetics for women in childbirth, autopsy of dead bodies, acknowledgment of homosexual gender orientation, women’s rights and many other social issues. Rather than providing leadership on such issues religion tends to be conservative, very often opting for the non-humane answers and justifying these by reference to bronze-age scriptures.
So let’s accept that we all have a right to be involved in the solution of ethical and moral problems. Let’s not allow a simplistic argument about the “limits of science” to be used as a way of claiming a special privilege for religion.
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
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Special rights for religion?
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Questions science cannot answer?
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Theology of the Emperor’s New Clothes
Is religion the source of morality?
Religion and violence