S. J. Gould and the Independence Perspective

This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.

The following notes and quotations are from:
Gould, Stephen Jay (1999). Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Ballantine Publishing Group: New York.

Premise of Gould's position is NOMA: Non-Overlapping Magisteria (domains).

"Respectful noninterference - accompanied by intense dialogue between the two distinct subjects, each covering a central facet of human existence" p. 5

Conflict between science and religion is FALSE - science covers empirical realm (what the universe is made of, or fact) while religion extends over the ultimate meaning and moral value of life.

Historical examples of prominent thinkers crossing over the two domains...

The Rev. Thomas Burnet (1635 - 1715) wrote The Sacred Theory of the Earth. He tried to use contemporary scientific knowledge to explain scriptural events, e.g. Great Deluge. Burnet assumed the Bible told truthful, but not literal account of earth's history. As a result of his belief in the non-literal truth of the Bible, he lost his position as private confessor to King William II.

Burnet insisted that the history of the earth (as told in the Bible) be explained through "necessary consequences of invariable natural laws" p. 18. To explain the Great Deluge, he asserted that the Earth was a perfectly smooth sphere of crust, with a layer of water underneath. The crust cracked and dried up, and water rose through those cracks, formed clouds, which caused great rains. The rains caused the cracks to seal up, and in turn, the earth's rough topography developed.

Other prominent scientists of his time (Newton, Boyle, Hooke, Halley) argued that God would permit no contradiction between his words (scripture) and his works (nature). Science became the means to "interpret" the Bible. Science was the authority of the "factual" world, whereas faith is the authority beyond the factual or experienced world.

According to Gould, human "minds tend to work by dichotomy - that is by conceptualizing complex issues as either/or pairs, dictating a choice of one existence or the other, with no middle ground (Aristotle's golden mean) available for any alternative resolution." p. 58 ..."Thus, when we must make sense of the relationship between two disparate subjects (science and religion in this case) especially when both seem to raise similar questions at the core of our most vital concerns about life and meaning - we assume that one or two extreme solutions must apply: either science and religion must battle to the death, with one victorious and the other defeated, or else they must represent the same question and can there for be fully and smoothly integrated into one grand synthesis." p. 51

Examples of Big or Core Questions

...from the magisterium of science

How are humans related to other organisms?

What does this relationship mean?

Why does so much of our genetic material serve no apparent function?

What caused the mass extinctions that have punctuated the history of life?

...from the magisterium of religion/morality

Are we worth more than bugs or bacteria because we have evolved a much more complex neurology?

Under what conditions do we have a right to drive other species to extinction by elimination of their habitats?

Do we violate any moral codes when we use genetic technology to place a gene from one creature into the genome of another species?

What about cloning, genetic engineering? Stem cell research?

While Gould supports a position of NOMA (respectful differences), he asserts that we still need, as humans, to resolve complex issues using multiple magisteria, including science, religion, arts, etc. "Science and religion interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity." p. 65

Historical Beginnings of Conflict between Science and Religion

Between 1870 and 1880, widespread sentiment was developed about the conflict between science and religion, using the model of warfare.

Gould (and Barbour) attribute significant amount of influence to books written by two individuals. Both works created a false dichotomy "between science and religion as a guiding theme of Western history" p. 117.

In Draper, The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), and in White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), science was portrayed as the means toward progress and freedom, while religion was portrayed as unchanging, stationary, and superstitious. Draper invented the flat-earth myth of Columbus and his voyage to the New world. Educated people in the 15th century accepted that the earth was round. Columbus' true struggle was with the distance he estimated. The people he requested money from believed that the distance was much greater, and that he wouldn't be able to make the distance, not that he would fall off the earth. Draper created the conflict as a means of promoting scientific and social enterprise. Draper and White were writing during a period of intensive economic change, when biologic evolution had been morphed into Social Darwinism, which justified stiff economic competition as based on "natural law."

Creationism is a strictly American phenomenon. Many people who espouse creationism believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

Gould's disagreement with Creationists/Intelligent design/Creation Scientists is that they operate outside the magisterium of science. Gould asserts that it is a set of religious beliefs which are attempting to be imposed within the public school setting, breaching the separation of church and state.