philosophy science

overlapping magisteria?

My last post touched (if only in passing) on the relationship between two realms: the philosophical/religious and the scientific. Among other things, I was suggesting that there is both a distinction and an inter-play between the two.

We are all –to an extent, of course– both scientists and philosophers. We engage in the stuff of science; for at various levels of skill, we figure out how things work, what makes things tick. We also engage in philosophical reflection; for we all navigate our way through life based on an understanding (either assumed or deeply worked out with much reflection) of what is good, etc.

Many scientists freely admit that it is their philosophical notions of wonder and mystery which ‘spur’ them on in their passion and zeal for their work of scientific discovery. Also, it seems clear that philosophical notions like ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ are inseperably woven into scientific processes; for example, if it weren’t for the philosophical ‘law’ of non-contradiction, no scientific experiment would be worth performing, because all of your attempts to keep the experiment ‘controlled’ would be rendered powerless.

Also, scientific discovery is able to greatly enhance philosophical reflection. The stronger our telescopes or microscopes get, and hence, the more vastness (telescopes) or detail (microscopes) we see, the more it fuels and contributes to philosophical reflection. Every uncovering of both order and randomness –not to mention order within randomness or randomness within order– only enhances our wonder at it all.

Steven Jay Gould has suggested that faith and science be seen as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, but as this article (PDF version here) over at Thinking Faith suggests, maybe there is a more interesting relationship between them after all…

8 replies on “overlapping magisteria?”

Didn’t want to be the first, dale, but here goes:

I have always felt Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria was mechanical, and somewhat dishonest (in that he attributed a role to religion which he should have attributed to philosophy in general – and did in one part of his book). This has meant that people have advanced a role for religion – by denying it to science rather than arguing a case for religion. This is actually very demeaning for religion.

However, I agree that science/philosophy does overlap. In fact, I can identify with a lot of what the author of your article says. In reading up about Einstein’s attitude to religion I did pick up that some religious people have the same feelings of awe to reality and knowledge that Einstein gave a religious descriptor to. I know that very many non-religious people have the same feelings (although not describing them that way). There is obviously a commonality of attitude there – one that I concur with. It breaks down, however, when religious dogma is bought up and religious terms (“god”) are used.

I guess what I am saying that many people have this feeling of awe and beauty – some go on to describe it as religious and wish to draw conclusions I think are quite unwarranted. The reason I say unwarranted is that most other people interpret that word differently to the way it was meant. That causes confusion – as it did/does with Einsteins use of the word.

By the way, I don’t think there is anything necessarily special about this science/religion interaction. The same feelings probably occur for artists – or for people in any field who approach their work enthusiastically.

Hehe, it’s funny; you see it as “philosophical/religious and scientific” and I see it as “philosophical/scientific and religious”.

To me, religion is a cop-out answer for what we don’t understand and a deliberate decoy for things we do understand but don’t fit our existing beliefs but to you it’s likely to be the pinnacle of philosophy (except for other people’s religions) and is a path to a truth yet to be fully discovered.

Is this a resolvable dilemma?

Thanks guys,

I too appreciate that this appreciation of the ‘wonder of it all’ is (dare I say) universal.


…you see it as “philosophical/religious and scientific” and I see it as “philosophical/scientific and religious”.

Good comment! It helps me express myself better. Indeed, I myself have (in this article) paired ‘religious’ with ‘philosophical’. A better way to express my thoughts, however, (and this is where your comment is so helpful!) is to say that ‘religion’ itself is on another kind of spectrum all together… For example, both you and Ken would be familiar with my problems with the word ‘religion’ anyway. I find ‘worldview’ a much more helpful term. It encompasses everything.
We’ve all got a ‘view of the world’ (hence ‘worldview’) which –among other things– includes (a) our view of ‘how it all works’ (science) as well as (b) our response to questions of value/meaning (philosophy). While athiests, for example, are proud to say they are ‘non-religious’, they cannot say (and neither can anyone else, of course) they don’t have a ‘worldview’. That’s not trying to trick anybody with words, it’s just a helpful way to work from common ground, etc.
So my ‘better-stated’ suggestion might look like this:

world…(philosophy and science)…view

make sense?


“While athiests, for example, are proud to say they are ‘non-religious’, they cannot say (and neither can anyone else, of course) they don’t have a ‘worldview’.” So true, and I imagine that no (or extremely few) would want to say that.

However, more importantly, that claim is made by many religious people about us! It is, of course, a silly form of attack.

Part of the problem (which doesn’t excuse those making this attack) is that “atheist” says exactly nothing about what one believes in. It’s actually quite an inappropriate term to use when discussing “worldview” because it says nothing about one’s “worldview” – except that it doesn’t accept an axiomatic god.

Thanks Ken,
Good stuff. Indeed words are important.
I’m curious, when do ‘many religious people’ claim that atheists “don’t have a worldview“? I’m not saying it never happens, but I’d be very interested in an example… I myself have never heard a ‘religious person’ say that, but have very often hear the differences in worldviews discussed – but that’s quite different to the accusation that someone has no worldview.
Very bizarre indeed. Logically, that statement is like saying someone doesn’t ‘view’ the ‘world’!

I don’;t know that this criticism is ever expressed using the word world view specifically. Reference is usually made to “no basis for morality” or “no basis for accepting a rational ordered universe.” In affect, attributing a world view with no content.

Perhaps I should replace “many” by “some” to be on the safe side as it is an offensive to claim such knowledge of someones else’s philosophy.

Could it be, also, that some religious folk may get the impression from scientific folk who hold an exclusively non-religious worldview, that the scientific worldview is somewhat neutral, lacking bias, due to the emphatic status often given to things called facts.

Yeah, that’s where things get real tricky, aye. Even ‘facts’ are ‘held’ differently by different people. Is that what you’re hinting at? Or am I mis-reading you?
It seems to me that what we call ‘facts’ are still interpretations of data. But, of course, (or maybe not after all!) ‘facts’ aren’t called facts unless there is at least perceived to be universal (or near-universal) agreement. And a really good question is how could we ever really speak of universal agreement!?
Reminds me of a ‘fact’ I’ve often heard: “All snowflakes have their own unique crystallisation pattern.” Really? Who’s checked!!??
Enough of all this post-modernist doubt being cast on our precious facts! I’m off to bed…
Pancakes in the morn…

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