ethics philosophy science theology

gould: science a natural venture

Here Gould threatens a ‘knuckle-rapping’ to both theists and atheists who would try to use science (in general) or the theory of evolution by natural selection (in particular) to butress their worldview.

People familiar with Gould will detect the scent of N.O.M.A. (Nonoverlapping Magesteria – don’t ask me why it’s not N.M. or N.O.M.) in this, but it still seems to make some good points…

“To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. If some of our crowd have made untoward statements claiming that Darwinism disproves God, then I will find Mrs. McInerney and have their knuckles rapped for it (as long as she can equally treat those members of our crowd who have argued that Darwinism must be God’s method of action). Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres (the moral realm, for example).

Forget philosophy for a moment; the simple empirics of the past hundred years should suffice. Darwin himself was agnostic (having lost his religious beliefs upon the tragic death of his favorite daughter), but the great American botanist Asa Gray, who favored natural selection and wrote a book entitled Darwiniana, was a devout Christian. Move forward 50 years: Charles D. Walcott, discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossils, was a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian, who believed that God had ordained natural selection to construct a history of life according to His plans and purposes. Move on another 50 years to the two greatest evolutionists of our generation: G. G. Simpson was a humanist agnostic. Theodosius Dobzhansky a believing Russian Orthodox. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism… (emphasis mine)

-S.J. Gould, “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge” (review of Phillip Johnson’s ‘Darwin on Trial’) found here.

6 replies on “gould: science a natural venture”

I agree that science can’t comment on things of another supernatural realm because it deals with the naturalistic realm. To me the conflict arrives more when religion comments on science ; )

Welcome back, Jack, ;)
It’s definitely both, isn’t it. I would actually want to say that when ‘science’ does seem to comment on religion (in terms of trying to rule out ‘another realm’ altogether, etc.), those who do it aren’t doing it as scientists per se, but are rather making a philosophical statement…

So, when are you going to join wordpress and start blogging? :)


I haven’t been away Dale – have been reading but just too busy to comment (150 school reports to write to end term) – school hols now for me so I can procrastinate and go bloggn to avoid marking and lesson prep : ). Thanks for the welcome though – your blog is by far the best at affirming folk! As for joining wordpress, well I am tempted because i enjoy writing but I dont imagine that I have much worth saying nor that anyone would read it, and I’d spend too much time on it. So for now, I’ll just keep visiting this little community…gee is that bad manners, going to everyone elses house to feed off their opinions and not having a place to return the hospitality??

Jack, your comment: “science can’t comment on things of another supernatural realm because it deals with the naturalistic realm” has the problem of definitions. It rules out the possibility of investigation in an area without defining that area. In practice today, scientists just don’t bother with those terms.

In the past things like lightning and thunder were considered supernatural (I can see why after recent storms). Consciousness, the working of the mind and the origins of life and the universe were similarly considered impossible for science to investigate. We’ve moved past that attitude.

So, if scientists were to be given such an imaginary rule book declaring the ‘supernatural’ out of bonds – how would it define or characterise the ‘supernatural’?

Gould’s attitude is not too uncommon amongst scientists involved in the political arena (such as the defense of science against the attacks of people like Phillip Johnson). I believe these arguments serve a political purpose and are, for that reason, opportunistic arguments.

Cheers Jack,
(if you’re reading this and not yet done marking, then get back to work!) :D
Nah, it’s good exchanging ideas. And no worries about not having a place to return the hospitality. Your input and questions are most helpful.
Take care,

“…if scientists were to be given such an imaginary rule book declaring the ’supernatural’ out of bonds – how would it define or characterise the ’supernatural’?”

Sure, Ken, but as you say scientists don’t worry about such things. They don’t need to ‘rule out’ a ‘supernatural’ category in order to get on with their observations, testing, etc.
For science – the idea of the supernatural poses NO threat (and yes, theists should NOT try and make it do so!).
And for theism – science poses no threat either (and atheists should not try and make it do so either… )

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