NOMA: Subscribe or Unsubscribe

NOMA stands for “Non-overlapping magisteria”. It is the belief that there are categories of truth that have completely different and incompatible methodologies for research and identification of truthful elements within them.

In his talk Testimony, Dallin H. Oaks mentions the following:

What do we mean when we testify and say that we know the gospel is true? Contrast that kind of knowledge with “I know it is cold outside” or “I know I love my wife.” These are three different kinds of knowledge, each learned in a different way. Knowledge of outside temperature can be verified by scientific proof. Knowledge that we love our spouse is personal and subjective. While not capable of scientific proof, it is still important. The idea that all important knowledge is based on scientific evidence is simply untrue.

Though he does not use the term “Non-overlapping magisteria” or NOMA, I believe this statement implies quite well that Dallin H. Oaks (and as an apostle, by extension, all of us) should and do subscribe to the idea that scientific truth and spiritual truth are two separate categories of truth that function quite differently.

Religiosity and NOMA

NOMA is one of those things that either you subscribe to or you don’t. Often religious people (unfairly) will only partially subscribe to NOMA: if something scientific seems to confirm, corroborate or support their beliefs in any remote way, they will rush to share it on Facebook, in testimony meeting and with all of their religious friends (but strangely not with anyone scientific…), but if something scientific seems to oppose their religious beliefs, they will simply ignore it, or worse, call it “just a theory”.

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One cannot just reasonably use the elements of science that they like while ignoring the rest. That’s akin to those members who pick and choose which commandments they’re going to obey — the commandments come together in a set, a package, take the whole package or leave it. Take science or leave it, and I’d suggest if you take it take it with a pinch of NOMA for sanity 🙂

NOMA works both ways

We often seem to think that spiritual beliefs are the most important types of truth, almost like an “alpha-truth” — a type that overrides and takes priority over other types of truth.

In principle I have to disagree with this idea. There’s no such thing as “higher level” truth. Something that is true is true! Why would it need to be prioritised or positioned above other truth?? Truth is self-corresponding. It is harmonious with itself. Just because we don’t know the relationships  between two elements of truth doesn’t mean that a very good explanation doesn’t exist, we just haven’t discovered it yet. The other important point is that our models of truth are continually being refined, AOF 9 says “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” — this statement implies that we do not have the whole picture, and pieces of it will continue to come over time. (The church is not the be all and end all of truth, even the propehts and apostles are open to receiving further knowledge and even doctrine that we’ve not thought of before).

In any case, as religious people we breach NOMA at our own peril. The moment we abandon NOMA and stick the feet of religion on science’s turf, science can do the same thing back — and that it does, and harshly.

This is exactly what is done in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In this book professor Dawkins explains very very rationally that the question of the existence of God is not in principle beyond the reach of science to investigate. And that using scientific understanding, evidence and reasoning one can put forth a very convincing argument about the probability of the existence of God (Based on scientific evidence alone — apparently it’s about as probable as the existence of fairies or unicorns).

After reading his book, some of its critiques, and various other literature, I have to admit that from a scientific and highly rational perspective alone a belief in God does seem to be reasonable. There is plenty of reason to disbelieve. That’s why we have to sit down once and for all and embrace NOMA both ways (as I believe is implied in the Dallin H Oaks statement above).

There will always be some intersection

Naturally if we embrace NOMA there will still always be some intersection, even if there’s not full-on overlap, between science and religion.

For one, the Bible is a book that claims certain historical significance. Much of the content of the Bible can and is evaluated on a historical level. Organisations like FARMS (Now FairMormon I think) and famous characters like Hugh Nibley work within this intersection. They put in scientific effort to understand things like the historicity and geography of the Book of Mormon. Referring to my earlier statement about “alpha-truth”, I don’t believe these men do place spiritual truth on a higher pedestal than scientific truth per se, they merely list their spiritual beliefs as an assumption and move on from there. Something like: “Assuming the Book of Mormon is true, because we all believe that, let’s go look for the archaeological proof”. Just because something is listed as a premise or assumption doesn’t mean it’s an “alpha-truth”, it just means you have to start your research and arguments from somewhere so you define where that is through listing assumptions.

Scientism

Scientism is the belief that all truth can somehow be derived from the scientific method. When it comes to “how things are” and “how they got this way” (and not “how they ought to be”) in principle I don’t actually disagree with that. In practice it’s far far from working out that way. We are just too limited in our understandings of science and our technology.

Technically there’s nothing wrong with scientism, so long as we acknowledge how way off we are from answering certain questions. For example, can science prove there is a God? Absolutely yes! If we had access to him we could study Him. The Mormon perspective is that God has a body of flesh and bones. That is scientifically verifiable — if we had access to a resurrected and exalted body like that we could run certain experiments: check the veins, is there blood in there? What are the dimensions of the third right foot toe’s toenail?

We need to distinguish between science and scientists. Science is an abstract concept — a methodology for finding explanations about reality. Scientists are people who use this method. None of them do it perfectly, but they’re pretty good. Science CAN prove anything in principle (I think), but in practice it’s unlikely it will. Just like we can differentiate between sin and sinner, so science and scientists are  quite different things. (Perhaps I should have used “love” and “lover” instead of comparing sin to science? 🙂 )

These are questions that in principle science can answer, but in practice it never will.

The Nephites reportedly touched the nail-prints in the Saviour’s hands — they felt with their own hands the holes in his. That sounds like something scientific and scientifically verifiable to me. In fact Thomas had to see for himself before he believed. These are people who had more than just a spiritual witness, they had a physical witness as well.

Conclusion: Indefinitely subscribed, out of practicality

I am not certain that there even is such a thing as spiritual truth. There certainly is such a thing as subjective truth (I love my wife). In principle I can’t see why it shouldn’t be the case that there is spiritual truth. At this present time in my life I do believe there is spiritual truth, and I do believe we can acquire it through the Holy Ghost.

AND as a result of that belief — I subscribe to the idea of NOMA.

  • Not because I don’t believe science is not capable in principle of answering all questions of “what” and “how” (ultimately capable; for instance the example above about God’s existence)
  • Unsubscribing from NOMA at this point in time with our limited science is an asymmetrical two edged sword. It does offer very limited support of a belief in God, but a lot of evidence against it. It harms faith much more than it helps, at this point in time. As is explained in this video, let’s leave science to the scientists, and respect it, and search for spiritual answers in other ways.
  • There are questions of “ought” that are well beyond the reach and scope of science. Science doesn’t tell you how you should live life, though it can tell you somewhat of what principles lead to survival, flourishing human race, etc.

However I don’t take that to be an abandonment of rationality. “Mind and heart”. — logic, reason and rationality shouldn’t be abandoned.

6 Comments

  1. Robert

    I don’t know why I’m replying to this and not any previous posts. I certainly have a lot more to say about other posts. Perhaps it is just that I have time more easily accessible and wish to contribute something?…

    Anyway, I completely agree with your thoughts on scientism! Very well said! Another issue which could be discussed further is the materialist ontology implicit in scientific thought, which I think would need to be analysed before we can say that science in principle can study anything (also, you know I am not keen on the word ‘prove’, but I understand how you use it here).

    These were my brief thoughts this morning here 🙂

    Reply
  2. shawn (Post author)

    Hey Bob, thanks for stopping by 🙂

    Yes, I think it has to do with time.

    Actually I’ve updated the conclusion of this article,. I feel it was badly written before because I was rushing through it, please feel free to re-read.

    Agreed with “prove”, shall we redefine “proof” to mean making it beyond reasonable doubt for most humans or something? 🙂

    Reply
    1. robert

      Did you also change from ‘do not’ to ‘do’ in the conclusion?

      I like this point in your conclusion especially: “There are questions of “ought” that are well beyond the reach and scope of science. Science doesn’t tell you how you should live life, though it can tell you somewhat of what principles lead to survival, flourishing human race, etc.” Science can tell us how to help humans to great effect, but not WHY that should be important…which once again goes back to my question on that train station in Oslo.

      hmm, still not sure if I agree with that statement either, though I think it is better than ‘proof’. Why only for ‘most humans’, why not all? Of course the issue with ‘all humans’ is that not all people do accept. Then there is needed an explanation of why not all people accept if the claim and argument is beyond reasonable doubt for most people; what’s up with the others?. What people tend to do in such circumstances is remove ‘most’ and add ‘intelligent’. This has been done by both by theists and atheists. I think I personally prefer words such as strong evidence, support, argumentation. And ‘strong evidence’ can be strong when it is based on premises which both sides agree on. Any thoughts?

      Reply
      1. shawn (Post author)

        I prefer your terminology. “strong evidence” “supports” “suggests strongly” etc. Then we linguistically move the discussion to the evidence not the people analysing the evidence, notwithstanding the fact that the people analysing it are ACTUALLY the subjects (agents) of the story.

        Yes, I do believe there is spiritual truth, that doesn’t mean I’m absolutely sure.

        Reply
        1. robert

          Then we agree on the terminology 🙂 I’m always so grateful to life when other people agree with what I say because sometimes I worry that it only makes sense inside the walls of my brain 😛

          It does make me happy that you believe (but are far from certain) that spiritual truth exists 🙂 But again, I will be your friend no matter what you choose to believe 🙂

          Reply
  3. Pingback: Is spiritual truth simply different? | Shawn's Odyssey

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