Friday, April 25, 2008

NOMA

You may have heard the famous biblical story in Matthew 22:21. When Jesus was asked whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, he pointed to a coin and said Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. This was a trick question, and what Jesus gave was a trick answer. It could well be said that Jesus agreed that taxes should be paid, and that Israel belonged to God not the Romans. It would not be satisfactory both to the Jews nor the Romans.

The Jews had much doubt on Christianity because what they saw was not commensurate with the Old Testament's prophecy of the messiah; especially Israel was not saved from the Romans and the Jews continued to suffer. This situation went on for over two thousand years.

The first famous attempt of a logical explanation was by Aurelius Augustinus in about 400 AD. I read about him in the book A History of Knowledge last year. Augustinus, later St Augustine, wrote the book The City of God. He emphasized on the story of Caesar's tax and proposed the distinction of earthly wealth and heaven in two different cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Thus all the prophecies of the Old Testament could be said to be delivered in the City of God. St Augustine's thesis was the golden book of the Catholic church for many centuries. However, philosophers of all times were not satisfied with the explanation and the debate went on. When religion asked the faithful to prepare for the City of God, science could not find evidence of the City of God but consider the City of Man worthy of study.

A recent development of the debate was NOMA. I read about it in The God Delusion. It was a recent proposition by Stephen Gould who was a paleontologist. On the relationship between science and religion, he proposed that these two are on two non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). According to Gould, each "magisterium" occupies a separate realm of human understanding. NOMA principle is "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry."

It is interesting to note that the NOMA principle came from a scientist. In reality, many scientists are religious from their upbringing. The fact that their scientific knowledge constantly disproves their religious belief is hard to bear, bordering on schizophrenic. In plain language, NOMA provides a seemingly scientific answer to not answering the quest to expose the religion delusion. Richard Dawkins wrote a long passage on NOMA. Among his many arguments, there were two that I found worthy of mentioning. First, he did not agree that science would be unable and should not talk about ultimate meaning and moral value. These have been the subjects of research in many branches of scientific studies. Many answers to some extent were found but work was still going on. Second, what were the abilities of religious gurus in providing answers to the ultimate meaning and moral value? So far, we have only seen man-made doctrines and rituals claimed to have such effects but they in fact did not.

NOMA is an attempt to call a truce to the debate. This attempt is unnecessary as the debate goes both ways. Besides winning or losing in the war of words, the debate provides an on-going interest to the religion delusion for both sides. Any new scientific discovery could provide a moment of excitement of disproving a religious myth while religion would then drum up support and counter-arguments which could encourage more converts.

I think NOMA works in another way. If god is symbolic of the unknown, then he resides in all areas that science is still searching for an answer. When science approaches, god would exist in a higher level of unknown, which is another magisterium yet out of reach. As such, earthly logic and reasons in our magisterium do not apply, and all logical reasons on the existence of god or otherwise are futile. An almighty god could not be bound by the human magisterium of emotions such as love, hate, envy, anger, revenge, reward, punishment, forgiveness and pity, etc. Any attempt to ask, beg, pray, worship an idol for anything good or bad is useless because god is in a higher magisterium which would or would not overlap with ours.

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