November 10, 2010

Susan Jacoby on the 'myth of separate magisteria' [science & religion]

Susan Jacoby, author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," has penned a piece for Big Questions Online in which she asks the question: Can—and should—science and religion avoid each other's turf.

Taking the late Stephen Jay Gould's to task on his description of the two disciplines as "non-overlapping magisteria," Jacoby wonders why so many intellectuals now pay obeisance to the "historically absurd idea of separate domains for science and religion."
...scientists use embryonic stem cells in research aimed at developing treatments for currently incurable scourges of the body. Some church leaders, primarily Roman Catholics and conservative American Protestants, are doing everything they can to impede the research because their faith tells them that a six-day-old embryo is the equivalent of a person — and that destroying the cells for scientific purposes is murder.

The biomedical researcher who wants to continue working with embryonic stem cells is making a moral as well as a scientific judgment, and the cleric is making a judgment that constrains science. The domains have overlapped since science first began making discoveries that could promote, or, for that matter, threaten human welfare. When Dr. Edward Jenner developed an early form of vaccination against smallpox in 1796, many orthodox Christians — the most notable of whom was Yale’s president, the Rev. Timothy Dwight — considered vaccination an intrusion on God’s plan, which supposedly required the ancient killer disease.
Citing Sam Harris's recent book, "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values," she lauds the recent insights brought forth by the neurosciences, and suggests that we should reject both religious notions of revealed truth and the secular veneration of moral relativism. Instead, argues Jacoby, we should look to science which has a crucial role to play in assessing moral values according to their observable earthly consequences:
Numerous social science studies have shown, for example, that countries where women are forbidden to educate themselves, earn a living, or control their sexual lives are the poorest societies on earth by any objective measure of well-being — from health to poverty rates. How, then, can it be morally sound — regardless of whether people believe they are doing the will of God — to subjugate women?

In this instance, the cop-out for the separate magisteria establishment is that religions restricting the freedom of women must be “false.” Those who uphold the notion of separate domains want domain over values for their religion — not all religion.

Neuroscience raises a red flag because it attempts to explain human behavior by studying the physical brain rather than by evoking the existence of a independent, non-physical soul. The idea that humans may not possess free will in the religious or secular senses — at least not to the degree we would like — is as threatening to our sense of human specialness today as Darwin’s theory of evolution was in his time.
Read more.


ZarPaulus said...

The only thing that's special about humans is that we are capable of destroying the entire ecosystem. Anything else is just being egotistical.

ribock said...

@ZarPaulus That's a ridiculous remark. Humanity is the only organism with the ability and will to preserve ecosystems.