April 11, 2007

Benedict, NOMA and Gaps

The Pope’s views on evolution and creation were revealed today:

Pope Benedict, elaborating his views on evolution for the first time as Pontiff, says science has narrowed the way life’s origins are understood and Christians should take a broader approach to the question.

The article goes on to say that the Pope’s view is that science and religion need not conflict. This is a view that some scientists hold. It was the opinion of Stephen Jay Gould, for example. And it’s a position I long held, even after I dropped my theist beliefs. The concept was described by Gould as “NOMA” - nonoverlapping magisteria.

From Gould:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.
This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border.

Pope Benedict’s thoughts also include a swipe at the strength of our scientific understanding of evolution. He criticises it for being not completely provable because it cannot be reproduced in a laboratory. The Gould article I referenced covers this subject as well, and I would characterize Benedict’s statements as a step backwards to Pius XII’s admonition against adopting evolution as “a certain, proven doctrine”. Since the 1950 Humani Generis encyclical of Pius, Pope John Paul’s words in 1996 had recognized that evolution was supported not by a laboratory proof, but by the years of growing data which both refined and strengthened the theory.

So, to me it seems Benedict is leaning backwards here, at least to the 1950’s. I don’t find that to be much of a surprise with Benedict. And though it would be mostly Catholics who care about the Pope’s views, his voice as a world figure does carry.

NOMA can be seen as a fairly friendly view - that science and religion exist in separate worlds. Gould liked that it allowed respectful discourse.

The space of this post is too brief for me to launch into a full analysis of my opinion on NOMA, and I need to think on Gould’s article a while longer. I think evolution, as we understand it, provides such a compelling explanation of how the universe can produce complexity that it puts NOMA on shaky ground.

Benedict acknowledges a conflict between science and religion when he mentions the “god of the gaps” — the idea that as science expands, “God” as an explanation for the existence of the universe fits into smaller and smaller gaps. I should like to see his full comments, but it seems to me he has a very thin line to walk. “I would not depend on faith alone to explain the whole picture.” is meaninglessly obvious out of context. Would a biologist get very far if he replaced his scientific understanding with faith alone? I’ve never heard anyone even consider it.

I don’t know if it’s intentional, but the guy is also using words that misrepresent science and evolution in ways that creationists have done. For example:

Benedict argued that evolution had a rationality that the theory of purely random selection could not explain.

“The process itself is rational despite the mistakes and confusion as it goes through a narrow corridor choosing a few positive mutations and using low probability,” he said.

“This … inevitably leads to a question that goes beyond science … where did this rationality come from?” he asked. Answering his own question, he said it came from the “creative reason” of God.

I want to know whether he actually talked about “purely random selection” or whether this is a misinterpretation in reporting the story. Natural selection is anything but random. That’s the point of evolution by natural selection, as a principle. The universe has evolving phenomena because there is a natural process by which certain successful forms thrive while others do not. And repeated application of many small instances of this process (and some large ones, according to punctuated equilibrium) produce astonishing complexity.

With that last statement Benedict has hit on exactly why many people go from theist to atheist when they understand natural selection. If a creative choice were necessary many might find a need in that for an external actor — a creative force — to guide that moment and to explain evolution. But the fact is, and this has even been seen in the laboratory, the only thing you must accept for evolution by natural selection to make sense at that “creative” moment is that small differences result in survival vs. extinction. It is not a creative choice that affects survival, but simply a difference in advantages. No creative choice is made when the microorganism that cannot move quickly has less success feeding itself and eventually is crowded out.

I am actually puzzled at why Benedict focuses on that moment he calls a choice as being the mystical part of the process. Because, of course, variation is also needed. But the means by which variations occur is also explained quite well and does not need a creative force to be assumed.

In any case, though Benedict denies “the god of the gaps” — the moment of natural selection seems like an awfully small gap to hang one’s hat on… or stuff one’s hat into.

[Edited: added missing link to Pope article]

Posted by James at April 11, 2007 8:40 AM
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I think I've found the article you're quoting from (I didn't see it linked in your essay). I originally searched for the text of the Pope's sermon. I thought "how hard would it be to find the text of the pope's sermons? I'll just go to the pope's website." Ha. It's a tangle. (But there's no reason we'd want to provide any information on that site or make it clear....) Mumbo jumbo, mumbo jumbo...

The article has this quote:
“Both popular and scientific texts about evolution often say that ‘nature’ or ‘evolution’ has done this or that,” Benedict said.

“Just who is this ‘nature’ or ‘evolution’ as (an active) subject? It doesn’t exist at all!” the Pope said.

The Pope makes the mistake of ascribing human characteristics to a process. Replication of DNA looks really intelligent until you understand how the process works. Evolution can be modeled in a computer simulation. Heck, there are some amazing chemical processes. There were once cultures that used a god to explain fire. They don't need to be anthropomorphized to be explained, however.

The Pope also commits the sin of not understanding large numbers, which you describe but you don't make him wear the big scarlet #, as I would. He doesn't seem to get that evolution is small random changes over a huge period of time.

I know we don't have the full context, but I think the Pope's remarks are simply incredibly naive. I don't see how he can make arguments without addressing the elephants in the room. The Pope never explains how something as rational as God himself could exist, yet he uses God as an argument to explain the rationality of the universe. That counter-argument has been around forever, and I've never seen an answer. God isn't an answer, he's simply a bigger question.

Posted by: Maggie at April 11, 2007 12:20 PM

I found them:

But there's nothing more recent than April 7.

Posted by: Maggie at April 11, 2007 12:34 PM

OK - I've gone back and added the link to the article. It's a Reuters areticle, but the link is to Scotsman.com:


Yes, I thought there was a lot to pick on, and I just focused on one aspect. You're correct, we have problems understanding the implications of big numbers and the accumulation of changes. Evolution is very much a cumulative phenomenon.

The Pope only needs to make an announcement that connects with enough people. As the gaps get smaller, NOMA gets less and less friendly, I think.

Discussions can remain respectful, but to be of any use they have to be honest. And, to be honest, I don't think you can claim to understand natural selection and say that there is a creative force making that selection.

Posted by: James at April 11, 2007 12:47 PM

Actually, re-reading the Popequote that I have above:

“Just who is this ‘nature’ or ‘evolution’ as (an active) subject? It doesn’t exist at all!” the Pope said.

That's really funny. We can see nature. We have evidence of evolution. His argument is that "nature" and "evolution" don't exist, so the answer must be god!!

Posted by: Maggie at April 11, 2007 12:49 PM

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