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George Ellis and NOMA  @psychohistorian.org

George Ellis and NOMA

posted: 4264 days ago, on Friday, 2006 Jun 23 at 21:29
tags: atheism, science and religion.

I am deeply suspicious of the motives of folk who claim, as did the late Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) i.e. that each rules over its own domain and as such cannot be in conflict.

Recent Templeton Foundation prize winner Prof George Ellis (Applied Mathematics, UCT) has elaborated on this in his lucid essay "Science and Religion: A personal view of their relation", which is available from the Stellenbosch Sentraal NG Church website. Other writings by Ellis can be found on his UCT homepage; what follows is my reaction to his essay.

Ellis describes NOMA as the point of view that:

"The major areas of concern of science and religion are separate, and in the main no conflict arises between them: science dealing with 'how' and religion with 'why'; science with what is, and religion with what ought to be."

The "science and religion are not in conflict" idea sounds very reasonable, at first blush. For a long time it was my working model of how things are. But after thinking harder, I find myself disagreeing sharply.

Taking Ellis' formulation as a starting point:

  1. I agree that science deals with the "how" questions, but I find it hard to grasp the usefulness of the "why" questions. Just because a sentence can be constructed that obeys the laws of syntax does not imply the sentence makes any sense. All too often (always?) "why" questions are proxies, symptomatic of a so-called deeper search for "meaning", which is blithely assumed to exist. It is significant that people who ask these questions almost always look for it outside of themselves.
  2. I agree with the idea that science deals "with what is", and also that it would be useful if there were guidelines for "what ought to be". But I am amazed at the leap of logic that one should therefore look to religion for the guidelines. Why on Earth look to religion, and not, say, philosophy?

Throughout his essay, Ellis makes much of hope (and faith), which he contrasts against rationality. This is, I think, the key to understanding his motivation, why he is deeply concerned about the struggle between science and religion he is battling with a problem that is largely of his own creation. And being a highly intelligent chap, it is a worthy problem, namely, invoking the supernatural. He makes (I can only assume) the positive claim that the supernatural exists, and then proceeds to tackle the bugbears it engenders.

Whilst I agree with him that the natural world exists, I see utterly no reason to think the supernatural realm exists other than in the beliefs and hopes of the human mind. I wonder what the reasons are why Ellis believes in both the natural and the supernatural. The god-concept is redundant, simply having zero explanatory power.

Ellis points out that "metaphysical uncertainty is inevitable in terms of ascertaining the underlying nature of reality, as pointed out by Immanuel Kant, and so in order to have some philosophical position to live by, we need to make choices concerning our metaphysical worldviews that cannot be proven to be right."

There are reasons why individuals make the choices they do when building their world view. These reasons have nothing to do with a putative supernatural realm, but are determined by psychological mechanisms, influenced by sociological climate and perhaps biased by biological vectors. (Check out the PBS questionnaire if you're interested in world views).

In closing, Ellis brings more to the table than is necessary, and gets lost in the tangle of "meaning", "purpose" and "soul" by begging the existence of the supernatural and disregarding human psychology .


Ellis misrepresents atheism when he writes: "[it] is a religion just as much as say Christianity, as it is an unprovable belief system claiming to clarify the meaning of life." While for some, atheism is indeed "believing that gods don't exist" (and could therefore very well be a "religion"), for others myself included atheism is simply "being without beliefs in the existence of gods". I spend about equal amounts of energy not believing in gods as I do in not believing in other similar superstitions, the Easter Bunny, flying saucers, vampires, and on and on.


  1. Wikipedia: Stephen Jay Gould
  2. Essay: Gould on NOMA
  3. Wikipedia: George Ellis
  4. Homepage: George Ellis
  5. Essay: Ellis on "Science and Religion"
  6. Ellis' Templeton Prize announcement

nothing more to see. please move along.

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