Rocks of Ages: The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister
Rocks of Ages: The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister

"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Stephen Jay Gould, "Rocks of Ages. --The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox"

Jan 1, 2004

It seems a good idea to distinguish science and religion as two separate, mutually non-interfering teaching authorities. Popular science writer Stephan Jay Gould (1941-2002) suggested this approach in a 1997 article for Natural History Magazine. He later expanded the idea in his book Rocks of Ages:

The first commandment for all versions of NOMA [Non-Overlapping Magisteria] might be summarized by stating: "Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science.

He went on:

NOMA does impose this "limitation" on concepts of God, just as NOMA places equally strong restrictions upon the imperialistic aims of many scientists (particularly in suppressing claims for possession of moral truth based on superior understanding of factual truth in any subject).

So the magisterium of science does, in fact, impose limits on the magisterium of religion, and vice versa. And if these two magisteria are to succeed in avoiding conflict, more than tolerance will clearly be required. Participants in the two teaching authorities will have to be possessed of truly penetrating intelligence to grasp the subtle reasons why they must live within limits imposed from a realm outside their own sphere of knowledge and scholarly attention.

In a thoughtful review of Rocks of Ages, Ursula Goodenough points out that religions base their teachings on stories of cosmological dimension. These stories are inevitably miracle-based -- reporting events "knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science." And we know that meaning and ethics are both rooted in stories, as the many interviews recounted in Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart reveal. Although not all meaning-bearing stories are based on miracles, most religious stories are, the majority of them long antedating the rise of science. Ultimately, the quest for meaning, Goodenough says, generates "why" questions that can't be answered by science. "In the end, a system of ultimate meaning involves personal beliefs and can therefore harbor whatever level of irrationality is needed."

The boundaries between religion and science are, as Goodenough notes, "permeable." Thus Gould's NOMA leaves us not much farther along in the effort to distinguish between the authority of those who teach what is known and the authority of those who teach what to believe. A serious attempt to come to grips with the limits of their respective magisteria, however, may teach both scientists and theologians a proper humility.

Gould liked his idea of non-conflicting magisteria, and toward the end of his life he applied it to the struggle between science and the humanities in a book-length essay, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities. The title is baroque. Why he used it and what he means, Gould explains early in the book. However, it is not only his title that is baroque. Gould’s prose style, which he developed over the years writing monthly essays for Natural History Magazine, is also baroque and, in this book at least, difficult to understand. Like a baroque architect in the habit of carving deep curves into the sharp angles of classical style and juxtaposing massive curlicued forms to ascending verticals, Gould loved, in his Natural History essays, to digress, to pursue antiquarian curiosities, to weave in endless anecdotes. The serious reader is challenged to discern the lines of his argument as the central thread of a complex and learned tapestry. This sort of writing, while demanding alertness from readers, also allowed Gould to give a curious and interesting historical dimension to his explanations of evolution for the layman. Gould tried to entertain both himself and his readers by making his evolutionary points in the midst of an endless variety of corruscating detail.

However, in spite of problems of style, the subject is important: the dichotomy between science and the humanities. The immediate context is E. O. Wilson’s Consilience, which Gould disputes. Wilson tries to create a unity between science and the humanities and in effect, says Gould, reduces the humanities to science. Gould, on the other hand, insists that "these two great endeavors of our soul and intellect work in different ways and cannot be morphed into one simple coherence":

I want the sciences and humanities to become the greatest of pals, to recognize a deep kinship and necessary connection in pursuit of human decency and achievement, but to keep their ineluctably different aims and logics separate as they ply their joint projects and learn from each other.

He sets out to show how they came to differ -- a historical matter, intellectual history being Gould's favorite playground.

The scientific revolution, says Gould, was not so much a revolution as a continuity; but we have difficulty grasping the continuity because science is not yet fully integrated into the humanistic, aesthetic, ethical, and theological fabric of our lives. The rebirth of learning that occurred during the Renaissance focused on the need to preserve past works, rather than on a quest for new knowledge. Renaissance writers were concerned that the body of knowledge inherited from the past be transmitted in its completeness. They were not particularly interested in what scientists were interested in: the separation of fact from fiction. Early scientists, meanwhile, were interested in observing phenomena, not in cataloguing ancient texts about these phenomena. Still, there was no simple opposition between humanists and scientists. Scientists made their observations while perched on the shoulders of the giants of the past, and humanists in some way promoted the advancement of science. The real dichotomy came later.

The anti-clericalism of the nineteenth century insinuated a dichotomy between science and religion by suggesting, for instance, that Columbus needed to prove the earth was round against a chorus of flat-earth clerics. Of course the clergy had always known that the earth was round. They argued, in fact, that the earth was bigger around than Columbus calculated, and they were right. Gould goes on to say that Galileo's problem was his own hotheadedness and that most modern theologians accept evolution. Coming back to the humanities, Gould pretty much dismisses C. P. Snow's famous "two cultures"as a local English phenomenon that sprang from the snooty Oxbridge tradition.

Gould's most interesting and valuable contribution to the dispute between science and the humanities is his extended defense of the insights of post-modern social scientists. He indicts scientists for failing to be sufficiently aware that they are embedded in society. "Most scientists," he says, "actually believe their own cant, trusting that the 'scientific method' frees them from strictures of unconscious preferences for certain social outcomes, cognitive styles, or psychological stances." The social sciences and the humanities, he argues, make their contribution to the sciences right here:

Just as vigilance becomes the eternal price of liberty in our political slogans, so too must rigorous self-scrutiny represent the cost of fairness and maximal objectivity in scientific research. And we scientists can best appreciate both the general principle itself, and the major snares of specific biases, by reading and respecting our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, the main disciplinary "homes" for study of this ineluctable human side to all forms and styles of inquiry.

Ultimately, argues Gould, there is no reason for a contest between science and the humanities; nor is there any reason to violate the integrity of each in the name of unity. Unity will arise not from any systematic integration of one into the other but from a sense of shared humanity. Both scientists and humanists have something to learn from each other, and in the process must transcend their respective jargons, becoming familiar with another form of intellectual discourse yielding new kinds of insights.

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