Substance and shadow

In one of Aesop’s fables the story is told of a dog carrying a piece of meat in its mouth on its journey home. Upon seeing its own reflection as it crosses over a brook, the dog thinks he is seeing another dog with a piece of meat and makes up his mind to have that also. Snapping at the reflection, the dog drops the piece of meat in the water and ends up with none. From this story, Aesop stresses the useful lesson that we should “beware lest we lose the substance by grasping at the shadow“.
A similar warning should be given when students study different scientific and religious understandings of the formation (or creation) of the universe and the story of human development.
Religious responses to intelligent design and irreducible complexity are mentioned specifically in the OCR syllabus, while Edexcel place a stress on the methodologies of science and religion. AQA are more specific in explicitly questioning the implications of scientific understandings for a belief in God, but for all three boards, the substance of the topic seems to be the way in which science and religion approach questions concerning the beginnings and development of the universe, and understandings of evolution.
The shadow, and, hopefully this debate produces enough light (rather than just heat) to cast a shadow, is questions concerning the existence of God. It is important to stress that looking at the topic this way round might be a more fruitful way of entering a debate which has witnessed a polarisation of views, at least through the media’s presentation, particularly since 9/11.
My students are not normally reticent to tell me their views on the existence of God, which can shape their subsequent willingness to study the arguments with any philosophical objectivity, especially if they stand firmly on one side or other of the God question. I do not think it is the job of the Philosophy of Religion teacher to attempt to change the views of students but rather get them to work through, in good Socratic tradition, where the evidence of their own argument leads – though, of course, in that process their views might change.
However, approaching this area of the exam specifications through the lens of immutable pre-formed standpoints, which are not open to philosophy’s critical and reflective penetration, does two things: it fails to adequately pay heed to the syllabuses, which, as noted, ask students to study how the religious and scientific arguments are formed (ie how they arrive at their conclusions, rather than how they work from their conclusions forward), and, secondly, paints the arguments from science and religion as if they are single, neatly packaged entities, which, of course, they are not. The latter is partly the fault of the public presentations of the arguments in recent years, which have often lacked subtlety and nuance.
And so, how can we best approach this topic? And, as teachers, because the syllabus should always be our guide rather than a straitjacket, what is at stake in this important area? The following suggests one way in which an engaged and respectful approach is encouraged, and which may act as a doorway into this area, though it is an approach that is not without its limitations (as discussed through the work of Keith Ward).
A fruitful way in to the study of science and religion, the work of the wonderfully lucid scientist and prolific writer, the late Stephen Jay Gould, is taken as a starting point, then a way in to the dispassionate study of different scientific and religious approaches is given, though not everyone agrees with his approach. Although not on any syllabus, Gould’s principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) – where science and religion work within different frameworks, use separate styles of enquiry and have different, and non-overlapping criteria for resolution – enables students to analyse each area within what could be called its own “context of understanding”. Gould notes that “our preferences for synthesis and unification often prevent us from recognising that many crucial problems in our complex lives find better resolution under the opposite strategy of principled and respectful separation”.  As opposed to Daniel Dennett, who argues that once the evolutionary story is taken on board, the whole human story is told, Gould argues that “no single magisterium can come close to encompassing all the troubling issues raised by any complex subject, especially one so rich as the meaning of our relationship with other forms of life”.
Gould becomes critical of the disciplines when they cross over from their turf, and calls Creationism a “distinctly American violation of NOMA”. Indeed, Gould does not see a day when the two enterprises could be synthesised, so that nature becomes infused with a “knowable factuality of godliness” or that religion becomes so logically invincible that atheism becomes redundant. Thus, starting with a respect for the different magisteria actually gives more opportunity for students to not only put the current issues in some historical context, but understand and explore how we can move forward in our search for meaning, aided by philosophical enquiry. Perhaps here, through Gould, we come across what is really at stake in this issue. Firstly, both magisteria are on a quest, a search for wisdom, this wisdom pertaining to the unravelling of the whole of life’s mysteries. Such a search deserves unprejudiced enquiry from students.
However, the accompanying issue also at stake, for Gould, is that such a search must be carried out retaining the integrity of each magisterium, and this is important if we take NOMA as a way in to begin the search for wisdom. We respect neither magisteria well when we expect it to offer answers to questions it really is not set up to deal with, and when it crosses over into areas outside its conceptual framework. Gould writes thus: “if your particular form of religion demands that a belief that the Earth can only be about ten thousand years old (because you choose to read Genesis as a literal text, whatever such a claim might mean), then you have tried to impose a dogmatic and idiosyncratic reading of a text upon a factual issue lying within the magisterium of science”.
But we have to be careful here. As noted above, this “creation in six days” versus the “Big Bang and evolution” model does not fall along straight religion vs. science lines, though many students think that there is such a neat divide. Gould notes that not only is this debate, as far as Western Christianity is concerned, as “American as apple pie and Uncle Sam”, it is too simplistic and inaccurate to label the young earth creationists as representing “all those belonging to religion” on one side and those advocating a universe that is between 13 and 15 billion years old as atheistic in outlook on the other.
We should teach these subtleties at an earlier stage than A level. The results could be fruitful as, by doing this, we could not only dispel ill-informed but stubborn ideas many students hold that most Christians believe that the creation took place over six literal days, but open up meaningful space to analyse and discuss what is meant by “myth”. Perhaps further fruitful space could be given to the idea that Darwin, though used by both atheist and theist alike, expressly stood back from making any theistic conclusions following the discovery of natural selection, being more influenced in matters of faith by the loss of his beloved daughter. Gould notes that, for Darwin, “the causes of life’s history could not resolve the riddle of life’s meaning”.
So, to recap: the NOMA model given by Gould might allow us to encourage the student to study this particular topic with appreciative respect for what each magisterium is attempting to do, rather than start with pre-formed conclusions and have those hamper the student’s genuine philosophical enquiry. Within that model, preliminary findings uncover that the science religion divide is portrayed in a manner that is not true to how things are within the respective communities of religion and science.
If Aesop reminds us that the task is to look for substance rather than shadow, then the study of the issues at stake could be aided by Gould’s NOMA approach. How far can Gould’s NOMA approach take us? As noted earlier, not everyone agrees with Gould’s approach. One crucial crossover of the NOMA is proposed by some theists who would not agree with Gould that what happens in evolution offers no possibility of theistic conclusions; Gould, with Darwin, holds that nature is amoral. However, Keith Ward, surveying the ground of those who argue for a purposeful evolution, quotes Darwin, who noted: “I cannot persuade myself that electricity acts, that the tree grows, that man aspires to the loftiest conceptions, all from blind, brute force.”
Ward notes that many theists propose that God puts the laws of nature in place, which, according to Conway Morris, makes the existence of intelligent life, through the evolutionary process, “virtually inevitable”. This view places a “faith framework”, or points towards putting some “bigger picture” upon factual scientific discovery and thus begins, at the very least, to blur the magisterial boundaries. But such a move might possibly be allowed if we simply leave God, posited by faith rather than empiricism, as some kind of distant first cause or even as an Aristotelian Prime Mover to whom all creation is attracted as it fulfils its telos. It could even be that we start to view the term nature as worthy of being expressed as Nature, as some think Einstein viewed a system that contained staggeringly simple but complex physical laws.
However, all of these views, to whatever extent Gould might possibly be able to accommodate them, posit a God who sits back having done his job of putting the physical laws in place. What is further explored in the examination syllabuses are theories of a more interventionist God, proposed through the theory of intelligent design. Gould would, of course, shout foul at this point, because although many supporters of intelligent design do accept evolution, they argue that there are examples of certain organisms that could not form within a Darwinian, stage-by-stage incremental model. Michael Behe writes at length about the bacterial flagellum, each internal part of which requires the other to be present for the whole to be able to function. Because of this interdependency of concurrent parts, the flagellum is given as an example of “irreducible complexity”, which could not come about through the Darwinian model. God is therefore posited as the causal and intelligent interventionist design factor.
And here we begin to move from the substance, ie, the scientific theories themselves at the heart of the specifications, to the e(E?)lephant in the shadows. It is necessary here to take this development step by step. Whilst, on purely scientific grounds, many such as Miller and Dunkleberg have argued that the flagellum motor has functions to perform at each stage of its development and does not have to have all its “final” parts concurrently present to perform such, Ward notes that many object to ID for theological rather than scientific grounds. He writes that “many biologists … find it implausible to introduce a Designer at specific stages in evolution, a being who will construct a complex organism by direct manipulation of available material, when the Designer leaves untouched all the generic malfunctions and deformities that occur in evolution”. And not only does this bring into question the nature of a God who would do this, but ID posits a “God of the gaps” who will soon be squeezed out when those working within the field of evolutionary biology discover the steps by which complex organisms form.
What Ward is far more interested in is some kind of Grand Principle of Purposeful Evolution (my term, not his), wherein God is not proposed as some kind of interventionist mechanic. Rather, “if there is a God, the evolutionary process will be efficiently designed to produce an intended result”. Laudably attempting to frame his approach in a way that stays true to both scientific and philosophical notation, Ward, whilst rejecting specific intervention, writes: “I think there is force in the argument that the existence of an Intelligent Designer who could ensure that intelligent life would come to exist would make the process much less improbable that if the process happened ‘by chance’. A hypothesis that makes a process much more probable must be rated as a probable hypothesis, given the available evidence. So, the evolution of intelligent life makes the hypothesis of an Intelligent Designer probable.”
Of course, Ward notes that to be more certain on this idea we would need to compare a universe which we know to be without God’s design with one that we knew did have. Here Gould would reply then that any faith conclusions from scientific facts are invalid either way and Ward’s conclusions violate the NOMA principle. Ward is aware of this, and specifically addresses this point when he notes that inherent to the idea of a God is the attribute of that of a Creator, the ultimate cause of everything. Such a God, stresses Ward, would be expected to make a difference to how things are, and, in that process, bridge any NOMAtic divide. What we might have come across here are attempts at Grand Unifying Theories (GUT), the holy grail of the scientific community, in both the work of Gould and that of Ward.
Gould, inadvertently, may have set up a paradigm of his own that overarches both magisteria, so that his suggestion that science and religion should remain non-overlapping is, in fact, a new magisterium, with its own rules.  Ward posits a different type of GUT, a (theological) Grand Unifying Theory in which he is keen to stress that any account of Ultimate Reality must take into consideration irreducible facts such as ideals, value and purposes which agents know exist. He concludes that “somehow, the factors of consciousness and value must be included in any account of Ultimate Reality. And this coheres well with the most basic religious belief that consciousness and value are at the heart of reality”.
And so, whilst the study of the various theories, such as creationism, Big Bang (not mentioned above), evolution, intelligent design and irreducible complexity have to be studied rigorously in their own right, our conclusions might still come down to interpretation. However, as noted in the introduction, a good place to start would be with the study of the theories and how they are formed before going on to any conclusions that can be drawn, rather than have minds made up before approaching the theories.
As questions of meaning are being asked in science and questions of process in religion, how are we now to engage with overlapping magisteria? And, crucially, the question remains – on what philosophical basis the relevant scholars, and students in turn, draw inference from the theories studied. As objective as we would want students to be, it cannot be ignored that this topic touches on what it means to be human and ultimately addresses issues such as purpose and meaning. As such, good teaching of it will not only strive for scientific accuracy (perhaps involving the help of colleagues from that department in the school); it will also embrace metaphysics, ontology and epistemology.
This is why Gould’s NOMA may be a useful starting point, but naïve in its assumption that these disciplines always stay true to their criteria. When writing in response to Frost’s sonnet about Homo sapiens being a “thing so small” in the vastness of the universe, Gould suggests that this view of life is far from depressing but exhilarating – “a source of both freedom and consequent moral responsibility”. It is unclear how he can draw that conclusion from the scientific facts about life if magisteria do not overlap without some existential interpretation. In a similar vein, Ward concludes that there is an ambiguity when thinking about cosmology. He notes that “space can be seen as empty and dispiriting, but it can also be seen as awe-inspiringly beautiful and a necessary condition of our existence. The evolution of life on Earth can be seen as the workings of blind and indifferent laws without meaning and purpose, but it can also be seen as a fantastically complex, organised, cumulative process that inevitably results in the emergence of intelligent life.”
With rigorous academic study of the theories, not possible here due to the brevity of this article, possibly using Gould’s approach as a way in, this particular topic can give rise to much fruitful philosophical and genuinely open discussion as the light cast by the substance forms a way of shaping our conclusions as to what might live in the shadow. Whether Gould’s model is too limited to be a companion on the road to wisdom is debatable as, increasingly, magisteria overlap and we take central place as the interpreters of nature’s compass.


Ahluwalia, L, Understanding of Philosophy of Religion: A Complete Guide of OCR AS and A2, Folens, 2008 Gould, S J, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Jonathan Cape, 2001 McGrath, A, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, Blackwell, 2006 Polkinghorne, J, Science and Christian Belief, SPCK, 1994 Poxon, B, OCR Religious Studies AS Philosophy Revision Guide, PushMe Press, 2012 Taylor, M, OCR Philosophy of Religion for AS and A2, Routledge, 2009 Ward, K, The Big Questions in Science and Religion, Templeton Press, 2008
Copyright Brian Poxon May 2013






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